Summary: the next sermon in the series on the seven churches of Asia
And so we come to the church at Thyatira. This is the longest of the seven letters, which, ironically, was written to the smallest and least important city. Unlike the other towns, we don’t know very much about Thyatira, so it’s not so easy to understand and interpret the contents of the letter.
We do know that Thyatira was situated in a geographically important place, where several roads join together, passing through valleys. It must also have been something of a military centre, as it was in a strategic place to defend the greater city of Pergamum. Like many other places, there were temples to various religions, but it wasn’t a great religious centre. One thing that Thyatira was famous for, was as a commercial centre. With all the roads joining up there, it was a great place of trade, and was a centre of the wool and dying industry. As a consequence of this, it had the largest number of trade guilds of any town.
So, what did the author, John, have to say to this young church? He begins by praising them. He tells them that they have love, which has resulted in service, and they have faith, which has resulted in endurance. These are good virtues, and he praises them. Like all good critics, John has praised his friends, before he moves on to criticise.
It seems that the Christians in Thyatira are in trouble because they tolerate a woman called Jezebel, who has supposedly been a profit, but has been leading people astray. The immediate question raised, is who is this Jezebel? There are. Of course, several possibilities, but the only one that makes any real sense is that Jezebel represents the traders and merchants in the city. She probably represents all of them, but it could be that she represents Lydia, who was one of the most prominent.
Because Jezebel has been leading people astray, she is to be thrown on a bed. Decoding the Greek, it probably means that if she goes on as she has been, then disaster will come to her. The language used is not literal, but figurative, that is to say that she has been unfaithful, and untrue to God.
In verse 24 we are told that it is God who searches both minds and hearts. This is not just a glib phrase, in the way that we often use it, but it was chosen deliberately to show that God was not just interested in her intellectual life, or her emotional life, but in both.
John describes those things that have gone wrong as the “deep things of Satan”. It could be that this was people who were deliberately making Christian faith too complicated, too deep, too confused philosophically, as if they were presenting some special, hidden, secret, knowledge. This is an ancient heresy, and it’s technical title is Gnosticism. What John may be suggesting is that this teaching was so complicated and difficult that it was not from God at all, but was the devil. The other possibility is it had been suggested to people that they needed to deliberately experience bad things, in order to know what good was. In any case, it wasn’t a good thing.
Towards the end of the passage, verses 26 and 27 are a quotation from Psalm 2, and are a forecast and picture of God’s triumphant work, how God will reward those who have been faithful to him. The great paradox about all of this is that the tiny infant church, struggling against the might of the roman empire, ought, if there was any logic or natural justice, to have simply been extinguished and vanquished by the Roman empire. But it wasn’t, and that’s because of the absolute conviction of the early church in the gracious power of God, and the absolute strength of that power in comparison to the mere might of Rome.
There are several things for us to consider for our church life today in all this. Firstly, how do we interact with the world? In what way do we see our Christian faith played out in the world? When we engage with other people, is our Christian faith something firm, or something that we compromise as needs must? Do we find ourselves in situations that demand conduct or actions that aren’t really compatible with Christianity? About four years ago, at the General Assembly, there was a debate on ethical investment. This debate wasn’t just a debate in general terms, but was focussed upon the central funds of the church, which are naturally invested widely, holding shares in a firm called GKN. Many people were observing that they thought it was wrong for a church to hold shares in a company that made its profits from the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. Then somebody from Somerset stood up and said that he’s worked in a factory making nuts and bolts and screws all his life, and he couldn’t see what was wrong with that, and that firm was also part of GKN. The ethical investment debate has gone on, and over the last four years increasingly ethical investment policies have cost the Minister’s Pension Fund, and I have a vested interest here, over £1 million pounds. Our calling from God is quite clear: Christian values must be the basis of all that we do. But that can cost us an awful lot of money. Can we respond to that challenge?