Now please take a copy of God’s holy Word in your hands and turn in them to Revelation chapter 2. We’re thinking about verses 12 to 17. We’ve been working our way through the messages that the risen Christ gave to John for seven churches in Asia Minor, and we’ve come today to the third letter, the third message to those seven churches that you find in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation – the message to the church in Pergamum. Before we read it together, would you bow your heads with me as we pray!
Lord Jesus, we bow before You as the one who has the sharp, double-edged sword coming from Your mouth, and we pray that as Your Word, that double-edged sword, is read and preached that You would use it to wound and to heal in our midst, for Your glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Revelation 2 at verse 12. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.
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. 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. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 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.’”
Amen, and thanks be to God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
So far we’ve considered two of the common threats to the spiritual vitality of the church addressed in this part of the book of Revelation. In Ephesus, the church had lost its first love. It had entered a period of spiritual declination. It remained theologically orthodox; it was busy serving, but its love and its passion for Christ had been obscured and lost sight of and neglected. And then last time, we thought about the church at Smyrna where the threat was different. Here, the church is suffering. Satanic opposition to the Gospel message has spilled over into open persecution. Some, we saw, were to be imprisoned. Others would be put to death for their faith. If the Ephesian believers had to fight to regain their zeal, believers at Smyrna had to fight to hold their nerve and not to cave into the relentless pressure of terrible suffering.
But as we come now to the church at Pergamum we need to deal with a third threat; one that speaks, I think, with remarkable relevance to the context within which we have been called to live the Christian life. The church at Pergamum was in danger of compromise and illegitimate cultural accommodation. And so Christ, the one whose Word is a sharp, two-edged sword as verse 12 reminds us, calls the Christians at Pergamum and calls each of us here this evening to consistency and to fidelity to the truth and its implications not only for ourselves, but for all people everywhere, and especially all people who profess to believe and follow Jesus Christ.
And I want us to notice three things in these six verses. First of all, the path we must learn to walk – a narrow path between various pitfalls and dangers. The path we must learn to walk. Then secondly, the substitutes we must never accept – the counterfeits that we must never accept. And then thirdly, the conflict that we need not face. The conflict we need not face. We can avoid it!
- The Path We Must Learn to Walk.
Let’s think first of all in verses 13 and 14 about the path we must learn to walk. In each of the cities we’ve seen so far, both in Ephesus and in Smyrna, it’s been clear that to try to live the Christian life faithfully would come at significant cost. It was hard to be a Christian in those places. But neither can compare to the kind of hostile environment that Pergamum was. You notice what Jesus says about Pergamum? “I know where you dwell,” He tells the Christians there. It is the place “where Satan’s throne is, where Satan dwells,” Jesus says. Towering over the city, rising some 2,000 feet over the homes and businesses of its citizens was a sacred mountain whose slopes were covered with temples. The temple to Asclepius, the god of healing, whose symbol was the serpent, was particularly prominent in Pergamum. And pilgrims came from all over the empire seeking healing there from the touch of the live snakes that covered the floors of the temple. Even more prominent still was the mighty temple dedicated to Zeus the Savior, Zeus the Savior, built on a ledge jutting out from the mountainside about 800 feet above the streets. To live in Pergamum was literally to live under the shadow of the worship of Zeus. It’s a dark place! Additionally, it was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and it had become a center of the cult of the emperor. It is the city where Satan has his throne, where Satan dwells. That is to say, it is a city steeped in pagan idolatry, smothered in spiritual darkness.
All of which means, by the way, that the very existence of this Gospel church at Pergamum is a remarkable testimony to the power of the Gospel, don’t you think? Where Satan dwells. Where Satan has his throne. Right under the nose. Right under the teeth of the gates of hell, at is were, is this living, vibrant community of Christ’s followers. The Gospel works in the harshest of environments. There’s a church in this city! The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, understood it, cannot comprehend it, cannot extinguish it. Pergamum, the church here, reminds us Jesus is building His Church and hell’s gates cannot, and do not, and will not prevail against it. Pioneer missionary, C.T. Studd, captures, I think, the boldness that must have been a feature of the church at Pergamum when he said of himself, “Some people want to live within the sound of church or chapel bells, but I want to build a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” The believers at Pergamum, I think, would have understood Studd’s point. “I know where you live,” Jesus told them, “where Satan has his throne, where Satan dwells.” The church at Pergamum was a rescue shop within a yard of hell and their example really ought to inspire us to the same mission in our own context and circumstances.
