The Four Columns of Thyatira

Revelation 2:18-29
© Stacey Steck

A couple of weeks ago when I was inviting my friend Pat to join us for Invite-A-Friend Sunday, I had to admit that Thyatira is a pretty funny sounding word. It’s not one you hear used much in public, not even in the church, because it only appears in two places in the Bible, and one of those doesn’t get read very often. It gets used so infrequently that there is not even a consensus on how to pronounce the word. Back in May, I was at a conference and attended a workshop by a supposed expert on the book of Revelation who proceeded to pronounce the name of our beloved church as “Thyatiria,” as if there were an extra letter “i” in there somewhere. But I must also must admit that when I was being interviewed by the search committee, I decided to ask how it was pronounced before giving it a try on my own. As the old saying goes, it is better to be silent and thought a fool than to mispronounce Thyatira and remove all doubt. For what it’s worth, however, in the original Greek, it’s pronounced thu-a-tay-ra, but the way we say it is clearly the best way to go!

Once I arrived, I began to inquire about why the name Thyatira was chosen, as uncommon as it, but no one has come forth with a satisfactory historical answer about why we chose this obscure name from Scripture when so many other good ones were probably still available out here on the frontier. You may have noticed that there are not many other churches named Thyatira. In fact, in the United States, there is only one other Thyatira Presbyterian Church, found in Jackson, Georgia, and according to their history, they took their name because we took them under our wing and sponsored them back in 1828. I have found mention of a couple of old Thyatira Baptist Churches, but they seem to have closed a while back. Maybe there aren’t many churches called Thyatira because even if you were determined to choose a name from the book of Revelation, there are two other options in the first three chapters that got better reviews from Jesus. There are a lot more places and churches called Smyrna and Philadelphia out there then there are Thyatira. Perhaps our ancestors in the faith here in Millbridge simply became enamored of the name Thyatira spoken in a southern drawl. Perhaps in those days they really saw in the people who had gathered here the same things Jesus saw in the people who had gathered at Thyatira in Asia Minor, the same good works of love, faith, service and patient endurance we still see here today. Perhaps the church back in the eighteenth century exhibited those four great characteristics but was being threatened by someone who was trying to lead it astray, a Jezebel of its own time. We may never know. But what we do know is that we still practice those four virtues and that in every age, we will face challenges to remain the kind of counter cultural witness John reminded the churches in Asia they needed to be.

Thyatira is the fourth of the seven churches addressed by Jesus through the vision of Saint John. In each of these visions, Jesus speaks to the angel of each church and offers words of encouragement and challenge. It was a hard time to be the church. When Revelation was written, the church had no status, no privilege, no constitution protecting it from the state. Christianity was still a new religion among many in the Roman empire, one that had come out of a backwater province, one that was based on a dubious claim that its leader had come back to life, one that attracted for the most part the dregs of society. Most scholars are agreed that although from time to time the Empire actively scapegoated and punished the early church, these seven churches in Asia were not facing that type of persecution, but were in fact up against something even more challenging, something we see in the words spoken to the angel of Thyatira. It gets its share of praise for its good works of love, faith, service and patient endurance, but it also gets challenged to confront the influence of a certain Jezebel, who has been leading them astray by making accommodations to the culture around them, confusing worship of the God of Israel with worship of the emperor. Specifically, this is spelled out as being willing to eat meat sacrificed for idolatrous purposes, and engaging in other kinds of socially acceptable activities that were ethically questionable for Christians. These get labeled as adultery or fornication, but most scholars agree that these words are most likely euphemisms, rather than the crimes themselves per se.

Who was this Jezebel? We are pretty sure that Jezebel wasn’t the real name of this false prophet, but a code word that everyone would have understood if they remembered the story of her namesake in the Old Testament which gives us some clue as to what kind of person she was in the church at Thyatira. Jezebel was the wife of Ahab, perhaps the most corrupt of all the kings of Israel. Now what is important about the first Jezebel is that she was not an Israelite, but a Sidonian, a foreigner, and even though Ahab was no saint in his own right, the way the story gets told, it is pretty clear that the real corrupter of Israel is in fact Jezebel, who went on to kill the prophets, pursue the prophet Elijah, and plot the death of the innocent Naboth so she and Ahab could confiscate the poor man’s vineyard. I will spare you the gory details this morning but if you want to read about her rather gruesome death, you can find it in 2 Kings 9.
All of that gives us a clue about what was happening at the church at Thyatira, and that just as the first Jezebel helped bring ruin on the Israelites, John warns that this Jezebel will bring the church at Thyatira to a bad end if they are not careful. The Gospel that Jezebel was preaching was one that led to a confusion between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of Caesar, a Gospel that watered down the distinctiveness of this new movement that included everyone, a Gospel that made it easy to accept what everyone else around it was doing even if what they were doing was contrary to the Gospel Jesus preached. In the simplest terms, if you ate meat sacrificed to idols, it suggested that you acknowledged that those other gods existed, or that you were afraid of the repercussions of what would happen if you refused, which would have meant acknowledging that your loyalty was not ultimately to the emperor, but to God, the very same impulse that helped Pontius Pilate decide to crucify Jesus. The empire could tolerate a lot of things, but disloyalty was not one of them, and Jezebel was helping to turn the church into good citizens of the Empire rather than good servants of the King of Kings.

