Revelation 2:18-29 — Prophetic Oracle for Thyatira

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Thyatira, a city which began as a military outpost in the third century BCE, grew into a thriving financial center during the Roman era. A biblical example is Lydia of Thyatira who was a seller of purple (Acts 16:14). There are a large number of inscriptions and monuments that verify the pervasive influence of trade guilds (similar to unions) in the city. This is natural for a commercial center. These guilds, however, were often associated with particular gods, temples, political allegiances, and/or festivals.  This created tremendous social and economic pressure to participate in the various activities in order to maintain social standing and financial opportunities.

Addressor: “the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.”

The risen Messiah identifies himself with three lines but only the last two come from the Christophany in Revelation 1:12-17. This first identification is the only time “Son of God” appears in Revelation. Rather than a theological identification with deity (though it may have that ring when read in the churches), the primary referent–because it is part of the agenda throughout the Apocalypse–is a contrast with Caesar who was often given the title “son of God.” For example, a statue of the Emperor Trajan in Ephesus had an inscription containing the attribution “son of God” (see the picture at Richard Oster’s blog where the title is underlined in red). This understanding of the title accords well with the promises to Thyatira (discussed below).

The firey eyes and bronzed feet are most likely taken from Daniel 10:6 where they describe heavenly figures. The eyes function to highlight a discerning, even judging, gaze (see “searches mind and heart” in 2:23) while the bronze feet probably represent stability and certainty. This Caesar–this “son of God”–stands firm and sees what is happening at Thyatira.

Commendation: “I know your…”

  • works
  • love (agape)
  • faith
  • service (diakonian)
  • patient endurance (hupomonen)

This is an impressive list. Unlike Ephesus, the church is commended for its “love.” The acknowledgement of it works is amplified in terms of their ministry (service) which probably specifies their benevolent activities. They  care for others, and they endure the hardships of their situation. Their works are further commended because they are increasing–they are greater than at the beginning. From appearances, this is a vibrant, ministering,  and loving congregation despite their hardships.

A further commendation appears in 2:24 as some (or many?) have maintained sound (healthy) teaching. They have not bought into the rhetoric of those who follow Jezebel.  It seems that some claimed that they have “learned the deep things of Satan” as some call it. But who names it such? If it is the Jezebel party, then perhaps they claim some “deep” knowledge that rationalizes their practices as if they know how to discern the workings of Satan. If so, they excuse their immorality and idolatry as people who can discern between what is indifferent and what is truly Satanic. Perhaps, then, the claim is to some insight or knowledge that justifies their behavior.  If it is what those who reject the Jezebel party say, then they associate the practices of the party with Satan. If this is so, then Satan once again lies behind this assimilation to paganism, according to the prophet. In either case, the practices of the Jezebel party are deeply rooted in the powers of Satan and thus reflect assimilation to the imperial culture.

There are,  however, a significant number in the congregation who have remained faithful in their witness against accommodation. They reject the Jezebel party and are commended for their faithfulness. Indeed, as the oracle says, Jesus lays no “other burden” on them than “hold[ing] fast” till he comes. perseverance is a key theme among the letters and for the whole Apocalypse. Christ-followers must continue their works, love, and faith until the final realization of God’s new creation emerges in the Eschaton.

Warning:  “But I have this against you…”

Jezebel is probably a metaphor for a particular prophetess in Thyatira who is seducing members of the congregation with her teaching. Two particulars are identified:  sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols. Apparently, this was previously addressed in some way in the hopes she might repent (God is gracious in giving “time to repent”) but she refused. Consequently, Christ will act against her.

The Jezebel imagery is significant as it connects us with the story of Israel’s queen (1 Kings 18-21). She incited her husband to follow Baal and lead Israel into immorality and idolatry. Her leadership in pagan assimilation forms the typology that the prophet employs here.

The specific practices are similar to those found at Pergamum. It is the same problem of cultural accommodation to pagan idolatry and immorality. Here, however, there is a specific leader with a significant following (“her children”). The result for both is the same–death. There is no reason to think this is a form of Christian violence but rather that her (and her children’s) end will be the same as Jezebel as the metaphor of the biblical story is continued. Here it is metaphorical in the same way that the threat against the churches is. Just as Jesus will remove the lampstands from his presence if the churches do not repent, so now Jesus will act to remove Jezebel since she has refused to repent when she had the opportunity.

Christ’s eyes are fixed on his congregations. He searches “mind and heart” and intends to give to everyone what their works deserve. This underscores the significance of faithful witness through persevering in good works. The commendation of Thyatira is the model for this perseverance, but they must also reject the influence and presence of Jezebel. They can tolerate her no longer.

Promise: “I will give…”

  • authority over the nations
  • the morning star

The first gift highlights a major theme in the Apocalypse. The conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world (or world powers) is central to the drama which will unfold in the second vision (Revelation 4-16). The prophet utilizes Psalm 2 in which God addresses the son (king) and promises him the inheritance of the nations as the son will exercise authority over the kingdoms of the earth. The Apocalypse identifies this son with the risen Christ who, enthroned in heaven, now exercises authority over the nations through the unfolding apocalyptic drama. The promise is that those who follow Christ (who overcome and persevere in their works) will share in his reign over the nations; they will rule with Christ. The promise entails the defeat of the world powers that now war against the kingdom of God. [There is a question whether 2:26b is part of the quotation from Psalm 2 and thus addressing only the Messiah or whether it is an application of Psalm 2 to all Christ-followers. I think the latter, but Aune (Revelation) and Oster (Seven Congregations, 154-6) argue for the former.]

The two gifts are connected though it is not obvious to 21st century readers. The “morning star” is explicitly connected with the Davidic dynasty in Revelation 22:16. Further, the morning star (the planet Venus) often appears on Roman coinage and is deeply embedded in imperial and Roman mythology. Oster (Seven Congregations, 160) suggests that the connection between Julius Caesar and the worship of Venus as well as the association of the founding of Rome with Venus generated a strong association between the “morning star” and Roman Emperors (see also Oster’s discussion of this along with some sample coins on his blog). In other words, “John’s use of the ‘morning star’ christology would place  Christ in competition with Caesar.” It is the risen Messiah who holds the stars in his hands and who can dispense Venus as a gift to his followers. Christ, rather than Caesar, reigns and shares his reign with those who overcome and “keep [his] works to the end.”

Admonition: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening?

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