Keep true - Revelation 2:12-17
One of the films that has taken the box offices by storm in recent weeks, is the second instalment of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the Two Towers. The story, if you don't know, centres on a ring which holds immense power and it is the property of the Dark Lord Sauron. Now he desperately wants this ring back so he can rule the whole of the world again as he once did. The only trouble for Sauron is that there is a small bunch of intrepid men, elves, dwarfs and hobbits who are just as keen that Sauron does not get the ring back. In fact they have decided that the best thing to do with the ring is to destroy it once and for all, so that no-one can get their hands on it and so that Sauron is destroyed. The only snag is that in order to destroy this ring, you must go right into Sauron's back yard, so to speak, the land of Mordor, which is as bad as it sounds, and then throw the ring into the heart of Mount Doom, where the ring was first made, which is also as grim as it sounds. And throughout the whole trilogy, there are some among the group who are committed to the cause and courageous, but others who are compromised. Some are courageous, like Frodo, the hero, and they will do anything to see the ring destroyed. But some are compromised. They are tempted to take the ring and use its immense power for themselves. And the big question hanging over the group of intrepid ring destroyers is will you fulfil the mission courageously, even if it means dying in Sauron's backyard? Or will you compromise and fail, tempted by the ring's enormous power? And so you could describe the whole group as courageous but compromised.
Now over the last few weeks we've been looking at the letters of Jesus to the churches in Revelation. And we've seen that these are real churches facing real difficulties. And Jesus writes to them through the apostle John to give them messages both of encouragement but also of challenge. There are some things these churches are doing well, and others they are not so good on. Two weeks ago we saw that Ephesus was committed but cool. She was very strong on doctrine and doing all the right things, but she'd lost her first love. She'd lost that passionate love for Christ that fires all true believers. Last week we looked at Smyrna which we saw was faithful but fearful. They were having a tough time and were afraid of what was happening, so Jesus urges them not to be afraid but to be faithful even to death. And tonight we come to Pergamum, and Jesus' message to this church is that they are courageous but compromised. As we'll see, this church is in Satan's backyard, and many of the congregation are facing tough times. And yet in the heat of the battle, whilst they are being courageous in the battle, they are also terribly compromised. Whilst they are doing well in the fighting the forces of evil who are attacking with a frontal assault, yet they have succumbed to the stealth of the enemy and let him in by the back door. Courageous but compromised.
Now, as ever in these letters, although they were written hundreds of years ago, yet they are powerfully contemporary. If Jesus taught us not to lose our first love through Ephesus, and not to be afraid through Smyrna, then he tells today that we should beware of compromise. Far too many of us Christians, especially in the Western world, fail to see that we are engaged in a battle. We're on a war footing. I'm not talking about Iraq. I'm talking about the spiritual battle. When we should be preparing for and engaging in spiritual warfare, we are pampering ourselves and making weak excuses for our poor devotion to Christ. When we should be engaged in courageous and bold gospel initiatives, we're too busy cuddling up to the enemy and selling out to him. That's the reality of much Christianity in the west. And Jesus, as ever, has a timely word for us tonight. What the Spirit spoke to the church back then he continues to speak. So he who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. And we'll look at Jesus' message to Pergamum under four headings, four challenges for us to think seriously about tonight.
1) Remember your Lord
So the first challenge Jesus gives us is remember your Lord. Verse 12: "To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp double edged sword. I know where you live- where Satan has his throne." One of the most encouraging aspects of these letters to the seven churches is Jesus' repeated phrase "I know". Usually he says it of churches' deeds and acts, but here in Pergamum he says it of where they live. "I know where you live". Now why would he do that? Well the fact is where these Christians lived, Pergamum, was very significant. Pergamum was the political capital of Asia Minor, the Roman province of Western Turkey. So if Ephesus was the ancient New York, then Pergamum was the ancient Washington DC. It was where the Roman governor of the entire province would have his base. And he held what was known as the "ius gladii", literally the "right of the sword", which meant that he had the power to put people to death, if the crime required the death sentence.
