The Compromising and Tolerant Church

July 5, 2015 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos

  We continue our study of the Seven Churches mentioned in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Last time we looked at the church at Smyrna, which was the poor but rich church. As I said this is the Bible shows us that this is the normal Christian life. There are Christians today who say that when you receive Christ, you are going to be healthy, wealthy, and successful. The Bible does not promise that kind of a life for believers. What the Bible says is this, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22). What Scripture says is this: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2Ti 3:12).  

Today, we are going to look at the third church that Jesus addresses which is the church at Pergamum. This is the Compromising and Tolerant Church.

  To guide us in our study, we are going to follow an outline similar to our previous study when we looked at the letter of Christ to the church of Ephesus. First, let’s look at …  

I.           The Church Addressed (2:12a)

And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:   “The book of Acts does not record the founding of the church at Pergamum. Most likely, the church in this city was founded during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, when the gospel spread from there throughout the province of Asia (Acts 19:10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.) Because the church was surrounded by the pagan culture, it was continually exposed to temptation in addition to severe persecution when standing against emperor worship.” (MacArthur) Pergamum was the political capital of the Roman Province of Asia.  When John wrote, Pergamum had been the capital city of Asia for almost 250 years. If Smyrna was the most beautiful city of Asia, Pergamum was considered the greatest.   Pergamum was a noted center for culture and education, having one of the great libraries of the ancient world, with more than 200,000 handwritten volumes. Its library was second only to the famous library in Alexandria.   Pergamum was a stronghold of idolatry. Pergamum used much of its wealth to build statues, altars and temples devoted to idol worship. It had temples to the Greek and Roman gods Dionysos, Athena, Asclepius, and Zeus.   But overshadowing the worship of all those deities was Pergamum’s devotion to the cult of emperor worship. If Smyrna was the first city in Asia to build a temple to worship Rome, Pergamum was the first to build the temple devoted to worship the emperor. Pergamum was the center of emperor worship in Asia.   Compared to all surrounding cities, emperor-worship was the most intense here. In other cities a Christian might be in danger on only one day a year when a pinch of incense had to be burned in worship of the emperor. In Pergamum, however, Christians were in danger every day of the year for the same reason.  

II.       A description of Christ (2:12b)

 The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.   To the church in Pergamum, Christ describes Himself as the one who has the two-edged sword. This is based on the description of Christ from Rev 1:16, which contains slightly different wordings: and a sharp, two-edged sword proceeding out of His mouth.   In Romans 13, the “sword” refers to capital punishment. In verse 4 Paul wrote, “if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.”   The sword was the symbol of the government’s absolute authority and power to execute criminals. William Barclay writes that during NT times, Roman governors were divided into two classes—those who had the right of the sword and those who had not. Those who had the right of the sword had the power of life and death; on their word a man could be executed on the spot. Humanly speaking the proconsul, who had his headquarters at Pergamum, had the right of the sword, and at any moment he might use it against any Christian.   Now the description of Jesus abut Himself was both an encouragement and a warning at the same time. As an encouragement, it reminded the Christians at Pergamum that He has only to speak and His enemies will be silenced, defeated and destroyed forever. What a great comfort this is for Christians at Pergamum. The implication of this is that the Roman proconsul, though empowered by Satan, does not have the final say regarding what will happen to persecuted believers. These  Roman authorities may have the authority and power to put Christians to death, but the authority and power of Jesus Christ are greater. Our Lord, and not these human or Satanic powers, has the “sharp two-edged sword.”   But this description of Christ about himself also serves as a warning to believers. The same double-edged sword the Lord uses to punish His enemies is the same sword He uses to discipline His sinning children. And so believers should never abuse the grace of God.  

