CARNAL CHURCH: A Message to the Church in Pergamum

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The city of Pergamum was the capital city of Asia Minor. It was renowned for its political power, its intellectual achievement and its pagan worship. It was a wealthy city given over to luxury and fashion. There are two special features that caused Pergamum to stand out in its time.

Library

Kieran Beville (D.Litt, Ph.D, BA, PGDE) is Pastor of Lee Valley Bible Church (Baptist), Ballincollig, Co. Cork, Ireland and Visiting Professor of Intercultural Studies and Practical Ministry at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Badhoevedorp, Netherlands. He has written several books and numerous articles and he has taught intensive courses in Theology and Biblical Studies on leadership training programs in Eastern Europe, the Middle-East and India.

First, there was a 200,000-volume library there. That may not sound like many books. But it is taken into consideration that every page of every book was handwritten on papyrus and parchment, it was quite an achievement. Pergamum was the place where parchment was invented. Parchment was a type of writing material developed from animal skins and far stronger than papyrus, which was made from reeds.

Pagan temples

Second, a feature that marked ancient Pergamum was its pagan temples. There was a temple in Pergamum to Aesculapeus, the god of healing and medicine. His temple was filled with snakes and when a person needed healing, they would go into that temple, lie down on the floor and spend the night there. If a snake crawled across them during their stay, they considered themselves healed. There were three temples in Pergamum devoted to emperor cult worship.  As already mentioned, in a previous article, Roman citizens were required to renew their vow by entering one of these temples, place a pinch of incense on an altar and say “Caesar is god.” Christians who refused to do that were severely persecuted. On the hill outside the city, there was a massive altar dedicated to Zeus, the supreme ruler of the gods. This altar was one hundred feet square, forty feet tall, and a dominant feature of that place.

A Two-Edged Sword

It is to the Christian congregation in this city that Jesus addressed this letter. They were a church in desperate need of a word from the Lord. Therefore, when Jesus came to them, he came as one having the two-edged sword. The two-edged sword is a clear picture of the Word of God. Paul mentions this in his epistle to the Ephesians, ‘…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6:12). The writer to the Hebrews also refers to the Word of God as a sword, ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Heb. 4:12). The Lord came declaring that he had something to say to them.

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The Lord Knows

This church was doctrinally pure, but they had drifted into compromise. Jesus came to call them back to the right path. In these verses, there is a word for Christian hearts today. There is always the danger that believers might drift off center. There is the danger that believers might hold the right doctrines, but still drift into compromise with the world. Once again, Jesus said: “I know your works”. The Lord knew all about this church, where it was, what it was doing and what it was facing. He knew them intimately. It is important to bear in mind that he knows his people and the churches to which they belong. Nothing is hidden from him.

He knows they are located in a place where there is fierce opposition. There are spiritual principalities and powers in the world and the church of Pergamum was situated in the very heart of Satan’s evil empire, “where Satan’s seat is… where Satan dwells.” Pergamum was the throne room of satanic operations.

A Cunning Adversary

This church existed in the middle of a city chosen by Satan as his headquarters on earth. Satan is not a red-scaly-skinned fiend who has a cloven foot, a spear-tipped tail and reeks of sulfur. He does not have horns, and he does not carry a trident. That is a cartoon depiction or a Halloween costume. Satan is extremely intelligent, incredibly powerful and wicked beyond imagination. He is a cunning and subtle adversary of the Christian.

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Satan’s Doom is Certain

Regardless of what some people think, some preachers preach and some songs say, Satan is not now, nor has he ever been in hell. He dreads that place more than any lost person ever has. When he is sent to hell, it will spell his eternal doom, and he knows it. Further on in the book of Revelation these words are recorded: ‘…and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.’―Revelation 20:10.

Satan is Active

Therefore, it is clear that Satan is not in hell and the apostle Peter corroborates this: ‘the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.’ (1 Pet. 5:8). Therefore, today, Satan is free, and he operates as the ‘god of this world’ (2 Cor. 4:4). In other words, Satan is active in the world, and he has a seat of power somewhere. He is the prince of this world.―John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11.

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The Lord Knows and Cares

Jesus let the believers at Pergamum know that he knew they were living in a tough place. He knew their location and situation, and he had a word just for them. He knows the situation of every Christian in every age. He knows when a believer is in a difficult marriage. He knows when they face persecution at work, at school, at home, or even in the church. He knows the pressures society places on the dedicated child of God. He knows. He cares. He is there, and he will help.―Hebrews 13:5; 4:15-16.

