12/7/2020 12:23:56 PM
Letters to the Seven Churches: Pergamum
Pastor Joel Leyrer - Advent 2 - Sunday, December 6, 2020
Dear Friends in Christ, Would you agree that because of email and word processing and text messages and all the various forms of social media available to us today, letter writing has pretty much become a lost art? Around this time of the year, we may receive some Christmas form letters with an additional hand-written line or two, but the days of regularly corresponding with one another through long, hand-written, multi-page, newsy letters are about over – at least for most of us.
God in his wisdom and grace chose a time for his Son to enter our world when letter writing was still the main source of communication. There was nothing instant about them; the information they conveyed could be referred to again and again, passed around, and passed on down to later generations.
Which is exactly what we are doing this Advent season. As we continue our Advent series on the seven letters of Jesus to the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation, today we come to letter number three, addressed to the church in the city of Pergamum.
Like all the seven letters, we are transported to a different time and place that seem very foreign to us. What we soon discover, however, is that, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same, and what our Lord has to say is just and timely and relevant for us today as it was for those who first heard these words.
Without further introduction let us turn our attention to
THE LETTER TO PERGAMUM – AND US
To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. Each of the seven churches gets its own personalized description of Christ. What is Jesus conveying when he describes himself as the One who has the sharp, double-edged sword? Certainly a sword is a symbol of power and authority. In the book of Romans, for example, the Apostle Paul speaks of the government “bearing the sword.”
Other passages provide additional insight. In the final chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about putting on the full armor of God, which includes “the sword of the Spirit – which is the Word of God.” And in the letter to the Hebrews we are told how “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
Taken all together perhaps Jesus is impressing upon these Christians that he is the One who rules the Universe; he is their benevolent King who reigns over them with his Word, because in their context they needed to be assured of this. And given their context, this is what their Ruler has to say: I know where you live – where Satan has his throne.
The present-day population of Pergamum (called Bergama today) is around 100,000, but back then some have suggested it may have been up to 150,000. Historians tell us it was a very powerful, cosmopolitan, and important presence in that part of the world. At one time it was the seat of Roman government for the area – kind of like the Washington D.C. of western Turkey.
It was also the home to many different and impressively built pagan temples and shrines. One of the grandest and most prominent temples was dedicated to worshiping the Roman Emperor as god. That may be behind the specific reference to where Satan has his throne, or it may just be a general reference to the overall pagan worship that pervaded the city.
The bottom line is that it would be hard to imagine a more godless and openly heathen setting than Pergamum. Yet in this city God the Holy Spirit had established a Christian Church – and Jesus wanted these Christians to know that he knew where they lived.
In other words, he knew the pressure they were under. He knew they were in the minority. He knew their faith was being challenged and assailed every which way they turned. He knew that. And he knew it was important for them to know that he knew that. We will come back to this marvelously comforting reassurance at the end of this sermon.
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. This is high praise by Jesus. In the midst of living in a godless society the believers in Pergamum had remained spiritually strong – even when their faith was met by physical persecution for the “crime” of being a traitor to the government because they refused to worship the emperor as a god or acknowledge him as being divine.
They obviously had experienced this first hand. A church member named Antipas – he’s only mentioned here so we have no further knowledge of him; some believe he may have been the pastor of the church – was killed because of his faith in Christ. In so doing he exemplified what Jesus wrote in his second letter (to Smyrna; Revelation 2:10): “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Again, these words of Jesus were high commendation and high encouragement for the faithful believers in Pergamum. Sadly, not everyone within the congregation fit into this category.
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. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
There are two things that fall under Jesus’ stern words here. The first is the level and type of sin that some within the congregation were practicing. The second is the fact that the faithful within the congregation apparently allowed it to go on without practicing any form of church discipline.
What was being tolerated? If we’re looking for a single descriptive word it would be “compromise.” There were those in the congregation who compromised their faith by simultaneously trying to live in two worlds – the unbelieving world that surrounded them with all its various temptations and influences, and the Christian world with its allegiance to Christ and his Word.
