Christ has revealed himself as the divine one who holds the Christian in his hands and who walks among the churches. He is the beginning and the end of all that is, was or ever will be. He has risen from the dead, conquered death and reigns in eternal life. And today, we meet the Christ who carries a sharp, double-edged sword (Rv 2:12). This isn’t any normal sword. He isn’t a warrior who carries a 6’ broad sword. On the contrary, he is the one whose very words are as sharp as a razor. He is the one whose command can bring life or death. He is the one whose very words brought forth the creation we live in. His words raise nations up and tear kingdoms down. His words, the Scripture declares, (Heb. 4:12) For the word of God is [are] living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
That is quite a picture isn’t it? I mean, if a Roman soldier carrying a sword, sharpened to a keen edge, polished and shining, was to meet you, an unarmed citizen, on the road and command you to do something, you would be inclined to obey, wouldn’t you? That is the picture Jesus has given to John for the church of Pergamum. He is the warrior, armed for battle, and his weapon is his word and their ability to bring judgment or life, as Revelation 19:15 declares, “Out of his mount comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them…’”.
If you have been following Jesus’ self-revelation to each of his churches, you have probably gathered that he picks a part of himself by which to be known in each church. To the Smyrnans facing death for their belief, he encourages them that he is the one who came to life again. To the Ephesians who are forgetting the call to love, he is the one walking in their midst. So why is he the verbal warrior, the judge and potential executioner for the Pergamites?
The answer lies in knowing something about the City of Pergamum. Pergamum was the most important city in the Kingdoms of West Asia Minor. And when it became a Roman province, it continued to play a very important role. In fact, it was one of only a few cities that had the “right of the sword.” The city rulers had the right and obligation to decide truth from error, and enemy of the state or friend and they could mete out justice in these cases, up to and including the use of capital punishment.1
That is important in our context, because Pergamum also had a magnificent library on par with the one at Alexandria holding 200,000 parchment scrolls .2 This was a city engaged in great learning and ideas, which needed to be judged appropriately and condemned where needed.
And the church had been successful on one front in doing this. They had established a church proclaiming Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended in the midst of a city full of temples worshipping nearly every conceivable god of the ancient world including Demeter (Harvest/Fertility), Athena (Wisdom/Courage), Magna Mater (Ecstasy), Aphrodite (Love/Pleasure), Zeus, and the Caesars.3 In fact, the throne of Zeus was present in this city where sacrifices were offered 24-7. And if that isn’t enough for the city to be known as the place where Satan has his throne (Rv 2:13), then there is one other temple I would like to tell you about.
In Pergamum, there was also a major temple to Asclepius Soter, the god of Healing, also known as ‘the savior,’ whose symbol we all would recognize – the staff entwined by the snake used to designate modern medicine. Here is a city, that has taken a symbol of the devil, the snake, and has hailed it the savior of men and who has offered worship to this demonic beast,4 along with worshipping many other demons. These Christians have successfully engaged the battle of truth by declaring that salvation is found in no other name, but Jesus (Acts 4:12).
This church hasn’t lost its desire to identify with Jesus Christ in the world. In fact, even during a time of persecution, the church has been steadfast in declaring themselves “Christians”. Even when faced with death, as Antipas, they were steadfast in their resolution to declare that they belonged to one Lord, one savior, one Christ. For most Christians, that is actually a fairly easy battle to fight. We can easily pick out the overt idolatry of the world. When confronted with the sword by the government, and asked to deny Jesus Christ in explicit terms, the faithful can’t even fathom saying such blatantly false words.
And so Jesus applauds these folks. He says, I know [that]…you remain true to my name …[and] you did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, may faithful witness, who was put to death in your city (Rv 2:13).
But there is another front on which the battle for truth must be fought. And that is within the walls of the church where doctrine confronts lifestyle and error is rationalized with nice sounding theology. And it is here that the one who has the sharp double-edged sword calls the church to judge appropriately and condemn the heresies that are keeping God’s people from living sanctified lives. They have allowed the people who hold to the teaching of Balaam to exist within their midst. Clearly this is an allusion to spiritual adultery, and socio-cultural compromise. How much clearer can it be?
To understand the allusion, you need to remember who Balaam was and what the Scriptures say he did. Balaam wasn’t just the guy the donkey talked to. He had a much more sinister part in Israel’s history. In Numbers 22-24 we are told that Balaam was hired by the King of Moab to put a curse on the people of Israel. But every time Balaam inquires of God about cursing the people, God tells him to bless Israel. Three times this happens, and the King of Moab isn’t happy about it. This sounds like a good story, doesn’t it? You would think so, unless you read Numbers 25 and Numbers 31 back to back. Let me do that for you. In Numbers 25, immediately after God tells Balaam to bless Israel not curse her, we read that the men [of Israel] began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshipping the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them (Num 25:1-3). Then in Numbers 31:16 we are told that the Moabite women who the men of Israel indulged in sexual immorality with “were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor.”
Do you see the connection, Balaam was claiming to follow God when he blessed the Israelites but he was teaching the Moabites how to cause the Israelites to fall under God’s judgment. In the same way, some of the people of God living in Pergamum are being led away into Spiritual adultery, not by denying the Lord Jesus Christ, but by joining into the cultural patterns of the day, which included worshipping false gods, eating meat sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality (Rv 2:14). These were the same things that Israel had done in Balaam’s day, and now it is happening in the church. “The[se] false teachers were arguing that believers could have closer relationships with pagan culture, institutions, and religions than John [Jesus] thought proper”.5 And don’t we confront the same thing every day as Christians argue for engaging society on her terms, in her ways and for contextualizing the gospel in ways that doesn’t explicitly deny Jesus but leave the nuts and bolts of Christian living completely absent from the church so that the church looks like the world and engages in the same pagan revelry?
