The Jezebel Spirit

How is it that a woman called “Jezebel” came to exert such incredible power over the lives of Christians in Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29)? What accounts for the authority she possessed to convince the followers of Jesus to abandon their commitment to ethical purity and engage in sexual immorality and other forms of compromise with the surrounding culture?

There’s no indication that she held an ecclesiastical office. She wasn’t an Elder or Pastor or Apostle. But she did claim to possess the gift of prophecy. Jesus said she “calls herself a prophetess” (v. 20).

Some may be tempted to dismiss Jezebel’s claim based on their belief that women are not allowed to exercise this spiritual gift. A quick look at several texts from the NT will demonstrate that women did indeed prophesy under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t mean Jezebel did, but her gender was itself no barrier to the proper exercise of this gift.

In Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost he explicitly said that characteristic of the present church age is the Spirit’s impartation to both men and women of the prophetic gift. Look closely at his citation of Joel’s promise: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18; emphasis mine).

In Acts 21:9 Luke refers to the four daughters of Philip as having the gift of prophecy. And in 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul gave instructions regarding how women were to pray and prophesy in the church meeting.

Is Jesus suggesting she only claimed to have this gift but in fact did not? Or did she have a genuine spiritual gift but abused it in ways inconsistent with NT guidelines on how it was to be exercised? If Jezebel was not a Christian (and in my opinion, she was not) it is most likely that she exercised a supernatural “prophetic-like” ability that was energized by demonic power rather than the Spirit of God. That this was (and is) distinctly possible is evident from Matthew 7:21-23 and Acts 16:16-18 (and perhaps 2 Thess. 2:9-10).

It’s not out of the question that the presence of such false prophets and the havoc they wreaked in the early church was the principal reason why some in Thessalonica had grown weary of this phenomenon and had begun to “despise” all prophetic utterances (1 Thess. 5:20), even those that clearly were prompted by the Spirit. Paul’s exhortation is that they not allow the damage perpetrated by the spurious to undermine the benefits that accrue from the genuine.

I want to suggest that it was possibly (probably?) through this alleged “prophetic” ability that Jezebel gained power and authority in the church at Thyatira and adversely influenced a number of Christians there. It’s not difficult to see how this could (and does) occur. [By the way, a man can display the characteristics of “Jezebel” no less than a woman. This is one sin that is by no means gender specific.]

A brief word is in order about my use of the phrase, “spirit” of Jezebel or “Jezebel spirit,” language that, although not strictly biblical, has been bandied about in charismatic circles for generations, but perhaps is not as familiar to those in mainstream evangelicalism. I’ve read numerous articles, books, and listened to an equal number of sermons on the so-called “Jezebel spirit”. To be honest, I haven’t found them very helpful. In most cases they are speculative meanderings that show little concern for the biblical text.

Let me be brief and simply say that the word “spirit” is used here in one of two ways: either (a) of the human spirit, perhaps an attitude, disposition, habit, or set of characteristics displayed by a particular individual, or (b) of those whose supernatural “prophetic” ability is energized by a demonic spirit. In either case, regardless of the animating force, a person with a “Jezebel spirit” is one who displays the insidious, manipulative, and evil tendencies manifest in this woman of Thyatira.

So what kind of person do I have in mind, and what is it that they do? All too often we hear of individuals using their authority or position in the local church as well as their supernatural gifting (whether it be of God or the enemy), to manipulate others into behavior they would not normally embrace. I’m burdened by the number of instances in which even Christians who are prophetically gifted use their endowment to expand their sphere of influence for personal profit or are afforded unwarranted privileges in the local church.

Virtually everyone is aware of some situation in which a Christian has used a spiritual gift, whether teaching, administration, pastoring or another of the charismata to gain illicit control and influence within the wider body of Christ. So it should come as no surprise that someone who legitimately possesses the gift of prophecy might abuse it to enhance their status or broaden their liberties or even seek monetary gain.

The most heinous abuse of a “prophetic” gift is when appeal is made to special “revelatory” insights in order to justify immorality (or, at minimum, to ignore it). Similarly, because of the “wonderful contribution” that a person has made to the kingdom, he/she is virtually untouchable and rarely held accountable to the normal rules of ethical behavior that govern all other Christians. Anyone who “hears” God with such regularity and alleged accuracy, so they contend, is unique, extraordinarily anointed, and therefore so highly favored of God that they needn’t worry about the temptations that average Christians face or the tendencies of the flesh against which we typically wage war on a daily basis.

On occasion, a person with a Jezebel spirit will claim to have “revelation” that trumps Scripture (although they would rarely, if ever, put it in such stark terms; a person with this “spirit” is subtle, if nothing). Because such “words” from God are direct and immediate, and can’t be explained by appeal to what one knows by natural means, they are falsely perceived as carrying greater authority than the inspired text itself. Or it is “revelation” that allegedly provides a superior and formerly unknown interpretation of Scripture that makes it possible to circumvent (or at least treat with casual disdain) the Bible’s doctrinal precepts and ethical commands.

A person with a “Jezebel spirit” is one who appeals to his/her “spirituality” or spiritual gifting to rationalize (or again, at minimum, to overlook) sensuality. Often they don’t even believe it to be sinful or illicit, but are so blinded by pride, the praise of men, and sensational supernatural experiences that what may well be inappropriate for mainstream believers is, in their case, permissible. It’s just one of the perks.

Religious prestige is thus employed to foster sexual liberty. Under the pretense of anointed “ministry” a person exploits his/her platform and power to gain sexual favors or to lead others into similar behavior. This person is generally unaccountable to the leadership of the church, believing that the Pastor and Elders are “un-anointed” or insufficiently gifted to appreciate the level of supernatural spirituality at which he/she operates on a daily basis.

Eventually a double standard emerges: one set of strict, biblical guidelines to govern ordinary Christians and the exercise of their gifts within the body, and a lax, minimal, or more flexible list of expectations by which the “Man/Woman of God” is to live. Needless to say, it’s a prescription for moral disaster.

Make no mistake, the Jezebel who lived in Thyatira undoubtedly appealed to her prophetic gift (and “anointing”) to excuse her sexual immorality. She was using her power to manipulate others into sensuality and idolatry.

You may wonder why anyone would yield to such obvious unbiblical counsel, no matter how “gifted” the individual might be. It’s not that difficult to understand. Some of you may be unaware of how mesmerizing and enticing the prospect of supernatural activity can be. When one witnesses what one believes is a genuine supernatural or miraculous event, otherwise normal theological defense mechanisms often fail to operate. Discernment is cast aside, lest it be viewed as a critical spirit or the response of a cynic. No one wants to be perceived as stiff-necked and resistant to the voice of God or the manifestation of his power. So, it is hard for some to resist and challenge the “ministry” of a recognized (or “alleged”) prophet in the church.

The “spirit” of “Jezebel” was not unique to the church in Thyatira. It is alive and well in the body of Christ today. One need only read the latest headlines. It is an insidious, yet subtle, spirit. It is destructive, yet enticing. It typically gains momentum among those who are so fearful of quenching the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19) that they fail to rein in the flesh.

The solution is not to repudiate the prophetic altogether, or any other spiritual gift for that matter. Rather, we must become good Bereans, “examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11) to see if these things are of God or not. In sum, we would do well to heed Paul’s counsel: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22).

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About Sam Storms

Sam Storms is the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sam is on the Board of Directors of both Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary, and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition. Sam is President of the Evangelical Theological Society. Visit http://www.samstorms.com