Revelation 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Message to Thyatira

For some people today tolerance is the only real virtue and intolerance the only vice. The message to Thyatira goes against the grain of modernity by setting limits to tolerance. The main criticism of the angel of Thyatira is that he has tolerated something--and someone--that should not be tolerated (v. 20).

Thyatira was a smaller city located further inland in the fertile Lycus River valley. Little is known of its history beyond the fact that it once belonged to the kingdom of Pergamum, and few archaeological remains have been found. Yet the message to Thyatira is the longest of the seven messages. According to Acts 16:14, Thyatira was the home of Lydia, a "dealer in purple cloth" and a "worshiper of God" whom Paul encountered at Philippi in Macedonia. The reference suggests the city's significance in connection with the dye industry, and perhaps also the relative freedom and mobility of at least some of its women in pursuing careers.

The situation at Thyatira was similar to that at Pergamum, except that the false teaching (and consequently the name calling) centers on a single individual. This is unique in the seven messages. Antipas, the only other named individual (2:13), was singled out for praise rather than scorn or condemnation. That woman Jezebel, by contrast (v. 20), is given not her real name but a nickname, after Israel's idolatrous queen (1 Kings 16:31; 21:25) whose terrible fate at the hands of Jehu was prophesied by Elijah (1 Kings 21:23; 2 Kings 9:30-37). The power and influence of this Jezebel, a self-styled prophetess at Thyatira, must be viewed in light of three facts: (1) women prophesied freely in early Christianity (see, for example, Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5); (2) women often played major roles as priestesses in contemporary Roman and Eastern cults in Asia Minor; (3) the Christian Montanist movement in the same region a century later assigned conspicuous leadership roles to two prophetesses--Priscilla and Maximilla (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.14-19).

Clearly, Jezebel is not a true prophetess in the eyes of the risen Jesus. There is no reason to think that the book of Revelation has anything against "prophetesses," any more than against "apostles" or "Jews." But as with those who claimed to be apostles at Ephesus (2:2) or Jews at Smyrna (2:9), the implication is that Jezebel is a liar. Like the Nicolaitans at Pergamum, she was urging sexual immorality and the eating of foods sacrificed to idols (v. 20; compare 2:14), in other words, the violation of the decree of the Jerusalem Council. A possible further reference to that decree appears in words directed to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching, when Jesus says, I will not impose any other burden on you (v. 24; compare Acts 15:28, "not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements").

The risen Jesus makes no distinction between prophets who condone idolatry and immorality and those who practice such things. He compares Jezebel to a prostitute, like the prostitute "Babylon" in chapters 17-18. She has had time to repent, but has not done so. Her punishment is to be put to bed (v. 22), "a bed of sickness in contrast with the bed of adultery" (Beckwith 1922:467). Her followers at Thyatira (those who commit adultery with her) still have time to repent, but are similarly in danger of intense, though unspecified, sufferings (v. 22). As for her children, that is, anyone who perpetuates her teaching, they will be struck dead by a plague (v. 23). Like Jezebel of old, her name and her influence will disappear from the earth (compare 2 Kings 10:1-28).

Jezebel seems to have justified her freedom from traditional restraints by appealing to the spiritual maturity of herself and her followers. She may even have quoted Paul to the effect that "God has revealed it to us by his Spirit" and "the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God" (1 Cor 2:10). Possibly with Paul's statement in view, the risen Jesus announces, not just to Thyatira but to all the churches (v. 23), that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds, adding that the "deep things" of such groups as this are not the profound trutes of God, but the deep secrets of Satan himself (v. 24).

The angel at Thyatira is, if anything, even less implicated with the false prophets than was the angel at Pergamum. He is not charged with any of Jezebel's crimes, only with excessive tolerance of her and her partisans. In contrast to the angel at Ephesus (2:4-5), he is commended for doing more than you did at first (v. 19). He is not, like the angel at Pergamum, told to "repent," but simply to hold on to what you have until I come (v. 25). Consequently, the "coming" of the risen one is not a threat (as in 2:16), but a hope. This suggests that Jezebel and her clan may not have been an actual part of the congregation, but a separate community trying to entice away its members. As for the angel, the words of praise at the beginning of the message (I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, v. 19) are still in effect.

Previous commentary:
The Message to Pergamum

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