Truth - Pergamum
14/05/2006 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
In 1940, Germany invaded France, and by 1942 the whole country was occupied. So imagine you’d been a French man or woman living in Paris at the time, and that a friend was trying to get you to join the resistance. What would you have thought? After all, every day you’d have seen the streets crawling with Nazi soldiers and tanks. You might not have thought, ‘If you can’t beat them join them.’ But you might well have thought, ‘Best to keep in with them.’ But then imagine how your thinking would have changed as you heard that the allied forces had landed on D-day and won the decisive battle of the war - as you realised your occupiers were now actually a beaten side and that it was only a matter of time before V-day, before victory. You wouldn’t think resistance was so questionable any more. Because why would you want to keep in with the beaten side?
Well, those events have often been used to illustrate the book of Revelation, which we’re looking at on Sunday evenings. So would you turn again in the Bible to Revelation 1.4. And we’ll revise some of what we’ve already seen:
4John,That’s John’s reminder that, in the spiritual war that’s gripped this world since the fall, D-day has happened. The Bible sees this world as enemy-occupied - in the sense that Satan, the devil, has invaded and got the human race under his power. And when the Lord Jesus came 2000 years ago, he landed in enemy-occupied territory, to free us. And Good Friday was D-day: on the cross, Jesus won the decisive battle of the war so we could be forgiven and change sides. So Satan is beaten, but like the Nazis between D-day and V-day, he’s not yet finished. But he one day will be: V-day is coming. Look at 1.7:
7Look, he [that is the Lord Jesus] is coming…(1.7)And the book of Revelation is a vision of events up to, during and beyond Jesus’ second coming. And the danger of this sermon series on the so-called ‘letters to the churches’ is that we never read to the end. But in fact, like v4 says, the whole book is ‘the letter to the churches’. And if you read to the end, you find that Satan is ultimately finished. And that the Lord Jesus ultimately wins. Just turn on to Revelation 19.11. This is the vision of Jesus’ second coming:
11I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True [So that’s the Lord Jesus, coming again; look on to 20.10:]So that’s V-day. And what the so-called letters to the churches are saying is this: ‘D-day has happened. V-day is coming. So wherever you are, be the spiritual resistance. Because why would you want to keep in with the beaten side?’ So with that in mind, let’s turn back to Revelation 2.12, where the risen Lord Jesus is speaking:
12"To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:So the Lord Jesus knows that we live in enemy-occupied territory where Satan’s aim is to make it hard for us to be true to Christ and easy for us to deny him. And these verses help us deal with two particular strategies of Satan. One is more blatant; the other is more subtle. So, two headings for the two strategies. And the first of Satan’s strategies here is this:
First, WHEN AUTHORITIES COMMAND US TO DENY CHRIST (vv13)
Look down to v13 again:
13I 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. (v13)So Pergamum is ‘where Satan has his throne’. Now that could just be a way of saying, ‘You live in a place full of evil because of Satan’s general influence.’ But in the New Testament (NT), that word ‘throne’ always refers specifically to a ruler’s throne. So it’s much more likely that Jesus is saying, ‘You live in a place where Satan has specific influence through the authorities that are running the place.’
Now the authorities that were running Pergamum were the Romans. And we know that by this time the Roman Emperor was demanding that people recognise him as a ‘god’. So if the authorities doubted your commitment to Rome, they called you in and commanded you to burn incense to a statue of the Emperor and to say the words, ‘Caesar is Lord’. Which is a problem if you believe Jesus is Lord. Because there can’t be two Lords. And most likely, this guy Antipas in v13 was a Christian who got called in and commanded to say ‘Caesar is Lord’, and said ‘No’ – and died for it.
Now this verse is not saying that all authorities at all times are Satanic and therefore to be disobeyed on everything. Keep a finger in Revelation and turn back to Romans 13. Here’s the general principle for Christians about authorities:
1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. (Romans 13.1-5)Now Romans 13 assumes the situation where the authorities are commanding what’s right in God’s eyes and punishing what’s wrong. When they’re doing that, I must submit to them. But what about when the authorities command something wrong – and, in the extreme case, command me to deny Christ in some way? Well, that takes us back to Revelation 2. Verse 13 again:
13I 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. (v13)So the risen Lord is commending Antipas for what he did. Ie, by implication he’s saying that when the authorities command something wrong – up to and including that extreme case – we are to do an Antipas and say, ‘No.’
