12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet 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. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who 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. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 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.’
Sometimes the opening sermon illustration writes itself. Listen. This is an actual article:
“Hinduism no Barrier, it Seems, to Keeping Job as Priest in Church of England”
INDIA, September 8, 2006: A priest with the Church of England who converted to Hinduism has been allowed to continue to officiate as a cleric. The Rev. David Hart’s diocese renewed his license this summer even though he had moved to India, changed his name to Ananda and daily blesses a congregation of Hindus with fire previously offered up to Nagar, the snake God. He also “recites Gayatri Mantram with the same devotion with which he celebrates the Eucharist,” according to The Hindunewspaper. The Hindu this week pictures him offering prayers to Lord Ganesh in front of his house. However, he still believes he is fit to celebrate as an Anglican priest and plans to do so when he returns to Britain. Mr. Hart, a former chairman of Christian Aid in Loughborough and chaplain at Loughborough University, now serves in the Hindu temple in Thiruvananthapuram, a village in Kerala, southern India.
He was initiated as an Anglican priest in 1984 and, before leaving for India, was serving the Diocese of Ely. Anthony Russell, the Bishop of Ely, sent Mr. Hart his license, along with a personal letter, just three months after Mr. Hart published a book, Trading Faith: Global Religion in an Age of Rapid Change, in which he writes about his conversion to Hinduism. Mr. Hart is the international secretary for the World Congress of Faiths, the world’s oldest interfaith organization, and is a strong advocate of pluralism. He says in his book that Hinduism is an especially tolerant and open faith.
In an interview with today’s edition of Church Times, Mr. Hart admits that he had not told Dr. Russell that he had converted, but said that he would be amazed if his conversion were treated with any suspicion. “I have neither explicitly nor implicitly renounced my Christian faith or priesthood,” he said. The renewal of his license was sponsored by the Rural Dean of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Mr. Hart believes that his change to Hinduism would be “read in the spirit of open exploration and dialogue, which is an essential feature of our shared modern spirituality.” He also said that he would continue to celebrate as an Anglican priest when he visited England, but he would visit a Hindu temple while there. However, not everyone in the Church of England is impressed by Mr. Hart’s passion for Hinduism. Pauline Scott, the team vicar of St. James, in Stretham, said that she would oppose any attempts by Mr. Hart to celebrate in the Ely Diocese.
A priest. In the church of England. Who “daily blesses a congregation of Hindus with fire previously offered up to Nagar, the snake [g]od.” While remaining a priest!
Now, listen to Leon Morris’ description of the city of Pergamum, the city in which the third of the seven churches of Revelation resided:
It was an important religious centre. People came from all over the world to be healed by the god Asclepius, and Pergamum has been described as ‘the Lourdes [a Catholic shrine in France] of the ancient world’. Zeus, Dionysos and Athene also had notable temples in the city. Pergamum was a centre of Caesar-worship, and it had a temple dedicated to Rome as early as 29 BC . It attained the coveted title neōkoros, ‘temple-sweeper’, before either Smyrna or Ephesus, and took its devotion to emperor-worship seriously. In due course it added a second and a third temple in honour of the emperor. It was the principal centre of the imperial cult in this part of the world. But emperor-worship was not its sole religious activity. Behind the city was a great conical hill, the site of a multitude of heathen temples.
And what was the symbol of Asclepius, the god of healing? The serpent. The snake.
It might be argued that the church in every age is metaphorically faced with the same challenge: will it keep its worship centered radically and exclusively on the Lord Jesus Christ, or will it make room for the snakes. Whether it is David A. Hart in India offering fire to Nagar the snake god or the Christians of Pergamum having to combat the subtle influence of Asclepius or modern American Christians being tempted to the altar of various gods and idols, the church must decide: will we be a people focused solely on Jesus, or will we not? Will we make room for snakes in our hearts or will we not?
Pergamum: Faithful Unto Death
We begin first with Jesus’ Atta-boy! to the church of Pergamum. He begins by encouraging them and acknowledging their faithfulness.
12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet 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.
Concerning the phrase “where Satan’s throne is,” some have pointed to the temple shrine of Asclepius and its symbol of the serpent as the explanation for the phrase. That may very well be so. However, Morris offers another persuasive possibility:
Charles cites an inscription from Mytilene which shows that the city was the centre of the emperor cult for the whole province. And, as this was a constant source of persecution to the Christians, we need not doubt that it was primarily in mind.
