Bible Study on Revelation - 3/4
Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29)
It is interesting that the longest of the seven letters is to the least important of the seven cities! Thyatira lay on the road linking Pergamum to Sardis, in a valley through which a railway runs today. Its importance lay in its position as the gateway to Pergamum, the capital of the province. There was a fair amount of commerce done there, and Lydia, the seller of purple, came from Thyatira (Acts 16:14). I wonder if it was she who took the message to Thyatira when she returned and started the church there - speculation, but a possibility! Linked with the city's commercial life were a number of trade guilds, and perhaps this was at the root of the problems with the church there. The guilds controlled trading in wool, leather, linen, bronze, garments, dye, pottery, baking - and everyone engaged in these trades had to belong to a guild - a closed shop indeed! Anyone refusing to join would have to give up their trade and lose their prosperity. The problem was that guild meetings began and ended with a formal sacrifice to the gods (like the formal saying grace at a mayor’s banquet), and the guild probably met in a temple. Also, these meals often ended in drunkenness and immorality. Was it possible for Christians to participate in this, and if not, what would happen to their livelihood?
Thyatira had no particular religious significance. Though not the centre of the worship of any particular deity, it had the usual proliferation of temples and a fortune-telling shrine with a female oracle called Sambathe. It seems there was no threat of persecution; the danger to the Church came from within itself rather than from outside - and the danger from within is always the greatest danger to the spiritual life of the church.
In v.18 the description of Christ bears marked similarities to that of the messenger in Daniel 10:6 - could it have been that Daniel beheld in his vision the pre-incarnate Christ in glory? There is symbolism in this description, for the eyes see all - they penetrate like fire burning into the heart and soul. To see Christ in glory is a fearful experience. To the sinful church he is no soothing tranquilliser, but the judge supreme, the Lord of all the earth.
The letter starts with praise (v.19) - you are doing better than you were! We have already noticed how Christ always seeks something positive to say about each church. He knows their deeds and love; their faith, service and perseverance, and that their latter works are greater than their former. This is high praise.
Verses 20-23 are not easy and they raise many questions. Who is this 'Jezebel', what has she done, and how can such terrible things have happened in a church full of love, faith, service and perseverance? It seems so contradictory. But we know that such contradictions do exist - those very churches and ministers which seem to be full of the Spirit are suddenly revealed to have secret sins which astound us.
Jezebel is probably not the actual name of the 'lady' at Thyatira, but links her character with that of the wife of Ahab in 1 Kings 16:31 who led the people into pagan worship and sexual immorality. She claimed to be a prophetess, and probably taught that there was no harm in attending the heathen trade guilds where feastings and orgies took place. She is obviously a member of the church, and the condemnation is that the church tolerates her. It can take a real courage for a church to confront someone who persists in sin, but it must be done if the whole church is not to come under condemnation.
Some commentators have suggested that this 'Jezebel' might be none other than Lydia, the seller of purple, who had become a Christian' but continued as a member of her Dyers' Trade Guild and was the one leading others astray. There is no evidence of this whatsoever, and I would suggest it is a cruel libel on Lydia. Another suggestion is that it was the oracle Sambathe, who claimed to be a prophetess and was influencing the church, but this is most unlikely as the church would not have allowed a heathen oracle into membership. Again, there is no evidence that Sambathe had anything to do with the Trade Guilds, and, if we are right, it was these that were contaminating the church.
My suggestion would be that we have an unknown woman, whose character, if not her name, bore marked similarities to the Old Testament Jezebel, with whom Elijah had so much trouble, who was leading members of the church astray in sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols, both of which were practised by the Thyatira Trade Guilds.
In v.21 Christ gave her space to repent, but she did not. How he did this we do not know, but Christ knows how patient he has been with her.
In v.22 there is a pun on the word 'bed' which (as in English) can also be used as a euphemism for sexual relations (going to bed with someone) and for sickness (a bed of pain). So Christ says, she wants to go to bed; so she shall, with those whom she has led astray - a bed of terrible suffering – unless they repent.
