Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Challenge of Pergamum: Sermon on Revelation 2:12-17

Tension filled the air as the diviner and the king faced off. The diviner had not been working out according to the king's lofty expectations. And the king was frustrated and furious. Because the king was scared. Balak of Moab had seen the large and prosperous camp of the children of Israel parked in his backyard, pitching their tents on his turf. And rather than send armies on a futile mission – for he'd heard what had happened to all the other challengers – Balak and his friends, the five chieftains of Midian – had gotten an idea. What they needed was to break Israel's invincibility from the other end. And so Balak had sent messengers to hire him a spiritual hit-man. They'd had to travel a great distance to Pethor. But they got hold of the famed diviner and visionary Balaam, son of Beor. With sufficient inducement, Balaam had been convinced to make the trip, riding his trusty donkey. But after a frightening encounter he and the donkey had with a heavenly power along the way, he'd come insisting that he might not be able to bend Israel's God to his will – might have to say no more and no less than Israel's God was willing for him to say (Numbers 22:1-38).

Still, Balak had taken Balaam to assorted mountain peaks, to view the camp of Israel and utter curses to bring Israel down. They'd sacrificed at Bamoth-baal, but Israel's God had refused to be bribed, and Balaam could give no curse (Numbers 22:41—23:10). They sacrificed atop Mount Pisgah, but again Balaam's words twisted into a blessing on Israel (Numbers 23:13-24). Balak tried again by taking Balaam elsewhere, to the top of Peor to make more sacrifices – and Balaam blessed Israel even more fervently (Numbers 23:27—24:9)! Oh, Balak was furious – he threatened to rip up the contract, warned Balaam he was forfeiting his hefty fee (Numbers 24:11). Balaam spoke a fourth oracle, warning Balak that Israel would indeed produce a star and scepter that could one day “crush the forehead of Moab” (Numbers 24:17).

But Balaam, crafty Balaam, hatched a wicked plan. Sacrifice and bribery could not sever Israel and her God from one another, but Israel's God had given them a Law, a Law that called for their faith and obedience. And if Israel could be induced into breaking that faith and obedience, surely Israel would be crippled and become easy prey. So Balaam advised Balak and the chieftains to send beautiful women to tempt the youthful Israelites with food and sensual delights and entice them to sacrifice to local gods. Then Balaam left, having done his work. Balak took it to heart. He sent out the women. “These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods, so Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:2-3). A disease epidemic began spreading through the camp, and 24,000 Israelites got sick and died. It was all due to the influence of Balaam's teaching from afar, as Moses learned: “These women, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against Yahweh in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of Yahweh” (Numbers 31:16).

In the end, after Aaron's grandson Phinehas had ended the plague with his righteous zeal and loyalty (Numbers 25:10), Israel bided their time, learned more instructions from their God through Moses, whose age led him to appoint Joshua as his successor. Meanwhile, word came to Balaam about how successful his dangerous counsel had been. Yearning for his payment from Balak, he made the long trip back to Midian – just at the time when Israel declared war. Not only did Israel bring down the five chieftains, but “they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword” (Numbers 31:8). And so ended the sordid career of the gifted diviner Balaam, whom Israel would forever remember as the prototype of all false teachers who lead the people astray and invite the wrath of God against the assembly. In his last speech to Israel, Moses warned them about prophets, dreamers, and teachers who might entice them to falsehood, and how they dare not listen to those who teach rebellion and seek to draw them away from the God who liberated them from Egyptian chains (Deuteronomy 13:1-18). If a city of Israel were to give in and be drawn away, the whole city was to be “devoted to destruction … with the edge of the sword,” just as Balaam was (Deuteronomy 13:15). Having taught them these things, Moses climbed up Mount Pisgah, to the very spot where Balaam had blessed them against his will – and there Moses took his final breath, still in the desert and not quite reaching the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:1-5).

Over a thousand years later, the spiritual heirs of the children of Israel found themselves living in a desert of a city called Pergamum. And Pergamum might seem like an odd place to compare to the plains of Moab. It was a northerly city in Asia Minor, and a prosperous and populous one – a fifth of a million people, or thereabouts, and it had massive temples, a truly impressive library (among the largest in the world), a grand theater, lavish healthcare facilities with a great spa, and more. And a church, meeting in the homes of believers, was nestled in the neighborhoods of that big city. No city could seem less, geographically, like the desert plains of Moab.

