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9.3. Jezebel of Thyatira

The letter to the church at Thyatira mentions a self-proclaimed “prophetess” named Jezebel. Some have taken her mention as a symbol, one of several of female figures personifying evil (Zec. Zec. 5:7; Mtt. Mat. 13:33; Rev. Rev. 17:1+):1

Conceivably there may have been a woman by that name in the local Church at Thyatira, but this is highly unlikely. The name Jezebel is a Phoenician name, and by this time the Phoenicians had disappeared as a separate ethnic identity and had become part of the Greek-speaking world. Furthermore, Thyatira was not located in Phoenicia, but in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).2

Yet, there are reasons for understanding Jezebel to be a real woman within the Thyatiran church:

Many think Jezebel is a symbolic rather than real name, as the biblical Jezebel (I Kings 1K. 16:31; 1K. 18:13, 1K. 18:19, 1K. 18:21; II Kings 2K. 9:22) was the sort of woman after whom no parent would be likely to name their child. However, as the name means “chaste,” like the English name “Agnes,” this argument is not all that forceful. Furthermore, Scripture does not portray Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, as licentious, for II Kings 2K. 9:22 seems to refer to idolatry rather than immorality. On the other hand, this woman achieved the same results as did her infamous namesake (I Kings 1K. 21:25). Finally, Rev. Rev. 2:23+, “kill with death,” is very emphatic in Greek; so again it seems more appropriate to preserve the literal threat of physical death rather than favor some allegorical or symbolic meaning. Physical death would be a crystal-clear sign of God’s obvious disapproval, and that is exactly what the text says.3

In favor of a personal identification of Jezebel is that she is distinguished from her followers (Rev. Rev. 2:22-23+). The solution may be that a woman by a different name with characteristics matching those of the Phoenician Jezebel resided at Thyatira, but she is given the name Jezebel in the letter to call attention to and condemn her practices as being like those of Jezebel of old. “The approach that has the least objection to it is to take Jezebel as a symbolical name for some prominent woman in the church of Thyatira. She was like the infamous wife of Ahab.”4 Jezebel of Thyatira not only taught error, but exercised teaching authority over men in opposition to role distinctions set forth by Paul (1Ti. 1Ti. 2:12). As Paul explains, such role distinctions are not cultural, but grounded in God’s created order (1Ti. 1Ti. 2:13-14).5 The error of the Thyatiran church was not just that Jezebel was allowed to promote unbiblical concepts, but that she evidently held a position as a teacher over men. This is another point of identification with the strong-willed, domineering Jezebel of the OT. No doubt, both her position of influence and the content of her teaching were repugnant to God.

The . . . Thyatiran Jezebel . . . taught her followers ‘to eat things sacrificed to idols’. The syncretism exemplified in the city is in point here, but the particular problem seems to have been the guild-feasts, as the occasions when the Christian may have been particularly pressed by the need to conform to his environment. . . . Presumably Jezebel argued that a Christian might join a guild and participate in its feasts without thereby compromising his faith. He was initiated into a superior wisdom. he knew the idol was nothing and he could not be defiled by that which did not exist. . . . The local situation favoured the accommodation of incompatible beliefs and practices: the letter insists on individual devotion to a Lord who searches the hearts of men and demands a consistency of life. The love and faith commended in the church might easily be corrupted by compromise with pagan society: the guilds themselves were devoted to good works.6

Here is the similarity between Jezebel, queen of Ahab, and Jezebel of Thyatira: both led the people of God in accommodating pagan influences resulting in syncretistic practices and sexual immorality. See The Great Harlot.

Notes

1 “When a woman is used symbolically in Scripture, she represents a religious entity. This might be either positive or negative. On the positive side, there is Israel as the Wife of Jehovah and the Church as the bride of Messiah. On the negative side, there is the woman with the leaven (Mtt. Mat. 13:33), the Great Harlot of Rev. Rev. 17:1+, and here, the woman Jezebel.”—Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah, rev ed. (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2003), 58.

2 Ibid.

3 Monty S. Mills, Revelations: An Exegetical Study of the Revelation to John (Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries, 1987).

4 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 214.

5 Much like the members of the Trinity are equal in value and standing, but occupy different roles in the plan of God, so too male and female believers are equal in standing and access to God, but are to occupy different roles according to His will.

6 Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 120, 123.