The Challenge of Contextualization Without Conviction.
And yet, in such a spiritually dark context, there were two challenges that pressed down relentlessly upon the church at Pergamum. Two challenges, it needs to be said, that continue to press in upon us still and we must navigate a path between them. We must learn to walk a path between them. The first is the challenge of contextualization without conviction. Contextualization without conviction. Look at verse 13 again, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast to my name and you did not deny my faith, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness who was killed among you.” The culture was pushing them to back off and tone it down and adjust the message, to modify their convictions in order to accommodate the spirit of the age, to make it all less offensive. Friedrich Schleiermacher the German liberal theologian felt that pressure keenly in his day and wanted to make an accommodation, an adjustment to the Christian message in order to make it palatable for Christianity’s cultured despisers so he began to jettison everything that, for rationalistic German scientifically minded people in his day would be offensive.
But praise God the believers at Pergamum were not nearly so easily misled. It seems they held fast to Jesus’ name and did not deny their faith in Him. That is to say, the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ the God-Man, the only Savior of sinners, was their constant message. They refused to back off from the assertion that there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved but the name of Jesus. Not even when church members began to die for their commitment to faith in Christ – Antipas is a faithful witness, Jesus says. He was testifying to him. Refused to back down or to recant to the point of his own martyrdom. The great danger of contextualization without conviction was a danger the church at Pergamum seems to have avoided and it did so at great personal cost. The pressure to adjust for the context and jettison the message, that was a pressure they withstood remarkably. And their example is a sober reminder to us as that pressure continues to mount in our day and generation that fidelity to Jesus Christ and the truth claims of the Christian Gospel are not negotiable positions to be accommodated to the tastes and the preferences of the age. And so, like the believers at Pergamum, we too must resolve to stand firm and to refuse to accept the pressure, to contextualize without conviction.
Commitment Without Contention.
But the church in Pergamum did not do nearly so well with the second danger that confronted them. The first was contextualization without conviction but the second is commitment without contention. Look at verses 14 and 15 again. They were committed to the truth, wonderfully so, even when it was costly – praise the Lord for their example. May He help us to follow and to imitate it. But holding the truth for one’s self is not enough! Refusing to recant your faith is not all that we are called to do. It may not even be the hardest thing that we are called to do. We must also “earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” as Jude 3 puts it. And this, the believers at Pergamum we failing to do faithfully. Isn’t that striking now? Think about it! Here is a church notable for its fidelity to orthodox doctrine, to sound, Biblical teaching. Jesus Himself commends them for standing firm in a very, very difficult place. And it’s this church, this church that tolerates the errors of false teaching right there in their midst.
Here surely is a practical warning for us, brothers and sisters. Let’s beware of ever thinking ourselves to be invulnerable in any area of Christian duty. Let’s never, let’s resolve never to say, “Oh sure we have our weaknesses, but we’re strong in that area,” whatever that area might be! Be it evangelism, or Bible teaching, or mercy ministry, or the way we love one another and care for one another and have fellowship together. “We don’t need to worry about that part of our calling. We’ve got that down. That’s our great strength.” That is precisely where the attack will come! “If anyone thinks he stands firm, let him beware lest he fall.” Pergamum was the truth church. Church members have bled and died for their faith at Pergamum, and Pergamum, of all churches, Pergamum tolerated the presence of those who taught the errors of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. They had commitment personally, but they were not contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. They were tolerating false teachings.
A New Gnosticism
Interestingly, the two names, Nicolas from which the sect the Nicolaitans comes, and Balaam – one a Greek name, the other a Hebrew name – actually mean the same thing. Both mean “lord or conqueror of the people.” And in all probability, both groups were teaching similar doctrines. We’re told what they were in verse 14. Do you see them in verse 14? They allowed Christians to eat without concern in the various temple dining rooms where food had been used in pagan sacrifice, and they affirmed that since the body didn’t matter, that since spiritual realities were all that really counted, then sexual morays had no real meaning. “If the body isn’t the real you, then what you do with it doesn’t matter.” And of course that’s a perspective with which we’re quite familiar today, isn’t it? “Who you are,” we are being told in our own context, “has nothing to do with your body. Your body isn’t the real you! The real you is internal and psychological and free standing and has nothing to do with your physical, your physiology or your gender. And that means that your sexuality and your sexual preferences really don’t matter. Just be true to who you are,” we are told. “That’s all that matters! And who you are is the creation of your preferences and your biases and your inclinations, not your biology or your physiology or your neurology.” Now what is that? It’s a new Gnosticism that doesn’t sound so terribly dissimilar to the teachings of the Nicolaitans and the followers of Balaam who had infected the church at Pergamum.
