[Note: The following is a prepared text of the sermonette I gave to the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, September 18, 2021.]
Picture the scene. You are part of three buses of tourists who are visiting Turkey for the Feast of Tabernacles, and you find yourselves winding your way through a market town that gets so few tourists that tourist guides comment on the fact and do not comment on hotels and sights being available there. In fact, the city has so few tourists that our arrival in the town provoked the young people of the town to photograph us on their smartphones and to congregate in the area where we got outside the bus to look at the meager ruins from the Roman era that were there. We were only there for a short time, and had deliberately gone several hours out of our way to be there. Why were we in a town that was so unprepared for tourists that they treated us like animals in a zoo?
The reason why is simple enough. The city we were visiting was named Akhisar, a city of about 100,000 people in Western Turkey. The city is more famously known, though, as Thyatira, as it is under that name that the city appears in the Bible. If Thyatira is best known from its appearance in Revelation, though, its first appearance comes in the book of Acts when Paul meets a woman from the region, and this passage helps us to better understand the town and its significance both in history and in the present day. If few tourists come to the area, there are at least other reasons why the town has remained important two thousand years after its first appearance in scripture.
We first find mention of Thyatira in the Bible with the story of Lydia, who is recorded in Acts 16:11-15. Acts 16:11-15 gives a few details that are worth taking into account: “Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days. And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us.”
It so happens that Thyatira was the home of Lydia, one of the first converts to Christianity during Paul’s visit to the city of Philippi. She was one of the women who prayed by the riverside because there were not enough men (ten men were required) for there to be a Jewish synagogue, and she was there on business. Acts records that she was a seller of purple, about which we will have more to say, and she was the head of a household because it was said that she and her entire household were baptized into the faith. She also was sufficiently glad to have someone preaching and teaching that she insisted that Paul stay in her house as a guest, which Paul was willing to do. The importance of Lydia being a seller of purple–presumably it was through a family business inherited from her father, unless she was a childless widow–is that in the ancient world the source of purple came from a tiny mollusk, of which many were needed to dye the clothing for the elites of the ancient world. The center of this particular trade was in the ancient Canaanite cities of Tyre and Sidon, and Lydia would have been very wealthy herself as a trader of this necessary material for the purple color in the elite togas worn by wealthy Greeks and Romans of the time.
At this time it would be good to remind you all that we were not originally scheduled to visit Thyatria on our tour in Asia Minor. Although the theme of the Feast tour that year in Turkey was to visit the seven cities of Revelation, only six cities were on the original itinerary, and Thyatira was the one left out. It was so disregarded as an ancient site that those organizing a tour for the Seven Cities of Revelation originally left it out. When a large amount of us on the tour, myself included, insisted that it be added, we were told it would add a few hours to our tour and that we would have a later meal as a result, and we gladly accepted those terms. We did not come to Turkey, after all, to see six of the seven cities of Revelation 2 and 3, but rather all seven.
And let us turn to Revelation 2:18-29 and look at what the Bible has to say about the church at Thyatira. Revelation 2:18-29 tells us: ““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, 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.” ’”
By and large, the message to the church of Thyatira is dominated by the negative things that Jesus Christ has to say about the sexual immortality of some in the church, as well as that of the false prophetess Jezebel in particular. This Jezebel is a reference to someone who behaved like those in Tyre and Sidon like the wicked queen of that name who was the wife of the wicked King Ahab and who had her own fondness for false prophets. It is telling that both references to Thyatira in the Bible connect the region with Phoenicia and its sins. Yet although Thyatira is viewed to be God’s second most negative account of a church in tone after that of Laodicea, there are positive things mentioned about the church, many of which resemble the behavior of Lydia herself in Philippi towards Paul. Jesus commends the church for its works, love, service, faith, and patience, and comments that the end of the church’s experience is better than the first–there is growth here. There is also the promise that those who repent and overcome will be given rule over the nations to rule them with a rod of iron, and that is no small blessing to promise an obscure and often forgotten city.
Let us not forget or neglect Thyatira. Ultimately, the reason I and so many other fellow travelers with me insisted on traveling to Thyatira was that it was mentioned in the Bible, and that which is important to God should be important to us. Although Thyatira is an obscure city that is easy to neglect, let us not forget its lessons, for that which is said about Thyatira could very easily be said about us as well. We too live in a time that is rife with immorality and with false prophecy, and we too can be commended–if we can be commended–as having an attitude of service, love, good works, and patience. And that is enough for this congregation to receive a blessing if they overcome. Let us be motivated likewise to overcome that which we have to deal with in our lives and in our evil times.
It was necessary to trod the same land on which Thyatira was built for the sake of remembering its history, because that is the essence of learning. It is vital that we, as disciples, know where we come from, what our forefathers faced, the weaknesses that assailed these Christians. Yet their end was greater than their beginning. This gives us inspiration and hope. We should “leave no stone unturned” as they say. I’m glad we took this literally during the Feast of 2006.
Yes, I am glad we did so as well.