Churches of Thyatira and Sardis

Thyatira: The city of Thyatira was situated fifty-five kilometers southeast of Pergamos and eighty kilometers inland. Its proximity to Pergamos explains why the doctrines of the Nicolaitans also infiltrated this group. Christianity reached Thyatira at an early stage, but the details of those distant events remain unknown.

The city produced a dye used in the production of a purple fabric highly prized around the Mediterranean. The woman Lydia was converted by the Apostle Paul at Philippi. She was a dye merchant from Thyatira (Acts 16:14).

The economy of the city was dominated by trade guilds for the bronze, linen, leather, pottery, and dye industries. Trade guilds promoted the interests of their members, and it would be difficult for a tradesman unassociated with any guild to conduct business in Thyatira. Each guild featured rituals and patron deities; membership demanded participation in religious rites.

The letter to Thyatira is the longest of the seven and is positioned at the center of the literary unit. Beginning with this message, the exhortation to hear the Spirit is repositioned to the end of each letter.

Jesus is identified as the “Son of God” with flaming eyes and feet like burnished bronze. The title “Son of God” occurs only here in the book of Revelation and alludes to Psalm 2:7-9, a key passage behind the promise to faithful believers who overcome found at the conclusion of all seven letters.

The reference to a “furnace” invokes the story of the “fiery furnace” into which Daniel’s three friends were cast when they refused to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatrous image. The three were delivered from death by “one like a Son of God.” That fiery furnace later becomes the model for the “lake of fire burning with brimstone” into which the Beast and False Prophet are cast (Daniel 3:24-25Revelation 19:20).

Jesus knows the church’s “works, love, faith, ministry, and perseverance,” and that “your last works are more than the first.” This description contrasts Thyatira with the church in the city Ephesus where earlier works of testimony were greater than later ones. Based on usage, “work” points to the bearing of a faithful witness for Christ, not good deeds.

Despite its past faithful witness, Jesus rebukes the church for tolerating a false prophetess he names “Jezebel.” Her teachings parallel those of the Nicolaitans (“to eat idol-sacrifices and to commit fornication”). She promoted accommodation with the city’s idolatrous culture.

Jezebel” is probably not the actual name of this woman. She is cast in the image of the Old Testament pagan queen and the wife of Ahab, Jezebel. She was known for promoting the worship of Ba’al in northern Israel and persecuting the prophets of Yahweh and Elijah (1 Kings 16:31, 18:4-19, 19:1-2).

Allusions to Elijah’s ministry appear again where saints, symbolized by two lampstands, exercise the combined prophetic authority of Moses and Elijah. The two figures are overcome by the Beast from the Abyss, which confirms their identities as churches (Revelation 11:3-7, 12:17, 13:7, 20:8-9).

Fornication” is metaphorical for idolatry. Note the explanatory “eating meat offered to idols.” The “lovers” and “children” of Jezebel are adherents of her doctrine. The influence of the trade guilds in Thyatira raised questions about eating meat offered to idols that occurred at guild events and, otherwise, Christians participating in idolatrous rites performed at them. Nonparticipation would mean economic loss.

This Jezebel is a “prophetess.” This is a link to the False Prophet met later in the book. Like Jezebel of old, the False Prophet causes others to engage in idolatry. Refusal to do so means exclusion from economic activity (Revelation 13:11-18, 16:13, 19:20, Daniel 3:1-7).

Jezebel” is a harlot-like figure because of her seductive powers, which also links her to the Great Harlot, Babylon, who causes the earth’s inhabitants to drink the “wine of her fornication” (Revelation 17:1-6, 18:3, 18:8-9).

