The third letter that Jesus dictated to John in Revelation 2:12-17 was addressed to the church at Pergamum. At one time, Pergamum was a powerful city, controlling an empire that spanned much of modern-day Turkey. As such, it was also a natural epicenter for culture and cults, and several of the major structures identified in the city’s ruins today were temples to pagan gods. So the church of Pergamum dealt with these religions on a daily basis. Day in and day out, the members of the congregation rubbed elbows with the members of these other groups at work, in the market, and on the street. But problems arose when the people of the church started to allow their pagan neighbors to rub off on them. And eventually, as they allowed their own standards to be compromised, a stronghold was built.
Like the two letters preceding it in Revelation 2, the letter to the church at Pergamum starts out very traditionally with a basic salutation. As was normal in the day, the salutation included the identity of the writer, and so Jesus made sure to include that. But He didn’t just say, “This is from me, Jesus.” Instead, as He did in the letters to both Ephesus and Smyrna before, Jesus identified Himself in a very particular and relevant way: “The One who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” It’s an interesting reference, pointing back again to Revelation 1, where He was described as having “a sharp double-edged sword [coming] from His mouth” (Revelation 1:16). As in, Jesus’ tongue was this sword. Freaky mental imagery aside, this is a truly significant description. You see, the tongue represented the things Jesus said, His word. And His word evokes the memory of John 1, where the word is with God and indeed is God, but also of Hebrews 4:12, where God’s word or Scripture is sharper than a double-edged sword. And swords themselves can be effective for both defense and offense, where they can, when wielded with skill and finesse, make extremely precise cuts (e.g., “penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow” (Heb 4:12)) or, when wielded with strength and ferocity, unleash devastating blows. Both sides of this imagery are important because they were reminders to the church that God’s word is designed to help us “judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart” (Heb 4:13) to determine right from wrong and carve out the wrong from our lives. But if we persist in doing the wrong, it’s also designed to be our ultimate downfall.
Jesus then goes on to compliment the church at Pergamum, mentioning at some length the challenges that they faced living in such proximity to so many pagan religions and their faithfulness in those challenges. Indeed, he calls the city the place “where Satan’s throne is” in vs 13 and mentions that the church had remained faithful even when one of their own, Antipas, was martyred for his faith. The message, then, is that they have been faithful for the most part.
But then Jesus turns to the problem in Pergamum, and we see that “for the most part” simply isn’t good enough. He says, now in verse 14, “But I have a few things against you,” and he goes on to explain that, in the church, there were people who were holding to the teachings of Balaam and a group called the Nicolaitans. Both of these are two heads of the same coin, but let’s deal with them one at a time.
Balaam, of course, was a reference to the Balaam of Numbers 22-25. The story is a good read, so I would encourage anyone to do so, but it boils down to this: Balak, king of Moab, recruits Balaam, a half-bit sorcerer/seer/prophet to come and curse Israel. Three times, though, Balaam pronounced a blessing on Israel rather than the desired curse, and Balak wasn’t exactly happy. So in Numbers 25, Balaam reveals the chink in Israel’s spiritual armor: entice the Israelite men to sleep with Moabite women. Get them to intermarry, and Israel will, in short order, be subjects of Moab. They won’t want to move on. They won’t be able to do anything against Moab. They will do anything Moab wants them to do, including worship Moabite gods instead of their own. And pretty soon, they will be utterly indistinguishable from the people of Moab. Jesus’ quarrel with the church, then, would seem to be that they are intermarrying with non-believers and/or allowing themselves to compromise on those things that are supposed to distinguish believers from unbelievers: namely, holiness.
The Nicolaitans are a little harder to identify and understand, but it is generally agreed that they were a cult which embraced “free love” and sexual promiscuity in the worship of “God.” It was supposed to get people closer to God, but it was directly contrary to His laws on sexuality and relationship. And once again, the sex was typical of a great number of the pagan religions of the day. I.e., the church was compromising its standards of holiness to be more like the people around them.
