John Bradshaw - Thyatira and Philadelphia
This is "It Is Written". I'm John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. The book of Revelation puzzles a lot of people. It uses a lot of symbolic language, and so you read about a beast that rises up out of the sea and another that rises up out of the earth. You read of seven thunders and seven plagues and seven seals and seven trumpets. And if you wanted to, you could choose to just move on to something simpler. But the book of Revelation contains plenty that is straightforward and easy to understand. And you'd expect that because it opens by saying that it is "the Revelation of Jesus Christ". The whole point of the book is to reveal Jesus. It tells of His final victory over sin and rebellion. He's portrayed as returning to the earth as "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" in chapter 19. And His return to the earth is also spoken of in the first chapter of Revelation, where it says, "Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him".
So, clearly this is a book that's given to inspire hope. In fact, it opens by saying that there's a blessing for those who read Revelation, who hear it, and keep what they read. That's a clear reference to obedience and to surrendering the life to Jesus. The fifth verse of the book speaks of the plan of redemption, "To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood", and goes on to speak of the restoration of God's children: "and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father". Revelation speaks of the last great battle between good and evil and takes us to the genesis of that battle, when in heaven long ago, Satan said that he wanted to "be like the Most High". That battle crescendos with the last great crisis of earth's final days, in which false worship will be enforced and dissenters will be forbidden to buy and sell in an attempt to coerce them to give up their faithfulness to God.
In the second and third chapters of Revelation, Jesus addresses seven churches, real churches in real places, wrestling with significant issues which threaten their viability and potentially their eternity. "If you don't repent, you'll no longer function as a church," Jesus told the church at Ephesus. He doesn't correct the persecuted church of Smyrna. Maybe there's something about persecution that keeps a church focused on faith in Jesus. Perhaps ease isn't as good for us as we might like to think. He told the church at Pergamos, the compromising church, to repent. And in each case, Jesus made beautiful promises to the faithful. And that brings us to church number four: Thyatira.
There's not much left of the ancient city of Thyatira. All that remains of this once-thriving settlement is a small area that's about the size of a city block, maybe even smaller, and houses and shops have been built on the land where the city once stood. Today it's known as a producer of olives, olive oil, and tobacco, about 10 percent of the tobacco produced in Turkey. Thyatira was an important center for trade and commerce, thanks to its strategic location on the main road. Over the centuries, it was conquered by a number of different empires, including the Persians under Cyrus in the 500s BC, Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire, and the Attalid kingdom of Pergamos, until it finally fell under Roman rule. Under the Romans, Thyatira thrived and grew. And this is interesting.
In Daniel, chapter 2, there's a prophecy that proves to be foundational for both Daniel and the book of Revelation. Here's what happened. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in which he saw an image, a statue, made of various metals. Daniel explained to the king that the image had a head of gold, a chest of silver, a midsection of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. And they represented kingdoms that would rise and fall: first, Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom; then Medo-Persia; then Greece under Alexander the Great; and then Rome. In Thyatira you see all that. Babylon ruled first, although it didn't extend up here into western Turkey. But then, Medo-Persia governed this area, and then Greece and then Rome, just as Daniel 2 said.
In Daniel, chapter 7, Greece is represented by a leopard with four heads. This is because after Alexander the Great died, four of his generals divided the empire among themselves. One of those generals, Seleucus, ruled in Thyatira. Interestingly, in Daniel, chapter 8, we see a similar sequence of kingdoms, except for the already fallen Babylon. Chapter 7 also introduces the concept of "the little horn," which represents the antichrist. It's important to remember that the Bible is rooted in history, and understanding history is key to interpreting its prophecies accurately. Thyatira became famous during Roman times for its purple cloth. In the city's ruins you can find inscriptions speaking of a guild of purple dyers in this city, as well as for bronzesmiths, slave dealers, wool workers, potters, tanners, coppersmiths, and others. These guilds were associations of craftsmen and merchants formed to protect their interests, something akin to trade unions. But the existence of the guilds presented Christian believers with a major problem. We'll look at that in just a moment.
Thanks for joining me on "It Is Written". The ancient city of Thyatira in western Turkey is the fourth church addressed by Jesus in His messages to the seven churches of Revelation. It was a city that was impacted by a collection of guilds. These were business organizations that represented craftsmen and business people. The guilds were very influential in Thyatira. They impacted not only the city's political and economic life but also social and religious circles. Anyone pursuing a trade had to be a member of a guild, and that was problematic for Christians, as each guild was dedicated to a pagan god, who would be honored at guild functions. Their banquets were sordid affairs that not only featured food offered to idols but also sexual immorality.
