We are working our way through the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor at the beginning of the book of Revelation. We are doing that because we want to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches: The churches then and there at the end of the first century and to us here and now at the start of the third millennia of the churches epic journey following Jesus. What does the spirit have to say to the churches as we face trouble from outside and face problems from within? Today we are going to look at a church that faced a very challenging context; the church at the place described as where Satan lives and has his throne, a church that had stood firm in the face of persecution and martyrdom but a Church where there were people who were seduced to compromise the truth, to mix the worship of Jesus with the pagan practices around them. What is the spirit saying to us…
If Ephesus was the New York of Asia Minor, then Pergamum was its Washington DC. In the New Zealand context you could say if Ephesus was its Auckland then Pergamum was its Wellington. It was the political capital for the province, the seat of the roman governor. It had been the seat of power in the region before the Romans had come as well. It was a city suited to such a roll as it was built on top of an almost 1,000ft acropolis or hill and commanded the whole area around it, a strong fortress. Pergamum had the second greatest library in the ancient Mediterranean area after Alexandra. When the Egyptians stopped exporting papyrus for writing on, Pergamum gave its name to what they developed to replace it… what we call parchment. It had a theatre that could seat 10 000 people and was known as a center for entertainment and for festivals.
AS the Political Capital it was the center for emperor worship, there is still the remains of a statue of the emperor Trajan near the summit of the acropolis today. It was also the centre for many pagan temples. A temple to Zeus dominates the land scape. That’s a picture of the altar to Zeus to the right… There were also temples to Athena, Dionysus; the God of wine.
The city was also well known for the worship of Asclepius, the God of healing and that temple was like the Lourdes of today attracting many people looking for healing. It was the alternative medicines mecca. The symbol associated with Asclepius was the serpent. As we see these factors combine we can see how Jesus can call it the place where Satan lives and has his throne. It made it a hard place to be church.
Again we are introduced to the one speaking to the church by imagery that is taken from John’s vision of Jesus in Revelations Chapter 1. It is Jesus who is speaking to the churches, when the Spirit speaks to the Church it brings us the words of Jesus. Here we see Jesus is the one who holds the two edged sword. In scripture the sword is seen in two ways both of which speak to the church in Pergamum and to us. The Sword was the symbol of Roman authority and government and the Church at Pergamum is being reminded that they may live at the center of roman rule and even where Satan has his throne, but ultimately it is Jesus who is sovereign, Jesus who rules. The two edged Sword is also an image in scripture of the word of God it is the symbol of God’s truth.
Jesus tells the church at Pergamum that he knows where they live. Now we are used to those words these days in a weird creepy horror movie stalker kind of context, “I Know where you live’ is like a threat… And we are all worried about the big brother capacity of government agencies. But for the church at Pergamum and for us it is a source of comfort and encouragement. To the other churches Jesus had talked of knowing their deeds and actions but Jesus knowledge of the church goes beyond the confines of the faith community into the context as well. In Pergamum Jesus is aware of the hardship, the persecution that has gone on the temptation to compromise their faith to fit in. He knows both the reality of what we face and the spiritual reality behind it. He knows the pagan environment that the church at Pergamum faced and the increasingly pluralistic and secular environment that we find ourselves in. An environment, which was described by one novelist I read recently where ‘God has been resigned to being the domain of fundamentalists, fanatics and humorists’. He knows that both environments are hard to be faithful followers. But Jesus knows where we live.
Jesus acknowledges the churches strengths. AS the center of Roman rule in the province Pergamum had been the first place to have to deal with persecution. In Roman society you were able to worship who you liked as long as you also were willing to worship the emperor. Christians were not willing to do that. In Romans 13 Paul encourages the believers at the heart of the Roman Empire to respect the Roman Government, God had proposed for civil government, it was there to protect the weak and to punish the wicked, but it was only a servant of God not to worshiped as a god. The Church at Pergamum had withstood the persecution. Unlike Smyrna they had already witnessed the death of their bishop Antipas, but had remained faithful as witnesses to Jesus. Tradition tells us that Antipas was ordained Bishop by John and was roasted to death in a brazen bull. Here is a church that had stood firm. That could not be broken by persecution.
Then Jesus acknowledges the problems the church has. There were groups amongst them that were compromising their faith and the Church had not fought against them. The letter uses an Old Testament story to illustrate this. Balaam is a prophet that Balak the Moabite king pays to come and curse the people of Israel. He is afraid of them and so calls on spiritual means to disrupt them. Balaam is unwilling to do this; in Numbers 22 we have the wonderful story of Balaam’s donkey stopping him. However we find out later in Numbers that Balaam had told Balek how to get the Israelites to curse themselves. He suggested sending women to seduce them to join in the worship of the Moabite Gods thus earning God’s wrath, which is what happens in numbers ch 25.