But what was more problematic for Christians was that Pergamum was also the religious centre of Asia Minor. It was the centre of the god of healing Asclepius, with all the cultic practices that came with him, and most significant of all, Pergamum was the centre of Emperor worship. The Roman Emperor Augustus had set up a Temple in Pergamum in 29 BC dedicated to himself, and so the cult of Emperor worship which would be a major problem for Christians in the decades following found its head quarters in Pergamum. In fact, we get a flavour of how serious this was for Christians from a letter a few years after this letter of Jesus written by a Roman governor of another province who wanted to set up a test of allegiance to Rome for his citizens. According to this governor, he made the people "recite a prayer to the gods at my dictation, make an offering of wine and incense to the Emperor's statueand moreover curse Christ." And Pergamum was the centre of operations! It's no wonder Jesus twice calls Pergamum the place where Satan had his throne. And there were Christians living right in the centre of Satan's heartland. It would be like Frodo in Lord of the Rings setting up a Travelodge in Mordor for people who wanted to destroy the ring. That's how much pressure these Christians were under. They faced an imperial cult whose centre they could see from their bedroom windows, and they faced a Roman governor who could kill at will. And he did.
So if you're a Christian living in that sort of environment, what do you need to hear? You need to hear these words of the risen Lord Jesus: "I know where you live." These Christians had taken up permanent residence in Satan's backyard, and Jesus knew it. And even more you need to hear these words: "These are the words of him who has the sharp double edged sword." Who is the real King? Is it the governor who holds the "ius gladii", the power over life and death? No, it's King Jesus. He is the one who holds the double edged sword. It's his word that really counts. He's the one we're really accountable to. He's the one who holds the very keys of death and Hades. He holds the key to eternal life and eternal death. Jesus is your true king.
Now we might not be under that sort of pressure, though as we heard last week, there are Christians who are. Yet we do face pressure on us as Christians. You might live with a bunch of completely anti Christian students who have no time for Jesus and church. In fact they openly ridicule you and are hostile to you. I know where you live, says Jesus. I'm the true King. Take heart. I am with you, even there. You may work in an environment where the attitudes, the ethics, the language is completely pagan, alien to your Christian beliefs. Jesus says, I know where you live. I am the true King. Take heart. I know.
Hugh Latimer was one of the leading English churchman who was instrumental in the Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century. And he used to preach a great deal in front of Henry VIII. One time Latimer offended the King by the boldness of his sermon. So he was commanded to address the King again the following week and apologise. Well Latimer turned up and he began the sermon by talking to himself in full hearing of Henry VIII. "Hugh Latimer, said Latimer, do you know who you are preaching to today? You are preaching to the high and mighty monarch, his majesty the King, who can take away your life if you offend him. Therefore, take heed lest you say a word which will offend him. But then, Hugh, consider also who has sent you to preach. It is the Great and Mighty God! He is all present, and He sees everything, and He can cast your soul into hell. Therefore take care that you preach the message faithfully." And then Hugh Latimer proceeded to preach exactly the same sermon to Henry VIII as he had done the week before, only this time he did it with even greater boldness! Latimer knew who his true king was. King Jesus. And that was what the Pergamene Christians needed to hear first. That Jesus knew their situation and that he was the true King, even in the pace where Satan had his throne. And we need to hear it too. Remember your Lord. Jesus the true King.
2) Be Courageous in Your Faith
But there is another challenge that Jesus gives us from this letter tonight, and that is to be courageous in your faith. And that was something Jesus commended the Pergamenes for. Verse 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, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city, where Satan lives." You see even in this extremely hostile place, the Christians had stood firm in their faith. "You remain true to my name," says Jesus. And they had even faced death with a firm resolve. "You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city." Jesus says that the governor had exercised his legal right to kill in at least one instance in this church, and there were possibly more. But Antipas at least was killed. Now we don't know anything about him, but it's possible he was the church leader. It was a well known tactic to kill off or imprison the leaders so that the church would collapse. It's a tactic used still today in parts of the world where oppressive regimes persecute Christians. Legend has it that Antipas was slowly roasted alive in bronze bull. It's only legend, but it certainly the sort of thing the Romans were happy to do to Christians. Christians suffered all sorts of barbaric deaths from being torn apart by lions to being tarred and used as torches in Nero's gardens in Rome. Such was the fate of many Christians at this time. And yet in this hostile and frightening environment, these Pergamene Christians had not lost their faith. "You remain true to my name," says Jesus. They faced even death with courage. And it wasn't as if they were any different to you and me. These weren't super Christians. They were simply ordinary people living in a part of the world where their faith got them into trouble. And they were willing to die for it. In Jesus they saw that they had the key to life, the only one who could get them to heaven, the only Lord and King. And it was for his name that they died. Quite literally they had the courage of their convictions.