So Christian business people or craftsmen or -women were confronted by a dilemma: Participate in pagan worship and gross immorality and be in, or refuse to take part and be out. Renounce your faith and earn a living, or stick to your faith and face real hardship. Now, that same dilemma surfaces again later in Revelation. In chapter 13, people in earth's last days will be forced to choose between buying and selling and receiving the mark of the beast. Those are tough choices, but God calls us to faithfulness. Remember, God Himself said back in the days of Eli the priest, "Them that honour me I will honour". Christianity seems to have taken root in Thyatira at a very early point in church history. While there's no record in the New Testament of the apostles actually visiting Thyatira, it's entirely possible that they did.
The Bible says that while Paul was in Philippi, he met a seller of purple cloth by the name of Lydia, the first convert to the Christian faith on the continent of Europe. Lydia was a native of Thyatira, and she was obviously pretty successful, as her home was large enough to host the apostle Paul's missionary team. The purple cloth produced in Thyatira was well known. An inscription as far away as Thessalonica in Greece mentions a man of Thyatira who had been honored by the purple dyers of that city. You'd probably consider Thyatira to be the least important town of those in which the seven churches were located. But the message from Jesus to the church of Thyatira is the longest of the letters to the seven churches. It's also one of the most severe. "And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write, 'These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass:
"I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first. Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce my servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works. Now to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, [and] who have not known the depths of Satan, as they say, I will put on you no other burden. But hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps my works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations, 'He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter's vessels', as I also have received from my Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches".'"
At the start of each message to the seven churches, Jesus describes Himself in various ways. Here He refers to Himself as "the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet [are] like...brass". He declares His divinity. Remember, Revelation is the revealing of who Jesus is, and the Thyatirans are reminded that He is the Son of God. And He's the one whose eyes are "like a flame of fire". That's a description for Jesus that we find later on in the book of Revelation at the time of His return to this earth. I've mentioned before that the evidence from the historical record indicates that these messages were not only intended for the churches in Asia Minor to which they were sent but also for successive periods of Christian history. We saw this particularly in the message to the church of Smyrna, which spoke prophetically of the 10-year persecution in the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian.
The message to Pergamos gives evidence of its application to the period in which the early church compromised its integrity for the sake of acceptance by the culture of its day. And now the message to Thyatira gives evidence of its prophetic application to the medieval church, both to the faithful Christians who kept their faith in the midst of terrible persecution and the apostate majority who corrupted their faith before the world. First, we find Jesus praising His striving faithful: "I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience". This was a time in which committed Christians were forced into exile, when their possessions were confiscated, their words misrepresented, and their bodies often subjected to torture and death. Many of them traveled to distant lands, sharing copies of the Scriptures. They had to endure the worst that any human could suffer.
So the Christians who suffered during this time are saluted by Jesus for their patience. The reason He says that the last works of these suffering saints will be more than their first is because persecution and trial bring refinement and character development. Those whose faith had been preserved during this time offered a witness to the world of greater faithfulness and integrity because of what they had endured. But Jesus had some very different words for those who had perverted the Christian message during the same time. He says that this church had permitted "that woman Jezebel, ...to teach and seduce my servants". Jezebel was the pagan wife of Israel's king Ahab during the days of the prophet Elijah. And she led the children of Israel into idolatry and sexual sin. The worship of Baal and Ashtaroth was prominent in the false worship she brought to God's people in those days. And this worship frequently included immorality. So, who or what is Jezebel? We'll find out in just a moment.
The early Christian church in Thyatira had a growing problem. They'd begun blending the worship of God with the worship of pagan gods. This was serious, and so God brings it up in His message to the church. Jesus rebukes Christians in Thyatira for allowing the introduction of pagan teachings. He references Jezebel. Just as Jezebel was allowed in ancient Israel to combine pagan worship with the worship of the true God, the church of the Middle Ages blended true Christianity with Greek philosophy and various pagan customs. The worship of images, the veneration of saints, human mediation for the forgiveness of sins, the substitution of Sunday for the true Sabbath of the Bible, all of these represented the illegitimate union of true with false worship. The Jezebel of the Old Testament is a fitting symbol for this apostasy.
Jesus pledges to this church of corruption that those promoting this apostasy will suffer punishment and, some, death. All, He says, will be rewarded "according to your works". But "as many as do not have this doctrine", that is, the faithful Christians who kept alive the testimony of Scripture, are exhorted to "hold fast what you have". Those who overcome are promised power over the nations. The persecuted saints at Thyatira, having suffered injustice and cruelty, are told by their Savior that one day the apostasy of this world will be behind them. Next, we're headed to the sixth church of Revelation: the church of Philadelphia. It's located southeast of Sardis and northwest of Laodicea. The name of the city, Philadelphia, means "one who loves his brother" or "brotherly love".
