Jezebel of Thyatira: A Female False Prophet

Image is of a Jezebel butterfly (Pixabay)

I wrote this article in response to a question about using the example of Jezebel, a false prophetess in the church of Thyatira, as a basis for disqualifying women from teaching in the church. In the article I provide a brief explanation of biblical prophecy and mention Bible women who were prophets. I also look at what it says about Jezebel in Revelation 2:20ff, and what her example brings to the discussions of women in ministry.

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. 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. 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.  Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’  Revelation 2:20-25

The letter to the church at Thyatira is the longest of the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. A considerable portion of this letter is devoted to a warning about a woman symbolically referred to as “Jezebel”. Queen Jezebel, in the Old Testament, promoted the idolatrous and immoral worship of Baal.[1] Jezebel of Thyatira, in the New Testament, also promoted idolatry and immorality, but she regarded herself as a Christian prophetess.[2]

Female Prophets and Prophecy in the Old Testament

True prophets are people who are inspired by the Holy Spirit and speak for God, or speak about God. Their speech may or may not include foretelling.

Several female prophets are mentioned in Bible. Miriam and Deborah were recognised and respected as both prophets and leaders (Exo 15:20 cf Mic 6:4; Judg 4:4). Huldah the prophetess helped to bring about a spiritual revival in Judah (2 Kings 22:13-14; 2 Chron 34:21-22). Anna the prophetess ministered in the Temple and spoke to everyone –  presumably men and women – who were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36-38). Noadiah (Neh 6:14) and Isaiah’s wife (Isa 8:3) are also called prophetesses. There was a recognised place for prophetic women leaders in Israel.

Moreover, the inspired songs, prayers, praises and teachings of Miriam (Exo 15:20-21), Deborah (Judges 5:1ff), Hannah (1 Sam 2:1ff), Abigail (1 Sam 25:28-31), King Lemuel’s Mother (Prov 31:1-9), Mary (Luke 1:46ff) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:41ff) are considered prophetic and are included in Scripture. They have been recorded in the Bible and thus have the authority of Scripture. (Many Christians consider Scripture as having the highest level of prophecy and authority.)

Female Prophets and Prophecy in the Church

With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the ministry of prophecy became more widespread among God’s people than in Old Testament times.

“I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy … Even on my male servants/ministers and on my female servants/ministers, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”  Acts 2:17-18

In the early church, prophets provided guidance (Acts 13:3-4; 16:6), instruction (1 Cor 14:31), strengthening, encouragement and comfort (1 Cor 14:3).  It was not unusual for women to prophesy and be prophets (cf. 1 Cor 11:5).[4]  Philip’s four daughters, who were well known and respected in the early church, were female prophets (Acts 21:9).[3]

Paul considered prophecy to be the most desirable of the spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14:1); and he listed prophets before teachers in his lists of ministry gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11. Because of Paul’s high regard for prophecy it is doubtful that he considered this ministry as having less influence, importance, or authority than the ministry of teaching. Moreover, prophecy often included teaching.

False Prophets and Teachers in the Church

There were genuine, inspired prophets and sound, gifted teachers in the early church, but there were also impostors. The New Testament contains many warnings about false prophets and false teachers. Many of these warnings came from Jesus himself. Some of the false prophets and teachers in the early church were men, and some were women.

Jezebel was a false prophet and a false teacher who, it seems, had been teaching the “deep things of Satan” (Rev 2:24). Because she was a wicked prophet and teacher, Jezebel cannot legitimately be used as a precedent to ban godly women from being prophets or teachers.

It is important to note that there is nothing in the passage about Jezebel that suggests that, because she was a woman, she should not have been teaching. This passage does not say that Jezebel was given time to repent of the fact that she was teaching. Rather, it says that she was graciously given time to repent of her immorality. It was the content of her teaching and her immoral, idolatrous practices that she needed to repent of.[4]  It may be difficult for us to imagine, but sexual licence was not an uncommon problem in the early church.