Compromise is, of course, an essential thing in some situations. But when it comes to the church and real holiness (as opposed to legalism), it is exceedingly dangerous. Two things alarm me about it, though. The first is how insidious it is. Balaam’s plan to compromise Israel didn’t happen in the blink of an eye. Instead, it started when some pretty ladies batted their eyes at Israel, and they found themselves wanting. I imagine that they resisted for quite some time. But then, one day, one man just couldn’t help himself anymore. Of course, he kept it hush hush except with a couple of his buddies because it was horribly wrong, he just knew! But then a couple of his buddies tried it, too. And they told no one but their buddies, who tried and told their buddies. And then, all of a sudden, a man was caught bringing a Midianite woman home to his parents right in front of Moses and God. Truly, compromise starts out small and slow, but if allowed to progress, unchecked, it will eventually become blatantly flagrant.
And the second thing that alarms me about compromise is how enticing it can be. I mean, we all like to think that we would never compromise, but in the the case of the Nicolaitans, we see just how tempting it can be. Satan wrapped two very powerful forces into a single package here: sex and popularity. I don’t think any of us need to be told again how easy it is to fall into sexual temptation. But the Nicolaitans went a step further in that they were introducing to the church something which the church members saw all of their pagan neighbors and friends doing. In short, “Everybody’s doing it!” was ringing in their ears. And if there is one thing that humans have a hard time with, it’s being different than everybody else! We want what everyone else has! We don’t want to truly stand out!
But stand out is exactly what God calls us to do. From the very beginning of time, God has picked standouts. Adam and Eve were the only creatures made in God’s image. Noah was the only godly man who remained. Abraham was the guy who was circumcised. Joseph was the faithful slave. Moses and Israel were the people who escaped from Egypt. Saul stood a head taller than any of the others, but David was the man after God’s heart. Solomon was the wisest man in the history of the world. John the Baptist wore camel skin and ate locusts. Jesus was the only begotten Son of God.
God picks standouts. He doesn’t want His people to be ordinary. He doesn’t want us to look and act and be just like everyone else in the world. In fact, He doesn’t want us to look and act and be even close to everyone else in the world. He wants there to be a clear and undeniable distinction that yes, these are My people. And ultimately, the distinction that He’s looking for is holiness.
This is what He was telling the Israelites when He urged them over and over and over again, “Be holy because I am holy.” This is what He was telling the church at Pergamum when Jesus said, “I have a few things against you.” And this is what He’s telling our church today.
We must not compromise on holiness. And yet, too often, we do! And it has become a formidable stronghold in our lives, our church, and indeed the Church. It erects a new barricade every time we don’t confront pre- and extra-marital sex of any variety. It establishes a new emplacement whenever we allow a foul or gossip-filled mouth to go unchecked. It digs a little deeper every time we say to ourselves, “Well, no one’s perfect,” or, “Everyone’s doing it,” as an excuse to keep doing what we know to be wrong.
As I wrote in my journal the other day as I was digging through this stuff, “When we place anything in front of God and/or let someone/something draw us away from Him, we soon become indistinguishable from the surrounding people.” And as history shows, when God’s people become indistinguishable from the surrounding people, problems ensue.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Now that we’ve identified the stronghold of complacency, the question is, what do we do about it? Well, fortunately, as in each of the previous letters, Jesus had a simple, forthright response in vs 16: “Therefore repent!” To repent is Christianese for “Realize what you were doing was wrong, ask for forgiveness, and then don’t do it again!” In other words, the way to destroy the stronghold of compromise in the church is to stop compromising! (Profound, I know!) I think it probably goes without saying that this is far easier said than done, but Jesus didn’t provide for that excuse. He simply said, “Repent!”
And then He warned what would happen if the church at Pergamum – or our church – doesn’t do it: “I will come to you quickly and fight against you with the sword of My mouth” (vs 16). Just in case you were wondering, this would be more along the lines of the devastating blows described above. In short, Jesus promised that, if they failed to repent and stop compromising, He would take them out.
I don’t like that prospect. It’s certainly not consistent with the motto of tolerance which permeates our culture and becomes the mantra of what the Balaamites and Nicolaitans no doubt called “Christian freedom.” But it’s what Jesus said. And we had better start paying attention and stop compromising. We must commit ourselves to real holiness, not just the pretender hedonism or the imposter legalism. Because it’s the only way to take out the stronghold of compromise in our church or life.