Stronghold [2-27-22]



To understand what's going on in Pergamum, we have to go back about 1,500 years to the people of Israel during their time of slavery in Egypt. Think about the great expanse of that chronology. It's going on 246 years since the United States was formed with the Declaration of Independence. Think about all that has transpired in those 246 years. All the generations rising and falling. All the events, big and small. We went from 13 colonies to putting a man on the moon in less than 200 years. And here, from Hebrew slavery in Egypt to this letter to Pergamum, we've got a time span of 1,500 years. The scope is staggering.


I am such a nerd when it comes to this stuff. Check out this graphic:

  • Show slide of Supermassive Black Hole. {Among other factoids, it has the mass of 40 billion suns, with a lifetime = 1.3 x 10(99) years.}

And here we are talking about how the God who created the universe…all

of that, including the stuff we don't know anything about…our God got up-

close-and-personal in Jesus Christ to save us from our sin so we could

worship Him forever. Just thinking about it gives me brain cramps.


So, 1,500 years before John sat on the island of Patmos to write this letter, our God according to His sovereign will put things in motion to get us where we are today.


To understand the Pergamum context, we have to go back 1,500 years, to another place and time.


As God prepared the way for Israel to leave slavery in Egypt, He equipped them for God-honoring conduct and worship. Their future depended on it. The worst thing to happen would be for them to be corrupted by the surrounding cultures through which they traveled on their way back to Israel. Also, there were many pagan cultures who thrived there while they were in captivity. Holiness was a big deal.


Leviticus and Numbers contain a wealth of truth about holiness and true worship.

Leviticus 18:1-5 says:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.


Here's what God is saying:

  • You are people of the true and living God.

  • You are not polytheists…you are monotheists.

  • You cannot worship and behave the way the Egyptians worshiped and behaved.

  • You cannot worship and behave the way Canaanites worshiped and behaved…they are living in the land to which I am leading you.


There in Leviticus and also in Numbers all kinds of boundaries were given by God for the holiness of His people in worship and behavior. Leviticus 18

concludes this way:

So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.

And then, Leviticus 19:1-4 begins this way:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the Lord your God."


What this all means is that God calls for His people to be separated from the surrounding sinful, pagan culture. And the reason is quite simple - "I am the Lord your God. You don't do those things. You have been redeemed from those things." That has always been God's standard for His people.


Here's something you might want to write down:

THERE ARE TIMES WHEN IT'S OKAY TO BE AN OFFENSE TO THE

CULTURE.


That protects us from a clear and present danger the church always faces. As strangers living in a strange land, followers of Jesus Christ will always be tempted to compromise. That's what the pagan world does. It is hostile to God. And its hostility to God is played out in its hostility to God's people. I'm not being paranoid. I'm just describing how evil works in the world. And faced with hostility, the temptation is to compromise…to give up…to give in. It happens. Churches do that. They want to be more attractive. They want to be liked. They don't want to be mocked or ridiculed or rejected. They want to be seen as relevant and contemporary. For some, it's better to compromise with the culture than be ignored. So Christians and churches and Christian institutions fall in line. They court the world by being like the world.


So let's talk about Pergamum.


Last week we were in Smyrna. The road from Smyrna followed the coastline for about 40 miles before jumping inland, landing in Pergamum. Pergamum was a regional capital city. It was built on a cone shaped hill about 1,000 feet high. Its name literally means citadel, as that was the fortress-like image it projected from on high.


Pergamum was known as "the finest flower of Hellenistic civilization." While becoming a part of Rome in 133 B.C., Pergamum maintained its cultural ties to the Greek world. It boasted one of the greatest libraries in the world, with over 200,000 volumes at the time. It had many of the attributes we see in major university cities today.


One of the most spectacular sights in Pergamum were its sacred and royal buildings. A huge altar to Zeus jutted out near the top of the mountain.


Religion flourished in Pergamum. All the important gods were worshiped:

  • Zeus

  • Athene {their patron goddess}

  • Dionysus

  • Asklepios

The interesting thing about Asklepios is he was the god of healing. If you

were sick, and you could manage it, you would go to his temple of healing. The emblem of Asklepios was a serpent. We see that today in the U.S. in the caduceus, which is the traditional symbol of Hermes and features two snakes winding around an often winged staff. Internationally, the more commonly accepted symbol is the Rod of Asclepius also known as the Staff of Aesculapius, a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god of the same name.


