Revelation 2:12-17 Pergamum

Sun, 18/09/2016 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Let me tell you about a church I’ve got to know, and some of the pressures it faces.

Some people in the town really don’t like this particular church. They’ve had major aggravation from the town council, and from the media. There’s real hatred from a few, but sometimes that’s all it needs to sway public opinion.

It’s a tough place to be a Christian, but they’ve weathered it well. They’ve kept worshipping. “We’re Christians,” they say, “and that’s what we’ll remain however unpopular it makes us.”

But with the opposition comes the pressure to conform. It’s so much easier if Christians don’t stand out like a sore thumb. If they don’t swim against the tide.

There are two issues in particular that the church has felt acutely. One is their view of other religions. Life could be less difficult if they’d recognise some of the other religions in the town. If they’d go along to the odd inter-faith service. Attend some of the big festivals that the other religions hold. They’re great occasions, with fantastic food, and these Christians are conspicuous by their absence. Who are they to judge? Stop seeing Christianity as the only way, and life would get easier.

The other issue is sexual ethics. The Christians hold a very specific view, that the only place for sexual activity is within marriage. It makes them look like dinosaurs. Society has moved on. The days of one man, one woman, 2.4 children – they’re long gone. People in society at large are enjoying their new-found freedom. These Christians look judgemental, and out of date.

So the suggestion is being made that church should change its views. Reinterpret the Bible. Maybe choosing a religion isn’t so black and white, and maybe the church shouldn’t take such a hard-line on marriage.

So say some within this church, and these teachers are proving quite popular. Funnily enough, people like what they say. And it seems to work. As some church members begin to loosen up, doors are opening to do business. People are starting to treat them like friends. They’re back on the invitation list to some social events.

Maybe you recognise the church. It’s become very familiar to me. And in case it’s not obvious, I’m talking about the church in the ancient town of Pergamum, just inland from the Turkish coast, in the first century AD.

Maybe you thought I was talking about a town in Britain in our own day and age. That’s the eerie thing as we read the message that Jesus has to the church in Pergamum. It feels so contemporary. We’ve either gone full circle, or nothing has changed in 2000 years. Either way, the two pressure points on the church today are exactly the same: other religions, and sexual ethics.

The Pressure of Persecution

Within the church today, there are people who argue that we shouldn’t take a hard line on these issues. Those people appear to be getting a bit of a hold, gaining some traction. Does it matter if we loosen up a bit in these areas?

Some would say that we would loosen up if we had a more international perspective. We wouldn’t make an issue out of moral issues like this, if we looked around us. Only in the comfortable West would we make those the battleground. In other countries, Christians literally die for their faith. If we were on the front line, we’d be standing shoulder to shoulder with everyone who calls themselves a Christian. We simply wouldn’t have the luxury of worrying about issues like these.

That’s where Pergamum is so helpful. Because the church that Jesus asks to take these issues seriously is the one where it is toughest to be a Christian.

Let’s look at it. Verse 13: “I know where you live – where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city – where Satan lives.”

 “I know where you live.” “… where Satan lives.” These Christians were cheek by jowl with the opposition, with those who hated them.

Nobody’s quite sure what Jesus means when he says that Satan had his throne in Pergamum. Maybe it refers to the fact it was the eastern capital of the Roman empire, with compulsory emperor worship. Or maybe it refers to Zeus’s throne-like temple at the top of the hill. Or the other god who was worshipped there was Asclepius, the God of healing. His symbol was a snake, which is why ambulances have a snake on them, and snakes are a common biblical symbol for Satan.

Either way, the opposition was fierce. So fierce, that they’d just lost one of their own. Antipas had lost his life. We don’t know how it happened, but things were really bad. Pergamum was a really tough place to be a Christian. Where Satan has his throne.

Maybe this is why some of their internal issues have gone unchecked. They are on the front-line, and there isn’t time to pin down where acceptable new teaching stops and going with the flow begins.

Jesus knows the pressures they’ve faced. He knows how well they’ve done. They’ve kept going. “I know,” he says.

But that doesn’t stop him calling them out on these two areas of morality. They are areas that must be tackled, even when persecution is at its most vicious.

Balaam, Balak and Nicolaitans

Maybe some of the names in verses 14 and 15 lost you a bit. Who are Balaam, Balak and Nicolaitans?

It’s an Old Testament story. Balak was a foreign king, the king of Moab, who felt threatened by the Israelites. He knew God was with them, so he’d never beat them in battle, so he tried a different tactic. If he got them to adopt a lifestyle that their God disapproved of, that God would reject them, and then he’d be able to win.

So he paid a passing prophet called Balaam. Balaam got the Moabite woman to become lovers of the Israelite men. Those women then got the men to worship their gods. And sure enough, God became angry with his people.

Jesus says to the church at Pergamum: “That’s what’s going on with you. You have some who are teaching that sexual license and worshipping other gods is just fine. If you knew your history, the story of Balaam and Balak, you’d know it wasn’t fine.”

