Sermon: Pergamum

Rev. 2:12-17

I invite you to open your bibles with me to the book of Revelation. Revelation is the last book in the Bible. Revelation 2, beginning in verse 12. Over the last several weeks we have been studying the letters to the churches in Revelation. And these letters are not only for those they are written to, but to us. The letters end with the words, ‘let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ – to the churches, not just the individual church. While each letter was addressed to an individual church, the Spirit was speaking a word to all the churches through these short letters. Each of the seven churches received the whole book of revelation and therefore got to ‘listen in’ to what the Spirit was saying to the other churches in order to be shaped as Christians. This morning, we join with churches across the centuries as we too ‘overhear’ what our Lord is saying to the church in Pergamum, because we trust that through this word the Spirit is speaking to the church in Stout.

Before we hear God’s word this morning, please pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our Rule,

Your Holy Spirit our teacher,

And the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen

If you’re able, I invite you to stand for God’s word. We stand for God’s word, we sit for mine.

“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:

“I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

These are the very words of God. Thanks be to God.

We have noticed over the past few weeks that these seven letters have a common format. Not every letter follows it exactly, but there is a pattern to these letters. They generally start out with the Lord saying what the church is doing well – an affirmation. Then, a critique or correction is given – ‘but I have this against you.’ Lastly, the letters conclude with a word of encouragement – a promise from Jesus himself.

Affirmation

The letter to Pergamum is no different. The letter begins with these words of affirmation,

“I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.”

Jesus says, I know where you are living. In the letters we have read so far, Jesus speaks of knowing the works of these churches – their patient endurance, their faithfulness, their toil. He knows what they have done – their actions for the sake of his name and glory. But in Pergamum, Jesus doesn’t begin by praising their works. He simply says he knows where they live. He knows their circumstances, their physical, social, and spiritual location and the immense pressure it puts on their faith. He goes so far as to say that where they live is where Satan has his throne.

As a place that Jesus describes as having Satan’s throne, Pergamum is not what you would expect. It was clean and prosperous. On the surface, people were happy and content, hard-working and dutiful. But Jesus names the city for what it was. Jesus sees underneath to the heart of the issue.

The gods of Pergamum promised to bring salvation and, on the surface, they delivered. There were two main religions in the city of Pergamum – Asklepios and Dionysus. Asklepios was the greek god of healing and Dionysus the greek god of wine. Asklepios promised healing, wholeness, and life. Dionysus promised happiness, joy, and fulfillment.

The temple to Asklepios in Pergamum was world-renowned. People came here from all over Asia, from across the sea, even Egypt, seeking healing. And, you know what, it usually worked. The medical records of Pergamum are extensive and quite successful. Many people who went to Pergamum got better. They lived healthier and longer. On the surface, Asklepios delivered on the promise of healing, wholeness, and life. It was the center of the practice of medicine in the known world.  It was the Mayo clinic of the ancient world. People went there for healing, and they got better.

But the medical care in Pergamum, like ours, had a price. It was a religion of effort. You had to do the work to research your ailment, put in the time to work on your cure. You had to put in the effort to get the results. Your cure, your health depends on you. Still feeling sick? You are not trying enough.

Dionysus—the other major god of Pergamum, the god of the grape harvest of wine, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy—promised happiness, joy, and fulfillment. People were told to follow their hearts, to do whatever felt good, to indulge whatever impulse came their way, and simply to enjoy life – ‘eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.’ This pursuit of pleasure led to debaucherous activity. People indulged in any and every kind of pleasure and perversion imaginable (and plenty we couldn’t imagine). It was so bad that the emperor Nero, who famously burned Christians alive to use as candles for his drunken parties – that Nero – was appalled at what went on in Pergamum.

Jesus says, I know where you live. The church in Pergamum lived in a world that prized effort, that believed in a strict relationship between your health, your wealth, and your effort. It was a world of self-driven salvation, where health and wholeness rests in your hands and depends on your strength. They lived in a world that tells you that if it feels good, do it. If it makes you happy, then it cannot be wrong. It was a world of excess and indulgence. It was a world that worshipped both Asklepios and Dionysus and saw no contradiction between the two. This is where Satan has his throne.

This is our world as well. It is a world beautiful and broken. It is a world filled with powers that promise healing and wholeness, pleasure and happiness. Just like in Pergamum, we live in a world that promises salvation through either effort or pleasure. What television ad doesn’t promise happiness if you simply buy their product? What politician doesn’t promise peace and prosperity if you vote for them? What superfood, 12 step diet, or self-help book doesn’t promise health and wealth if you just work hard and put in the effort? If you trust in them, they all say, we will bring you life. We will bring you salvation. We will bring you peace, hope, and healing.

Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.

But the church in Pergamum held fast. This is an amazing work of the grace of God. In a world that promises so much, it is God’s grace that any church, any Christian remains standing at all. Yet, the church in Pergamum held fast to the name of Jesus. They held fast even when it hurt. At least one of them was killed for refusing to deny the faith.

The Christians of Pergamum had endured much persecution. Antipas had even been martyred – killed for his faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, the people held fast to Jesus, and did not deny their faith. No matter the extreme pressures, they stood firm in their beliefs.

