Revelation (Part 41): Churches—Thyatira
As with the other letters, the message to Pergamum ends with Christ’s urging to listen and promise to those who overcome. The victor here is promised hidden manna. Manna was the food—the sustenance—that helped the children of Israel survive through their tribulation ordeal in traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was meant to signify God’s hand in upholding his people of every age in their journeys through the sin environment of this world. Jesus used the sign of manna as he applied it to himself during his first advent. He said that he was the bread of life—the one who would supply the need of all who came to him (John 6:35). Jesus uses that image again here with the church in Pergamum specifically as contrast to the idol worship activity. By this he tells them that they do not have to partake of the idol feasts—the meat sacrificed and eaten there. He will supply needs by his hidden manna—a sustenance unseen by the world but meant to give true, everlasting life (relationship with God). That’s the only life worth pursuing.
He couples the promise of hidden manna with a white stone with the victor’s name inscribed on it. Several interpretations have been suggested regarding the white stone. Black and white stones were used in trial voting for judgment of guilt and innocence. We can certainly see the connection of Christ giving a stone of acquittal to those who trust in him. An engraved white stone was also given to the winner of games (like the Olympics). The white stone entitled the holder to free food and upkeep. In other words, for his service, society supported the athlete. Again, we can see God promising support to the one who is the victor in this race to be faithful. We also see an OT connection. The high priest had two onyx stones on his shoulders, engraved with the names of the tribes. Thus, the priestly function of Christ bringing his faithful before God is seen in this image.
I don’t think we need to feel forced to choose from among these interpretations. They may all part in the intent of the engraved white stone. Perhaps, though, an even closer link to the manna is intended. The manna was described as being white and round like coriander seed (Ex 16:31) and had the appearance of bdellium (Num 11:7). We’re not really sure what bdellium was. Many think it was a hardened tree sap. How the hardened tree sap would relate to white, round pellets is difficult to surmise. Some historians believe the bdellium may have referred to oyster pearls. That image is much easier to reconcile. It also connects the look to something precious, and bdellium was listed with other precious metals (Gen 2:12). Therefore, all these interpretations can be brought together in the precious, hidden quality of the sustaining hand of God.
The name on the stone that no one knows speaks to the same aspect of the manna that is described as hidden. We spoke of this idea earlier in relation to Christ’s name that no one knows as discussed in Revelation 19:12. It is a sign of intense, personal relationship.
Christ next turns his attention to the church at Thyatira. Here he is described as the one with eyes of fiery flame and feet like fine bronze. When discussing these characteristics in Rev 1, we noted the priestly function of the bronze laver and the incense burning in the Holy Place just before the entrance to the Holy of Holies. Both of these items speak of cleansing of us for relationship and the pleasure of God. It has significance for the church of Thyatira as we shall see.
Jesus first discusses the good of the Thyatira Christians. He says he knows their works—their love, faithfulness, service, and endurance. Here we have lumped together all the good qualities we have seen in the previous churches as well as the urging toward faithfulness. They had not lost their first love as the Ephesians had. They endured as the Smyrnaeans had. They were faithful as were the Pergamum Christians. No church after them has a greater list of good commendation either. Jesus even goes on to say not only do they have these qualities, but they are even greater than they were at the outset. They were growing in love rather than as the Ephesians growing in coldness to each other.
But they do have some problems. Jesus mentions that they tolerate the woman Jezebel. Jezebel, of course, is an OT character—the wife of the evil king Ahab—who led Israel astray in pagan worship. The name here could be an actual person of the same name (or not) who is leading the church in Thyatira astray. More likely, however, Jesus uses the name to speak of the general attitude among the people. Remember we have already studied Revelation 17 which spoke of the prostitute. That prostitute was not a literal person but rather human-focused society in general. Likewise here we see this spirit of Jezebel that is leading astray by the Thyatirans who are tolerating sin within their church.