In v.23 'her children' may be literal (children conceived in adulterous relationships), or figurative (those who take after her ways). This seems a very violent judgement, but where Christians persist in sin and will not repent, even when confronted by their sin (and after reading this letter, the Thyatira Church cannot say that Christ has not confronted them!), death in time and in eternity will be their portion - so that all the churches will know that Christ is the One who searches hearts and minds.
v.24 - Paul finishes this aspect of the life of the church at Thyatira by telling the rest of the church, those not involved with the teaching of Jezebel, that he will put no further burden upon them (presumably other than not committing fornication and not eating meat sacrificed to idols). But there is a very interesting phrase used of Jezebel and her followers: they are those 'who have known the deep things of Satan, as they call them' (AV), 'have learned Satan's so-called deep secrets' (NIV). This may give us a clue as to the nature of the teaching of Jezebel. As we saw in Pergamum, there was a heresy that said, 'It is the plain duty of every Christian to experience every kind of sin. The real achievement was to allow the body to wallow in sin and to keep the spirit and soul entirely unaffected'. Another approach was that we increase the grace of God the more we sin, so it was good to indulge in every kind of sin, that God's grace towards us might be increased. Satan's activity, therefore, could be used to lead the Christian into more and more grace! It may well be that 'Satan's so-called deep secrets' was this theology of what is known as antinomianism. Clearly it is theological and spiritual nonsense, but it could have its attractions, and indeed did!
In vss.25-29 the letter ends with Christ saying three things to encourage the faithful to hold fast:
- 'Hold fast what you have, until I come' (v.25). In every church there are those who have been faithful, and things in which the church has been faithful. Look at your own church and encourage it to hold on to those things.
- The overcomers will be given authority over the nations (v.26).
- 'I will give him the morning star' (v.28). In Rev 22:16 Jesus describes himself as 'the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star' (NIV). He is thus referring to himself. Christ will give us nothing less than himself - we will possess Christ, never to be separated from him any more!
Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6)
Sardis had a great reputation: seven hundred years before this letter was written it had been one of the greatest cities in the world. In the height of its glory its king was Croesus (we use his name in the proverb 'As rich as Croesus'), and much of his wealth came from the gold carried down the river Pactolus which flowed through the lower city. Gold literally flowed into Sardis. It was Croesus who also ended the first era of the greatness of Sardis. As the Persian Empire was growing, Croesus went to war against King Cyrus of Persia. This was one of two occasions when Sardis was taken, and it is relevant to the letter to see how it had happened. The fortified citadel at the centre of the city, built on a high outcrop of rock, was thought to be impregnable, but it was taken twice, once by Cyrus and the Persians in 549 BC, after the battle which Croesus lost, and once by the Cretans in 218 BC. On one side there was access to the citadel from the city below, and when under attack the whole population would enter the citadel and keep watch to defend that side. The rear of the citadel was built on a sheer rock face, or at least, so it looked. There was, however, a very narrow goat track, invisible from below. On one occasion, one of the besiegers saw a goat climbing up the track, and remembering the route, led a small band of soldiers up the goat track, over the city wall which was unguarded because it was 'impregnable', and opened the gates for the rest of the army to enter. On the other occasion, soldiers did occasionally patrol the rear wall, and as one of them leaned over his helmet rolled part way down the slope, and he was seen to climb down the goat-track to recover it. The same thing happened again, and the city was taken. So the keyword to Sardis from the Lord is, 'Be watchful' (v.2 AV) or 'Wake up!' NIV), and, in verse 3, 'If you do not watch, I will come to you as a thief, and you shall not know what hour I will come upon you' (AV). Lack of watchfulness, for the city or for the church, means that it can be captured by the enemy.
When the Romans came, Sardis still had wealth but was largely living on past glories. It was the centre of the woollen trade, and it is said that the art of dyeing wool was discovered there. In AD17 there was a terrible earthquake which destroyed much of the city. Emperor Tiberias, remitted the city's taxes for five years, and gave a donation of 10,000,000 sesterces (about £400,000) towards the rebuilding.
