10 Things You Should Know about 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.
“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).
Here are ten things we should all be aware of with regard to the so-called “Jezebel spirit.”
(1) 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”!). 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.
(2) 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.”’”
(3) 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).
(4) 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.
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.
(5) 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.
(6) Was Jezebel a Christian? 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.”
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.
(7) So how did this woman called “Jezebel” come to exert such incredible power over the lives of Christians in Thyatira? What accounts for the authority she possessed to convince the followers of Jesus to abandon their commitment to ethical purity and engage in sexual immorality and other forms of compromise with the surrounding culture?
There’s no indication that she held an ecclesiastical office. She wasn’t an Elder or Pastor or Apostle. But she did claim to possess the gift of prophecy. Jesus said she “calls herself a prophetess” (v. 20). Is Jesus suggesting she only claimed to have this gift but in fact did not? Or did she have a genuine spiritual gift but abused it in ways inconsistent with NT guidelines on how it was to be exercised? If Jezebel was not a Christian, as I have argued, it is most likely that she exercised a supernatural “prophetic-like” ability that was energized by demonic power rather than the Spirit of God. That this was (and is) distinctly possible is evident from Matthew 7:21-23 and Acts 16:16-18 (and perhaps 2 Thess. 2:9-10).
I want to suggest that it was possibly (probably?) through this alleged “prophetic” ability that Jezebel gained power and authority in the church at Thyatira and adversely influenced a number of Christians there. It’s not difficult to see how this could (and does) occur. [By the way, a man can display the characteristics of “Jezebel” no less than a woman. This is one sin that is by no means gender specific.]
(8) So, we’ve finally come to the phrase, “spirit” of Jezebel or “Jezebel spirit,” language that, although not strictly biblical, has been bandied about in charismatic circles for generations, but perhaps is not as familiar to those in mainstream evangelicalism.
The word “spirit” is used here in one of two ways: either (a) of the human spirit, perhaps an attitude, disposition, habit, mentality or set of characteristics displayed by a particular individual, or (b) of those whose supernatural “prophetic” ability is energized by a demonic spirit. In either case, regardless of the animating force, a person with a “Jezebel spirit” is one who displays the insidious, manipulative, and evil tendencies manifest in this woman of Thyatira.
So what kind of person do I have in mind, and what is it that they do? All too often we hear of individuals using their ecclesiastical authority or position as well as their supernatural gifting (whether it be of God or the enemy), to manipulate others into behavior they would not normally embrace. I’m burdened by the number of instances in which even Christians who are prophetically gifted use their endowment to expand their sphere of influence for personal profit or are afforded unwarranted privileges in the local church.
Virtually everyone is aware of some situation in which a Christian has used a spiritual gift, whether teaching, administration, pastoring or another of the charismata to gain illicit control and influence within the wider body of Christ. So it should come as no surprise that someone who legitimately possesses the gift of prophecy might abuse it to enhance their status or broaden their liberties or even seek monetary gain.
The most heinous abuse of a “prophetic” gift is when appeal is made to special “revelatory” insights in order to justify immorality (or, at minimum, to ignore it). Similarly, because of the “wonderful contribution” that a person has made to the kingdom, he/she is virtually untouchable and rarely held accountable to the normal rules of ethical behavior that govern all other Christians. Anyone who “hears” God with such regularity and alleged accuracy, so they contend, is unique, extraordinarily anointed, and therefore so highly favored of God that they needn’t worry about the temptations that average Christians face or the tendencies of the flesh against which we typically wage war on a daily basis.
On occasion, a person with a Jezebel spirit will claim to have “revelation” that trumps Scripture (although they would rarely, if ever, put it in such stark terms; a person with this “spirit” is subtle, if nothing). Because such “words” from God are direct and immediate and can’t be explained by appeal to what one knows by natural means, they are falsely perceived as carrying greater authority than the inspired text itself. Or it is “revelation” that allegedly provides a superior and formerly unknown interpretation of Scripture that makes it possible to circumvent (or at least treat with casual disdain) the Bible’s doctrinal precepts and ethical commands.
(9) A person with a “Jezebel spirit” is one who appeals to his/her “spirituality” to rationalize (or again, at minimum, to overlook) sensuality. Often they don’t even believe it to be sinful or illicit, but are so blinded by pride, the praise of men, and sensational supernatural experiences that what may well be inappropriate for mainstream believers is, in their case, permissible. It’s just one of the perks.
Religious prestige is thus employed to foster sexual liberty. Under the pretense of anointed “ministry” a person exploits his/her platform and power to gain sexual favors or to lead others into similar behavior. This person is generally unaccountable to the leadership of the church, believing that Pastors and Elders are “un-anointed” or insufficiently gifted to appreciate the level of supernatural spirituality at which he/she operates on a daily basis.
Eventually a double standard emerges: one set of strict, biblical guidelines to govern ordinary Christians and the exercise of their gifts within the body, and a lax, minimal, or more flexible list of expectations by which the “Man/Woman of God” is to live. Needless to say, it’s a prescription for moral disaster.
You may wonder why anyone would yield to such obvious unbiblical counsel, no matter how “gifted” the individual might be. It’s not that difficult to understand. Some of you may be unaware of how mesmerizing and enticing the prospect of supernatural activity can be. When one witnesses what one believes is a genuine supernatural or miraculous event, otherwise normal theological defense mechanisms often fail to operate. Discernment is cast aside, lest it be viewed as a critical spirit or the response of a cynic. No one wants to be perceived as stiff-necked and resistant to the voice of God or the manifestation of his power. So, it is hard for some to resist and challenge the “ministry” of a recognized (or “alleged”) prophet in the church.
(10) The “spirit” of “Jezebel” was not unique to the church in Thyatira. It is alive and well in the body of Christ today. One need only read the latest headlines. It is an insidious, yet subtle, spirit. It is destructive, yet enticing. It typically gains momentum among those who are so fearful of quenching the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19) that they fail to rein in the flesh.
The solution is not to repudiate the prophetic altogether, or any other spiritual gift for that matter. Rather, we must become good Bereans, “examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11) to see if these things are of God or not. In sum, we would do well to heed Paul’s counsel: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22).