“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
‘These things saith he that hath the sharp two-edged sword: I know where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s throne is; and thou holdest fast my name, and didst not deny witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwelleth. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there some that hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit fornication. So hast thou also some that hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans in like manner. Repent therefore; or else I come to thee quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of my mouth. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches. To him that overcometh, to him will I give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it.’” Revelation 2:12–17
A young pastor recently read the Scripture lesson in one of his congregation’s services II Peter 2, the chapter in which the depravity, impiety, and condemnation of false teachers are so graphically depicted. Among the few reactions, one was common: “What a poor choice of SCripture reading for worship and pulpit! ‘Brute beasts…eyes full of adultery…a heart exercised in covetousness…children of cursing…’ Such loveless, unrestrained language!”
I fear that this type of response is often to be noticed in some churches today, even though such attitudes betray an arbitrariness which is evidence of plain divorce from the Word, and therefore seriously sinful. The wooing, warning Word of God may be contrary to our carnal nature and even to an impressive, “refined” public opinion in our time. nevertheless that Word is and must remain the “sword of the Spirit.”
The sinner’s tendency to temporize, compromise, and secularize always involves an effort to re-edit the Word of God to suit the demands of the flesh. Tact replaces boldness as we soft-pedal the thunder of God’s demand upon us, when we ought rather to return to the simple affirmation of every true reformation: “Thus saith the Lord!”
That is the burden of the Holy Spirit in this third letter from heaven in which the exalted Christ urged upon the Pergamum church antithesis in place of adaption.
Arresting indeed are the opening words (vss. 12, 13) of Him “that hath the sharp two-edged sword: I know where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s throne is…” The city of Pergamum is said to be the residence of Satan.
Pergamum, Center of Idolatry
At first glance we would hardly believe that such a characterization could be true. Pergamum was a city of religion and culture. It was the seat of the Roman governor, the place of a world-famous library, the location of beautiful buildings and imposing temples. Pergamum gloried also in the great triumphs of her military history, as symbolized by Athena Polias, goddess of victory, whose temple was the religious center of the city. In tills temple an altar of fantastic size was featured, said to be more than 130 feet square, and on it were portrayed scenes from Pergamum’s greatest military triumph.
Here too, of course, one found worship of Caesar. And Caesar was not a competitor of Athena, for both represented worship of the creature rather than the Creator, of man rather than God. Nor was the worship of Aesculapius, the god of medicine. of a different character. For here, too, man was triumphant, in this case over the dread power of disease and death. These gods could exist side by side, therefore, without serious difficulty. For each, though differing in outward form, was a representative of the religion of redemption through human power. Surely Pergamum was a place “where Satan’s seat is…where Satan dwelIeth.”
The Church at Pergamum Refuses to Compromise
It was in this city that God had established a temple of Jesus Christ, his Church. And deliverance from misery was also her confession! But, to the consternation of “broadminded” Pergamum, always ready to accept another god as long as the principle of redemption by man for man’s sake was not denied, this church confessed that her deliverance was only through Jesus Christ, a redemption by God unto God. This redemption is, in its first experience, a forgiveness of sins and then a gaining of everlasting life. This Church confessed the Christ who “has the sharp sword with two edges,” who declares that neither Athena nor Caesar nor Aesculapius can save, for “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her converts with righteousness.”
Note the antithesis; the Church opposes the very throne of Satan in Pergamum! It might have denied Christ’s name by recognizing a kind of redemption through human power. It might have said that Caesar, Athena, and Aesculapius were also worthy of religious adoration. It might have said that although Jesus saves the “soul,” it would be “an indifferent matter” (adiaphoron) to bring their bodily illnesses before the god Aesculapius, and to pay respect to human achievement (which is considerable, after all!) by paying some respect to Athena and Caesar·. On the surface, it would not have required so great a sacrifice of Christian principle for the Church of Pergamum to have said that Christ saves the soul, Aesculapius the body; that deliverance for heaven is of Christ, deliverance on earth is from Athena; that “spiritual” salvation is of Christ, while “material” prosperity is of Caesar.
Refusing to compromise, the Church rather declared that Aesculapius did not redeem but destroy the body, and that Caesar and Athena delivered their devotees unto the bondage of sin. As a result the antithesis came to manifestation also through the hatred of Christ’s foes. Persecution took place in Pergamum. Satan’s message of a good living for adherents to the gods of Pergamum meant death for some of the members of the church.
