Revelation Commentary: 2:18-29, To Thyatira
The city of Thyatira was located forty miles south of Pergamum and was well known as a city of traders and artists. It was also the city that Lydia came from (Acts 15:14) and was famous for its purple dyes. Lydia was a ‘God-fearer’ who became a Christian through Paul’s ministry at the city of Philippi, a Roman colony. Thyatira was particularly known for its large amount of guilds where religion was almost seamlessly conflated with work. Apart from the trade-guilds there were gymnasiums, colleges and libraries across the city.
Thyatira was a city seeded with numerous guilds, artisans and religious beliefs and in the city and surrounding areas there were many statues of local deities. The guilds were all allied to pagan worship and imperial cult worship was on the increase. This meant that you were expected to participate in the worship that was woven into the fabric and attitudes of city life.
If you left one of the city guilds through not participating in all the activities you were sometimes branded an apostate by the membership of the guilds. In a modern day setting this could be likened to being disfellowshipped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses after which no one was allowed to have any contact with you –even members of their own family.
The patron god in Thyatira was Apollo, the son of Zeus and known by many as the so-called god of music, medicine, poetry, art, light, knowledge and ability to predict future events. There was a large and prominent bronze statue of Apollo in the town.
In understanding the view of Apollo as a son of god and also recognising that many Roman emperors thought of themselves as gods, we see why Jesus introduces himself to the church of Thyatira as the true Son of God, with eyes of fire and feet of bronze.
The term ‘Son of God’ is mentioned over ninety times in the New Testament by different people and in very different situations. For example we read of a frightened disciple and a hardened Roman Centurion both calling Jesus the Son of God (Matthew 27:52-4; Matthew 14:31-33).
Jesus is the One who is prophesied as coming with healing as seen in Malachi 4:2 where we have a metaphor used for God’s work in the statement:
“But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things," says the Lord Almighty.”
In the above verse the sun of righteousness brings about justice, which is the restoration of harmony in God’s world. The ‘healing in its wings’ pictures the protective care of God seen so clearly throughout history and especially in the work of Jesus.
We now move on to look at why Jesus speaks of Himself as the One who has eyes like blazing fire and feet like burnished bronze.
John speaks of Jesus as one with eyes like blazing fire and in Heb 12:28-29 we read, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our "God is consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:28-9 is a quote from Deuteronomy 4:24 – God is a jealous God, a consuming fire. The point being made by Moses in Deuteronomy is “be careful not to make God in your own image” – don’t think you can define or manage God – you can’t; He is the Holy One.
God is also spoken of as a ‘consuming fire’ in Deuteronomy 9 where we read of Moses’ words to the people about crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. They were going to enter a land where the Anakites (who had a fearsome reputation) lived. Moses said, “Understand today that the LORD your God who goes before you is a devouring fire, he will defeat and subdue them before you.”(v3).
God is the Holy One, who has entered a distant land in order to redeem people and bring them home. It is through His actions that we are made holy (Exodus 31:31; Lev 20:8) and holiness speaks of being set apart as special by God.
We, the sinner, the rebels, and disturber of God’s peace and the ones who still get it wrong so many times have been set apart as special through the work of Christ.
“The feeling of being valuable – ‘I am a valuable person’ – is essential to mental health and a cornerstone of self-discipline. It is a direct product of parental love…..Self-discipline is self-caring….If we feel ourselves valuable, then we will feel our time to be valuable, and if we feel our time to be valuable, then we will want to use it well.”
M. Scott-Peck, ‘A Road Less Travelled’, Page 13
The victory that the church in Thyatira was able to take over self, their surroundings and present circumstances was all because the One with blazing eyes was with His people. Because of Jesus, paupers and rebels had been raised from the dust heap and birthed into new life. As David once said, “He lifted me out of the mud and mire and placed me on the rock” (Ps 40:2)
“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil."
1 Pet 3:12
Feet of burnished bronze.
The city of Thyatira was known for its metal industry which had begun at a time when the city was of military importance. This was no longer the case, yet the industry was still very much present in a city known for its bronze work. The Thyatirans also used a refined alloy of copper and metallic zinc which meant that they produced a purer brass than was found elsewhere in the Roman Empire.
