Yesterday, we looked at the letter to Pergamum in Revelation chapter two. We saw how the church had been faithful in the past under intense persecution, but more recently had been lured into idolatry, the “teaching of Balaam” and the Nicolaitans. And we asked the question: why would a church of Jesus Christ need this warning about idolatry? Isn’t it obvious? Shouldn’t it be unnecessary – a warning not to go back to something inferior? What kind of weak-willed Christians were they that required this?
Well let’s see if we can understand them a little better. I want you to imagine yourself as a member of the church of Pergamum. A few years ago your church experienced quite a lot of persecution. And you all were faithful in those days. You remained loyal to Jesus, no matter what got thrown at you. But these days, it’s a different story. There’s less persecution; less obvious persecution, anyway. And so many people in the church have started to compromise. They’ve started to drift away from God’s values.
In this letter from Jesus that John sent to you, he calls your home city of Pergamum the place where Satan has his throne. And you’re well aware of this! Every morning when you wake up you can see it outside your window, perched high on the mountain overlooking the city. The old temple of Augustus. It’s now where you’re all expected to go to offer sacrifices to the Emperor; to worship him as a god.
Now you don’t do this, of course. But a lot of the people in your church have started doing it again. For some reason they think it’s OK to follow Jesus, the one true God, and to offer sacrifices to the emperor and all the other gods! It’s hard to see what’s got into them.
Jesus called this the “teaching of Balaam.” He’s referring to the book of Numbers, in the Hebrew Scriptures. Balaam was the guy who led Israel – God’s people – into idolatry. Well it’s happening all over again – God’s people in your church are being led into worshipping idols. Some of the leaders are telling you it’s OK to sacrifice to the emperor, as long as it doesn’t mean anything to you. So, like sheep, many go along with it.
You shake your head in astonishment; yet at least it helps you understand the OT a little better. Before, whenever you read about the people of Israel worshipping idols, it always made you wonder – why? Why would they even want to worship idols, when they knew the one true God? But now, you have to ask that about your own fellow church members. What on earth makes them think it’s OK to offer sacrifices to idols? Why would they even want to worship these other gods, when they know Jesus?
But it’s not that straightforward. What you do at these temples – it’s not really about the fact that you worship different gods. Oh well, the Christians go to church on Sunday and worship Jesus, while everyone else heads off to their temple and sings What a Friend we have in Zeus. It’s not about having different gods; it’s about fitting in.
You see, these rituals are the glue that holds your society together. You make sacrifices the to gain the gods’ favour. Not just for you but for all of society – for your family, your friends. You make sacrifices to the emperor to display your loyalty; loyalty to your family, to your city, to the empire. It shows that you’re a normal member of society, not some kind of subversive deviant.
So when Christians refused to worship the gods, you get treated with great suspicion. If there’s a drought on, you get the blame: maybe these Christians are the reason the gods are angry with us and didn’t send rain. And when you don’t sacrifice to the Emperor: well maybe you’re plotting against the empire and will bring the wrath of Rome down upon everyone. In short, you’re a threat to the stability of society.
Which kind of makes you feel like an outcast. Particularly when you can’t go to temple for a meal anymore. It’s kind of like an RSL the way they’ve got it set up there. You go there for a bite to eat with your friends; a meal of meat you can see being sacrificed to the gods. So because you refuse to do this; because you refuse to participate – well, you lost a lot of friends.
And you lost your job, too. You were a member of a trade guild. The guild of leatherworkers. It’s kind of like a trade union. That was until you stopped sacrificing to the patron god of leatherworkers. They kicked you out of the guild, and so you couldn’t get any more work. No incense, no start. You just pick up whatever work you can to feed your family, but it’s not much
So you see, there’s this constant pressure to conform just to survive. To be like everyone else and join in the religious ceremonies of the city. Even if they mean nothing to you. When you see it like that, it’s no wonder that many of the weaker people in your church have taken the easy option; they’ve tried to blend in. And they’ve latched on to this “teaching of Balaam” that justifies it; so they don’t feel guilty about it.
But Jesus’ message to us is clear: don’t compromise! The consequences are serious!
Think about our own situation two thousand years later. What pressures do we have to blend in with the rest of our society, and join in its idolatry? To go back to something inferior?
How about our idolatry of work: we need to become a workaholic like everyone else, if we want to get ahead in our career.
Or the idolatry of other people’s opinions: we need a certain standard of living in terms of house, car, schooling, holidays, birthday presents, material comforts – if we want others to view us favourably and not like we’re some kind of Amish freak.
What other idolatry are we tempted to give in to? What other idolatry are we pressured into rationalising away, as “the cost of living in today’s society”?
Have we bought into the teaching of Balaam; that lie that tells us we can have it both ways. That as long as we keep our head down and don’t draw attention to ourselves, we can follow Jesus and fit in with the rest of the world. That we can worship both the God of the Bible and the gods of the culture around us.
We can have Jesus to protect us from eternal damnation, and the gods of wealth and career and superannuation to protect us from financial hardship.
Jesus whenever we want relieve our guilt, and the god of the shopping mall whenever we want to relieve our anxieties with a quick purchase high.
Jesus to calm our fears about the afterlife, and the gods of TV and sport and entertainment-on-demand to block out our fears in this life.
Jesus for whenever we feel inadequate in the eyes of God, and the gods of houses and cars and clothes and holidays and achievements for whenever we feel inadequate in the eyes of other people.
When you spend time thinking about the pressures on us today to conform, they might not be as obvious as the pressures on first-century Christians – but their subtlety makes them at least as powerful. Despite the fact that we’ve got Jesus, we’re tempted to go back to an inferior way of life. But God calls us to resist the temptation.
In fact, as well as the word of warning he gives in the letter to Pergamum, he also gives a strong word of encouragement, to those who are faithful.2:17a To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna.
The “hidden manna” refers to God’s provision for his people in the desert. It reminds us to feed on God’s food, which is far superior to the food of compromise found at idol temples. Or shopping malls.
And then there’s the white stone:2:17b I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
Ancient Greeks used special pebbles as entry tickets to their public assemblies & religious festivals. A truly faithful Christian would have to give these up, and so be forever on the outer. Like we have to give up many of our society’s symbols of belonging, in order to follow Jesus completely. But Jesus promises us an ‘entry stone’ into a far greater feast; a far greater festival; an eternal banquet.
God calls us to be faithful, too. To avoid idolatry and compromise with the world. Because what we have in him is far better than all the rest put together.