And that is a major challenge for us living two millennia later. For we are following in their footsteps. We are no different to those believers, apart from the time and place in which we live. The faith hasn't changed. They followed the same Jesus we follow. And yet I wonder how courageous we are for our faith. We suffer nowhere near as badly as these Christians were doing, and yet how courageous are we to use the freedom we have to tell others about the gospel? We often shy away from saying anything to friends, we keep quiet when an opportunity arises, we don't do anything when our government suggests proposals which will have a huge impact on the ethical health of our nation. We're in serious danger of losing our Christian liberty in this country, and it's being taken from us with barely a whimper from Christians. Perhaps one of the reasons we are not as courageous as these Christians is that we have not had to suffer seriously for our faith for a long time. It's not that Jesus tells us to seek out suffering. That would be masochistic. But when it does come, it does refine the church and steel her in adversity. And that is why we need to be courageous in the smaller tests. For unless we have courage to speak now, to stand up for our faith now, in a climate of relative ease, then what hope will we have when the bigger tests come? Courage, that's what we need. So pray for it. Don't let's cut ourselves up in guilt about the missed opportunities. Let's get on with taking the next. I find it a great encouragement that even the apostle Paul had to pray for courage. Pray for boldness to be a light for Christ on the campus, in the school, in the staff room, in the cafat lunchtime. Pray for courage to be one who bears the name of Jesus and is not ashamed.
C T Studd was a remarkable man for his generation. He was one of the brightest and most ablest men at the end of the 19th century. He had a huge fortune, he was extremely bright, and he was a brilliant cricketer. He played for England against the Australians in the same team as W G Grace. He had a very bright future as one of England's greats. And yet when he was a student he became a Christian and gave everything up to go to China as a missionary. He went with six other friends who became known as the Cambridge Seven. They were seven men who shocked Victorian England by their courage and seeming foolhardiness. No-one in their right minds would give up such glittering academic, sporting and political futures that lay before these seven young men. But each one of them put Christ first and were willing to suffer for him. At one time, C T Studd said this: "There are some who want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell, but I want to run a rescue shop with a yard of hell." And he did. He spent the rest of his days in China, India and Africa serving Christ. Studd had courage, the courage of his convictions that putting Christ first was the most important thing. And the Pergamenes had it too. Be courageous in your faith.
3) Beware of Compromise
But there is a third challenge that Jesus gives us through this letter and it is that we should beware of compromise. For although Jesus was pleased with some of what was going on at the church in Pergamum, yet he was displeased with other matters. Verse 14: "Nevertheless, I have a few things against you; you have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food
sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans." You see this church was courageous but compromised. And the problem was one of false teaching. Satan couldn't succeed with a frontal assault on the church. They were courageous and had resisted persecution, even though one of them had been killed. So instead, the enemy employed another tactic- stealth. It was an inside job. While Antipas resisted the enemy at the front door, others were letting him in at the back door. Now it wasn't all the church, but some were teaching and holding to false teaching and it seemed it was being tolerated by the rest of the church. And Jesus says that this is something he has against them. And while it is only a few involved, yet it is a danger for the whole church. For false teaching is like gangrene on a limb, or dry rot in a building. Unless it is dealt with radically, it will corrupt the whole thing. So what was this teaching that was endangering the church?
Well Jesus says that the false teaching of Pergamum was the teaching of Balaam. Now Balaam is a character from the OT who is famous for being spoken to by a talking donkey. The story is told in Numbers 22-24 where the people of Israel come up against the Moabites. Now the king of Moab is a man called Balak and he hires the soothsayer Balaam to curse Israel so that the Israelites won't conquer Moab. But although Balaam tries he is prevented by God from cursing Israel and instead blesses them. The full frontal assault against Israel has failed. Instead, what Balaam suggests to Balak, which we discover later in Numbers (Nu. 31 v 16; 25 vv 1ff), is that he should send all the beautiful young women of Moab into Israel to seduce the young men of Israel. If you like this is the stealth attack. It's a cunning plot to bring Israel down from the inside. And it works. The young men are seduced: they commit sexual immorality with the women and they end up worshipping the Moabite gods. And so Balaam becomes a byword in the rest of the Bible for insidious false teaching which aims at compromising Biblical faith with the world.
And that says Jesus is what is happening at Pergamum. These Nicolaitans were the modern equivalent of Balaam. They were probably advocating a sort of laissez-faire type of attitude to the Romans. They would teach that it is important to stick with Jesus, but it really doesn't matter if you go to the pagan feasts and eat meat sacrificed to idols. After all it will keep the Romans off your back. Sure read your Bibles at home, but make sure the Romans know you're not an anarchist. A bit of give and take, that's what is needed. And sure, enjoy the temple prostitutes. After all, we are surrounded by this culture aren't we? When in Rome, do as the Romans do, don't you think? You shouldn't be so theologically rigid. Don't be so narrow minded. Go with the flow a little bit, and life will be easier. After all, a little bit of tolerance of others goes a long way doesn't it? This is the first century you know! Move with the times!