Jesus makes an Old Testament reference to a pagan soothsayer named Balaam, who advised an enemy king of Israel named Balak how to corrupt and ultimately defeat the Israelites. He also references a sect within the church at the time we don’t know all that much about other than the name Nicolaitans. Jesus cites both of them as leading God’s people into idolatry and sexual immorality. Apparently the same types of sin were happening within the church there.
It may be these church members were doing what they did in a misguided effort to survive. We know from that period of history that to practice one’s trade or profession or business often required membership in a guild. Membership in these guilds (almost like dues) required some sort of sacrifices to their patron gods or goddesses, often accompanied by a visit to temple prostitutes or some other sort of ritualistic sexual immorality.
It’s possible those church members rationalized all this by saying to themselves, “Yeah, I know it’s technically wrong and I don’t like it, but it’s something I have to do if I want to put food on the table. Certainly God will look past these indiscretions for the greater good of supporting my family, right?”
Jesus says to both the church which tolerated spiritual compromise and those who were knowlingly and intentionally practicing it, no. This is not acceptable. This does not give glory to the One who died on the cross. Jesus says these actions do not call for rationalization or some tortured form of justification. Rather, these are sins which call for repentance.
Were they listening? 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 calls to mind being sustained by heavenly food. We also remember how Jesus referred to himself as the Bread of Life. The Gospel message of Jesus Christ with its astounding proclamation that the forgiveness of our sins is complete through trusting in his perfect life, sacrifical death and resurrection for us and in our place – that’s all the food we need. That will sustain us until we dine with Christ forever in heaven at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
As to the white stone with a new name written on it – undoubtedly the Christians at Pergamum understood what that meant, but we’ll just chalk it up to more of the mysterious and symbolic language we find throughout Revelation. What we do know is this: If God bestows it upon us, it’s something good – both now and for eternity.
What does this letter tell us today? Two timeless truths ring out. One is a great comfort. The other is a great warning. We need to hear both. We’ll go to the warning first…
The warning is against compromising our faith or giving into worldly influences. Those temptations to rationalize sinful behavior surround us today in the same way the heathen temples surrounded the people of Pergamum. Jesus talks about two general areas in particular that we as Christians must always be on guard against: idolatry (putting things ahead of God) and sexual immorality in all its various forms and nuances.
This calls for honest introspection on the part of each one of us. We must ask ourselves, am I as a Christ-follower being an influence on the world, or am I being influenced by the world?
Have I found myself slipping into the language of the world or the morals of the world or the goals of the world or the toxic self-centredness of the world?
Do I sift my life-decsions through the sieve of God’s Word and what will bring honor to Christ, or do I find myself going along to get along?
Where honest introspection calls for repentance, let us repent. Then in the joy of forgiveness, let us ever walk with Jesus, follow his example pure. Flee the world which would deceive us and to sin our souls allure…”
Jesus Christ died for our sins on the cross. He gave everything for us. Pray that we may ever increasingly honor him with our lives and represent him well before a watching world.
The second great take-away from this letter is one of exceeding comfort. These words of Jesus apply to each one of us: “I know where you live…”
Meaning, Jesus knows us. I can’t think of anything more meaningful in these often confusing and troublesome days than that. “I know where you live…”
Meaning, he knows what we’re going through. He knows what we’re worried about. He knows what keeps us up at night. He knows our wants. He knows our needs. He hears our innermost cries. He knows our fears and feels our tears. He plumbs the depth of our hearts.
Yes, Jesus knows us. Personally. Intimately. Lovingly. Tenderly. Completely. He’s got the nail holes in his hands and feet to prove it.
And during this Advent season as we anticipate his coming both as the Babe of Bethlehem and ultimately as the King of Kings, he once again reminds us through these letters how blessed we are to have him as our ever knowing, ever loving Savior. Amen.