Now at the moment, thank God, we don’t live under a government like the Roman one at Pergamum. But we do live under European and UK laws – which are likely to become more anti-Christian. Eg, many of those working on the European Constitution wanted either no reference to God at all, or more specifically, no reference to Jesus. And if that were accepted, it would lead to more anti-Christian laws. Here in the UK, the homosexual lobby is a major influence on our laws and that too is likely to lead to them being more anti-Christian. Eg, I heard this week of some Christians who work as registrars in registry offices. And they’re being required to officiate at civil partnerships – homosexual partnerships. And when they’ve said, ‘No – in all conscience, I can’t,’ they’ve been told, ‘Do it or leave.’
There are the obvious examples in the medical world. If the NHS ever required you as a doctor or nurse to provide abortion or euthanasia or assisted suicide, you’d have to do an Antipas and say, ‘No’. In the teaching world, if you were ever required to teach certain sex education material, you’d have to do and Antipas and say, ‘No.’
Satan’s aim in all this is to use authorities to make it hard for us to be true to Christ and easy for us to deny him. Because he knows that they create the fear of not wanting to go against an organisation – eg, that could suspend me or fire me – and the fear of not wanting to go against the law – that could investigate me or prosecute me. But if an authority commands us to deny Christ in some way, we must do an Antipas and say, ‘No.’
One thing that’ll mean is working to get laws or rules re-interpreted. Eg, the Students Union at Hull University tried to expel the Christian Union on the grounds of the Students Union’s rules on equality. The Christian Union fought that with legal help and won the case on the grounds that the Students Union was misinterpreting and misusing its laws against Christians.
Another thing it’ll mean is working to get laws and rules changed – or to stop them being changed for the worse. That’s one of the aims of the Christian Institute, based here in Newcastle - and if you’re a Christian and don’t know about it, can I say simply (and this is me, not the Bible, speaking): I think you should. In a democracy, we’re each responsible for influencing government at every level, and I don’t know of a better help with that than the Christian Institute. They in fact helped the Hull Christian Union to fight that case I just mentioned. And it’s not just that the Christian Institute needs our support, but that in the future it’s increasingly likely that many of us will need the Christian Institute’s support (as Hull University CU did). There’s information about the Christian Institute at the back just behind the Welcome Desk, and their website is www.christian.org.uk.
So we’ll need to work to get laws and rules re-interpreted. We’ll need to work to get them changed or stop them being changed for the worse. But as in Pergamum, being Christians may mean we have to fall foul of laws and rules, when to go along with them would be in some way to deny Christ.
And that’s where you need to have read to the end – all the way to chapter 22. Because then you know that Satan doesn’t really have any lasting throne. He can pull the strings behind governments and committees and tribunals and make life in the present very uncomfortable as we fall foul of anti-Christian laws and rules. But we’re to be the spiritual resistance. Because why would you want to keep in with the beaten side?
So that’s Satan’s first strategy here: when authorities command us to deny Christ. That one’s fairly blatant. It’s not hard to spot, even if it’s painful to resist. But the second strategy is more subtle because it’s:
Secondly, WHEN ASSOCIATION AMOUNTS TO DENYING CHRIST (vv14-16)
Look onto v14:
14Nevertheless, 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 sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. 15Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (vv14-16)So, who were Balaam and Balak? And what were they encouraging people to do? Balaam appears in the Old Testament (OT) book of Numbers – in chapters 22-24 and 31, for those of you taking notes. God’s people, the Israelites, were on their way to the promised land and various people like Balak, king of Moab, were trying to stop them. And one strategy Balak tried was to use this guy Balaam – who was a kind of prophet. He asked Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites. Now Balaam couldn’t do that. But he did suggest another strategy. Balaam said, ‘Get your women to invite the Israelite men to some of your religious rituals.’ (See Numbers 31.15-16 and 25.1-3) He knew that the people of Moab worshipped fertility gods and that their rituals involved both a lot of eating of sacrificed meat and a lot of sex. So he thought that would entice the Israelite men into liaisons with the Moabite women. Which would make them less of a threat to Moab. After all it would leave the men thinking, ‘Well, having joined them (sexually) we can hardly now beat them.’
So that’s the background to v14:
14Nevertheless, 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 sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. (v14)Ie, there were people in the church at Pergamum who were encouraging among Christians the same sort of behaviour as Balaam was encouraging among the Israelites. Now in cities like Pergamum there were multiple temples to multiple false gods – ‘idols’ as the risen Jesus calls them in v14. And the rituals in those temples involved both a lot of eating of sacrificed meat and, often, a lot of sex. (Which should ring a bell with that OT story in Numbers.) And if you’d been a Christian in Pergamum, all your non-Christian families and friends and work-mates would have gone to these temples. They were the main meeting places. They were the main eating places. Whether it was an office party or a birthday party, the temples were where you went. And you’d have got invitations all the time to join in.
