Preventing the Purpose of God: Lessons from Jezebel

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.  

13 thoughts on “Preventing the Purpose of God: Lessons from Jezebel

  1. Scholars are divided on the issue of the structure of the early church in Revelation, but she was at least a woman of significant influence and had spheres of influence. Beyond that it is really hard to pin anything down with historical clarity. Maybe a deaconess.Sorry our info is so vague!

  2. I believe there is 1) another way to read the intention for the call to repentance; as well as 2) recognize a lack of reference to the doctrine of the two wills of God in your conclusion. I will post these in two separate comments so as to keep things orderly.In regards to 1): Giving time to repent is something that is extended to all mankind. It is revealed through creation (Rom 1:20) and as you quoted it is a command provided through God's patience (Rom 2:4). It is also a command through tragedy (Luke 13:1-5). In fact, I'm not sure there is anything in all creation that is not meant to point all men to repentance. Yet just because a command is given does not mean the moral/spiritual ability to meet that command is present.Additionally there are purposes of God in his Word that, while teaching and calling men to repentance, also serves the purpose of divine judgment. One can think of Jesus' response as to why He teaches in parables (to those on the outside: "so that they may see but not perceive and may hear but not understand, in order that they may not turn and be forgiven" Mark 4:10-12). In short, it is exactly the will of God that, according to His judgments having already been passed, some will not repent even while He commands them to do just that (see also Isaiah 6). [It is also the case in the Mark example that it is God's will that some receive the secrets of God, while others do not. This is explicitly proclaimed by Jesus twice in the one passage of Matthew 11:25-27 (v. 25-26 being one and v. 27 being the other).]So in the case of Jezebel, Jesus commands her to repent but that in no way signifies her moral ability to do so, nor does it dismiss the judgment that could already have been passed upon here (though I will admit, the latter statement is an argument from silence).to be continued…

  3. In regards to 2): This is a loaded topic, but to be brief I do believe we must consider God's two wills: His Decretive (or, hidden) will and His Prescriptive will. Take, for example, the story of Joseph. According to God's prescriptive will, it was certainly sinful for brothers to act upon jealousy and sell another brother into slavery then lie about it to their father. However, it is revealed to us that this action was also by the decretive will of God. ("And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life…So it was not you who sent me here, but God" Gen 45:5,8; see also 50:20) It was God's intention for Joseph to be sold into slavery by his brothers for a hidden purpose.The best example of this is the crucifixion of Christ. This is the most sinful action anyone could imagine: murdering the innocent Son of God. We can rightly say that this action is certainly against the prescriptive will of God and those who conducted it are guilty of grievous sin. However, the Scriptures also tell us in dozens of places, that the crucifixion was by the will of God, according to His plan from before the foundation of the world (Acts 4:27-28; 2:23 and many others). It was God's intention for Jesus to be murdered at the hands of Pilate and Herod. The only will of God we can "thwart" (for lack of a better word) is His prescriptive will; and we do that all the time (and repent of it!). Indeed, "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you" Acts 7:51. But there is no example of anybody ever "thwarting" God's decretive will. In fact, we read just the opposite (Deut 28:28, Psa 115:3, Dan 4:35, Rom 9:17-20, etc.), and what we see in just the two examples above is that even the disobedience towards His prescriptive will is in accordance to His decretive (hidden) will.So in the case of Jezebel, Jesus commands her to repent, yet her refusal to do so is in line with her sinful will and so she is certainly disobeying God's prescriptive will and will be held to account. However, nothing in the text points to her thwarting His decretive will. She is guilty, and God's hidden will is fulfilled, for it is never thwarted. And finally, nothing in Rev 2:21 points to God's inability to overcome her disobedient will and regenerate it by His power to make her will obedient so that her will is in line with God's prescriptive will through her own willing will.I just think that perhaps you are reading too much into the text to make the conclusions you did.Apologies for the length. Love the blog! Grace be with you -Jr

  4. I am just pretty sure that the congregation in Thyatira had not had a course in systematic [reformed] theology with all these subtle theological distinctions. The Greek is clear in 2:21 that Jesus gave some time to Jezebel in order that she could repent and turn away from the sins she and her followers were committing. Christ's goal and purpose of giving time was to encourage her to change. She chose not to and will suffer the consequences of her bad choices. 2:23b says that all the other congregations watching God punish Jezebel will come to the conclusion that she was punished and judged based upon her deeds because she chose from her mind and heart [which God searches] to not repent. She could have, but did not.