And yet it was a lot like the plains of Moab. For that city had a deep devotion to the serpent-loving Greek god of healing, Asklepios – the spa was his. And that city had a great fervor for Zeus, to whom they built a gargantuan altar shaped like a giant throne. The people of Pergamum called both those gods their 'saviors.' Not only that, but with temples to the emperors, Pergamum was the city from which conformity with the imperial cult was enforced. It was the headquarters of official government worship for the province. There was a fair deal of pressure, from time to time, just as Balak had sought to put pressure on Israel. Pergamum hosted civic dinners where the gods would receive sacrifice. And the church had learned the painful way what can happen to dissenters – they'd watched a believer named Antipas put to death one dark day for his faithful witness.

So when Jesus dictates a letter to the church in Pergamum, he gives credit where credit is due. Jesus is fully appreciative of their difficult position, right in the heart of paganism, with that massive altar looming over them on a regular basis, with the pressure and the threat and the memory of Antipas' death ever-present to the church as they meet. Jesus tells the Pergamene church that they “dwell where Satan's throne is.” They might as well be pitched within the doorway to hell, plunged in darkness. Because that's how pernicious the imperial cult and the other pagan cults are. And somehow, this little church is getting by right under Satan's nose, and it is not easy. “Yet you hold fast my name,” Jesus tells them, “and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:13). With all the suspicion attached to the word 'Christian,' a partisan of the Messiah Jesus, still the Pergamene church clings to that word and the name of Jesus. They have not outright denied him, even when the pressure was really on. That much is good. The church there is capable of producing daring faithfulness. And that shouldn't be overlooked. Jesus is ready to commend us just for being willing to openly identify with him when the world denounces his name.

So the Pergamene church gets extra credit for a simple thing – clinging to Jesus' name – because they've started at such a disadvantage due to their proximity to the heart of pagan worship, which Jesus calls “Satan's throne.” The church has continued to identify themselves with Christ's name, even when that was deeply unpopular with their neighbors. To us here, that poses no threat. It might not be particularly commendable. Because we aren't dwelling where Satan sets up his throne. But in extraordinary circumstances, even the most basic expressions of faith become exemplary in Jesus' sight. Credit where credit is due, and the disadvantage is taken into account when Jesus evaluates the churches. Jesus takes into account our circumstances. He knows where we dwell.

But for all that, Jesus is not happy with the church in Pergamum. The Pergamene church has a problem that has to be faced and owned. And that problem is a lot like Israel's in the plains of Moab. Remember, Balak knew better than to send his army to fight a faithful Israel from the outside through external pressures. Now Satan has relearned that lesson as applied to the Pergamene church: just sending the power of the state to fight them might not break them after all. But just like Balak hired a spiritual hit-man, now Satan is turning to that approach in Pergamum, too. Satan has introduced false teachers like Balaam to corrupt the church from the inside by letting their beliefs get mingled and mangled. The result will be a hamstrung church out-of-sync with their Savior.

Jesus says outright to the Pergamene church, “You have some there who hold to 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” (Revelation 2:14-15). The Nicolaitans are the group whose misleading ideas are beginning to infect the Pergamene church. Most likely, they argued that, since idols are really powerless, there's no harm with making some empty gestures in their direction, mouthing the sentiments of the pagans as long as you don't really mean it. And in that way, they'd have more flexibility when confronted with the demands of the imperial cult. They may have had more ideas than that, but that's one key thing they seem to have been teaching.

