The precarious church - Pergamum - Revelation 2:12-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Did you realise that every time you prayer ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, you are praying the Book of Revelation? It is true. When you think about it, what we have unfolding in the pages of this fascinating book is what the Lord’s Prayer looks like in practice as it is fulfilled amongst God’s people in God’s world. And so we pray, ‘Your Kingdom Come, you will be done on earth as in heaven’. Well, this book takes us behind the scenes into the heavens where God’s will is perfectly accomplished and then plummets us to the earth where we see the gradual expansion and fulfilment of God’s kingdom on earth, until eventually the heavenly city descends to the earth so the two become one- ‘on earth as in heaven’, do you see? And then we have the clause, ‘Do not lead us into temptation or the time of testing- but deliver us from the evil one’. Reading Revelation you cannot miss the fact that God’s people are engaged in a cosmic battle with ‘the evil one’ – Satan, the great dragon. And what we are going to see this morning is what this conflict looks like in one particular corner of the battlefield in a city called Pergamum.
As we have been seeing, these letters, while being specifically addressed to particular churches, are also addressed to all the churches, including ours. This is what the Spirit is saying to the churches and they are the words of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus, which John was told to write down and which we are told to hear. So what John says, is what Jesus says, is what the Spirit says, there is no difference between them. Now the particular way this church is facing the testing of the evil one and so needing deliverance may differ from the way we are being tested, but the underlying principles remain the same.
Just as the Lord’s Prayer has a future dimension which bears upon the present- Thy Kingdom Come (the future) , thy will be done on earth (present), so does this letter. There are present pressures which can only be resisted by holding on to future promises.
Let’s take a look at the present pressures.
There is in fact two which are operating under the influence of Satan designed to throw the church off track and so stymie the progress of God’s kingdom.
The first is persecution from without, v 12, ‘These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.’ As we saw from that video clip, Pergamum is a very impressive city. It was the first imperial city of Rome established in the vicinity of Asia Minor. It was here that the first temple in the province was built to the worship of Caesar Augustus. It was here you had the Asclepius cult with its snakes and alleged healing properties, as well as the magnificent temple to Zeus. Either one of these could be the ‘throne of Satan’ mentioned in verse 13, or all of them combined. And so the pressure to at least acknowledge the presence and validity of these alternative forms of worship must have been immense. To adopt a policy of ‘live and let live’, instead of proclaiming that it is Jesus and Jesus alone who is king and he alone is to be worshipped, would not win many friends and supporters, especially since not only politics was bound up with religion but also commerce. Christians were bound to appear subversive, undermining the status quo, being the awkward squad, ruining the local economy and the local influence of power. But in this regard these Christians had got it right and were willing to pay the ultimate price, at least one of them was, Antipas who is described as ‘my faithful witness’, the same term used to describe the risen and ascended Jesus in chapter 1 verse 5. The word for ‘witness’ (martus) is the word from which we get our term ‘martyr’. Prior to this reference, the term simply meant what it said, ‘witness’, someone who is called to support the truth of something like we speak of a ‘witness in court’. But as time progressed and more and more Christians started to die for their faith, the word took on a different meaning- and here is the first instance of that, someone who bears witness to the truth of the faith by dying for it- they become martyrs in the more modern sense of the word. And such a stance has always made an impact on people, dying for the faith can be a powerful way of declaring the faith.
Let me tell you something: in 178 AD a Gallic slave girl, Blandina, who was a recent convert to Christ was brought before the local authorities for her faith and said, ‘I am a Christian woman, and nothing wicked happens among us.’ She was then forced to watch the murder of her Christian friends, then was heated on a gridiron and, thrown to the wild dogs and finally impaled on a stake. Totally true to her Christian character she died praying for her persecutors. And you know what? Her death nerved a 15 year old boy, Ponticus, to follow her example. As one of the early church leaders, Tertullian put it, ‘The oftener we are mowed down by you the more we grow in number. The blood of Christians is seed.’ And so it is today. In one the most evil regimes in the world with its own form of Emperor worship, in North Korea, there are between 200-400,000 Christians, of whom around 70,000 are in labour camps- but the church keeps growing.
In our situation, outright persecution of that kind may not be our lot (yet), but the pressure to succumb to the view that Christianity is not to be seen as exclusive, that we all worship the same God but using different names, is a strong one. Ironically it comes under the guise of tolerance. And there is another word which has changed its meaning over the years. When I was a student here in the 1970’s we were tolerant in that we believed that any viewpoint could be held and argued, but that they couldn’t all be right, nonetheless we were to tolerate each other while at the same time trying to persuade each other of the validity of our position and the falsehood of other positions. That is not what is understood by the new tolerance. The new tolerance says that all viewpoints are valid and that it is intolerant and arrogant to claim that one is more right than any other. And any point of view which believes that must not be tolerated. So the new tolerance is the most intolerant position of all, hence the passing of laws which effectively seek to suppress not only freedom of speech but freedom of thought. And Christians are called to take a stand against the new tolerance in favour of the old tolerance. The church in Pergamum was doing that and received the commendation of Jesus himself- they have ‘remained true to his name’. So, a great church then? Well, not quite- v14, ‘Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.’
