When Jesus Observes Our TeachingErwin W. Lutzer | October 14, 2007
Selected highlights from this sermon
Pergamum was a spiritual city with places of worship on every corner. Jesus said that Satan’s seat was even in the city, likely referring to the temple of Zeus. God’s church was in the middle of this situation, and while it held firm on doctrine, they were not warning against immorality. Are our churches doing the same?
As you well know, there’s a war going on out there. It’s a war of ideas. It’s also a war of lifestyles, and what people believe is supposed to guarantee or impact what they do, and usually it does, but sometimes it doesn’t.
I want you to open your Bibles to Revelations chapter two because we are talking today about the church at Pergamum, which is about fifty miles north of Smyrna. It’s a church that is prospering and Jesus is there amid the candlesticks. As he says, he’s walking along and he’s giving his evaluation of the church.
So with our Bibles open let us simply look at four different snapshots of the church there in Pergamum. Verse 12 says, “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. I know where you dwell - where Satan’s throne is.” Wow! What is Satan’s throne?
Come with me to the ancient city of Pergamum and you will see a whole complex of temples. There is a temple to Athena, and the snake goddess. There is a temple to Augustus, and Roman emperor worship. And then the largest temple of them all is a temple to Zeus, very probably the throne of Satan. Maybe the whole complex was the throne of Satan but that temple which stood there in the midst was huge and very impressive.
In the 1920’s German archeologists went to Pergamum and they took the temple of Zeus apart piece-by-piece, brick by brick, stone by stone, and they brought it to the city of Berlin. Today Berlin has a Pergamum museum which I’ve had the privilege of visiting on a number of occasions, and you can see this huge, huge altar, and you can walk up the stairs. As I take groups of people on the stairs I say, “Very probably you are walking here on Satan’s seat from the city of Pergamum, the altar to the god, Zeus, who I think is the father, or at least was believed to be in mythology, the father of all the other gods.
Jesus says, “I know where you are. You are where Satan’s seat is (the headquarters of pagan religion).” This was also the place, by the way, that was the Lourdes of its day. It supposedly had healing waters and people came from all over the country to be healed, and many of them, no doubt, were healed because there are many healings today in pagan religions.
Now how did they do in the midst of a situation like that? Jesus goes on and says (I’m still in verse thirteen), “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.” He says it again. Jesus said that in the midst of this you did not deny my name.
Think of the pressure that the church had – the pressure of broadmindedness, the feeling that we should worship all of these gods, and on the way home from work you stop at all of the temples to pay tribute to all of the gods. The church resisted that.
The church also resisted the idea of an amoral kind of religion that says we don’t have to be redeemed, or we can be redeemed in our own way, because there is no fall in pagan religion, therefore there is no redemption in pagan religion. The church did not deny the name of Jesus in the midst of that pressure. The scripture says, “You held fast my name.” You still believed that I was the only way to the Father. You believed in my uniqueness in the midst of this plurality of religion, in the midst of this religious tolerance and pressure, because remember, those who did not obey sometimes were killed, and we have the name of a martyr listed right here. Jesus says, “Even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who died as a martyr, you were a faithful church.” “You did not deny,” he says, “the faith.” List all of the doctrines of the Christian faith and this church would have believed them, and Jesus commends them for it. Don’t you wish that we could be like the church at Pergamum? Well, so far.
But now we come to the weakness of the church, and this is remarkable because what we really have in the midst of doctrinal accuracy is tolerance of immorality. You wouldn’t expect it, would you? This is a church that prides itself in being true to the faith and believing the right things, but look at what Jesus has to say because he’s obviously not yet finished, is he? Look at the weakness of the church – verse 14. “But I have a few things against you (actually two as they are given here). 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 immorality, so also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent.”
What kind of a teaching was it that they were willing to tolerate? Jesus said that these kinds of teachings come from the teaching of Balaam. Remember in the Old Testament in the book of Numbers – it’s a remarkable story – there was a king of Moab by the name of Balak. Don’t get Balak and Balaam confused. It happens that they are in the very same story.
Balak was the king of Moab and he hired Balaam, who was an occultist, to come and to curse Israel because Balak was afraid that if God blessed Israel Moab was “dead meat” (so to speak), so he said, “Please come and curse Israel.”
