On the Road Between Ephesus and ThyatiraIn part 1 of this series, I briefly explored the history and development of the biblical concept of porneia (and the related semantic family) through its usage in the NT.  There are many texts one might go to at this point, possibly something from Thessalonians or maybe the Corinthian correspondence.  There are also a number of implications from these particular developments of porneia within Judaism and early Christianity that have significant bearing on how we understand sexual ethics within Pauline and early Christian thought that will need to be explored.  But my stated purpose was to propose an alternative model from scripture to understand our circumstances and I am not sure these passages are able to properly capture the many nuances with which our discussion entails. This blog will introduce the scriptural passages I want us to look to as an alternative model.  I’m going to ask that you humor me this week and walk through some texts of Scripture that don’t get much airtime.

As I ended part 1 last week, I noted that over one third of the NT occurrences of porneia (and its wider semantic family) occur in John’s Revelation.  And the room went silent.

The book of Revelation is a curious thing.  This text provides some of the most profound and explicit depictions of the eschaton and the coming fullness of the Kingdom and yet it is often ignored or neglected in our pursuit of clarity on many issues.

As a prophetic, apocalyptic text it provides deep theological reflection through rich metaphorical imagery.  At the heart of Revelation is a clash between two realities–two realms that are in conflict.  This conflict is reflected in a multitude of ways throughout the text, including the lamb and the dragon, the metaphorical figures of the pure and faithful bride and the adulterous great whore, and the contrasted communities of fallen Babylon and New Jerusalem.  The larger vision of Revelation is focused on the conflict of these two realms of rule—the overthrow of one kingdom by another.

Throughout this text, porneia (and the related terms) are used in a number of ways.  Within the text, porneia and porneuō are often used figuratively to describe metaphorical fornication, possibly both carnal and spiritual, when used in association with the great pornē, the great harlot Babylon.[1] But Revelation often uses porneia (and its related terms) in the more mundane manner of sexually illicit activity when discrete sin activity or vice lists are utilized.  Examples of these usages include Revelation 2:14, 20; 9:21; 21:8; 22:15.   The first two passages on this list occur amongst the letters to the seven churches, which we will now turn our attention to.

The letters to the seven churches occur across Revelation 2 and 3.  These seven churches were to be the recipients of John’s Revelation (Rev 1:11) and many of the themes throughout the letters involve elements that eventually reappear throughout the vision.  One key theme is the charge for believers to hold to the “word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9) throughout the text.  Often when there are failures that need repentance, it corresponds with one of these two elements.

There are also similar epistolary formulas followed in each letter.  Each letter arguably proceeds along the ancient epistolary structure of proem, narration, proposition, and epilogue.[2] The proem introduces the speaker, who in these letters is Jesus, which we know through a mixture of imagery presented in Revelation 1:12-20 (also, can’t you see the red letters…?).  The narration fills in the background information for the audience, which corresponds in these letters to addresses that often affirm the positive works of the community, or identify an area of correction, or some combination of both. The proposition proposes a course of action for the hearers within the community that often includes pronouncing judgment, exhorting repentance, encouragement to hold fast, or some combination of actions.  Finally, the epilogue effects closure through some type of reward in the coming Kingdom “for those that overcome” and the recurrent “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

While the arrangement of these letters seems to correspond to the order each would be delivered along a courier’s route, these seven churches can be categorized into three groups based on the contents of the narration to each church.  Some of the churches, namely Smyrna and Philadelphia, have nothing wrong with their community (and thus there is no call of repentance) and are instead exhorted to remain strong in the face of their present adversity and persecution.  Other church communities, Sardis and Laodicea, have nothing to be commended to their name and simply need to repent of their current wickedness.  While still others, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira, are a proverbial ‘mixed bag’ where they are to be both commended for some things and yet rebuked for other activities.  Robert Mulholland has helpfully labeled these various church groupings as “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”[3] Both of the occurrences of porn– related language occur in these “ugly” churches.  We’ll consider each of the three churches in turn (even though the porn– language only occurs in two of the three).

The church at Ephesus is affirmed for their works, toil, patient endurance, and the fact that they do not tolerate those who do evil, which contextually seems to be those who are claiming to be apostles yet are found false (most likely by some combination of their doctrine, teaching, and works).  But in their opposition to these false/evil ones (probably teachers or prophets), the Ephesian church missed the mark.  Jesus rebukes them for they have abandoned the very love with which they first set out.  They got a lot of stuff right –but doing so without love risks the community the very essence of its church-hood.  Jesus threatens to “remove their lampstand” (which identifies the community as a church, see 1:20) unless they repent.  It appears that, in their pursuit of doing right, of being right, they moved from hating sins to hating the people practicing those sins.  Let me restate this a bit more clearly: Being right and doing right, if a community is doing so in an unloving manner, risks a churches’ status as a church in Jesus’ eyes—that is, they risk their community’s identity as participating in New Jerusalem.  And yet, Jesus wants to make it clear—he hates, as the Ephesians do, the works of the Nicolaitans (just not the people).  Nothing else is said at this point of who the Nicolaitans are, what they believe or practice.