Those modern day equivalents were called Nicolaitans. We don’t know where they got that name from, but presumably their leader was called something like Nicholas.

The Church’s Mistake

At this point, we need to notice very carefully what Jesus criticises this church for. We mustn’t miss the point. Otherwise we might let ourselves off the hook, when he’s speaking to us. Or we might feel got at when there’s no need to.

Firstly, he’s not telling off these Nicolaitans. Obviously, they shouldn’t be teaching the things they’re teaching. But they’re not in his sights.

Second, he’s not telling off ordinary Christians for the way they live. The fact is, most of us have many things that Jesus wants to change in our lives. Little by little, he shows us those areas, and asks us to become the people he wants us to be. People become Christians from all kinds of backgrounds. Most churches have people who are still involved with the other religions in their family or in their past. Most churches have people whose relationships are not neat and tidy. We all have a past, and it colours our present. In those areas, as in many others, Jesus leads us gently forwards, helping us to see step by step what he want us to change next.

No. Jesus has an issue with the whole church, collectively. The church is allowing these Nicolaitans to remain, to teach and to influence. The church as a whole is treating these issues as unimportant. The problem is not people who are still trying to work out what it looks like for them to live the way Jesus wants them to. That’s all of us. The problem is people who are teaching that certain lifestyles are acceptable, when Jesus has made perfectly clear that they are not.

There are some countries that are placed under international sanctions, or that the British government would refuse to give any foreign aid to. Usually, there’s some kind of corruption in the government of those countries. The problem is not that some of the citizens are criminals. Every country has that problem. The problem comes when the government itself adopts an official position to turn a blind eye, or when high-ranking officials are a part of the problem. Then, the corruption will never be rooted out.

That’s what’s going on here. It’s not that church members have issues to work through. It’s that the church as a whole is turning a blind eye to those who teach that it’s fine to mingle your religions, or to disregard God’s will for sexuality.

What might the lessons for us be? There are lessons for me, and for any of us in leadership. Other faiths, and sexuality, remain issues where Jesus’ teaching will put us at odds with the world around us. It’s very tempting to keep your head down, not talk about the issues that might make us stand out, not to be clear where Jesus is clear. We need to see clearly what Jesus makes of that temptation. He’s not pleased with it, just as he’s not pleased with the lack of love in the church at Ephesus.

But this doesn’t just apply to those of us in leadership. I’m sure you get asked from time to time, by friends or colleagues: “What do you make of all the debates within the church about sexuality? Isn’t it great that some within the church are trying to make things a bit more up to date?” What do you say? Now, maybe you’re not clear what you think. That’s back to my responsibility to teach more clearly. But if you are clear, it takes a lot of courage to say, “Actually, no: I don’t think it’s great. The Bible is perfectly clear, and it’s very dangerous to try and rewrite the bits we don’t like.”

Where From Here?

So Jesus tells this church to repent. To sort things out. To make sure these teachers no longer have a voice, no longer have an influence.

What will happen to this church in the future? It all depends on how they respond.

Suppose they ignore Jesus’ appeal. That’s verse 16: “Repent therefore! Otherwise I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”

This is a church that has been attacked by their neighbours. But if they stay on their current course, they’ll have Jesus on their case. His sword is far scarier than the one the authorities used against Antipas.

The Christian church has opponents, people outside, who will attack and even kill to try and destroy the church. But if the church starts to assimilate with its surrounding culture, blend in, that’s far more deadly.

The illustration is the chameleon. It tries to avoid being eaten by changing colour to blend into its surroundings. The danger is that the world will eat the church for breakfast. It’s very tempting for the church to change colour, to blend in. That may make them less of a target for the world around, but instead they’ve picked a new opponent. They’re now in danger from Jesus himself.

But suppose instead the church takes this warning on board. What then?

Well, that’s verse 17: “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”

We haven’t got time to go into all the interpretations people have come up with for these two symbols.

I think they both refer to the banquet that the Messiah is going to throw at the end of the age. Manna was the miraculous bread from heaven that sustained Israel on her 40 year journey in the desert. White stones were used for lots of things, including as an entrance ticket. It would have your name on it, it admits you. It’s called a new name, because it’s an invitation to the banquet of the new age.

A friend of mine was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. They received through the post a really smart card to invite them to come. And apparently there was the most amazing food – all top quality, and an enormous range.

The promise here is like that, only it refers to the banquet when Jesus returns, symbolic of how good life will be then. “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the Buckingham Palace food. It’s hidden now. You’ll have to wait and see how good that is. I will also give that person a smart invitation card with a garden party name on it.”

They may think that blending into the culture opens doors in business, and gets them into some great social occasions. If you really want doors opening, get to know Jesus. He opens the door to the new age, to the new creation, to the heavenly banquet. Boy, is that worth having!


It can be tough being a Christian.

Sometimes, the outside world just thinks we’re weird. In some parts of the world, your life is in danger.

The fatal move is for a church to try to survive by blending in.

It’s worth resisting that pressure. Because Jesus offers nothing less than admission to the best party on earth.

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