So for a fee Balaam decides that he’s going to curse Israel, and while he is cursing Israel some of the most remarkable blessings come from his mouth. “I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not nigh. A scepter shall arise out of Judah, and a star out of Jacob.” That came out of the mouth of Balaam, of all things, who is the quintessential example in the New Testament of a false prophet, which reminds us that there are false prophets, and the airwaves are filled with them and sometimes they say very good biblical things. We live in a very confused world, don’t we?
Anyway, Balaam couldn’t curse them. You know, he’d open his mouth and say, “I want to curse Israel,” and all the blessings would come out. So, he said to Balak, “I can’t curse them. I’m sorry, but I do have an idea for you. Let’s get the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men, and let’s argue this way, that Israel is under the covenant of God. They are under God’s blessing, so because they have this covenant with God, they can kind of do whatever they like, because God is going to accept them anyway because God is faithful and they are under his blessing, and they are the people of the covenant. So let us make sure that our women seduce their men and commit immorality, and, even though they are under the covenant of God, you know what will happen, Balak?” Balaam is saying. God may come along and judge them and that’s the only way we can get Israel weakened. I can’t curse them, but if I get them to commit immorality and offer things sacrificed to idols, God will do it for us. He’ll judge them.” And you know it says in the Bible that 24,000 people died because of this great sin.
Now imagine – here’s Pergamum, a church with all the right doctrines and the right beliefs, and they have among them some who hold to the teaching of Balaam. Several would say that if you’re saved by grace, and I’m making this contemporary now, if you are saved by grace because of Jesus, you are eternally secure, therefore, it is safe to sin. You don’t have to worry about it. Grace will cover it. Grace will come along like an elastic band and stretch over your sin no matter what you do. It’s safe now to sin.
And then Jesus says, “You also have the Nicolaitans.” We’re not sure exactly who they are. There are several theories but very probably for our purposes let’s just say that, that in the church at Ephesus it’s very interesting. Jesus said, “You hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans which I also hate.” Here in the church in Pergamum the Nicolaitans are accepted. They are woven into the congregation and they are a part of the teaching of Balaam. It may well be that the teaching is that of Balaam but the teachers who taught it were known as the Nicolaitans. Very clearly the Nicolaitans were immoral. We know that much.
So Jesus says, “You know, on the one hand I commend your accuracy and your willingness to actually suffer for my name, but you are tolerating within the congregation the idea that you can commit immorality and still walk with God,” and there are many different ways that people justify that, and the fact that because you are under the covenant of God that sin isn’t as bad as it would be otherwise.
There was a woman who came to her pastor and said, “You know, I am living in sin but it’s not that bad. I’m a Christian.” And he said very wisely, “It is worse because you are a Christian.” It is worse; it’s not better. It’s worse.
So we see here the weakness of the church. Let’s hurry on and look at the warning to the church. Now I am in verse sixteen where Jesus says, “Therefore, repent. If not, I will come to you soon and will war against them with a sword of my mouth.” Jesus is saying, “You have to repent.” To repent means a change of mind; it means a change of direction. It means that we now go in the opposite way. That’s what repentance is. It’s a humble acknowledgment of sin. It is when God makes us so miserable in our sin that we are willing to put up with anything to get fully right with him. That’s what really leads to repentance.
Sometimes I’ve had people say to me regarding a certain situation, “Do you think that this person has seen the light?” Well, my experience is that people do not change when they have seen the light. We, as human beings, only change when we feel the heat. Then we change. It takes more than light. There are people with tons of light walking in great darkness, and so what God does is he says, “You have to repent. You have to lay your sins down; you have to come to me in repentance,” and then he says these words - and isn’t it startling to see that the image of Jesus in the seven churches is so radically different, and actually in the whole book of Revelation, than the image of Jesus the world today has? The world today thinks “Well, wasn’t Jesus just saying we should love everybody?” and that’s kind of the end of it, and “Didn’t he love everybody?” Yeah, he loved everybody, but this is the same Jesus, and he says, “If not, I will come to you and” (What did he say?) “war against you.” I personally don’t want to be at war with Jesus, but he says, “I will come and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”
Now is the time for us to comment on verse twelve. “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.” What is the two-edged sword? If you were to ask Augustine, the great philosopher and theologian of the third and fourth centuries (really I guess he lived in the fifth century), he would say that it was the Old Testament and the New Testament, because “the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of the sunder of the soul and spirit, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
Well, the sword is the word of God. It says in the nineteenth chapter of Revelation that “Jesus is coming and the sword of his word is coming out of his mouth,” and later on you have the great battle and the great victory that Jesus won.
