The End? No more Compromise.

This post is the fifth post in a series through the book of Revelation.  Follow this link to a video recording of this post.

 

The Revelation John received was sent as a circular letter along a logical postal route through Asia Minor which started at the bustling city of Ephesus, moving north to ancient Pergamum, inland through Thyatira, and southeast to the wealthy city of Laodicea.  This letter contained a prophesy from Christ to these seven churches to comfort them during the tyrannical reign of emperor Domitian (AD 90-92), to correct  heir perspective in their their fight against evil, and to charge them to remain faithful to Christ – there is a reward for those who remain faithful to the end!

Seven_Churches
The Seven churches in Revelation 2-3 (Asia Minor, present day Turkey)

 

Pergamum was a magnificent ancient city which exited from the springs of civilization in Asia (around 500 BC).  This city set on a hilltop overlooking the Caicus plain below.  Pergamum (modern day Bergama) lay about 55 miles north of Smyrna, inland from the Aegean coast.  The archaeological findings in this great city are rich in religious artifacts, including statutes and temples of Zeus, Athena, Dionysos (Baccus in Roman mythology), and especially Askelepios, the god of medicine, whose cult was strong and accounted for the famous school of medicine in Pergamum.  Askelepios’ serpent was a prominent brand in the city, displayed on many of the coins pressed there.

Apart from the medical school, the city was famous for its great library, university, big parchment industry and the large amphitheater overlooking the valley.  It was also a strategic Roman stronghold and inland regional administration, boasting the first Asian temple of the Imperial Cult in honor of Augustus (AD 29).  

collage_Pergamum

In this ancient citadel which worshiped Domitian as king and lord, valued entertainment, education and science, was a vulnerable church who received this letter of comfort and correction, a charge to not compromise of their devotion to Christ in word or in deed (Revelation 2:12-18).

Revelation of Jesus Christ (2:12).  Christ is revealed as the one among them with the sword – sharp and double-edged.  This description of Christ’s double character in judgment of the world, and in particular the church, occurs seven times in Revelation (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16, 35; 6:8; 19:15, 21).  Roman officials had the right to carry this sword – and with it the right to life and death.  Christ here implies that his judgment can lead either to life (salvation through repentance) or death (judgment if the accused does not repent) – the reader or hearer must choose.  This brief revelation of Christ among them sets the stern tone of the rest of this short letter.

Commendation (2:13).  Again as in the previous two letters, the church is comforted that Christ is aware of all that takes place in the city and their works.  “I know your works, and where you dwell – where Satan’s throne is.  Yet you hold fast to my name…”  Christ honors their “works” of witness, their allegiance to him (“my name”), as well as holding on to “my faith” – true Christian faith undefiled by other religions – in this city dedicated to the worship of Domitian who claims to be sovereign king and lord of all (“where Satan’s throne is”), along with all the other gods.  Their confession and faith is pure in an defiled city.

Jesus mentions the martyrdom of Antipas. Being the regional seat for Roman administration, Pergamum held the court which tried rebellion against Rome.  Where the accused was found guilty, an opportunity was given the to repent, or face immediate execution by the Roman procounsel.  Antipas refused to worship Nero during his reign (AD 54-68) and was tried before the procounsel at Pergamum.  He refused to recant his oath that “Jesus is Lord” and was executed in the cruel and unusual way of being burned to death in a brazen bull-shaped altar designed to cast out demons.  The goal was to intimidate the church, but Christ commends the Pergamum believers for remaining faithful to him in spite of these horrific trials.

Collage_Pergamum Antipas Martyr 92AD
Antipas was martyred in Pergamum during emperor Nero’s reign (AD 54-68).

Condemnation (2:14-15). Yet the the believers in Pergamamum started to compromise. “Some (held) to the teachings of the Balaam”, a non-Jewish prophet who had a tremendous impact on Israel during their Exodus (Numbers 22-25; 38:8,16), and his influence remained a snare even to the New Testament church (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:1, 11; Revelations 2:14).  I’ve written on “The Error of Balaam” before, but will summarise here: Balaam was an extremely gifted man of God who could hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, but he himself lead an independent, sensual lifestyle.  With his mouth Balaam worshiped the God of Israel, but he lived his life like the immoral Canaanites “who ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality” (2:14).  The “teachings of Balaam” was that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their sensual lifestyle.