The next ‘ugly’ church, Pergamum, provides a little more clarity.  This community is quite unlike Ephesus.  This community is under persecution, living in the pseudonymously named “Satan’s throne” (you’ll notice that there is quite a bit of name calling in Revelation…) yet they are holding to Jesus’ name even as individuals within their community are being killed.  For this endurance and faithfulness they are to be commended.  But Jesus also notes that they have individuals within the community who hold to the teachings of a pseudonymously named “Balaam” (explicitly used to invoke the parallel OT narrative of apostasy and sexual immorality) and the result is the activity of porneuō (sexually illicit activity) and eating food sacrificed to idols within the Pergamum community.  Within this letter joint activity of porneuō (sexually illicit activity) and eating food sacrificed to idols seems to be directly linked to the teaching of the Nicolaitans (which may serve to inform us about the freedoms which this group taught).  Within this community, there are individuals holding to such teachings and for those who do not repent, Jesus promises that he will come make war against them with the sword of his mouth (2:16; also in later in 19:15).

Finally, we come to Thyatira.  The Thyatiran community receives one of the most glowing reports of all the seven churches.  Their works are prolific—they are affirmed for their love, faith, service, and patient endurance.  Regarding their love, a clear contrast is set up between Ephesus and Thyatira—where Ephesus departed from the love that they first had, these works (including love) in Thyatira have only grown.  But there is the catch.  Jesus then rebukes the Thyatiran community for they are tolerating (in contrast with Ephesus) the pseudonymously named Jezebel who is a self-proclaimed prophet (probably invoking the Holy Spirit as an inspiration and authority for her teachings) that is teaching and beguiling individuals in the church to practice porneuō (sexually illicit activity) and eating food sacrificed to idols.  Unlike Pergamum where adherents to teachings of “Balaam” were present, the false teacher herself, “Jezebel,” has taken up residence in this community—she has authority, and leadership, and is “beguiling” people away from the Lord.  G.E. Ladd describes what is being observed as an “unhealthy tolerance” for the world.[4] He suggests that, “The Ephesians had tested those who called themselves apostles and had rejected pseudo-apostles, but this had made them harsh and censorious.  Here is a church abounding and increasing in love and faith which is tolerant of false prophets to her own detriment.”[5]

The letter suggests that Jezebel’s judgment is set but for those that continue to commit adultery (presumably against God) with her, their reward will be death.  Each will be judged according to their works (2:23; also later in 20:12).  But the Thyatiran community is also unique amongst the churches in that they have a group among them who do not share Jezebel’s teachings (2:24), who remain resolute in their faithfulness, and may be beyond the scope of the initial rebuke.  This is a divided community; some within the community affirm the teachings that lead to porneuō while others do not.  To these who are faithful and find themselves in these divided communities, Jesus exhorts them to only hold fast to what they have until he returns as he seeks to “not lay on you any other burden” (2:24-25). As an aside, I think it is interesting to note that an allusion to the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:28-29) is likely behind this letter to Thyatira based on particular linguistic and thematic elements.[6]

As I wrap up this post, I want to make a couple related observations.  While the Nicolaitans aren’t specifically acknowledged in Thyatira, a Nicolaitan background for “Jezebel” seems likely.  Not a lot is known about the Nicolaitans.  Early Christian documents further affirm these descriptions from Revelation.  Irenaeus reaffirms these observations and adds that Nicolaitans were heretical disciples of Nicolaus of Acts 6:5 (Haer. 1.26.3) although this assertion may have more basis in tradition than historical record.  Hippolytus affirms Irenaeus’ position (Haer 7.24) while Clement of Alexandria suggests the Nicolaitans perverted Nicolaus’ teachings (Str. 2.20).  Furthermore, the Nicolaitans were said to be “shameless in uncleanness.”[7]