So “where Satan’s throne is” may be a reference to the serpent or it may just be a reference to the staggering pervasiveness of paganism in Pergamum or, yes, it might indeed be a reference to the strong presence of emperor worship. This last point does make sense. Rome will recur time and time again in Revelation as the very embodiment of evil in its persecution of the people of God.
The Christians of Pergamum are embattled and persecuted. Even so, Jesus commends them for “hold[ing] fast my name” and for “not deny[ing] my faith” even in the midst of violent persecution. And we know that Pergamum was a dangerous place because a Christian named Antipas had been killed there for his faith and witness.
This is important. This must be acknowledged: the church of Pergamum held strongly to Jesus and did not deny the faith.
Pergamum: Tolerant to the Point of Abandoning Discernment
Even so, the question is not did they hold strong to Jesus. The question is did they allow any other rival objects of worship in their midst that threatened their sole and exclusive devotion to Jesus. Listen:
14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who 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. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
The phrase “you have some there” is very important. What is the “there”? It is clearly the church of Pergamum. So whoever Jesus is going to condemn is inside the church. And who is it that is “there” in the church? Two groups are mentioned:
- those “who hold the teaching of Balaam, who 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”;
- and “some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
The first reference is to Balaam whose sin is referenced in Numbers 31:
13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the chiefs of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. 14 And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? 16 Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.
So those holding to the teaching of Balaam would be those who (a) professed to be believers but (b) had wrongly abandoned any sense of purity regarding rejecting idols and remaining sexually moral. And, as we saw with the church of Ephesus, we might basically lump the second group in with the first. The Nicolaitans also seemed to be a libertine group within the church arguing that one could be a follower of Jesus and yet live a promiscuous and lascivious life.
But the object of Jesus’ anger is not merely those who belonged to these two groups. It was also the church at large. Note that Jesus said “But I have a few things against you…” But who is the “you”? It is the church at large in distinction from those who belonged to these two dangerous groups within the church. But what was the sin of the church at large if they were not themselves in these groups? It was this: they had tolerated the presence of these groups in the church.
There are two ways to destroy a church: (1) actively seek to destroy it and (2) passively tolerate those who do. And here we must come to terms with the fact that if tolerance does not have boundaries and limits it will soon tolerate things that will actually destroy the house of God! Boundless tolerance will therefore cannibalize itself.
Church, there are things to tolerate and things not to tolerate.
Dorothy Sayers, in her essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” writes:
The Church names the sixth deadly Sin Acedia or Sloth. In the world it calls itself Tolerance; but in Hell it is called Despair…It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.
Surely it could not be said of the Pergamum believers that they “believed in nothing.” Even so, if left unchecked, they were on their way to the dire situation that Dorothy Sayers described. There is a current within modern Christianity that has allowed tolerance to slip into an abandonment of discernment. I am a great fan of Methodist theologian Thomas Oden. Oden writes:
Modern assumptions about reality tend chronically to assume that what is important in civil discourse is merely the toleration of all assumptions, leading to a complete sense of relativism of moral norms, not imposing upon others one’s own opinion, with an infinite willingness to see all views as proximately truthful, open to all moral claims and behaviors, even those that have been regarded as intrinsically evil in the Jewish and Christian traditions, like murder and adultery.
Yes, this is so. Some expressions of Christianity, in the name of tolerance, tolerate things that are corrosive to Christian integrity, witness, community, and love. The church that tolerates everything is a church that will end up destroying its witness and its love for Christ. Consider Paul’s frustration with the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 5.
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
On the question of sexual purity among the people of God, I would like to share something with you that you may have never heard before. One of the reasons the early church actually grew was because of the sexual discipline of the early Christians in contrast to the dominant Roman culture. I am being serious here. Historian Alan Kreider in his amazing book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church has demonstrated this very fact. He writes:
The North African apologist Minucius Felix agreed that the Christians’ chaste lives spoke to a need in contemporary culture, encouraging people to investigate Christianity. Of course he knew that rumors of orgiastic behavior were circulating; people “throw the mud of infamous aspersions upon our boasted purity.” Athenagoras also knew this; he reported that his community in Athens carefully monitored the kiss of peace in their eucharistic services lest it should give a hint of credibility to the rumors—no believer was to “kiss twice because it was pleasurable.” The Apostolic Tradition, a church order in large measure written in the third century, indicates the importance that the early Christians accorded to sexual discipline by questions that teachers addressed to potential candidates for the catechumenate. What were the candidates’ marital commitments? What was their sexual behavior? In the church, at least, there was not to be sexual scandal!