Dr. Kim Riddlebarger insightfully wrote, “[In Pergamum] we have a situation in which Christians would absolutely refuse to deny Christ at the point of a Roman sword. But at the same time, they thought nothing whatsoever wrong with participating in certain pagan practices with their non-Christian friends, family and business associates outside the church,”6 whether that was a token acknowledgment to Caesar, an empty gesture to fulfill patriotic or social obligation or a full participation in the pagan festivals, it mattered not. All were wrong. As Christians it is so easy to settle into the world and to cozy up to its ways and to find ourselves actually participating in pagan practices set in opposition to Christ, and all while never explicitly denying our Lord. And this is a challenge worth considering as much today as it was two millennia ago.
So let me ask you: Are you buying into the religious pluralism of today’s culture? Are you finding yourself swayed by religious sounding arguments that make alternative sexuality sound acceptable, even Christian? Are you inclined to believe that all roads lead to heaven and that narrow is the road that leads to death? Are you willing to accept as normal, the belief that sexual activity between people of the same sex, or even people of the opposite sex who aren’t married is okay? Have you found yourself justifying activities and actions that God explicitly told his people to refrain from because “everyone does it” or “cultures change” or “following God just doesn’t make sense”? Has your participation in the way you live life actually made you functionally no different from those in your neighborhood, except of course for your attending church once a week? Is the Spirit pricking your conscience in regards to the holidays you celebrate and the way you celebrate them, or the way you educate your children, or the amount of time you spend at your work, or the choices you make with your money, or anything else. If your answer to any of these is yes, then the one with the sharp double-edged sword is calling you to sanctification by means of repentance.
You and I are to be a sanctified people, a holy people, a people belonging heart and soul, mind and body in life and death to God. There is no room for divided allegiances. There is no room for walking the fence. There is no room for partial Christianity. There is no room for innocent participation in these things and many others like them. It is either all in for Christ, or it is all out. We cannot participate in the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons (1Cor 10:21-22).
The warrior Christ with his sharp, double edged sword commands his errant people to repent. He demands that his people (2Chr. 7:14) if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways…, This passage from 2Chronicles is a wonderful picture of what repentance involves. It begins in humbling oneself, recognizing that we are not our own gods, nor do we have any right to determine what is good and bad, right and wrong, honoring or dishonoring to God. Humility is the act of assuming a proper posture and proper estimation of oneself in light of the truth that God is the only Almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, creator of the Heavens and the earth and everything in it. Humility says, “I will do what you say, Lord.”
And when one humbles oneself, then the next step in repentance involves prayer. The repentant person prays for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven. He or she prays for hearts that are formed and ready to do God’s will. They seek God with all their heart, ready to abandon everything that hinders and so easily entangles one in the ways of the world and the pagan worship of things which aren’t really God.
And ultimately the repentant person must turn from their wicked ways. They must flee those places in their life where their practice is functionally anti-god, no matter how benign or innocent it may seem. Repentance is never complete until one has actually left the ways of wickedness in which he or she was involved. For the church at Pergamum this meant actually stopping attending pagan ceremonies and engaging in activities which led one away from the complete and total worship of Christ.
It is interesting to me that the churches of Smyrna and Pergamum faced essentially the same thing, but they responded in different ways. The believers in Smyrna stood strong and refused to compromise and so the endured extreme poverty for their faith, a faith that Christ commends, finding nothing wrong. But the believers in Pergamum have taken the road of compromise in order to avoid suffering, and Christ commands them to repent and quit living a life that makes ‘sense’ but which is functionally idolatrous.
And if they don’t, then the warrior Christ promises to come and wage war against the compromising idolaters. He will speak words of judgment against them. Every person in the history of the world is called upon to face the words of Jesus Christ. Either in this world, they will hear his call to repent and believe, or else in the next world, they will hear his words of ultimate judgment. There is no escaping Christ’s war against sin and idolatry. Either we will die to ourself in this life, or we will die to Christ in the next.
And when we choose to die to ourselves and live a life completely committed to God in words and in deed, then he promises a great reward, “to him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Rev 2:17).
In the Roman courts, particularly in Pergamum, the jurors were each given two stones, a white one and a black one. As you can guess, the black stone symbolized guilt, the white stone innocence. Christ is promising his faithful people, who flee every form of idolatry, spoken and in practice, that he will declare them innocent.6 And it get better?
Just as the passage from 2 Chron 7:14 goes on to declare of those who fully repent, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land, so also the living Christ declares that the very bread of God will nourish your body and soul. The food of angels will be given to you to eat and chew upon. You won’t have the meat of idols, but the bread of God. You will eat upon Christ’s righteousness and be satisfied and ever nourished in your faithful stand against the schemes of the world.
And so we must all ask, “Am I faithful and innocent being nourished by Christ?” or “Have I compromised with the world, and will my repentance involve turning from these compromises?”
1 Darrell Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, p.76; Osborne, p.140
2 Darrel Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, p.77
3 Stephen Smalley, The Revelation to John, IVP, ©2012, p.68
4 Herman Hoeksema, Behold He Cometh, Reformed Free Publishing, ©1969, p.83
5 Beale, p.248
6 Kim Riddlebarger, “The Church of Pergamum”, Sermon 5 or Revelation series