By Res Spears
Delivered October 21, 2018 at Liberty Spring Christian Church
You all probably have recognized by now that I love to tell embarrassing stories about myself. And some of you have probably heard this one before, but it’s one of my favorites, because it tells you something about me AND something about my mother.
As hard as it may be to believe, I was not a perfect child. I’ll pause a moment while you collect yourselves.
No, I wasn’t always perfect, and sometimes I wasn’t always even good. And sometimes I chose to cause problems for my mother and father when we were out in public.
Mom has a special look that she’ll give me — even today — when I’ve veered off the path into forbidden territory. She and both of her sisters have this look down pat. In fact, my uncles like to joke about the Cooper Stare.
When you get the Cooper Stare, you’d better stop whatever it was that you were doing, because the next level of correction isn’t pretty.
When I was young, though, I hadn’t figured out that important fact, and there were more than a couple of times when we were out that I would then hear the words that I came to dread: “Do you want me to take you to the bathroom?”
Now, what would happen in the bathroom is that I’d receive a solid spanking, along with the warning that I’d better straighten myself out and be ready to leave the bathroom smiling and not sulking.
Having received my correction — my discipline — I could then go back out into the restaurant or wherever we happened to be and rejoin polite society.
The discipline was not something I enjoyed, but it was important for getting me back on track, and it was important for maintaining order within the community of our family. If I had not been disciplined, I would have gone on to cause even greater problems, both for myself and for our community.
The same thing is true within the church, and today we’re going to see what happened when one of the early Christian churches failed to exercise discipline over wayward members.
Turn with me to our focus passage, Rev. 2:12-17, and let’s take a look at what was happening in the church at Pergamum.
As we have been doing throughout our study of Christ’s letters to the churches in the Book of Revelation, I want to give you some background about this place so you can have the context of the letter we’re studying today.
Pergamum was located about 50 miles north of Smyrna, in what is now Turkey. It was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and the seat of the Roman proconsul for that province. He had the power to pronounce life or death, and he would have been worshiped, along with the Roman emperor.
But there were many different pagan gods worshiped in Pergamum. There were temples to Zeus, Dionysos, Athene and Rome, and people came to the city hoping to be healed by the god Æsclepius.
With such a wide variety of pagan worship happening there, it may not be a surprise that pagan practices seeped into the church. But the church is called to be holy — to be set apart from the world — and when we allow sin to go unchecked within the church, it can have grave consequences.
12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:Rev. 2:12-17 (NASB)
The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this:
13 ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
14 ‘But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.
15 ‘So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
16 ‘Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.
17 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.’
Now, you’ll recall from last week that Jesus had offered unqualified praise to the church in Smyrna. Here, on the other hand, we see praise and correction together.
Notice first that He describes Himself as “the One who has the sharp two-edged sword.”
The two-edged sword is described in Hebrews 4:12 as the Word of God, which “is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
In Rev. 19:15, we read: “From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.”
God’s word is a “sword of salvation as well as the sword of death.”[i] It can save us, and it can bring judgment upon us.
For the church in Pergamum, this reference to the double-edged sword as part of Christ’s identification of Himself was a warning, and it’s a warning we will see Him reiterate in verse 16. Jesus was warning them that He has the power of judgment, and He will use it.
Remember that as we continue, because there is an important sense in which He gave the church authority — and even responsibility — to wield a portion of that power in church discipline.
Recall what Jesus said to Peter when He commissioned Peter with founding the church:
I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”Matt. 16:18-19
That’s a statement about church discipline. It is a great responsibility — one not to be taken lightly, but one that also must not be ignored. In a moment, we’ll see that ignoring it is exactly what the church in Pergamum had done.
But first, we see Jesus commending that church for standing firm in the faith, even in the midst of the pagan culture where it had been planted.
In his writings, John uses the phrase “ruler of this world” or “ruler of the world” three times to describe Satan. In 1 John, chapter 5, he says “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”
Indeed, in Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, Satan offers Jesus all the glory of the earth if the Son of God would worship him.
