October 20, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 14:00 in the audio file.
Or, Being on the Right Side of Judgment
There has been a popular line of sentimental argument for at least the last few years that says, “I want to be on the right side of history.” I actually think it’s an oddly spatial reference to a chronological discussion. History is like a river, but being on the “right side” is not a comment on which bank is better, it’s a declaration that a moment ago in the stream is so outdated and prejudiced that all the mature people want to get away from that moment. For example, there was a lot of racism against black people, but we want to be on the right side of history among those who look back and saw how wrong the racism was. (Of course, racism is sinful, but that is true all the time, no matter the current cultural attitude.) The typical use of the argument today concerns gender identity and sexual orientation, and clearly the enlightened don’t want to be where we currently are, which is, discriminating against anyone.
The desire to “be on the right side of history” starts with criticism of the past, and usually has a hard time seeing all the reasons we should be thankful for those in the past, even if they were seriously wrong in some ways. But the desire to be on the right side of history also presumes that people who look back on us will agree that we were right. That is quite an assumption. It’s actually quite arrogant, and a lot of people have ridden the arrogant canoe down the river of history.
What the sentiment allows us to do is to indulge our sense of judgment. We get to seem righteous, especially compared to all those others who weren’t. It transfers the focus off of our problems/issues/sins. We get to feel good that we know what is right without needing to feel bad that we haven’t done what is right.
But men aren’t the standards, and this generation, nor some future generation, will be evolved enough to set the standard. God is the standard, and we ought to be concerned with His judgment, not ours, nor the popular sentiment of the society.
There will always be judgment because God isn’t going anywhere. Either we will submit to Him by judging according to His Word, or we will indulge our desires and be judged by His Word. This is the reminder of Jesus to the church in Pergamum, and He calls them to repent and just conquer their indulgence.
Jesus identifies Himself to the Pergamumites.
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write, ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.’
Pergumum was built on a hill about a thousand feet tall, and the name in Greek came to refer to any “citadel” (Mounce). They also had a temple built to the living and “the divine Augustus” (Tacitus, Annals, Book III), 29 BC, along with committed worship of Zeus, Athene, and Dionysus (Beale). Among the architecture,
the most remarkable was the great altar of Zeus that jutted out near the top of the mountain. A famous frieze around the base of the altar depicts the gods of Greece in victorious combat against the giants of earth (symbolizing the triumph of civilization over barbarism). (Mounce)
Part of this altar is in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
“If Ephesus was the ‘New York City’ of Asia, Pergamos was its ‘Washington, DC’” (Gregg). The city boasted a library with 200,000 books—the second most famous after the library of Alexandria, it was the home of Galen—the second most famous medical physician after Hippocrates, and was a political and intellectual center (Osborne).
As in every message, Jesus refers to some part of the vision that He gave to John about Himself in chapter 1. Whatever part or parts Jesus repeats connect to something specific that the church needed to hear.
To the Ephesians Jesus walked among the lampstands and was about to remove their lampstand if they didn’t repent. To the Smyrnaeans He died and came to life and promised them that if they were faithful to death they would also get the crown of life. Those in Pergamum were under threat of judgment, and they needed to make some judgments, or else they would face judgment. The sharp two-edged sword is a reference to what comes out of Jesus’ mouth, to His Word, and it is a word of judgment. In Isaiah 11:4 the branch of Jesse will “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
Like the Smyrnaens, the Pergamumite Christians were faithful as a lampstand.
I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet 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.
The thing that stands out most in this affirmation is that Pergamum was a rough place for Christians. Things in Smyrna were bad; there was a “synagogue of Satan,” but twice Jesus mentions Satan connected to Pergamum, as Satan’s home and base of operations.
Was Pergamum really where Satan ruled from? This was the place of his throne, where Satan dwells? That might be hard to believe based on Pergamum’s lack of fame in history. Satan is not omnipresent, so he can only be in one place at one time, and he chose Pergamum? Some would say that Satan is a term that represents all of Satan’s forces, including human agents and systems. Since Pergamum had close ties with Rome, even building a temple to Augustus while Augustus was alive, perhaps Pergamum was the central outlet of the Empire in Asia, and Satan was using the Roman Empire against believers. But this makes Satan symbolic and it makes the throne and dwells not only symbolic, but distant references. Whatever the exact interpretation, this was hostile territory for believers.
Things were bad enough in Pergamum that Antipas … was killed among you. Jesus calls Antipas my faithful witness, which is quite a compliment, since the same description is given to Jesus in 1:5. Witness is the Greek word martyr, and though it didn’t mean “one who was killed for his testimony” in the first century, based on how many people were faithful to death, the word took on that import by the third century. History records that Antipas “was burned to death in a bronze bull during the reign of Domitian” (Thomas).
