Rev. 1:12-20 & 2:12-17
Just as with the previous letter to the Church at Smyrna, the circuit this book was sent on moved another 40-50 miles north to the city of Pergamum.
To the Angel and the Church in this large and influential city, Jesus writes personally and speaks both to good things He commends them for, and some very serious errors. Errors that are remarkably timely for the Church in America today – though as we’ll see – not restricted to either their age nor ours.
I. APPEAL TO THE REVELATION
Once again Jesus’ words begin with a reference back to the vision of Himself that was recorded in 1:12–16 “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”
This time the highlighted aspect of that vision for those in Pergamum to use as a backdrop to all He has to say to them is: 2:12“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.”
I do not know what it was like in your household growing up, but in ours, whenever Dad started addressing me by using all three names: Reid Alan Ferguson – I already knew I was in trouble. At that moment it was like being identified with infamous criminals whom for some reason, news reports always seem to use the 3-name formula: Jared Lee Loughner; Lee Harvey Oswald; James Earl Ray; John Wilkes Booth; Mark David Chapman – Reid Alan Ferguson!
Well there was no missing the inference here at the beginning of this letter – Jesus is communicating something right out of the box that is meant to make them sit up and take notice. To take what He is about to say with the highest degree of seriousness.
The tone has been set.
But what exactly is it Jesus’ is so concerned over that He would begin His letter this way?
II. DECLARATION OF INSIGHT
13 “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
As with Ephesus, Jesus has both good things to commend and concerns to express.
13 ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.
Jesus begins by telling them He is well aware they are in a very difficult place.
There are conjectures as to what exactly He means by saying that Pergamum is where Satan’s throne is – but there can be no doubt He is at least acknowledging that where they are is a place with such evil influence from Satan, that it can be called “his throne.” A place where he influences the people and the culture to a remarkable degree. Satan’s influence seems to have virtually universal sway in Pergamum.
What does that look like? A number of things.
It was the very center of Emperor worship in Asia. The very first city to have a temple to the Emperor and formalize Emperor worship.
It was the chief location for the worship of Asclepius – the Greek god of medicine and healing. His temple and it’s supposed healing methods drew people from all over the world to cure their ailments.
It hosted a fabulous temple to the chief of the gods – Zeus, who’s altar it is said resembled a massive throne.
It’s crowning temple was to the goddess Athena – the goddess of wisdom, craft and war.
And it hosted a temple to Dionysus, the patron god of arts and theater – of parties and drinking.
Politics – Medicine and well being – supreme authority over all the gods – wisdom and the arts.
Satan’s influence dominated every aspect of Pergamum’s culture.
We don’t need Jesus as King – we have Caesar!
We don’t need Jesus as a healer in the resurrection – we have Asclepius now.
We don’t need Jesus as the wisdom of God, we have Athena.
We don’t need Jesus as God, we have Zeus – the chief of the gods.
We especially don’t need a Jesus who won’t entertain us – when we actually have a god of entertainment – Dionysus. Wikipedia states: he was “the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy.
Christianity had a tough row to hoe in Pergamum.
Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
In the face of all this opposition and these Satanic counterparts trying to supplant the proper place of Christ Jesus – they had retained a testimony to the Gospel and to Christ’s name, even when one of their own – Antipas – was put to death for it.
They had not denied Jesus’ name as Lord and Savior – even though that title “savior” was attributed by the Culture around them both to Caesar and to Asclepius.
And the Gospel was still being preached. They had not denied Jesus “faith.”
So Jesus rightly affirms and commends them.
But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
In the face of their witness and the fact the Gospel was still being preached – 2 things were so disordered among them, that Jesus represents Himself to them with the most troubling warning.
And these two things appear to be interrelated. The NAC states it this way: “Two items are specified as problematic: The church allows people to function who have the teaching of Balaam, and they also allow the teachings of the Nicolaitans.
1st, He says But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.
Now some knowledge of the Old Testament is necessary here to unpack what Jesus is talking about. And the account comes to us out of the Book of Numbers – 22-24 and 31.
When Israel was living out their 40 year wilderness wanderings, one of the places they came to was opposite Jericho in the plains of the Jordan – a place called Moab.
The king of the Moabites was a man named Balak and he feared the Israelites would devastate them if they had the chance.
Balak and his leadership approached another group – the Midianites – to come up with a plan to stop the perceived threat.
Their plan was to hire a pagan prophet – a mystic named Balaam to come and put a curse on the Israelites.
The story is fascinating and needs to be treated in full by itself. But in short – when God prevents this pagan mystic from cursing Israel and instead pronounces blessings on them – he sees that all the money promised him for cursing the Jews is about to evaporate. So he goes to plan B.
Later, in Numbers 31 God tells Moses to destroy the Midianites for plotting against the Jews, but the Jewish soldiers decided not to kill the women, but to save them for themselves.
When they are rebuked for this we find out what Balaam’s Plan B was: Numbers 31:16 “Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. “
Balaam had told Balak and the Midianites that God wouldn’t let him curse them – but what they COULD do, was get their women to get chummy with the Israelite men, and in seducing them, eventually getting them to participate in idol worship – The idea being then God Himself would judge them.
It was a simple, brilliant and insidious plan. Get the people to forsake God’s commands in favor of their own pleasure, and God will strike them down Himself.
And this Jesus says – is exactly what was happening in Pergamum.
Sexual immorality had become the wedge. Enticing those who profess faith in Jesus, to cave to the loose morality of the surrounding culture, and in effect, getting some to actually participate in going to idolatrous sacrifices to please their sexual partners – or at the very least, to serve the god of personal pleasure over the Christ who redeemed them.