We should pause to note the difference between the emphasis here and what we had already seen in Pergamum. In Pergamum, we had sin infiltrate the church leading to a coldness of worship to God—just as Balaam had introduced. In that Church, Jesus was pointing out the evil being practiced by the church members. In Thyatira the focus switches slightly from those who practiced the evil to those who didn’t practice it but tolerated those who did. Jesus condemns both the practices and the toleration.
But notice exactly how Jesus goes about condemning this activity among his people. The very first thing mentioned is that he gave them time to repent (2:21). This start is different from what a lot of Christians do. When we learn of an evil among our fellow Christians, many times the tendency is to attack. “It is evil,” we hiss. “God hates the sin. We hate the sin. We will rebuke and ostracize quickly and completely.” But not so with Christ. He gives time to repent. His desire is for restoration; it has been since the Fall.
When the sinful do not respond, Jesus takes further action. He uses imagery in the next verses to relate his activity to the sin. Jesus talks about throwing Jezebel on a sick bed. The bed (Greek kline) is a couch used for meals and as a carrying or reclining couch for the invalid. So Jesus is using this image of a couch in which they sit to indulge in their idol worship feasts as turning into a couch in which, because of their sin, they become ill. This illness is not necessarily physical (although it can be). We are continuing with the greater understanding of life, death, health, and sickness related to spiritual condition.
Life is relationship with God. Death is separation from God. Health is a growing in the things of God. Sickness is the trouble associated with forgetting or turning from God. Thus, in continuing in their sin, these people will be thrown into tribulation—the natural result of turning from the truth, goodness, and beauty that comes only from relationship with God. This tribulation is different from that which, for example, the Smyrnaeans would experience for 10 days (2:10). The Thyatiran persecution appears to be a tribulation of mind and spirit. In physical persecution, we may still hold to the peace, joy, and satisfaction from our relationship with God. But in turning from God the tribulation touches deep into our spirits.
“Killing with death” is a way of saying they certainly will die. Again, death is separation from God. The children of Jezebel may be other Christians who take up the practices and experience a turning away from God, or it may be unsaved set more in their rejection of God’s Spirit resulting in everlasting death. These children of Jezebel may also be referring back—not to the actual participants of the evil—but rather to those who tolerated. Children are those who trust in, embrace, and depend on others. Jesus may be describing the Thyatiran Christians who, in their toleration, had turned to more focus of their embrace of these evil-doers than focus on embracing God.
Jesus says in verse 23 that when he casts them aside, all the churches will know that he examines hearts and minds. The idea is not simply that news of their evil will be published. Jesus is speaking of the fact that he sees the hearts and that, unlike the Thyatirans, he will not simply tolerate the evil. He will act to rebuke it and turn those involved. But again, his motive is to restore, and so should be ours.
Jesus will give to each according to their works (2:23c). The point is that our fruit does make a difference. James pointed out the flaw of saying we can have faith, yet live demonstrating the opposite of truth, goodness, and beauty. Living sinfully always leads, in the long run, to heartache and trouble. It has to by its very nature.
Verses 24 and 25 speak of the teaching going on. As we examine this section, we find that what is really the heart of the matter is that people claimed embrace of Christ, but because of the circumstances of life, found it okay to live in sin. In other words, they adopted a Gnostic-like idea that their souls/spirits were in line with God, and so it was inconsequential that their still evil flesh participated in sin. After all, these false gods that others worshipped really weren’t gods at all. Only God was god. These made-up idols were meaningless. Therefore, it didn’t matter that meat was sacrificed to them—there wasn’t really anything there to sacrifice to. And the sexual immorality that went on was meaningless as well. These are sinful bodies participating in sin for the good purpose of gaining food and security in life. Their souls were secure with God.
That idea was false. Jesus says that that teaching was evil. And that is the point of verses 24 and 25. Jesus is about to give a message to those who did not hold this teaching. And in verse 24 he begins to reiterate what the evil teaching was. The evil teaching was that Christ does “not put any other burden on you. But to hold on to what you have until [he] comes.” No. That is incorrect. Actions matter. Live in truth, goodness, and beauty. Be faithful, depending on Christ for everything. That is the way of the overcomer.