Letters to 7 Churches 3 - Pergamum and Thyatira
As we move on from Ephesus and Smyrna to Pergamum and Thyatira we see the intensity of opposition and persecution increasing. While in Smyrna there was a warning of possible death for Christ, in Pergamum we find it's happened. Here maintaining belief in Christ has cost Antipas his life.
Yet even the reality of that sort of opposition hasn't stopped them holding fast to the name of Christ. He knows their context: "where Satan's throne is". Like the other 2 cities, Pergamum was a large city with a well established pagan system of worship. The greatest of these altars was that of Zeus, decorated with sculptures of serpents - which may be the reference to Satan's throne, though there were plenty of other possibilities.
In any case their situation was such that they needed to remain vigilant if they were to hold fast to the truth. And so Jesus comes to them as the one with the two edged sword. Now remember, in ch 1 this is the sword of God's word, coming from his mouth. So the issue here may be their attitude to God's word - can you trust it or does it need reinterpretation or nuancing?
Similarly in Thyatira they live in a pagan city. Here the great temple is that of Apollo, the sun God. Apollo is the son of Zeus. So how does Jesus present himself? As the Son of God; as one whose eyes are like blazing fire. Jesus' presence is such as to overwhelm that of Apollo or any false god. And they're praised because their last works are greater than their first. They're growing in their faith; they're getting better at it. Unlike Ephesus where they'd lost their first love, this church is growing in love.
But in both cities there was a problem. They'd allowed people to come in who were leading Christians astray.
Each of these is given a nickname. These aren't their real names. Rather they're names that are meant to characterise the errors they're leading people into.
First, in Pergamum, there's Balaam. Balaam was the prophet, during the Exodus, who was paid to put a curse on the people of Israel as they neared the promised land, though in the end God prevented him from doing it. He's also the one who was blamed for sending the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men into taking part in sacrificial orgies devoted to Baal, as a result of which 24,000 people died under God's judgement.
So what was it that this modern day Balaam was doing in Pergamum? Well, it seems he was preaching a message of accommodation, of adopting some of the practices of the culture in order to live and maybe even prosper in that culture.
The phrase "food sacrificed to idols" gives us a clue. In the context, most tradespeople would have had to belong to a guild if they wanted to practice their trade. And part of belonging to a guild was taking part in their ritual meetings, where the food being served would have been offered to their patron deity. So there's an economic issue here for a Christian who wants to remain faithful to God. How do you practice your trade if you can't be part of the guild that controls the trade? Your whole livelihood is affected.
So this Balaam appears to have been preaching some sort of alternative Christian response to idolatry. Perhaps he was taking Paul's phrase: "'an idol is nothing" and adding the conclusion, which doesn't come from Paul: "so I can worship it without harm." The problem was that the end result was to undermine the belief that God is the only God to be worshipped. The way the Old Testament characterised this sort of behaviour was to describe it as committing adultery, here referred to as practising fornication.
In Thyatira the villain is called Jezebel, again a nickname. Remember Jezebel was the wife of Ahab and had turned him away from God to worship Baal. She'd sponsored false prophets to turn the people away from the true word of God; prophets who, like Balaam, were motivated by financial gain.
We're told she calls herself a prophet. And she was teaching something similar to Balaam in Pergamum; "teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols." The fornication here is probably spiritual rather than literal. She's telling people what they want to hear. Just as the prophets in the days of the Jezebel made up a message that suited the political agenda of King Ahab, so here the message suits the economic agenda of the workers who need to fit in with the trade guilds that controlled the economic life of the city.
These two are leading the people astray by their teaching but they're not going to get away with it. In the case of Balaam, Christ is coming to judge him with the sword of his mouth. In other words God's word will overcome him in the end. There may be a threat of physical punishment here, since the sword was the Roman symbol of capital punishment, or it may be simply an affirmation that in the end God's word cannot be defeated by lies.
In the case of Jezebel they're told Christ will judge her. In fact following the metaphor through of her as a prostitute, he says he'll cast her on her bed and those who join her in her evil will also suffer distress. What's more the children she produces, that is, her disciples, will be struck dead! It's a severe warning isn't it? This Jezebel thought that she could escape economic suffering through compromise, through reinterpreting, nuancing, the gospel, so they could be part of the culture, participate in it fully while holding to some form of Christian belief. But they need to think again. Despite appearances, Christ is stronger than the prince of this world. In the end he will triumph.
And look at the promise for those who overcome this false teaching. What will their reward be? They'll reign over the nations. It's ironic isn't it? She thought compromise would give them influence and economic power! But where does real influence and power reside? With the ruler of the universe! With God the Almighty and the Lamb.
Well it's all very well to understand something of where all this has come from, but how does it apply to us? Who are our Balaams and Jezebels? What are the temptations for us that parallel the false teaching that they were putting forward? Well, let me suggest a few issues for us to think about.
1. Using Theology to justify the world's values
One of the great issues for us today is the question of how theological conjecture can lead us astray if we're not careful. Just as Balaam was arguing something like 'since an idol is nothing I can worship it without harm,' so some people today want to justify compromise by rational quasi-theological argument.
Balaam's mistake was to begin with the conclusion he was looking for then work back to his argument. What he wanted was a solution to the dilemma of how to fit in with a pagan culture so he could succeed economically. So his conclusion needed to be that it was OK to take part in guild dinners. So he hijacked Paul's argument and took it somewhere Paul had no intention of it going. Paul wasn't talking about taking part in a guild worship service, where a pagan deity was to be honoured and worshipped. So Balaam's argument was false.
