|By: Dr. Robert Thomas; ©2000|
|Is it all right for the Christian church to be “tolerant” of different beliefs, lifestyle choices etc, in the way our society demands? Dr. Thomas answers that question as he looks at what the Angel to the church at Pergamum had to say.|
PERGAMUM: THE CHURCH OF INDISCRIMINATE TOLERATION
After completing His carefully chosen words to churches at Ephesus and Smyrna, Jesus turned his attention to a church in Pergamum, the next city on the circular route being followed by the deliverers of the seven messages in Revelation 2. He divided this third message into the same seven parts as the first two. (1) He uses the customary address (2:12a), and follows immediately with (2) a designation of His own attributes (2:12b), this time taken from John’s vision of Himself as described in 1:16. “The one who has the sharp two-edged sword” denotes the judicial authority of Christ. Next comes His (3) knowledge about the people (2:13) in which He highly commended the believers in the city for their perseverance in the face of a strong Satanic presence in the city. One of them named Antipas had even given up his life for his refusal to deny his faith in Jesus. When the Lord called Antipas “my faithful witness,” He used a Greek word from which the English word “martyr” is derived, the Greek word translated witness being martyrs. That perhaps was the earliest usage of “martyr” as denoting one who dies for his faith.
The tone of praise for the church quickly disappeared, however, as Jesus moved on to speak of (4) the state of the church (2:14-15). He had a strong complaint against the church for reasons that He gave in some detail, reasons that we will develop below in our discussion. Because of His disappointment with the church at Pergamum, (5) the promise of the Lord’s coming came as a severely negative threat, that of waging war against the church with the sword from His mouth. That action against the church deserves further elaboration later in this article.
After the threat comes the customary (6) command to hear (2:17a) what the Spirit was saying to all the churches through the words of Jesus. The Lord closed the message to Pergamum with (7) the promise to the overcomer (2:17b) of receiving hidden manna and a white stone with a secret new name written on it. The probable meaning of those difficult to-interpret expressions is a promise of gaining admission to the future Messianic feast during Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth. Like other overcomer promises, this one points forward to the cherished conditions for believers described in closing chapters of Revelation.
When we think back over the message to Pergamum, a nagging question comes to our minds. After the Lord’s glowing commendation of the church for their faithfulness in resisting satanic coercion (2:13), what was the nature of their shortcoming that would bring such a sharp criticism immediately thereafter (2:14-15)? The answer lies in the church’s toleration among its members of two distinct but similar groups that taught heresies.
The first group held “the teaching of Balaam,” the prophet of Israel who betrayed his calling from God by contributing to the downfall of Israel. He advised Balak, king of Moab, that Israel would forfeit God’s blessing if the king could induce them to worship idols. The king did that very thing, eventually causing the people of Israel to commit sexual immorality and compromise their allegiance to God through idolatrous worship.
The grievous error of the church in this city was its indifference to some of its constituency who were advocating the eating of meat sacrificed to idols and the committing of fornication. The Balaamites at Pergamum were teaching others in the church to relax their principles the way Balaam did by saying it was legitimate for Christians to eat food procured in the open market that had been consecrated to idols. They legitimized participation in idolatrous feasts also, which in turn led to sexual immorality that accompanied the feasts in pagan surroundings of this area of the Roman Empire. Paul condemned the same two sins under slightly different circumstances in 1 Corinthians 10:19-28 and 1 Corinthians 6:15-18. Christ strongly objected to the church’s toleration of Balaamite advocates who said the practices were morally indifferent. His standards required a clean break with these aspects of heathen worship, though such a break would work hardships on people among whom participation in heathen feasts was an integral part of local social life.
The other problematic group in the church of Pergamum were those holding the teaching of the Nicolaitans (2:15), a heretical movement whose works the Ephesian church hated (2:6). Christ commended the Ephesians for that hatred. Like the Balaamites, the Nicolaitans retained the pagan practices of idolatry and immorality. The teaching of the Nicolaitans was a perversion of the liberty Paul wrote about in his epistles. It distorted that liberty to the point of unfortunate compromise between the Christian life and the cultural customs of the Graeco-Roman society. Those holding this teaching were excessively liberal, even antinomian, in regard to Jewish Christianity. They appear to have been forerunners of a deviant branch of Christianity called Gnosticism that arose in the second century A.D.
The mention of the Nicolaitans in connection with the Balaamites stems from the identity of their doctrinal deviations. Both accepted the religious and social standards of the pagan society in which they lived, and recommended Christian participation in idolatrous practices and immoral behavior. One group took their cue from the history of Israel, the other from an emerging distortion of Christian liberty.
Jesus’ agitation with this church was over their willingness to let both groups continue their doctrinal deviations without interruption. The church as a whole apparently did not promote those errors; it simply tolerated them without discerning how serious were the consequences of the errors being propagated.
Repentance in Light of the Lord’s Coming
Jesus called for repentance in the church because they had allowed elements such as the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans to continue functioning among their members. Failure to repent would mean facing Christ as an opponent in warfare when He returns (2:16). His warning to Pergamum resembled the one to Ephesus: punishment when Christ comes (cf. 2:5). The sense of the last part of verse 16 is, “When I come—and that will be soon—I will make war against you with the sword of My mouth, if you shall not have repented of your indiscriminate tolerance before that coming.”
The threatened punishment of making war with the sword of His mouth matches Jesus’ self-description to this church in 2:12. “The sword of His mouth” draws from figurative language of the Old Testament in describing power of the spoken word (see Psalm 57:4; 64:3; Proverbs 12:18), in this case God’s word. It also points forward to the time of Jesus’ future coming to planet earth as the conquering warrior of Revelation 19:11-21 (see especially 19:15). What He was telling people in this church was that they stood in jeopardy of becoming objects of divine wrath as long as they exercised lenience toward the errorists whom they tolerated in their midst. Jesus was calling upon them to demonstrate the genuineness of their faith in Himself by exercising church discipline to purge themselves of these two groups that were a growing blemish on the church’s purity.
When Jesus spoke of His coming as ”soon” in Revelation 2:16, that was His way of indicating the imminence of that coming. I wrote about that imminence in the July 1999 article of this series. His return could occur at any moment, a fact that supplies highest motivation for His church to obey His commands. Pergamum needed to be ready for His return in case that return should occur in the lifetime of that first-century generation. The same is true of the generation alive as the calendar advances into the year A.D. 2000. He may come today! I must ask myself the question, “Am I ready?”—another way of asking, “Am I obeying God’s Word?”
In our day too many churches and individual Christians have been delinquent in failing to deal with teachings that deviate from Biblical doctrine. They have failed to be discerning as did the church at Pergamum in enforcing strict standards, and in lack of discernment, have allowed error to prosper and grow until it is out of control. Tolerance is a good quality when exercised in the right realms such as allowing for differences of opinion in applying Scripture to behavioral patterns over which there is legitimate difference of opinion. But when tolerance allows for teachings that differ from clear standards of the Bible such as refraining from idolatry and immorality, it has crossed the line of permissibility. The church at Pergamum had not exercised good discernment and deservedly received a strong rebuke from the Lord Jesus. Christians of the early twenty-first century deserve and receive the same rebuke if they make the same mistake.
The return of Christ is nearer now than it was for Pergamum. May He find me and my church pure when He comes. Let’s be ready!
Note: For more detailed comments about Jesus’ message to the church in Pergamum, see my discussion in Revelation 1-7 (Moody Press, 1992), pages 177-204. To order this volume, you may call Grace Books International at (800) GRACE15.