************ Sermon on Revelation 2:12-17 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 11, 1999
"Pergamum: The Tolerant Church"
Pergamum was a very important political and religious center in the Roman Empire. Politically, it was the capital city of the province of Asia. Religiously, it was a center for pagan and emperor worship. Of all the seven cities, Pergamum was the one in which the church was most likely to clash with the ruling civil and religious authorities. Pergamum provided an unusually difficult environment for a Christian church to be established in.
In this light, how fitting is the title of the letter-writer to the church in Pergamum: "These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword" (vs 12). This title, like the titles found in all the letters, comes from the vision of chapter 1:
(Rev 1:16) In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.In a city like Pergamum – the capital of the Roman province of Asia, the place of residence of the Roman governor – the power of the sword belongs to the Roman proconsul for he had the right to grant life or death, to pardon or to execute.
"These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword." By this title Jesus reminds the Christians of Pergamum that the Roman governor is not the only one with a sword. By this title Jesus is challenging the sword of the Roman governor and the Roman Empire. By this title Jesus is reminding the Christians of Pergamum that there is a sword that is greater than that of any earthly powers, a sword under which all men lie – and this includes earthly governors too. By this title Jesus reminds the persecuted Christians of Pergamum that ultimate power over life and death belongs to God and not to Caesar.
I A True Church
A As part of the triune Godhead, Christ is everywhere present, He is all-knowing, He is all-seeing. So He can say to the church at Pergamum, "I know where you live" (vs 13). Christ knows everything about the environment the Pergamum Christians live in. He knows what they have to endure, what they have to face. He knows the temptations and trials that confront them. He knows the evil that surrounds them.
The church of Pergamum lives in what can basically be described as an evil environment. Jesus says that the city of Pergamum is "where Satan has his throne," and "where Satan lives" (vs 13). We can pinpoint three things. First, located in Pergamum was a temple of Asklepios, the pagan god of healing. The symbol of Asklepios is a serpent and was to be found throughout the city. While this emblem symbolized healing to the pagans, it stood for evil to the Christian since a snake or serpent is the Christian representation for Satan.
Second, also located in Pergamum was a huge throne-like altar of the Greek god Zeus. This altar was built in honor of Zeus after Pergamum defeated an invading army. The citizens of Pergamum offered their pagan sacrifices to Zeus and referred to him as "Zeus the Savior." For the Christian, however, it isn't Zeus but Jesus Who is Savior, the only Savior!
Third, Pergamum was also a center for emperor worship. It was the first city of Asia to receive permission to build a temple dedicated to the worship of a living emperor. In due course, a second and third temple in honor of the emperor was also built. It reached the point where worship of the emperor became a test of loyalty to Rome. And, a refusal to take part in emperor worship was judged high treason. You well know, I am sure, that the Roman confession that Caesar is Lord runs completely counter to the Christian confession that Jesus is Lord.
B "Yet," says Christ, "you remain true to my name." In spite of the fact that the church was surrounded by pagan and emperor worship, the believers of Pergamum remained true to Christ's name. We should remember that most of the converts in Pergamum had come from paganism. Great social and religious pressure must have been exerted on them to abandon Christ, to turn back to their pagan worship, to burn incense to the emperor, and to declare that Caesar is Lord. Yet, these Christians hold fast to Christ's name.
The Christians of Pergamum remained true to Christ's name. They knew what was at stake here. They knew that to deny Christ's name is to forsake salvation. They knew "there is no other name under heaven given to men" by which we are saved (Acts 4:12). I am sure they remembered the words of Christ Himself:
(Mt 10:32-33) "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. (33) But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven."
To acknowledge Christ and confess His name required bravery and courage on their part. To His disciples Jesus had given a warning about confessing His name:
(Jn 15:21) If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also ... They will treat you this way because of my name.It is clear from the letter in front of us that this is exactly what happened to the Christians of Pergamum: they were persecuted on account of the name of Christ. Christ can mention "Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city" (vs 13). Little is known of this early martyr. We do know that he was faithful to Christ even in the face of death. Legend has it that he was slowly roasted to death in a brass bull.
