The Church of Pergamum: Revelation 2:12-27
- Tim Cain
- Oct 25, 2009
- Series: Revelations
Before we begin this letter I want to take a moment and discuss the city of Pergamum and what the church there was going through. Pergamum was a beautiful city. It was the political capital of the entire region. What this meant was that the imperial cult, the mandatory worship of the emperor, was at its zenith in Pergamum. No where would failure to offer sacrifices to the emperor and declare that Caesar is Lord be taken more seriously. It was also the home of a number of pagan temples. The city lay at the foot of a large hill and the top of the hill was covered with temples. There was a temple to Zeus with a 40-foot tall alter that looked like a massive throne. Not only was there massive pagan worship going on in Pergamum, but it was also one of the intellectual capitals of the region. It had a library that held over 200,000 works. It was well known for its parchment, which was writing on dried animal skin. Because of the rampant nature of idolatry and emperor worship taking place in Pergamum, any refusal to participate in these mandatory aspects of Roman life during this time would undoubtedly result in persecution. As we have already discussed, during this time period each trade guild had mandatory feast days where everyone who worked in that guild (kind of like our unions today) would get off work and have to go and worship their patron god at a feast. At these feasts they would eat meat sacrificed to idols as an act of worship to that deity and often engage in other immoral activities. To refuse to attend these feasts would not only endanger your career (usually get you fired) but would also put you in jeopardy of being in trouble with the government. Your trade guild would often turn you into the government for your refusal to worship with them and the government would then force you to worship the emperor and punish you if you refused.
So, it is in this context that the church in Pergamum finds itself. The difference between Smyrna and Pergamum is that the church is divided. Some in the church have held fast to the word of God and maintained a faithful witness even amidst the intense persecution. Others have compromised. Not only had they compromised but they were saying that such compromise was acceptable to God. Some of them were saying that it was ok to worship Caesar once a year as long as you didn’t mean it. They were saying that it was ok to go to the festivals and eat meat sacrificed to idols as an act of worship and to participate in the sexual immorality that took place there.
And there were those in the church who didn’t know which way to go. Should we imitate those who have been faithful even unto death or should we follow the counsel of those who say that it is ok to worship idols as long as we still love Jesus and know that we don’t really mean anything by those acts?
This is a mixed church, a church much like ours today. One that has some who will be faithful unto death in it, some who will not be faithful unto death and will try and bring others with them, and some who stand in the middle, who don’t know what is right and what is wrong and who will eventually follow one of these other groups to their everlasting joy or peril.
So, these three groups of people all come together to hear a word from God. They gather together, not knowing exactly what to expect. Unlike the last letter, Jesus does not begin with words of comfort to everyone, but instead he has words of judgment. He reveals himself to them as the one who has the sharp two edged sword. Why would he do this? What is he saying by this image? They live in the political capital of the region and the sword was seen as a symbol of Roman power. You might remember in Romans 13 that Paul says the government does not bear the sword in vain. The church was very aware of the Roman sword. Some of them had been persecuted by it, one at least in this small church had already been killed by it. However, Jesus comes to them and reveals himself as the one who truly carries the sword. He wants the church to know that it is not the sword of the Romans that must be feared, but his sword. It may appear that they wield the sword and that judgment has been given over to them, but ultimately it is Jesus who wields the sword, even in the political capital of the region. Jesus is the one who is ultimately in control, and as we will see in Revelations 19, he will come and destroy the nations who make war against his people with the sword coming out of his mouth. He is trying to comfort the suffering and call the confused to himself by saying, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of the government; don’t be afraid of what you are suffering. He is unveiling a truth that many had missed, and that truth is that he is in total control, he holds a sword and it is far sharper and far more dangerous than that held by the Roman authorities. It is a far more powerful sword, not merely because it is bigger or sharper, but because the one who wields it is mightier. His face shines like the sun, his voice is like the roar of many waters, his feet are like burnished bronze refined in a furnace, he is the first and the last, he has conquered death with this sword, and now he comes and says, for those of you who are afraid of the Romans, do not fear. Do not fear, for I too hold a sword and I will be your protector. That is what we see in Revelation 19 where this massive Jesus comes and destroys all the enemies of his people who have gathered together to make war against them. Jesus begins this way to shout out, church of Pergamum, pay more attention to me than you do to the things of this world because I am bigger, more powerful and more permanent.
