Dear Worldly Church (Rev. 2:12-17)
Chapter one concludes with the vision of the son of man as our Prophet, Priest, and King. Chapter two transitions to letters written to seven church. There is an interesting relationship between the letters that follows a familiar pattern.
- A. Ephesus – Loveless
- B. Smyrna – Only Commendation
- C. Pergamum – Worldly
- D. Thyatira – Immorality
- E. Sardis – Dead
- ‘B. Philadelphia – Only Commendation
- B. Smyrna – Only Commendation
- ‘A. Laodicea – Lukewarm
We will cover the escalation in compromise over the next three weeks, beginning with Pergamum this morning. Christians are encouraged for their faithfulness to the name of Christ, but they have also struggled to maintain that faithfulness in terms of how they engaged the culture. This challenge addresses an age-old problem. How can we be in the world without being of the world?
Beeke, “A ship at sea is where it was designed to be–in the water. But once water starts to get into the ship, if no action is taken, it is only a matter of time before the ship sinks. Although the ship is meant to be in the water, the water is not meant to be in the ship. As Christians, we are meant to be in the world, but the world must not be in us.
Read Revelation 2:12-17.
Christians in Pergamum appear to have one hand on Christ, and the other on the world. They are committed to both. But it’s not a harmonious relationship. The gospel calls us to hold fast to Christ, forsaking all others. Thus, a genuine love for Christ compels us to guard against worldly corruption.
Like all the letters, this one begins with a note about the One author. Readers are reminded of the vision of the son of man. Here the focus is on the sword of judgment (12, cf 1:16). Since the roman proconsul took up residence in Pergamum, they had the right to execute criminals found guilty. But true justice was the Lord’s, not wicked city rulers. The sword of Christ protects those who hold fast to him in tribulation, and it brings swift punishment upon those who compromise with the world and refuse to repent.
Let us now consider the former group who is commended for…
I. Holding fast to Christ’s name in the midst of corruption (13)
Pergamum was located 65 miles north of Smyrna and 110 miles north of Ephesus. It had a population of roughly 120,000, but being 15 miles inland restricted its trade abilities.
However, what they lacked in economic value, they made up for in educational, religious, and political value. Pergamum was a place for deep learning. They invented parchment paper and had a library that housed 200,000 volumes. They worshipped Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asclepius. And, like most cities in Asia Minor, they were increasingly devoted to emperor worship.
The Pergamemes were proud of their station, but Jesus calls them “Satan’s Throne”:
- Many people would often travel to Pergamum in order to worship Asclepius, the serpent goddess of healing. The symbol of a snake wrapped around a staff is still used in the medical profession today.
- The temple of Zeus was prominently located at the highest peak of the city and the ledge of the foundation was probably the first thing people would notice as they entered the city.
- There is also the strong possibility that Jesus had Emperor Worship in mind. The satanic influence of the Roman throne.
Whereas Smyrna was the first city in Asia Minor to build a temple to the goddess of Rome (195 BC), Pergamum was the first to build a temple honoring Rome and Augustus (19 BC). They were the first to receive the honorary title of “Neokoros” (temple warden). That title would transfer to Smyrna in 26 AD. Then Ephesus earned the title in 89 AD. In the decades that followed this letter, the title would switch back to Pergamum then Ephesus again. It shows the rising influence of the imperial cult and the competitive spirit within Asia Minor that lead to the increase in persecution for the Christian Church. And Pergamum was right at the heart of the competition.
This was especially notable in the example of Antipas, “my faithful witness”. The word eventually became associated with dying for one’s faith (martys = witness). Tradition tells us that John appointed Antipas as bishop of Pergamum during Domitian’s reign, and that he was roasted to death in a bronze bull shortly after (92 AD). Jesus took note of the church’s faithfulness despite their corrupt context.
Idolatry in our western world can be illustrated in a number of ways. A walk through Time Square reflects our materialism. Research on the most popular Google searches reveals our immoral addictions. The incessant presence of social media in our lives points to our narcissistic need for validation. Success is measured in likes and hearts.
All of these abuses are making our culture increasingly less stable. Everybody seems to recognize how unhealthy this is, but no one seems to know what to do about it. The best solutions could be summarized as models of escape and isolation. In other words, if you want to overcome the world, you have to escape it.
But, that’s not what Jesus says here. He commends believers in Pergamum for holding fast to his name while living “where Satan dwells”. He does not encourage them to flee Pergamum, but continue holding fast to him. They must not lose sight of Christ, especially as they walk through a city that highlights every alternative to him.
Parents, do you have a strategy for your kids to hold fast to Christ when all they want is another screen to entertain them? Teens, do you have an understanding of who you are in Christ, so that you aren’t influenced by the likes and comments of your so-called “friends” and “followers” on YouTwitface1?
Love for Christ compels your faithfulness to Christ. Are you growing in your love for Christ? Does he satisfy your deepest desires? The answer to that question is most clearly demonstrated by the strength of our grip upon the means of grace. Is your craving for the preaching and reading of God’s word increasing or decreasing? Do you value participation in the sacraments? Are private, family, and corporate prayer rooted in your daily and weekly routines?
We live in a world that is radically different than first century Pergamum, but twenty-first century Americans are in no less danger. Rather than being threatened by the Roman sword, we are being lulled into complacency by American corruption.