We don’t have too many issues these days with meat sacrificed to idols, but from time to time the church has had to confront what from some corners appears to be the kind of accommodation to the culture around it that Jesus warns the church at Thyatira that it must stand up against. It’s murky territory to be sure, deciding what is and what is not appropriate, what is godly and what is not. In our own time, the debate continues about things like worship that looks more like the entertainment you’d see at a Brittney Spears concert, or about social issues about which people of good faith disagree. That’s the ongoing challenge of the church at Thyatira, not just this Thyatira, but all the places that could be named Thyatira, places where love, faith, service, and patient endurance are truly the hallmarks of their communities, but who also have to live in the real world, and read the news of the day, and be discerning about what God is doing in their midst.

It’s tricky stuff, as the current issue of people choosing to sit or kneel during the playing of the national anthem has made clear. We may or may not agree with what Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have decided to do, but it does gives us a very current example of what the church in Thyatira was up against. Putting aside our feelings about the issues that have provoked these protests, suppose that there were a good Christian reason for any one of us to refuse to give honor to a government that opposed what our faith required of us. Would we be willing to incur the ire of the culture around us to make our statement of loyalty to God rather than our culture or our government? What are we saying to the world around us about our distinctiveness, our values, by participating in practices that do not always conform to our understanding of the life that God calls us to lead? Love of country is a good thing, but no nation should be confused with the reign of God even if at times we do find ways to cooperate with it. The same could be said for the Roman Empire that John warned the church at Thyatira about. It did some good things, but it was by no means perfect. And in those places that the kingdom of heaven clashes with the empire, the church needs to side with God. The church not only has the right to dissent, but in fact the duty, when faithfulness to Christ's commands to love, serve, and patiently endure come into conflict with the culture's demands for loyalty.

All of this is to say that even those who don't agree with why Kaepernick did what he did, should support his right to do so, and even more than that, we should ask ourselves what we’d be willing to stand up for, or sit down for, because one day it might be us protesting, and protest shouldn’t have to lead to martyrdom for athletes or for people of faith. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago when the church confronted some of these very same questions, and had to take a stand. Almost as soon as Hitler took power in Germany in the 1930s, the government began to pressure the churches to adopt the Third Reich’s policies and many of them did, unquestioningly. But there was a small group of Christians and churches that said wait a minute, this isn't how it’s supposed to work. Our loyalty is to God and God’s purposes, not Hitler and his purposes. And so they drafted what they called the Theological Declaration of Barmen in which they outlined their reasons for dissent and opposition and called upon others to turn away from the Jezebels of their age, those church leaders who couldn’t see the difference between the kingdom of heaven and the vision Hitler was casting. The Barmen Declaration has since been adopted as part of the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and several other denominations, because it offers the same kind of warning that was offered to the church at Thyatira so many years earlier.

It’s not printed in the bulletin this morning, but I’d like to ask if you would rise and say together a portion of that Barmen Declaration that you’ll find on the video monitors. If for whatever reason you choose not to stand, that’s OK; we honor that, as we must honor the conscience of all who confess faith in Jesus Christ.

“The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.” Please be seated.

So here’s my last word on the subject. Before Jesus warns the church at Thyatira about its Jezebel, he reminds them of who they are. He reminds them that their church, their community, rests on the firm foundation of the love, faith, service, and patient endurance that they have been practicing. I like to think of them as the four columns of Thyatira. And I think what he was saying is that if those four columns remain strong, we'll recognize those moments when we need to stand up, or sit down, for what Jesus Christ has bequeathed us. And we’ll have the strength to “hold fast” to what we have until Jesus comes, and our last works will indeed be greater than our first works. May God continue to give this Thyatira the strength of the first Thyatira, until the rising of the morning star. Amen.