Incomplete: Costly Compromise
Topic: Christian Living & Discipleship Scripture: Revelation 2:12–2:17
Every person has their favorite vacation destination, right? As in, that one specific place that we just love going to. For some folks, it might be a cabin in the woods somewhere. For others, it could be a spot near the lake. Some people like a certain city and some folks have their go-to resort. For me, my sweet spot is the shore. There’s just something about the ocean that puts me in that vacation spirit. I love the boardwalk and all that but it is specifically the ocean that I love. And I love going in the ocean. My wife is a little bit different from me in that. She’ll tell you she loves the shore but she almost never actually goes in the water. She’d rather pop out her beach chair and sit on the sand. Not me. I like to be in the water, like up to my shoulders. But there’s something about the ocean that virtually every vacationing family is warned about: rip currents. Rip currents, sometimes called undertow, can pull swimmers out from the shallows and into deeper, more dangerous water. I was warned about this as a child when my parents would take me and my sister to the New Jersey shore. It’s still something Caitlin warns me about to this day when we go to the shore and I make a mad dash for the ocean. And I understand her concern. The scariest thing about these currents is that you don’t know you’re caught in it until it’s too late. You’ve splashed and drifted around in the ocean, having a good time, and you don’t realize you’ve floated out a little further than you had first intended. And then suddenly you’re swept out into much deeper water and are in need of rescue.
We’re in the third week of our “Incomplete” message series. We’ve been exploring the words that Jesus had for several churches in the ancient world that are recorded in the book of Revelation. We’ve heard about Ephesus who were hard workers but had lost love. And last week Larry introduced us to the church in Smyrna who had endured terrible persecution and was encouraged to be faithful. This week, we turn to Christ’s word given to the church in Pergamum. We’re in Revelation 2:12-17.
So first, let’s talk about real estate. You probably know the old adage: location, location, location. And, by their description, the church in Pergamum does not dwell in a prime location. We’ve all likely known some rough neighborhoods or bad parts of town but I don’t think any of us can say we’ve been to the town where Satan lives. But that is how Pergamum is described. It’s not like this town had streets like Lucifer Lane or Devil Drive. Instead, it’s likely because of the significance Pergamum played as a hub for worship in the area. There were temples for almost every deity and idol available in that day. The most significant were well-known headquarters for the cults of Zeus, Athena, and Asklepios. People came from far and wide for the rituals and sacrificial ceremonies to all of these gods, but especially Asklepios - in hopes of being healed of whatever ailed them. It was not only deity worship that was prominent in Pergamum but political worship as well. Pergamum was the official hot spot for emperor worship throughout Asia. So when this town is called the throne of Satan or the place where Satan lives, it is because virtually every false god and idol was not only available but celebrated and praised in Pergamum.
And it's stemming from the location of this church that we hear Christ’s praise for them. Despite being in the pantheon of false gods and also being forced to watch the persecution and martyrdom of their friends, they have not renounced their faith. So they’re holding on, but, as we’ll see, things are not looking good for this church. While there were folks in Pergamum holding onto the name of Christ, many were slipping. And it’s because this church had begun moving toward a Costly Compromise.
Remember, for most of the churches in Revelation, Jesus offers a compliment and then a criticism. And the criticism Jesus had for Pergamum was a dire one even if it wasn’t an immediately catastrophic danger. It was actually kind of like a lifeguard seeing a swimmer approaching dangerous waters. Just as a lifeguard would whistle for that swimmer to come back to shore, so too does Christ call out the church in Pergamum. They were falling into the teachings of false teachers and idols. They were drifting away from the faithful truths of Christianity and into something altogether different and dangerous.
When we hear names like Balaam and Balak we probably furrow our brows a bit. We actually have to go back to the Old Testament, to places like Numbers and Deuteronomy, to gain a grasp of the warning Jesus is giving. Balaam was an enemy of God’s people in the early days of the Old Testament and his tactics were as crafty and venomous as the serpent Himself. When the people of God did not fall in battle against enemy kings, it was Balaam who found it was better to seduce and erode the will of God’s people than it was to directly attack or persecute them head-on. And so, at Balaam’s direction, the enemies of God’s people found ways to distract and disorient them so they were easier to conquer. The Christians in Pergamum were falling victim to similar tactics and the depth and strength of their faith were beginning to buckle.
