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AM Bible Study Archives
"The Church That Looked Like the World"
Wednesday AM Bible Study
March 4, 2009
The church must interact with the lives of lost people without, at the same time, falling into the trap of embracing their ungodly values or adopting their sinful behavior practices. In other words, the church must touch the world with the love of Christ while remaining markedly distinct from the world in its devotion to Christ. It must have “contact” with the world without becoming “conformed” to the world.
The church in Pergamos had, apparently, failed to maintain this distinction. There were, in the midst of this church, groups whose belief systems and life-style practices were indistinct from those of the paganistic culture that it was called by Christ to reach. This was a situation that was intolerable to the Savior. In this third of the seven letters, Jesus confronts the church that failed to make a distinction between itself and the world.
I. BACKGROUND ON THE CHURCH AT PERGAMOS.
A. Pergamos was, politically, a very important city. It was, in fact, the capital city of Asia Minor. It was also important as a great cultural center; and was considered “the finest flower of Greek civilization”. It had a huge library of 200,000 books (which were all hand-written scrolls) that competed with the library in Alexandria, Egypt, for prominence. The chief official of the city, Eumenes, once attempted to lure the famous librarian, Aristophanes, away from Alexandria and to the library in Pergamos; and it caused such a scandal that Egypt cut off all supplies of papyrus (the paper-like material used for book-making) from Pergamos so that they couldn’t make any more books. (Imagine a time in history when an attempt to lure a librarian from one city to another would cause an international incident!) As a result, Pergamos invented the use of “parchment” as a replacement material for making books.
B. Not only was it a center for Greek culture in Asia Minor; it was also a center of pagan religion. Significant temples were built there for four main deities: Zeus, Athena, Asklepios, and Dionysos; and these temples attracted worshipers from all over the world. One of these gods, Asklepios, was recognized as the god of healing— represented by a snake. The temple built in honor of this deity was filled with snakes that freely slithered across the temple floor; and ailing worshipers who had the good fortune of laying on the floor of the temple and being touched by such a snake were considered assured of full healing.
C. But its political, cultural and religious characteristics all came together in the fact that it was the center in Asia of the religion of emperor worship. It was the first city to have built a temple to a living emperor (Augustus). And whereas Christians throughout Asia Minor were in danger for their lives at least once a year, when it was compulsory that citizens throw a pinch of incense into the fire in worship of the emperor; the Christians in Pergamos were in danger 365 days a year. We can only imagine what a spiritually oppressive and hostile place Pergamos must have been for this band of Christians.
II. THE LORD'S INTRODUCTION (v. 12).
A. He calls Himself the One who has the sharp two-edged sword (see Rev. 1:16, 19:15, 21). A sword’s basic purpose is to separate things, and to produce a practical distinction between them (see Hebrews 4:12).
B. When we—as His Church—fail to keep ourselves distinct and separate from the world’s values and behaviors, He—as the holy Lord of the Church—will come and make that separation with the sword of His mouth!
III. THE LORD'S COMMENDATION (v. 13).
A. He says that He knew their works. But in addition, He says that He knew where those works are being performed—that they "dwell" where "Satan's throne is". This may be indicating that, in a strictly spiritual sense, Satan had set up a main base of operations in Pergamos, from which he sought to afflict all of Asia with paganism and the worship of false gods. Jesus here uses an unusual word for Christians in the world. Whereas Christians are typically referred to in the Scriptures as “sojourners” or “pilgrims”, here Jesus uses a word that means that they had “settled down” and “permanently taken up residence” in that place where Satan’s throne is.
B. Notice that, even though they dwelt where Satan’s throne is, Jesus says, “You hold fast to My name.” His “name” is a metaphor for all that He is as the Son of God. To “hold fast” to His name, or cling to it, means that they held fast to all that He is and does. And here, Jesus uses a tense in the original language that suggests that the Christians in Pergamos held fast to His name as a continual, ongoing practice of their lives.
C. Jesus says to them, “You . . . did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells”. History tells us very little about this man Antipas except that, as later tradition had it, he was roasted to death in a brazen bowl during the reign of Emperor Domatian. But Jesus called him “My witness” or "martyr". Jesus also calls him, “My faithful one.” He remained faithful in that city in which Satan “took up residence”; and willingly paid the price.
IV. THE LORD'S REBUKE (vv. 14-15).
A. Jesus had this against them: that they "have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel". When Satan cannot stop the witness of the church through persecution (as he attempted with the church in Smyrna), he will seek to destroy the church's integrity through false teaching and sin. Balaam's story is told us in Numbers 22-25 (see also 2 Peter 2:15-16 and Jude 11). He apparently counseled the Moabite king Balak (Num. 31:16) to encourage the Israelites to join in with the Moabites in a feast before one of their gods! The Scriptures tell of how the people of Israel fell into sin as a result of this conformity to the people around them; and of how God brought a devastating judgment upon them as a result (25:1-9).
B. They also—like Ephesus (2:6)—had some in their midst that held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Apparently, they were placing “stumbling blocks” before the people of God. They were somehow encouraging the people of God to conform to the culture around them, tempting them to “fit in” and participate in its ungodly and sinful practices. As a result, some of the people of the church in Pergamos were eating meat served to idols, which involved them in the worship of the false gods of the Pergamon culture; and in turn, they were falling into the sexually immoral practices associated with that worship. (The original language may even suggest that those who taught the doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolatans were the same group.) They were living in the midst of spiritually lost and sinful people; but instead of impacting them for Christ, they were conforming to their practices. They had ceased to be a distinct people. They had grown to look like the sinful and ungodly people of the world.
V. THE LORD'S COMMAND TO REPENT (v. 16).
A. The Lord commands them to repent; warning that, if they do not, He would quickly come and fight against them (that is, the false teachers in their midst) with "the sword of My mouth". If they would not separate themselves, He would separate them.
B. Notice that He calls the church—not the false teachers—to repent. He’s calling the church, here, to take serious His call to be a separate and distinct people. He’s calling the church to stop compromising with the world system, stop accommodating itself to the sinful culture around it, and to be distinct—to be “in the world” but not “of the world”.
VI. THE LORD'S PROMISE (v. 17).
A. The one who "overcomes" would receive "hidden manna". Manna was the food from heaven that God gave to the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. It’s “hidden” perhaps in the same sense that Jesus spoke of when sitting at the well in Samaria. He had just testified of Himself to a woman that had come to draw water there; and when the disciples came later and found Him, and when they offered Him some of the food they had bought in town, He said that He had food to eat that they do not know about (John 4:32); and explained that His food was to do the will of Him who sent Him and to accomplish His work (v. 34). Perhaps the “hidden manna” Jesus speaks of is this very same “food”—the eternal joy and satisfaction that will come from having faithfully served God as His witnesses in the world. That’s quite an alternative to ‘meat served to idols’!
B. He also promised "white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except Him who receives it". The Christians in Pergamos would have most likely understood this to be similar to the sort of ‘tokens’ that the Roman government would distribute to people that it wanted to favor. This “white stone” would have given them a free pass to many benefits—such as free food, or entry into important civic events. It was a mark of honor for a citizen to be given such a token. It might have been that Christians who refused to participate in the worship of the false gods of their culture, or to worship the emperor, were denied such “tokens” in their culture— along with the benefits awarded other citizens. But Jesus promises to favor His faithful “overcomer's” with a free pass to the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). The new name attached to that stone was probably promised because they had “lost their name” in the sense of losing their rights and privileges as citizens. But Jesus promises a “new name” known only to them and, of course, Jesus Himself; and with that new name comes all the privileges and benefits that accompany being a citizen of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
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