Holy Life, First Love Revelation 2:1-7, 12-17
Everyone has their favorite stories about churches that have suffered through problems. Some of these stories would be funny if they were not so unfunny.
- In one church, a leadership disagreement got so heated that a deacon’s wife went up to one of the elders in the foyer before church and whacked him with her oversized purse!
- One church decided to use a praise team. On the first Sunday for the praise team to lead worship, someone cut every mike cord with scissors.
- An elder of a new store front church got so mad after a meeting that he shot the preacher and then burned down the building. (Newport News, Va)
All of these stories are true, and you could probably add to them. Obviously, there is absolutely nothing funny about churches having problems. But then, the one constant in church life is church problems.
Every church we know about from the New Testament had problems. In fact, the reason that we know about churches, like Ephesus, Philippi and Colossae is because they had problems and an inspired writer like Paul wrote them letters to help them through the problems.
Thus, if there were any problem free churches in the first century, we wouldn’t know about them! But God wants us to learn from others mistakes. And so He has revealed many things to us in the Bible.
In this and one more lesson, we will be talking about the problems in the church as found in Revelation 2-3. These letters were written by Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor. These letters address problems within these churches.
The format with each letter is essentially the same.
- Jesus identifies himself in some unique way.
- He mentions the strengths and the problems that he finds in the churches.
- He calls them to faithfulness and makes them a unique promise if they will respond.
If we closely compare these letters, a unique characteristic reveals itself—the strength in one church seems to correspond with a weakness in another church. We will look at churches that seem to share something in common in their strengths and weakness and make an application of our situation as God’s church today.
Pergamum: Home of Satan and the Nicalaitans.
Read Revelation 2:12-17
Pergamum was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and a very important city in many ways. It was a center of learning and home to a huge library; our word “parchment” comes from the name Pergamum. It was also a center of religion, housing a massive altar to Zeus. This altar sat on a terraced hill on a large platform surrounded by colonnades, and it looked like a giant throne. Sacrifices were burned continually on the great altar, and the column of smoke was visible for miles around the city. Perhaps it was this great altar that causes Jesus to say, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.” (2:13)
Jesus has some wonderful things to say about the church there. He says that they were remaining faithful to His name despite great hardships that even included the martyrdom of the faithful Antipas. While we know nothing about this man or his death, Jesus credits the church for not pulling back from faith when they saw Antipas died because of his faith. Pergamum was a church living the faith in a very difficult place for faith, and Jesus commends them.
But the Lord’s condemnation to Pergamum is as blunt as his commendation had been glowing. While they faithfully held to Jesus’ name, they also held to the teaching of Balaam and of the Nicolaitans. It seems likely that the problem is one rather than two. There are two sides to this coin, one ancient and one modern.
- The ancient side of the coin. Jesus first mentions Balaam the prophet who was paid by Barak of Midian to curse Israel (Numbers 22-25). God stopped Balaam with a talking donkey and a fierce angel. But Balaam told the king that God Himself would punish Israel if Barak send women into their camp to seduce them and introduce idolatry. (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11) That is exactly what happened and so we see 24,000 Israelites die.
- The “modern” side of the coin. Jesus doesn’t mention Balaam as simply a history lesson. I Pergamum there were false teachers known as the Nicalaitans. We know nothing about this group other than what is said here and in the letter to the Ephesians. There were evidently teaching God’s people to make concession to idolatry and sexual immorality. Jesus warns that the same fate that befell Israel in the time of Balaam would happen to them if they did not repent.
What was the problem in Pergamum? While they remained faithful to Christ despite persecution, they made concessions to the immoral culture around them. Led by the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, they adopted the immoral, pagan values of their world. Perhaps they did this to better fit in their world and lessen their persecution. Or maybe it was just more fun. But while they remained faithful to Christ, they were not faithful to His call to be holy.
Perhaps this is the greatest challenge we face today. How do we remain faithful to the name of Christ and to His call to be a holy people?
Pergamum was a wicked city, today is not the most immoral age the world has ever known. But Satan attacked them, and he attacks us.
There has been some moral slippage during my life time. There was a time not long ago when our nation at least gave lip service to a moral standard based upon God. Things like homosexuality and adultery were crimes as well as sins. Today, they are not even seen as morally wrong.
But the world has always been the world has it not? Christians are called to holiness because God is holy, not because the world makes it easy. The call to be holy despite the immorality of the world is seen throughout the NT.
- I Cor. 1:2 Paul calls the Christians in Corinth “those sanctified in Christ Jesus.”
- Ephesians 5:3 To the Christians at Ephesus, the writer says “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.”
- In Colossians 3:7-8 Paul points to the sinful behaviors of the culture in Colossae when he says “In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
The world is the world; it operates from a totally different moral perspective. In our multicultural world, not everyone will believe in God. What is more, not everyone who does will make moral decisions based on their faith. And we should not expect anything different today. Our job is not to make the world live by God’s law; our job is to made sure the church does!
