Thyatira: The Church Without Trust

By: Everett Vander Horst

Scripture Reading: Revelation 2:18-29

June 28th, 2009

As the world—wide recession deepens, many people are becoming more and more anxious. Where I live, in Michigan, we’ve seen record numbers of home foreclosures. At first, the main cause was that people had their mortgage payments climb out of their reach. But now more and more people are falling behind on their payments because they’ve lost their jobs. Unemployment figures are climbing higher and higher. In my own church, there are a growing number of people who are unemployed or underemployed. And this has been a growing problem for months and months, with no end currently in sight. It makes you value your job. It also puts pressure on to make sure you get along with everyone at work. Now is not the time to make waves with your boss or with your coworkers. Obviously, Christians are to be kind, congenial and generally cooperative no matter the circumstances. But what if, as fears about economic survival grow, you find yourself, in your work, under pressure to compromise your standards? What if you work in a production plant, and the supervisor strongly suggests cutting corners that will increase production speed, but decrease quality? Shouldn’t you go along? After all, he is the supervisor. What if you are working in real estate, and your partner wants to cover up some a property’s liabilities, in order to make a quick sale? Should you cooperate? After all, isn’t it the responsibility of the buyer to beware? When work is scarce, when money is tight, and others are depending on you, isn’t there some obligation to let high standards slide just a bit, so that others can continue to get by, so that your own family can be fed? After all, strong principles don’t put food on the table. We are not the first generation of Christians to wrestle with these challenges. In fact, the very first generations of Christians actually had very similar struggles, and were blessed to receive from Jesus a message of direction, encouragement and hope. It is his word to these churches that we are considering in this series on the seven churches of Revelation. This week, we consider Christ’s message to the Christians in the city of Thyatira. This city is unlike any of the previous cities we’ve visited so far—Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum. Thyatira is far smaller, perhaps 25,000 people. It had no harbor, no high, natural citadel or acropolis and no natural defenses. Thyatira stood in the middle of a broad, fertile plain. And so the longest, most difficult message was given to the smallest, least significant city. Thyatira started out as a military outpost, a garrison in the midst of farmers’ fields. Because it had no natural defenses, it was repeatedly conquered throughout its history. Its geographic location also meant that unlike the other cities of Revelation, Thyatira never rose to political or military prominence over its neighbors. William Ramsay, a well known American archaeologist, once said, “The most careless and casual observer could never take Thyatira for a ruling city or the capital of an empire. It is essentially a handmaid city, built to serve.” Only the centuries—long political stability that came with the Roman Empire’s Pax Romana allowed commerce here to flourish. And, in fact, it kept on flourishing. This well positioned city remained prosperous, so that today, if you want to visit Thyatira, all you’ll see are a few ruins in a small square of the large, busy Turkish city of Akhisar. It is still well established as a center for trade in a region rich in agriculture. The geography of the city is important for understanding Jesus’ message to this church. Geography dictated the very personality of the city in which these early Christians lived. Thyatira was always, by necessity, a city run by consensus. Peace was maintained by learning to get along. When a conquering army rolled across the wide fertile valley and into town, the citizens of Thyatira quickly surrendered and met the invaders’ terms. So we need to have in mind a picture of this city as completely unlike the typical proud, empire city that would resist an attack, fall only after a long siege, and then have its leaders executed and the citizens punished. Because of its vulnerable location, Thyatira learned to accommodate newcomers, and understood the need to cooperate with one another. A great example of this trait is seen in the patron deity of the city, whose full name is Helius Pythius Apollo Tyrimnaeus. This god was named in part for a local hero, Tyrimnos, a military leader in the early days of the city. Many coins have been found with his image, depicted with a battle ax, and riding on a horse. He is also, except for his cloak, naked. This was a universal sign of deity, that he was worshipped as a god. That is because he later transformed into a unique local interpretation of the Greek god named Apollo, one of the many sons of Zeus, the king of the gods. You may remember we saw his altar when we visited the city of Pergamum. This would have been done to please the Romans, who honored the same pantheon of gods as the great Greek empire before them. And as a sign of this cooperation, another coin was minted in Thyatira, depicting Tyrimnaeus, shaking hands with the emperor. And to make some additional long stories short, his other names, Helius and Pythius, connecting him to the sun and to other mythology surrounding Apollo, demonstrate a connection and accommodation to yet another older empire, that of the Lydians. So we can see, literally, in the images of Apollo Tyrimnaeus on ancient coins, how religions were regularly blended, mixed and adapted to accommodate the dominant overlords and maintain the local cult. In Thyatira, everyone placed a high value on pleasing everyone, especially those in power. Another unique aspect of this city helpful for interpretation is the