There's not much left today of ancient Philadelphia. Throughout the city here you can find remnants of the old city walls. Way out there, there are some leftovers of what was once a theater and perhaps a stadium, but...this is really it. What you see here are remnants of a Christian church... not that church, not the one John wrote to. This church dates to around the sixth century, and you get the idea that it was clearly a very impressive structure in its day. When Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred for his faith in the second century, it's said that 11 Christians from Philadelphia were martyred with him. Like the message to the church of Smyrna, the letter to the church of Philadelphia contains no rebukes, only praises:
"And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, 'These things [say] He who is holy, He who is true, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens: I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept my word, and have not denied my name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie, indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept my command to persevere, I will also keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I...[come] quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God. And I will write on him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'"
In AD 17, the city suffered terrible damage from an earthquake. Maybe this is the basis for Jesus' promise to the church in Philadelphia: "He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go out no more". The idea of an open door is mentioned by Paul with some frequency in the New Testament. He said that at Ephesus "a great and effective door has [been] opened to me", although he pointed out, "There are many adversaries". He said "a door was opened" for him to preach the gospel in Troas, and he asked the Colossian church to pray "that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ". Looking now at Philadelphia as representative of the church at the end of the Dark Ages, this is the time period of those who witnessed the end of a time of great persecution. There was a door opened before that church, the door to share the gospel of Jesus. And as Jesus is in heaven as High Priest, it could be said this was a door opened to the sanctuary in heaven, from where He ministers the merits of His shed blood.
There's never been any evidence uncovered of there having been a synagogue here in Philadelphia. Nevertheless, Jesus refers to "the synagogue of Satan". What's He's doing is describing those who falsely profess the Christian faith, those who claim to be spiritual Jews but are not. Ultimately, they'll acknowledge the error of their ways and recognize that those they had despised for their fidelity were right after all. It might be that the primary message for the church today is found in the name of this church itself. Jesus says nothing critical of a church characterized by love for others. In the great conflict of the last days described in Revelation, there are those who receive the seven last plagues, the lost, and the saved, "those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus". Jesus is reminding us here that it's not enough to simply be right. In fact, a saved person can't be "right" without having the love of Jesus in their heart. Truth and love matter.
According to Jesus, God wants His people to worship Him "in spirt and [in] truth". And a church that has before it an open door will go through that open door to proclaim the gospel if it has love in its heart. Jesus says to the church of brotherly love, "Hold on tight to what you've got; don't let it go; don't let anybody take your crown". And He reminds them that He's coming again soon. There's a lot in that. Motivated by brotherly love, we, as believers in Jesus, ought to want to see others know Jesus as we do and enter into a saving relationship with Him. And then we're to remember: Time is almost up. He says, "Hold fast". I know there are days that it's difficult to do that, where faith seems harder to come by; life seems as though it's conspiring against you. But Jesus says, "Here's what you do. You just hold tight". And you know that He'll never let you go. We have moments until the return of Jesus. His encouragement to His people today: "Hold on tight". He's coming back soon.
The apostle John was exiled here to the island of Patmos. It was John who wrote the Gospel of John, the epistles First, Second, and Third John, and here on Patmos he wrote the book of Revelation. He could stand on this island in the Aegean and look eastward towards Asia Minor, his heart desirous for the seven churches there, wishing that they'd learn the lessons Jesus had for them so that their "calling and election [might be] sure", and that ours might be also. While he was separated from the churches, his heart was very much with them. While we are separated physically from God, God's heart is still very much with you. And He wants you to receive the blessings that the book of Revelation speaks of... and to be ready for that great day when Jesus returns to take you home. Let's pray together:
Our Father in heaven, in Jesus' name we come to You. And here I am in the very place where John wrote the book of Revelation, where You showed him "things which must shortly come to pass," where You communicated to us of Your great desire that we spend eternity with You. So give us grace now to yield our hearts to the Christ of Revelation, that the great promises of Revelation, the return of Jesus, the eternal kingdom, and earth made new... might be experienced by us. I'm praying now for that person whose faith is wavery, that person who feels like he or she might not be worthy. Remind them that in Christ they are worthy. In Christ they have salvation. Would You take our hearts, I pray, and keep them forever, in Jesus' name. Amen.