THE COMPROMISING CHURCHES
Revelation 2:12-29, 1-7
Pergamos: Was a center of worship for four important pagan cults – Zeus, Athene, Dionysos, and Asklepios. The risen Christ knows they live “where Satan sits enthroned.” Pergamos was the official cult center of emperor worship in Asia. It was the place where men were required on pain of death to take the name of Lord and give it to Caesar instead of to Christ.
Thyatira: A large number of trade guilds – something like our modern day labor unions – flourished in Thyatira. There were woolworkers, linen-workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather-workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave-dealers and bronze-smiths. Because the trade guilds were inseparably intertwined with local religious observances, they posed a special problem for the economic well-being of Christians. There was a strong movement, inside the church, led by the woman addressed as Jezebel, which pled for compromise with the world’s standards in the interests of business and commercial prosperity.
Ephesus: Was the most important city of proconsular Asia. Three great trade routes converged at the city.
Although the church at Pergamos had remained faithful in the midst of severe opposition (even when Antipas was martyred), they were guilty of allowing false teaching that was not coming from itinerant prophets but from prophets and teachers within the community.
Those who held the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans sought to persuade Christians that there was nothing wrong with a prudent conformity to the world’s standards. The Nicolaitans were following a policy of compromise solely to save themselves from trouble.
Major attention is given to the self-styled prophetess Jezebel, whose seductive teachings had led some of the believers at Thyatira into fatal compromise with the secular environment. The choice of the nickname, Jezebel, and references to sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols indicate a first-century parallel with the wicked queen of Ahab who fostered in Israel the idolatrous worship of the Canaanite Baal.
One of the great problems of the Christian Church was that of meat offered to idols and it was one which met the Christian every day. When a sacrifice was made in a Greek temple, very little of the meat was burned on the altar. The priests received a share of the meat of the animal as their perquisite; and the worshipper received the rest. With it he might hold a feast for his friends within the temple precincts, or he might take it home and hold a feast in his own house. Here was the Christian problem. Could a Christian, in a temple or anywhere else, eat meat which had been consecrated to idols?
The problem was complicated by the fact that even the meat in butchers’ shops might well have been offered to idols previously. The priests in the temples could not possibly consume all the meat which fell to them and therefore, sold much of their share to the butchers’ shops. Such meat was the best meat. What was a Christian going to do about that?
To reject this accommodation meant that the Christian could not join any trade guild for all the guilds had a common meal as a central part of their practice which might well be held in a heathen temple and would largely consist of meat offered to idols. His abstention from guild membership was equivalent to commercial suicide.
The Council of Jerusalem decreed that there were two conditions on which the Gentiles were to be admitted to the Church – they were to abstain from things offered to idols and from immorality (Acts 15:28-29). These are the very conditions that the Nicolaitans broke.
Jezebel urged the Christians that there was no need to cut themselves off from society or abstain from the guilds. For Jezebel the claims of commercial success spoke more loudly than the claims of Christ. According to Jezebel, Christians did not need to be so exclusive in their worship of Jesus Christ and, above all, that there was no need for them to refuse to say, “Caesar is Lord.”
Jesus says, “I know your deeds – your overall manner of life – your hard work and perseverance.” The Ephesians had toiled to the point of exhaustion and borne patiently the hostility of a society at odds with Christian goals.
Jesus commends them for hating, as he does, the practices of the Nicolaitans, and the compromise they had worked out with pagan society. The desire for sound teaching and the resulting forthright action taken to exclude all impostors had created a climate of suspicion in which love within the believing community no longer existed. Heresy-hunting had killed love and orthodoxy had been achieved at the price of fellowship. The Ephesian church had forsaken its first love. Moffatt translates, “You have given up loving one another as you did at first.” Jesus had made it clear that “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35), but at Ephesus hatred of heresy and extensive involvement in the works appropriate to faith had allowed the first fresh glow of love for God and one another to fade.
