Revelation #9 THE COMPROMISING CHURCH

Idolatry

The church at Pergamum resisted persecution, but they began to fall to seduction. With overwhelming cultural pressure around them, they began to compromise. They sought satisfaction in physical things, and it cost them greatly in spiritual things. Jesus told them to repent. He said that he was willing to go to war with them over their compromise with the culture. But he promised to the repentant ones that could find a satisfaction unlike any they could find on earth. They promised to the ones who were willing to not fit in on earth that they would be welcome in Heaven.

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Revelation #9. Revelation 2:12-17

The church at Pergamum was one of the three churches in Asia that we know for sure had experienced overt persecution by the time John was writing. Virtually all the churches existed in a culture that was hostile to Christianity, and I’m certain that being a Christian in Asia during those times involved considerably more sacrifice than being a Christian in America in these times.  Even so, Revelation only clearly identifies three of the seven churches as experiencing overt persecution, and one of these was Pergamum. There was, however, a difference between Pergamum and the other two persecuted churches. In Smyrna, the tribulation was on-going, and the worst of it was yet to come. In Philadelphia, they were also in the middle of it, though Jesus promised to cut it short for them. In Pergamum, the overt portion of the persecution was over. Once again, it is important to understand that all the churches experienced a culture that was against them, even when there was not direct harassment, but those three churches were singled out for direct maltreatment.

Like Smyrna, Pergamum was a center of Emperor worship. Not only that, but they had a hill something like the acropolis in Athens, covered with shrines and temples to various deities. At the very top of this “temple hill” was the altar built for the Greek god Zeus, who was in the mythology of that culture, chief of all gods. It might have been this shrine to Zeus that Jesus was referring to as “Satan’s throne.” Alternatively, “Satan’s throne” could have been an allusion to the pervasive worship of the healing-god Asklepios, who was represented by a snake. A third possibility is that he was making reference to Pergamum’s dedication to emperor-worship, and a fourth is simply that the city was a center for all sorts of pagan worship. In any case, the picture we have of Pergamum is one of virulent paganism; or, in other words, a culture that put a lot of pressure on Christianity.

So, in this pagan environment, the church at Pergamum made it through a difficult time of persecution, during which at least one of their number was killed for his faith (v.13). It is for this that Jesus commends them. However, it turns out that once the persecution was over, the church did not remain unaffected by the culture around them. Jesus says to them:

“But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality.” (v. 14)

To understand this, we need a bit of Old Testament background. Please read Numbers 22:1-25:9 to get the complete picture. Balaam was some sort of Seer, someone who followed the Lord, and from the Lord had a gift of visions, and of blessings and curses. He lived in Mesopotamia. Balak was the King of Moab, which was near Palestine, and he was afraid of the Israelites, who at that time were still wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. Balak saw that the Israelites had defeated everyone they encountered in battle, and so he called for Balaam to come and curse them, in order to defeat them without a military confrontation. Balaam came, in spite of strong warnings from the Lord to stay at home. He was apparently swayed by the huge amount of money that Balak offered him. He tried to curse Israel, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was blessing for them. Balak, naturally, was not happy with Balaam, and the latter went on his way. That is all the text tells us overtly. But shortly after he left, the Moabite women came to where the Israelites were camped and invited them to Moabite religious festivals, which involved having sex with the women. The Israelites were thus committing a double sin – they broke God’s standards for pure and healthy sexuality (sexual intimacy is to be within marriage only) and they did so in the context of worshipping other gods. It was not a happy day, and God in his anger sent a plague upon the people. Later, in Numbers 31:16, it is revealed that Balaam was the one who suggested that the Moabite women seduce the Israelites. Apparently, although he could not curse the Israelites, he really wanted that money, so he conceived of this plan to derail the Israelites in order that he personally could get his pay.