He goes on to tell them that he understands their situation. He says, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. I know your struggle, I know what you are going through.” He knows the temptations they are facing, the hardships, the fear that they feel and the temptation to compromise that is daily thrown in their faces. He knows. So often in times of temptation we feel alone, overwhelmed and it does not seem that anyone could possibly understand just how difficult a trial we are going through. Our temptations can isolate us from community, they can keep us from heeding the counsel of others because we think, “They can’t possibly understand.” But Jesus says, “I know how hard it is. I know that you live where Satan has his throne. I know that you live amidst constant and terrible temptation. I know.” Hebrews tells us that Jesus understands our trials because he too has gone through them. Not only does he understand, he sympathizes, he cares, he is a listening ear for us to pour out our hearts to. He has been tempted in every way that we could ever be tempted, yet he gives hope, for he has done it without sin. His perfection does not distance him from us and make him unapproachable. Make no mistake; He has come to remove our excuses. He has come and said, “You can no longer claim that you are justified because no one understands because I do understand.” And yet he has not removed them as we might think. He has not removed them by saying, “What is your problem? I went through the same thing and I made it fine, why is it that you seem to fail all the time?” He did not overcome every temptation perfectly in order to better condemn us. Instead, he passed them for the times that we will fail. He passed them so that we might come boldly to his throne in times of failure and receive grace. He perfectly endured every temptation and then went to the cross to pay for our sins so that in our failure he might have grace and forgiveness to offer us. That is our savior. He removes our excuses by revealing his beauty. We don’t have to sin because we have such an amazing savior who is our friend and understands and will not leave us alone, but instead has made a way of escape for us in every temptation. That is what he calls his church to know about him.
Can you imagine this little church; this church that dwelt where Satan had his throne? There was no reprieve for this church. There was no feeling like, things will get better. They lived where Satan dwelt. As long as they worshiped the God who had kicked Satan out of heaven, they would find themselves persecuted in the city where Satan dwelt. Life was tough for this church. Every day seemed like another day of persecution, trials, and temptations. You know those days when you get up and you know you are going to have a rough day. A relative is visiting, you have a meeting with your boss, the general manager is going to be working with you that day, or you are going to be confronting someone at work. You know those days right? Days that you knew were going to be tough; days when one trial comes after another. For this church, everyday felt like this. Everyday they found themselves living and working and trying to love God in the city where Satan dwelt.
Even so, many in the church held fast to Jesus’ name. I want to talk about this group today. In the city where Satan dwelt they had clung to Jesus and they had refused to let him go. They did not deny their faith in Jesus. This means that when tempted, when persecuted, when denying Christ would seem to make everything in their life better, they had refused. One such time when they clung to his name and did not deny the faith was when their friend Antipas (whose name means “against all”) was put to death for being a faithful witness to Jesus. Here is a church whose hero was one who had clung to Jesus, had refused to deny his faith, had stood against everything in the city where Satan dwelt, and had been put to death. Even during this insanely difficult time in the life of the church, they had refused to deny their faith. You can only imagine just how tight knit this group was. In a city where everyone seemed against them, they had grown together. Such a church would love to hear about the one who had the sword in his mouth. They lived in the city where Satan dwelt, where the Roman sword seemed to rule without question. To see Jesus coming with the sword, coming to protect them, coming to show the world that he alone would have the last word and would pour out justice and judgment upon the enemies of his people would be a comfort. Look at how Revelation 19:11-16 further describes one of the ways Jesus will use his sword, and it must have been a comfort to the saints in Pergamum who had remained faithful.
However, this is scary. The one with the sword in his mouth has a few things against them. All of a sudden, the one who holds the swords turns and looks at them and says, “I have a few things against you.” They will soon find out that he does not bear the sword in vain. In a few moments he will say, “Repent, if not I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Listen to that. Think about it, in a little church meeting in someone’s home, Jesus writes a letter saying if you do not repent and take seriously what I am calling you to do, I will come for some of you as well. It is not the blatant external enemies of God alone who must fear his sword, but he will use it upon the compromisers in his church. This is a frightening thought. The sword of God will be used upon the compromisers in his church. We need to take seriously what God has against his church.