III.    Christ’s diagnosis of the church (2:13)

Christ says, “I know.” He knows exactly the situation of the believers in Pergamum. He knows their works, whether good or bad; he knows what others were doing to them; He knows where they were and what they were going through.   Christ’s knowledge about the people in this church and their situation is in three parts (2:2,9).  
  1. First, He knows where they live.
“I know where you dwell.”   The Greek word for “dwell” is a word that means to have one’s home or permanent residence in a place. Christ is saying that as far as their home or residence in this world is concerned, they are permanently dwelling in Pergamum.   Comment by William Barclay: Here is something very important. The principle of the Christian life is not escape, but conquest. We may feel it would be very much easier to be a Christian in some other place and in some other circumstances but the duty of the Christian is to witness for Christ where life has set him. … The more difficult it is to be a Christian in any set of circumstances the greater the obligation to remain within these circumstances. If in the early days Christians had run away every time they were confronted with a difficult engagement, there would have been no chance of a world for Christ.  
  1. Second, our Lord knows that the place where they live is “where Satan’s throne is.”
  Many suggestions have been offered as to the identification of Satan’s throne:  
  • Some believe it was because Pergamum had a huge throne-like altar dedicated to Zeus, the chief of the gods.
  • Others connect Satan’s throne with the temple of the serpent-god Asclepius whose center of worship was in Pergamum. Asclepius was the god of healing and he was called “Asclepius Soter” or “Asclepius Savior.” There was a medical school at his temple in Pergamum, and the sick and diseased people from all over the Roman Empire came to be healed at his temple. Tame and nonpoisonous snakes roamed freely in his temple. The sick spent the night in the darkness of the Temple, lying down on the temple’s floor, hoping to be touched by one of these snakes as it glided over the ground on which he lay. The touch of the snake was held to be the touch of the god himself, and believed to bring healing. The Christians knew that when Satan tempted our first parents in the Garden of Eden, he came as a snake. Thus, the Christians would easily connect the Temple of Asclepius with the throne of Satan.
  • Others point out that Satan’s throne was in Pergamum because this city was the center of emperor worship in the province of Asia and that this posed the greatest threat to the Christians living there. It was for their refusal to worship the emperor, not the pagan gods, that Christians faced execution.
  For any or all of those reasons, Pergamum could understandably be called the city where Satan’s throne is. It was the stronghold of Satanic power.  
  1. Third, Christ knows about their faithfulness.
Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.   In the midst of those difficult and dangerous circumstances, the believers continued to make that city their permanent home. Despite the persecution they endured, the believers at Pergamum continued to hold fast the name of Christ and did not deny the faith.   “To hold fast” is continual action. “My name” refers to the person himself. In this context to “hold fast My name” means to remain faithful to Jesus and all that He is, His deity, authority, and lordship despite persecution.   When Christ says “and you did not deny my faith,”  the phrase “my faith” possibly refers to the doctrine of Christ or to faith in Christ. This may either be objective (the doctrines) or subjective (the act of believing). They did not give up believing in Christ. They also continued to hold on to the gospel of Jesus.   The Lord Jesus knew about a specific incident in the past when the church had displayed such loyalty to Christ. It happened during the days of Antipas.   Nothing certain is known about Antipas. He was probably one of the leaders of the Pergamum church. He received a precious title, “my faithful witness.” This same title is held by Jesus in Rev 1:5. He is called “the faithful witness.”  This implies that Antipas was a man who followed Jesus, who was like Jesus. He is not mentioned anywhere in church history but Christ sees and takes notice of this unknown figure who remained faithful to him.   Antipas lived where Satan’s throne was.  Yet he stood against the attacks and the evil around him.  He fulfilled the meaning of his name. In Greek, anti means “against” and pas means “all.” And so his name, Antipas, means “against all.” This may indicate that he testified or stood against anything that deviated from the testimony of Jesus.   The word “witness” is from the Greek word martus, which can also be translated “martyr.” In the early church to be a martyr and to be a witness were one and the same thing. To be a faithful witness for Christ meant a big possibility of facing martyrdom. According to tradition, Antipas was martyred under Emperor Domitian. He was placed inside a heated brass bull which stood at the temple of Diana and was slowly roasted to death.   Even at that time when the persecution was so severe that one of them died, the church remained faithful to Christ and did not give up their faith. He knows about all of those instances when the church showed faithfulness to Christ. He remembers even their past faithfulness.  