Christ implies there were groups within the Pergamum church who worshipped and associated with the church, but chose to blend with the rest of the population by participating in their pagan, secular feasts to avoid social and economic isolation, and persecution.

Secondly, Christ condemns “those who hold the teachings of the Nicolatians” which the Ephesian church hated (2:6).  Not much is known about this sect, apart from what we can derive from the name: “Nico” means conqueror, “laity” refers to the common people.  It seems that in the Pergamum church there were some who asserted power in the world’s way, who claimed rights and privileges with power over others in an undue way.  As in the gospels, Christ condemns this style of leadership – “the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:24-28).

Warning (2:16).  Christ charges the church to “Repent”, or else he himself will “soon make war against (them) with the sword of his mouth”.  This is strong language, a stern warning hinting to the judgment against the 24’000 “men who were joined with Balaam” (Numbers 25:5).  The reason is that the church is Christ’s witness of his kingdom – a living community that displays what he and his coming Kingdom is like.  Therefore the compromise of Balaam (right professing but immoral living) and the compromise of the Nicolatians (abusive leadership misrepresenting Christ’s character of loving, servant leadership) is a wrong witness of who Christ is and what his kingdom is like.  This congregation, although professing right, have some who lived like the world they are in. Their witness is compromised, and Christ calls them to repent or be removed.

Promise (2:17).  To the one who conquers Christ will give of his “hidden manna” (refering to the manna preserved in the ark of the covenant Exodus 16:33-34) – a sign of God’s providential grace.  Also the promise of “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”  This white stone, tesseron, was customary given to special guests invited to partake of feasts in the pagan temple at Pergamum – consisting of the meats offered to the idols.  This tesseron would bear the secret name of the deity represented by the idol, revealed only to the recipient.  Christ’s promise of the “white stone”  implied an invitation of intimate communion with him – even now.  And this invitation is “to all who has a ear to hear.”

But what should this church overcome?  The spirit of compromise – the seduction to worldly sensuality (of Balaam) and worldly power (of the Nicolatians).  The tendency to think that mere cognitive faith (agreement to Biblical truths) results in right-standing with God.   Christ desires a renewed heart resulting in holy living as witness to his kingdom.  

Bringing it home.

Pergamum the sacred tunnel
A secret tunnel for worshipers to a temple in Pergamum.
Many writers have noted that “Pergamum” comes from the Greek word “gamos”, meaning marriage.  This church professed to faithful to Christ, but was married to the world in regard to power and pleasure, according to the culture in which they lived. 
Like the ancient Greeks in Pergamum, we too live in a world which values pleasure, power, scientific progress and independence.  The invitation to us today is clear: to recognize where we, the church, are “married to the world” in this regard, and repent.
Turn your heart, that you too may share in the intimate pleasures of Christ reserved for those who live devoted to him.

On Spiritual Maturity : The Error of Balaam

In the book of Numbers, four chapters are devoted to the history of a prophet who had a profound impact on God’s people during their conquest of the Promised Land.  This prophet was not a Jewish man, but a seer who dwelt in Pethor: Balaam son of Beor.  In 1967 archeological evidence was discovered with the inscription of “Baalam son of Beor” prophet of “El Shaddai” – the Almighty God as he was known to the Israelites in the days of Moses.  This archeological evidence adds tremendous historic weight this account in the Bible.

Image of wall tiles inscribed by "Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai" found at  Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See  www.bible.ca/archeology/
Image of wall tiles inscribed by “Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai” found at Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See http://www.bible.ca/archeology/

The reason why this account of a foreign prophet speaking to ancient Israel is important to contemporary believers is highlighted by the numerous New Testament references to Balaam.  All of these references of Balaam are warnings: Peter warns the church of false prophets who “have gone astray… in the way of Balaam…” (2 Peter 2:15).  Jude warns of “ungodly people… [who] abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 1:1, 11).  John wrote of those in the church in Pergamum “who hold to the teachings of Balaam.” (Revelations 2:14).  In each of the three texts the prophet Balaam is used as reference or type of ungodly lifestyles and doctrinal error of believers that is condemnable.  But what is this dangerous “error”, “way” or “doctrine”?