Now, this message could be preached from many different perspectives. Remember the three types of people who made up this church. The faithful, the compromisers, and those who would soon be swayed to one side or the other. Today’s message will emphasize only one of these groups, so I want to talk about what Jesus is saying to the faithful. What is his warning and his call to the faithful? He will make war against the compromisers with the sword in his mouth. That suffices as the warning for all those who are living in blatant sin and refusing to repent and calling others to follow them. But in this message I want to talk about Jesus’ warning to the faithful.
Jesus has something against even the faithful. What does Jesus have against this church that has remained faithful even amidst tremendous persecution? What he has against her is revealed in Rev. 2:14. She is tolerating some people who hold to the teachings 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.
In other words, what Jesus has against the faithful is that they are tolerating people in their church who are both compromising and telling others that it is ok to compromise. What he has against them is that they are tolerating some people in their church who were attending these feasts for their trade guilds so that they would not be persecuted. They are tolerating some who willingly sacrifice to the emperor and proclaim Caesar is Lord and say that this is ok to do as long as you don’t mean it.
Why? Why is Jesus so against tolerance here? Why is he so angry that this church is allowing unrepentant compromisers to be a part of her body? I think to find out why he cares so much we need to turn to Numbers 25. In Revelation, Jesus compares what these people are teaching to the things that Balaam taught Balak to do. So, the best way to look at this is to go to Numbers 25 and see what the results were of Balaam’s teachings. In Numbers 25, we don’t see Balaam, but we see the utterly destructive results of his teachings.
Unable to destroy Israel with the sword, Balak begged Balaam to help him figure out how to destroy them. In the end Balaam found that since God would not let him curse the people, he suggested that Balak send some of his women into the camp to seduce the Israelites. Numbers 25 shows us that it worked. In 25:1 it says, “The people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. And the women invited them to their festivals where they would make sacrifices to their idols and eat food and worship them.” Look at how tragic this is. The people listened, the Israelites who had seen God rescue them out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery, the Israelites who woke up each morning to find bread from heaven on the ground which they ate to stay alive, the Israelites who had seen water come from a rock, they had seen Mt. Sinai roar with smoke so that if any touched it they would die, they had seen the Red Sea parted and the greatest army in the world at that time destroyed without losing one life—they had seen all this and they were willing to throw it all away. Can you fathom that? Do you see the deceitful nature of sin? Do you see how stupid they were? Do you see what a bad trade they made?
God grows angry with his people. Like a jealous husband would grow angry to watch his wife give herself to another man, so God is jealous for his people. He sends a plague upon them. Thousands and thousands are dying in the camp of this plague. God calls Moses to punish the chiefs of his people because it was the chiefs who allowed this compromise to begin. He calls Moses to hang them in the sun and if he does, God will relent upon his fierce anger. But Moses is afraid to kill all the chiefs. So, instead of holding the chiefs responsible, he commands the chiefs to take responsibility and try and root it out of their people. Moses and many of the people gather at the tent of meeting and weep because of the devastating consequences of their sin. Look at how blind and ugly sin is. A chief among the people, one who should have been hung by Moses but instead was let go, took a Midianite woman right past the tent of meeting, right past Moses and all the people. Notice how hard and how blind sin can make someone. Can you believe this? People are dying of the plague; screams are coming from tents all around because of this sin. People are weeping at the tent of meeting, but this man is so deceived, he feels so justified in what he is doing that he doesn’t care. Moses and the people are willing to weep about the consequences of sin, but they refuse to do the hard work of rooting it out. So they watch. They watch this happen until a man arises, Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, a young man, refused to sit by idly and watch this. He left the congregation and he took a spear and went after the man into his chamber where he was having sex with this woman and he ran the spear through them both. Thus the plague was stopped. The Bible says that the plague was stopped because Phinehas was “jealous with my jealousy among them so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my Jealousy.” Later it says he was Jealous for his God.
Phinehas was jealous for the glory of God. He was jealous that God should be worshiped, that his name should be lifted up, that he should not be profaned among the nations. He was jealous that others would value God according to his worth and not throw him away for some passing pleasure.