Essentially, the Nicolaitans were introducing an alternative teaching into the church, a more liberal-minded take on Christianity. They illustrated to the people how they could rationalize holding more loosely to this belief or that belief. They went soft on certain things. They scoffed at those who clung to the fundamentals. Certainly they badmouthed the Ephesian church, which had tested them and kicked them to the curb (Revelation 2:6). So they crept into the Pergamene church and gained a hearing. They did not sway the entire church. Jesus merely says that “some there … hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:15). Just like some Israelites on the plains of Moab caught the plague. Its end is death. And it's infectious. And the problem is, the church in Pergamum has not been awake to the extreme action necessary, a la Phinehas, to put a halt to its spread. Jesus, through John, compares the Nicolaitans to Balaam, that earlier false teacher (Revelation 2:14). The church in Pergamum didn't view the Nicolaitans as worth making a fuss about. Jesus strongly disagrees. Pointing back to Balaam, he says the Nicolaitans and all other false teachers are just as dangerous and just as deadly. And the Pergamene church needs a Phinehas, needs to be a Phinehas. They need to stand up and publicly denounce the false teaching. Jesus calls on the church to “repent” (Revelation 2:16) – to repent as Phinehas led Israel to repent in the plains of Moab. Yet, no doubt, many 'right-thinking' Christians in Pergamum don't see the crisis.

Maybe that's where we find ourselves. We know – or we should know – the gospel. Before the beginning, God existed eternally, a Trinity of three persons we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all sharing the life of the one true God. For his overflowing love, God created a good world and crowned it with his representatives on earth, human beings, who were made in his image to reflect his authority and character in the world. But due to the intrusion of a fallen spirit, human beings began missing the mark, sinning, failing to reflect God. Soon our world had spiraled out of control. But God had planned all along to bless the world, so he chose the family of Abraham, which produced the nation of Israel. God rescued them from their slavery and appointed them to be his nation of blessing. But as we know, they were infected with the same darkness as the other nations, and the Law given through Moses could not dispel their darkness. So God worked with them, and with a faithful remnant within them, until the burden of their mission fell to one man, the Messiah, to carry the weight of Adam's work and Israel's purpose. God sent his own co-eternal Son to be the Messiah, taking the name Jesus. He taught truly, he worked wonders, he began to restore God's kingdom to the earth. To drain our sins away, he died on the cross, allowing all those who trust him to be united to him and have our sins flow into his death. He buried the power of sin in his grave and left it behind when he rose bodily from the dead on the third day, thus breaking the power of death. He then rose to heaven, from which he poured out the Holy Spirit, the third co-eternal person of the Trinity, to dwell in the church like a temple and fill us with the power we need to reflect God like Adam should have. Jesus pledged that he would one day return to bring the mission to completion, fully restoring God's kingdom to the earth. In the meantime, with Jesus as the Lord of everything, we are sent out to announce the good news of his accession, and to teach the nations how to be filled with his power and live according to this Savior's royal wisdom. Jesus' first followers wrote all these things down, just as Israel's prophets had, and together they form a book against which we test all our beliefs and practices, because in this book, the Bible, the wisdom of Jesus shines forth. Relying on this wisdom, we announce to the nations that there's no one else: that Jesus our Lord is the only Savior and only King, that Jesus is good news for everyone and everything.

We know that gospel. But we also know that there are entire denominations in our country where it's rejected and denied. We know, sadly, that there are denominations where Balaam has won. Because there are churches in this country, even entire networks of churches, that deviate from the gospel far more seriously than even the Nicolaitans of Pergamum did. They may mouth the words to all the creeds. They may insist they keep to the faith, like the Christians in Pergamum did. They may cling to the name of Jesus, however tenuously. But when it comes to really accepting the implications of that confession, they twist it, privileging their experiences and opinions above the authority of Jesus as taught through his prophets and apostles. I'm sure one or two of those denominations has occurred to your mind as I've said this. Maybe some of you have been to 'liberal-minded' churches, or churches embedded in denominations like that. They may seem innocuous. So did the Nicolaitans. But Jesus calls down from heaven, “Don't be fooled – remember Balaam! Don't be fooled – believe the whole gospel, and live it!” Many of those denominations are in far worse shape than Pergamum.

Yet it would be too easy to point the finger at the more 'liberal-minded' denominations in our country and say, “There's the problem, over there.” Oh, it is, to be sure. Those professedly 'liberal-minded' denominations and congregations do stand under Jesus' warning in this passage. But as easy as it'd be to outsource the problem to those denominations and those movements, well, we can't. Because the problem comes home with us, too, to the Evangelical movement – that bastion of self-described “Bible-believing Christians.”

