Where did that belief come from you’re so outspoken about? That attitude? That behavior?
The first time I got an Ohio fishing license, I turned it over and saw a warning for pregnant women. It concerned how many servings of fish they were allowed to eat from Ohio waterways. I always thought fish was a wonder food, so this shocked me. Call me sheltered. Anyway, mercury gets into the air through industrial emissions, then it gets into the water, goes to the bottom of the food chain, and you know the rest…little fish get eaten by bigger fish, all the while passing the mercury upwards in more concentrated form. Apparently this heavy metal bonds with the tissue of the fish, and of course, those bigger fish end up on our dinner plates.
There are also concerns about fish-farmed Talapia, because some of the growers are allegedly feeding them pig and chicken feces. It’s less threatening than mercury, but more disgusting. At any rate, the pollutant is in the water and that’s what the fish ingest.
You could say human culture is the water in which we swim. Every culture has pollutants present that we assimilate and metabolize while mostly unaware of it. You never know it’s there until you’re reading the Scriptures where God says something or commands something, and you have a negative visceral reaction toward it. Thus you become aware that due to the water you’ve been swimming in, certain toxins have built up in your system against the truth. Something has attached itself to your heart and bonded with you at levels you were hardly even aware of. This is a problem.
The church should shine to reveal our union, our oneness with Christ. But because we’ve passively accepted a lot of other elements into our hearts, we need help knowing what they are, and separating them from us.
That’s why Revelation 2:12 shows Jesus showing up, saying, “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write, ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.'”
This is what the church in Pergamum needed when it began to look more like a Roman cultural product than those who were joined to Him in faith. Jesus came therefore, to do some cutting. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
The word pierces, enters, and divides your soul from your spirit, that is, what is merely of you (especially the polluted you), and what is spiritual in you, and therefore of God. The writer of Hebrews says the word works like a sword cutting a bone and exposing the marrow hidden inside. It is precise and surgical, discerning, that is, telling the difference between the thoughts and intentions of a person’s heart. It gets to the marrow of the real reason why people think the way they do, do what they do, or believe what they believe. Games of self-deception are over.
Jesus doesn’t conduct safe Bible studies, where you listen a little bit, then go home and forget about it. His word is sharp and works so well that we often (foolishly) scramble to defend ourselves from it.
When I was a kid, my brother and I would have sword fights with any stick or broom handle we found. We loved the noise of the wood banging together, and danced around like pirates we’d seen on television. We worked up a sweat, occasionally rapped each other across the knuckles by accident, but we were never in any real danger. No one got cut. It was all play.
This is what happens when we censor difficult or objectionable thoughts from the word of God. We dull the blade, or replace it with a harmless toy sword. There’s a significant advantage to handling the Bible this way. Chiefly, no one is going to get hurt or offended. No one is in any danger. However, no discernment will occur, either. A conflation of spiritual and fleshly elements will continue inside of us.
And so the cutting begins in verse 13, as Jesus reveals to the church both its authentically spiritual and culturally polluted elements. He said,
“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.” There may be a local referent in this statement. Pergamum was the first city in Asia Minor to erect a statue honoring the imperial cult and the worship of the emperor. “Satan’s throne” might also have been a stinging play on words concerning the city’s patron god, a dragon. The church was in that same place, “Yet,” Jesus says, “You hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”
Like Smyrna, Pergamum had been faithful in the midst of persecution. Jesus mentions an individual, Antipas, as a representative of their previous devotion, reminding us that the Lord knows those who are faithful to Him down to specific names.
From a historical standpoint, Pergamum embodied the suffering church that survived the furnace of suffering, and began to enter a time of relative ease around 304 A.D., when tribulation dissipated.
Unfortunately, when repose settles around the Christian life, so do new temptations. In verse 14 He continues, “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam.” Jesus is not only aware of those who are faithful, and knows their names, but He also knows those who are holding onto something bad—in this case, the teaching of Balaam.
In the book of Numbers, the Israelites were on the move and making impressive progress toward the good land. A king named Balak wanted to stop them. He didn’t possess the military resources to do it, so he sought out Balaam, a gentile prophet who apparently possessed some rudimentary knowledge of God, and had a reputation as an oracle.
Whatever Balaam said carried weight, so Balak hired him to curse Israel. The clueless prophet positioned himself on a mountain, and attempted to curse God’s people, but every time he opened his mouth, God intervened, and blessing came out instead. Not to be undone, and wanting his payday, Balaam shifted tactics from a negative opposition against Israel, to something more clandestine. According to the verse, he “taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.”