“The frequent coin-types both of Hephaestus and of Athena helmeted reflect the city’s association with both war and crafts. And bronze-working has apparently continued as a speciality into modern times.”
C. Hemmer, “The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting, P113
John’s description of Jesus as having feet of burnished bronze would not be lost on the Thyatirans who had a monetary system made of high quality bronze: Jesus is above and beyond all riches and power. He has feet of burnished bronze – in other words He stands above and beyond anything they could ever hope to produce and their perfection was nothing but imperfection to Him.
The world is not ours to play with or make a name for ourselves and everything in it belongs to God. This ‘everything in it belongs to God’ is brought out in an incident that occurred during Jesus’ ministry when some Pharisees sent people to trap Jesus in order to prove that he was either a revolutionary or someone who sided with Rome. (Mat 22:17-22). It’s worth looking at this before we move on because whatever the world tries to stamp ‘It’s mine’ on ultimately belongs to God.
At the time of Jesus many Jews in Jewish Palestine circulated coins which did not contain an image of the emperor as a god on them because this would have been offensive to God in their thinking. They were able to get away with this because their coinage was for local use alone. However they would need to pay taxes to Rome with the silver denarius bearing the Emperors image on it. If Jesus said it was right to pay taxes to Caesar they could say He was in line with Rome whilst if He did not then He was just another revolutionary.
Jesus knew they were trying to trap Him, looked the denarius and asked whose portrait was on the coin (Mat 22:20) to which they replied, “Caesars.” He then said “Give to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God’s. They were amazed and left Him because they realised that ultimately everything around them belonged to God. For example their own scriptures stated that they were made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and the heavens and earth declared the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-3). Yes they could pay the required tax but above and beyond this they needed to hand their lives over to God.
“The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.”
The riches of heaven and earth and perfection of the ways of God were far higher and deeper than any reputation the city of Thyatira had for its coinage and iron-smelting. God is always about His business of restoration and reconciliation and the one with eyes of burning fire and feet of burnished bronze is the shepherd King who stands with His people; in Him alone there is hope for us all.
“Hope challenges earthly powers and principalities, and she places earthly powers under the critique of heaven and earth, by which I meant the critique of the outraged god, the suffering people, and the ravaged earth. Her birthplace is not the palaces of the privileged, nor the high-steeple, stained-glass-windowed sanctuaries of power and customised religiosity. Rather her birthplace is under the bush in the wilderness where Ishmael lay dying; under the broom tree, where Elijah wishes for death; in the flames of yet another bush, from which Yahweh speaks hope and life and liberation to Moses and his people with words of inextinguishable fire. …when Hope speaks, she speaks not with the arrogance of certitude but with the eloquence of faith.”
A. Boesak in, ‘Dare we speak of hope’? Pages 71-72
Jesus is aware of the good things that the church at Thyatira had done in His name. He knew of their deeds, their love, faith, service and perseverance (Rev 2:19). He knew they were growing in grace and power but also knew that there was a problem; they were tolerating Jezebel.
We can often find ourselves tolerating things that should not be tolerated when we allow the world we live in and past thinking to enter the church.
For example, the Galatians, (who were primarily from a Jewish background) were susceptible to the teaching of the Judaisers. These were Jewish people who wanted to accept Jesus as a good teacher but also expected people to adhere to the law as a means of security and salvation. The result of this was that people became more and more works orientated and legalistic which led to a quenching of the Spirit, so much so that Paul had to ask them a question:
“I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?"
Elsewhere, in Corinth, we see the impact of Sophism on the church. Corinth was known for Sophism (wisdom) and people were used to intellectual debates and followed particular sophists. This thinking came into the church with people following different so-called anointed leaders (1 Cor 1:12). Later Paul says, “For what makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not.” (1 Cor 4:7). In contrast to the wrong thinking in the church and that of the Sophists Paul had entered the city trusting in nothing but the leading of the Holy Spirit. This did not mean Paul switched off his intellect, but it did mean that he did not put it first.
We can all be influenced by our past and the society we live in; with this in mind we can understand a little of how it is that the church at Thyatira was tolerating ‘Jezebel.’ But what exactly was going on?