Here is the second pressure, compromise from within. You see, Satan is not that fussy which tactic he uses, so long as it works. If the church walls do not crumble because of persecution, its foundations can be undermined by compromise and clearly that is what is happening here.
Isn’t it an unthinkable thing to have the Lord Jesus Christ say to a church, ‘I have something against you.’?’ It must be serious for him to say that- and it is. And it is all to do with the toleration of false teaching. Do you see the irony? One the one hand, the church would not tolerate the worship of the pagan religions around them, but they tolerate the teaching of what is in effect pagan religion amongst them.
We are not told explicitly what this false teaching is, except that it is the teaching of Balaam, which leads to sexual immorality, and it may also be the teaching of this other group mentioned, the Nicolaitans, because verse 15 could be translated, ‘So you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans’.
So what is this teaching of Balaam? Well, John is taking us back to an incident which happened early on in the history of Israel which is recorded in the Book of Numbers, chapters 22-24. What happened was this: under the leadership of Moses, the people had escaped from Egypt and were heading towards the Promised Land through the plains of Moab. And when the King of Moab, Balak, saw these thousands upon thousands of people heading towards his land, (and there was no border control operating!), he entices a prophet called Balaam, who is a prophet of Baal-Peor to get God to call a curse down on them, and he pays him handsomely to do it. But the thing is, Balaam finds he can’t. Every time he opens his mouth to pronounce a curse, God causes him to give a blessing instead. But Balak still persists for Balaam to do something. That is when Balaam hits upon a brilliant idea- from the Kings point of view. He suggests that the King sends over some young women and young men to intermarry with the Israelites and to get them to engage in idolatry with some sexual immorality thrown in, and because their God- Yahweh- is a jealous God, you won’t need to call down a curse, he tells the King, because God will punish them all by himself thank you very much! Which is exactly what happened, with a result that in a single day, 24,000 Israelites perished. Nobody did anything, except a man called Phinehas and as a result we are told that God’s anger was averted.
So the people reading this letter, being aware of the Old Testament story of Balaam, would have cottoned on straight away as to what the problem was which had to be addressed and which was being ignored by the church. Interestingly enough, what Christ has against this church is not in the first instance false teaching and the immorality it occasions (although that would be included) but the tolerance of these things. In other words, the fault of this church was its lack of discipline, it wasn’t doing anything, it had adopted a ‘live and let live’ approach within the fellowship, and that is what was like a stench in the nostrils of the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus. They had the people ‘there’ in their midst and they were not to have them in their midst. It is not acceptable in the name of ‘tolerance’ or even ‘Christian love’ to have teachers who promote, in the name of Christ, immoral behaviour. While sexual immorality is to be expected in the world it is meant to be unthinkable in the church.
Friends, if ever the Spirit was saying anything to the churches in the West today, including Anglican churches, it must be the message to the church in Pergamum. That which should be its shame- tolerance of false beliefs and immoral behaviour- is being touted- by the Church of England as its glory- it is a ‘broad church’ we are told But that was not what the term ‘broad church’ was originally meant to convey. Within the bounds of its articles of faith with the supremacy of Scripture, there is a breadth to Anglicanism which is noble; it does tolerate different views of God’s sovereignty and human freedom, church government and the like. But it was never meant to embrace that which is beyond the bounds of Christianity- the denial of Christ’s resurrection, or same sex-genital relationships. The church is meant to be different from the world because it has a different King who, when he was on earth, did not bow the knee to other gods, who did lead a holy life, who refused Pharisaism on the one hand and promiscuity on the other, who took God at his word and paid the ultimate price for it.