IV.      Words of Reproof (2:14)

  The church at Pergamum remained loyal to Christ and his truth. Yet all was not well. after commending the believers there, Christ informed them, v. 14 But I have a few things against you:   The Lord gives two reasons for His rebuke:  
  • The first reason for the Lord’s rebuke was because of false teaching.
  you have some there who hold 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. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans   Again, we need to remember that the Bible takes false teaching seriously. Many Christians today think that doctrine and theology are not important but that is not how Christ sees them.   Gal 1:8-9 - But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.   The heresy that some in the congregation at Pergamum have fallen into was compromise with the world. Christ described this in two ways: one was associated with an OT character and another with a NT character.  
  • First they are described as those who hold to the teaching of Balaam.
  We read about Balaam in Numbers 22-25. Israelites were encamped in the plains of Moab, just after they had defeated two strong Amorite kings, Sihon and Og. Fearful of the Israelites because of what they had done to the Amorites, Balak, the king of Moab, hired a Gentile prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites. After three unsuccessful attempts to curse the Israelites, Balaam came up with another plan. Since he was unable to curse the Israelites, he decided to corrupt them by advising Balak to use Moabite women to seduce the Israelites to sacrifice to the Moabite gods, eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. Balaam’s plan succeeded. This resulted in God’s judgment upon Israel, killing 24,000 people, including many leaders.   Most probably, the members of the church at Pergamum that our Lord was referring to did not actually identify themselves with Balaam. To the Jews and Christians of that period, all teachers who advocate compromise with pagan society and low standard of morality are considered as holding to the teahing of Balaam and following his footsteps.   So much of the culture and social life in the city of Pergamum was affected by idolatry—the food one ate, the coins one used, the holidays one celebrated, the arts, the medical practices, the theaters, the agriculture, the sports events, and so on.   The great temptation for Christians was to find ways to accommodate themselves to these surroundings. In any case, their argument was probably something like: “Look, these idols aren’t real anyway; what difference does it make if we eat food offered to them or participate in the temple rituals. In fact, most of the pagans do these things not out of religious belief but civic duty. We’re good citizens too. In that way we can remain friends with our fellow citizens and perhaps in that way be a witness to them.”   Sexual immorality also marked the whole culture of the ancient Roman Empire.  It was simply taken for granted, and the person who lived by Biblical standards of purity was considered strange.  To paraphrase the Roman statesman Cicero, cited in Barclay: “If there is anyone who thinks that young men should not be allowed to have several sexual partners, he is extremely severe. He contradicts, not only with the freedom our age allows, but also with the customs and allowances of our ancestors.  When indeed was this not done?  When did anyone find fault with it?  When was such permission denied?  When was it that what is now allowed was not allowed?”  To keep from sexual immorality in that culture, you really had to swim against the current.”   The Christians who compromised with the world and did not regard idolatry and immorality as sins or taught others the same were from the perspective of our Lord, walking according to the ways of Balaam and holding to his teaching.  
  1. The Lord Jesus also described those who have fallen into compromising with pagan culture as those who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
  While no one is sure about the origins of the Nicolaitans, Bible teachers agree that the viewpoint of the Nicolaitans was characterized by a laxity toward pagan practices. And so, the teaching of the Nicolaitans were identical with those who held the doctrine of Balaam. The Nicolaitans practiced fornication and the eating of things sacrificed to idols while outwardly professing Christianity. Maybe they distorted the teaching of Paul regarding Christian liberty. They said it was okay for Christians to participate in idolatrous feasts and pagan sexual practices because they were under grace. They also thought that this was the only way they can be at peace with their neighbors whom they want to influence for the Lord.  
  • The second reason for the Lord’s rebuke was for the tolerance of the rest of the church.
  The sin of the church was its indifference to the presence of this attitude towards worldliness among some of their members.   MacArthur says,   Like many churches today, the church at Pergamum failed to confront the error of the heretics and obey the biblical mandate to practice church discipline (Mt 18:15-18). While tolerance is celebrated in our culture, tolerating heretical teaching or sinful behavior in the church is sin. By tolerating the heretical groups and refusing to exercise church discipline, they shared in their guilt and were threatened with the Lord’s judgment. …  

