Whenever we are tempted to think that we have it bad we might look at the church in Pergamum at the end of the first century. The church in Pergamum was behind enemy lines. Jesus says to the church that He knows they live “where Satan’s throne is.” This is not a case of overstatement. Satan ruled as king through the many false religions in the city. He ruled from the throne-like altar to Zeus set among many temples on a hill behind Pergamum. His likeness, the image of a serpent, was one of the emblems of Pergamum because of the popular cult of the serpent god of healing named Asclepius. Worse yet Pergamum had been the first city in all of Asia Minor to build a temple for a Roman ruler and was the center of the cult of the emperor for the region. Refusal to participate in that cult was considered high treason and punishable by death. This was where the church at Pergamum lived. They lived “where Satan’s throne is.” Yet the members of that church went out and proclaimed to the people of Pergamum, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Therefore, the church faced Satanic opposition. It isn’t difficult to imagine how it unfolded. First, church members told others about Jesus and some believed and some didn’t. Second, someone invited those witnessing church members to sacrifice to one or another local god or goddess and then got angry when the church members refused. Third, discovering that Christians refuse to worship any other god they would bring the church members to the attention of the Roman authorities for not participating in the cult of the emperor either. Then the government would imprison them and often would execute those who refused to honor the Emperor as Lord. Indeed, the church had already experienced a time of severe persecution because they announced the good news of Jesus Christ to the people of Pergamum. Some like Antipas, a faithful witness to Christ, had even died. Jesus was pleased that the church at Pergamum, where Satan’s throne is, held fast to His name even with all of this severe external pressure to conform to the world. Yet Jesus reveals that the church at Pergamum was in danger of becoming like the world not because of the tremendous external Satanic opposition they were enduring, at least not directly, but due to pressures on the inside. He says,
- When we witness where Satan’s throne is or anywhere Satan still has influence, we will experience Satanic opposition.
- The witness of the church in Pergamum led to great economic and physical persecution instigated by Satan. Jesus begins in verse 3, “I know where you dwell” and ends the verse “where Satan dwells.” The light cannot peacefully coexist with the darkness. The church was a lampstand in the midst of one of the darkest places on earth. Thus when the church let their light shine by telling people the gospel, saying, “Jesus loves and forgives you,” those who loved the darkness persecuted the church. This was a church with a history of refusing to deny faith in Jesus even during a period of severe persecution. Jesus did not praise the church at Pergamum for being able to avoid persecution since then, but for enduring that earlier severe persecution faithfully. Indeed the continuing persecution was evidence of their continuing to go out and witness to Jesus. (Thus we should expect that every church going out to witness to Jesus in the world will face external Satanic opposition meant to pressure us to deny our faith in Jesus. These things are obviously not true only for the church in Pergamum.)
- The more we tell others about Jesus where Satan still has sway the more we will face external pressure to deny our faith. Sometimes that external pressure takes the form of persecution. I’ve told you before about Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Protestant Reformation in England, who being persecuted by Roman Catholics eventually denied his Evangelical faith in Jesus in order to hopefully save his life but later burned at the stake testifying to the truth of the gospel. External pressure to deny our faith can be hard to endure but there are many examples in our history of believers who died witnessing to Jesus. That is why we call someone who died for the faith a martyr – the Greek word means a witness. They were doing it right. They overcame persecution through death – the irony being that their death was their victory – and Jesus gave them the crown of life. Other Christians around the world who live today near Satan’s throne and witness to Jesus face severe persecution, some even unto death. Jesus says they are doing it right. So why is it then that churches today think that the best way to witness is to become places where people will come and feel comfortable? If we are doing it right then we are getting out of our comfort zones and going out to the people rather than sitting back and waiting for them to come to us. We are doing it right when we take the spiritual battle anywhere Satan still has some influence and even to Satan’s throne and we will know we are doing it right when we experience Satanic resistance or opposition – even if it takes a different form than persecution. The church that goes out to witness to Jesus in the world and overcomes the Satanic pressure to deny our faith in Jesus will be praised by Jesus for doing that right. A two word summary of the book is “Jesus wins.” But any church that does not go out and witness to Jesus in the world will have their lampstand taken away, as Jesus warned the Ephesians. (A couple weeks ago we heard the letter in Revelation to the church at Ephesus. Jesus praised the Ephesians for working hard to maintain purity in the face of internal pressures to become like the world. Jesus was glad, for example, that the Ephesians hated the works of the Nicolaitans. They were doing that right. But Jesus said that the Ephesians had lost their first love because if they were madly in love with Him then they would be telling the world about Him. Therefore, the church was in danger of closing. The church at Pergamum was in danger of closing for the exact opposite reason. Jesus praised the Pergamum church for going out and telling others about Jesus and standing firm in the face of all those external Satanic pressures to become like the world. But it would be an understatement to say that He was not pleased with their approach to internal threats.)