The Christians in Pergamum remained committed to Christ. Jesus commended them: you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith, meaning that they acknowledged Him before men, even when the situation was antagonistic against them.
As with the Ephesians, Jesus had some issues with the Pergamumites.
But I have a few things against you: 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 sexual immorality.
There are three groups within the church: a group who were indulging themselves after the manner of Balaam, a group who were indulging themselves after the ways of Nicolaus, and the other group who were indulging the first two groups.
Jesus addresses the church, not the city. He says, you have some there, so not all, and He narrows His target again in verse 15. Some…hold the teaching of Balaam, the prophet for hire in the OT, whom Balak attempted to pay to curse Israel (Numbers 22-24). That didn’t work, but a few chapters later in Numbers we learn that Balaam came up with another idea for Balak to mess with the Israelites: tempt them with the Midianite women who then tempted them to worship false gods. Balaam’s plan to ruin Israel was more subtle, and very effective (see Numbers 31:16).
While it was true that the church was not denying Christ’s name in Pergamum, it was also true that some in the church were not denying the passions of their flesh. It seems that these some were willing to stand out from the unbelievers in certain ways, but also wanted to indulge themselves like the unbelievers in other ways.
So also you have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
We first heard about the Nicolaitans in 2:6 when Jesus addressed the Ephesians. The Ephesians hated the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus commended them for, because He also hated the Nicolaitan ways. Because of how it’s phrased, this was a second group, distinct from those who held to Balaam’s ways, but the two seem very similar. The Nicolaitans and the Balaamitans got to the same point of indulgence just with different rationalizations.
Neither group belonged, but the church wasn’t making the judgment.
Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.
Repent is the solution for five of the seven churches. Stop what you’re doing and do something different. In Pergamum the church needed to stop indulging the indulgers. This meant making a judgment against those who weren’t living obediently in their personal choices.
Interestingly enough, the angel of the LORD came to kill Balaam with a sword (Numbers 22:23, 31).
Either we make the judgment or we are judged. The Ephesians judged but didn’t have love. The Pergamumites needed to judge. God disciplines those whom He loves, and Jesus promises to war against those who won’t obey Him. For Jesus to war against them requires consideration. Was Jesus only going to war against the Balaam/Nicolaitan groups, or against the whole church? It was the whole church, which is who He was addressing, and who He called to repent.
Orthodoxy had stood its ground, even martyrdom had been endured, but spiritual purity had sustained loss and moral power had been broken. (Kuyper)
To those in Pergamum, and beyond, there is a great promise.
He who has an ear, 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.
There are two promises to the one conquering, and both of them are probably the least obvious promises to the churches.
The one who conquers is the one who doesn’t listen to Balaam, to Nicolaus, or tolerate those who do. The one who conquers, conquers indulgence.
First, the one conquering gets some of the hidden manna. This might refer to a Jewish tradition that Jeremiah hid the manna placed in the ark of the covenant (Exodus 16:32-34) until the Messiah returned, or it could refer to divinely given food that isn’t visible. Jonathan Edwards thought it referred to the seal of the Spirit, and it certainly has supernatural origin: The Father gave manna, Jesus gives this manna, it is hidden from someone.
The second gift given to the one conquering is a white stone with a new name written on. There are a cornucopia full of possible interpretations for what the stone means and what the name is doing on it. In Roman culture, a judge often put a white rock in a jar to indicate innocence compared to a black rock for guilty. That fits in this context of judgment, but what is the name for? Some have suggested that it could be like a ticket into an event, or a token to an after party. This fits with the context of a promise of eternal life that is better than indulging oneself now.
As for the name, is each individual believer getting a new name? Or do all believers get a stone with the name of Jesus written on it? See Revelation 19:12, and Jesus’ new name in Revelation 3:12. This promise is to each one who conquers, but not individualized.
JustConquer Promise #3: Christians will be fed by God Himself and invited to His eternal feast.
Peter told his readers not to be surprised that people would mock them for holiness (1 Peter 4:4-5). In Pergamum, the Christians must have avoided the civic worship of Caesar as Lord and so stood out in the city. But not all of them stood out in their private behavior, and for this indulgence they needed to repent.
We have our own forms of self-indulgence among Christians today. Our culture tempts us to fit in publicly and behave how we want privately. Instead, let’s discriminate the right way, and just conquer indulgence.
You are in a spiritual battle. Marysville is not Satan’s throne, but he, and his forces, are opposed to everything you are doing. He is opposed to who you are. He is opposed to what you stand for. Be steadfast, immovable. Fight the good fight.
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:8–11, ESV)