In Acts 16, Luke writes, “From Troas we set sail for Samothrake, and the next day on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony which is an important city in Macedonia, and we stayed there several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women gathered there. One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a trader of purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God; the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she said, ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.”
That’s the only other New Testament mention of Thyatira, which fittingly isn’t really about Thyatira at all; but it captures the fact that what importance the city had came through trade. It was actually founded during the rise of the kingdom of Pergamum as a garrison town to help hold the border against them; but it sat in the middle of a broad, shallow river valley, so it wasn’t really a defensible location, and it wasn’t long before Pergamum captured it. That’s pretty much the way the city’s history went, being repeatedly captured, sacked, and plundered, until the Roman conquest brought peace; with peace, its location went from being a problem to being a benefit, as the city became a center of trade and manufacturing.
We talked several weeks ago about the trade guilds and their importance in economic and social life; in Thyatira the guilds were unusually numerous, and unusually powerful. Indeed, they had more than just trade guilds, they had equivalents to such organizations as the Optimist Club, homeowners’ associations, and even the YMCA (the Young Men’s Pagan Association, perhaps?). The guilds were at the heart of the city, physically as well as socially; the whole life of the city flowed through them, and the guilds were where everything happened.
As we’ve said before, this was a problem for the church because the trade guilds were religious organizations—each one had its patron god or goddess, and when they gathered, it was in part for worship. Caesar worship wasn’t an issue in Thyatira, but that didn’t make things any easier for Christians there. As many times as the city had been conquered, and with all the trade that flowed through its gates, its population was extremely diverse both racially and culturally, including settlers from as far away as Egypt and Persia. As a consequence, religious syncretism—the combination of multiple religions into one mongrel faith—was common; and of particular interest for us, the small Jewish community in Thyatira appears to have blended themselves into the mix.
As a result, compromise was a major problem in Thyatira as in Pergamum, though for different reasons. Instead of political pressure to conform backed by the threat of persecution, there was the subtler temptation just to go along to get along. Don’t make waves, don’t rock the boat, don’t make such a big deal out of your differences—nobody else does around here. Just go with the flow. That temptation was having its effect, and that message had taken root. Thyatira was in many ways a strong church, loving and faithful, bearing witness to the love of Christ in their care and service for others; and not only were they strong, they were growing. But for all that, they had feet of clay: they had given place to a prophet of compromise whose teaching was undermining everything.
Thus Christ is described here in language taken from Daniel 10:6, from the description of the man who appears to Daniel in a vision. The word translated “burnished bronze” is a word from Thyatira—it was a high-quality alloy, perhaps bronze but more likely brass, which was one of the products for which the city was known. Some of those in the church might have been workers in brass, and perhaps members of that guild. The description, then, gives force to the message: the church in Thyatira must stand firm against idolatry, hold fast to the truth of God, and not let themselves be undermined by the temptation to conform to the ways and practices of their pagan culture. Jesus calls us to worship him and him alone, and that is a point on which he will brook no compromise, no matter how we may rationalize it or seek to excuse it.
The situation was particularly bad in Thyatira because they didn’t just have false teachers in the church (which was the complaint against Pergamum)—they were actually tolerating a false teacher, a self-proclaimed prophet. The letter compares her to Jezebel, the pagan queen of King Ahab who led Israel into all kinds of idolatry; this suggests that she and her followers weren’t outsiders in the congregation, they were entrenched in the leadership. The situation is clearly quite serious, and provokes a lengthy word of stern judgment against her and all her disciples.
And note how that word of judgment ends: “Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds”—because his eyes are like blazing fire, burning through everything we use to disguise or conceal our true thoughts, feelings, and motives—“and I will repay each of you according to your works.” You might look at that and say, “Wait a minute—didn’t Jesus just praise the Thyatiran church for their works?” Yes, he did; but for those who followed Jezebel, their good works no longer flowed out of their love for God and desire to please him. As such, they no longer did please him.
I imagine someone from the Thyatiran church hearing this letter read and saying, “But, but, if I don’t belong to the guilds I’ll lose my business! And then I won’t have any money to live on, or to give to the church! Does Jesus want me to go bankrupt? That isn’t reasonable! Look at me—I tithe, I volunteer, I’m an elder—just because I go to the guild meetings and they have a little worship service for Apollo doesn’t make me any less of a Christian!” But then, I imagine someone now saying, “Yes, I know the Bible says we should give generously—but that’s not the way to run a business, especially in this economy.” Or, “Turn the other cheek, forgive your enemies—you have no idea how they hurt me! It’s unfair you even ask me that, and I’m sure God understands why I’m still angry.” Or, “You may think the Bible says I can’t have sex with that person, but this is who I am and this is what I need, and a loving God would never ask me to deny myself like that.” And then always the appeal to rest of their lives, and the insistence that this thing can’t be wrong because “I’m just as good a Christian as you are.” Which may be true, but so what? I’m not good enough either. It isn’t the point.
The point is, if faithfulness to Jesus means we have to lose a job, or give up a relationship, or forgive someone who absolutely doesn’t deserve it, then it doesn’t matter if we think it’s reasonable or not—that’s the price he calls us to pay. All our other good works won’t let us evade that. To borrow a line from Elizabeth Rundle Charles (which is usually misattributed to Martin Luther), it’s where the battle rages that the loyalty of the soldier is proved; if we stand firm on the word of God at every point except where the world and the devil are actually attacking us, then we might be professing Christianity, but we are not confessing Christ.
But here’s the good news: that sacrifice will not go unrewarded. The one who overcomes, who holds fast to Jesus and follows him faithfully, without compromise, will share in his authority and his glory in the kingdom of God. Jesus doesn’t ask us to give things up in this world because he likes to see us give things up, or because he doesn’t want us to be happy; it’s because he has something much, much better in store for us. As C. S. Lewis put it, the problem isn’t that our desires are too strong, it’s that they’re too weak. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.