February 21, 2010
Jesus provides for those who hold to him without compromise.
I. True to His Name (Revelation 2:12-13)
II. The Peril of Compromise (Revelation 2:14-16)
III. The Provision of Jesus (Revelation 2:17)
Two weeks ago we talked about the danger of going through the motions of the Christian life, and profiled Matthew West, whose song ‘The Motions’ was the most played adult contemporary Christian song of 2009. Last week we talked about enduring persecution and hardships, and profiled Polycarp, who, in 154 AD, boldly gave his life for the King who had given him eternal life. This week I want to tell you about someone neither ancient nor quite contemporary, but one of my peers, who died in a tragic plane crash in 1982.
His name was Keith Green, and he was one of the most wonderfully fanatic Jesus freaks my generation produced. He was a child prodigy of the rock music world, at one time being the youngest person ever to register a song with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. His early music wasn’t about faith: he grew up in a Jewish and Christian Science home, but he was exposed to the New Testament from an early age. In his teens, he pursued drugs, sex and Eastern mysticism. After those things soured, God finally broke through his calloused heart and Green was born again in 1974.
His music reflected his radical life change, his fervor for evangelism and sold-out discipleship. My favorite album No Compromise, includes songs like ‘Soften Your Heart’: “So many times I've tried to tell you, but I don't think you've been listening. There's nothing I wanna try and sell you, 'Cause His love is free. You're so proud of saying you're a seeker, but why are you searching in the dark? You won't find a thing until you soften your heart.”
And even while appealing to the lost, he was challenging the church: “The world is sleeping in the dark that the church just can't fight ‘Cause it's asleep in the light. How can you be so dead when you've been so well fed? Jesus rose from the grave, and you, you can't even get out of bed.” But his most compelling moments came when he looked within, examined himself: “Make my life a prayer to You. I wanna do what you want me to; no empty words and no white lies; no token prayers no compromise.” No compromise.
This week we’re looking at the third of seven churches that receive letters from Jesus in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. And like Keith Green’s music, Jesus’ words encourage those churches and us to live without compromise in a sinful, fallen world. This letter to the church in Pergamum warns the church against compromise with the idolatries and sins of the world, but promises that Jesus provides for those who hold to him with no compromise.
Let’s read this text. Revelation 2:12-17 To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13I know where you live--where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city--where Satan lives.
14Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. 15Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.17He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
I. True to His Name (Revelation 2:12-13)
The road north from Smyrna follows the coast some 40 miles and then turns northeast up a broad valley of the Caicus River to the impressive capital city, Pergamum. If Ephesus was the ‘New York’ of Asia Minor, Pergamum was the ‘Washington D.C.’ It had the second largest library in the world, with over 200,000 volumes. It was also home to four major idol temples (Zeus, Athena, Dionysus and Asklepios, a snake-like healing god). Finally, it boasted the first temple of the imperial cult, which worshipped the Roman emperors as divine and demanded the pledge of allegiance ‘Caesar is Lord.’
In writing to the church in this city, Jesus identifies himself as “him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” This description, like most in these letters is based on the images found in Revelation 1. There the sword represented the Word of God which is “living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The specific activity of God’s word represented by the sword is to judge the thoughts and attitudes of the hearers. That’s what we’ll see happening in this letter to Pergamum.
The commendation of this church begins in verse 13: “I know where you live, where Satan has his throne, yet you remain true to my name.” Pergamum could be identified as Satan’s throne either due to the abundance of pagan worship, including that snake idol, or more likely because this city was so enthusiastic about emperor worship and was Rome’s local capital or throne. So Jesus commends them ‘you remain true to my name.” They had not denied their faith by burning incense to the emperor and declaring “Caesar is Lord.” Instead they had remained faithful to the truth: “Jesus is Lord.” +
The verse goes on to say “You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city--where Satan lives.” We don’t know much about Antipas: this is his only mention in the Bible. But the same rare name appears on a third-century inscription in Pergamum, and he’s mentioned not long after that by Tertullian.
The really interesting thing about Antipas is that he is given the same title – faithful witness – that Jesus received in Revelation 1:5. In the early church being a faithful witness is already becoming identified with dying for the faith, which is how the underlying word ‘martyr’ would shortly come to be used. Jesus was a faithful witness to the Father’s love and grace; it led to the cross. Antipas was a faithful witness to Jesus as Lord; it led to his death.
