How tragic, after reading of the splendid qualities in Thyatira, to discover that moral compromise was present in the church. “I have this against you,” said Jesus, “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” (Revelation 2:20).
John Stott put it bluntly: “In that fair field a poisonous weed was being allowed to luxuriate. In that healthy body a malignant cancer had begun to form. An enemy was being harboured in the midst of the fellowship” (71).
The similarity between Thyatira and Pergamum and their joint dissimilarity with Ephesus here comes to the fore. The Ephesians could not bear the presence of falsehood and took no uncertain steps in ridding the cancerous error from their assembly. But as noted earlier, it was done at the expense of love. Not so with Thyatira. While abounding in love they had lost their sensitivity to error and had compromised the glorious truths of both doctrinal and moral uprightness.
The exact nature of the heresy in Thyatira was wrapped up in the person and practices of this woman called “Jezebel.” Several suggestions have been made as to her identity.
Those who find in the seven letters a prophetic outline of the history of the church seek to identify the church of Thyatira with the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. John Walvoord, former President of Dallas Theological Seminary had this to say:
“During this period (i.e., the Middle Ages) also there began that exaltation of Mary the mother of our Lord which has tended to exalt her to the plane of a female deity through whom intercession to God should be made, and apart from whose favor there can be no salvation. The prominence of a woman prophetess in the church at Thyatira anticipates the prominence of this unscriptural exaltation of Mary” (75).
Others have suggested that Jezebel is none other than Lydia herself, who, if it were true, had badly fallen from the initial spiritual heights that we read about in Acts 16. Of course, there is nothing at all in the biblical text to suggest this identification.
A few Greek manuscripts include the possessive pronoun “your”, on the basis of which it is argued that Jezebel was the wife of the senior pastor in Thyatira! But even if the pronoun is original, it probably refers to the corporate church in Thyatira since the preceding four uses of the singular “your” in vv. 19-20 clearly do so.
Jezebel may be a veiled reference to the pagan prophetess Sibyl Sambathe, for whom a shrine had been built just outside the walls of the city. This is doubtful, however, and for two reasons: first, she is spoken of in rather definite terms, implying that a distinct historical personality is in mind and not merely a shrine to a pagan goddess; and second, the text suggests that the individual was actually a member of the church (externally, at any rate) of Thyatira and under the jurisdiction and authority of its leaders.
The most likely interpretation is that, in view of the opportunity granted to her for repentance, Jezebel was a female member of the church 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 Matthew 7:21-23; Acts 16:16-18; 2 Thessalonians 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! David Aune suggests that she might have been the leader or hostess of a house-church in the city (1:203). 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. To be continued . . .