But the Christians were not concerned simply to avoid scandal. They believed that sexual purity was crucially important in forming Christian character and in shaping viable communities. Further, the Christians believed that sexual purity was a means of attracting outsiders. Minucius Felix’s famous statement that “beauty of life encourages…strangers to join the ranks” had to do with the Christians’ reputation for sexual discipline, which he saw as having implications for the church’s growth. Looking on from a distance, the philosopher Galen was of course not ready to become a Christian, but he was deeply impressed by the Christians’ sexual behavior. Their “restraint in cohabitation” compelled him to take their faith seriously as a movement of philosophical substance.
In other words, the earliest Christians would be shocked at the sexual license we sometimes see among some who profess to be followers of Jesus. There were things that the early church did not tolerate. They saw it as a matter of being obedient to the Lord Jesus.
Would you like to shock your friends and get them to give a fresh hearing to Jesus? Then stop living together before you get married. Stop sleeping with your girlfriend. Lift up and elevate marriage as the beautiful picture that the New Testament says it is of Christ and His church. Embrace a chaste life. Let us stop the erosion of the biblical model of sexuality in the modern church! Hear again the words of Jesus to Pergamum.
14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who 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.
Beware of sexual immorality, church! Do not tolerate it in your own life.
There are differences of opinion that Christians are to tolerate in the church: the complexities of predestination, the specific details of how prophecy will unfold, disagreements over non-salvific secondary issues, and things along these lines. But there are things the church is not to tolerate. We are not to tolerate the inroads of the paganism that has gripped secular society into the church. We are not to tolerate sexual libertinism that would threaten the biblical view of sexuality and marriage and that will lead to moral ruin. We are not to tolerate the abandonment of God’s Word.
Be careful! Beware!
I ask you: what are those things that you know are clearly against God’s Word but that you have begun to tolerate and lose your conviction on? What are those things that the Lord says we should not do but the culture says we can and should do that you are beginning to buckle on? Where is the culture making inroads into your mind and heart? Are your convictions on these things defined by scripture or by the culture? Who is shaping your mind and heart on these matters? Social media? The internet? The news? Your friends? Your favorite show? Or God speaking in and through His Word?
Pergamum: The Result of Repentance…or of Refusing To
What, then, was the church of Pergamum—and, by extension, what are we—to do? What do you do when your convictions begin to waver through a neglect of God’s Word an a loss of discernment concerning truly dangerous realities that threaten the body of Christ?
16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 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.’
The path is clear:
- listen to the Spirit
- conquer, overcome
- be nourished by God and not by the world (“I will give some of the hidden manna…”)
Christian, do not make room for the snakes in your life! Do not attempt to bow before the cross while also kneeling at the altars of the world! Be careful! Determine that Christ and Christ alone will be your focus. And, if you do, you will be able to overcome the devil’s attacks. You will be given “a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” “Historically,” the ESV Study Bible says, “a white stone was given to victors at games for entrance to banquets (cf. the messianic banquet); such a stone was also used by jurors at trials to vote for acquittal.”
Make no mistake: to follow Jesus will require you fighting against the devil, resisting the devil, and determining to smash the altars that call out to you for your affections.
I am struck by how very similar Pergamum in the first century was to Hindu India. In India, there are more gods than you count! Even many who profess to be followers of Jesus leave rooms for the altars and idols of the gods of the Hindu pantheon. But I will never forget—and I suspect that those who were on this mission trip will never forget—what the little, elderly, Christian lady in the slums of Mumbai said when I pointed out to her that wall of her little home only had a cross on it. I was struck by how bare her wall looked when compared to the many other spaces we had seen in our travels which were invariably cluttered with numerous gods. So I said, “There is only a cross on your wall.” And she said, smiling, “It is only Jesus for me.”
It is only Jesus for me.
This was Christ’s call to the church of Pergamum: Let it be only Jesus for you.
This is Christ’s call to us: Let it be only Jesus for us.
Do not share your affections with other gods. Do not tolerate anything that threatens your sole devotion to Jesus.
Let it be only Jesus for us.
 Morris, Leon L.. Revelation (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) (pp. 69-70). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
 Morris, Leon L., p. 70.
 RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. January 1998.
 Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.24.
 Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (pp. 101-102). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 156442-156443). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.