18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 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. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 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, 23 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 according to your works. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
A bad reputation is a hard thing to shake and a bad reputation unfairly created through false accusation is a cruel thing indeed. But sometimes, every now and then, bad reputations are earned. One example of a justly-deserved bad reputation involves a woman who appears in the Old Testament and then is named again in Revelation. I am talking about Jezebel.
The word “Jezebel,” when applied to someone, is usually not a compliment. Jezebel’s bad reputation continues on into our day. To get at the general sentiment concerning her we might consider the 1951 Frankie Lane hit song “Jezebel,” which goes like this:
If ever the devil was born without a pair of horns
It was you, Jezebel, it was you
If ever an angel fell, Jezebel, it was you
Jezebel, it was you
If ever a pair of eyes promised paradise
Deceiving me, grieving me, leavin’ me blue
Jezebel, it was you
If ever the devil’s plan was made to torment man
It was you, Jezebel, it was you
Could be better that I never know a lover such as you
Forsaking dreams and all for the siren call of your arms
Like a demon, love possessed me, you obsessed me constantly
What evil star is mine, that my fate’s design should be Jezebel?
If ever a pair of eyes promised paradise
Deceiving me, grieving me, leavin’ me blue
Jezebel, it was you
If ever the devil’s plan was made to torment man
It was you, Jezebel, it was you, night and day, every way
Jezebel, Jezebel, Jezebel!
Well! That is harsh! But I am going to argue that in this case it is fair and accurate. But who was Jezebel and why was/is she so loathed? Jezebel, we are told in 1 Kings 16:31, was “the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians.” In 1 Kings 16:29-34 we read:
29 In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun.
So Jezebel was a pagan princess who married a King of Israel and brought her idolatry into the nation. Furthermore, in 1 Kings 18:4 we read that “Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord” and that Obadiah had to hide one hundred prophets in caves from her. Furthermore, Elijah the prophet had to flee the murderous wrath of Jezebel after he defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 19). In the end, Jezebel’s demise was as brutal and disturbing as her life. We read of it in 2 Kings 9.
30 When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it. And she painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out of the window. 31 And as Jehu entered the gate, she said, “Is it peace, you Zimri, murderer of your master?” 32 And he lifted up his face to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out at him. 33 He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down. And some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled on her. 34 Then he went in and ate and drank. And he said, “See now to this cursed woman and bury her, for she is a king’s daughter.” 35 But when they went to bury her, they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. 36 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, 37 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.’”
My goodness! Then, amazingly, after all of this and after all of the years that pass, we find her here in our text, in the church of Thyatira in Revelation 2!
20 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.
But how can this be? How can dead Jezebel be in the New Testament church of Thyatira in Asia Minor at the end of the first century? It is because the name “Jezebel” represents a type and that type had become a member of Thyatira. I believe there actually was a literal woman in the church of Thyatira and that she was so like Jezebel of old that Jesus used her name as a warning to the church. Let us unpack what it means that Jesus warned the church about Jezebel in her midst.
God intends the church to be the primary instrument through which the world is reached for Jesus.
Let us begin by noting the obvious fact that Jesus is speaking, again, to an actual church. He praises and then scolds them.
18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel
He praises them for six very important things:
- They have good works.
- They have love.
- They have faith.
- They serve.
- They are patiently enduring suffering.
- Their latter works exceed their first.
This is to be commended! The core of the church of Thyatira is therefore strong and faithful. He also rebukes them because they “tolerate that woman Jezebel.” We will unpack this in a bit. But for our purposes at this point, it is fascinating that Jesus, by using the image of Jezebel and applying it to the church, shows that the church is now and today the primary conduit through which He is reaching the nations. The relationship of the church to Israel is a tricky subject and one we will unpack more later. Even so, suffice it to say that many images that belong properly to Israel of old are applied to the church in the New Testament. Thus, just as Jezebel deceived Israel, she is now deceiving the church of the living God.
Again, this helps us establish a very important truth: the church matters and what happens to the church matters! If the church collapses the world loses a great treasure for the church is the body of Christ.
