Is there such a thing as the "Jezebel spirit"?1
Is there any such thing as the “Jezebel spirit”? If so, what is it, or who is it? And what relationship does it sustain to the spiritual gift of prophecy? To answer this we must turn our attention to the letter of Jesus to the church in Thyatira. The problems faced by this church were in some way connected to the person and practices of this woman called “Jezebel.” Continue reading . . .
Is there any such thing as the “Jezebel spirit”? If so, what is it, or who is it? And what relationship does it sustain to the spiritual gift of prophecy? To answer this we must turn our attention to the letter of Jesus to the church in Thyatira. The problems faced by this church were in some way connected to the person and practices of this woman called “Jezebel.”
“But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 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. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve” (Rev. 2:20-23).
Without going into detail on the various theories of her identity, suffice it to say that the most likely interpretation is that, in view of the opportunity granted to her for repentance, Jezebel was a female member of the church at Thyatira who was promoting destructive heresies and leading many into moral compromise.
She was a real person, but the name “Jezebel” is probably symbolic (it’s hard to imagine anyone deliberately naming their daughter “Jezebel”!). Note the parallel in the letter to Pergamum in which the Nicolaitans are subsumed under the name of an Old Testament figure: Balaam. The name “Jezebel” had, in fact, become proverbial for wickedness. Thus, what is meant is that this disreputable, so-called “prophetess” was as wicked and dangerous an influence in Thyatira as ‘Jezebel’ had been to Israel in the OT.
Note also that she “calls herself a prophetess” (v. 20). I can’t imagine Jesus using this language if her prophetic gift was of the Holy Spirit. Some contend she was a born-again believer who had simply gone astray, but I suggest that her behavior and beliefs are an indication that whatever claims she made to being saved and prophetically gifted were spurious. This isn’t to say she didn’t have a supernatural power, but the latter need not always be from God (see Matt. 7:21-23; Acts 16:16-18; 2 Thess. 2:9-10).
According to 1 Kings 16:31, Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians, who married Ahab, king of Israel. Largely because of her influence in seeking to combine the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Baal, it is said of her husband that he “did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him” (1 Kings 16:33).
Jezebel was responsible for the killing of Naboth and confiscation of his vineyard for her husband (1 Kings 21:1-6). She sought the death of all the prophets of Israel (1 Kings 18:4; 2 Kings 9) and even came close to killing Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-3). Her death came as a result of being thrown from a window where she was then trampled by a horse. When an attempt was made to recover her body for burial, it was discovered that the only thing left was her skull, her feet, and the palms of her hands. According to 2 Kings 9:36-37, dogs had eaten her flesh, in fulfillment of a prophetic word from Elijah:
“When they came back and told him, he said, ‘This is the word of the Lord, which he spoke by his servant Elijah the Tishbite, “In the territory of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel, and the corpse of Jezebel shall be as dung on the face of the field in the territory of Jezreel, so that no one can say, This is Jezebel.”’”
Although the first Jezebel had been dead for over 1,000 years, her spirit had, as it were, found new life in this woman of Thyatira! She may even have been the leader or hostess of a house-church in the city. But what did she advocate that led to her being labeled with this horrid name? It’s likely she had exploited the commercial prosperity of Thyatira to justify and subsidize her immorality and that of her followers. Leon Morris explains:
“The strong trade guilds in this city would have made it very difficult for any Christian to earn his living without belonging to a guild. But membership involved attendance at guild banquets, and this in turn meant eating meat which had first been sacrificed to an idol. . . . That these meals all too readily degenerated into sexual looseness made matters worse. But we can understand that some Christians would welcome a heresy of this type. It enabled them to maintain a Christian profession while countenancing and even engaging in immoral heathen revels” (71).
The complaint of the Lord lies in the unhealthy degree of toleration granted this woman. When it is said, “you tolerate that woman Jezebel,” the implication is that the church in general did not accept her teaching nor adopt her lifestyle. But the subsequent mention of her “lovers” and children in v. 22 indicates that a number in the community did so. These would have formed a distinct group within the church, and the church as a whole was content for them to remain.
Whereas it is probable that one individual lady is in view, others have suggested that the reference to “the woman” and “her children” sounds strangely similar to the phrase “the elect lady and her children” in 2 John 1. In 2 John this refers to the church community as a whole and to the individuals who are each a part of it. Perhaps, then, “Jezebel” is not a single person but a collective reference to a group of false prophets and prophetesses in Thyatira. Whether one or many, the presence of such a corrosive and corrupting influence in the church, in any church, simply cannot be allowed.
It is 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 (vv. 21-23a)! 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 Corinth who had persistently abused the Eucharist (see 1 Cor. 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.
So, 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.]
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. I am confident, however, 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 2:19).
To be continued . . .