I tell you this story because it is the story that God wants the church of Pergamum to hear and consider. He wants her to see just how amazing he is so that she will be jealous for the purity of his bride, just as he is jealous for her. He comes to her as the massive, glorified Jesus who is the first and the last and who rules over everything, who died to make her his own. He knows that he is good for her. He knows that outside of him lie only misery, loneliness and destruction. He knows how deceitful sin is. He knows that the feast they so desperately want to go to will not truly satisfy them. He knows that the worship of Caesar, though it might spare them momentary pain, will only gain for them eternal separation from God and a life of emptiness. He is the spring of living water and he knows that outside of him there is only desert, only broken cisterns which cannot hold water and which will never satisfy. And so he calls the church of Pergamum to purge herself of the compromisers.
Why? If they are being faithful, why must they purge the compromisers from their midst? You can kind of understand why they have let them stay. Think about their lives. Out in the world, all they do is fight sin, battle temptation, and endure in suffering and conflict for the sake of Jesus. When they come to church, they are tired. When they come to church, they don’t feel like fighting anymore, and let their guard down. Out there, where Satan lives, they find themselves constantly on guard. But in here, in the church, they have let their guard down. They are like Moses. They don’t want to kill their leaders, they have enough conflict. They don’t want conflict in the church. But Jesus is calling them to be Phinehas. He is saying, stop being Moses, it’s not enough to simply weep at your sin, you must do the hard work of confronting it, the hard work of rooting it out, the hard work of fighting it. He is calling the church to be Phinehas. Why? Because he knows how easy it is to compromise. He knows that if the church lets these compromisers stay, if they do not fight them, if they make a treaty with them to let them live peaceably together soon they will deceive them. He loves his church. He loves them and he knows they are faithful now, but it is not enough to be faithful now. That is the message to this church, be faithful unto death, and to do that you must root out the temptations and deceptions and compromise in your midst. You can’t let your guard down. He is calling the church to be Phinehas and to root out the compromisers for the protection of their own souls. They might think that they are ok but they’re not. They have been faithful but the moment they stop fighting sin, they endanger themselves and certainly in the church, in their own midst, it’s playing with fire to try and peaceably coexist with compromisers.
The call is not just for the church to fight compromise and remove temptations from their midst, the call is for all of us to do this in our lives. All of us have areas of our lives that we have let our guard down. We have had thoughts that we did not cut off immediately but instead let linger and allowed our minds to go down paths that did not honor God. We have justified little sins thinking that they are not dangerous and that we can control them. We have given up on certain sins in our lives choosing like Moses to simply weep about their consequences instead of fighting them. Christ has this against us. He wants us to have all of him. He doesn’t want us to spoil our appetite with pathetic things from this world. Every sin, every little sin fills a space in our hearts that was meant to be filled by Jesus. Your sin is never content. There are no treaties with sin. We can’t keep a little of it at work and not think it will destroy our entire lives. Sin is not ok. It is not enough to weep over it; our Savior calls us to repent of our laziness, to repent of our desire to keep certain sins in our lives, to repent of our compromise, to repent of everything that threatens us from knowing and experiencing the fullness of joy that he has come to offer. Sin is a thief. You think God is a thief and he is trying to take some pleasure from your life but it’s not true. Your sin is the thief which is trying to rob you of the joy and satisfaction, and fullness that is offered in our savior. Jesus has come to give us life and that more abundantly while the wages of sin is death. Jesus has come to free us from slavery to ourselves while our sin desires us to keep us bound eternally. Jesus is beautiful, he is better, and he calls us to see his value and to repent and find forgiveness and being forgiven to find new strength to fight our sin.
But I know what some of us are thinking. We are too week. We don’t feel like we can do it. We know how much we need it but we don’t think we have the strength. Well, you don’t. You don’t have the strength. You are no match for sin. But I have good news for you. I have amazing news for you. Your savior has been your Phinehas. While you sat idly by weeping over the consequences of your sin, your savior has jealously fought for your soul. Do you know that? Do you know that even when you were dead and unable to fight your sin at all your savior got up and left the presence of his father and came down to make atonement for his people. Like Phinehas, Jesus was consumed with Jealousy, jealousy for the good of his bride. Jesus is a jealous husband, but his jealousy is for our good. His jealousy is for our purity, our safety, our joy. And he has come to destroy sin. He has come to fight our sin for us. The sin that held us in slavery, the sin that took our life and left us dead in our sins and transgressions, living according to the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of our body, Jesus came to destroy that sin. He came and finding us fornicating with the world he pulled us back, took our sin and bore the spear that we deserved. He has borne our spear. The way he has fought our sin is by taking it upon himself. That is how he has fought it. We were like soldiers holding a live grenade whose pin had been removed and we didn’t know it. But Jesus has come and he has taken that grenade and he laid upon it and bore the devastation that our sin deserved. Now he calls all of us to give him our grenades. He will take them from you. Give him your grenades. Don’t hold on to them, they cannot help you. You may not see them as grenades but they are. Your sins may look harmless but they will destroy. Give them to him. He is coming with the sword in his mouth to wage war against our sin. Hand them over. Lay aside every sin that entangles you and set your face upon your savior who has paid for your sin.