Reading through the historic account of Balaam’s dealings with Israel (Numbers 22:1-25:10, 31:8,16), one has to acknowledge his absolute commitment to relay only what God says: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (22:18).  Throughout these three chapters he maintains this stance, repeating his commitment to speak only the words of God another five times (22:38;  23:8, 12, 26; 24:13).  In the end, Balaam’s loyalty to prophesy in truth as God revealed cost him his wages which Balak promised (24:11).  Thus Balaam is an accurate prophet, true to delivering God’s message, not yielding to pressure or bribe to speak falsely.

So why the negative connotations with Balaam?  Numbers 25 records a shameful time in Israel’s travels as they camped on the Eastern side of the Jordan river and started living like the Moabite people.  Swaying under the power of cultural seduction to sexual immorality and idol worship, the Israelites came under the wrath of God through as a plague that killed 24’000 Israelites (Numbers 25:1-9).  This moral decay is attributed to Balaam (Numbers 31:16).  Although he was extremely gifted and graced by God to hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, he himself was an immoral man whose way of life was corrupted with sin (“way of Balaam” 2 Peter 2:15; ““error” Jude 1: 11) and his teachings deceptive (Numbers 31:16).  His lifestyle and teachings were not to be followed, admired or trusted.  In fact, Balaam was executed along with the Midianites under the wrath of God (Numbers 31:8).

The first talking ass - Balaam's donkey!
The first talking ass – Balaam’s donkey!

Although his prophesies is shown to be infallible in the text, the author of Numbers includes the humorous account of his journey on the donkey to Balak (Numbers 22:21-38), which is very deliberately inserted to humble this “great prophet”.  For instance, Balaam the great prophet is hired to subdue Israel with words, but he cannot even subdue his donkey with a stick.  He claims to see visions (24:4,17) but can’s see what the donkey sees on three occasions (22:32).  He claims that his prophetic speech is from God (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), yet the donkey silences him as its mouth is also opened by God (22:28).  Balaam claims to posess knowledge “from the Most High” (24:16) was beaten in verbal exchange with a stupid donkey (22:30) and then has to admit to the angel “I did not know [what the donkey knows]” (22:34).  Although Balaam is on his way to slay a whole nation with his words he has to draw a sword to kill the donkey (22:29); while lamenting lamenting that he had no sword to slay the animal, the donkey sees the drawn sword in the hands of the angel (22:23) right in front of him.  This irony is meant as a lesson in humility – that the great prophet, like any donkey, can see and speak only what God shows him, and that he simply is graced to serve in the purposes of God.  Secondly, this account shows that although the prophet speaks graceful words by God’s Spirit, he is more beastly than his donkey: where the beast is kind to move his master Balaam out of harm’s way three times, the master is beastly in beating the faithful, kind-hearted, willing animal without considering the motive.

Godliness and our culture

Although Balaam had the ability to speak God’s words accurately, he had lead a whole nation astray.  His life serves as a warning that accurate spiritual discernment without holy living (from a godly character) is dangerous.  What was this ungodliness?  Balaam’s error (2 Peter 2:15) or Balaam’s way (Jude 1:11) simply refers to his lifestyle of cultural acceptance.  Although being a gifted prophet Balaam lived as the Midianites did, and that lead to the corruption of God’s holy people as they followed his “way” and “erred” in his footsteps.  His love for sensual pleasure made him prone towards greed, sexual immorality and cultural festivity surrounding the worship of other gods, plus his independence lead to rebellion.  (See 2 Peter 2:2-14; Jude 1:1, 6-11; Psalm 106:28; Revelation 2:14).

no_rules
The doctrine of Balaam: everything goes! No consequences!

The doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14) teaches that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their lifestyle.  So by his example and by his teachings the great prophet Balaam deceived God’s people into a lifestyle of sexual immorality and the worship of Baal of Peor.  As a result, many died under the wrath of God, never reaching the Promised Land (Jude 1:5).  Still today Balaam’s dualism (distinguishing spiritual holiness from moral life) is taught in many places (associated with Gnosticism in the early church and extreme grace teachings).  Apart from formal teaching, the way of Balaam is engrained in our spiritual DNA by the example of our contemporary church culture where Sundays is God’s day, and the rest of the week we live good lives, but find pleasure and security as the rest of society does.

Balaam is not the only example of this fallacy in Scripture.  Samson, the mighty deliverer of Israel was like him: a man empowered by the Spirit of God to lead and deliver Israel, yet always seduced and enticed by his worldly passions and made ineffective. (Judges 14-16)  Giving in to the seduction of sensual sins enslaves God’s people and brings shame to his Name.

In contrast to Balaam and Samson, Daniel and his friends stand out as examples of godliness amidst a crooked world.  Daniel chapter three records how Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image that everyone in his kingdom had to bow down to whenever the music played. The image was not an image of a particular god, but rather represented the religious culture of the day.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image, and was persevered by God in the fire.  Their refusal to succumb to the cultural pressure in faithfulness to the One True God stands as an example to every believer in our present-day materialistic, promiscuous culture feeling pressures us to conform.

How do we respond?

Considering the the error of Balaam, I find three ways to respond to this in pursuit of spiritual maturity.

  1. Review your definition of “Spiritual Maturity”

The reference to Balaam in Peter’s second epistle pertains to false prophets among the first readers, thus spiritually gifted leaders. This is worth mentioning.  Peter appeals to his readers to note the ungodly fruit of these spiritually gifted ministers, and therefore not following their example of sensuality and rebellion.  Peter looked at the character and behavior of these gifted leaders and was not easily mesmerized by their prophetic ability.  After all, Jesus taught him that a person is “known by [his] fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

Peter needed to write this to the growing young church, since the charismatic gift of prophets is very appealing to especially young believers.  And the display of spiritual gifts is easily taken as signs of spiritual maturity. It is the will of God that we grow up (Ephesians 4:11ff), but how do you define maturity? That is why these warnings by Jesus and his apostles are so strong and clear.  So re-evaluate your view of spiritual maturity: Who do you admire?  Who do you want to follow after?  Consider their character – are they known by their love? What can you learn from their marriage and family relationships, their work ethic and how they manage money?

Take stock of your life spiritually.
Take stock of your life spiritually.
  1. Take stock of your own life.

In Jude and Revelations the warning to individuals walking in the error or teachings of Balaam is merely to wrong belief of individuals in their congregations of those in their midst.  Balaam is the image of a spiritually gifted man with the lust of sensual pleasures that are lead by his passions through this life like waves thrown around by their earthly desires (Jude 1:12-14).  Take an honest view of your life your own life, with special reference to you your passions and desires.  Are you leaving it unchecked?  What are you doing about it?  And who are you accountable to about it?

  1. Grow in godliness.

Our aim remains to be conformed to the image of Christ Jesus and to help form others into that image (Romans 8:29; Colossians 2:28-29).  Be purposeful about it.  How have you grown in godliness in the last year, and in which area do you need to grow now?  Are you growing in the will of God?  What does the Lord say, and what will you do to grow in that area of Christ-likeness.  Again, and who knows about that?

While closing with growth in Christ-likeness, remember these words of Paul: “Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, giving you the desire and ability for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  Continue, don’t stagnate in your pursuit of Christ-likeness.  Work it out yourself, don’t expect it to automatic or someone else’s job.  As you grow in Christ-likeness you also will grow to emulate the Christ – the Anointed One (Acts 10:38).  Earnestly desire spiritual gifts but let the motive be love (1 Corinthians 12:31).

And work with God – it is he that works in you, leading your through your desires and gracing your with the power needed to grow in Christ-likeness.  Don’t stop!  Work joyfully with the grace God gives.