This is the third in a seven part series where we take a look at Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Asia. So far, the postman has been to Ephesus and Smyrna. Today, he journeys to the church at Pergamum, 95 km. north of Smyrna. It is an impressive city and a major centre for worshipping the various Greek and Roman gods. It is a key centre of paganism and Jesus has a special message to the Christians who live there.
What we will discover as we study Jesus’ letter to the people of this city is that they are living in a pitched battle. It is not a battle between good and evil as one might suppose. Rather it is a cosmic struggle between truth and falsehood. What he wants them to do, of course, is commit to the truth. Let’s listen to what Jesus writes to the church always remembering that things are not as they seem. There is more here than meets the eye.
WHO IS JESUS?
To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. (verse 12)
The letter starts off in the same style as the previous two. It says something about the author of the letter who is Jesus. These are his words to his church. He describes himself as having a double-edged sword. This same sword appears in Hebrews 4:12:
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper that any double-edge sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joint and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
The sword that Jesus carries is his Gospel, the word of God. Note that Jesus’ Gospel is not any old sword. It is a sharp, double-edged sword whose purpose is to divide soul and spirit, joint and marrow and to judge that thoughts and attitudes of the heart. In other words, it separates that which is of God from that which is not of God. Or to put it another way its purpose is to separate truth from falsehood, to separate that which Jesus taught from that which he did not teach. And that is just as true today as it was 1,900 years ago.
Jesus then offers the church a commendation, something that the church does well.
I know where you live – where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city – where Satan lives. (verse 13)
Jesus knows where they live, where Satan has his throne. With this statement, Jesus is empathizing with the Christians of Pergamum. It’s like he is saying, “Sheesh, of all the places you could live, you happened to pick the worst place in the whole world, right smack dab in the middle of paganism. This is not going to be easy because you live where Satan lives. He’s right there in your back yard.”
There are a number of pagan temples and altars in Pergamum. One of them is dedicated to Zeus who is the greatest of all of the gods in the Greek pantheon. He is the leader of the gods who is often called ‘Zeus the Saviour.’ That’s a problem for the Christians because they know that there is only be one Saviour and it isn’t Zeus. “I know where you live,” says Jesus, “You live in a place where they worship Zeus, the false saviour, But don’t you worship him. Just as you cannot bow the knee to Caesar, neither can you worship this false god despite the pressures that surround you on every side.”
Jesus confirms the obvious for the Christians in Pergamum. He acknowledges their very difficult situation. But then he says something very affirming. He says, “Yet you remain true to my name.” Despite the opposition to their faith, despite the temptations to turn aside and follow the Greek and Roman gods, they have remained faithful to the name of Christ. In fact, they have remained faithful and committed to the truth even to the point of death.
It seems that one of their friends, a dear brother by the name of Antipas, was executed for his faith. We don’t know the occasion of his death. We don’t know if it was done by the state or by a mob of vigilantes. All we know is that he was a faithful martyr. Clearly, the Christians in Pergamum live in Satan’s city. Yet they remained faithful. They guard the truth and Jesus commends them for it. There is more here than meets the eye.
But then, as so often happens in these letters to the churches of Asia, Jesus offers a complaint, a condemnation.
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: you have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrifice to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teachings of the Nicolatians. (verse 14-15)
The Christians in Pergamum are faithfully withstanding the opposition that comes from the outside the church. They guard the truth even to the point of death. So why, after all of that, are they tolerating falsehood in their own midst? What happened to their commitment?
We don’t have time to go into the full meaning of the references to Balaam and the Nicolations. Suffice it to say that they represent ideas that are contrary to the truth of Christ. For example, they teach that it is quite okay to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. The reason for this is because of a Greek philosophical concept called dualism. Dualism says that the body and the spirit are totally separate. One does not impact the other in the least little bit. That’s because while the body is mortal, the soul is immortal. Because only the soul is immortal, only it is important. What we do with our bodies is really of no consequence. “So, go ahead and sin with your body. Eat food sacrificed to idols. Engage in sexually immorality. It doesn’t matter.”
That sounds odd to us today but this dualism was the prevalent understanding 1,900 years ago. It was what the vast majority of people believed and the Christians in Pergamum had to deal with it.
Christianity like Judaism, however, is not, by nature, dualistic. It is wholistic. The body and soul are intimately connected. What happens to one always impacts the other.
We see this in the resurrection. When the women looked into the empty tomb on that first Easter morning, what did they find? They didn’t find anything except some grave clothes. Jesus was not there. His body was not there. His soul was not there. None of him was in the tomb. All of it was resurrected. He was resurrected physically and spiritually because it all goes together. Things are not as they seem. There is more here than meets the eye.
And yet, despite the false teachings of the Balaamites and the Nicolations, the Christians at Pergamum tolerate them. And bit by bit, these false teachers are impacting the church. Little by little they are letting falsehood into their midst. And if falsehood is allowed to build upon falsehood, pretty soon the truth is lost.
Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (verse 16)
Jesus then offers his counsel, a solution to the false teachings that are percolating in the church in Pergamum. He tells the people to repent. Repentance is the beginning of reconciliation with God. It is our way of telling God that we are sorry. But saying that we are sorry is not good enough. True repentance also demands that we fix the problem.