Jesus also calls them out for giving into the teachings of Nicolaitans. We actually heard about this group two weeks ago when we heard Jesus commend the Ephesian church for hating the teachings of the Nicolaitans. So right away we’re seeing a red flag. The Nicolaitans taught a fairly simple mantra: don’t be so serious. When it came to religious belief and commitment, relax and don’t be so concerned with what’s true. The Nicolaitan way is to be concerned with comfort rather than conviction. And the Christians in Pergamum were buying into those lies. And it was adding up to a Costly Compromise.
It's fascinating, the church in Pergamum faced the opposite challenge that the Ephesian church wrestled with. The Ephesians were so focused on holding to and defending correct doctrine and teaching that they became abrasive and harsh to those they came in contact with. For the Christians in Pergamum, they erred in the other direction. They stopped caring about truth and Christian teaching and allowed their grasp on the words of Christ to slip away from their hearts and lives. And it fostered a slow but steady process that left them no longer bearing the distinctive mark and quality of a Christ follower. Honestly, it is almost always a slow fade, a series of virtually imperceptibly small steps…until one day we realize or are shown how far we have drifted away from the shores of Christian truth. In his popular work, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis uses the voice of a demon to remind us of a terrifying but critical truth: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
When we began this series, I said that I believe all of these letters have something significant to teach us, both as individuals and as a church. With each grievance Jesus shares, we are shown what not to be or where not to go. And with Pergamum, we see a church that doesn’t really look like a church anymore. The people don’t act or seem any different from the world around them. They just blended in with everything else around them.
Pergamum had a problem but could not see it. Does the church today suffer from the same thing? Here’s how Daniel Akin describes the situation with Pergamum: “Doctrine mattered little and behavior mattered even less. With each passing day, the distinction between this church and the world become more blurred and less clear. The lifestyle of one was barely indistinguishable from the other. Worldliness, compromise, and tolerance had rushed into this church like a flood, and she was on the verge of drowning.” That, my friends, sounds a lot like what we face today.
If I’m honest, this is a really difficult subject to address, especially in this day and age. Pergamum is being condemned for being just like everyone else, for doing all the same practices as everyone else, for thinking just like everyone else. For not believing in a Truth with a capital T and having little to no conviction. Friends, what we believe matters. The truths of our faith are not merely spiritual decorations that we can move or pack away at our whims. When we compromise on the core tenets of our faith, we face a significant danger. Our identity as followers of Jesus should mark us as a people of hope, grace, and truth. If we appear no different than anyone else, what do we have to offer the world?
So, the question has to be asked: How can we avoid it? How can we avoid what happened to the people in Pergamum? Well, for me there have only ever been two sure-fire, close-to-absolute standards that I have seen be effective in helping us determine whether our beliefs and actions are in line with Christ: Scripture and Christian Community.
The Bible is not merely some ancient tome filled with wise sayings and fairy tales. It is the account of God’s relentless pursuit of humanity. In Scripture, we discover that our Creator is both powerful and patient, mighty and merciful. We read of a God who goes to any length in order to have a more intimate and personal relationship with humanity. Page after page, we read accounts of how generation upon generation find new ways to hurt themselves, alienate themselves, foster destruction and pain, and still…even after all that…God comes to us. And in the end, God’s love for us leads to the cross. The pages of Scripture reveal that story and show us what Jesus calls the narrow path in Matthew 7:14. If your actions or your beliefs run contrary to what you find in Scripture, odds are you might be amidst a Costly Compromise.
And the other metric for us is a Christian community. The church serves as a boundary line and safety net for each of us, designed to protect us and keep us from harm. If you are finding yourself running contrary to other faithful followers of Christ, it’s less likely you’re some kind of innovative trailblazer and far more likely you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Just like with sudden ocean currents, often times we don’t know how far we have strayed from Christ until we’re much further out than we could have imagined. And, no doubt, the journey back to our Savior and away from that which has led us astray can be hard and tiring. But Jesus tells us what the reward is for those who make the effort. Hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it. Sure, that might not seem like a Price is Right jackpot but there is powerful meaning here. The hidden manna is Christ’s promise to provide for our every need, even in our most desperate hour. And the white stone hails from an ancient court practice where a white or blank stone represents a clean slate and verdict of not-guilty. We will be forgiven for any misstep or charge against us and will be given a new name through the mercy of our Savior.
We all stray at times. As Robert Robinson penned in his timeless hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” We all fall short and we all need grace. But Jesus calls us to be faithful and loves us enough to correct us when we go astray. No matter how far we may have drifted, it is never too late to return to our Savior. Jesus wants nothing more than to prevent us from committing a Costly Compromise.