Apparently something of this sort was going on in Pergamum. The church there could not be destroyed by overt persecution. So Satan’s new plan was seduction. If they couldn’t be forced to deny Jesus, maybe they could be compromised and seduced into it. Thus, with the pressure of the pagan culture around them, some members of the church had begun to take part in the feasts and festivals of false gods. It is important here to understand that the issue is not simply that the Christians are eating meat sacrificed to idols – the apostle Paul clearly says that is OK in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. However Paul placed two conditions on the eating of such meat. First, a Christian should not do it if it causes another Christian to “stumble” – that is, if it causes other Christians to think that idol worship is OK (1 Cor 8:9-13). Second, Paul emphatically rebukes those who deliberately partake in the feast as part of the of the whole worship experience of a false god (1 Cor 10:20). I would guess that the people in question in Pergamum are doing both things – causing other Christians to stumble, and actually participating in idol worship.

Not only were they engaged in such worship, but they also committed acts of sexual immorality. The Greek word for “sexual immorality” means any kind of sexual activity that takes place outside the union of one man and one woman in marriage. Therefore, it covers a host of possibilities. In every place it is mentioned in the New Testament, sexual immorality is condemned as a sin, and it is not right for Christians to engage in it. I realize that this sounds terribly old-fashioned and unenlightened, but it is what the Bible teaches, without a doubt. There are dozens of other verses like these two:

18Run from sexual immorality! “Every sin a person can commit is outside the body.” On the contrary, the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body. 19Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:18-20, HCSB)

3For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. 4When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. 5Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, God’s wrath comes on the disobedient, 7and you once walked in these things when you were living in them (Col 3:3-7, HCSB)

Now, the thing to remember is that this teaching sounded strange and prudish to the culture that surrounded Christians in the first century. Sexual immorality was just as common and accepted by ancient Greco-Roman culture as it is today.

Apparently, to make matters even worse, the people who had caved in to cultural temptations in this way were teaching others that it was OK to do these things. They not only sinned, but they tried to pass it off as if it weren’t sin, thus sucking more innocent people into the darkness.

Jesus has seen this before, way back in the days of Moses, and is thoroughly angered. His words are blunt: “Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth (v.16)”

The sword here seems to clearly represent the Word of God. The book of Hebrews calls the Word of God a double edged sword (Hebrews 4:12), and here a double edged sword is coming out of the mouth of Jesus, who was called by John (in his gospel) “the word. (John 1:1-14)” What this all amounts to is that Pergamum has the opposite problem to Ephesus. You will remember that the church in Ephesus was doctrinally pure, but struggled with relationship to Jesus. The Ephesian church hated the Nicolaitans and their practices. Here in Pergamum, the problem is false doctrine leading to sinful practice. In fact their error is similar to that of the Nicolaitans. Doctrine does matter, and it is important. So important that Jesus will go to war with his church over it. Sin is sin, and if we fail to call it that, we can expect to hear the judgment of God.

On the other hand, even before he warns of judgment, Jesus calls his people to repent. He holds out not only the possibility of judgment, but also promises for those who hold on to the true faith. He promises first the hidden manna. There are many possibilities here, but it seems most sensible to understand that Jesus is promising a source of heavenly nourishment that is not available to those who don’t know him. These people have tried to satisfy themselves with meat from idol worship, and with sex. But Jesus is offering nourishment for the soul, a food that meets needs in a way that no idol feast and no illicit tryst could possibly meet. At least part of this “soul food” is the Bible, the Word of God. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel describe experiences of “ingesting” the word of God and finding it sweet to the taste. Peter was told to “feed my sheep” by Jesus – to feed them on Jesus’ own Word. But more than just the Bible, it is the promise of a soul fully satisfied by the presence of God himself. When we stop orienting our lives around ourselves and our own desires, and instead center our lives on God (who is, after all, the center of all things) we find a satisfaction that far exceeds any temporary pleasure derived from food or sex. I won’t deny that it takes some self-denial and effort to develop a taste for it, but when we do, we find this is the richest satisfaction in the universe, and the only satisfaction that will truly last.