In the New Testament as gentiles had come to Christ and joined the Church the Christian leaders had gathered together in Jerusalem to work through the issue of how Jewish did people need to become to be followers of Jesus. The resulting judgment recoded in Acts 15 asked them specifically to stay away from food sacrificed to idols and from sexual immorality, from our reading in 1 Corinthians you could see that such things were an issue in the early Church. Much of the life and commerce of Pergamum would have revolved round Pagan temples, family celebrations would have been in the temple, artesian guilds, professional associations would have had meals at temples and sacrifices to the emperor of various deity would have been part of that. Various groups were teaching that such things were acceptable for Christians. The Christians in Smyrna suffered financial hardship because they would have refused to make such a compromise but here poverty is not seen as one of the issues so it may well be that some were not willing to sacrifice to the imperial cult to save their lives while others were willing to sacrifice to the pagan cults to save their livelihood.
In doing this however they would have ruined their witness to Jesus Christ. It’s a challenge for us today, how much do we influence our society for the kingdom of God and how much have we let society influence us. Have we allowed our faith to be compromised when our hopes and dreams and the pursuits that dominate our time and our sexual morals are not much different than the world around us. We may still have a theological affirmation of who Jesus is but the way we live that out does not reflect our commitment to Jesus and his kingdom.
Recently I’ve been reading a book called ‘Shrink’ by Tim Shuttle and he talks about the fact that the church in western society has come to view success not in terms of faithful service to Jesus but in the terms of the secular business world, success is all about the ABC’s Attendance, Buildings and Cash flow… WE talk of celebrity pastors and are told that the way to grow a church is by using business techniques and strategy rather than through prayer, love, discipleship, faithful proclamation of the gospel and service.
Prosperity Gospel preaches that God will bless us financially if we give and obey him. Can I say that is a very pagan understanding of religion that we can manipulate and earn God’s blessing. That blessing is seen in terms of the quality of cars in the church car park, money in the bank not in terms of the amazing depth and width of God’s grace to us. It tells people who struggle financially that their faith isn’t good enough. Even without that how much of what we focus on in our lives is about Christ’s kingdom rather than simply the prevailing spirit of this age.
WE live in an environment where as a church we wrestle with connection, living the gospel out contextually so that it speaks to our culture and not compromising the gospel. Where we hold to traditional forms and styles at worship that don’t speak to the world and have adopted our societies norms.
Jesus call to the Church at Pergamum is to repent, and once again we are not told what that entails. But Jesus tells them if they do not fight to be true to Jesus then he will come and fight. The two edged sword speaks of sovereign authority and it will be used to bring Judgement. To repent in this case is to fight to become true: To resist compromise with the gospel and its values. The sword also points to the way we are to fight and resist this compromise. Remember it is also the image for the word of God. God’s way of overcoming error is the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. AS John Stott puts it “falsehood will not be suppressed by the gruesome methods of the inquisition or the burning of heretics at the stake, or by restrictive state legislation, or even by war. Force of arms cannot conquer ideas. Only truth can defeat error.”
Jesus then turns to give encouragement to those who overcome. Like with all the letters the reward of staying true and faithful to Christ is couched in terms that connect to the issue being faced and with the church at Pergamum it’s no different. Jesus says that for those who overcome they will receive the hidden manna, they will be given a white stone with a new name on it, which seems rather mysterious to us. But the hidden manna was seen as the bread that God provided for the people of Israel in the desert that was placed in the Ark of the Covenant. While scholars have a whole raft of ways of looking at the white stone, it fits to think of white tiles that were used like tickets today to get into religious festivals. Jesus is saying that for those who overcome they are invited to a greater banquet and greater feast, the wedding feast of the lamb to feast not on food sacrificed to idols but on the very presence of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate communion we talk of it as a foretaste an appetiser of the meal that is to come when we shall sit down with Christ in eternity. Why bother going to the pagan festivals and joining their meals when we have been given an invitation to this feast. A feast we experience with the presence of Jesus in our lives each day. Pagan worship would often give their initiates a new name and here is the promise that Jesus himself will give us a new name. AS I thought about that I couldn’t help but thing of Jesus sitting down with his disciples at the last supper and saying I no longer call you servants but friends, or Simon, being called Peter which means rock. But the name on the white stone could also simply be the name of Jesus, acknowledging that we are his.
What is the spirit saying to the church? Well as Michael Wilcock says “our soft centered permissive society can be curiously hard on those who refuse to go along with it.” It will both persecute those who do not bend and it is very seductive that we worship its idols alongside our own God. We need to be prepared to fight to be true to Christ. In the end what we are offered in Christ is so much more than what we are offered as a compromise.