Carl F.H. Henry uses a wonderful image when he writes that, “The church approximates God’s kingdom in miniature, mirroring to each generation the power and joy of the appropriated realities of divine revelation.” I love that! “The church approximates God’s kingdom in miniature!” The Kingdom of God is more than the church but the church “approximates God’s kingdom in miniature.” It is a small picture of what the larger Kingdom of God looks like.
“The church ought to be central to the Christian life,” writes David VanDrunen, “because the church is the only earthly community that manifests the redemptive kingdom and grants us the fellowship of our true home, the world-to-come.”
So let us remember: the fact that Jesus is speaking to churches matters. This is not some insignificant diversion. What happens to Jesus’ church is of great importance. The church matters!
A compromised church is a great and terrible tragedy.
The church matters so much that we can rightly say that a compromised church is a great and terrible tragedy. This is what is behind the warning of Jesus to the Thyatiran church concerning Jezebel.
20 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. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 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, 23 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 according to your works.
Like the Pergamum church, the Thyatiran church is warned about its too-tolerant stance toward worldliness. And, like in the Pergamum church, this seems to have manifested itself in the two areas of sexual morality and idolatry. Unlike the Pergamum church, it seems to have been centered around one charismatic prophetess who was leading some of the church into her false and dangerous ways, as opposed to two groups. She was exerting influence and the church at large was standing back and allowing it. We learn a few more things about this “Jezebel” prophetess:
- She was hard-hearted and had refused to repent even though Jesus had given her time to (v.21).
- She was about to receive judgment from God.
- Hard times were about to come upon those who were flirting around with her teachings (v.22) “unless they repent[ed] of her works.”
- And those who had bought into her heresies and wickedness wholeheartedly (i.e., “her children,” v.23) were going to be struck dead by God.
The conclusion is clear enough: it is a tragedy and a very dangerous tragedy for followers of Jesus to (a) detach themselves from sole devotion to Jesus and (b) allow themselves to continue claiming His name while following false teachers and false ways that lead them into wickedness. Open hypocrisy in the church of Jesus is to be mourned over, not celebrated.
Of course—of course!—Jezebel has her fans even today. Consider Dr. Janet Gaines of the University of New Mexico who sees Jezebel as a feminist hero who was trying to teach Israel religious pluralism and tolerance and who was striking against Israel’s masculine conception of God. Dr. Gaines writes:
…the Torah shows the Israelites to be an ethnocentric, xenophobic people. In biblical narratives, foreigners are sometimes unwelcome, and prejudice against intermarriage is seen since the day Abraham sought a woman from his own people to marry his son Isaac (Genesis 24:4). In contrast to the familiar gods and goddesses that Jezebel is accustomed to petitioning, Israel is home to a state religion featuring a lone, masculine deity. Perhaps Jezebel optimistically believes that she can encourage religious tolerance and give legitimacy to the worship habits of those Baalites who already reside in Israel. Perhaps Jezebel sees herself as an ambassador who could help unite the two lands and bring about cultural pluralism, regional peace and economic prosperity.
There you have it: one more bit of evidence that the most wicked of people (i.e., Jezebel) can find fans in the modern world if they are allowed to recast them in the mold of modern liberal reformers. But let us be clear: Jezebel had blood on her hands in the Old Testament and she has blood on her hands today wherever her accommodationist and compromising spirit misleads the people of God.
It is a fascinating thing how quickly the church forgets the danger of Jezebel and compromises! Even in the New Testament we see repeated warnings about false teachers in the church and denials of core tenets of the faith in the church. It has ever been so throughout history!
In the 10th century, for example, there was a period that was so debauched in which so many popes were living such scandalous lives with their mistresses and children and political maneuvering and wealth that it is known as “The Pornocracy” or the “saeculum obscurum” (“dark ages”).
Consider too the Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenburg in 1517, thereby symbolically setting off what we now call the Protestant Reformation. But within just a few years he was complaining of the worldliness of the churches of the new movement. “In April 1522,” writes Harold Bender, “[Martin Luther] expressed the hope that, ‘We who at the present are well-nigh heathen under a Christian name, may yet organize a Christian assembly.’”
And where do we even begin with our own day? Jezebel is still going into churches and wreaking having. The church of Jesus is still threatened more from within than without. I would like to offer an example.