Can anyone spell “T-O-D-A-Y”?
Some in the church in Pergamum were being seduced to adopt the Culture’s attitude toward morality and sexual purity – and in the process, were inviting the judgment of God to come upon them.
And one cannot help but stand in amazement at how that very tactic is still being employed, and employed with great success in our own day. How many a professing Christian young man or woman has forsaken Christ’s commands on sexuality – only to eventually to be so compromised as to fail to be identifiable Christians at all – Christians in name only?
But Jesus takes the sins of His own People Seriously. I might add, as seriously now, as then.
One of the key signals that one has shifted from Biblical Christianity to a rudimentary form of idolatry is that someone says to themselves: “As long as I do the “Christian” stuff that is essential, how much and in what way I live my life, even outright sin – is irrelevant.”
I can live with my girlfriend or boyfriend, indulge in pre- or extra-marital sex, enter into or condone a same-sex relationship, cheat on my taxes, rob from my employer, slap my wife and kids around, disrespect Governmental authority, enter into shady business deals, curse my parents under my breath, grumble and complain against God’s providences, affirm the moral climate of the day – as long as I go to Church sometimes, read my Bible occasionally and babble out a rote prayer before I eat – or just think of myself as a Christian in some sense.
That Beloved is to serve God as though He is an idol. It is “Christian idolatry” – but Idolatry just the same. And it invites God’s judgment.
Jesus makes us see here in no uncertain terms – that those who imagine they can wear the name of Christian and live that way – are sorely mistaken. He will come against them with the sword of His mouth. And we do not need to know precisely what that means to be justly terrified by it.
Sexual morality is not a product of cultural acceptance or practice but of Biblical command. And to ignore that, is to invite God’s judgment upon oneself. No matter how good or natural or desirable that behavior seems to be, or how it is accepted by the Culture.
2nd, Jesus mentions the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
The way this is phrased shows there is a connection between the 2 – even though as I mentioned 2 weeks ago, we do not have precise knowledge of what the Nicolaitans taught.
By virtue of the connection here though I think we are safe in making this observation: What often enters the Church as secret practice and compromise, if allowed to persist, will eventually find some who will try to justify it and even try to make it Biblical. They will systematize the error.
It appears the Nicolaitans were the theologians justifying the immorality that was being indulged in.
So Paul warns in Ephesians 4:14 that Pastors an Teachers are given to the Church by Christ “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
This idea of “craftiness in deceitful schemes” could well be translated “the systematizing of error.” Not just wrong behavior – but creating a system to make the behavior acceptable.
Just this week I saw the following as a post on FaceBook – with an article headline from Church Leaders magazine: “Should people engaged in premarital sex be allowed to lead ministries in a church?”
How is this even a question? Where is the Church today that such an article should be written – except that such behaviors have crept in, and even now there are those who will seek to justify blatantly immoral practices by twisting and reinterpreting the Bible to their liking.
As we saw in 2 Peter 2:1–3 “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”
III. THE CALL And so it is here Jesus makes Himself perfectly clear – “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”
IV. THE REMINDER
“17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
How grateful I am for how Jesus finishes this short note. For it is just here that we are able to settle on the most sweet and gracious takeaway from a difficult and challenging, for some – convicting – letter.
Note simply these:
- The words “Let him” – tells us Jesus deals with each individual.
The error in Ephesus was pervasive, and the threat was to remove the Church completely. Here while the problem is present, it is not pervasive.
In the main, the repentance referred to here would be to take up their duty to see that Biblical teaching and practice is safeguarded in the Church. And this falls on each one in the congregation. On the leadership for sure – but everyone needs to be on the lookout here.
Then , it would be to repent of the specific sins mentioned.
To know that those who do not repent WILL be dealt with, but those who have not fallen into those kinds of errors, will be spared even if and when Jesus must judge.
- No matter how deeply one may have fallen into these wretched and soul damning errors, Christ stands ready to forgive and receive all who repent. It is NOT TOO LATE!
- Jesus in no wise diminishes the rewards of those who overcome these things. Hidden manna most probably speaks of the partaking of the full satisfaction of Christ that the world cannot know – for all who seek their satisfaction in Him and not in the sins of the flesh.
- And lastly – when any repent of their sin and flee to Christ for forgiveness, no matter how far down those wicked roads they have gone – He does not receive us back at arm’s length – but in closeness and deep intimacy.
The picture of a white stone with a name written on it no else knows – if nothing else signifies an intimacy and purity that Christ delights to give.
Sarah is my daughter. My only daughter. My only child.
I love her in a way I simply cannot love anyone else. And she alone is truly MY KIDDO.
That said, there are lots of Kiddos in the world. Even though she is mine alone.
BUT! There is no one else in all the world who is “Bug.”
Bug. It grew out of a game that Sarah and I played when she was little – the details of which belong to her and me.
But that is a name between the two of us that no one else enters into but the two of us. She is my Bug. My only Bug.
So it is Jesus promises to all who overcome in rejecting the world’s morality, no matter how defended by teachers who twist the Word of God – who remain, or repent and serve Him in these matters as He has put them forth – there will be an eternal intimacy between you which no one else will be able to enter into. And it is sweet, and precious, and to be desired above all the World can offer.
You will miss nothing here – that will not be infinitely better when we are at last before Him in His glory.
Church, as a Church, we are all responsible to see those errors that justify people in their sins is not taught among us.
And if there are any here today, caught in these very sins – Jesus calls to you today to repent. To turn to Him. And to be recipients of those soul-satisfying and intimate rewards that come with being His and His alone.