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Not Ashamed

This church was not ashamed of the name of Jesus. His name is revered and reviled. His name is possibly the most divisive name in history. Yet his name is the only name whereby people can be saved (Ac 4:12). The church exists to promote Jesus. Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Churches are to lift up the name of Jesus (Jn. 12:32) so that others might be drawn to him.

Jesus commended them because they had “not denied the faith.” This church was doctrinally pure. They held on to the fundamentals of the faith, and Jesus praised them for it. There are some non-negotiable truths in Christianity. There is plenty of room for liberty in non-essentials. If a people do not hold certain things to be true, then they are not Christians, no matter what they say. This ancient church held fast to ‘the faith’ and in this, they were exemplary.

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The Fundamentals of Faith

What are the fundamentals of faith? The Christian believes that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. He believes that the Scriptures as originally given are the inspired, inerrant and authoritative Word of God. The Christian believes in the vicarious death and victorious resurrection of the Savior. Believers need to take a stand on these precious truths. Far too many groups are turning away from the fundamental doctrines of the faith and are swiftly sliding into apostasy.

Antipas

The Lord knew their situation and what it was costing them to stand for the faith. Even when this church was undergoing severe persecution, they stood for the Lord and for his Word. Jesus mentions a man by the name of Antipas. He is called a “faithful martyr”. Antipas refused to offer the pinch of incense and say, “Caesar is god”. Because of his refusal to worship Caesar, Antipas was placed inside a brass bull. A fire was built under the bull and Antipas was roasted to death. In spite of this, the Christians in Pergamum held fast to their witness. Jesus applauds them for their stand. Antipas has been virtually forgotten by history but Jesus knows his name and his sacrifice is not forgotten by the Lord.

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Ultimate Reward

Sacrifices for the Lord are never in vain. Jesus is aware of all the slights and hurts, cruel words and rejection, ridicule, pain, and sorrow that believers endure for his sake. The Lord will ultimately reward them openly. It is still costly to be a fundamental believer. Believers, who hold to the right doctrine and live the right kind of life, are going to offend some people and possibly face persecution. That is what Scripture teaches: ‘…all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim. 3:12). When that happens, the Lord knows, and he will reward faithful service in his time.

When the Savior looked at this church, he found some things that pleased him. However, sadly, not everything was to his liking. Here was a church that had fallen into a state of compromise with the world. They held on to pure doctrine, but they embraced the world and Jesus confronted them about it. Here is what he says is wrong with this church. There is corruption in the membership (v.14). He confronted them because some of them “hold the doctrine of Balaam.”

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Balaam

Balaam is one of the strangest characters in the pages of the Bible. On the one hand, he was a man intimately acquainted with God. He knew about God, about God’s character and he even talked with God. On the other hand, he was motivated by greed and he was guilty of leading the people of God into immorality and idolatry. 

His story can be found in Numbers 22-25. In those verses, Balak, the king of Moab, wanted to curse the nation of Israel, so he called for Balaam to come do the dirty work. He promised him wealth and promotion for his services. Four times Balaam tried to curse Israel, each time the Lord turned his curses into blessings. When he saw that his attempts to curse Israel had failed, Balaam apparently suggested that since they can’t curse Israel, they should corrupt them. This was accomplished by leading them off into immorality and idolatry, and thus bringing the wrath of God down upon them (Num. 25:1; 31:16). Balaam died by the sword.

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Worldliness

The “doctrine of Balaam” is wickedness and worldliness. The church at Pergamum was tolerating people in their midst who claimed to be Christians, but who lived like the world around them. Some of their membership were living immoral lives and participating in pagan worship. Jesus was not at all pleased with these things.

This same problem is rampant in the church today. There are many carnal Christians. There are so many who believe that since they are saved by grace and kept by grace, they can live any way they please. It is no wonder that society has no respect for the church. It is no wonder that there is no power in the church if Christians live as they please without regard for the clear commands of the Lord.