And yet within our denomination, the practices of the Nicolaitans and Balaam are being affirmed. Some of you will have heard of the Pilling Report which is the findings of a working party, with one dissenting voice, to the House of Bishops on the issue of homosexuality. The 16th recommendation of the report states: ‘We believe there can be circumstances where a priest, with the agreement of the relevant PCC, should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same sex relationship within a public service but should be under no obligation to do so.’ Friends, it has been considered by the vast majority of the church throughout its 2,000 year history that such relationships are morally wrong. Indeed, even as recent as 1998, the Lambeth conference of international bishops thought so, by stating that ‘homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture.’ The majority of the compilers of the Pilling report see things differently. Listen to the language they use to justify a change in views, ‘In the face of conflicting scholarship, as well as conflicting beliefs, we believe that the Church should be cautious about attempting to pronounce definitively on the implications of Scripture for homosexual people… We learn from previous generations of the faithful have understood the Holy Spirit to be saying to the churches, and wait for the Spirit’s guidance in our own generation, and commit ourselves to find ways for the Church to continue to listen to his voice.’ That is Balaam speak. Do you see how language is taken from the Book of Revelation, about what ‘the Spirit is saying to the churches’ and then totally reinterpreting it so it says the exact opposite? The writers seem to suggest that the Spirit says one thing to one generation (this is not OK) and another thing to our generation (it is OK) and what we have to do is make sure we are listening properly. But how does one hear what the Spirit is saying? We have already been told in this book, it is the words of the risen and ascended Jesus which have been written down in this book which is what the Spirit was saying back then, which what he is saying today and what he will still be saying tomorrow. This means that it is possible to humbly, but clearly ‘pronounce definitively on the implications of Scripture’. No matter how much the Scripture goes against the grain of our society (as it did for the Pergamum’s society) we go with it because it is God’s kind revelation to us of what is the best for us. And so it is doubly unfortunate that the House of Bishops who have met to discuss this report have come to the conclusion that more time is needed for further discussion on the subject and that what we need is a ‘good disagreement’ in the church, that is we won’t agree on the subject, so let’s be good about it in the meantime. But with all due respect to the Bishops, I cannot imagine for a second the Risen Jesus suggesting that the church in Pergamum should have a ‘good disagreement’ with the Nicolaitans. No, the line was drawn and there was to be a ‘good none- toleration’ for everyone’s sake.
But don’t forget that the complaint Jesus has against this church is not primarily that it has folk within its doors who taught and practiced immorality, but that it did nothing about them. Similarly, we will be judged as a church if teaching is being engaged in, which promotes immorality and we simply adopt a live and let live approach with those who do it. While some churches make a virtue out of being hyper-critical and harsh in their pronouncements, others make it a virtue in not saying anything which might offend. But by doing that they do offend-they offend the Lord Jesus and that should be unthinkable. And so within our own denomination and the wider Anglican Communion, we as a church or church leadership cannot remain silent when such things are going on. I personally don’t like conflict; I would rather do without, but in a spiritual war situation -which is what we are in- that is not a luxury that is afforded to me. So, we must speak out graciously but clearly, we can’t have fellowship with those who are promoting such things, we must pray for them, seek to convince them, but, when there is no repentance, then there must be some form of discipline them- that is what the text says.
And so we come to the future promises which actually impinge of the present pressures to enable us to overcome them. One promise is a negative one, v16, ‘Repent, therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.’ Can you imagine the church being fought against by its Lord? That is what is promised will happen unless the church gets on with getting its own house in order. And who do you think will win in such an encounter? Well, it’s not going to be the church is it? The Word of God will have the final say- not the theologians or the sociologists or the political commentators. Christ is going to determine how his people will live.
But there is also a positive promise given to those who do overcome, who have tried to bring some sort of discipline into a free for all ‘believe -whatever -you -want -to -believe –so- long -as –you- are- sincere’ situation, and what promises they are-but they are all future. There is the ‘hidden manna’. Again we are taken back to the Exodus and God’s provision for his people during their wilderness wanderings. In John 6, Jesus draws on this allusion to refer to himself as the true bread from heaven. In other words, salvation is being promised. Similarly, with the white stone with a new name written on it, ‘known only to him who receives it.’ In this culture white stones were used to symbolise a number of things. In a court of law a black stone would be given to someone if they were found guilty of as crime, but a white stone if they were acquitted. So it may be talking about our justification. At other times, white stones were used as tokens to enable someone to enter a celebratory feat, like an entrance ticket, so it may be the promise of enjoying Christ’s great banquet which is to take place at the end of time. But there is more to it than that, for this stone has a ‘new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.’ Whose name is it? Well, given that in chapter 3:12 a similar phrase is used about God’s people being like pillars in his temple upon whom he writes his ‘new name’-which I believe to be Jesus, who in chapter 5 is the recipient of a new song, the song of redemption. In other words, the white stone with the name of Christ, speaks of personal intimacy. These people don’t just know about ‘God’ in some theoretical way, they know God as Jesus in a personal way, it speaks of belonging, of familiarity, of friendship- or as it says in the old hymn ‘I am his and he is mine.’ So, friends let’s not throw that away all of that of the sake of compromise- if Christ is so faithful to us to the point of dying for us, then the least we can do is be faithful to him.
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