It is likely that Paul’s prohibition of a woman teaching a man in the Ephesian church was also aimed at silencing a wicked, false teacher.[5] Some say that this prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 – the only verse in the entire Bible that says that a woman is not allowed to teach a man – was a universal and timeless prohibition against every woman from teaching any man. But this assumption overlooks the fact that Priscilla, a woman, along with her husband Aquila, taught Apollos, a man, in Ephesus. Moreover, Priscilla and Aquila were beloved friends and respected ministry colleagues of Timothy, and especially of Paul; and they hosted and led a church that met in their home in Ephesus (cf. 2 Tim. 4:19).

Women Church Leaders: Then and Now

In Revelation 2:23 the Son of God says that he will kill Jezebel’s children with pestilence. The word “children” is commonly used by John in each of his three New Testament letters to describe Christian believers, disciples, and church members.[6] It seems that Jezebel was not only a self-proclaimed prophetess and false teacher, she was also a church leader who led her own “children” (i.e. disciples and church members) astray.

Nowhere in Revelation 2:20ff does it indicate that Jezebel’s gender was an issue. Jezebel is never criticised for being a woman in ministry. This passage, and others, indicate that churches in NT times did not have a problem with women being prophets, teachers, or leaders.  Jezebel was just one of several women in the NT who were leaders.

While Jezebel is an example of a bad leader, many other women are mentioned by name in the context of good ministry and house church leadership. These other women serve as precedents for women in contemporary church leadership.

It would be wonderful if the contemporary church could reclaim the custom of the NT churches and trust godly and gifted women, as well as men, as prophets, teachers, and leaders.


Endnotes

[1] Jezebel was the wicked wife of King Ahab. (See 1 Kings 16:31; ch 18; ch 21; 2 Kings ch 9.)  Jezebel, like Balaam, was a foreigner who enticed the Israelites into idolatry and immorality (Num. 31:16; cf. Rev. 2:14). Promiscuous sex often accompanied idolatrous religious rituals.

[2] “The power and influence of this Jezebel, a self-styled prophetess  at Thyatira, must be viewed in light of three facts: (1) women prophesied  freely in early Christianity (see, for example, Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1  Cor 11:5); (2) women often played major roles as priestesses in contemporary  Roman and Eastern cults in Asia Minor; (3) the Christian Montanist  movement in the same region a century later assigned conspicuous leadership  roles to two prophetesses—Priscilla and Maximilla (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical  History 5.14-19).” From the IVP Commentary on Revelation 2:18-29.  (Source)

[3] Eusebius described Philip’s daughters as “mighty luminaries” and ranked them “among the first stage in the apostolic succession.” Eusebius, History of the Church 3.37.1
Eusebius also quoted Papias, an early church writer alive at the time of Philip’s daughters. Papias said that people travelled great distances to visit these prophetesses and listen to their accounts of the early church. (F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1951) [More on Philip’s daughters here.]

[4] In my research for this article I came across several comments like this one: “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.”  (Source)
It is so unjust that 1 Timothy 2:12 is used to cloud every other verse about women and ministry.  Nowhere does the passage about Jezebel indicate that her teaching men was wrong.  It was the content of her teaching that was wrong. [One of my shorter articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 here.]

[5] This woman in Ephesus may also have been leading people into immorality and idolatry.  (Compare 1 Tim 2:12 with Rev. 2:20KJV). More on this here.

[6] John used the word “children” (tekna and teknia) numerous times in his three letters (e.g., 1 John 2:1, 28; 3:1-2, 7, 10, 18; 4:4; 5:2, 21; 2 John 1, 4, 13; 3 John 4.) These verses are not referring to natural children, but to “spiritual” children or disciples. [More on this in my article on The Chosen Lady in 2 John here.] John is traditionally thought to have been the author of Revelation as well as the three letters that bear his name.

Further Reading

The IVP Commentary on Revelation 2:18-29 here.


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