“I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.”Luke 4:6
For at least a time, Satan has been given power, though not authority, here on earth, and there is a sense in which we all, then, dwell where Satan’s throne is.
But Pergamum, with its many pagan gods and worship practices, apparently was a special stronghold for the devil.
And yet, the people of this church had been faithful.
This is the third letter in which Jesus commended faithfulness or perseverance, even unto death, and we see here that in Pergamum, one man, Antipas, had already been killed for his faith in Christ.
It’s easy to call yourself a Christian. We see that in our own society. A Barna survey reveals that 73 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, but only 31 percent attend church at least once a month.[ii]
It’s easy to call yourself a Christian. But it is much harder to persevere, to be faithful, to continue to follow Christ, when it begins to cost us relationships with friends and family and when it begins to cost us jobs and income. How much harder, then, to be faithful even to death?
That is why we are told to count the cost.
But here’s the really good news: If we have given everything over to Jesus, then those things and those relationships are not ours to lose anymore, anyway. They belong to Jesus.
He knows what is best for us, and He desires that we have only those things in our lives that serve to draw us closer to Him.
For whatever reason, the church in Pergamum had not devoted itself fully to holiness. It had not allowed Jesus to take away the things — and the people — that would draw them away from Him. We see that in Verse 14.
‘But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.Rev. 2:14
Now, this reference to the teaching of Balaam takes us back to the Old Testament, when the Jewish people were in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.
Balaam had been called by the Moabite king Balak to curse the people of Israel because he was afraid they would destroy Moab as they had done to the Amorites. But Balaam could only bless them, because God would give him only words of blessing to speak.
But when we read between the lines in the broader account that appears in the Book of Numbers, we can conclude that even though Balaam could not offer a curse against the Jews, he was able to advise Balak how to undermine their relationship with God.
And if you’ll look at the scripture from Numbers 25 on your handouts, you’ll see that his advice seems to have worked.
While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab.
For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.
So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel. The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.”
Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand, and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked. Those who died by the plague were 24,000.Numbers 25:1-9
King Balak had ensnared the people of Israel into committing fleshly and spiritual adultery. And Balaam is explicitly blamed for this in Numbers 31:16.
Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord.Numbers 31:16
So when Jesus says through the Holy Spirit in our passage from Revelation today that some in the church at Pergamum held to the teaching of Balaam, the suggestion is that they were participating in the pagan worship rituals of that culture — perhaps even bringing them into the church.
Eating things sacrificed to idols was a big problem in Pergamum. Nearly every kind of meat served in someone’s home, for instance, would have been killed sacrificially before some idol or another.
To choose not to eat such mean would mean, among other things, never accepting an invitation to dine with pagan neighbors or friends.
To put this in terms that make more sense to us today, think of going to a friend’s house for the evening and having them put on a recording of Game or Thrones or some other show that similarly glorifies immorality. What message would it send for someone known to be a follower of Christ to stay and watch?
Even more destructive to our Christian witness and our walk with Christ is our own pursuit of wrong things that please us (shows like that or movies and books that expose us to immorality, for instance), instead of things that edify one another.
The early Christians had liberty to eat whatever meat they wished, but they were warned not to be a stumbling block to others. So also, we must be careful not to appeal to our liberty in Christ while doing things that cause others to stumble.
‘So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.Rev. 2:15
The church also had some who were holding to the teachings of the Nicolaitans.
Remember that the church in Ephesus had been commended for casting the Nicolaitans from their fellowship. This church, on the other hand, kept them right inside the community.
Which leads me to the point about church discipline. In the next verse, Jesus says:
‘Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.Rev. 2:16
What exactly were these people Jesus had commended for their faithfulness to be repenting for? And what’s the bit about Him making war?