Five years ago, a reputable survey assessed the religious landscape of this country, and though they weren't too focused on singling out Evangelicals, they did turn up two troubling things. What they found was that 12% of Evangelical Christians could not honestly say that they believed that heaven is real. In fact, 5% of Evangelical Christians outright said they don't believe there's a heaven. That's one in twenty of people like us who outright reject heaven, and another one who isn't sure. The same survey found the figures even worse when it comes to hell – 11% of Evangelicals, eleven out of every hundred filling the pews of churches like ours, said they are very sure there's no such thing as hell, and another 7% said they weren't sure. As plainly as Jesus taught about heaven and hell, a significant minority even of Evangelicals were expressing doubt or disbelief.

Those troubling figures came out five years ago, in 2014. So surely we took them to heart, right? Surely our good, God-fearing churches in the Evangelical movement started prioritizing sound teaching, and making sure to insist on it? Well, a study came out last year after asking even more questions. And here's what it found. Remember that the gospel is rooted in God's eternal love within the life of the Trinity. Yet 4% of Evangelicals outright reject the doctrine of the Trinity, and another 3% aren't sure. That's 7%. In fact, a whopping 71% of Evangelicals are so confused that they think Jesus is a created being, rather than the eternal Creator God! That is a majority of Evangelicals, having scarcely a clue who Jesus even is. A similarly whopping 59% said they do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a person, and another 8% on top of that said they weren't sure. Moreover, 5% of Evangelicals – one out of every twenty – could not honestly say they believed that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead. The very thing that Paul said, if it didn't happen, then Christians are the dumbest, most foolish people who've ever lived – and one in every twenty Evangelicals is not solid on that bedrock cornerstone of the Christian faith! The same percentage, by the way, openly deny that Jesus is ever coming back, and an extra 3% aren't sure if he is or not. That's almost one in every ten Evangelicals with no hope in the Second Coming.

This survey found that a majority of Evangelicals – 57% – do not believe that sin is serious enough to send us to hell – or, at least, that so-called 'small sins' aren't so bad. Friends, that is catastrophic. We know that falling short of God's glory is just that – falling short of light and life. But the majority of Evangelical Christians do not take sin seriously enough. So it's no wonder that a substantial proportion – 12%, again more than one in every ten – believe that “the free gift of eternal salvation” can be gained without having faith in Jesus Christ, and 10% say that Jesus didn't have to die on the cross for us to be saved. All that stuff about the Way, the Truth, the Life, and how no one comes to the Father except through him? A tenth of Evangelical Christians think Jesus didn't know what he was talking about, apparently. More shocking, 37% – over a third of Evangelicals – said that “religious belief is a matter of personal opinion..., not about objective truth.” An extra 8% weren't sure. And 53% – over half of Evangelical Christians like us – said that “God accepts the worship of all religions.”

The survey found that 8% of Evangelicals admit the Bible is not the highest authority for what they believe, and 12% of Evangelicals outright rejected the statement that “the Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do” – that's more than a tenth of Evangelicals denying the authority of God over their lives! Unsurprising, when a full quarter of Evangelicals are at least open to the idea that the Holy Spirit will tell them to do something that goes against the Bible's teaching. So, naturally, 15% of Evangelicals think there's nothing sinful in abortion, while another 5% aren't sure, adding up to one in every five. Naturally, 17% of Evangelicals see nothing sinful in sex outside of marriage, while another 4% aren't sure – that adds up to 23%, more than one in every five. And then 16% of Evangelicals said they do not believe that evangelism is personally important for them to do – in spite of Evangelicals supposedly being so passionate about the Great Commission, almost one in every five Evangelicals does not think Jesus was talking to them. Finally, 46% of Evangelicals said they do not think the church is necessary, and since another 4% said they were unsure, that adds up to one out of every two Evangelicals in the country who think they can worship Jesus while living cut off from his Body wherein dwells his Spirit – worship Jesus while rebelling against his command. Statistics like these are crisis figures!