And some people in the church at Pergamum were saying, ‘We should go. Otherwise we’ll alienate those family and friends and work mates, and end up out on a limb socially. OK, there is the religious side – the prayers and sacrifices to other gods, but you can just go through the motions and not really mean it. And, yes, there is the sex side, but you don’t have to get drawn in. (And maybe the Christian line is a bit too rigid anyway.)’ That’s what some were saying.
And in v14 the risen Jesus says that’s what he has against the church in Pergamum. Because it’s when association amounts to denying Christ. When joining in, we’re also joining in religiously or ideologically. And that’s harder to spot. You see, up the road in the Roman court, it was crystal clear to Antipas what was going on. He was being asked to say, ‘Caesar is Lord’ and to renounce Christ. But down the road in the temple, it’s far more subtle. Down the road in the temple, these other church members were telling themselves the story that they weren’t really recognising other gods beside Jesus by taking part. They weren’t really participating – just present. But that’s not how the risen Jesus sees it. He sees Antipas up in the court room being true to him, and these others down in the temples renouncing him. Because there are situations where association amounts to denying Christ. When joining in, we’re also joining in religiously or ideologically.
For example, one of our international student brothers came and spoke to me about a trip to his home country. Because he knew there would be invitations to meals with Buddhist friends which would inevitably involve sacrificing the food to a household idol during the meal. That’s precisely the Pergamum problem.
But what about closer to home? Well, eg, imagine some non-Christian neighbours – or trickier still, family members – have been living together unmarried for 10 years. And they invite you to a tenth anniversary party to celebrate. Now of course I’d normally socialise with them – have them round to my place; go round to theirs. But this is a particular occasion with a particular ideological 'freight’. And I have to ask, ‘If I join in, am I joining in as well at an ideological level, and saying cohabitation is good and that I can celebrate it?’ Now I hasten to add that these are the trickiest of situations. Because in one sense it’s easier to deal with the Roman governor in the court room - because he’s not your friend or brother or sister or colleague of 15 years. The closer we are to people, the harder it is for them and for us when we have to draw lines. So it may be no surprise that these Pergamum Christians had resisted Satan’s first strategy but come unstuck on this second one.
What about another eg? Well, take the Students Union pub crawl, advertised with the flyer, ‘The way to get wasted’. There’s nothing wrong with a Christian going out for a drink. But if I join in with that particular occasion – that pub crawl – I have to ask, ‘Am I joining in as well at an ideological level?’ Because in the apparently unideological business of drinking games and alcoholic initiation ceremonies, there is in fact a great deal of ideology going on under the surface.
Now when we’re facing these situations we need to ask questions like these: When does association amount to denying Christ in some way? When does joining in mean buying into an ideology that I shouldn’t do? Where, if at all, can I draw a line between being present and actually participating – and apparently endorsing what’s going on, even if I don’t intend to?
It is often hard to draw lines in these situations, because it does strain and even risk relationships and it can leave you feeling out on a limb socially. So look at the last verse, v17:
17He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes [ie, who lives as the spiritual resistance], 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. (v17)What on earth is being said there? Well, there was a tradition (not in the Bible – but, presumably, these Christians were familiar with it) about some of the manna with which the Lord fed his people in the OT being whipped out again at the end of time – on V-day, when the Lord Jesus returns and there’s that great banquet he described in his parables. And the white stone? Well, white stones were often used as admission tickets to these temple meals we’ve been talking about. So the risen Lord Jesus is saying, ‘You may have to miss out on a few meals here and now; you may have to strain some relationships and go out on a limb socially. But remember you’ve read to the end – all the way to chapter 22. And you know there’ll be a banquet, and the company of believers and above all my company and the company of my Father. And anything you’ve missed for that in the here and now will, looking back, seem eminently worth having missed.’ Ie, heaven will more than compensate for anything that is hard now about being a Christian in a non-Christian world.
So that’s the section of Revelation to the church in Pergamum – and, via them, to us today. It alerts us to two strategies of Satan. It tells us he stands behind situations when authorities command us to deny Christ. And that he stands behind situations when association amounts to denying Christ. And it reminds us that we’ll only be the spiritual resistance if we’ve read to the end – if we believe that V-day is coming. Because however hard it may be to side with Christ now, the question of Revelation is: why would we want to keep in with the beaten side?
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