At the time of the writing of Revelation, Sardis was wealthy but degenerate, a city in decline, and sadly the church reflected the nature of the city, for it was in decline too.
In v.1 Christ describes himself as 'Him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars' (NIV) - returning to the description in chapter 1 which we looked at. In each church the Spirit of God operates, and Christ holds the churches in his hand. They are his churches, and the potential of what they can be, the perfection of what by grace he can make them, he holds. Any decision about any church is not up to man, but to him - the Master, the owner, the Lord - and the fate and future of every church is in his hand.
Christ begins by saying 'I know your works'. Jesus knows the reality of their works, which have the appearance of life but in fact are dead works, not springing from a living faith. A church can be very busy, full of many works, but dead. The church at Sardis has a name of being alive, but it is dead! There can be no worse accusation than this. Does it ring any bells? 'You have a name' means to have a reputation, and thus it is translated by NIV - but reputation and reality can be very far removed from each another. There are churches today with tremendous reputations, but in fact there is very little spiritual life in them!
In v.2 the Greek verb 'gregoreo' (from which the name Gregory comes) means 'to watch', and here and in verse 3, the church in Sardis is called upon by Christ to watch. Like their city, they are in danger of being captured through lack of watchfulness. But praise God, there are some things that remain, yet they too are on the point of dying. The AV says 'Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God'. The word translated 'perfect' ('complete' in NIV) is best rendered 'fulfilled'. Sardis is an unfulfilled church. Christ had given them (like us) so much, but they had not received what he had given and they were empty - unfilled and unfulfilled. 'Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent'. As far as we know there is no heresy in the church of Sardis (heresy is, in fact, a sign that the church is alive), nor is there any attack from outside in terms of idolatry, or emperor worship; in fact there seems to be nothing attacking the church from within or without. The Devil is leaving it alone - why murder someone who is in the act of committing suicide! Death comes when we look away from Christ and become immersed in our own affairs, forgetting that we are called to be a Christ-centred witnessing people.
In v.3 there is a wonderful alliterative three-point sermon. Sardis has been a live church, but has fallen asleep in its zeal for the Lord. The key words are 'Remember what you have received...and repent' (Reminders of Ephesus in Rev 2:5). One commentator says 'Sardis was a very 'peaceful' church. It enjoyed peace, but it was the peace of the Cemetery'. 'Remember' and 'Repent' are imperatives, commands. There is no option; either the church remembers and repents, or it will be invaded by Christ who is able to remove its candlestick. He will come, as did the enemies of Sardis, at a time and in a way that they do not expect.
Verse 3 then goes back to the beginning of verse 2, where Christ said, 'Be watchful', and he says, 'If, therefore, you do not watch' (that same word gregoreo) Christ will come like a thief. He will come again, and if the church is not watchful of its own spiritual life, his coming will be a day of fear rather than fulfilment.
In v.4 there is another 'But', ('Yet' in NIV), and here it is a 'but' of praise after warning and condemnation. There are a few 'names' who have not 'defiled their garments' (AV). There are still some in Sardis who are walking with the Lord, and their names will not be blotted out because of the apostasy of the church as a whole. Not only does God not blot out the righteous with the wicked, he is even willing to save the unrighteous because of the faithful! God will do much for a faithful few - remember the story of Sodom in Genesis 18:16ff, when Abraham pleaded with God to save the city if only a few righteous people were found there. A church with a few faithful people is a church with hope for the future. It has been said that every revival has been preceded by the prayers of a few faithful people. You may be part of the faithful few in your church - never limit what the Lord can do through you!
The concept of defiled garments compared with white garments is very appropriate for a city in which the dyeing of wool may have been invented and was certainly practised. Soiled clothes are a sign of sin; white clothes of purity.
In v.5 the reference to white garments comes again. The 'Lamb's Book of Life' is mentioned several times in Revelation - this is the first reference (see also Rev 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, 21:27). This idea of a book in which the names of God's elect are written is not new, but is seen throughout the Bible (see Exodus 32:32,33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12. Jesus knows those who are his, and will confess those names before his Father and his angels. Christ is ever faithful to those who are faithful to him.