Now, it’s interesting that the word of God does many things to us. The word of God cleanses us – “Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.” The word of God saves us – “…being born again not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible by the living word of God which lives and abides forever.” It has an effect upon us. It encourages us. It blesses us, but the same word that does all that also judges us, and the same gospel that has transformed us is the same gospel that is going to judge us.
I was re-reading this, this morning, as I always do before I am preaching here. I get here to the church early and think through my message and read the text many times, and I was astounded by the fact that the same Bible that talks so much about grace is so incredibly intolerant when it comes to sin. Have you ever noticed that? I mean, all this grace out there, yes, that’s wonderful, and then it’s so intolerant of sin, but thankfully it isn’t just intolerant about sin. It shows us the way, doesn’t it?
So, then, you have the warning – “Repent or else I will judge you with the sword of my mouth.” This is the meek and mild Jesus.
Finally, what is the reward to the overcomers? In verse seventeen he says, “He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” I’ve commented on this before and reminded you that there are many people who hear the words but they don’t have an ear to hear. The words are there but the heart is somewhere else. “Whether he has an ear to hear 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.”
What is the hidden manna? The hidden manna is, of course, Jesus Christ, because the Bible tells us that he is the bread of God that came down from heaven to give his life for the world. He is the hidden one, yes, but he has been revealed, and we come and we eat of that bread and we drink of that cup, so he’s the hidden manna. And he says, “I will give to him the hidden manna, because there’s a secret connected with it in conjunction with the overcomer.
Look at the second blessing or reward. He says, “I will have a new name written on a stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” What is the new name? There’s lots of speculation – speculation about the white stone with people going back into culture and history to try to find out what it is. We look at it very simply. What Jesus is saying is that “I’m going to give you this new name,” and I don’t think it will be a new name for us. We’re probably stuck with the name our parents gave us, but it is a new name about Jesus. In fact, to the church of Philadelphia Jesus says (I believe that that’s the text), “I will give you my new name, and no one is going to know the name I give you except you. Your wife won’t. The person standing next to you in the choir of heaven (and by the way, Jerry, that’s when all of us get to sing, thank you very much) - the person standing next to you in the choir will not know – just you and me.”
What we’re talking about here is that in heaven it isn’t going to just be this massive humanity and we are one number on God’s computer. There is going to be such intimacy with Jesus that only you and he will really know what is going on between the two of you, and no one else will know it. That’s why it will be worth it all when we see Jesus. Life’s trials will seem so small when we see him.
Imagine what Jesus is willing to give the overcomers, and Jesus is saying, “You have to overcome.” You have to overcome doctrinally most assuredly. The church did that, but you also have to overcome morally and in your walk with God you must be an overcomer. “If not,” he says, “I will come and I will judge you with the sword of my mouth and I will war against you.”
Do you notice how, in the Bible, there are really only two categories of people that have nothing to do with black or white, rich or poor, educated or uneducated? It has to do with overcomers - those who follow God and those who don’t, and the line is clear.
There are some things we need to think about as we think about this passage in relationship to us – transforming observations. Number one, as you look at the text you realize that Satan is the one who stands back of all false religion. “I know where you dwell (where Satan’s seat is).” Back behind those temples to Athena; back behind the temple to Zeus; back behind all of the sacrifices that went on, there is an intelligent, powerful, evil, malicious and deceiving spirit called the devil. And back behind all the television shows that have to do with the occult (“Charmed” and all those other things that young people listen to) - back behind there is the devil; and back behind all false worship is Satan. Remember I told you in the last message that primarily when you are trying to find the devil, you should go to church, or the synagogue or the mosque. That’s his place to deceive, to mislead and to misdirect, and the bottom line here is that that means that we are in a very spiritual battle. It’s not just a war of ideas, because all the good arguments are on our side. It’s a spiritual battle with the spirit who wants to have a religion that is completely in harmony with the person’s desires. It is desire-driven theology. I want God to be this way; therefore, God is this way.
Now, if you were to go to visit these places – these seven churches, what you would find in at least or three instances is this interesting fact. Beside these temples - these complex pagan temples - is a church, sometimes right next to them. Now, let’s take a moment, folks, to think about that. How should we interpret that? There are two ways to interpret it. One is to say that the church was so much a part of their culture and a part of false religion that they said, “We can worship right next to you because we’re happy with what’s going on next door.” That’s one way to interpret it, but the church succumbed to the culture and absorbed the culture, and therefore was not a threat to pagan religion.