V.         Words of exhortation (2:16)

  The only way for this church to escape Christ’s judgment was to repent. Christ’s call is urgent, Therefore repent. To repent comes from a Greek word, which means to change the mind that results in a change of behavior.   Here is Christ’s warning if they do not repent immediately: If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.   First, Christ says, “I will come to you soon.” This does not refer to the second coming but to His intervention through providence, as at Corinth (1Co 11:30–32).   30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.   Second, Christ says that that the entire church will face Christ’s judgment. I will come to you and war against them. The “you” may refer to the whole church for tolerating the heretics and the “them” refers to the heretics for their compromise with the world and even teaching others to do the same.   John MacArthur:   The church cannot tolerate evil. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, who were proudly tolerating a man guilty of incest, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened.” (1Co 5:6-7). The goal of the church is not to provide an environment where unbelievers can just feel comfortable. It is to be a place where they can hear the truth and be convicted of their sins so they can be saved (Ro 10:13-17). Gently (2Ti 2:24-26), lovingly, graciously, yet firmly, unbelievers need to be confronted with the reality of their sin and God’s gracious provision through Jesus Christ. Sin will never be suppressed by compromising with it.  

VI.      A command to hear what the Spirit says to the churches

17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.   This is often used by the Lord to address the attention of the listeners to denote that what has been said is of special importance. This also stresses the responsibility of believers to hear and obey these words.  

VII.  A promise to the overcomer

To the one who conquers 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.   As we have seen before, the phrase “The one who conquers,” refers to all believers. 1Jn 5:4-5 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?   Christ promises three things to the faithful members of the church at Pergamum.  
  1. First, He promises to give them some of the hidden manna.
  In Jewish teaching, to eat of the hidden manna had two aspects:  
  1. Manna was a honey-flavored bread God used to feed the Israelites during their years of wandering in the wilderness (Ex 16). When Israel entered the Promised Land there was no need for the manna anymore but God wanted them to remember how He faithfully provided for them in the wilderness. God commanded that a pot of the manna be put into the Ark of the Covenant and be placed in the tabernacle and in the Temple. The rabbis had a legend that, before the destruction of the Temple, Jeremiah hid away the pot of manna in a cleft in Mount Sinai and it will not be recovered until the messiah returns and Israel is restored in the future. When the Messiah came, he would bring again to the people the manna, and men will again eat the food of angels. And so to a Jew "to eat of the hidden manna" may suggest a reference to the Messianic feast.
  1. There may be a wider and more general meaning. The hidden manna represents Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life who provides spiritual nourishment that satisfies our deepest hunger (Jn 6:48-51). He is now hidden from the world until the time of His appearing. No doubt when Christians enter Christ’s kingdom, they will experience aspects of Christ’s sweetness and sustenance, which we here on earth know nothing about.
  1. Second Jesus promises to give a white stone.
  In the ancient world small white stones or pebbles were used for many purposes.  
  • In the courts the judges gave a white “stone” to the accused if he was acquitted and black if found guilty.
  • White stones with their names inscribed in them were also given to conquerors in the public games. It was a token or a badge that entitled them to be fed during their whole life at the public expense.
  • White stones inscribed with a name also served as a token that admitted the bearer to special privileges such as admission to a banquet. Perhaps this is what Christ meant when he promised to give a white stone to the conqueror. This stone will get a person into the Messianic feast the Lord is preparing for his people.
  1. Third, Jesus promises to write on the stone a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.
  What is the meaning of this new and secret name promised to him who conquers?  Is it God’s name, or is it the believer’s name?  This is probably the believer’s new name reflecting his status as belonging to Christ. The “new name” seems to be taken from God promise in Isaiah 62:2: “The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.”  The new name inscribed on the stone shows the peculiar privilege of the recipient. The new name may denote an image for a new age, a new situation, a new life, all of which awaits those who are faithful to the Lord.