The second promise offered is the “white stone” with a new name written on it. There are several possibilities for what this is about. In the First Century AD, inns and places for strangers to stay were not as common as they later became. Sometimes, when people from different places became friends, they would each take a stone, and write their names upon it, and then exchange the stones – almost like a business card (remember “card stock” was not invented until many hundreds of years later). So, if I gave you a stone, you would have my name written on it. Whenever you traveled to someplace where I was known, that stone would show people there that you were my friend. If you showed the stone with my name, my friends would offer you a place to stay, and all sorts of help and hospitality.

I like this picture, because when we surrender to Jesus, we become, in a sense, entitled to His name, in the same way as a holder of one of these “business card stones.” The name of Jesus means we will be welcome in heaven, and given a place there. The name of Jesus gives us protection from the devil, and the right to pray to God the Father. Some of the Christians at Pergamum wanted to fit in with the culture. Jesus promises them that if they are willing to not fit in on earth, they would find an eternal place of belonging in His Kindgom.

Another use for white stones was as a kind of “ticket” to admission to feasts. I kind of like this possibility too, because, Jesus is offering these Christians something better than the idolatrous and licentious feasts available to them in Pergamum. Here is a heavenly feast, where a person is known by his “hidden name” – his true character. Jesus knows them as no other can know them, and the feast he offers is for eternity – not simply an unsatisfying, passing pleasure.

A third possibility for the white stone comes from the ancient world of athletics. Professional gladiators trained extensively. In the early stages of training, the gladiator was simply called “apprentice.” Once he had completed a long period of training, the gladiator was given an opportunity to compete. If he was victorious, he received a white stone as a symbol of his achievement, and an elevation of status from “apprentice” to being called by his own name, and given a rank with more privileges. This matches the statement of Jesus that he will give a white stone to “the Victor.” The Christian life often involves self-discipline and training, like an athlete. It involves spiritual battle also. Those that persevere will be rewarded.

Personally, I think Jesus meant for the Christians at Pergamum to think of all three uses of the white stone; they are all meaningful and relevant.

So, what is meaningful and relevant about this text for you today? Are you tempted in certain ways to compromise with our idolatrous and immoral culture? As with the 1st Century Greco-Roman culture, today our culture is highly sexualized, and anything goes between consenting adults. Are you tempted to find satisfaction there? I mean, it seems like everyone else is doing it. Or maybe you aren’t tempted yourself, but you are willing to accept people who call themselves Christians and embrace all sorts of different sexual immorality? Don’t fall for the lie that “it’s about love.” Love is about commitment, and sex in our culture is definitely not about commitment. Love also sometimes means self-denial – again, this is missing from our culture. This is a very big deal for Jesus, as he makes clear here.. Droves and droves of Christians have fallen for the trick of Balaam, just in the last two decades. There can be no mistake, Jesus says: “repent!”

Perhaps your temptation runs more towards idol worship. Not too many people in the Western world worship physical statues anymore. But many, many people center their lives around things that are not God: money, status, pleasure, sports, entertainment and drugs & alcohol are some of the most common. We are also tempted to make idols our relationships; perhaps a romantic relationship, or even a child. Any time we build our identity on something other than God we are worshipping an idol. If anything holds “first place” in your life that isn’t God, it is an idol. Again, Jesus calls us to repent.

I look at the world, and even the huge number of Churches and Christians that are compromising with the world, and I think, “Either I’m crazy, or they are.” I may be crazy, but if so, I’m crazy in exactly the same way that the Bible is crazy; exactly the same way Jesus Himself is crazy. Maybe that’s what you need to hear today: hold on to what you know to be true. Remain steadfast.

It is hard when we don’t fit in with the culture around us. But Jesus promises us (with the white stone) that if we are willing to have no place in our ungodly culture, will always have a place in His kingdom.

The promise Jesus gives for repentance and perseverance are wonderful and soul satisfying. We can be more satisfied than the world dreams of. We are known personally by the Lord of universe, and given access to all of his resources for eternity. There is a better future than the world could ever offer.

Listen to what the Spirit has to say today!

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