And the issue here for the church at Pergamum isn’t simply that these are false teachers in error. The issue was that, although the majority of the church seems to have remained faithful, they would not take action to deal with those who are in error and were teaching lies. They tolerated them. They made room for them. Isn’t that a temptation for us in the culture of politeness and acceptance that we inhabit today? We might well say, “Well, it’s not my view, but who am I to disagree with them. It’s not my conviction, but can’t we all just go along to get along?” But whatever our tolerance level may be, the letter to the church at Pergamum forces us to reckon with the radical intolerance of Jesus Christ. The intolerance of Jesus Christ! He has no tolerance for lies; no tolerance for error. He told the church in Ephesus, you will remember, He hated the teaching of the Nicolaitans. And here, He calls the church at Pergamum to repent of its toleration of these false teachers in their midst. And similarly, He calls us to do more than simply profess the truth or teach the truth or stand firm in our personal commitment to the truth. He calls us to insist that all who join themselves to the church and who profess to follow Jesus Christ along with us, must likewise adhere to the truth. It’s not enough to hold fast to the center of the Christian faith if you totally abandon the boundaries.
And so there’s a careful path we’re being called to walk here, isn’t there? We must be aware of contextualization without conviction, of accommodating the culture and yet selling out the truth. But we must also beware of holding fast to the truth while making room in the church for others who flatly deny it. The Gospel, after all, is public and global and Jesus Christ is Lord of all. And so His claims extend not only to your conscience but to those of your neighbors and those in the pew beside you. That is the path we are being called to walk.
- The Substitutes We Must Not Accept
Then secondly, notice the substitutes we must not accept. What is it about food offered to idols and sexual immorality that made them so appealing? Certainly there’s pleasure involved! That’s a powerful incentive to sin. There’s no doubt peer pressure, social expectation. And these two can be mighty inducements to compromise. But there’s also the deep longing of the heart, and that’s the strongest pull of them all towards sin. Food offered to idols, you know, is really an issue of fellowship. With whom a person ate in the ancient world signified an entire web and network of personal and social and spiritual commitments and affiliations. To eat food offered to idols, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 10, at one level is entirely inconsequential for a Christian. After all, what is an idol but a lump of stone or wood. It’s nothing, right? And yet, at another level there is a supernatural and demonic reality behind the deception and superstition of the world, and so those who worship idols are in bondage to it. And thus to eat food offered to idols, with all that eating really meant in the ancient world, was utterly out of bounds for a follower of Jesus Christ. But the pull, the heart’s draw and yearning for fellowship and spiritual belonging is powerful. We crave it and it can pull us far from the path of faithfulness.
Intimacy in Christ
Or think about sexual immorality. What is it that our hearts are longing for that makes sexual sin so compelling? Well, for many of us sex is about intimacy and intimate connection. And increasingly, at least in our culture and context, sex and sexuality is also about identity. Who we are is virtually defined by sex in today’s culture. Isn’t it fascinating then, to notice the two things Jesus promises in verse 17 to those who conquer? Speaking directly to those heart longings, He offers the “hidden manna,” that is the Bread of Life, that is Himself. Here is a meal that draws us into better fellowship, offering us true connection and profound belonging. Here is a feast that will join you not to demonic deception but to divine life. Here’s the path to soul satisfaction! Jesus holds it out to us. It is Himself, the Bread of Life, the true manna. He gives Himself!
