Church Flirting with Disaster – Revelation 2:12-17 (Pergamum)

Last week we talked through Jesus’ reaction to the suffering in Smyrna, and we reflected on the suffering among us.  It was surprising when we tried to name most of the people in our church family who needed our intercessory prayers last Sunday evening.  The list was very long.  This morning we approach the letter to Pergamum.  Again, we understand this morning that we are dealing with apocalyptic language that was used by John to communicate with churches in a dangerous time of persecution.  The goal was to give encouragement, comfort, and correction to the churches of Asia Minor, using images and word pictures that would not be understood by their persecutors if this material fell into the wrong hands.

We are in the first vision of this book – a vision of the ascended, glorified Christ addressing the seven churches of Asia Minor and us.  Jesus says to us today: “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!  I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

This letter to Pergamum is the first in a sequence of three letters.  The sequence is one that moves from people who are faithful but living close to the edge of temptation, to Thyatira being clearly seduced to Sardis that is all but gone in its failure to be faithful to the Lord.  Pergamum was a church flirting with disaster.  Listen to the words of Jesus.

“To the angel of the church of Pergamum write: ‘These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.’” (vs. 12)  There are many images in the Bible of God or Christ bearing a two-edged sword.  It is also used of the Bible itself – or the Word of God.  Here the image refers to God coming with encouragement or protection or judgment – depending on how they respond to his correction.  We noted last week that Christ came to Smyrna only with encouragement and praise.  Here we see both praise and warning.

(Vs. 13) “I know where you live – where Satan has his throne.”  Literally it says, “I full understand where you are dwelling.  I completely understand your situation.” “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.  Christ recognized that they lived in an extremely difficult situation.  Life has been difficult for these people.  To get a sense of what Christ is talking about we need to dig a little bit into the kind of city Pergamum was.  (map)

  1. John Stott says that if Ephesus was the New York of Asia, Pergamum was its Washington DC.  The Roman historian, Pliny, called Pergamum the most famous city in Asia.  It was a city that was known as an intellectual center.  They had a library of over 200,000 books at a time when books were copied by hand – one letter at a time.
  2. Along with being an intellectual center, it was known as a religious center.  When Christ referred to the “throne of Satan” we suspect that refers to the fact that this was a place where the forces of false religions were gathered.  For example, it was a center for the worship of Asklepios – the Greek god of healing.  The temple had what we would call medical wards, a medical school, and the priests of this god.  People came from all over the Roman world to be healed.  Asklepios was called THE SAVIOR.  The emblem some of you have already guessed was the serpent – where the medical seal came from.  The sick stayed in the dark temple over night to be touched by one of the tame snakes of the temple.  The touch of the snake was the same as the touch of the god, thus bringing healing.  Given my feeling about snakes, I am deeply hopeful that Memorial hospital has moved significantly beyond that center of medical science.
  3. Behind Pergamum was a large hill.  Dotted on this hill were temples to the Greek deities: especially Zeus and Athena.  But, the primary reason it was called the “seat of Satan” was that Pergamum was a huge center for Caesar worship.  It was a dangerous place for Christians to live.  It was the battle place between Caesar and Christ.  The constant question was: WHO IS LORD?  The battle raged between Lord Caesar and Lord Christ.  In this battle Antipas was put to death for refusing to say, “Lord Caesar.”  Most interpreters think that Antipas was the pastor or the bishop of Pergamum.  Tradition has it that he was put inside a hollow bronze bull and roasted to death.  He was a martyr like Polycarp who we talked about last week.  These men united the Christian community with their faithful commitment and courage.

Jesus Christ said, “I know where you live.”  And he praised them for being faithful, even when their pastor was killed for being faithful to Christ.  He commended them for being true to his name – LORD CHRIST, and not renouncing their faith.  By the very nature of these letters I believe Christ is offering this commendation to every church, every congregation who reads this letter and has not given in to the pressures of their culture but have remained Christ-centered in their worship and loyalty.  It is the affirmation to every Christian who has kept Christ first, knowing what is of most and of lesser importance.  Here we live in the smile of his approval – “well done, good and faithful servant and friend.”

Just as we soak in the affirmation, we also need to take in the warnings in this letter.  Are these applicable to us? Christ was very concerned about Pergamum because, even though the majority have remained faithful, they were living closer and closer to the edge, listening more and more to people who were constantly tempting them in a culture seething with political/ religious pressure and sexual immorality.  Jesus said, “You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam.”  Typically for this apocalyptic letter, John picks up Old Testament images to communicate what is going on.  The reference is to Numbers 23, 24, and 25:1-9.  Balaam tried to get Balak to curse the children of Israel for prestige and riches.  The people began to eat food offered to idols and the men committed all sorts of sexual immorality with the Moabite women.  In a nutshell, the teachings of Balaam brought dishonor on Israel and unfaithfulness to their God.  There was an element in the church at Pergamum which was bringing dishonor on the name of Christ by teaching compromise with political/religious pressure in order to escape persecution.  Along with that there was huge social pressure to go to feasts neighbors had.