Jesus not only wants the church at Pergamum to admit its error. He also wants it to cleanse itself of the false teachings and to expel those who are spreading them.
He then offers a warning. If they chose not to repent and purge the church of false teachings, then he will take the sharp double edged sword that is in his mouth and do it himself. Once again, this sword is the truth of his word, the double-edge sword. With the sharp edge of this sword Jesus separates the truth of the Gospel from the false teachings of the Balaamites and the Nicolatians.
In separating the truth from the lies, the word of God also separates those who believe the truth from those who believe the lies. The sword calls people to choose. What do you believe? Which way do you want to go? You can’t sit on the fence forever. Make up your mind. Choose me and choose life or reject me and deny the truth. The choice is yours but you must make a choice.
After his counsel, Jesus ends the letter, as he always does, with a promise.
He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it. (verse 17)
This is a promise to those who overcome, to those who hold to the truth of the Gospel. To them Jesus offers two things. The first is hidden manna. Most of us know what manna is. It is the food the God supernaturally supplied to the Israelites during their 40 years of the Exodus. But what is this hidden manna? It is none other than Jesus himself. In John 6:51 he says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever”. Jesus tells us that he is the hidden bread. We can’t see this bread. We can’t taste it. We don’t chew it and swallow it yet it satisfies our hunger in ways that physical food never can because this bread lasts forever.
This hidden manna of Christ is something far better than the food sacrificed to the idols. It is the food of the heavenly banquet that awaits us. Jesus is telling us that if we are hungry in spirit, we should feed on him and his word.
The second thing that Jesus promises is that, to those who overcame, he will give a white stone with a new name on it known only to the one who received it. It goes back to an ancient custom that was practiced in the first century. When two friends were about to part, they’d find a smooth white stone on the beach and break it in half. Each friend would write their name on half of the stone and then give it to the other person. This became a promise that their friendship would last as long as the stone lasted, forever.
By promising to give a white stone, Jesus is promising to maintain an intimate friendship with those who overcome, who hold to the truth even to the point of death. The promise is that we will know the fulness of his name even as he knows the fulness of ours. We shall know him even as he knows us. Things are not as they seem. There is more here than meets the eye.
Those who have ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Next week, we will follow the postman as he journeys to Thyatira.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
We come before your throne, O God, thankful for the beauty of the earth, for seeds being planted in the fields, for the scent of fresh rain, for flowers budding and buds blooming.
In the midst of the beauty of creation is the joy of your presence. You are here with us offering strength and courage in times of need. You are consistent and trustworthy in all areas. Your hand is upon us. Your angels surround us. Your Spirit lives within us. You are not a god who is far away but you live in our hearts and sit upon the throne of our lives.
It is such a great comfort to know that our lives are in your hands and that you will always be there for us. Even when life is at its most difficult point, you are faithful. People sometimes abandon their commitments, but you never fail to satisfy our deepest longings. Thank you for the unfailing love that you offer to us and for being that Rock upon which we can rest in safety and security.
We, once again, pray for the front line workers who day in and day out do their job to protect us all. We also pray for our nation as we begin to reopen our economy. And, of course, we pray for justice which will bring an end to racial tensions, We pray for equality and freedom for all peoples of the earth.
We lift up in prayer those who are sick this day. Be with them and bless them with your Healing Spirit that they may find rest and comfort in their time of need.
God of Grace and Glory, we wait upon you. We wait patiently for your deliverance in every difficult circumstances. You are always faithful to meet our needs when we bring them before you. You are faithful to fulfill the promises that you have made. We bring our gratitude to you and pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
June 7, 2020 / Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; Matthew 28:16-20; 1 Corinthians 13:11-13
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: The glory of your name, O God, reaches to the heavens;
ALL: All creation praises your name.
ONE: We come to worship your majesty;
ALL: And sing with joy of your love.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
The pressure is on, O God. The time has come to stand and declare our faith in you. Enable us to stand strong and firm for the Gospel, always ready to share your Good News with anyone who may challenge our trust in you. We come in worship seeking your presence and your grace in every moment of our lives. Remind us that, as you promised, you will show us your love and compassion in our journeys through life. We call upon your name for you are our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Merciful God, we know that you have compassion on us when we sin. You have made the wonderful provision for us to confess our sins and be forgiven without continuing condemnation or guilt. Help us never to take that promise for granted, or harden our hearts to your love. Keep us from the wrongs that we do, either intentionally or by accident. May we always be tender toward you and be willing to quickly confess our sins and receive your forgiveness, which is freely given without condition or limit. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
When we fall from God’s way, when we slip from the holy path that is set before us, there is one who calls us back to faithfulness. His name is Jesus. Repent and believe the Good News. In Christ Jesus our Lord we have forgiveness of our sins through the shedding of his blood.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
The gifts that you have given to us, O God, we now offer back to you. These are not all that is yours. They are but token and representations of the greater abundance with which you have blessed us. Receive these gifts and bless each giver in Jesus’ name. Amen.
As people of God, as inheritors of the promise, go forth as ambassadors of Christ to share the Good News as you love and serve the Lord.