UPDATE: This is an old article. An updated and expanded commentary on this passage can be found in Paul’s book Letters from Jesus.
My question then was: How do we reconcile Jesus’ harsh words with his heart of grace?
And there are no harsher words than these:
Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. (Rev 2:20-23a)
Who is this woman Jezebel? What is she doing that has got Jesus so fired up? And is Jesus really threatening to kill her kids?
You need to have answers to these questions because if you don’t you may fall for the lie that says “God chastises his children with suffering and death.”
Who is Jezebel?
I have answered this question in another post, but the short version is she was Trouble. She was a wolf in sheep’s clothing leading the church in Thyatira into “fornication”. That may not mean what you think it means. Some commentators, including Adam Clarke (who thought Jezebel was the pastor’s wife), believe Jesus was speaking metaphorically and that she was promoting idolatry. By encouraging the eating of food sacrificed to idols, she was subsidizing the idolatry business and the worship of demons (see 1 Cor 10:14-23). She was pointing people to Satan (Rev 2:24).
Certainly, the name that Jesus gives to this lady is significant. Those familiar with Jewish history knew all about the wicked queen Jezebel whose name was synonymous with idolatry (2 Kings 9-10). Jezebel was a foreigner who married an Israelite king and corrupted him along with much of the nation. She encouraged the worship of Baal (think child sacrifices, murder, and bondage), massacred the Lord’s prophets, and intimidated Elijah. When her husband King Ahab died, Jezebel effectively ruled the country for ten years. It was bad, bad time for Israel.
Why is Jesus so hard on her?
Initially, Jesus is gracious to this woman in Thyatira. Under the Law of Moses, adulterers, fornicators and idol-worshippers were supposed to be put to death straight away (Deu 17:5). Yet Jesus says “I have given her time to repent.” That’s mercy. Unfortunately, she didn’t repent so now she will reap the consequences of her Satan-worship.
Why does Jesus speak so harshly to her? Because she’s a child-abuser. Just as the original Jezebel brought great suffering to Israel through her idolatry, this Thyatiran Jezebel was hurting the children of God. She was turning people away from Jesus and the grace that saves us.
Light and darkness cannot coexist. Nor can grace and ungrace. Jesus gets mad at grace-killers and we should be glad that he does! In Matthew 23 he unleashes his fury on those who bind people with heavy loads and dead works, and here in Revelation 2 he’s mad at a death-dealing idolater. Jesus is angry because he cares for us. He is the Good Shepherd who shoots the wolves but deals gently with his straying sheep (Heb 5:2).
What does it mean to be cast on a bed of suffering?
Those who reject grace, as this woman did (she was not willing to repent), suffer consequences. They reap what they sow instead of reaping what Christ has sown. God wants to bless us, but if you reject his blessings you’ll curse yourself.
“I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.”
When Jezebel’s in charge, everybody suffers. What happens to her happens to those who follow her. Again, this was one of the standout lessons of Israel’s history.
Under the original Jezebel, Israel was a place of murder and fear. Innocent people suffered for as long as she was in the palace (see 1 Kings 21), and those aligned with her – men like her husband Ahab, her son Ahaziah, and her daughter Athaliah – suffered especially. Ahab lost his life in battle; Ahaziah’s short reign was infamous for failure and soldiers getting fried by heavenly fire; and Athaliah was a ruthless queen who killed her grandsons and was then killed by her own guards. Jesus gives life but Jezebel gives death.
Who is going to be struck dead?
Some twist Jesus’ words into a perverse lesson on discipline, as though God could teach us things by killing us! But Jesus says her children are going to be struck down, meaning the offspring of Jezebel and not the children of God. Again, history illuminates the story. Queen Jezebel’s sons and daughter were both slain. Her husband Ahab had seventy sons and they were killed too. Jesus is saying, “The future belongs to me, not Jezebel.”
The battle between Queen Jezebel and King Jesus is no contest. She may impress folk with her knowledge of the demonic, but those who oppose the King of kings are always going to lose. This is good news for those who love life and the liberty that Jesus brings!
I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. (Rev 2:23)
“Repaid according to your deeds” is a theme that comes up a lot with Jesus:
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. (Matt 16:27)
What is the deed that is repaid or rewarded? Jesus tells us three verses earlier when he says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:23). The one deed that counts with God is following Jesus to the cross. It’s being baptized into his death so that we might live by his Spirit.
Jezebel represents the very opposite of this way of life. The name Jesus gives her means “there is no prince” or “unhusbanded.” She’s the one who says “I have no King and no husband.” Jezebel thus represents the idol of independent and faithless living. It’s the mindset that agrees with Satan, “I will be like God.”
Jesus is telling us that this faithless way of life is doomed. It has no future.
Jezebel has no children for she is the cursed and barren tree. Don’t listen to her. Don’t fall for her lie that says “I am sufficient and in need of nothing.” Listen to Jesus for better by far is the life he offers. It is the life we need and were made for.