Closing Words

Let me close with ideas taken from a sermon by Dr. Robert Rayburn, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church, in the U.S.   [The message in this letter written about 2000 years ago is very contemporary.]   The whole city [of Pergamum] and its culture were shaped by its temples and its idolatry and its sensual worship with temple prostitutes and all the rest. The cult of the Roman emperor was everywhere. It had become a badge of citizenship to partake in … [emperor worship].   Perhaps … [there were those in the church at Pergamum who] said . . . that the best way to win the people of Pergamum was not to separate from them but to participate with them in their … [social activities. Perhaps they said,] “We shouldn’t judge them. God will do that. We need to befriend them and then we can witness to them. [We should show them that we are humans too.] And what better place to befriend them than to share a meal at a temple or participate with them in one … [of their idolatrous practices.”]   [Perhaps the Nicolaitans were also saying, “Why do we have to make a stand that is provoking government and offends the locals. Come on, brethren, let’s take note of the great contribution of government for the welfare of our society. Look at what it has done to our economy and way of life. Let’s stop pointing out the idolatry of government and its immorality. The Christian life doesn't have to be difficult.”   Today, many Christians think that this is the best way to relate with a godless and immoral society. This is the way to win the world for Christ, and this is how we can live in peace. We need to be more tolerant, more understanding, and be more enlightened. There are so many things to appreciate, so let us not focus on the negative. We should not use the strict sexual ethics of the Bible as standard because it is too severe and too unenlightened. It will also cause psychological damage, for example, to heterosexuals and homosexuals alike to be required to live lives of abstinence unless they are united in marriage to a person of the opposite sex. This is the way our culture thinks and so it is the way that many Christians are tempted to think; and many now do.]   So what’s the problem? The problem is the truth! The one who has a sharp, two-edged sword coming out of his mouth has spoken and has said that faithfulness to him and a life of Christian integrity cannot be reconciled to pagan practices, cannot be harmonized with pagan worship, cannot be made friendly with a way of life that is offensive to God.   The problem is that God forbids sex outside of marriage; he forbids divorce except when certain objective and clearly defined … sins have been committed against the marriage. . . . The problem is there is but one way to God and heaven and that is the way of faith in Jesus Christ.   And what he reveals, as here to the church in Pergamum, is that there are standards by which we are to live, His standards, and that failing to live by those standards will bring His judgment.. . . There is such a thing as orthodoxy and such a thing as heresy. There is such a thing as obedience and such a thing as disobedience. God alone will judge between them, but he has revealed His will so that we may know what is true and what is not; what is right and what is wrong.   But precisely because truth is truth, a fact, an inflexible, unchangeable, unyielding reality, it can make life difficult for those who embrace it who live among many who do not. This is the…  challenge of living for the truth and according to the truth in a place where Satan, the father of lies, has made his home.   Truth means that Christians sometimes are fired from their jobs. Truth means that there are jobs that are off-limits for Christians and that in some circumstances it may be more difficult for them to get work. Truth means that, despite their best efforts, others may think them arrogant, pretentious, and judgmental. Truth means that Christians are sometimes executed for their faith as Antipas was in Pergamum. But truth also means that those who are faithful, like Antipas, will be noted for their faithfulness by the one who has a sharp, double-edged sword coming out of his mouth and rewarded for it in eternal years to come. Truth means that there is but a single alternative: you can make your life a great deal easier in this world, or you can have a white stone and a new name. Truth means there is that alternative and no other.