prominence of a wide variety of trade guilds. From inscriptions on coins and other writings, we know there were more trade guilds or trade associations known in Thyatira than in any other city. These influential associations of workers were a vital part of life, not unlike some trade unions today. The guilds were so prominent, that together they had an absolute lock on the local economy. Evidence of just about every ancient trade imaginable has been found in Thyatira: workers in wool, linen, pottery, bronze, slave trade, bakers, you name it! We don’t even have to look to archaeology for such evidence; in Acts 16:14, Paul meets Jewish believers in the Macedonian city of Philippi, across the Aegean Sea: “One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God.” It is likely this merchant Lydia was a member of the guild of clothiers. We need to know that membership in a trade guild wasn’t merely about making some good business contacts, or discussing appropriate pricing for products; being a part of the also brought certain social and religious obligations. Many of the trade associations maintained their own guild halls—banquet halls with large dining rooms. There, diners laid down on a low wall all along the outside walls, eating and watching activities in the center of the space. We know that at feasts in honor of Apollo Tyrimnaeus, meat would be cooked at an altar, offered up to the god, and then distributed amongst the guests as the meal. But another aspect of the festivities was sexual entertainment. And banquet guests were invited and encouraged to join the party in the center of the room, around the altar grill, and engage in revelry and immorality. It was all a part of honoring the god of the trade. So you see that pressure to conform to un—Christ—like practices in the course of daily business is not a new phenomenon. How could Christians survive economically in such a city? What direction can be found in Christ’s words to these believers, beguiled and bewildered by the pagan practices all around them? Our first clues are found in the titles and words of the introduction at the beginning of the message: Christ is the Son of God, with blazing eyes and bronze feet. This is a re—appropriation of one of the titles given to the local god Apollo Tyrimnaeus, also called a son of god. It is also in contrast to the emperors, who were in the habit of claiming to be divine sons of the gods. Jesus asserts his identity against false claims. Jesus is described as having blazing eyes and feet of bronze, an allusion to Daniel’s vision of the Son of man in the Old Testament. Christ’s blazing eyes enable him to see through false arguments and examine souls. With feet of burnished bronze he is equipped to crush his enemies. All these emphasize Christ’s identity of supreme judge, in contrast to the judgments being made by Thyatira’s citizens. As judge, Jesus praises the church for their love, faith, deeds. They care for one another, in love and service. They have shown faith and perseverance despite trials. The good news is that such deeds are increasing. They are affirming community with greater fervor. The bad news was that in pursuing community, they had become much like culture around them, overly willing to compromise in order to keep the peace and keep everyone happy. Thus the complaint: Jesus faults them for compromising through participation in idolatrous feasts at temples and guild. He makes reference to the ‘Jezebel’ in their midst, an allusion to Old Testament’s Queen Jezebel. She was notorious for inciting injustice and greed, and also introduced Israel to the worship of the false god Baal. We can imagine the ways Thyatira’s Jezebel may have rationalized participation in the guild fests: “The guild deities are not real gods. There is only one God, Yahweh, whom we worship. So the trade feasts are not mingling with false gods, but more like talking to an imaginary friend. We can’t help it if others are delusional, but it doesn’t mean I’m a believer in those gods anymore than I’d believe in an invisible pink elephant.” Of course, behind such excuses there were economic motivations. The guilds had a tight grip on the economy. You couldn’t be employed, or have your shop frequented, unless you had guild approval. That approval came by full participation in guild festivities, including sexual immorality and idolatry. All these are connected in the message of Jesus, and warned against as a potent mix. The correction Jesus calls for from those who are willing is this: “Hold on to what you have.” For Jezebel, it is apparently too late. Christ had given her sufficient time, but she refused. Her followers, those who commit adultery along with her will also suffer unless they leave their life of sin. The others in the church are called to hold on. They did not accept Jezebel’s teaching, Satan’s so—called secrets, but they did tolerate it. But they must be discerning, eject the false teaching among them, and press forward in faithfulness, that is, hold on to what they already have. This is John’s own teaching, the original gospel as they’d received it. They receive no greater burden than that. Such a tall order will be enough. Jesus calls them to repent because of the suffering in store for Jezebel and her followers. She who committed sins in the dining room beds of the trade guilds will find herself sent to her sickbed. Jesus says she will be punished with illness. His further comments are similarly harsh: her children (that is, her followers) will be struck dead. Any survivors would be refused a place of refuge. Alone they will face the judgment of Christ on the final day. It is in the midst of this talk of severe judgment that Jesus makes mention of all the churches. This comes right at the midpoint of message, the middle message, number 4 of 7. Thus Jesus emphasizes that this warning is for all the 7 churches, and for all of us. His words are not just a localized message to an unfortunately and negatively unique congregation. Listen! he says. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. We too are to keep vigilant against the temptations of idolatrous compromise, including when it comes to economics. In talking about the compromises of the Christians in Pergamum, I mentioned briefly a number of idols that many Christians place alongside Christ in their life, including pop culture, sports, our own bodies, patriotism and pleasure. Each one of these can become too important in our lives. Today, given the situation in Thyatira and Christ’s response, let us consider the ways in which we can have financial idols. Certainly our work can be an idol. Does your dedication to your work interfere with a fuller level of discipleship? I’m not simply talking about being so busy with work that you can’t serve in a particular church ministry, though that could be a symptom. I’m asking, does your work have your heart? Is it your source of meaning and security? Does it have a greater part of you than you know it should? Do you neglect other callings in your life—family, friends, your personal relationship with Jesus—because you love your job and find in it your identity or your purpose or your value as a person? If so, work may be your idol. Another problem can be idolizing money itself. We can hang on to our money so tightly. I believe one reliable measure of your attachment to money is your response to the call to tithe, to return one tenth of your income to God through donations to the church and other kingdom causes. If you don’t believe that God calls Christians to tithe today, I ask you: is that because you’ve sat down and studied Scripture and concluded it’s no longer required of us, or because you don’t want to give that much? Or perhaps you’ve convinced yourself that you simply cannot afford to tithe, that you could not make it if you had to live on 90% of your income. But then consider what you would do if you or you and your family took a 10% pay cut. Would you no longer be able to make it, would your family simply dissolve into the streets? Not likely. But it’s not only tithing that helps us discern the degree to which we idolize money. There are other forms of generosity. Are you a generous person, without being a foolishly wasteful steward of God’s blessings on the one hand, but then not being a tight—fisted miser on the other? Ultimately, of course, it is a question of the loyalty of your heart. As Paul wrote to Timothy, money itself is not evil, but the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. A person who is a strong financial supporter of the church, who shares with others, can also have a problem with idolatry of money when the bank account is where he or she places his or her ultimate trust. It is like the parable of the rich man who built bigger and bigger barns to store his wealth, and then declared that he could finally sleep well at night, because he had found security. Ultimately, it comes down to trust. Jesus Christ is our caretaker, and he is jealous of any others we might turn to for boosting our feelings of security. So who do you trust? Who will take care of you? Is your life a living demonstration that says you believe that you are not your own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to your savior Jesus Christ? He brings more than warning to the Christians of Thyatira: he tells of the blessings that come to the faithful: authority over the nations and the morning star. The reference to authority reminds us of Psalm 2:9, where God promises David, “You will rule [the nations] with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” Christ has already received authority, at his ascension. He tells us that Christians who overcome the temptation to blend in with the world will share in this rule. They will have power to destroy the authority of guilds, nations and any unity that stands opposed to the purposes of God. Prevailing Christians are also promised the morning star. Again, the Old Testament gives us clues to help us understand this image. You may recall that in the book of Numbers Balaam the seer spoke of star rising out of Jacob. Later, Jacob’s star became a common messianic expression in Judaism. Christians recognize the reference to Christ himself and his eternal kingdom. Both references to what will be received—authority and the morning star—are of the same type; Jesus means that Christians will share in his messianic reign over the nations. They will no longer be weak among their peers. They will join with Christ in his work of ruling. But in the meantime, God has made the promise to care for his children. He calls us to trust him. His call here in these messages to the 7 churches is sharp and uncompromising and clear and loving. With courage, I urge you to set aside what compromises your faith, whatever idols you might have, whether I’ve named it here today or not. The values of the world around us are warped and twisted. They will not save. And when Christ returns one day, we will with great clarity finally see the truth we’ve professed for so long. Christ is king. He is lord over all. And we are securely and eternally safe in his care alone.

About the Author

Everett Vander Horst

Everett Vander Horst is the senior pastor at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his wife Christa have been married for 14 years, and have 3 children: Laura (10), Eric (7) and Jason (5). A Canadian, Everett grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. After graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1996, he and Christa moved to British Columbia where Everett was ordained as pastor in the Telkwa Christian Reformed Church. They took the call to Shawnee Park CRC in 2001. When he is not pastoring, Everett enjoys digital photography, fishing as well as building toys and furniture in his basement woodshop.

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