So the church was commended for holding to the name of Jesus and faith in Jesus even when the culture was hugely pressuring them to abandon that faith. And the obvious question is whether in your life, in each area of your life you can truly say ‘Jesus is Lord.’ The church at Pergamum was immersed in a culture where Caesar was Lord or Zeus was Lord or the snake God of healing was Lord, or even learning was Lord – remember the library there. But we are immersed in a culture where individual freedom is Lord, where uncontrolled sexuality is Lord, where material consumerism is Lord, where media is Lord, where tolerance is Lord. Have we compromised, have we allowed these things to become the focus of our allegiance?
II. The Peril of Compromise (Revelation 2:14-16)
Sadly, though much of the church in Pergamum was faithful, there were some who had compromised, and Jesus has strong words of rebuke. Verse 14: Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.”
When you think of Balaam you may think of a donkey that talked – and that donkey is in the story, but Balaam was the one riding the donkey. He was a pagan prophet with a reputation for being able to put a blessing or a curse on things. The king of Peor hired him to curse the people of Israel as they traveled through the wilderness, but God would not allow him to do it.
Numbers tells Balaam’s story over several chapters. Right after that, in Numbers 25 something bad happens to Israel. The nation is camped in the wilderness near Peor and Moab, and the men of Israel begin to “indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. 3So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD's anger burned against them.”
Although Balaam isn’t mentioned at this point, we learn of his role in Numbers 31: the Midianite women followed “Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people.” Do you see this? Though Balaam was unable to verbally curse God’s people, he had engineered their disgrace by inducing them to worship idols, and participate in sexual immorality.
Thus Balaam became a prototype of all corrupt teachers who betray believers into fatal compromise with the world. At Pergamum, where Satan sat enthroned, some within the church had decided accommodation was the wisest policy. They taught these compromises, which led to idol worship and sexual sin.
It appears the error of the Nicolaitans, verse 15, is similar to the error of Balaam: “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Both groups may have thought that because of God’s grace, believers can compromise in any way they want, and it’s either not sin or it will be forgiven. These groups have accommodated themselves to the religious and social requirements of the pagan society in which they lived.
Alright, before we get to Jesus’ call to repentance, let’s try to bring some of this home. Both this week, in this letter, and next week, in the letter to Thyatira, we are looking at churches that have compromised with the culture. I’ve recently been studying the relationship between Christianity and culture, and thinking about how culture influences us, and how we can influence culture.
In fact there’s a huge range of thinking among writers on this subject. Some are utterly against any involvement with culture: if it’s happening out there, it’s to be rejected. At the other extreme are embracers: everything in culture is worthwhile; even bad parts give insight. One of these books even says our theology should grow out of culture rather than Scripture.
In the middle are the rest of us, who don’t utterly reject culture, but who are far from embracing it at face value. These books I’ve been reading teach us to look with caution at cultural norms, to seek to influence culture rather than to have it influence us. And this letter teaches us in that mix we need to be very careful to avoid conscious or unconscious compromise with the culture.
So I want to look at these compromises and recognize that Jesus provides for us when we don’t compromise. The main accusations against these churches are idolatry and sexual sin, with the attitude ‘it’s no big deal, I’m saved by grace.’ And we are saved by grace, but compromise is a big deal.
So, idolatry: when we go to apply the Biblical teaching on idolatry, we have to begin with the first commandment: you will have no other gods before me. The key application question is ‘what am I putting in the place of God?’ Or in this case, what does my culture want to put in the place of God in my life.
The list is long. An atheist like Richard Dawkins, or maybe your college professor, wants to put evolution, random chance, in the place of God. They make a religion of denying God and exalting these other things. A related religion is the cult of tolerance, which says tolerance is the highest value and the only sin in the world is against tolerance. This is the sin Brit Hume of Fox news recently committed when he suggested that Tiger Woods really needs Jesus.
What does this compromise look like in the church? I’m afraid it looks like Joel Osteen and his kin, who don’t think evolution’s that important an issue, who don’t think it’s really necessary to preach the truths of Scripture, but who preach a self-help feel-good Gospel of personal achievement and prosperity. They’ve gagged God and all they have left is their own ideas, which look much more like the world’s ideas than the Bible’s truths.
But I don’t think we’re likely to compromise much in these areas: we see them too clearly. Aren’t we likely to compromise in things we don’t worry about? For example, we’re immersed in a culture of materialistic consumerism. We’ve been trained since childhood, by the media, that the desire for things, for new things, for high tech things, for bigger things, for more convenient things is just natural and good. We’ve been watching the Olympics, and every advertisement is aimed at making you think something is good and desirable, whether it’s a Coke bringing you happiness or a BMW being sold not just as a source of joy, but as joy itself.