Even when one of their number was killed on account of Christ's name the Christians of Pergamum remained true to the Lord. Says Christ, "You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas" (vs 13). The martyrdom of a fellow believer must have come as a shock to the Christians of Pergamum. It must have made them all wonder whether their devotion to the Lord was worth the price. Yet, they remained true to the Lord.
C The church in North America is not surrounded by pagan and emperor worship like the church of Pergamum was. Nevertheless, the great enemy Satan is as active today as he was then. The false religions that surround us exert as much pressure on us to disown Christ and deny His name as the pagan religions exerted on the Christians of Pergamum.
The greatest of the false religions surrounding us in America today is Secular Humanism. This religion has one over-riding aim: to make America thoroughly secular, to make religion irrelevant, to remove all mention of God. And, through this movement Satan has widely succeeded. For instance, most of public life is conducted with no or only a passing – and superficial – reference to God. Christmas-time displays by towns and cities can focus on Santas, sleighs, lights, presents, but not on the baby Jesus. In our public school system students are no longer allowed to study the Bible or start the day with prayer, the Judaeo-Christian viewpoint and morality cannot be taught and often is openly mocked, and teachers who try to bring their Christianity into the classroom are fired or transferred into a non-teaching position.
Secular Humanism is not the only false religion to be found in America today. We can also point to the New Age Movement which would have us believe that every man has within himself the capacity to be united with the ultimate forces of the universe. It is frightening how many have adopted this and other forms of far-eastern mysticism and engage in mindless chants instead of coming to God in Christ. Of course, an ever present god in our consumer oriented society is materialism, the god of money and get-rich-quick schemes. Or, we can point to the god of hedonism, of living for the gratification of one's appetites and desires. Everyone of these gods and false religions exert pressure on us to abandon Christ and our confession of His name.
Congregation, are we true to Christ's name like the church of Pergamum? Have we withstood the pressures of America's false religions and pagan gods? Do we conduct all of life under the awareness of Christ's Lordship or have we let secular humanism hold sway so that Jesus is left with only Sunday morning worship and meal-time devotions? Is our goal in life the Kingdom of God and its righteousness or do we live for big bucks and weekends? Like the church of Pergamum do we and will we remain true to Christ's name and keep our faith?
II A Tolerant Church
A Although Christ praises the church of Pergamum for remaining faithful in the midst of severe pressure and opposition He is not blind to her faults:
(Rev 2:14-15) 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. (15) Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
If you remember, the first letter, the one to the church of Ephesus, praises the Ephesian church for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans and condemns her for a lack of love. The Pergamum church has the opposite problem: she may have love, but she tolerates the teaching of the Nicolaitans and Balaam. The church of Pergamum was too tolerant of other views and practices whereas Ephesus was not tolerant enough.
The church of Pergamum tolerated the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. Do you remember the story of Balaam and Balak, found in Numbers 22-25? Balak, king of Moab, knew that he could not defeat the Israelites in battle. So he called Balaam, who was some kind of diviner or witch-doctor, to put a curse on Israel. God, however, thwarted this plan; He put words of blessing instead of curse in Balaam's mouth. Balaam ended up blessing Israel and cursing Israel's enemies.
When this plan failed Balaam suggested another plan to Balak (cf Num 31:16). Balaam suggested that Israel could be defeated by seduction. So young and beautiful Moabite women came to the camp of Israel and invited the men to participate in the sexual immorality and feasts associated with the worship of Baal. Some 24,000 Israelite men took up this invitation. Pagan food and pagan women accomplished what armies and Balaam could not do.
The Nicolaitans saw nothing wrong with what Balaam caused Israel to do. This heretical sect thought that Christians could safely participate in the sexual immorality and feasts associated with pagan worship.
Amazingly, the church of Pergamum tolerated the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans in her midst. The church of Pergamum allowed believers to participate in the sexual immorality and feasts associated with pagan worship.
