Pergamum

This evening we come to the third of the seven churches - Pergamum - Rev. 2:12-17. And our sub-heading is "Christ's concern for the truth". Truth or the lack of it has certainly been in the headlines this week. From who's telling the truth in the FO over the coup in Sierra Leone to how TV documentaries fake the truth to whether or not Alan Shearer is telling the truth about his incident with Neil Lennon! Now it may seem surprising that the media is so concerned about the truth but we should not be surprised at Christ's concern for the truth. He is very concerned indeed. Look at v.12, "These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword". The risen and ascended Lord is the administrator of divine justice, with almighty power to execute judgement. And he will use it (v. 16) against those who hold to error in his church and lead others astray and do not repent. In his letter to the church at Ephesus he says he hates the practices of false teachers, namely the Nicolaitans and accuses the church at Pergamum of tolerating them. Christ's concern for the truth is a concern which we must take very seriously indeed. Truth, Christian truth is not something which we can take lightly or hold to laxly or allow to be compromised, though as we learnt from the church at Ephesus truth must be held with love.

"We need to preserve the balance of the Bible which tells us to hold the truth in love, to love others in the truth and to grow not only in love but also in discernment." (Stott, p.54) "Love becomes sentimental if it's not strengthened by truth, and truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love."

Jesus Christ is the truth and we must hold fast to him and not knowingly tolerate or be led astray by error. We are to know him and his word and walk in his ways - we are to know the truth. (Books) In John 8:31-32 Jesus said to the Jews who had believed and put their faith in him: "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free". The sometimes seemingly more free and attractive way of error whether doctrinal or moral only leads to slavery and guilt as we shall see a little later when we examine the Nicolaitans. But first a word about the ancient city of Pergamum and the situation of its early church. Jesus says to the church in Pergamum, "I know where you live" - you live "where Satan has his throne". He knows about their environment, that the church in Pergamum is set in "a strong centre of paganism" (Swete p.33). The lower part of the city with 120,000 inhabitants was dominated by a steep hill where there were temples of Demeter, Athena and Hera and an immense altar to Zeus. The most popular deity in Pergamum was Asclepius, the god of healing, whose huge sanctuary south of the city made Pergamum the "Lourdes of the Province of Asia and the seat of a famous medical school" (Charles, p.60). But another form of worship posed the greatest threat to the church. Pergamum was the political capital of the Roman province of Asia and the centre of emperor worship. The Emperor Domitian had demanded to be worshipped as 'lord and god'. And one member of the church at Pergamum, Antipas, had been put to death probably for refusing to take part in such worship. Because Pergamum was the seat of Roman provincial government and the centre of emperor worship it was the city where Satan lives and where Satan has his throne (v.13). Christ recognised here that Satan who lived and ruled at Pergamum is the source of the errors to which the church was there exposed. Satan the ruler of this world, the liar, the hater of truth, the deceiver and the angel of light, the enticer into sin and beguiler into error was at work in Pergamum, working through the pressures of a non-Christian society just as he is today. Yes, Satan and his army have been overthrown. At the cross Jesus met and conquered all the forces of evil. But despite their overthrow, the powers of darkness continue to contest every inch of territory as the Kingdom of God advances. Satan persecutes the church- as we've seen Antipas has already died for his faith- to tempt her away from Christ and Satan also tries to seduce the church in more subtle ways as we shall see. The young church was under pressure to conform and to compromise. To lessen the importance of absolute truth, to give up on Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. To view emperor worship as harmless rather than as idolatrous and to see nothing wrong or compromising about eating food prepared for idols in pagan temples. To tolerate false teachers and error. Does this ring bells for you and for the church today? Certainly it would seem that today some churches are prepared to tolerate false teachers and teaching. Although the word absolutely is used more now than ever in general conversation there is a lack of holding to absolute truth both in the world and the church. Christian doctrine and morality are being subverted from within the church. Jesus is not seen as the truth or the only way to the Father by very many. We live in a society which we are told is pluralistic, where even the England football team has a faith healer to help them prepare for France 98 and where tolerance and political correctness can be supreme virtues and yet where there is sometimes open hostility to the Christian faith such as at least one school in this city. At present we don't face the sentence of death for our faith but in the near future there could be real conflict between the church and the state over the Human Rights Bill if the Lords amendments are rejected by the government and then the Commons. We are to obey God not men when there is conflict between their laws. Is Newcastle or the UK in 1998 so very different from Pergamum? So what had Christ to say to the church at Pergamum which was oppressed by such influences and pressures? And what does Christ say to us today as a church? Well that brings me to my 3 points. First, FAITHFULNESS UNDER PRESSURE v.13 In five of the seven letters to the seven churches Christ says "I know your deeds". As we've seen, in Pergamum's case he says, "I know where you live - where Satan has his throne". He's saying that he understands their situation, he realises and knows the pressures they have to bear. He knows because he walks among them as a church. He knows because he's been tempted just as they were and as we are and he's suffered and as a result he is able to help those who are being tempted and sympathise with their weaknesses (Hebrews 2&4). And here in v.13 he encourages, commends and praises them as a church for holding fast in a pressured time and place. Look at v.13,

"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".

