19 ‘I know your deeds: your love, faith, service, and steadfast endurance. In fact, your more recent deeds are greater than your earlier ones. 20 But I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and by her teaching deceives my servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (Rev 2:19-20)
The followers of the Jewish Christ in the congregation in the city of Thyatira were situated in a very interesting place. This particular congregation was told by Christ Himself that he knew their works. God’s knowledge of the people of Thyatira could have been a dreadful beginning of a merciless charge; instead, this knowledge justified Jesus’ praise. The list of their works is fairly long and explicit. Jesus took notice of love, faith, service, and endurance in their congregational life in very difficult circumstances. He also praised them for increasing the level of their commitment to righteousness. Nevertheless, verse 20 somewhat unexpectedly tempers this celebration by words of stern warning.
The image of Jezebel is evoked and it is not easy to untangle the chain of logic. For Israelites, “Jezebel” was a code word for the events associated with her and her husband Ahab. After the split of the Israelite Kingdom into South (Judah) and North (Israel) we are told “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” (1 Kings 16:30) He had the distinction of being the most wicked king who ever reigned over Israel. For political expediency and because of his deep distrust of the Lord God of Israel, he married a daughter of a Sidonian king – her name was Jezebel, which in Hebrew ironically means something like “he will trash.” (1 Kings 16:31) Ahab’s excessive ambition for power was coupled with his extreme weakness in the face of the manipulative strategies of his pagan wife. Though Jezebel appears in variety of stories, one of the greatest achievements of her wickedness was her introduction of the worship cults of Baal and Ashtoreth to Northern Israel through her dedication to the program of religious education and temple construction under the watch of Ahab her powerful and, at the same time, reluctant husband. During Ahab’s reign, all the faithful prophets in Israel went into hiding. Elijah was the only prophet who had the courage to oppose Ahab and Jezebel publically, in spite of the threat to his life. The Lord took care of Elijah and God’s people, but he judged both Ahab and Jezebel with violent and dishonorable deaths. (1 Kings 22:34; 2 Kings 9:33)
It is not possible to know what or who exactly was referred to by this warning in this passage in Revelation. What was the identity of “Jezebel” who practiced wickedness without opposition or deterrence from the congregational participants in Thyatira? However, what she is accused of doing (deceiving people into sexual immorality and forbidden food consumption by her teaching) matches perfectly with all the previous negative addresses to the other congregations in the letter of Revelation that we have already witnessed. Incidentally (this will become important later) sexual immorality and worship of idols were, according to the ruling of the Jerusalem Council, among the major things forbidden to non-Israelites in Christ. (Acts 15:28-29)
21 I have given her time to repent, but she is not willing to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Look! I am throwing her onto a bed of violent illness, and those who commit adultery with her into terrible suffering, unless they repent of her deeds.
It is doubtful that we have here a case of a woman who was simply sexually promiscuous. It is likely that the idea of sexual promiscuity is symbolic of idol worship. We see this clearly in Hosea 1 when immediately after the calling of Hosea, the God of Israel directs him to take a symbolic prophetic action: 2 When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the LORD.” (Hos 1:2) From this, we see that the harlotry of Hosea’s wife symbolized Israelite idol worship practices at the time of Hosea’s ministry. Just like Jezebel, in this passage in the book of Revelation, Israel’s enticer to sin is given time to repent. (vs. 21) Just like Jezebel, the woman in view (vs.22) will meet a violent death.
23 Furthermore, I will strike her followers with a deadly disease (lit: I will kill with death), and then all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts. I will repay each one of you what your deeds deserve.
Jesus also threatens not only to judge the Jezebel figure, but also to judge all those who followed her. As in all the other cases prior to this, it is likely that the honoring of the Greco-Roman gods is in view here alongside the worshiping of Israel’s God in Christ. All those who promoted this kind of worship – Israel’s-God-in-Christ-plus-other-key-Roman-deities approach – would be judged swiftly and publicly. Everyone would receive what they deserved; both those who did well and those who did evil.
24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, all who do not hold to this teaching (who have not learned the so-called “deep secrets of Satan”), to you I say: I do not put any additional burden on you. 25 However, hold on to what you have until I come.
It is likely that the “deep secrets of Satan” taught by the Jezebel figure in Thyatira and the things that were discussed under the category of “Nicolaitans” in Pergamum and Ephesus (Rev.2:6, 15) are essentially the same. These are most probably literary ways to refer to the professing followers of the Jewish Christ that were not fully committed to the Lord God of Israel in the context of the Roman Empire’s god-congested universe.