I've heard a similar argument a number of times where someone seeks to justify adultery on the grounds that "love" is supreme so the new "love" they've found overrides their responsibility to their spouse or the imperative to remain faithful to the vows they made before God at their wedding.
I haven't seen it yet but I imagine in the film "Amazing Grace" you'll see Christians using Biblical passages that talk about how slaves are be to treated to argue that slavery was OK.
In this age of PhDs there are countless scholars arguing that because various parts of the Bible have been crafted by human authors this denies the inspiration of Scripture and therefore its authority.
But in the end theology is only of use to us if it truly reflects the word and will of God as he's revealed it to us, in it's full breadth, even if it has come through human intermediaries.
One of the big issues in these two letters is that of compromise with the world. Clearly our situation is quite different from that of the first century. We're not worried about craft guilds and idol worship any more. But we're still tempted to compromise. So let me suggest a few areas where this is a problem.
Sexual immorality. We live in a world where almost all the sexual mores have been removed. 'Anything goes.' 'If it feels good it must be good.' 'It's just physical pleasure.' And so the chorus goes on.
So what's wrong with that sort of philosophy? Do Christians have anything to say about such attitudes. Well, I think the major issue for Christians is that it compromises God's will for human beings. Biblical sexual ethics are based on the premise that a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become "one flesh." So it requires us to save our bodies for the one who will be united with us in that indissoluble bond. Similarly there's an imperative to remain faithful to the one with whom we've been united. So our understanding of God's will for us as human beings leaves us with a prohibition against following the sexual lifestyle promoted by the world.
But having said that let's not forget that there's also forgiveness available to those who have in the past been engaged in this way and who have now repented of it.
How about vulgar language. Again the social mores around vulgarity of language and the use of "common" swear words has totally changed over the past 20 years or so. What would once have been seen as totally unacceptable language for polite society is now used as a tourism slogan or the Toyota Hilux catch cry. So where do we draw the line? Here are some New Testament passages to think about: Eph 4:29: "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear." Or Eph 5:4: "Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving." Phil 4:8 "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
How about dress standards? This is one of those things that I have to be very careful about. So let me begin by acknowledging that I make no claim to be a fashionista. For me the only issue in choosing clothes is making sure I rotate them enough that people don't start to think I only own one tie or that I wear the same shirt every day. But for others, clothes are more than just something to cover up the parts they don't want people to see. They're often part of a mating ritual, or a status system or a means of building self esteem.
Think about how the decisions you make about clothes are shaped by our culture rather than by Christian values. For example do you dress to kill? Or to seduce? How do you decide what's appropriate as far as modesty is concerned? What's OK and what's not? More importantly how much does your self image depend on how well you're dressed. Do you believe that clothes make the man or the woman? Does it matter how you look? Is your status dependent on the brands you wear?
Now I haven't talked about other compromises we're tempted to make but you might like to think about them for yourself or discuss them in your small groups. e.g. the use of alcohol, drugs, pharmaceuticals, etc.
Economic and business practices generally accepted by our world but not necessarily particularly ethical. e.g use of labour laws to get more work out of employees for less money. I saw an article this week about Asda and Tesco, the UK grocery stores, being asked to confirm whether or not they were buying clothes made by Bangladeshi workers who are paid something like 10c an hour and work an 80 hour week. Have you ever thought about why the goods we get from Asia are so cheap?
The question we have to grapple with is how do we avoid compromise without actually exiting the culture? How do we decide where to draw the line? Perhaps the question we have to ask is, where is the issue purely cultural and where is it theological? Where is it simply to do with a lifestyle choice and where does it impact on our spiritual health or our faithfulness to God's word and obedience to his revealed will?
3. Religious Pluralism.
Finally let me say something about religious pluralism. Pluralism is a good thing when it provides a voice for minorities in our society, whether they're ethnic or religious - including Christians. But the danger with it is that it can lead to religious relativism. That's when people begin to think that truth is only as you perceive it, that there are no absolutes, that all roads lead to God. This is one of the great dangers of our age. In our world "tolerance is the only real virtue and intolerance is the only vice."
We think of tolerance as a loving response to difference, but in truth it can often be just soft love. And the danger of soft love is that while it tolerates all things and judges none, it ends up losing the concept of truth. As a result many people today believe that Christianity is just one of many paths to salvation. Let me ask you: do you believe that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation? Absolutely? "This remains the single most offensive aspect of Christian theology."
But then, how can you explain a God who would send his only Son to the cross if salvation is really a multiple choice issue, if there are other paths to salvation apart from that? It's unthinkable isn't it? Why would God do it if there were alternatives that were just as effective?
Remain faithful to the end
Well, what's the answer? As in the previous two letters, in both cases here the call is to persevere - to continue to hold fast to Christ's name (v13), to conquer (v17), to hold fast to what you have (v25), to continue to do Christ's works to the end (v26).
And those who turn down the food offered to idols will eat at a heavenly banquet of manna - an unending supply of heavenly food. Those who continue to trust Jesus for their future will rule over the nations; they will receive Jesus himself, the morning star, as they begin that reign. Those who resist the temptation to compromise in order to gain influence in this world will end up ruling in the world to come.