How did this sad situation develop? How could Christians tolerate these teachings? How could Christians participate in the feasts and sexual immorality of pagan worship? I'm afraid that the church became like the city. Pergamum was a city that had combined the religions of three peoples and three ages into one city so that they peacefully co-existed. Side by side was the worship of Asklepios, Zeus, and Caesar. Pergamum was able to accommodate them all. There were pagans, no doubt, who thought their city was able to absorb yet another religion – the Christian one. There were also Christians – the Nicolaitans – who thought the same way. By compromising just a little bit here and there, by accommodation, the Christian religion could peacefully co-exist and flourish next to the pagan religions. The Nicolaitans did not think they were destroying Christianity; they thought they were improving and modernizing it.
Jesus condemns the church of Pergamum even though only a few were actually guilty of the sin of the Nicolaitans. Jesus condemns the church of Pergamum because she tolerated such a sin in her midst. This church refused to discipline, admonish, and condemn those guilty of such sin.
Amazing, isn't it?! The church of Pergamum was more than able to fight the enemy outside of the gates. In the face of persecution she remained true and faithful to Christ and His name. The church of Pergamum, however, failed miserably in fighting the enemy within the gate. She was too tolerant and not near vigilant enough.
The church of Pergamum, I would have to say, would fit in very well with our secular humanistic society today. For, in the eyes of popular culture as represented in the mass media what is today's greatest sin? In the eyes of today's mass media the greatest and biggest sin anyone can commit is the sin of intolerance. Look at what happened to Dr. James Dobson because he dared to condemn homosexual practice – he was raked over the coals for being so intolerant, so bigoted, so narrow-minded, and so old-fashioned and out-of-step with the times. Conservative Christian churches that dare to speak against public immorality are viewed as being a danger to the public well-being. And, the Christian claim that Jesus is the only way to salvation runs counter to the popular belief that all paths lead to God. The world today prizes tolerance and is intolerant of those who are intolerant.
The church of Pergamum fits right into this kind of thinking. She was tolerant, rather than intolerant, of those who accommodated themselves to the ways and thought-forms of the secular world.
B So Christ calls for repentance: "Repent therefore!" He demands that the church fight evil within. And Christ also gives a warning:
(Rev 2:16) Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.Unless Pergamum repents of its extreme tolerance Christ will visit her in judgment.
Notice, Christ will judge the church with the sword of His mouth. The sword of His mouth is the Word of God (cf Heb 4:12). The Word of God is a double-edged sword: it either brings us condemnation and judgment when we don't repent or salvation and comfort when we do repent and believe.
C How do we measure up compared to the Pergamum church? I believe we successfully withstand the attacks from without and within. Like the Pergamum church I am more than positive that we would remain true to Christ's name in the face of persecution. And, unlike the Pergamum church we are quick to discern and have no toleration for those who attack the church from within.
I am sure you realize that we must strike a balance and walk a fine line between the character of the Ephesian church on the one hand and the character of the Pergamum church on the other hand. We can't be like the Ephesian church which, though intolerant about heresy and immorality, was unloving. But, we also can't be like the Pergamum church which, though loving, was tolerant of heresy and immorality.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." If we hear, if we listen, if we remain faithful and true to Christ, then ours is this promise of the Lord: "To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna" (vs 17). It is believed by the Jews that manna is the food of the heavenly kingdom. Those who eat this bread live forever. Of course, this bread is given only by Jesus for it is Jesus Himself who is the true bread of heaven.
But that is not the only promise. Jesus gives another promise as well:
(Rev 2:17) To him who overcomes ... I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.In ancient times guests invited to a banquet were given a white stone to serve as a ticket of admission. Those who are faithful to Christ are given a white stone for admission to the heavenly wedding banquet. Revelation 19 says, "Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb" (Rev 19:9b).
Are you, am I, are we faithful to the Lord? Do we successfully withstand attacks from without and within? If the answer is "yes" we have listened to what the Spirit says. If the answer is "yes" ours is the bread of life everlasting and entrance into the Messianic wedding banquet.
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