In order to see why a prophetess in Thyatira was likened to Jezebel we need to see who the original Jezebel really was and how she managed to arrive in Israel in the first place.
At the time of her arrival, Ahab (874BC – 853BC), the son of the seventh king of Israel (Omri, who had built Samaria as the capital of Israel), was on the throne during this period of national darkness. Jezebel arrived as the bride of King Ahab who, like many in the ANE, would have married her to strengthen political and economic ties with other nations. She was the daughter of Ethbaal, the Canaanite king of Sidon. On her arrival life did not just get harder, it got much harder (1 Kings 16:30-33).
Jezebel established Phoenician worship with thousands of prophets of Baal who ended up killing many of Israel’s genuine prophets. Nothing is going according to plan for Israel and the people are wilfully conflating their faith with other beliefs as a means of ease of passage, or so confused with what was going on (how come our prophets are dead – where is God in all this?) that they were most definitely caught up between two belief systems. Then Elijah calls everyone to Carmel.
In the ensuing battle on Carmel we could assume that the power of God simply smashed the power of the enemy and then ‘dragged’ a wayward people home like a parent would a troublesome child. But this is not the full picture. The truth is that it is not raw power but the compassion, love and grace of God that triumphs in such a way that rebellious people can be brought to their knees and raised up in new strength. In His words and actions God destroys the lies of the accuser and sets people free as they embrace the truth (John 8:32).
“… (Some people) imagine Christ overcoming the devil at the end of a spiritual duel by his superior strength; or they speak about the elimination of evil, swallowed up by love, as if it were some kind of chemical operation of absorption or dissolution, one being disarmed by the expiatory blood which alone washes away sins. The power of the devil over human beings is that of accusation, as his name, Satan, the accuser, indicates (Rev 12:10ff; Col 2:14ff)”
Henri Blocher, ‘Evil and the Cross’, p131
The real problem for the Israelites in the days of Jezebel was not the power of Jezebel, her gods, or the many prophets that served him. Instead it was the indecisiveness and way that Israel had gradually accommodated other beliefs. This had started when Jezebel incited Ahab to compromise the faith that he had. As Adolf Hitler (of all people!) once said, “If you tell a lie long enough people will come to believe it.” Let us now move back to Thyatira and make a link between Jezebel and the prophetess that some in the church were tolerating.
In Thyatira there were, as has already been said concerning churches in the Roman Empire, many different guilds and invariably your ability to work and earn money was directly related to the guild that you were a part of. There were those within the Empire who had great amounts of property, wealth and influence yet they were the minority. The majority of people suffered in slavery to their circumstances and abject poverty, whilst the rich got richer.
The way of Jezebel speaks of conflating belief with the paganism of the day, producing a destructive form of idolatry which ultimately destroys. In the Old Testament idolatry was often likened to sexual immorality (Isaiah 57:8-9). False prophets lead people away from God and away from true fellowship with His people. Of these prophets God will say, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).
The prophetess who was influencing people at Thyatira believed she was speaking for God as she sought to conflate practices of the day with her form of Christianity. However Jesus states, very clearly, that it is the doctrine of Satan. He then gives the wayward believers at Thyatira time to repent; clearly revealing His grace and mercy.
This grace and mercy is seen throughout history, for example, God allowed the sin of the Ammonites to come to its fullness before inflicting judgement and in doing so gives them time to repent. God also sends His fear before Him as Israel heads into the Promised Land. Because of this Rahab came to understand what was going on and placed her trust in God (Heb 11:35; James 2:25).
The believers at Thyatira were given time to repent and the prophetess was informed that if she did not change she would be dealt with most severely. At this point we could note the deaths of Ananias and his wife (Acts 5:5-10). God has every right to deal with us as He sees fit.
Jesus then encouraged the rest of the church who did not hold to the ways of the false prophetess in saying that He will give them authority over the nations and they will rule with an iron rod and smash them like clay pots. But what does all this mean?
A Rod of Iron.
In the Ancient Near East, a rod of iron spoke of the sceptre which was representative of kingship, with iron being symbolic of strength. For example, in the Old Testament we read of this ‘rod of iron’ in a Psalm that contains warnings against the enemies of God’s kingdom and a promise to Christ as the head of the kingdom (Psalm 2:7-9). The Psalm was probably originally used to celebrate the coronation of an heir to David’s throne. Note that the Hebrew word for ‘Anointed One’ is ‘Messiah.’