Identity in Christ
And He also gives us “a white stone with a new name written on it that no one knows but the one who receives it.” Do you see that in verse 17? Now there are all kinds of suggestions about what that white stone might be. A strong contender is the tessera hospitalis, or hospitalis. You would break it in two. You would each, of two companions, write their names on it and then they would swap the broken halves and hold it as a keepsake and a reminder of their belonging and connection one to another. The white stone, whatever the historical reference might be, the white stone here bears a new name. That is to say, the true identity of the disciple of Jesus Christ is known to Him and known to us, and it comes from Jesus. He gives it to us. We receive it from Him. Identity, the real you, as it were, known to Christ in the most intimate way. What we so often search for, what our hearts are longing for that leads many of us into sexual misadventure, is available as a promised gift from the hands of Jesus Christ – new identity, true identity, deep intimacy.
And it is offered, notice, “to the one who conquers.” The names Nicolas and Balaam mean “conqueror of the people,” but those who conquer by faith in Jesus and are not conquered by error, receive by grace what our hearts long for and what Satan counterfeits. There are substitutes out there that seek to answer the deep needs of our hearts. That’s what the false teachers were peddling – substitutes, counterfeits. But Revelation 2:17 teaches us that the substitutes are threadbare imitations. Jesus Christ is the real thing! Jesus Christ is the real thing!
- The Conflict We Need Not Face
The path we must learn to walk, the substitutes we must never accept, and then finally and very briefly, the conflict we need not face. The conflict we need not face. What will happen to the believers at Pergamum if they continue to tolerate false teachers and false teaching that has begun to fester in their midst? Verse 16, “I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Jesus will come and fight against us by His Word if we wander from the truth. That’s at once enormously hopeful and filled with real and piercing warning. Enormously hopeful and full of warning. He will come and wield the sword of His Word like a warrior prosecuting His controversy with us, wounding and healing, rebuking and challenging until our errors are destroyed and we’ve been won back to Him or until we have been put out of the fellowship of the saints. To have Christ and the power of the Spirit wield the sword of His Word to cut deeply into our hearts and into our consciences, exposing our sin, rebuking our errors, humbling us, leading us to publically turn from our sin back to our Savior, that is a profoundly painful thing to endure. But it is a mark, actually, of the great mercy of Christ that before He comes as omnipotent Judge, He comes first as a Warrior, fighting for our restoration and for the purity of His Church before it’s too late.
And yet even this painful warfare by Christ through His Word is not inevitable. We needn’t endure the wounding, stinging, painful rebuke of Christ that will surely come if we persist in disobedience. We can repent immediately at His first warning. That’s what these verses in this letter are, isn’t it? It’s His first warning to the church at Pergamum. “Therefore repent,” He says, “or else I will come and make war with My Word.” How shall they conquer, not be conquered by the conquers of the people, the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans? Repentance at the summons of Jesus Christ, turning to Him with a resolve both to be committed and to contend for the faith once for all delivered, a determination not merely to stand firm for one’s self but to call all those who name the name of Jesus to the same Biblical standard. Brothers and sisters, the sting of the Word in the hands of Christ the Warrior is an experience we need not feel if we be careful to hear His warnings and keep short accounts with Him, to repent and to turn back to Him.
And maybe that is God’s Word to you tonight particularly? You are being called to repent and to turn back to Him. He’s issuing His first warning, as it were. Next, He will come as a Warrior to fight against you by His Word. And if you persist in your unbelief and rejection of His rule, He will eventually come as Judge to deal with apostates from the truth. It’s a sober warning! Do not make shipwreck. Turn back from the rocks and find safe harbor in Jesus Christ! The path we must learn to walk avoiding the twin dangers – contextualization without conviction; commitment without contention. The substitutes we mustn’t accept – the Satanic counterfeits of belonging and identity peddled by the world, the realities of which are only found in Jesus Christ. And the conflict we need not face – we can never take up a stance in opposition to Jesus and to His Word and hope to win. What folly! We can never take up a stance in opposition to Jesus and His Word and say, “Oh, I believe all of this, but on this point I will not bend my knee!” What folly! He will come and make war against you by His Word, therefore repent and turn back to Him. Let us humble ourselves and flee to Him who gives us true manna and the white stone with the name that He knows written on it for the satisfaction of our soul and the comfort of our hearts.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we thank You for King Jesus who rules His Church, who is not indifferent to its purity or to its commitment to the truth, who is at work among us by His Word, rebuking and summoning us back to Him. Help us to hear the warning and immediately to repent, to bend our knees anew and to flee to Christ that He might not make war against us by the Word, the sword from His mouth, but that instead He might nourish us with Himself. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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