They had stood firm for Christ and his truth against the cult of the emperor and any ensuing persecution even when one of their number had been killed for his faith. They had submitted only to Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. They had not denied him as Peter had done after Gethsemane. Maybe Antipas had been killed as an example to the rest to try to weaken their resolve - but it did not. Known to be a Christian, Antipas would probably have been brought before the Proconsul of the Province in Pergamum. The Proconsul was also the chief priest of the imperial cult.

"A bust of the emperor was set on a plinth, and sacred fire burned before it. To sacrifice to the genius of Rome and the divine Emperor was a simple matter. All he had to do was sprinkle a few grains of incense on the fire and say "Caesar is Lord". Then he would be released. But how could he deny Christ's name and faith? How could he say Caesar is Lord when he knew that Jesus is Lord? He would indeed render to Caesar what belonged to Caesar but he must also render to God the things that are God's. He could not bring himself to give to Caesar the title that belonged to Christ. Christ was his Lord, not Caesar, even if it meant the whip, the sword, the lions or the stake." (Stott, p.57)

Antipas was martyred. His courage and commitment to the truth cost him his life and Jesus gives him his own title "faithful witness" (Rev.1:5). Jonathan P reminded us last week of those who face persecution for their faith in Christ and their loyalty to the truth of the Gospel even unto death today. (Examples- China, Pakistan, Sudan, Colombia all last week). Look at Rev.2:10. Are we willing to be a "faithful witness" even unto death? Perhaps there are some of us here who face persecution from our families back home and maybe even rejection because of our allegiance to Christ as our Saviour and Lord. Maybe there are others of us who face ridicule in the public square when they openly hold fast to Christ and the truth of his word on doctrinal and ethical matters. Are others of us prepared to take that ridicule whether we're doctors or teachers or students at school or college? Are we willing to confess and hold fast that 'Jesus is Lord' when other types of pressures tempt us away and encourage us to compromise whether it's our use of time, money, career prospects and ambitions or a wrong relationship? Under pressure or persecution who do we worship and submit to as Lord? What truth do we uphold? Do we compromise or do we hold fast to Christ and his word? It's so easy isn't it to say different things to different people depending on where they're coming from. If we do remain faithful then we will bring glory to Christ and encourage others to be faithful to the truth and to resist the temptations of the evil one. We may not face death in this country for our faith but we do face pressures. The church lives where Satan lives. The church is there in the darkness to bear witness to the light, costly though that may be. And Christ, as well as understanding their situation in Pergamum, reminds them and us that he has 'the sharp, double-edged sword'. The enemies of Christ and the Gospel will be judged if there is no repentance. Christ is more powerful than any opponent the faithful church faces on earth. This was an important reminder for the church in Pergamum where the Proconsul of the Roman Province of Asia had unlimited powers. The sword was the symbol of his rule. But, in the end, his power is no match for the sword which comes from the mouth of Christ - his word, a sharp sword "with which to strike down the nations, which will be ruled with an iron sceptre" (Rev. 19:15) As one writer puts it: "In a world of brute force, it is some comfort to know that what counts most in the end is not the size of a nation's army or the mega-tonnage of its bombs, but the word of the one who was crucified." (Travis, p.61) Secondly, THE DANGERS OF TOLERANCE vv.14-16 Look at vv.14-16:

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. {15} Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. {16} Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

Christ accuses the church at Pergamum of tolerating false teachers and their practices who hold not to Christ but to the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans, to a false cult. What was hated in Ephesus and hated by Christ - ie the practices of the Nicolaitans- was tolerated in Pergamum. To Jesus, the Lord of the church, this was not on. It is a real concern of his that the truth of the Gospel should be guarded unsullied and unspoiled. Yes he is anxious that we should love him and be willing to suffer bravely for him but he is also concerned that we should believe in him and hold the truth about him. He is not unconcerned about doctrine. He loves the truth. He speaks the truth. He is the truth. Therefore we cannot be indifferent about his truth. Most at Pergamum were walking in the truth but Jesus was hurt and concerned by the "waywardness of the minority and by the nonchalance of the majority". He's asking, "Does it mean nothing to you that my name is being dishonoured by some and my faith denied?" Repent therefore! (v16) Are we humbly walking in the truth? Are we holding to the central doctrinal truths about Christ? That he is God and Saviour, the divine Lord who I submit to as my Lord and the divine Saviour in whom I trust as my Saviour. Are we holding to the central Christian ethical truth about holiness? Do we vehemently reject sin and love righteousness? And if we are humbly walking in the truth are we concerned like Christ for those who are not? And for those who lead them astray and for their impact on the church? Or are we tempted to tolerate it? Both here and in the wider church? If not and if so we are to repent too. Too many in the church today want too much tolerance shown over the lack of commitment to fundamental Christian truth. A letter from someone in Cambridge to the Cof E newspaper this week said the answer to the situation in the Newcastle diocese is tolerance (8/5/98)! You see those fundamental truths cannot be compromised. Other positions on the fundamentals of the Christian faith cannot be tolerated. As John Stott makes absolutely plain from Scripture.