But Jesus is not impressed. In fact, he praises the Ephesians earlier in the chapter for their hatred of the Nicolaitans' practices. I also hate their practises, says Jesus. But these Pergamenes were tolerating such teaching. And there is only one word for it. Compromise. It's not religious tolerance, it's not being all things to all men, it's not being broad minded. It's sin. Plain and simple. And Jesus says: "I have this against you."
And do you know the saddest thing? Even today such attitudes are alive and well in the Christian church. You can certainly see it at a denominational level with multi faith services and the ethical teaching of the Bible slowly being conceded to the world. Marriage, sexuality, abortion, euthanasia- who knows what is next? And all along we are told by church leaders that the church needs to be relevant in the 21st century. We need to go with the flow of where society is heading, we're told. Well even a dead dog can go with the flow, and society at the moment is headed down the tubes, and the church with it if we're not careful.
But perhaps even more disturbing is the compromise with the world which is seen in individual Christians' lives. And the danger is that we are blind to the effects of such behaviour and teaching. We ape the world in terms of sexuality. Surely it doesn't matter if I sleep with her as a Christian. I mean everyone else is doing it? Does it really matter what I watch and read? It doesn't hurt anyone else. Does it really matter who I go out with or marry? I mean I can convert her later down the track. We ape the world in terms of materialism. What's wrong with getting all I can and want out of life? Surely that's not wrong is it? Yes, but how often do practising Christians stop and think about serious sacrifice in terms of their money and possessions? We ape the world in terms of selfishness, even in Christian circles, so church becomes what I can get out of it, instead what I can give. We might call it being in the world and being relevant. Jesus calls it compromise. Fraternising with the enemy. And unless we cut it out, we're in danger of destroying ourselves. C S Lewis puts it like this in the Screwtape letters: "The safest road to hell is the gradual one- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."
So what's the antidote? Jesus tells us in verse 16: "Repent therefore. Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." Jesus threatens to act in judgement on that church. The church as a whole must act, otherwise they will feel the force of Jesus' word of judgement. And it's true not only of churches, but of individual Christians too. We must repent of our compromising, of our fraternising with the enemy. There are a whole host of ways that we do it. And we will all know deep down that we do it. We know our areas of weakness where we compromise our faith. The question is what are we going to do about it? We're in serious peril of endangering the mission. So don't compromise. Cut out whatever it is which is holding you back. And don't try and have a foot in both camps. And it needs too to be repentance which is whole hearted. There's no point saying sorry to God and then carrying on just as before. That's not repentance. That's kidding yourself. And God will not be hoodwinked.
The story is told of how Admiral Lord Nelson received the surrender of a French admiral who had been conquered in one his famous sea victories. The defeated admiral came on board Nelson's flagship in full ceremonial dress in order to make his surrender. He walked towards Nelson and put out his hand in order to shake Nelson's hand as a sign of his surrender. But before Nelson would shake his hand, he requested that the French admiral first hand over his sword. With God repentance involves complete surrender. No compromise. The church in Pergamum were courageous but compromised. Let's heed the lesson, and beware of compromise in our own lives.
4) Believe the Promise
But then lastly and briefly, the final thing Jesus teaches us is to believe the promise. Because as with all these seven letters, there is a great promise at the end for those who will trust in Jesus. Verse 17: "To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it." Now no-one is quite sure exactly what is meant here, but what is clear is that this is a future hope of some sort which Jesus guarantees to those who overcome, that is those who remain faithful and keep trusting Jesus, not compromising with the world and fraternising with the enemy. The hidden manna is a possible reference to the bread of life that God gave his people in the desert. God promises that to those who remain faithful they will eat the heavenly food at the great wedding banquet in heaven. Whatever the white stones is, it is clear that God is promising an intimacy with him to those who overcome. That is what we can look forward to in heaven when we trust in Jesus. We will be with God forever face to face and we will know him personally. To a church struggling with the world in which they lived, what better comfort can they receive? Believe the promise. Believe it and live in the light of it. For like all God's promises for the future they are meant to affect how we live in the present. Believe the promise.
So Pergamum is courageous but compromised. I wonder what Jesus would say of us? What would he say of you? Listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying to us tonight. Hear again these timeless words of Jesus and take action. Remember your Lord, be courageous in your faith, beware of compromise and believe the promise.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.