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The Heart of the Matter

Here is the fact of the matter: if a person is saved he will not be like the world around him. If a person is saved, he will walk differently, talk differently, and have a different set of standards than the world. A Christian has different values and a different worldview. A Christian has different ambitions and desires. His first desire is to please the Lord. A Christian has different priorities and a different perspective. When Jesus saves a soul he creates a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17). He changes everything about that saved person’s life. Yes the Christian still commits sin (1 John 1:8) but if confesses he is forgiven (1 Jn. 1:9). However, the Christian does not habitually commit sin. A Christian is different and this shows in the way he lives his life.

Proving Christian Identity

There are some clear standards for living contained in the Bible. Believers can either live by them, thereby proving they are children of the light, or they can ignore them thereby proving they are children of darkness. But believers can’t have it both ways.  

Jesus told them to “repent”. This word means to change the mind. Repentance is really a change of mind that results in a change of direction. If they refuse to repent and deal with the corruption and confusion in their midst he is going to fight against those who willfully and continuously indulge in such unacceptable practices. He is talking about people within the church. The Lord knows who belongs to him and who does not. Those who will not repent are going to have to face the Lord in judgment. It is a fearful thing to be found on the wrong side of the Lord. It is dangerous business to cause trouble in the church. 

The Lord loves his church. He loves her so much that he died to redeem her. What man would stand by while his wife’s integrity was being undermined? What kind of husband would allow his wife to be attacked, either verbally or physically? Any decent man would take his wife’s part and defend her. Jesus Christ will not tolerate those who seek to corrupt his bride.

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Precious Promises

The Lord made some precious promises to the overcomers in the church. Those who walk with him in spite of dangers and defections can expect some precious things from his hand. Jesus promised special provisions. He promised them “hidden manna”. 

In the Old Testament, when the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness, God fed them by sending manna down from heaven. This manna is a picture of God’s precious promise to feed his children.

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Satisfied with Jesus

The saints of God might be excluded from many things in this world but the Lord will feed them with delicacies the world cannot imagine or duplicate. He has some secret things hidden away just for his children. The true saint of God is content to be alone with his Lord feeding on his Word and his presence. Jesus promises his people a place of escape and refreshment, even during the most difficult of times.

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A White Stone

The Lord promised to give his faithful ones a white stone. This does not mean much today, but it held special meaning to the people of that day. There are several possible meanings attached to the white stone. 

Innocent Verdict

White and black stones were used to indicate judgment in ancient courts of law. When a judge rendered his verdict, he would place a stone in a container and at the appropriate time, he would roll the stone out, thus rendering his judgment. A black stone indicated a judgment of guilt, while a white stone indicated a judgment of innocence. Jesus was telling these people that they might be blackballed by the world, but they were innocent in his eyes. He had taken all the black stones that were against them and he washed them white in his blood.

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Citizenship

White stones were used to signify citizenship. A white stone was often given to people who had proven their allegiance to the city. Jesus honors those who live for him.

Victory

White stones were used as a symbol of victory. They were given to those who had won a victory in one of the ancient games. These white stones were called tessera and they allowed the owner free access to all public entertainment. Jesus allows his victors access to the glories of heaven. A courageous gladiator would be given a white stone with ‘SP.’ engraved on it. This stood for spectatus, which meant ‘his valor had been proven beyond all doubt’. Therefore, Jesus promises to honor those who take a stand for him.

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Friendship

White stones were a symbol of friendship. Often two friends would take a white stone, break it in half and write the other friend’s name on their half. When they met, even after many years, they could place the halves of their stones together, signifying their lasting relationship.

Access

White stones were used to gain access. When a wealthy person threw a party, they sometimes gave their invited guests a white stone. When it came time for the celebration, the person who presented a white stone was granted access to the banquet. Jesus allows his people access to the greatest banquet of all: the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19).

Intimacy

Jesus promised his overcomers that their white stone would contain a new name. This was a promise of intimacy. It was customary in that day for guests at a dinner to have a white stone placed at their seat. When they were seated, they could look at the stone and underneath would be a private message from the host. It was a way for the host to share an intimate thought with each guest. Jesus promised those who were faithful to him that he would reveal himself to them in a personal, intimate way.

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Special Relationship

Each Christian has a unique and very special relationship with Jesus. I have a relationship with Jesus that others cannot have, and others have a relationship with him that I cannot have. Believers are all saved the same way (by grace, through faith) but he has done things in, for and to me that he has not done in for and to others and vice versa. Every Christian has a special relationship. The Christian must ask if his relationship with Jesus is all that it should be. The Christian must ask if he professes to know Jesus even while he is living for the world.

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