Irenaeus further noted Nicolaitan doctrine was similar to gnostic teachings (Haer. 3.11.1).  Mounce suggests the reference to “depths of Satan” in Rev 2:24, which refers to Jezebel’s teaching, may refer to believers plumbing the depths of evil so that they may know God’s grace more fully.[8] He suggests such an idea has gnostic tendencies and “later Gnosticism boasted that it was precisely by entering into the stronghold of Satan that believers could learn the limits of his power and emerge victorious.”[9] Beale, following Caird, similarly suggests that their errant teaching could have been a misreading of Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians where they may have thought that “a degree of participation in the idolatrous demonic realm by the “strong” was permissible as long as it did not make the “weaker” brother stumble.”[10]  Thus these issues may have been espoused as true “freedom in Christ” and akin to various forms of proto-Gnosticism.[11]  No known Gnostic text explicitly mentions eating idol meat but there are some references to “libertine indulgence of sexual promiscuity (e.g., Marcus the Gnostic).”[12]  Tertullian identifies a later group of Gnostics, whose lives were marked by “lust and luxury,” as “Nicolaitans” but he distinguishes these groups from those in Revelation by suggesting the Nicolaitans of Revelation were a “Satanic sect” called the Gaian heresy.[13]  In these comparisons I am not suggesting that ‘Jezebel’ was gnostic, or even proto-gnostic, with any certainty but to rather note that early Christian voices seemed to identify some continuity between the activity in the Thyatiran community and later heretical gnostic teachings.

And so a spectrum begins to emerge amongst these communities with a loveless Ephesus on one end and a divided Thyatiran community whose leadership is leading individuals within the church into porneia on the other.  Whether one views the seven churches as eschatological, typological, or historical communities, Jesus’ call of repentance in both Pergamum and Thyatira makes clear that porneia results in severe judgment and eventual exclusion from New Jerusalem (Rev 21:8; 22:15).  Our eschatological trajectory excludes porneia related activities.

In the next blog, I’ll consider how and why I think these three churches serve as a better scriptural model for understanding our current situation and what moving forward should look like.  Until then, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 2:29).


End Notes

[1] I’ve traced this usage in an unpublished work “Jezebel’s Porneia, Our Porneuo: An Exploration of porn- in John’s Revelation.”  Please feel free to contact me if you would like to read a more exhaustive treatment of this topic.

[2] See J.T. Kirby’s “The Rhetorical Situation of Revelation 1-3.” New Testament Studies 34 (1988), 197-207.

[3] Mulholland, Revelation: Holy Living in an Unholy World (Zondervan, 1990), 91.

[4] G.E. Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972], 51.

[5] Ladd, Revelation, 51-52.

[6] Note the the similarity of the activity between some of the prohibitions in the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:20, 29) and the result of the teachings of Jezebel (Rev 2:20) as well as the internal reference within the text of the decree (Acts 15:29) and the letter to Thyatira (Rev 2:24) of these prohibitions as “burdens” (baros).  Additionally, the Holy Spirit is potentially being invoked as inspiration for both.  In the apostolic decree, the Holy Spirit is used to affirm the prohibitions.  Here, a false prophet is probably also invoking the Holy Spirit to affirm activities which the Holy Spirit had previously prohibited.

[7] Apostolic Constitutions 6:8

[8] “Depths” was also common language for knowledge, particularly of the divine (Aune, Revelation, 207-208).  Another possible background could be some intertexutal allusion to the Corinthian correspondence where the Spirit is said to search all things, including the “depths of God” (1 Cor 2:10).

[9] Mounce, Revelation, 89.


Beale, Revelation, 265.  See also, Caird, Revelation of St. John, 40.  Such a conclusion is reinforced by the potential intertexutal allusion to 1 Cor 2:10 for the “depths of Satan” (see note 100).

[11] Beale suggests that it may be like the forms of proto-Gnosticism attacked in 1 John 1:5-10; 2:3-6; 3:4-12; cf. 2:18-26.  Fiorenza also proposes this connection in “Apocalyptic and Gnosis in the Book of Revelation,” JBL 92 (1973), 565-8.  Additionally, early church fathers such as Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.6) Justin (Dialogue 35), and Eusebius (H.E. 4.7) identified Gnostics as eating meat sacrificed to idols and attended festivities honoring idols in the belief that they were not spiritually harmed.  Irenaeus even linked this activity (eating idol meat, attending idol festivities, and immorality) with false teachers in Against Heresies 1.24.5.  Additionally, see P. Prigent, “L’Hérésie asiate et l’Église confessante de l’Apocalypse à Ignace,” Vigiliae Christianae 31 (1977), 1-22.

[12] Aune, Revelation, 1:193.

[13] See Adv. Marc. 1.29; De proescr. haertet. 33; De Pudic. 19.  For more, see Watson, “Nicolaitans”, ABD, 4:1107.