The big church problem in Pergamum was that the church was taking on the look and feel of the world in its moral behavior. That continues to be a big church problem among God’s people today. This willingness for the church to accept the moral standards of the world can be seen in two different ways.
First, like the Nicolaitans, there are some today who would have us think that we don’t need to stress so much over moral choices. So some churches have made denominational resolutions to accept sinful lifestyles as legitimate choices. After all, this is the twenty-first century; we don’t want to be perceived as narrow or mean-spirited. And so we let the world, rather than God, set the churches standard of morality.
Now understand that we are talking about God’s standard of morality based on His character and revealed in scripture.
God’s standard stresses a need to return to holiness. What we are calling for is the church, this church, to stand against the prevailing spirit of the age and commit to upholding God’s standards of truth. I think we are committed to that; I think we also could do a better job.
Second, the greatest danger we face is not open acceptance of the poison of the world’s immorality. It is rather the more insidious problem of secret sin. Too many Christians struggle with demons like alcoholism, adultery, pornography, greed- the list goes on. We know that these things are wrong, and yet pressure from the world seduces us, and we embrace them. Caught between our Christian belief that these things are wrong and worldly, we have a fascination for sin. We often use our emotional energy to hide rather than confront our sin.
Paul calls us to arms, to battle sin in our lives. Read Ephesians 5:11-17
The way to break the power of secret sin is to bring it in to the light. If you are struggling in the dark, find an elder, find a trusted Christian friend and confess. The only way to overcome hidden sin is to stop hiding it. The power of forgiveness begins with confession and is sustained in accountability.
The Letter to Pergamum
The church in Pergamum has been called “The faithful church that was unfaithful,” “The church at hell’s headquarters,” and “The church in the Devil’s backyard.” Its unique challenges can be summarized in the title “The church in sin city.”
This letter declares that it is not easy to be a Christian. Jesus is still looking for those with enough courage to hold firm, who will not deny the faith regardless of the consequences. Jesus is also looking for those with enough love to confront others who teaching does not conform to the divine standard. The Lord does not tolerate compromise.
This letter challenges us to “overcome.” Overcome our lack of conviction; overcome our unconcern and our timidity. The power of forgiveness begins with confession and is sustained in accountability.
Ephesus: The Other Side of the Coin
Read Revelation 2:1-7**
The city of Ephesus was the capital of Asia Minor and one of the principal cities in the Roman Empire. Like Pergamum, Ephesus was a center of pagan religion, being the home of the magnificent Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Unlike Pergamum, Ephesus was also a center of trade and one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Paul planted the church in Ephesus, and he spent three years working there, by far the longest stint he spent in any one church.
This letter also mentions the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. Read 2:6
Unlike the Christians in Pergamum, the Ephesians successfully “tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” 2:2
They didn’t fall for the false claims of the false teachers; they were commended for their ability to know and practice truth.
But, this church was condemned for forgetting their first love. They hated false doctrine and immorality, but their desire for truth was not motivated by love. They hated what they should have hated; they did not love what they should have love. What was this first love?
William Turner suggests two possibilities:
- Maybe their initial excitement of salvation had gradually been replaced by the mundane matters of doing church. It was their busyness in the details of church and no longer Jesus whom they loved.
- Maybe their desire to preserve orthodoxy and stand for truth had led them to be unloving towards others…and therefore God. When you are focused on issues, it is easy to forget to love and serve others.
Whichever of these seems more correct, the basic message is the same. Here was a group of people who were better at being against what was wrong than they were being for what was right. They needed to return to their first love.
Have we lost our first love?
No spiritual problem is as hard to detect as a diseased heart, but neither is any spiritual problem as hazardous to our spiritual health. Unless a faulty heart is repaired, death is inevitable.
The two greatest commands are, love God and love others.
The mark of true discipleship is to love.
We show our love toward God by loving each other.
Is it possible that we have left our first love? Are we critical of church practices in front of non-believers or visitors? Are we critical of Jesus’ church in front of fellow Christians? Does it make us feel better to put others down? Having the right view was not enough for them (Those in Pergamum). If they did not return to that love, Jesus would come and remove their lamp stand from its place. In other words, they would cease to be his church.
Here are two very different letters to two very different churches united only by the common mention of the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. In these two churches, we find two very real warnings to the church today—
- We must never give up our identity as God’s holy people. We cannot allow the world to set the moral agenda or expect the world to clean up its act. We are called to be holy…and to call others to holiness.
- We must never get so focused on orthodoxy that we forget to love one another. The church that fails to love is never a church that follows Christ.
These problems are connected by more than just a mention of the Nicolaitans. So often the more Christians stress morality and holiness, the less we seem to stress love and grace. It is almost as if one makes the other unimportant.
God calls us to be people to love and grace. God also calls us to be holy people. We must learn to be both of these—a holy people of love. Only when we are both are we truly the people of God.