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There has been a lot of ink used on topics such as God’s will, the sovereignty of God, predestination, free will, etc. The episode about Jezebel at the congregation in the city of Thyatira can shed some light on conversations and discussions about these topics. This woman’s true name is not known to us since she is only referred to by her symbolic [i.e., typological] name. She is named Jezebel because her impact and influence on the local congregation is similar at points to the ways the ancient Jezebel influenced God’s people in earlier centuries. Jezebel’s impact on Israel was detrimental because of her promotion of the worship of foreign gods and pagan practices like witchcraft [1 Kgs. 16-21; 2 Kgs. 9].
This Jezebel of Thyatira was promoting a syncretistic form of religion for herself and her followers which included “sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” and teaching “Satan’s so-called deep secrets” (Rev. 2:20, 24). The Jezebel account reminds the modern church that our betrayal of the message of Christ can be both behavioral and doctrinal, as it was at Thyatira. It is hard to conceive of more polemical labels or more severe epithets coming through a Christian prophet like John than terms such as “Jezebel” and “teachings of Satan.”
Could anyone be more deserving of immediate and harsh punishment from God than this Christian Jezebel? Yet, at least as far back in time as the episode of the golden calves at Sinai, God has been known to deal slowly with his people when they deserve his wrath. Significantly, the Lord revealed himself to Moses as a
compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished (Exod. 34:6b-7a).
Accordingly, we are not surprised to learn from John about Jezebel that she was given “time to repent” (Rev. 2:21). There would be no spontaneous and punitive pyrotechnics like the apostles earlier wanted to bring down from heaven upon the Samaritans with Jesus’ consent (Lk. 9:51-55).
It is clear in the Greek text and most translations of Rev. 2:21 that there was divine purpose in Jezebel being given extra time, and the purpose was to give her time to repent. This divine intention certainly resonates with Paul’s words in Romans 2:4b, where he states the fact “that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.” At Thyatira Jezebel did not read from Christ’s script and so she did not use this extra time to repent. There was obviously a clash of the wills. Christ acted with patience toward Jezebel with the intention that Jezebel would repent; but notwithstanding this revelation of divine intention, Jezebel wills otherwise and refuses to repent.
Jezebel’s refusal to follow God’s lead by continuing in her sins is a stark acknowledgement that God’s desire does not override our wills, and that by sinful choices we can thwart God’s intentions for our lives.
Who knows why some believers in Thyatira thought that being loving toward others is enough to please God; perhaps they had only heard of the 2nd Great Commandment and not realized that there is a prior one that requires even more, namely a deeply rooted devotion to God (Matt. 22:34-39). In any case, some of the believers in this congregation addressed by the prophet John clearly assumed that all would be well with them spiritually as long as they possessed love and faith and practiced good deeds. The lopsided theology of the congregation at Thyatira was characterized by their obedience to the 2nd Commandment but their egregious disobedience to the 1st Commandment. As Jesus of Nazareth made plain, loving one’s neighbor is not at the top of God’s list. And Jesus, like every other Jew, clearly knew that one could not keep the 1st Commandment by merely fulfilling the 2nd Commandment. A group of Christians at Thyatira, like some of their North America Christian descendants, seem to have forgotten that the deep and total devotion to God depicted by Moses in Deut. 6:5, the famous Shema, stands as Jesus’ 1st and Greatest Commandment.
In light of all the struggles these 7 congregations of Roman Asia were undergoing in relationship to their surrounding culture, why in the world would Christ complain about and threaten a congregation that had such commendable love and faith and service in its resume? After all, Jesus’ own evaluation of Thyatira was, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first” (Rev. 2:19). Jesus’ later anger at this congregation in Thyatira was the result of a gifted woman’s formidable influence in the congregation. Based upon the fragmentary evidence available from the letter itself (Rev. 2:18-29), this unnamed woman assumed a prophetic ministry and allowed herself and her followers to stray from 1st Commandment devotion and loyalty to God. This influential woman, whom John compares to Jezebel, was guilty of syncretism that compromised 1st Commandment loyalty by leading God’s people into idolatry and spiritual unfaithfulness. In order to fit into the culture more easily she and her followers were willing to participate in the world of idolatry rather than give themselves totally to the one true God.
Although this woman Jezebel and her followers are part of a congregation with an otherwise fantastic resume, this congregation allows her to promote what Christ labels as “Satan’s deep secrets” (Rev. 2:24). This Satanic heresy in the congregation had apparently not even had a negative impact on its “success” since the congregation at Thyatira was continuing in its growth. This group of Christians, according to Jesus, was “now doing more than they had done at first” (Rev. 2:19b). Since the circumstances of this congregation seems to have been known to “all the congregations” of Roman Asia (Rev. 2:23), it would be no surprise to learn that this congregation’s ministry team might have been the envy of all Asia Minor.
While this church’s successes in the areas of love, faith, and service were enough to satisfy itself, it was about to encounter the “fiery-eyed” Messiah (Rev. 2:18) and his message to this church that I am “against you” (Rev. 2:20). Regardless of this church’s future behavior and response to Christ, they would certainly leave this encounter learning afresh from the Messiah the importance of the 1st Great Commandment.
To be sure, many American congregations have also been seduced by American Civil Religion to believe that love, faith, and good deeds are paramount to the life of a Christian, even though in reality by themselves these virtues are not enough for the followers of God and Jesus Christ. This crippling distortion of acceptable congregational life seems to thrive in North American churches. After all, what contemporary minister would not love to lead a congregation that possessed “love, faith, service, and perseverance” (Rev. 2:19a). The troubling question is whether many of these ministers would be willing to subvert the status quo of American Christianity by elevating “you shall have no other gods before Me” (Deut. 5:7) on the list of frequent sermon topics?