I’m constantly stunned by the gracious and longsuffering character of our Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to his words in the letter to the church at Thyatira: “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead” (Revelation 2:21-23a).
What a stunning display of kindness and mercy, that this woman who so horribly perverted the grace of God and used it as an excuse for idolatry and licentiousness should receive the extended opportunity to turn from her ways and receive the salvation of God! By all counts she should have been immediately cast into eternal darkness. But, then, so should all of us! Praise God for his blessed longsuffering!
But our Lord’s patience has its limits. He will not indulge sin forever. He is no less holy and just than he is good and gracious.
Jezebel obviously presumed on God’s grace and interpreted his longsuffering as approval or endorsement of her sinful ways, or at least his indifference toward her chosen paths. There may have been a definite time in the past when through some means, whether a prophetic word or direct encounter or perhaps through John, he issued this woman a warning, no doubt repeatedly. Whatever the case, the culpability of the false prophetess is evident. She “refuses” to repent. She clearly knew what was at issue and chose voluntarily to remain in her sin.
This raises an important theological and practical question: Was Jezebel a Christian? My earlier comments would indicate I believe her to be unsaved, and thus some may react in horror that I raise the possibility that she might be born again. On first glance, the nature of her sin and her refusal to repent point to an unregenerate heart. But there are other factors to be considered.
For example, her judgment is said to come in the form of personal sickness, disease, or physical affliction of some sort. Jesus says, “I will throw her onto a sickbed,” language that is reminiscent of the discipline imposed on the Christians at Corinthians who had persistently abused the Eucharist (see 1 Corinthians 11:30-32). And before we too quickly conclude that someone born again could not commit such sins as are described in this passage, we should note that she is specifically charged with “teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (v. 20). Note well: those whom Jesus calls “my servants” are guilty of “sexual immorality” and eating “food sacrificed to idols.”
Of those who participate with her in these sins, Jesus says, “I will strike her children dead.” The text could literally be translated, “I will kill with death,” a proverbial statement that means “to slay utterly”. Although this sounds more severe than what we might call “divine discipline” of a wayward believer, is it so different from how God dealt with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5?
The fact that they are called her “children” does not mean they are the actual physical progeny of her many sexual infidelities. They are, rather, “those who have so unreservedly embraced the antinomian doctrines of their spiritual mother that they are best described as younger members of her family” (Mounce, 104). In other words, “those who commit adultery with her” (v. 22) and her “children” (v. 23) are the same people.
This also raises, yet again, the question of whether or not the “sexual immorality” in view is literal/physical or a metaphor of spiritual unfaithfulness and idolatry, perhaps especially manifest in unhealthy and illicit compromise with pagan culture. The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, I can’t dismiss the possibility that literal sexual promiscuity is involved. After all, it is rare for one to embrace idolatry without yielding to sexual temptation. See especially Romans 1:18ff. So perhaps, in the final analysis, it is a false dichotomy to insist that she be guilty of either sexual immorality or religious idolatry. They seem so often (always?) to go hand in hand.
On the other hand, since there were surely at least some female followers of Jezebel, the “adultery” they are said to have committed “with her” would likely, at least in their case, be metaphorical for spiritual infidelity.
Jesus says they must repent of “her” works, i.e., since they have joined “with her” in this sin, to repent of what she did is to repent of what they, too, did. If they do not, Jesus will “throw” them “into great tribulation.” The precise nature of this “tribulation” is not specified, but it would surely involve, at minimum, physical illness that in the absence of repentance would culminate in physical death.
Let me bring this to a close with two observations.
First, although I can’t be dogmatic about it, I’m inclined to think that “Jezebel” was an unbeliever. The fact that she is designated by a name that is linked historically to a woman of almost unimaginable wickedness and perversity suggests that she, too, is utterly unregenerate and devoid of spiritual life. [But I could be wrong on this.]
Second, having said that, I must also say, reluctantly, that Christians can fall into grievous and horrific sin. As noted, Jesus here says that his “servants” have joined with Jezebel in her works. The divine response of our heavenly Father to his backslidden children isn’t eternal judgment but firm and loving discipline (see especially Hebrews 12). If that discipline is not met with heartfelt repentance, it may well lead to physical (not spiritual) death. This was certainly the case with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) as well as the believers in Corinth. It would appear also to be the case with some of those in the church at Thyatira.
These are difficult matters that cannot be ignored, treated casually, or dismissed with cavalier dogmatism. Having said that, I am confident of two things. First, our Lord will deal with unrepentant sin. He himself declares in v. 23, “I will give to each of you as your works deserve.” It may not happen immediately (longsuffering as he is), but in the absence of heartfelt conviction and repentance, it will most assuredly happen. Second, although we may not have the discernment to know infallibly who is and is not saved, “the Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2:1)