We are called to stand against false teachers and those who sow division in the church. In Matthew 18, Jesus describes how the process should work, and we’ll talk about it in more depth in another message, probably early next year.
But the final step in the process for someone who are sinning against the church and unrepentant about their sin is to for the church to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Gentiles and tax collectors were not allowed to be part of the Jewish community; similarly those who sow division, immorality and false teaching within the church are to be put out of the fellowship if they refuse to repent.
Note that when Jesus warns about making war with the sword of His mouth, the war He threatens is not against the faithful believers but against “THEM,” the people who held the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans.
The point is that if the church does not do it, HE will deal with the people who are leading His flock astray.
If the church does not exercise its responsibility to discipline and even cast out of its fellowship those who are practicing heresy and division, Jesus will take away its authority to do so and accomplish Himself what the church should have done for itself.
And as Matthew Henry notes: “When God comes to punish the corrupt members of a church, he rebukes that church itself for allowing such to continue in its communion, and some drops of the storm fall upon the whole society.”[iii]
Just as the church was in Pergamum, we are planted in the midst of a culture that is opposed to Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must be vigilant to make sure that we do not let the immorality of that culture infect us as individuals or to infect the corporate body of the church.
This church in Pergamum had compromised with its culture, and in so doing, it had become a compromised church.
The thing about compromise is that it’s only good when one side or the other isn’t absolutely correct.
When we try to force compromise on absolute truth, what we wind up with is no longer truth. So when we compromise our biblically based moral principles within the church, we are taking God’s absolute truths and making them something else altogether, all in some misguided attempt to appear attractive to the world.
But we are not called to be attractive; we are called to be Christ-like. That means we must love those who are lost, but it does NOT mean we are to act like them.
Think of Lot living in the city of Sodom, surrounded by that immoral culture. They loved that culture so much that the angels had to drag them out of the city prior to destroying it. And that culture had infiltrated their lives so much that after they had escaped Sodom’s destruction, Lot’s daughters got him drunk and then slept with him.
Brothers and sisters, we are affected by the things that we allow to surround us. And if we are not very careful, we can be INfected by them, as well, just like Lot and just like the church at Pergamum.
Jesus had a stern warning for and a harsh rebuke of the church, but in His abounding grace He ended this letter with a word of hope.
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.’Rev. 2:17
For those who would overcome — for those who believed in Him — there would be hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it.
The hidden manna refers back to the daily bread that came down from heaven during the time of the Jews’ wandering in the wilderness. But Jesus is the new Bread of Life, and He is the portion for those who follow Him.
The pagans were eating meat sacrificed to idols, and it would bring death. But Jesus promises bread that brings eternal life.
And those who eat that bread — those who repent of their sins and believe in Him, those who recognize that He left heaven to live a sinless life and then die on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins — they will join Him in heaven, where He ascended to His Father after being raised from the dead.
And what about that new name?
God gave Abram a new name. He gave Jacob a new name. Jesus gave Simon Barjona a new name. And He gave Saul of Tarsus a new name.
I think this verse tells us that when believers arrive in heaven they get more than glorified bodies; we get new names that reflect our new identities and our eternal lives in Christ.
If we hold fast His name, Jesus will give US a name. What a great promise.
Now, today’s message has mostly been about expositing this passage of Scripture. But do not miss the application within our own church.
We have a responsibility to hold firm against those who would divide our church, whether with false doctrine, by holding too close to the immoral culture around us or by separating sheep from the flock.
We cannot allow ourselves to become like the church of Ephesus, who in their zeal to confront and banish false teachers left their first love. But we also cannot be like the church of Pergamum, who let their affections for false teachers and idolators keep them from confronting and removing them.
We must commit ourselves to doing the work of love AND the work of discipline.
Neither of those
jobs will prove to be easy. But the danger to our church for not doing them is
real. And the reward FOR doing them is great and eternal.
[i] (John F. Walvoord, “Revelation,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 936.)
[iii] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2467.