Many stress the fact that we must hold the doctrines of common grace and the God-ordained antithesis in proper balance. There is a sense in which that must be recognized as true. But that is never an excuse to cater to the sinful flesh, to manifest a fear of the devil, to be weak in the faith and not to confess Christ as the only Redeemer over against the false gods of the world. In Pcrgamum the church is commended for branding Satan as a destroyer, and confessing Christ alone as Savior. Obeisance was refused to Satan, even though it meant martyrdom (vs. 13). A covenant-keeping people, they maintained a true confession of Christ’s name, insisting that He is the only Redeemer of both soul and body. With respect to the world’s culture they declared. the name of Christ to be the only key to the true, the good, and the beautiful They refused to call the high-priests of Aesculapius for their sick, calling for the elders of the church instead. They honored Caesar in accordance with Romans 13, but allowed him no place as a competitor of Jesus the King, or his equal.
We may indeed encounter scowling faces and experience bitter opposition by the world when we refuse to acknowledge its redeemers and deliverers in social matters. Let us nevertheless go on “in Kuyper’s line” as people of the antithesis!
The devil, of course, never gives up. If God’s people are not made to compromise by means of the dread of persecution a shift in tactics may cause the Church to seek adaptation to the world’s will and way. Read again verses 14, 15. Few indeed were the things which Christ had against the: small, struggling congregation of Pergamum, but they are worthy of our attention because they betrayed a desire for synthesis, for adaptation instead of antithesis.
And so there was toleration of those who spoke in the spirit of Balaam, the false prophet who advocated ensnaring the Israelites by inducing an adulterous disobedience of Jehovah. If sheer force, persecution, will not avail, carnal temptation might. In the church of Pergamum there were some who held to this devilish doctrine. Loving the flesh, hating the absolute antithesis, they replaced the Word of God with rationalizations; they raised that familiar bugbear called absolutism; and with a great show of wisdom and sophistication pointed to the necessity of living in this world! We must “associate” with the world somehow, we must be practical as well as principal, there is such a thing as “Christian freedom”! Let us have proper respect for the world’s accomplishments as symbolized by Athena, and let us use (for good purposes, of course!) the healing power and social advantages of Aesculapius and Caesar.
Then there were the Nicolaitans, of whom not too much is known except this very significant fact: they held to a view of life which played off nature against grace, the life of the body against the life of the spirit, secular living against the religious life. Christ’s work of redemption is only for the soul; therefore “let us sin that grace may abound.” Let the flesh have its lustful way; it will only pave the way to a greater spiritual deliverance.
Balaamism (sensual enticement) and Nicolaitanism (compromise with the world) were a deadly combine. slaying some in the congregation, and polluting it withal Small wonder that Christ here warns, “Repent, or else I will come unto thee quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of my mouth” (verse 16).
“He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear!”
There is still a throne of Satan in the world. Enticement and compromise are still strong weapons in the devil’s arsenal. It is the style of Balaam’s treachery which can often be recognized in such representations as those which affirm that American culture is not “against Christ,” and therefore those who are “for Christ” may legitimately move in all its institutional and organizational patterns. Christianity has entered into the structure of our civilization; yes, even Calvinism is an important strand in the fabric of our world, and therefore an all-pervasive antithesis is not to be seen as a Scripturally indicated motif for Christian conduct. Christian social endeavor is to be geared only to the fact that we are “in” the world, not to its correlative: “ye are not of the world.”
I believe that we sometimes find a kind of Nicolaitanism in much of the “Jesus and my soul” sentiment in our time. In both fundamentalist and modernist camps this old, old evil is discernible. Both these movements restrict the reign of the sovereign Christ. Both lose interest in the thorough-going Calvinistic application of Christian principles to all of life. Both are “reductionistic,” if I may use a recently coined term.
Balaamism, Nicolaitanism…will the Church be able to stand over against such foes?
The Christian is an overcomer, says the last verse of this section, and as such he receives the treasures of Christ Jesus! What are they?
Over against the fact that their faithfulness will surely mean persecution and privation, their supply line is secure, for theirs is the gift of the “hidden manna.” By this means Christ cares for his Church, protecting her from the possible consequences of her faith. No room in the economic system would mean sure death for Christ’s Church and for his cause. Actually this is impossible, for he controls the distribution of his means, and in such a fashion that no one can touch or destroy the manna “hidden” for them who love him. And still more: they are protected from a deadlier evil, compromise. There is no need to compromise, if there is in fact a “hidden manna”!
And theirs is the privilege of being “stone-carrying Christians”! They have the Christian card of genuine membership in the most desirable of all organizations, the Church. And wherever they go, those who are truly “in the know” will always recognize this stone as sure evidence that they are to be admitted to all the benefits of Christ. For theirs is the white stone engraved with his Name, recognized exclusively by those who receive it.
Surely this is more than enough encouragement for us whose program is antithesis~ not adaptation! The so-called “normal” avenues of life may seem to be closed if you insist on do· ing battle in the name of Christ with everything that is of the world. Have no fear: Christ “knows thy works”; Christ gives the “hidden manna”; Christ furnishes the “white stone.” Antithesis guarantees preservation; adaptation is the policy of certain destruction!
Rev. Henry A. Venema is pastor of the Second Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.