This “Jezebel” is a version of Babylon already at work in the church. The threatened judgment on her and her “children” anticipates God’s judgment on end-time Babylon; anyone who partakes of her sins will also receive “her plagues” (Revelation 18:1-6). The prophetess “deceives” Christ’s servants, another link to the later visions about Mystery Babylon. Note the parallels: 
  1. Satan deceives the whole world (12:9, 20:3, 20:8-10). 
  2. False Prophet deceives those who dwell on earth (13:14). 
  3. Mystery Babylondeceives all the nations by her sorceries (18:23). 
  4. False Prophet deceives those who receive the mark of the Beast (19:20).
Jesus gave “Jezebel” time to repent but she refused, therefore, he is poised to mete out punishment. But all hope is not lost; Christ allows a little more time for repentance (“unless they repent of her works”). But he will “cast her into a couch along with them who fornicate with her.” This couch is a sickbed, indicated by her punishment with “great tribulation” and plagues. Christ will “kill her children with death” (apoktenō en thanatō), a verbal link to Revelation 6:8 where the four horsemen are authorized “to kill…with death” (apokteinai en thanatō).

The clause, “he who searches reins and hearts,” interprets the “eyes like a flaming fire.” The allusion is to Jeremiah 17:10-11. God pronounced judgment on Israelites who participated in idolatry for economic gain. The flaming eyes of Jesus pierce through to the innermost being, nothing is hidden from his gaze.

The rest” are those not corrupted by the seductions of Jezebel. She argues it is permissible to “know the deep things of Satan,” possibly, a slogan propagated by her supporters (“as they say”). More likely, in her mind, she is teaching the “deep things of God,” that is, deeper spiritual insight and experiences to protect the initiate from any detrimental effects from participation in idolatrous rites, or so her logic goes; “There is only one God and an idol is nothing! What harm could there be?” Jesus reveals this doctrine is, instead, the “deep things of Satan.” As Paul once pointed out, idolatry means communion with demons (1 Corinthians 10:20).

The “deep things of Satan” is also a link to the “Abyss” of later chapters, the deep pit from which the Beast, demons, and Satan ascend to deceive men and women into idolatrous worship. “Depth” symbolizes the satanic source of deception. Faithful saints must hold fast and not compromise, “until I come.” All who refuse to compromise will reign with Jesus (Revelation 9:1-2, 11:7, 13:1, 17:8, 20:1-3).

Jesus received the authority to rule the nations through his Death and Resurrection. He shares this authority with faithful disciples, now and in the future. The text alludes to Psalm 2:8-9, “I will give him authority over the nations, and he shall shepherd them with a scepter of iron, as vessels of earthenware are smashed in pieces” (Revelation 1:5, 12:1-5).

In his allusion to the second psalm, John changes the original “break them” from the Hebrew text to “shepherd them.” This change is based on the Greek Septuagint version of the psalm, which uses a Greek verb that means, “shepherd.” This is not to deny that Jesus reigns over the nations with full authority, but to suggest that he does so in paradoxical ways. Just as he attained his sovereignty by dying for others, so believers overcome Satan and participate in the kingdom by laying down their lives for him (Revelation 12:10-11).

The “morning star” symbolizes the Messiah’s reign, an image from a prophecy by Balaam. Jezebel’s deceptions parallel the false doctrines of the Nicolaitans/Balaam. The prophecy of Balaam referred to a “star from Jacob and a scepter from Israel that shall crush” (Numbers 24:17, Psalm 2:8-9, 2 Peter 1:17-19).

To the Romans, the morning star symbolized Rome’s military prowess and divine right to rule. What Rome claimed belongs to Jesus; sovereignty and victory are his alone.

He that has an ear, Hear, what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Once more the pronoun switches to the singular (“he”) and the noun, “churches,” to the plural. The message of this letter is applicable to a larger audience than just the congregation at Thyatira. The Greek verb rendered “saying” is in the present tense, which signifies ongoing or action continuing in the present. This is not something the Spirit said at one time but something the Spirit continues to declare to all who have an “ear to hear.”

Sardis was sixty kilometers south of Thyatira at the crossroads between Smyrna and Pergamos. Its location made commerce integral to the city’s life and helps to explain its prosperity. Commerce in woolen goods figured prominently in its economy.

Sardis is first mentioned in the Bible in Obadiah 20 (“they of the captivity of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad shall possess the cities of the South”). ‘Sepharad’ represents the Hebrew and Aramaic forms of the name ‘Sardis.’

