This is the fourth of the seven letters in chapters 2-3, addressed to Thyatira, an important commercial and manufacturing city southeast of Pergamum. The common format and outline of these letters was discussed in an earlier note; here, I will be addressing only those details which are distinctive of the fourth letter.
The introduction to the risen Jesus draws upon images and phrases in the vision of 1:11-16ff—here it is the imagery in vv. 14b-15a. Somewhat unique is the inclusion of the title “Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), which otherwise does not occur in the book of Revelation, though, of course, it is frequent elsewhere in the New Testament. On the Messianic background of this title, as applied to Jesus, cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. In the earliest Christian preaching, Jesus’ Sonship was tied specifically to his resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of God). The idea of his divine pre-existence, as the eternal Son of God, was not recognized by believers, it seems, until a somewhat later point (c. 60 A.D. and thereafter). Here, it is still the resurrected/exalted Jesus which is primarily in view.
The praise accorded to the believers in Thyatira, as expressed in the formula at the start of the main message in each letter, is especially fulsome:
“I have seen your works, even your love and trust and service and remaining under [i.e. endurance], and (how) your your last works are more (numerous/excellent) than the (one)s (you did) at first.”
This draws upon the language used in the letter to Ephesus (vv. 2, 5). It is perhaps meant to contrast the Thyatiran believers’ improvement (in acts of love, etc), with the Ephesian Christians who “left” the love they had (and showed) at first.
The blame/rebuke portion of the message, while of limited scope (dealing with one flaw or issue), is presented in considerable detail. It is introduced with the typical formula:
“But I hold (this) against you: that you (have) allowed [i.e. tolerated] the woman ‘Îzebel, the (one) counting herself (as) a foreteller [i.e. prophet], and (yet) she teaches and makes my servants [lit. slaves] go astray to engage in ‘prostitution’ and to eat (offering)s slaughtered to images.” (v. 20)
This is the same issue addressed in the previous letter to the believers in Pergamum (verse 14, cf. the earlier discussion)—that some were eating food (meat) which had been sacrificed to the Greco-Roman (pagan) deities, and even teaching that this was acceptable and encouraging believers in this regard. There the teaching and practice was symbolized by the character of Bil’am (Balaam); here it is ‘Îzebel (Jezebel), one of the most infamous figures in Israelite history and Old Testament tradition, the archetypal “wicked queen” (cf. 1 Kings 16:31; 18; 19:1-2; 21; 2 Kings 9). The figures of Balaam and Jezebel are clearly parallel, symbolizing the wickedness being addressed in two respects:
- Both figures played significant roles in encouraging the people of Israel to adopt, and participate in, Canaanite religious practices—specifically involving the worship/veneration of the deity (or deities) designed as Ba’al. This word is actually a title (“Lord, Master”, cf. my earlier article) which was applied primarily to the Canaanite sky/storm deity Haddu (or Hadad). In the late 2nd millennium and early 1st millennium, worship of Baal Haddu was at its peak in Syria and Palestine, and was the most prominent pagan religious ideology (and ritual) which could serve as an alternative to the worship of the Creator God El-Yahweh. Balaam’s role in the Baal-Peor episode (Numbers 25) is mentioned in Num 31:16 (cf. also Josh 13:22), and reflects the decidedly negative associations with his name in Jewish tradition (cf. 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11). The spread of Baal-religion in Israel at the time of Jezebel (and her role in it) is described in 1 Kings 16:31b-32ff and 18:17-19ff. According to 16:31a, Jezebel was a Syrian (Sidonian) princess, daughter of Ethbaal (“Ba’al is with him[?]”).
- Both were closely connected with wicked kings—Balak and the Israelite king Ahab, respectively. This emphasizes not only the idolatrous character of the pagan sacrificial offerings, but the wicked influence of Greco-Roman culture in general. The royal aspect of Balaam and Jezebel points to the Roman imperial government, especially in the province of Asia.
The space devoted in the letter to the issue of food sacrificed to idols indicates that the problem was especially acute in Thyatira, and that it reflects a longstanding situation:
“And I gave her time (so) that she might change (her) mind [i.e. repent], and (yet) she is not willing to change (her) mind (and come) out of her ‘prostitution’.” (v. 21)
As discussed in the previous note, pornei/a (lit. prostitution, sex for hire) most likely is being used in a figurative sense, referring to religious unfaithfulness (i.e. the eating of food sacrificed to idols). It does not necessarily mean that the Thyatiran Christians were involved in any blatant sexual immorality; indeed, the overall context argues strongly against this.
Mention should be made of “Jezebel” as “one counting herself (as) a prophet” (v. 20). Whereas, in the letter to Pergamum, “Balaam” signified issue generally, here a specific individual is singled out—a female prophet of some influence in the churches of Thyatira. According to the ideal expressed in Acts 2:17-18 [Joel 2:28-29], female prophets were known (and accepted) among early Christians, though, admittedly they appear to have been somewhat rare (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5ff; cf. also Luke 2:36, and earlier in Old Testament tradition, Exod 15:20; Judg 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14, etc). Paul seems to have accepted the role and position of women as prophets in the congregation, as long as the followed certain (social) customs and maintained proper order (1 Cor 11:2-16). Gradually, however, women were barred from any such ministerial position within most churches, and the exercise of the prophetic gift by women was reduced to heterodox circles (such as Montanism in the mid/late 2nd century, which was centered in Asia Minor). As I have discussed repeatedly, early Christian prophecy was not limited to predicting the future; rather, the prophet was a spokesperson for God, a gifted individual who communicated the word and will of God to other believers. Despite the singling-out of this “Jezebel” at Thyatira, it is by no means clear that the book of Revelation opposes the idea of female prophets as such; it is the content of her teaching that is at issue, not her gender (cf. Koester, p. 299).