Now, count up how many of us Evangelical Christians are here this morning. Note how many of these crisis conditions apply to one in two, three, four, five, ten, twenty Evangelicals in America. If there are more than ten or twenty of us here, then either we're beating the statistical norm here, or else some of us may be off-track from the gospel, too. The crisis is not just for 'liberal-minded' mainline denominations – we Evangelicals are finding ourselves in the same crisis as Pergamum. And we won't even have the excuse that Satan's throne is so close we couldn't focus! No, Balaam has a foothold in Evangelical Christianity, and just like the church in Pergamum, we yawn and shrug and say it's no big deal. But then Jesus turns to us and says we are dead wrong – deadly.

Jesus says to us, as much as to Pergamum: “Therefore, repent” (Revelation 2:16). He isn't just talking to the minority in the Pergamene church who've actually accepted the Nicolaitan teaching. He's talking to the whole church there. The entire church needs to repent for the false beliefs of a few of them. And maybe they can do that by recommitting themselves to sound teaching, and by correcting those who've fallen for the Nicolaitans, and bringing them back to the truth that way. Or maybe their repentance is going to involve church discipline, where the seduced and deluded members who've fallen for Balaam's tricks are written off the membership rolls after all warnings fail, and so the church will be purified in its faith either way, newly zealous for the gospel.

But if the infection spreads, the whole church is in great danger. John shows the Pergamene church a Jesus who comes with a sword at the ready – a broadsword, the sword you'll see William Wallace swinging in Braveheart (Revelation 2:12). This is a no-nonsense Judge Jesus, ready to split souls. And just like Balaam had to be struck down by Israel with the sword, and just like any Israelite city that goes astray after false teaching was to be destroyed with the sword, so Jesus warns them that if this church doesn't repent, “I will come to you soon and wage war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:16). Jesus looks at the confused state of Pergamene Christianity and says that if no one else will be a Phinehas, he'll come do it himself, and it won't be gentle, and it won't be pretty. What might Jesus say, then, to those proud 'liberal-minded' churches – but oh, what might Jesus say to the Evangelical churches of America today? In our own deep crisis of confusion, what room have we to boast?

But Jesus also comes with promises for those who “overcome” or “conquer.” In this context, to overcome is to resist and rebuke false teaching, to work to ensure that everyone in the church is on board with the whole gospel and its implications, to reduce those crisis figures down to 0% as far as is in our reach, and to certainly make sure that we ourselves are not part of that problem. And to those who overcome this way, Jesus promises the blessings that Israel was to have for staying faithful: “To the one who overcomes, 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” (Revelation 2:17). Some of the manna Israel ate in the plains of Moab was stored in a jar, 'hidden' away in the ark, saved for the righteous (cf. Exodus 16:33; Hebrews 9:4). A 'white stone' was used as a vote of acquittal in a courtroom and as a token of admission to a dinner party. And God always promised that Israel would be “called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give” (Isaiah 62:2) – a name like “My-Delight-is-in-Her” (Isaiah 62:4). If we are faithful to Jesus with what we believe, then he delights in us; if we're careless about what we believe, then we run the risk of a declaration of war. On the one hand, food and fellowship and acceptance with Christ; on the other, excommunication with the sword of his mouth.

That's the choice that faces Christianity, in America as much as Pergamum. And it doesn't only face the 'liberal-minded' churches we love to posture against. It faces the Evangelical Christian movement, of which our own denomination is a part, of which our own church is a part. The choice is before us: keep ignoring the crisis, or else repent from our all-too-Pergamene situation. But the path of repentance is the only one that leads to food and fellowship and acceptance with Christ, riches more dear than we can fathom, treasures that will far outweigh all the pressures that Satan's throne could ever set up against us. And this path of repentance calls us to become fully and robustly Christian in what we believe, always subject to the ultimate test of the scriptures and the historic wisdom of the church. It calls us to drive the crisis figures down to 0%. As he called Pergamum to, let's repent and strive instead for hidden manna and a new name, that God's delight may be in us and that we may be filled with all the blessings of his gospel. May we not only bear the name, but may we live it in our minds, our hearts, and our hands! For Christ calls us beyond his sword to the garden wherein grows his tree of life. Amen.

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