Correction

They weren’t perfect, however. Jesus gives them this bit of correction:

But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

The church in Pergamum had begun to give in to false teaching. Satan is cunning and deceptive. They had endured external pressure, endured the obvious attacks and rejected the blatant worship of false gods. Then, Satan took a more subtle approach – bringing false teaching within the church, causing them to stumble. Jesus says, you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam. You may remember some of the Old Testament story of Balaam. It is in Numbers 22-25 for those who are curious. Most well known was that Balaam was sent by Balak son of Zippor to curse Israel. However, God intervenes, and rather than cursing them, Balaam blesses them. But the story doesn’t end there. We don’t know all the details, but shortly after this incident the people of Israel began worshipping Baal. They bowed their knees, gave their sacrifices, and offered their bodies up to abhorrent sexual practices. All as part of worshipping Baal. This kindled God’s anger against them. Again and again, Israel lets the pagan culture slip in, and they are drawn away from God. They didn’t outright abandon the Lord, but they began to place part of their trust elsewhere. False teachers, such as Balaam, can quickly lead us in the wrong direction.

And, although we don’t know much about the Nicolaitans, we can assume their teaching was similar, in that what they taught was false. They taught that something the Christians in Pergamum should not be doing was, in fact, okay. And that’s something that we can learn from.

The challenge of Balaam and the Nicolaitans is the challenge of rowing against the wind, or climbing up a down escalator. Temptation is relentless. The false promises of worldly forms of salvation are everywhere. It is exactly what we’ve talked about since the beginning of this series. Remember Pastor Stephen’s story about playing his guitar alongside the out-of-tune piano? The music of this fallen world can be so loud that, even off-key, it begins to sound right. We begin to wonder if we are the weird ones, if perhaps we are the ones off-key.

False teaching that creeps in from the world around us forces us to wonder if there’s perhaps something we should not be doing, but we tell ourselves is okay. We’ll touch more on this next week, but the letter tells us that this is something the church in Pergamum struggled with. False teaching led to eating food sacrificed to idols and the practice of fornication – hints at the cult of Dionysus.

They were bringing some of what the world taught into the church. And rather than God being glorified in their actions, they put their trust elsewhere. Their trust was not fully in Christ.

John Calvin writes this concerning our salvation:

We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else… In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other. Some men, not content with him alone, are borne hither and thither from one hope to another; even if they concern themselves chiefly with him, they nevertheless stray from the right way in turning some part of their thinking in another direction. Yet such distrust cannot creep in where men have once for all truly known the abundance of his blessings. (Institutes II. 16. 19)

It wasn’t about abandoning Jesus. They didn’t let go of Christ, but ‘not content with him’ as Calvin says, they began to look elsewhere. Like the Israelites long ago after Balaam, the gods of the land, with their promises of wholeness and healing, began to look attractive.

Jesus is the only way. Anything else comes from the evil one.

Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. Let anyone who has an ear listen what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Jesus promises to make war against the church if they do not repent, using the sword of his mouth. In the Book of Hebrews, the writer likens God’s word to being sharper than any two-edged sword. Jesus comes with the Word. What we need in the midst of the relentless pressures of this off-key world is the Word of God. We need God’s word to cut through – for the sake of judgment and healing.

God says in the book of Isaiah,

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Promise

We have heard both words of affirmation and correction, but what about promise? Jesus writes,

To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

Jesus promises hidden manna, and a white stone with a new identity.

This promise hints back at what went on in the temple of Asklepios. Manna was a rare plant, which you needed in order to receive treatment at the Mayo clinic of the ancient world. You could buy it, which was extremely expensive, or you could find it for free, but it would require a lot of effort. How badly did you want to be healed? How much effort were you willing to put into your healing? No effort, no healing – it was as simple as that. You got out of it what you were willing to put into it.

Jesus promises to give the hidden manna. The healing we really need, that Asklepios could never provide, is beyond what we could ever pay. The cleansing and wholeness each of us desperately needs is something we cannot find no matter how hard we search. Instead, Jesus gives it to us. He has promised to purchase our healing. He has done this through the shedding of his blood on the cross. We cannot pay for it; we cannot buy it. Jesus offers greater healing than Asklepios could ever offer – bought at the price of his blood.

The world of Pergamum was making promises that it couldn’t actually deliver. Superficially things looked good – people got well, if you bought into the story. But, the church in Pergamum was trying to live a different story. They knew who bought their healing – that healing which was bought at a price.

Jesus is the only way. These are other salvation plans. One looks good on the outside, but cannot change the heart, cannot set us right with God, cannot give us what we truly need, cannot, for all its shiny machines, truly heal us. The other for all it’s pleasure, self-gratification, cannot bring true joy, cannot truly satisfy us.

One promises true satisfaction, true joy, but can’t deliver.

The other promises to make you whole, to give life, but also can’t deliver.

But there is good news! We know one who does! Jesus Christ.

Through his death on the cross, through his rising again, we are all given life.

It is through his body and blood that we are healed.

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