The letter to the Church in Thyatira is the longest of the seven letters, even though the city itself would have been the smallest. In fact, the church itself was evidently so small that some disputed that it ever existed. Finally, ruins of a church were found in a very small area.
The city itself used to be of Pergamum, but it was fought over time and time again. It had many names, changing hands very frequently. Between Lydia and Mysia, it was a garrison town. King Seleucus I Nicator renamed the city to Thyatira. Some say it was because he learned he had a daughter, and so named it “Daughter” from the Koine Greek. However, that has been heavily disputed. Seleucus himself was a Lydian, so it most likely means “Aroma of Affliction” or “Odor of [Incense] Sacrifice”. Some few say it means “Tower of Thy” and that the present day name Akhisar, meaning “White Castle”, is a reflection of that.
Since most scholars seem to fall on the “Odor of Sacrifice” (or similar) side, let’s see how that might apply. We first see Jesus commending them for their works, charity, service, faith, patience and works (yes, “works” are listed twice). Indeed, it would appear they did sacrifice much of their time and efforts in works of service.
However, it wasn’t that they weren’t truly afflicted, either. The irony is that the affliction seems to have been self-made, however. “Thou sufferest that woman Jezebel” means they actively tolerated her and her teachings, just as the Corinthian Church tolerated one member’s sexual immorality. The NIV (and other translations) even renders v 20 that way:
Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
It should become very clear a long time before we come to the Book of Revelation that Christianity wasn’t designed to be a tolerant religion, at least by the world’s standards. Love may cover a multitude of sins, but the open toleration of sin and evil is not to be done. Jesus didn’t come to call people to toleration of sin but to repentance (Mt 9:13).
“Jezebel” can mean “without husband”, which would fit the negative connotations often associated with the name. However, that might well have been word play, contracting and Hebrewizing the word Baalazebel (“Baal is exalted”). In the OT, she was King Ahab’s wife, the daughter of a Phoenician king. She wasn’t known as a prophetess, though. This makes her symbolic in this passage, even as Balaam in the previous one is symbolic.
Jezebel was known for many things, but above and beyond she was known for being an ardent follower of Baal and a persecutor of the followers of YHWH. She didn’t just lead Israel into idolatry; she pushed Israel into idolatry.
The sexual imagery is very similar to the language of the OT when God speaks about Israel and Judah being unfaithful wives. Baal worship often did involve sex rites, but it’s not required to be literal here. However, it is worthwhile to ask ourselves if we have become too lax in our views on divorce and remarriage.
Jesus gives Jezebel time to repent. Again, here is a lesson we should all take home. Just because evil doesn’t befall unrepentant people right away does not mean there will not be a reckoning. Even her “children” will be killed.
In order for Jesus to call people her children, some have speculated that Jezebel may stand for a false church. There are some problems with that:
1. In order for that to be the case, she would have to influence God’s people from the outside. How is it that she is teaching them these things if she is on the outside?
2. A woman does symbolize a church in some prophetic passages, but none of them are called “prophetess”.
3. Jesus specifically says “that woman”, which would seem unnecessary if he was talking about a church.
Regardless, Jesus tells them that He will try the reins and hearts. He then says, “I will give unto every one of you according to your works. ”
Those who say works are unnecessary should take heed!