“I will proclaim the decree of the Lord: He said to me, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery." Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
Elsewhere in Ancient Near East records we also read of rods of iron. For example we have the Narmer Palette, discovered by English archaeologists (James Quibell and Fred Green in 1897) which depicts the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under King Narmer. The Palette is one of the earliest historical documents found and depicts rulers striking the enemy with a rod/scepter. Egyptian kings wrote the names of conquered enemies on pots and then smashed them with a mace, thus showing their supremacy over their enemies.
In Thyatira there was a well-known guild of potters and many believers may well have been excluded from the guild when they became Christians and then refused to worship the gods of the guild. The imagery of a rod breaking pottery would not be lost on them! God will have His day and every knee will one day bow before Him (Rom 14:11).
Jesus also tells the church at Thyatira that they will be given the morning star; but what is the ‘morning star’?
“I will give him the morning star.”
The term ‘morning star’ was known to refer to the planet Venus, it being the brightest object after the sun and moon. It ‘appeared’ just before sunrise signalling the beginning of a new day.
In John’s day people worshipped Venus as a goddess. The morning star was also a well-known metaphor for Kings and was, to the Rome, a symbol of victory.
In Jesus speaking of giving the morning star, we see Him promising to give His victory in increasing measure to those who serve Him. Note that this victory is given and not earned. Our obedience does not earn us anything, what it does is enable us to receive what is already present.
“And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” 1 Peter 1:19
The true embodiment of the morning star is Christ and victory is found in Him alone. In Christ we are given the “yes” of God.
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.”
2 Corinthians 1:20
The Thyatirans needed to remember that the head of their church was the Holy One, with eyes of blazing fire that stood above the riches of the world in all His power and splendour. They needed to recognise that God was totally against any conflation or compromise of beliefs and be encouraged to hold on, to who they were in Christ. In doing this they would know the power of His presence and continue to walk in victory - His victory.
In today’s world we have the upsurge of fundamentalism across the board: Islam, Hinduism and Atheism to name but a few areas. We have more slaves than at any other time in history (over twenty-seven million) and live in a society where there are more family break-ups than at any other time. Yet as Christians we serve the Servant-King.
We serve the One who knows suffering at a deep, personal level and is the One who triumphed over the grave, darkness and all the powers of evil by resting in the love of His Father and the leading of the Holy Spirit. When He ascended on high He sent the Holy Spirit into the lives of all believers for He truly is Immanuel, the ‘God is with us’ One and in Him we place our hope.
“We have known all along that what keeps us strong, what keeps us fighting, is the thought that the God of hope has not failed us. For when Sol Plaatje speaks of “Heaven,” he speaks not of a distant mystical place. He speaks of the God of liberation, who said to Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” (Exod 3:7-8). This is the God who said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” This is the God of Hannah: “For not by might does one prevail” (1 Sam 2:9). This is the God of Isaiah: “For the tyrant shall be no more!” (Isa.29:20). This is the God of Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). This is the God of Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).
A.Boesak in, ‘Dare we speak of Hope, page 73.
In a prayer letter that I received from an Arab friend just before Christmas he told me about his work reaching out to Muslims. One man he spoke of was a Saudi-Arabian Muslim who came to England during the summer of 2015. He was deaf in one ear and wanted doctors to do tests and see if there was any hope of hearing again after many years. Two of the team told him, “If you believe Jesus I Lord and Healer, we will pray for you.” He said, “I believe!” They put their hands on him in the street and prayed and asked Jesus to touch and heal him. After they finished their prayer he felt as if an electric power had touched him. He went and had all the tests again and the doctors were surprised and said it was a miracle. He came back to share the good news with the team.” Later in his prayer letter my friend wrote, “I have just returned from Egypt where I was very busy preaching the gospel almost every day in different cities. I praise God for each meeting where I shared the gospel, winning souls and teaching the Bible to encourage people to trust in the Lord, even in very difficult circumstances.”
Let us always look to God before doing anything else and seek the leading of the Holy Spirit in all things.