Normally when a person sacrificed some animal in a heathen temple, only a very small, token part of the animal was burned – sometimes no more than a few hairs.  Then the priest got a portion and the rest was returned to the worshiper for a feast with his friends.  It was very offensive not to come to one of these feasts if a person was invited.  Some were teaching that they should go ahead and do this to keep the peace and avoid persecution.  The feasts also usually involved the temple prostitutes at the party.

The Roman, Demonsthenes, described the morality of that culture as well as the status of women, “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and we have a faithful guardian for our household affairs.”  In other words, they had slaves to run things so they did not have to work.  They could play full-time. The danger in the church was a group of people known as Nicolaitans.  These people were Gnostics who taught that the physical was the source of evil, so it did not much matter what you did physically.  It was the spiritual that you needed to be concerned about because that is all God is concerned about.  Therefore, it was OK to go to those feasts, to give in to the pressures to fake Caesar worship, and to participate in sexually immoral behavior because that was just physical stuff that really didn’t matter – as long as you were spiritually OK.  It was a teaching to justify compromising behavior of all types.  It is kind of like doing what you want all week, just so you show up in church on Sunday – that is all that really counts.

These teachings and practices by some were beginning to sap the spiritual strength of the church as more and more walked closer to the line, and they were a scandal to the name of Christ.  While the body of the church remained faithful to the name of Christ, it tolerated those who shamed it.  The church was flirting with disaster.  The pressure was moral and religious / political – pressure to compromise, to accommodate.  The temptation was to move 2ndary things into primary position.  Jesus said, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  We would be refusing to listen if we didn’t ask is we too are pressured to walk close to the line, if we too flirt with disaster.

Where and how do we feel the pressure to compromise and accommodate and to put our loyalty to the Lord in 2nd place?  There is pressure to compromise our moral values.  We hear almost daily about people who are thought to be models in our culture give who in to pressure to be immoral in their relationships, unfaithful in their marriages, and betray their commitments.  How many people push the limits without boundaries so they will feel better about themselves, flirting with sin and disaster – anything to feel desireable?  The temptations around pornography, probably especially for the men, are everywhere and easily accessed.  I honestly have been surprised how often this comes up in my ministry.  We let Hollywood influence us from how seductively we dress to a superficial sexual valuing of people, to relationships that are sexual without intimacy.  It is living life on the red carpet.  Many of us here this morning have access to a variety of drugs to use for our recreation from alcohol to pot to cocaine, etc.  We complain about our spouses and fail to do the work of creating the intimate marriages that God intended.  How many people are more passionate about their money and resources that about their faith? How close to the line are we walking? Are we, are you flirting with disaster?

In Pergamum the pressure of participation in other religions was social and political.  Failure to participate brought the threat of reprisal, rejection, slander, economic suffering and imprisonment.   For us it is less dramatic, but still powerful.  Maybe the most dangerous social/political pressure on us is to believe in American Civil Religion that calls itself Christian, is appealing in its conservatism and is moralistic about a couple issues, yet without being Christ-centered.  It is the appeal to put the important but secondary loyalty of patriotism with its hopes and dreams into first place, putting our Christ-follower values in second place.  Again the question, are we flirting with disaster?  What are we doing with the pressure?  Are we being thoughtful and loyal to the Lord?

Verse 16 says, “Repent therefore!” Literally, repent immediately.  “Otherwise I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”  Christ threatens to come with that two-edged sword of judgment.

Finally, we come to the promises.  Pay attention says Christ, He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

To him who overcomes – I will give some of the hidden manna.  The image is not perfectly clear.  I believe John picks up and stirs up several images to create a new one.  There is the manna Israel received from God in the wilderness; there is the bread of the sacrament and the feeding of the Word of God, and the opposite image of the pagan feast.  There were those in Pergamum who had been malnourished on the falsehoods of hatred, fear, selfishness, sexual narcissism, self-indulgence, etc.  They needed to repent, to turn around and be fed with the food, the manna, the bread of the health-giving gospel – the Word of God.

To him who overcomes – I will also give a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.  One of the key areas where white and black stones were used was for voting in a court of justice.  Receiving a white stone meant acquittal and a black one meant being judged guilty.   Also, a white stone with a name on it was given to a freed slave, it meant freedom and citizenship.  The image is clearly one of being freed from guilt, from the power of evil, and being a citizen in God’s kingdom – a person with a name of honor, given by God, designating him/her for eternal life.

The Spirit is speaking to the church.  We see the dangerous flirtation that was going on in the church at Pergamum.  We hear the warnings and the promises.  We cannot avoid, I think, some introspection.   Are we embarrassing the name of Christ with our attitudes and behaviors?  Are we in danger of our rationalizations, ready to embrace a Christ-less religion?  Are we willing to be judged by the two-edged sword of the Word of God.  The questions are unavoidable.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.