What I found so crazy about this passage is that Jesus says he is coming to the church but he is waging war against the compromisers. In other words, what he is saying to the faithful is if you do not remove the temptations from your midst, if you do not fight your own sin I will come and fight your sin for you. If you will not give me the grenade, I will cut off your hand to get it but I will not lose your soul. Oh what a savior we have! He is jealous for his bride and he will not lose her. No one will pluck his people out of his hand. He will purify his church. He will do it even if we don’t, he will do it even if we are lazy. But, he will only purify his people. Being in church does not make you one of his people. To the compromisers in the church he will destroy with his sword and to his children he will discipline them with the sword in his mouth, he will cut away their sin.
What a savior who comes and fights for his bride! He fights for her. Praise him. If he is disciplining you, if he is pulling sin away from you, let it go. Do not grow angry at him, for it is his love. If he is using community to point out sin, whatever he is doing, heed his cry. All of us have sin in our lives and our sin robs us of our joy. Praise our God that he will not allow his bride to be destroyed but that through discipline he will come and free her from her sin. Look at Hebrews 13:11-14. It might hurt right now, but praise God that he does not leave us on our own. He has not left us to battle sin alone but he has lavished us with grace and given us a savior who is jealous for our purity who fights with us. Fight with him. Sit still if he is cutting on you, let go if he is pulling something from you, strengthen your weak knees and join him in the battle. Join him, fight your sin and know that you never fight it alone, but you fight it with the one who has come and paid for it with his blood. Titus 2:11 reminds us that his grace causes us to say no to sin. Kaleo, look to your precious, beautiful savior who has not only paid for your sin once and for all but now comes to pry it from you so that you might have more of him.
Notice how this passage ends. We cling to our sin because we foolishly believe that we need it to be happy. We think if we let it go we will miss out. We often see our savior as coming to take our sin and leave us empty handed. But that is not our savior. He says if you will let go of your sin, if you will be faithful unto death, if you will overcome, I will give you something to take the place of the sin you once held so dearly. I will give you hidden manna and I will give you a white stone. The white stone with a name on it was used to grant admittance into amazing festivals. It was like a ticket to get into a feast where there would be so much fun. Don’t you see how amazing Jesus is? He is saying, “If you will let go of your sin and refuse to go to the feasts that the emperor throws that last for a few days or a week, I will not leave you empty-handed, I will give you a ticket to come to an eternal feast, the wedding supper of the lamb. Come to a feast where there will be no more pain, no more suffering, no more fear, no more death, no more tears. Instead, I will be there and I will be your God and you shall be my people. You will spend all your life gazing not at the things which so enamor you right now that I made and which will one day all burn, but instead you will gaze at me, the maker of all things, the first and the last who will never be taken away. At my right hand are pleasures, pleasures not for a day, not for a week; pleasures forevermore. In my presence is joy, not a little joy, not a smile, or a little laugh; in my presence is the fullness of joy. In my presence is a joy that this world can never give. In my presence is a joy that will keep you from ever wanting or needing anything more. At the wedding supper of the lamb, you get more than just the gifts that Jesus went back to heaven to forge for his people, but you also get Jesus. He is the hidden manna and he came and gave his life so that we could one day live in his presence, so that we could marry him and dwell with him for all eternity. He is far better than anything you will ever find here and you can have him even now. The Bible says that even now, if you will cling to Jesus, if you will join him in fighting your sin, if you will accept his discipline, you find that even now you can be filled with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. Listen to I Peter 1:8-9. Let’s be this people. Please, love him even when you don’t see him, believe in him even when the world feeds you with all sorts of lies, and as you gaze upon his beauty, fight to throw off anything that would distract you from him.