The seriousness of this situation is expressed by the solemn announcement of punishment in vv. 22-23; it is much more specific and graphic than that earlier in v. 16, though both passages doubtless convey the same idea:
“See, I will throw her into the (place) where (she) lays down [i.e. bed], and the ones engaging in adultery with her, into great di(stress), if they should not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] (and come) out of their works, and her offspring I will kill off in death.”
There is play on the word kli/nh here—the place where one “lays down”, i.e. one’s bed. It refers both to the bed as the place where the prostitute engages in sexual intercourse with her client, and to the place where the sick/ill person lays down (in hopes of recovery). It is a colorful and roundabout way of declaring that “Jezebel” (and all who follow her teaching/example) will be struck with serious illness, which may result even in death. The idea that this punishment would extend to the children of these sinning Christians should probably be taken literally. The earlier reference to Jesus coming to “make war” on the unrepentant believers in Pergamum may also denote the coming of plague or illness. The concluding statement in this announcement is a worthy echo of the prophetic word in Old Testament tradition (especially Jer 17:10); it is aimed at warning to all the congregations in Asia Minor:
“And all the (believer)s called out (to assemble) [i.e. congregations] will know that I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the (One) searching kidneys and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
This warning continues into verses 24-25, reassuring the faithful believers in Thytira (i.e. those who have not accepted eating food sacrificed to idols), in light of the ominous warning of the previous verses:
“But I relate to the rest of you in Thyatira, as (many) as do not hold that teaching, who have not known the ‘deep (thing)s’ of the Satan, as they are counted [i.e. reckoned], I will not throw upon you (any) other weight—(no) all the more, you must grab firm(ly) to that which you hold until the (time at) which I should come.”
Special notice should be taken of the expression “the deep [baqu/$] (thing)s of Satan”. It may well be a parody of “the deep (thing)s [ba/qh] of God”, which Paul uses in 1 Cor 2:10 (cf. also Rom 11:33). Through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers have access to the “deep things” of God. It is perhaps significant that Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor 8-10 is specifically in response to certain believers at Corinth, who as a result of their (spiritual) knowledge (i.e. that idols and pagan deities have no real existence), felt that it was acceptable to partake in food which may have been sacrificed to “images”. By contrast with Paul’s careful and sensitive argument, the book of Revelation makes a blunt condemnation of the practice outright. However, we do not have enough information about the situation in the churches of Asia Minor, at the time the book of Revelation was composed, to make a definite comparison. In any event, it is certainly possible that “Jezebel”, in her function as a (would-be) prophet, may have determined and declared (by the Spirit/word of God) that there was no harm in eating food sacrificed to idols.
The eschatological context of these letters is confirmed by the closing words of verse 25. It indicates again, from the standpoint of the book, that Jesus’ coming (i.e. his return) would take place very soon.
The promise of heavenly reward here is expressed two ways:
- The faithful believers will be given “authority [e)cousi/a] over the nations” (v. 26-27), described in terms of Psalm 2:8-9.
- Jesus will also give to them “the early [i.e. dawn/morning] star” which he himself received from the Father (“even as I have been given [it from] alongside my Father”), v. 28.
Some question has been raised by commentators as to just what is involved, or is signified, by this “authority over the nations”. It probably is related in some way to similar ideas expressed by Jesus in Matt 19:28 (par Luke 22:28-30), and Paul in 1 Cor 6:2-3. There are several possibilities for how this should be understood here in the book of Revelation:
- It is meant as a symbol of heavenly honor for believers in Christ
- It refers to the participation of believers, with Christ, in the end-time Judgment
- It specifically refers to believers ruling with Jesus in a Messianic kingdom on earth
- It relates somehow to positions of honor and authority in heaven (over other believers)
While the book of Revelation draws upon the tradition of an earthly (Messianic) kingdom at several points (most notably in 20:1-6, which will be discussed), it is unlikely that this is intended here. All of the promise formulas in the seven letters refer either to eternal life or heavenly reward/honor for believers, and so it should be understood here in vv. 26-27. Some combination of the first two options above is to be preferred. The tradition itself, based on the scant New Testament evidence, refers to the second option; however, how the tradition is applied in the letter supports the first—i.e., it is an honorific description of believers’ participation in the ruling power and presence (of God) we share in Christ (cp. the promise in 3:21).
This ruling power itself is properly represented by the star in verse 28. Here it is said to be the “early (morning) star”—i.e. the star which appears at the dawning of a new day (or Age). The star itself is symbolic of rule, as in 1:16ff. Notice, of course, should also be taken of the Messianic interpretation of the star in Balaam’s third oracle (Num 24:17), and the star in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-10). The specific image of the morning star is also found in 2 Peter 1:19, where it refers to the indwelling word of God. While the star is said to be given by the Father to Jesus here in v. 28, at the end of the book (22:16), Jesus himself is described as the morning star, in language that draws strongly upon Messianic tradition.