- Churches that evangelize also need to overcome internal pressure to make them like the world.
- The church in Pergamum had failed to keep their own teaching pure. Jesus describes one teaching they tolerated by comparison to the Old Testament story of Balaam. Back in the days of Moses, Balaam had led many in Israel astray to eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality for his own financial gain. Likewise, the church in Pergamum had those among them that gave excuses to people for eating food sacrificed to idols so that they could profit financially. They probably taught people that it was ok to participate in idol worship feasts whenever you needed to for business as long as you didn’t really believe in the false gods being worshiped. It isn’t likely that they literally led the church to practice sexual immorality. In Revelation, sexual immorality often represents spiritual unfaithfulness. Thus Jesus is saying that these teachers are leading some of the people of God to eat food sacrificed to idols and thus to be spiritually unfaithful. The Nicolaitans also taught that some compromise with idolatry was permissible. It is pretty obvious why these teachings would be attractive to those successfully overcoming such great external pressure to become like the world. But now the church in Pergamum needed to overcome this internal pressure to become like the world. Thus Jesus promises, “To the one who conquers/overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna.” Manna is brought up because in the days of Balaam the people of Israel had manna to eat. Israel should have relied on God for sustenance rather than eat of food sacrificed to idols to worship other gods. The fact that it is described as “hidden” highlights the fact that this promised manna will be revealed at death or the second coming. Jesus also promises, “to the one who overcomes…I will give him a white stone.” A white stone was associated with being found innocent – it is white for victory and purity. Whether the church was encouraged by these promises and purged such teaching from their midst or they failed to do it themselves, Jesus would not let this continue.
- As we go out and tell others about Jesus we need to remain vigilant to internal pressures to become like the world. Jesus does praise Niagara Presbyterian Church for not wanting to hear false teaching. We have our guard up against the teachings of the Evil One promoted in the world around us. But lest we become complacent, Jesus praised the church at Pergamum that they had their guard up against a frontal assault as well. For this reason I’ve been highlighting the tenets of what has been called moralistic therapeutic deism or MTD. It is the modern equivalent of the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans for it also results in spiritual unfaithfulness. The most basic beliefs of MTD are that the chief end of humanity is to feel good and be happy and that God welcomes those who are good into heaven when they die, but unless you are facing something serious—like a major medical issue—you do not need God in everyday life. Such teaching directly contradicts the letters to the churches in Revelation and yet this belief system is passing for Christianity among many people today. It is one of the reasons that something like 80 percent of Americans say they are Christians while only about 20 percent attend church regularly. Such teachings result in spiritual unfaithfulness. So yes we are called to take the battle to the throne of Satan and to all places on earth where he still has some influence. Indeed, we are called to let our light shine and the light of our witness cannot peacefully coexist with the darkness. And as we successfully avoid becoming like the world despite all the Satanic opposition we can expect, let us always be sure that we don’t become like the world anyway because we didn’t recognize beliefs like MTD as less than our faith in Jesus. And may God get the glory! Amen.