DESCRIPTION OF CHRIST
The Risen Christ is called he who has the sharp two-edged sword. Roman governors were divided into two classes – those who had the ius gladii, “the right of the sword,” and those who had not. Those who had the right of the sword had the power of life and death; on their word a person could be executed on the spot. Humanly speaking the proconsul, who had his headquarters at Pergamos, had the ius gladii, and at any moment he might use it against any Christian; but Jesus reminds them that he has last word. The Risen Christ has the sharp two-edged sword. The power of Rome might be satanically powerful; the power of the Risen Lord is greater yet.
The resurrected Christ is described as having eyes like blazing fire and feet like burnished bronze. The blazing eyes suggest the penetrating power of Christ’s ability to see through the seductive arguments of Jezebel and those who were being led astray by her teaching. Feet (or legs) like burnished bronze convey the idea of strength and splendor. With such eyes the Son of God – the only time the title is used in Revelation – can see into the most distant and darkest places, and with such feet he can stamp out all opposition to his rule.
The letter to Ephesus comes from the One who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. From 1:20 we learned that the lampstands are churches and the stars their angels (perhaps guardian angels or the local pastors). The word for to hold (kratein) is a strong word that means Christ has complete control over the Church. If the Church submits to that control, it will never go wrong; and more than that – our security lies in the fact that we are in the hand of Christ. “They shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (Jn 10:28).
PROMISE TO OVERCOMERS
Two promises were made to the believers in Pergamos – to eat of the “hidden manna” and to receive a white stone with a new name written on it.
Manna is “the bread which the Lord has given you to eat” (Exo 16:15). It is called “grain of heaven” (Ps 78:24); and the “bread of the angels,” (Ps 78:25). John is saying: “In this world you cannot share with the heathen in their feasts because you cannot sit down to meat which is part of a sacrifice that has been offered to an idol. You may think that you are being called upon to give up much but the day will come when you will feast in heaven upon heavenly food.” The Risen Christ is saying that a man must abstain from the seductions of earth if he wishes to enjoy the blessings of heaven.
There are many interpretations of the “white stone.” Ancient jurors signified innocence by casting a white pebble into an urn. There was a custom of marking every good day by a white stone. It could have been an amulet or charm to ward off evil.
One of the commonest of all customs in the ancient world was to carry an amulet or charm. It might be made of a precious metal or a precious stone but often it was nothing more than a pebble. On the pebble there was a sacred name; to know a god’s name was to have a certain power over him, to be able to summon him to one’s aid in time of difficulty and to have mastery over the demons. Such an amulet was thought to be doubly effective, if no one other than the owner knew the name that was inscribed upon it. John is saying is: “Your heathen friends – and you did the same in your heathen days – carry amulets with superstitious inscriptions on them and they think they will keep them safe. You need nothing like that; you are safe in life and in death because you know the name of the only true God.”
The Risen Christ warns, as the King James Version has it, that he is the one who “searches the reins and hearts.” The reins are the kidneys; strange as it may seem to us, Hebrew psychology believed that the seat of emotion was in the kidneys and the bowels; and the seat of thought was in the heart. When the Risen Christ says that he will search the reins and the heart, it means that every emotion and every thought will be open to his gaze.
There were many in Thyatira who attended the trade guilds. They looked like real Christians. No doubt Jezebel seemed to many a fine character. The point here is that the Risen Christ can see beyond the outward disguise. He knows every emotion, whether it is true or false. He knows every thought.
Authority over the nations and “the morning star” are promised to the overcomer, to the one who does the will of Christ until the end. It is by faithful allegiance to the cause of Christ that believers overcome in the hostile environment of pagan values and practices. John calls Jesus “the bright morning star” (Rev 22:16). The promise of the morning star is the promise of Christ himself. If the Christian is true, when life comes to an end he will possess Christ, never to lose him any more.
Jesus promises the overcomer the privilege of eating from the tree of life in the paradise of God. The overcomers in Revelation are not those who have conquered an earthly foe by force, but those who have remained faithful to Christ to the very end. The word conquer is a military term. It suggests that the Christian life, so far from being a bed of roses, involves a struggle against anyone and anything that saps the Christian life of all that gives it strength and power.