"We cannot have Christian fellowship with those who deny the divinity of Christ's person or the satisfactoriness of his work on the cross for our salvation. There is no room for negotiation here. And to deny that Jesus was both human and divine is antichrist, wrote John in his Letters, while to preach any other Gospel than the Gospel of Christ's saving grace is to deserve Paul's anathema (Gal.1:6-9). Similarly, Paul urges the Corinthians not to associate with any Christian brother if by choice and practice "he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber - not even to eat with such a one" (1 Cor.5:11)." (Stott pp.56&58)

At times narrow is the safe path between the sin of tolerance and the sin of intolerance. The church at Pergamum had courageously kept the faith under pressure and persecution and yet was in danger of being quietly subverted by false teaching in its tolerance and laxity. As someone has written, "The mobs attack the front door, but false ideas are more like air-borne germs coming up between cracks in the floor boards. Enter Nicolaitanism". (Lennon 21) Nicloaitanism arose from the teaching of Nicolas of Antioch which was very similar to that of Balaam who was blamed in the Book of Numbers for leading Israel into immorality, participation in paganism and therefore of religious syncretism - which means to mix your own faith with ideas and practices from other faiths. The Nicolatians in perhaps a more subtle way and in the name of Christian freedom also encouraged Christians into sexual immorality and pagan worship. To them their freedom in Christ included freedom to sin. "Just a little idolatry, they would say. Just a little immorality. We are free. We don't have to go to extremes for Christ." Contrary to the apostolic decree of AD 49 and Paul's teaching in 1 Cor. 8-10 they said that Christians were free to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols in temples. After all the pagan gods did not exist they argued so it was all harmless, even the statutory pinch of incense in the flame to Caesar which Antipas had lost his life over. How unnecessary the Nicolatians would have said as they encouraged Christians into a reasonable relationship with the culture. The Nicolatians encouraged a lax attitude in some Christians and in Pergamum were themselves tolerated laxly by the church. And certainly in the Western church today the danger is that we are too lax, too tolerant of false teaching and secular ideas. We live in a world where trends and non-Christian dogmas are presented powerfully to us in the media. And whereas Christians down the centuries have refused to compromise and gone to the stake many modern Christians in the West "appear to be surrendering to the seductions of postmodernity with hardly a trace of a struggle". Witness the discussion papers for the Anglican Lambeth conference in July and August which are now available on the internet. "Our minds are being quietly and steadily colonised. For us the call to repent will also require a rediscovery of the truth about Christ who lays claim to everything as his by creation and redemption." (Lennon p.22) Look at v.16. God's way to overcome error is the proclamation of the glorious Gospel of Christ. Only truth can defeat error not inquisitions. And God's weapon for the conquest of error is the sword of Christ's word. It is our major weapon against Satan. Let's make sure that we individually and as a church submit to the truth of his word. One day the sword of Christ's word will devour the unrepentant. Thirdly, and finally HIDDEN MANNA AND A WHITE STONE v.17 Christ promises to him who overcomes, some of the hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it. What does Christ mean? What kind of a reward is this? Well the overcomers will be those who "reject the attractive, plausible, soft compromise of pagan banquets" (Lennon) and whatever that might mean for us today and who hear and receive God's word and strive to live by it. Those whose faith is in Jesus Christ. They will receive some of the hidden manna which is Christ - the true bread from heaven which gives life to the world (Jn 6:31-35)- in the Messianic banquet in glory. The white stone probably alludes to the custom of using white stones as admission tickets to public festivals. There is certain admission to the manna feast for those who overcome in Christ. For those who have repented and put their trust in him as Saviour and Lord. On the white stone will be written a new name known only to him who receives it. The name is the name of Christ (cf. Rev. 3:12). We will meet with Christ privately and personally in heaven and receive a fuller revelation of himself face to face. Will we receive the white stone? So in view of this let us not fall for or tolerate Satan's lies. Let us not be devoured by the prowling lion who is Satan when we leave CYFA or the University CU or wherever our security is. Let us not conform to the lifestyles and mindset of this world but rather be transformed by the renewing of our minds, guarding the truth of the Gospel and contending for the true faith, holding the truth in love.

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