Some of the city’s wealth was derived from gold found locally in the river Pactolus. According to legend, gold coins were first minted in Sardis by its ancient king, Gyges (716-678 B.C.). In Assyrian inscriptions, Gyges is Guguand, most likely the source of the biblical name “Gog” (Ezekiel 38:1-2, Revelation 20:8).

Sardis was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia (‘Ludim’ in Genesis 10:13). Later, it became the capital city of the western Persian Empire. The famous Persian “royal road” began in Persepolis and terminated in the west in Sardis. It remained under Persian rule until the region was captured by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. The city came under Roman rule in 133 B.C.

Sardis featured a temple to the goddess Artemis or Diana, sometimes worshiped by locals as Cybele. Also prominent was a temple to honor the Roman emperor. The imperial cult played a key role in Sardis, as well as the other cities of Asia.

The “letter” begins with John commanded to write to the messenger at the church of Sardis by the one “who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.” Previously, the seven spirits of God were seen “before the throne of the One Who is and Who was and Who is coming” (Revelation 1:4). The seven spirits are found two additional times in Revelation:

(Revelation 4:5) - “And from the throne proceed flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. And seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.”
(Revelation 5:6) - “And I saw between the throne with the four living creatures and the elders, a Lamb standing as one slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”

Jesus possesses the seven spirits because of his victory over death; they serve at his command. It is the Lamb who sends the seven spirits “out into all the earth.” The “seven spirits” allude to the seven eyes of Yahweh that went throughout the land in the book of Zechariah. They represent His all-seeing knowledge, which Jesus now exercises to observe, correct, admonish, comfort, and to deliver his people (Zechariah 4:10, Revelation 5:6).

The seven stars” represent the seven angels or “messengers” of the seven churches. They are held tightly in Christ’s right hand; he has both his messengers and events firmly in hand.

I know your works; that you have a name; that you are living and are dead.” Christ knows the “deeds” of the congregation, but Sardis receives no commendation. Only the church in Laodicea, likewise, receives no praise. Sardis appears healthy to human evaluation but the one who commands the seven spirits of God sees the true state of things. Jesus was once dead but now lives, whereas, Sardis once lived but is now dead.

Become watchful and strengthen the things that remain that were going to die.” If Sardis fails to “wake up and repent,” Jesus will come “as a thief.” The simile occurs elsewhere and apparently originated with him. This coming refers to a visitation in judgment upon the congregation, not his universal arrival in power and glory. The conditional clause confirms this understanding: “If therefore you do not wake up, I will come as a thief” (Matthew 24:42-44Luke 12:39-401 Thessalonians 5:1-62 Peter 3:3-10).

The adverb “how” or pōs has the sense, “in what manner.” It refers to the manner by which Sardis received the gospel. Considering that past, Jesus summons the church to repent, watch, and remain awake. “Watch” and “wake” suggest spiritual slumber, as in the parable of the ten virgins when all ten fell asleep before the arrival of the bridegroom.
The problem is not pagan opposition but Christian apathy and accommodation to a pagan culture. This is borne out by the description of a faithful few who have not yet “defiled their garments.” No mention is made of external opponents or internal deceivers. The problem is internal; a loss of faith and zeal.
In Sardis, most members are in poor spiritual condition; only a few still wear “undefiled garments.” “Defile” or molunō suggests accommodation with idolatry. This same verb elsewhere is applied to the stain of idolatry. There is no anti-Christian opposition in Sardis because the church no longer is a light-bearer.

The one who does overcome is to be “arrayed in white garments and his name will not be blotted out from the book of life.” Hellenic cities kept lists of their citizens. When a citizen committed an egregious crime, his name could be expunged from it. The “book of life” contains the roll of citizens of the heavenly city, New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:27, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, 22:19).

The “book of life” does not symbolize Calvinistic predestination. Names inscribed in it can still be “blotted out”; only “he who overcomes” finds his name preserved in the book. Repentance, watchfulness, and obedience are necessary. Conversely, disobedience and a return to the “defiled” practices of the past result in the removal of one’s name from the book.

As with the other “letters,” the one to Sardis ends with the exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying to all the churches!”



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