We are immersed in a sea of consumerism, and brainwashed into thinking that consuming is both good and right. It’s not: it’s an idol. And despite the great prosperity that has been a by-product of capitalism, we should not compromise on the Jesus’ call to be on our guard against all kinds of greed.
The same kind of things could be said about sexual issues. I’m going to leave most of that for next week, because the Biblical example there is Jezebel. But I want to say clearly that I believe we the church lost our distinction from this fallen culture when we allowed it to take away the shame of pre-marital sex and divorce. There are other more flamboyant areas of sexual sin that get a lot of attention, but the compromise the church made was to say ‘well, pre-marital sex is wrong, but we’re not going to make a big deal of it’ and to say, ‘well divorce is wrong, but we’re not going to hold it against you.’
Let me be perfectly clear: these things can be forgiven but we should be ashamed of ourselves when they happen, whether to us or to someone else. We should not accept them as inevitable under any circumstances or in anyone’s life.
So, verse 16, Jesus calls the church at Pergamum, and us, to repent. Unless the church repents, Christ will come and fight against these errors with the sword of his mouth, with the sharp dividing and judging truth of his Word. Only a portion of the church has fallen prey to the ways of the Balaamites, but all are guilty of not taking action against their presence. Jesus will not bear with such compromise forever – his word is not powerless.
III. The Provision of Jesus (Revelation 2:17)
Yet with the rebuke and call to repentance comes the promise to those who remain faithful. Verse 17 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”
Manna was the food supernaturally supplied to the Israelites during their sojourn from Egypt to Canaan. ‘Hidden’ manna may reflect a Jewish tradition that the pot of manna placed in the ark as a memorial to future generations was later hidden by the prophet Jeremiah until the coming of the Messiah. There may be something to that, but in the context of the letter what’s clear is that Jesus will provide the proper, heaven-sent feast for believers in contrast to the tainted feast of the pagan rituals deemed harmless by the Balaamites.
This proper food, in John’s Gospel, is Jesus himself. John 6:31 “Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" 32Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34"Sir," they said, "from now on give us this bread." 35Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus himself is the reward received by the overcomers. And He is a reward we can receive now if we will turn from compromise and sin to him, accepting in faith the sustenance and life that he gives through his death and resurrection.
I believe the white stone also symbolizes his rescue. This symbol is more difficult than the symbol of manna: there are a dozen or more theories explaining these white stones. The two most common are, first, that in ancient Greece and Rome jurors would declare the defendant innocent by casting a white pebble into an urn. In the same way Jesus has declared us innocent.
But since the context and the mention of manna has already made us think of the messianic feast, it seems best to take the white stone as a tessara, a little tablet of wood, metal or stone that served as a token for admission to a banquet or other events of the ancient world. In other words Jesus has not only declared us innocent, but he has stamped our ticket to the feast.
Unlike some people we’re not party crashers, we’re invited guests, and the whiteness of the stone indicates the purity we’ve been given that allows us to come. The secret name on the stone is either a name we’ve been given by Jesus, or a name of Jesus that gives us privileged access. So this last verse, like the first commendation, reassures us that Jesus will provide for those who hold on to him without compromise. He freely provides the food our souls really need, and the price of admission to God’s kingdom.
Furthermore, by his word, he roots out compromise and judges those who lead God’s people into it. Therefore you and I need to be sensitive to the vast opportunities we have in this culture to compromise. We need to hold fast to the truth, to resist the seductions of advertizing and the desire to be politically correct and the minimizing of sin.
Keith Green had it right. He says "No Compromise is what the whole Gospel of Jesus is all about. . . In a day when believers seem to be trying to please both the world and the Lord (which is an impossible thing), when people are far more concerned about offending their friends than offending God, there is only one answer...Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him!"
He says “I repent of ever having recorded one single song, and ever having performed one concert, if my music, and more importantly, my life has not provoked you into Godly jealousy or to sell out more completely to Jesus!”
He has Jesus saying, in one of his songs “To obey is better than sacrifice; I don't need your money - I want your life. And I hear you say that I'm coming back soon, but you act like I'll never return. Well you speak of grace and my love so sweet: How you thrive on milk, but reject My meat. And I can't help weeping at how it will be if you keep on ignoring My words.
“To obey is better than sacrifice. I want hearts of fire. Not your prayers of ice. And I'm coming quickly to give back to you. According to what you have done.” Jesus provides for those who hold to him without compromise.