But there’s a second way to interpret it that is a more optimistic and hopeful way - and I hope that this was true – that what the church was saying is this, “We want to plant a church right next to the throne of Satan. That’s where we want to be. Show us where the devil is and that’s where we want the church to be, because we want to invade his space and we want to show that right in the midst of the most demonic place, that’s where the church can be – separate from the culture in terms of belief and lifestyle, but not separate from the culture geographically or in terms of our ministry – right smack in the middle of where it’s happening.”
Show us the place where Satan is most active in the city of Chicago. That’s where we want to be – right there, right where the devil works overtime – right in the drug culture. We think, for example, of some of the housing projects, and that’s why we thank God so much for “By the Hand” Club for Children – right in the most hopeless difficult situation. We want to be there and to say that this is where we have a church, and this is where the gospel goes out.
But I want you to be aware that when we talk about preaching the gospel and sharing in our culture, we are speaking about nothing less than spiritual warfare. We are going into enemy territory, and it seems from time to time as if all of America is drifting towards enemy territory. I don’t want to have a negative view but when you find the name of Jesus so maligned, and when you find the church marginalized and all public expressions of Christianity in the so-called public square criminalized, you know that we have a wonderful God-given glorious challenge ahead of us, and that is to see the glory of God even in the midst of the culture that no longer has even respect for Jesus. So remember in back of all false religion is Satan – Satan’s throne.
There’s a second lesson that’s very important and that is this. Doctrinal accuracy can never be a substitute for moral purity. You can’t say, “Well, I believe and defend Jesus.” You know there have been those who have been defenders of the faith, and usually they are very, very particular in all of their defenses, and nevertheless (and now I’m bringing it down not just to a church but to an individual), very often within their secret life there is rot, and you’d never know it because Jesus might say of them, “You’re holding fast my name; you did not deny my faith. You’re willing to put up with persecution. You were even on hand when my faithful witness, Antipas, was killed, but I have this against you. You’re tolerating immorality in your life. Repent, therefore, or I will come to you quickly and war against you with the sword of my mouth.”
I need to say it very clearly today, folks. Just because we’re under grace that does not mean that it is safe to sin. Just because we’re the covenant people does not mean that it is safe to sin. The two things in scripture that I have referred to are the wonder of grace and the wonder of this intolerance for sin.
Wasn’t it Augustine, the great theologian, who, when he was converted, had a mistress, and he knew that he had to give that up. He prayed one time and said something like, “Oh, God, I seek deliverance,” but that, of course, didn’t change his lifestyle. Then he prayed and said, “Oh, God, deliver me, but not now. Do it at a later time.” But until the Holy Spirit of God worked mightily in his life and he couldn’t take it anymore he finally said, “God, deliver me and do it now.”
My wife and I know a woman who used to be a prostitute, and she told us this story that when she was in a brothel she frequently prayed, “Oh, God, get me out of here.” She prayed with tears, “God, get me out of here.” God didn’t get her out of there until she was so desperate she said she got on “all fours” – hands and knees – and said, “God, either get me out of here, or kill me right now, but do one or the other. Kill me or else get me out of here.” And that was the day she walked out of the brothel, never to return. She’s wonderfully married to a Christian husband, and God is blessing her life. You see, there is that point of desperation, and Jesus is saying to us today, “I know. I know.”
Which will you do? “Repent, therefore, or I will come and declare war against you.” Wow!
Are you ready to pray? I guess that’s easy to do. I should really ask, “Are you ready to repent?” Let’s pray.
Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that you might use this wonderful letter, with its marvelous promise of intimacy with Jesus. Imagine his new name that no one else shall ever know but just Jesus and me. Give us that vision, Father, of what you have provided. Give us the vision, Lord, we pray, to respond in faith and in holiness to your word.
And now before I close this prayer, and after we have closed the prayer we shall sing, but before we do that I want a time of silence. What is it that you need to say to God? And by the way, if you’ve received Jesus as your savior, the good news of the gospel is that this Jesus that I preached about today actually saves sinners and forgives your sin and cleanses you and brings you into God’s presence and declares you to be righteous. You know who you are if you need to received Christ. You and Jesus know it, don’t you? You respond to him right now.
Our Father, we think today of the church at Pergamum and know that it no longer exists; and we ask that you shall help us to repent, that future generations will be able to benefit from our impact, that we might be faithful, and that we might be found faithful to pass on the torch to others, that the Moody Church and other churches that are listening may able to pass on to the next generation their commitment, their zeal and their faith. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.