We all experience of culture.
One definition of culture includes:
Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people. It is defined by everything from language, religion, food-tastes, social habit, music and arts.
Culture has, therefore, existed for as long as humans.
The church exists at a particular moment in time and culture. To effectively share the Gospel, we must understand the culture; presenting our message in a way which can be received. This is called contextualisation, and can present a challenge:
The need… for both respectful affirmation of culture and confrontation of culture – makes it challenging to engage in the work of contextualisation. We want to avoid both cultural captivity (the refusal to adapt to new times and new cultures) – and syncretism (bringing unbiblical views and practices into our Christianity). While the danger of the former is becoming incomprehensible and irrelevant, the danger of the latter is losing our Christian identity and distinctiveness. (Timothy Keller, Center Church, 2012, p.119)
The was the challenge facing the Pergamum church, but their response unfortunately led them into the trap of syncretism.
1. The Church at Pergamum (v. 12-13a)
Jesus comes to this church as the one who wields the double-edged sword. While this may seem like a violent image, it is not: it is a metaphor for the Bible, God’s Word:
Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. (Ephesians 6:17 NIVUK)
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:16 NIVUK)
As will become clear, there is a need for God’s Word in this church.
Jesus assures the Pergamum church that he knows they are operating in the place where Satan has his thrown, and this wasn’t just because we have finally reached the capital city:
Pergamum hosted [at least 3 temples dedicated to Roman Emperor worship] … [a temple] to Asklepios (god of healing, symbolised by serpents [Note the connection between Satan and serpents]), and a large alter dedicated to Zeus. The worship of the emperor was… strongly emphasised, even required, in the province of Asia…. All of this qualifies Pergamum to be called the site of Satan’s throne. (ESV Study Bible, 2008, p.2466)
2. The Church was Faithful (v. 13b)
Needless to say, it was not easy to be a Christian in Pergamum. Yet, even when one of their own number (Antipas) was killed for his faith, they did not renounce Jesus.
If we want to be a true Church of Jesus Christ today, it is important we note when and why Jesus commends the churches in Revelation. Here, He has commended them for remaining faithful to Him, even when being pressured to renounce their faith. This is surely a call for the church today to be faithful to Him.
In what way are we to be faithful? At the very least, we are called to faithfully proclaim that we are Christians; we belong to Him. Yet, it is not enough to simply say that we are Christians.
This was the issue at Pergamum: despite the pressure, they still said they were Christians; but their actions did not match their proclamation!
3. The Church was Compromised (v. 14-16)
Jesus accuses this church of following the teaching of Balaam. This is a reference back to Numbers 25: the prophet Balaam advised King Balak to tempt the Israelites away from worshipping the one true God by having them assimilate with the local culture.
This is equated with the teaching of the Nicolatians. We do not learn any more about this group, but it would appear they were also drawing people away from worshipping the One True God. All this points to one reality: the church in Pergamum had become indistinguishable from the surrounding culture.
Needless to say, when a church assimilates (unthinkingly) with culture, it is an absolute disaster.
It is with a heavy heart that I write this: parts of the church have fallen for the lie that, to engage with the world, we must be like the world. This doesn’t work!! If we are indistinguishable from our culture, then we will make NO difference in our world, because we will not BE different.
When people come to church, they are looking for something different and distinctive, and if we are living in accordance with God’s Word, that’s what they will find.
Do not fall for the lie that to engage the world means to be like the world. We are called to be a distinctive and different community; one which reflects, not our world, but God!
Jesus calls the church which has assimilated with the culture to repent, or He will fight against them using “the sword of His mouth”. This suggests Jesus will use His Word to actively fight those influences which might draw the church away from God.
4. To the Victor: Manna and Stone (v. 17)
Jesus’ promises to the victors suggest something of His desire to sustain us as we hold to our faith.
He will provide “Hidden Manna”: something to give us sustenance.
He will also give us a white stone with a new name. To quote Leon Morris:
“This has puzzled commentators for centuries.” (Leon Morris, TNTC Revelation, 2009, p.72)
If this is the case, I have little hope of shedding any light on this here!! I would, however, suggest:
- The stone gives some assurance of blessing;
- The new name indicates something of God’s personal love, and suggests some form of “new character”: in other words, that onyl God can personally transform us.
The letter to the church at Pergamum issues the church of today with several challenges.
Firstly, we must remain faithful to Jesus, and confess openly that we are His followers.
Secondly, we must reflect on our culture: to find what we, as Christians, can affirm; and what we, as Christians, must challenge. Above all, we are called to never fall into the trap of thinking that our only way of reaching out to our world is to be like our world. We are called to be a distinctive people: ones who reflect, not our world, but God and His love.