When I was in college, I had a job with a construction crew working on underground telephone cables. One day we had to do some repairs inside the 4X10 feet man-hole. This man-hole had about 6-8 inches of a mixture of mud, decayed leaves and other decayed formerly living things in it. Quite frankly, it smelled terrible! Now you know from your own experience that when there is some particularly odious task to do, it gets assigned to the resident peon, who in this case happened to be me. I went down in the man-hole to shovel out that slop into a bucket.
Yet I endured it quite well, partly because I had just been to church the day before and was spiritually renewed for the week. That helped me endure the stench and the remarks dished out to me by my co-workers. However, something would have been wrong with me if I started to eagerly volunteer for the really smelly jobs all the time because I really liked them. Something would really be wrong if I started taking buckets full of slime home because I liked the odor. That would mean that I had gone past enduring to the point of incorporating it into my life.
The Christians in the city of Pergamum are living in the midst of a stench of paganism. They were enduring it and Christ commends them for that. However, some of them started to enjoy living in the stench and even started bringing it home so that it could be mixed with their own Christianity. That, Christ says, cannot be allowed. Let’s read Christ’s message to the church in Pergamum in Revelation 2:12-17.
Pergamum was located 45 miles north of Smyrna and about 12 miles off the coast. It was built on a cone-shaped mountain overlooking the valleys below. It was the official capital of Asia and also a major cultural center. Today they would boast of having theaters, a symphony and an art museum.
Notice how Christ identifies himself to this need that existed in the Pergamum church. Christ is the one who has the sharp, double-edged sword. In chapter 1:16 Christ is described as having this sword coming out of his mouth and this meant that Christ has the authority to judge. This title would speak in a powerful way to the church in Pergamum. The governor of Asia lived in Pergamum and had “the right of the Sword.” The governor could order someone to be executed and no one would be able to challenge it. As such he held a great deal of power over the people.
Christ says that he is the only one with all the authority. In 1989, a family in a home in West Palm Beach, Florida, told a film crew that it was okay to use the front lawn as a set for an episode of a “B.L Stryker” TV show. They knew cars would be crashing violently in front of the house. While the front yard was being destroyed, the owner of the home, who was living in New York, was tipped off and he called demanding to know what was happening to his house down in Florida. You see, the people who were living in that house were only tenants and had no right to allow the property to be destroyed. The governor in Pergamum may have thought he had the authority; however Christ is the one who ultimately is the judge of all, including this church.
II. To this church Christ first offers some words of encouragement in verse 13.
He says, “I know where you live--where Satan has his throne.” There are several possible meanings for the phrase “Satan’s throne.” First, the cone shaped mountain may have looked like a throne on the landscape. It could be a symbolic way of saying that with all the paganism there, it is just like Satan was ruling there from his throne. In addition, Christ is referring to the fact that Pergamum was closely tied to Rome with all its pagan beliefs and culture. Jesus is fully aware that these Christians are right where Satan’s headquarters is.
And the word of encouragement is that they have remained true to Christ’s name. Even when one of their members was killed, they remained true to Christ. While we don’t know the details, we do know that a man named Antipas, a Christian in Pergamum, was killed because of his faithfulness to Christ. Christ calls him a “faithful witness,” a term Christ used to describe himself. Jesus remained faithful to his calling even to the point of his death. And now because Antipas remained faithful to his testimony to the death, he is specifically and greatly honored by Christ. Christ gladly commends the church for enduring even though they are still living in that tremendously hostile setting.
Christ’s commendation should prompt us to encourage each other in our struggles. Too often we are very skilled at recognizing problems. We can spot weaknesses in others or problems in the church. But too often we don’t encourage the good that is being done. Let’s commend each other in the areas where we can be commended. Let’s not be afraid to say what others perhaps have not said. Let’s point out the good things that we see happening and not just the problems.
McDowell continues, “Can one kind gesture make a difference in a time of special need? Encouragement seems so unimportant; greeting someone after church, sending a birthday card, or affirming a spouse as he or she leaves for work are mundane, ordinary gestures. I often thought these words mattered much less to others than they did to me. I was wrong. Little things mean a lot. It saved Kate.”
I believe that encouraging others will become even more important as people’s lives become busier and time demands increase in your time of transition in Faith Church. Yet while Christ commends them in this, there is also a big problem for this church.
The first problem is with those who hold to the teaching of Balaam. The story about the prophet Balaam is found in Numbers 22-24. Balak, the king of Moab, had invited the prophet Balaam to come and curse the Israelites as they were about to cross into the land of Canaan. Balaam was what we might call an “independent prophet or sorcerer” in that he was available for all kinds of gods and was thoroughly pagan. But when he tried to curse the Israelites, all that he could do was bless them instead because God put those words of blessing into his mouth. When cursing the Israelites failed, he advised the Moabites to use their women to lure the Israelites into sexual immorality. The Israelites thus compromised their faith and their commitment to God by doing what God had strictly forbidden. As a result of this, the type of sin with which Balaam was now associated with was mixing godly belief and conduct with pagan belief and conduct.
Moreover, some Christians were also holding to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. These Nicolaitans were saying that it was OK for Christians to mix with pagans. They likely believed that these pagan gods were false anyway so what is the harm in participating in the rowdy pagan feasts? They likely even said that it was okay to have sex with the temple prostitutes. Both of these were considered normal activities and some Christians thought that since they are “just false gods” so they felt they were not being disloyal to Christ. But they failed to realize that the power of false gods is very real. For even something that is non-living can do great damage. For example, money is not alive, but it is a god if it draws us away from Christ.
And so Christ calls on the whole church there to repent, not just the Nicolaitans. Jesus wants the true Christians to repent as well because, while they were not doing it themselves, they were tolerating these compromising attitudes in their midst. They did nothing stop others from compromising their faith. Such false teachings must be removed for they can weaken the church terribly. If people claim to follow Christ but they live as the world lives, their witness is ineffective and the church is slandered.
If the Christians at Pergamum do not repent, Christ will come with the sword that he holds, that brings life or death, and will punish them for their tolerance of false teaching. But if they repent and endure to the end, there is a great reward.
IV. What are the rewards of faithfulness?
The rewards are called the “hidden manna” and a “white stone.” The hidden manna refers to true spiritual food that comes from heaven. This goes back to the time when God lovingly provided for his people during the Exodus. The hidden manna is that which is not evident for all in the world to see but it is the true food that people need to live. If the people are faithful, they will receive true spiritual nourishment from God.
The “white stone” likely refers to a token of admission to a banquet feast. If you were invited to a banquet, you would receive a white stone which would grant you entry and if you tried to enter without that stone, you would be denied. The ones who overcome and remained faithful will be personally invited by name to God’s heavenly banquet feast in the Kingdom of God. The main point of both of these things is that the one who overcomes will enjoy life with Christ in heaven, feeding on the truth of God’s Word forever.
Once again, the Spirit speaks to the churches of all times and we are called to listen. Let’s ask ourselves first if we are too tolerant of any false views. Now we have to be very careful here for this does not mean we can condemn others who simply don’t agree with us in some minor things in the church. We must realize that the Nicolaitans were guilty of a very serious offense. They were guilty of very serious moral sins and theological error. The issues were far more serious than the issues that divide many today. We can’t call people heretics just because they don’t agree with us.
If we are tolerating or even indulging in the sins of the world, then we must repent. If we immerse ourselves in the world assuming that it will be fine to do those things, we are very much at risk and may face the judgment of Christ. What can you do this week to prove that even though you are in this world, there is something that is unique about you as a Christian?