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The Message from the Seven Churches for Today (4)

A Sinclair, Crosshouse

PERGAMOS (Rev 2.12-17)

Due north of Smyrna, Pergamos, or perhaps more correctly Pergamum, has no other mention in Scripture than in these opening two chapters of Revelation. We have no record of its formation or development, but, though unknown to us, this company of Christians was clearly well known to the Lord Jesus.

Verse 12 starts with the now familiar initial opening address followed by a specific description of Christ. Once again the description is lifted from that given in 1.11-17, which contains the only other reference in the book of Revelation to a "twoedged sword". Chapter 1.16 reveals that the sword comes from His mouth and is therefore associated with His Word. This is in keeping with the only other reference elsewhere in the New Testament, where the same description is given to "the word of God" (Heb 4.12). Clearly the inference is that the answer to the problems at Pergamos is to be found in the Word of God. This "sword" has two edges, emphasizing its power, and perhaps we can also apply this in its two-sided use and results. For God’s people it is used for comfort, but we must also use it for correcting. To the ungodly it offers hope, but also condemnation. The challenge to this Church, and to us, is, "How do we apply it to our circumstances and what results will it achieve in our lives?". The word used here for "sword", as on several other occasions in Revelation, is that for a long sword which has a great reach. Again we apply this to ourselves: there are no areas of our personal or assembly life that the sword of God’s Word cannot reach. It must be the final arbiter in all disputes and the test of all doctrine. The appropriateness of this description of the Lord will be seen in the remainder of the letter, where the problems in Pergamos are identified as being to do with "doctrine", and the promise to the overcomer involves the "manna", another picture of the Word of God.

Commendation

Before coming to the criticism, in v.13 the Lord commends them and assures them that He is fully aware of their very difficult situation. In particular, they are in the place where Christ identifies the personal "seat", or better "throne", and dwelling place of Satan. While immensely powerful, the wicked one is not omnipresent. It is clear that in a real sense he had a throne and had taken up personal residence at that time in Pergamos. How this was manifested historically is not certain, but it appears most likely that it was in the practice of emperor worship in an attempt to unite all the various pagan religions. This would involve the burning of incense to the false god, and of course would not be carried out by believers. Perhaps this false system is a foreshadowing of the present day ecumenical movement which seeks to unify both professing Christian and other religions and to promote so-called respect and mutual understanding. Even today believers should not get involved in this system, which will face God’s judgment as typified in Babylon later in this book. This is an issue on which true believers must not compromise. There is only "one Lord" and "one faith", and all else is false and must be declared false in the light of "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn 14.6).

Of course, failure to comply with this universal system will mean serious persecution and may even result in martyrdom as it appears had been the case here for Antipas, and later for those who refuse to worship the "beast". Despite this martyrdom, which was possibly carried out in the presence of fellow-believers, the Church has to be commended for holding fast to "my name" and "my faith".

A few things against them

Despite this faithfulness in extreme circumstances, the Lord has "a few things against" them, and in vv.14-15 He identifies two areas of doctrine held by some and tolerated by others. As we will see, it may be that these doctrines were being used to compromise, and relieve the pressure brought to bear to conform to the system around them. Whatever the reason, Christ will not tolerate this false teaching, and urges repentance or He will act.

The doctrine of Balaam

The first false teaching is referred to as "the doctrine of Balaam" and takes us back to Numbers 31.16, which in turn refers back to the incidents in which he was involved (Num 22-26), where Balaam is clearly exposed as a false prophet involved in divine things for personal gain and advancement. Balaam’s counsel resulted in God’s people mixing with the Moabites and indulging in their idolatry and illicit sexual relations exactly as spoken of in v.14. As with the practice in much of the pagan world both these sins would be prevalent in Pergamos, and compromise would expose God’s people to them. Today, there are those like Balaam who profess high office in divine things and would justify the union of true believers and nominal Christians. This, of course, is expressly forbidden (2 Cor 6.14-18), and is unfaithfulness to Christ. Similarly, many of these "teachers" still condone and practise customs associated with Judaism or indeed pagan religion such as observance of holy days, rites, festivals, rituals, incense burning, and other forms of "idolatry". Such teaching if tolerated will result in God’s people committing the same sins, whether literally or in a spiritual sense, and will result in God’s judgment, as indeed it did in Numbers 25.

The doctrine of the Nicolaitans

The second doctrine for which they are criticised for tolerating is that of the Nicolaitans. Their deeds have already been referred to in v.6, and here the Lord extends to their doctrine His strong hatred of their deeds. Some have suggested they were a sect following a man called Nicolas, but there is no Biblical support for this and little historical support. It is more likely that the meaning of the Greek word gives an indication of the error. The word literally means "conqueror of the people" and indicates those who have dominion over God’s people. Either explanation indicates men taking positions of prominence beyond what God intended and detracting from the sole preeminence of Christ, and this is why He expresses His intense hatred. No doubt one manifestation of this today is what we call clerisy. This involves God’s people being categorized as "clergy" and "lay people", being distinguished in dress by the clerics’ garb, and in its more extreme forms being divided as to who can interpret Scripture, function as priests, and even intercede with God. All of this is of course foreign to the Word of God, which must be used to counter it. All believers are priests, all must read the Scriptures, and all have only one mediator between them and God, the Lord Jesus Himself.

Now, most people reading this article will identify this error with denominations and organized religion, and not with the companies of Christians with which many of us associate. However, similar things can be taught or at least practised among us and must be guarded against. The tendency to refer to those who have left secular employment as "servants", giving the word a particular meaning, to limit teaching and preaching to them, to allow prominent individuals to intervene in issues in local assemblies other than their own, or to allow individuals to dominate assemblies, are all manifestations of the same error. John himself condemns one who "loveth to have the preeminence" (3 Jn v.9), and so must we. Christ alone is the Chief Shepherd, the Arch-Deacon, and our only High Priest.

In vv.16 and 17 the Lord calls for immediate, urgent repentance, emphasised by the speed of His intervention otherwise. The use of the "sword" of His Word is required to prevent false doctrine resulting in evil practice, but, in contrast, His Word is offered as comfort to those who respond and overcome. They must not eat at the table of idols, but they will eat of the hidden manna, which speaks of the things of Christ not appreciated by others. They may face persecution, isolation, and reproach and not have the recognition of the prominent in this world indicated by the custom of receiving engraved white stones, but they will have His unique recognition.

To be continued.

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