Obviously, there were snakes, of the non-poisonous variety, in his temple. Sick people would lie down and let the snakes slither all over them, hoping to be healed. Weird, but I wonder what people will say about us 2,000 years from now. Anyway, Pergamum was advanced and educated and prosperous in so many ways.


Finally, to illustrate how well the pagans of Pergamum played the game, they were the first city in their region to receive permission to build a temple dedicated to the worship of a living ruler. It was dedicated to "the

divine Augustus and the goddess Roma."


Pergamum was a vile, idolatrous, pagan, immoral place; but it was also highly educated and satisfied with itself.


To the Christians living in that city, Jesus told John to write:

“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.'"

- Revelation 2:12

"Angel" simply means messenger. In other words, one of the members of the church was tasked with reading this to the assembly. I think the old adage, "Don't shoot the messenger" would apply here. Because this is not the most positive way to start a letter. They would have clearly understood the meaning, because according to the charter of the capital city of Pergamum, the person in charge was granted the "right of the sword," which meant the power to execute, at will.


So that's the first sentence the church heard. It was a no-holds-barred

affirmation that the sovereign Christ, who wielded the two-edged sword,

held ultimate power over life and death. I suppose how you took that

greeting would depend on whether you compromised with the culture or

were faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The two-edged nature meant it was either a promise or a threat.


Of the seven letters to the seven churches, this is the first one with a terrifying introduction.


There are four points to draw from verses 13-17.


First, high praise from verse 13:

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.

Jesus knew how tough things were. They were waging spiritual warfare on Satan's home turf {center of Emperor worship}. That's the praise. It's an acknowledgement of the fierceness of the battle. And through it all, they were clinging tightly to the Name that is above every other Name. They clung to Jesus as Lord and Savior. In fact, they were so committed to Christ and sound doctrine, that the martyrdom of one among them stood out. His name was Antipas. Even with the threat of death hanging over his head, he would not renounce the Lord Jesus Christ. He would not burn incense to the emperor and proclaim "Caesar is Lord." None of them would. For his crime, Antipas was killed in brutal fashion.


As a side note, Christian stonecutters from Rome refused to carve an image of the pagan god Asklepios, for which they were put to death. It was recorded that they were followers of the teacher Antipas of Pergamum.


There was reason to praise them.


But after the praise came the denunciation. Verse 14 says:

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.

While we could do an entire study of Balaam from the Old Testament, suffice it to say this reference was a prototype of all corrupt teachers who betrayed believers into fatal compromise with world ideologies. The believers at Pergamum clearly thought accommodation was the wisest policy.


Some of them were seduced back into the pagan culture. They were drawn back into the corruption from which they had been rescued. They were engaging in pagan feasts with debauchery and immorality and then coming to church. It was awful.


Third, following denunciation, there was instruction:

Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.

Pretty straightforward instruction, I would say. Quit doing what you've

been doing. Then, as now, when surrounded by pagan culture, don't give up, don't give in, and when you find yourself conforming or compromising, then repent. Repent…repent…repent. Simple instruction. Wherever a believer is mirroring their pagan culture, then turn away and turn back.


So far, we have seen a praise, a denunciation, and an instruction. Finally, there's a 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.

This is a beautiful verse. The letter starts out with a sharp warning and ends with a beautiful promise.


There's much to speculate about what manna references. I'll leave that one up to Google and you.


Here's the promise. When we know this promise, and feel it in our bones, we will have confidence in the most pagan of cultures. In Philippians 2:9, Paul writes:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.

In triumph, God gave Jesus a name that is above every other name. And God has bestowed upon His Son the privilege of doing the same for us… giving us a new name. And that new name will be written on a white stone. You see, in the Roman world, in athletic competition, victors were

given a white stone. The white stone was a symbol of their victory.


As we resist pagan culture, through the power of the Risen Christ, we will be overcomers. We will be victorious. Through Christ. Not through power of our own, but through the power of the Risen Son of God.


And here's the absolute wonder and marvel of it all. Listen to John 10:3:

To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

Jesus gives us a name. And he calls us by that name. Jesus knows those that are his. And he calls them by the name he wrote down in the Lamb's Book of Life before the world began.


What a blessing to know that we have all we need in Jesus Christ. We will have the white stone and access to all eternal joys. And we will be known with a name that will only be ours.


SOLI DEO GLORIA…

To the Glory of God Alone


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