  5. I agree to the fullest that Jezebel acted according to her will. Her choice of will was to “freely” reject God. I also agree that Jesus gave her time to repent, but her will would not have it. Thus, she will, as you accurately stated, suffer the consequences for her disobedience. The other congregations would absolutely see that her punishment was due to her own obstinacy. Agree wholeheartedly.Where we differ is that I think one has to assume Jezebel’s moral ability to freely choose to repent simply on the basis of Jesus' patience and command. I’m just curious as to where that theological assumption comes from. It isn't in the text, so it must come from somewhere. And we know that being given a command does not automatically equal the ability to complete that command. Again, that would be another theological assumption read into the text. For example, did God actually think that sinful man could obey His Law perfectly when He gave it? Considering the prediction of Moses in Deut 31:24-29, I don't think so. But even so, God still commanded them to obey it, and they were justly guilty for disobeying it. In the same way, just because Jesus commands repentance does not mean one has the moral ability to repent; and saying that in no way diminishes her guilt. She still acts according to her will in her refusing to repent.

  6. According to 2:20 Christ is concerned that his servants at Thyatira will be mistaught and deceived by this “Jezebel” to practice fornication and eat foods offered to idols, either of which will lead to the damnation of these servants of Christ. 2:22b indicates that those servants already deceived must also, just like Jezebel, repent of their sins. I never assumed that the congregation at Thyatira (including “the rest of you” in 2:24 and Jezebel and the servants of Christ) had “the moral ability to repent,” but rather that those addressed in the letter had the Holy Spirit of God which enables repentance if their “minds and hearts” are willing to “hold fast to what you have” 2:25a.

  7. I have two questions. 1. From my reading of 1 Corinthians 8, there is nothing inherently wrong with eating food sacrificed to idols since the so-called gods are no gods at all. Yet in Acts 15.29, eating food sacrificed to idols is part of the prohibitions the council places on the Gentile Christians and here in Rev 2.20 the eating of food sacrificed to idols is clearly portrayed as wrong (perhaps because those eating the food are still "weak"?). Care to comment?2. Since there certainly are times and conditions when eating food sacrificed to idols is wrong, how might this apply in an industrialized western society such as ares where our idols usually do not take the form of wooden statues, animals, and shrines (I once heard Randy Harris say that we Americans are way too sophisticated to worship a golden calf…and he's right)? So a good question seems to be what sort of idols do we have in a Western postmodern/post-Christian culture? I'm just wondering if its possible that the vast amount of money Americans spend in restaurants every week would ever broach this issue here.Thanks for your work on this blog.K. Rex Butts

  8. Rex: # 01. You are correct that eating food offered to idols is essentially adiaphora. In Revelation the act of eating food associated with paganism is wrong because of the dualistic relationship between believers and the culture. Believers were under such duress from the culture that they had to break ties with it. It is a "survival ethic," much like that imposed by God during the time of Ezra [Ezra chapter 10] when it was necessary to divide families for the sake of Israel's survival.#02 I do not believe these areas would be "golden calves," but the major shapers of culture such as news outlets, the entertainment industry, and the fashion industry are all very much involved in creating an ethos hostile to the sanctification and the duration of believers. Most American believers would deny Paul's analysis of the culture that "the days are evil" [Eph. 5:16].Thanks for visiting the blog!

  9. Regarding Jr's point, does not the whole message of GOD and HIS actions towards us call us to repentance and also assume we are "morally able" to repent? The question is not our moral ability, but our moral willingness to turn ourselves over to HIM. David prayed, "Grant me a willing spirit to sustain me." Don't we have that willing spirit in us, if we have the SPIRIT of GOD living in us? HIS SPIRIT in us teaches us to say "no" to ungodliness. As was pointed out, the church at Thyatira has failed to observe the 1st commandment. They have put themselves, and/or "Jezebel", above GOD. Those who perceive the message do so because they have not placed themselves above GOD. Romans 8: GOD causes all things to work together for good to those who love GOD. Joseph loved GOD, therefore GOD worked HIS causes and purposes in Joseph's life, in spite of the sins of Joseph's brothers. In Mark 4, my understanding is that if they could see spiritually, then they would be able to return and be forgiven, which is obviously the desire of GOD in HIS SON JESUS. In Matthew 11, "the wise and intelligent" are those that are wise and intelligent in their own eyes. "These things" have been revealed to infants because infants see their need for a Provider. Jezebel was "morally able" to repent, she just chose not to because of her own self-importance. Can anybody relate to that struggle?The WORD became flesh because of sinful man. The SON provides us with the ultimate chance to repent. Is there ever an acceptable/permissible time to disobey GOD? HIS prescriptive or decretive will? Really? That seems so against HIS holiness, all of who HE is, and HIS will for us. It seems to me HE is working through all of history to restore a broken people who willfully sin against HIM because our sinful nature at every turn wants to rebel against HIS will for us to be holy as HE is holy.Rev. 2:26 "He who overcomes (overcomes what? the flesh, our sinful desires to be greater than GOD), and he who keeps MY deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations;…" and that's a whole other cool point, perhaps in a later post.I'm trying to understand this "moral ability" thing which just doesn't set right with my spirit. We're able, all right, we're just stubborn and dumb like sheep, to put it mildly. We need a SHEPHERD and HE has been provided. For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see and a moral willingness to repent, we have justification through HIS blood.