Balaam’s previous negative attempts against the people had failed, but his new strategy used wine, women, and song. He knew the spiritual fellowship Israel shared with God was sensitive to idolatry and sexual wrongdoing. Indeed, Israel may have been prepared for warlike hostility from neighboring tribes, but they were completely unprepared for block parties with them. The Bible tells us over 50,000 Israelites succumbed to this strategy, though they had received the Ten Commandments forbidding idolatry, as well as additional prohibitions against sexual sin. It became a huge offense to God, and judgment fell on the people.
In essence, this was happening to the church in Pergamum.
Verse 15 says, “So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” The Nicolaitans might have been the people alluded to through use of the story of Balaam. At the very least, they were an additional group in the same boat as the Balaam party.
Either way, a liberal permissiveness toward sex and soft attitudes toward idolatry had gained ground among the believers in Pergamum. It was the assimilation of Roman moral and spiritual values into the fellowship of the church. The fact that it had become a teaching, also suggests that this cancer had made its way into the pulpit, no doubt using themes of love and grace as a cover. The effect was corrosive to healthy faith.
I’ve heard stories about believers in distant countries who followed Jesus, were hunted by authorities, and generally suffered for the gospel. Then they came here to the U.S. and settled down. Secret police no longer lurked around every corner. Dinner was a given every night, with no need to pray for food. Much the opposite, the environment was full of relaxation. Many of these new arrivals to the west either assimilated values of pleasure-seeking, and became flat, unremarkable believers, or they had to make a definite decision not to hold the teaching of Balaam. They were ready for the prisons of Smyrna, but caught off guard by the shopping malls of paradise.
This is our hurdle today. Abundance, non-sobriety, self. Just consider how many kinds of toothpaste we have. After factoring in the different brands and their variations, we have upwards of 1,000. And gods? Potentially millions.
Jesus issued the call: “Therefore repent.” (2:16a). Repent of this illegal, polluted union with the world.
And if they wouldn’t?
“If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16b).
He would not come in His typical sublime fashion, but would assail them with his splicing, dicing word, exposing them in unpleasant and perhaps public ways. We’ve seen this happen, as believers lost their ministries because they wouldn’t repent on a personal level. Instead, they kept the backroom sexual liaisons alive, cooked books, lived like religious royalty, hired and fired with the same callous flair as Wall Street moguls. Meanwhile in the pulpit, grace continued to dominate their sermon themes.
And then one day that grace came calling with discipline, free of charge, of course.
But Jesus closes on a note for the person who will listen to him:
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (v. 17).
In effect He says, I know you like to eat and enjoy and feel fulfilled, but instead of those idol sacrifices, I’ll give you hidden manna—spiritual bread from the deepest place of the tabernacle, the holy of holies, within the ark of the covenant, from the golden pot deposited there. You’ll be directly linked to the heart of what I’m doing in the universe. And instead of being conformed to this world, I’ll give you a real experience of transformation into a precious stone. And rather than taking on the identity of everyone else around you, I’ll give you a new name, a new identity so unique and wonderful and profound that nobody can search it out. This promise is a reward in the coming age, but to a certain extent, we can begin to experience it now.
In Symrna, you must prepare yourself for the devil to show up with a club. But in Pergamum, he comes shaking hands, encouraging you to follow your heart, and to basically live for something other than Christ. Because of the murky cultural water in which we swim, even sincere Christians can become constituted with this kind of pop theology. Still, the biggest problem isn’t what gets in, but what we won’t spit out—what we end up holding and then assimilating.
We should hold the sharp sword Jesus brings. It severs our attachments to the unholy aspects of culture so we can spit them out. Instead, today’s Christian often has an uncertain relationship with the Word. He or she believes the Bible to be the Word of God, but chafes against parts of it such as the sexual ethics it teaches. What’s wrong with sex outside of marriage as long as there’s love? or living together, since it’s kind of like a commitment? or leaving one’s spouse for somebody else when the alternative is misery? What’s the big deal about pornography, if it’s just digital? What’s wrong with homosexual practice, if it’s fulfilling for someone? These challenges are coming from Christians who aren’t aware they’ve spit out the wrong thing. They’ve disposed of the sword, but held onto the teaching of Balaam.
The church will never shine properly while we demonstrate a quasi-Christian life of agreeing with Christ here, then disagreeing with Him there.
Let the sword do its work, whittling away our mud strata to uncover our precious union with Jesus.