Many Christians have benefited from the writings of the late Christian ethicist John Howard Yoder. His book, The Politics of Jesus, truly is amazing. I did not agree with everything in it, but it struck me as powerful and a needed work. Some years ago it began to come out that Yoder’s behavior did not match his writings. What he was doing or attempting to do with numerous women in his sphere of influence truly was truly wicked. In an article entitled “An ‘experiment’ in sexuality gone wrong,” The Canadian Mennonite reports:
During the mid-1970s, the renowned Christian ethicist and theologian John Howard Yoder embarked on an experiment in sexuality, devising his own guidelines and selecting his own subjects, whom he called “sisters.”
Following a three-year term as president of Goshen (Ind.) Biblical Seminary, he began to develop “the notion of a distinction between two dimensions of sexuality, the familiar and the genital.” Yoder speculated that persons plagued either by inhibitions about sexual intercourse or by promiscuity would have difficulty attaining what he termed “the freedom of the gospel,” which he linked to Jesus’ encounters with women. In a series of essays that he circulated on the seminary campus and beyond, Yoder speculated about Jesus’ sexuality as a model for his disciples, for the men who followed in his path.
It was with such language and under the banner of theological research that Yoder either wronged or attempted to wrong many, many women around the world who looked up to him. And what adds even more to this astonishing story is that Yoder was known worldwide as an ethicist, a pacifist, and a leading voice for non-violence…all while committing violence. It truly is a tragic and horrifying story. But I want to make the argument that Yoder was being Jezebel in his behavior. For these reasons:
- He was in the church.
- His theology appeared to be sound.
- On the surface he projected Christlikeness.
- He was enslaved to sensuality.
- He was trying to draw other Christians into sensuality.
- He was using the language of the faith to do this.
These attributes appear to be the attributes of the Jezebel of the church of Thyatira. At its core, such attempts to seduce the church into carnality are, of course, satanic, but they come dressed as angels of light. For this reason, discernment is necessary.
It is with great sadness that I will also mention the recently-deceased apologist Ravi Zacharias, whose scandalous behavior towards numerous women has only just recently become widely known. I would simply like to point out that at least one woman has alleged that Ravi Zacharias used the language of the faith to justify his sinful behavior.
One woman told the investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her.” She called it rape.
She said Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report says. Zacharias warned the woman—a fellow believer—if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost when his reputation was damaged.
Church, let us be careful! Let us be diligent! Let us be faithful! Jezebel comes in many guises and Jezebel wreaks havoc in and on the church of the living God.
The church must therefore fight for faithfulness and reject the temptations of Jezebel.
This is, in fact, how the letter to Thyatira ends: a call to faithfulness.
24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
To the faithful core of the church—those “who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan”—Jesus speaks a word of encouragement. They are to “hold fast,” to “conquer,” and to “keep my works until the end.” As a result, they will be richly blessed and established by the Lord. The faithful church, we are told, beginning in verse 26, will be given “authority over the nations” and will be given “the morning star.” Robert Mounce has outlined the many theories that have been proposed for “the morning star” over the years in verse 28.
- an allusion to Lucifer of Isa 14:12,
- Christ himself (cf. 22:16),
- a reference to Dan 12:3 and the immortality of the righteous,
- the dawn of eternal life
- [oddly enough!] a literal reference to the planet Venus,
- the Holy Spirit.
The idea seems to be that of abiding and eternal life and victory. That is, Jesus will be with and for His faithful church and will never abandon us! If we hold fast, then Jesus will bring about in and through the church that which He always intended for the church: the great blessing and honor of being used for the furtherance of His Kingdom and the great privilege of His abiding presence.
Compromising with Jezebel never pays off for the church. It brings only ruin.
Holding fast to Jesus, while difficult at times, brings the blessing of His presence and victory.
Hold fast, church. Do not let go.
 Quoted in Thornbury, Gregory Alan. Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F.H. Henry (p. 151). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
 VanDrunen, David (2010-10-15). Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (p. 134). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Bender, Harold. The Anabaptist Vision (pp. 17-18). CrossReach Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), p.90.