  10. Please explain further the differences from Acts,I Corinthians, and Revelation regarding eating meat sacrificed to idols. This has been on a back burner in my mind for some time. Weren't the Gentile Christians in Acts also struggling with the "dualistic relationship between believers and the culture?" I don't understand the difference.

  11. Hilarie,Thank you for your question. By the way, Merry Christmas! In answering your question, let me begin by saying that my answer does not represent the views or explanations of all scholars. There are interpreters who always prefer to find “contradictions” in Scripture, and their view would be that Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation simply contradict each other. They, then, usually prefer the advice given in 1 Corinthians and say that the interpretations in Acts and Revelation are simply wrong.My own views are that these differences can easily be explained by the different historical settings and circumstances. Let me give you an example other than food offered to idols. It is clear in Galatians that keeping “holy days” is condemned by Paul (Gal. 4:10-11; “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.”), while in Romans Paul clearly allowed the keeping of holy days (Rom. 14:5-6; “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.”)The correct explanation of the difference between Galatians and Romans is that the issues associated with the “holy days” is different. To give a longer answer in capsule form, in Gal. people were demanding that other Christians keep “holy days,” while in Romans it was a matter of choice whether one kept the “holy days.” In Gal. Paul is defending the right of Gentiles to refrain from “holy days,” while in Romans he is telling Gentiles not to look down upon Jewish believers who want to keep “holy days.” For some situations different practices have different meanings in different cultures. For example, what is considered impure or immodest dress for woman from a Christian perspective differs significantly in the American Bible Belt, among Arab Christians in the Middle East, and among tribal Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. The same is true in regard to the circumcision of males. In Galatians and Acts Paul regarded the circumcision of males as a betrayal of the gospel, yet most American males in the Churches of Christ have been circumcised. Now, specifically to your question. What eating food offered to idols means for believers differs in various settings. Interestingly, we already see this diversity as work in 1 Corinthians. That is, even within this one document we see Paul giving directives that differ based upon the setting and who is doing the eating. Thus, 1 Cor. 8 gives different teachings than 1 Cor. 10. In Acts the issue in Acts 15 is an ad hoc decision by the Jerusalem Church and Paul and Barnabas about what Gentile believers need to do so that they can be in fellowship with Jewish congregations. Clearly this Jerusalem decree is intended to solve local and temporary issues, otherwise Paul would have taken the decree with him into the “second missionary journey” [and he did not do so]. In Rev. there is a situation where the pagan culture is oppressing the church, and it is necessary for the church to draw some lines in the sand, so to speak, and to command all Christians to stay on their side of the line. One of the practices that shows a Christian is too friendly with the oppressor culture is eating food offered to its gods. In Roman Corinthian at the time of Paul, pagan culture was not oppressing the church; in fact, that early on the church was often seen by the Roman government and culture as a part of Judaism. In Roman Corinth there was a minimum rapprochement from the culture toward the church and so it was not necessary to demand the same kind of hostility toward the culture that was demanded in Revelation.Well, Hilarie, I hope this has helped somewhat. It is a complex issue, and sometimes those kind of issues are harder to explain in an email; I hope this email has helped some.

  12. Your response has definitely helped. Thank you. Your extended answer also cleared up the matter of holy days. If I understand correctly, the perhaps bigger problem was that the observance of holy days was being lorded over others. In an ongoing study with a Jehovah's Witness, which greatly influences my focus in Biblical study, what I see is a great deal of lording issues over people.Regarding immodest dress, Americans have over- assimilated to the culture. Men can't even attend church services without viewing mild pornography. Wonder if "Jezebel" dressed similarly to today's American women? We are failing at drawing a line in the sand with our dress and with sexual immorality.The directives from Acts 15 have, like I said, been on a back burner in my mind. Sexual immorality, then is the only one of the issues that is binding to all for all times? I'm making a leap here that abstaining from what is strangled and from blood were also temporary issues, but I don't know that that is the case. Thank you for the time and effort you put in the blog. I really enjoy it. As for Christmas, it's a "holy day" (ha!) we don't observe. Just kidding. Merry Christmas back to you and your family!

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