Now let us consider that group which was…
II. Holding fast to corruption in the midst of Christ’s Church (14-15)
Jesus makes two references to teachings that both represent worldly compromise. “The teaching of Balaam” (14) is a reference to the events described in Numbers. Moab took notice of Israel’s gain in prominence and wanted to put an end to it. Balak, the king of Moab, had requested the service of an eastern seer named Balaam to come and curse Israel. After the Lord ensured that Balaam would bless Israel rather than curse them, we learn that the seer did advise Balak to use Moabite women to entice the Israelites into sexual immorality and idolatry (Num 31:16). Unfortunately, this approach was tremendously effective. Israel spiraled into idolatry provoking the Lord’s anger (Num 25:1-5).
Immorality and idolatry were prominent temptations in the New Testament church as well. Peter writes to believers in this same region rebuking some who “followed the way of Balaam,” (2 Pt 2:15-16). “Balaam” represents false teachers who have an appearance of faithfulness, yet promote compromise with the world.
First century Gentile Christians had been clearly instructed by the Jerusalem council not to eat food sacrificed to idols (Ac 15:20, 29). Paul argued that Christians were free to eat whatever their conscience would allow, but that they should be willing to refrain from eating anything that would cause one of their brothers to stumble (1 Cor 8:1-10; 10:14-33). It wasn’t that the act itself was sinful, but enjoying that meat in the context of pagan rituals was idolatry. Paul warned “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor 10:21). This indicates that some had entered into the pagan festivals themselves.
The term “ὁμοίως” (likewise, similarly, in the same manner/way) may associate the Nicolaitans teaching with that of Balaam. This is the conclusion that most scholars have come to. If true, it would also parallel with the teachings of Jezebel (20). The teachings of Balaam, Jezebel, and the Nicolaitans–although not identical–all seem to be guilty of integrating Christianity with pagan practices.
Ephesus was commended for hating the work of the Nicolaitans (2:6). Whereas they needed to temper their religious zeal with love for others, the Christians in Pergamum needed to repent of their complete acceptance of false teaching.
Beeke, “The letter to Smyrna reveals the church in the world, whereas the letter to Pergamos reveals the world in the church.”
There can be no harmonious fellowship between disciples and heretics. Allowing false teachers to remain among them was indicative of the compromises they had made with sin. The church in Pergamum did not hold these false teachers accountable because they did not view their sin as serious as Christ did. Or maybe, they had simply refused to practice church discipline. Many churches today worry more about their numbers or reputation than the purity of Christ’s bride.
The church was called to repent or face imminent judgment (16). This is not a reference to the Lord’s final judgment, but a temporal judgment upon the church. It would be similar to the threat of removing their lampstand (cf. 2:5).
We’ve already pointed out how integral idolatry and emperor worship were in Pergamum. If they entirely withdrew from these idolatrous rituals, it would certainly have a negative impact upon their social status. It might have cost many their jobs.
The specific sins that were compromised by the Pergamenes was the enjoyment of pagan festivities, which included the indulgence in food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. We too must faithfully heed Christ’s warning about false teaching. We must vehemently oppose heresy. Worldly parties often result in an overindulgence of food and alcohol. We may not host pagan orgies, but we seem to have difficulty avoiding them on Netflix or the internet. Love for Christ not only compels us to hold fast to his teaching, but also to adopt his call to holiness.
Those who who have ears to hear this truth will…
III. Receiving the conquerer’s reward from the hand of Christ (17)
“Hidden manna” The wilderness generation was preserved by manna from heaven (Psalm 78:24). An omer of that manna was kept in a golden urn and placed into the ark of the covenant (Exod 16:33-35; Heb 9:4). Jewish teaching had begun to associate the concept of manna (“bread of heaven”) with God’s future heavenly reward. To enjoy the hidden manna implies the participation in the heavenly feast that awaits all believers who persevere in faith through this life.
“White stone” May simply elaborate on the idea of manna which was said to resemble bdellium (white stone) in Num 11:7. Paul used the same word to speak of casting his “vote” against Stephen (Ac 26:10). This was a stone/pebble which represented many things (i.e., voting, determining guilt in a trial case, reward in athletic games, tickets of admission), any of which might be associated with the meaning here. Whatever the precise meaning, it seems to indicate an assurance of eternal life.
To receive a new name from God was to share in his character and to receive a new status. Isaiah prophesied that God would call his people by a new name (Is 62:2; 65:15). The church has become the new Israel who will enjoy eternal communion in the new heaven and new earth.
The manna, the stone, and the new name all represent the reward of our everlasting fellowship with Christ and his people. Those who conquer will receive the reward of Christ from Christ.
Wilcock, “Christ gives that man a personal invitation to the true pleasures of the banquet of heaven, which are, in fact, himself: for ‘all the promises of God find their Yes in him’, and he is the true manna, the heavenly bread (2 Cor. 1:20; Jn. 6:31–35).”
Love for Christ compels us to guard against worldly corruption because that is what Christ came to redeem us from! We have been set apart from the world that we might find in Christ our all in all. He died in order to set us free from the penalty and power of sin. How could we ever desire again the chains of corruption after they’ve already been broken?
- I have to give Conan O’Brien credit for coming up with this brilliant name. ↩︎