The Church Without Integrity

By: Everett Vander Horst

Scripture Reading: Revelation 2:12-17

June 7th, 2009

I remember sitting in my Sunday School class as a child, learning about the practice of idolatry in the Old Testament. To me, it seemed beyond bizarre, worshiping before a clay, wood or metal statue, seeking sustenance or special favors from an object. Later I came to realize that even ancient peoples did not believe that the idols they made were somehow transformed into divine characters, but instead were representations of the gods of field, sea or sky. Yet it still seemed foolish, to pray to an imagined god who existed solely to satisfy our needs and desires. We’re lucky today to live in an age beyond idolatry. Or are we? If you look around you, you’ll find it’s not so difficult to find people who put their trust in objects. If I could upgrade my car, I’d be happy. If my stocks would only increase in value, I’d be secure. If I can get connected to the right people, my career will take off. We, like the ancients, tend to look around us for the signs of success, and follow. That is a great temptation that is always present when living in a sophisticated culture: we too are drawn in to its desires, hopes, dreams and folly. Such was the case for first century Christians living in Pergamum, a leading city of Asia Minor. In order for us to interpret the message which Jesus Christ gave to that church community, we need to understand the challenges they faced. So let me give you an introduction to that bustling, ancient metropolis. Pergamum, with a population of approximately 150,000, was one of three leading cities of the region, along with Ephesus and Smyrna, the cities we visited over the last two weeks. Pergamum’s fortunes waxed and waned from era to era, and there existed an often fierce rivalry for the title of ‘First City’ of Asia Minor. Unlike the other cities we’ve looked at, Pergamum was not a coastal city, but situated 15 miles inland. Lacking a harbor, it depended on the abundance of the fertile Caicus River valley for wealth. One of the most notable characteristics of this city was its spectacular location. The name ‘Pergamum’ is related to the Greek word for ‘citadel.’ The major buildings of the city were built on a huge acropolis, a high hill with steep sides. This acropolis rose sharply from the valley floor over 1,100 feet into the sky. Pergamum had all the trappings of a successful city, with royal palaces at its peak, the 2nd largest library in all antiquity, and a dramatic, 10,000 seat theatre carved from bedrock and nestled into the mountainside, it’s steep seats giving a glorious view not only of the stage but the valley and the mountains far beyond. If you can imagine a city rising up from the ground, it’s pink and white marble buildings gleaming in the bright, Mediterranean sunshine like a beacon of prosperity and success—that glorious sight was Pergamum, literally a shining city on a hill. Such a dramatic location was not only inspiring, it was also secure. Alexander the Great decided to store the great wealth his victories had given him in Pergamum as he passed through. The reign of the Pergamene kings in the last centuries before Christ extended deep inland to include some of the other cities of Revelation 2 and 3. Before the Romans could conquer the city, it was bequeathed to the empire by the last king of Pergamum, Attalus III, saving them and the citizens the agony of a long, drawn out siege and battle. But Pergamum exported more than power and a sense of security. Another leading feature of Pergamum was its medical center complex, the Asclepion, named for the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. It functioned much as the Mayo Clinic does today. It was a huge complex, with numerous buildings for the treatment of patients, a library, a 3,500 seat theatre, a therapeutic underground tunnel, 3 pools, and a row of shops, all reached from the city via a street called the Sacred Way. Here is where we find the roots of the symbol of the snake as a healer, a symbol still on the logos of prescriptions and in the insignias of medical associations today; the serpent was Asclepius’ symbol. Many believe the symbol comes from one of the treatments performed in Pergamum, where the sick were placed in a kind of hospital ward in the hopes that one of the sacred snakes would come slithering along and touch them. As you can see, there was a strong religious component in the pursuit of healing. And, of course, religious expression was not limited to the Asclepion. Like the other leading cities, Pergamum had its fair share of temples to the pagan gods. One of the oldest temples was established by the original Greek colonists. It was the temple of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Because she was associated with wisdom, the great library was right next door. The emperor Trajan had staked his claim in the city, taking over the highest point on the acropolis for his temple. Dionysus, the God of wine and dance and partying in general, had a temple located right next to the famous theatre. But perhaps the greatest temple of them all was that devoted to the worship of Zeus, the king of the gods. Located partway down the acropolis, this huge complex was beautifully ornamented with relief carvings of the battles between the gods and the giants of mythology. Sacrifices took place at the Zeus temple 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so looking up to the acropolis from the valley, or any part of the city, you’d always see the smoke or flame of the sacrifices to Zeus rising up from the altar to the sky. It was such a magnificent structure, that its ruins were exported by German archaeologists to Berlin around the turn of the 20th century. You can see it today, reconstructed almost to its former glory, inside a massive hall of the city museum. In that time, temple worship involved more than showing up for a service on a prescribed day of the week. On a feast day or for a special occasion, a worshipper would host a kind of dinner party in honor of the god. Ancient invitations to such events have been discovered by archaeologists. Here’s an example from Egypt: "The god invites you to dine at the table which will take place tomorrow in the temple of Thoeris from the 9th hour…" If you arrived for a dinner party at the dining hall of Dionysus, in Pergamum, you would have gather around a large open room, decorated with vine branches and grape leaves. You’d eat lying on pillows on a wide low wall, 3 feet high and 7 feet deep, a kind of u—shaped stage around the outside of the room. You’d lie with as many as 70 other guests, with your head towards the center of the room, and you feet behind you. There you would drink wine and eat food set on the marble edge. In the center of the room, you would see the two altars upon which food would be offered to the gods, grilled, and shared together. All around the ancient world temples have been found with a whole complex of such dining rooms attached to them. But such temple feasts were more than simply a dinner party in honor of a pagan god or goddess. Ancient pagan temples also had a widespread reputation as place of sexual immorality. Part of the cultic meal festivities would include sexual activities, involving other guests or temple prostitutes. This is known from ancient writings and also scenes depicted on ancient bowls and other vessels which I cannot describe. But as a citizen of any Roman or Greek city through this era, you would receive many invitations obliging you to attend such events as part of one’s civic, religious, business or family relationships. Not attending such events could leave you isolated from family, without a job or without customers, and in trouble with the authorities. It could make participation in that foolish idolatry become pretty tempting. These dynamics were part of the world of the Christians in Pergamum. The atmosphere, the temptation, the pressure to conform must have been immense—just as it is for many of us who follow Jesus today. And so Jesus sends a message to this church, to encourage and to warn them. As we’ve seen in previous messages, Jesus starts with a significantly detailed introduction: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double edged sword, one which comes out of his mouth. Pergamene Christians would be reminded of imagery from the prophet Isaiah, in the Old Testament, who spoke of the Lord making his mouth like a sharpened sword even as he spoke God’s judgment on sin. And later, in Revelation 19, the sword of Christ’s mouth would slay the wicked. So the sword in the mouth of Christ is a sign of his coming in judgment. But beyond even this, the sword Jesus speaks of is no ordinary weapon. It is not the ‘machaira’ or long dagger worn by Roman soldiers. The Greek word here is ‘rhomphaia,’ indicating the two handed sword of the warriors of Thrace, up to 7 feet long! This powerful weapon of mass destruction caused even the Roman legions to shake in their sandals. Christ mentions his command of such a sword twice in this passage to underscore his role as judge over the Christians in Pergamum. The opening of this message thus brings a warning: fearful judgment awaits those in the church who sacrifice their integrity. But Jesus goes on to praise them for their faithfulness in a Satanic city. They live in a tough context: Pergamum is twice described as Satan’s dwelling: Jesus says it is the city "where Satan lives" and "where Satan has his throne." So what then is Satan’s throne? There are different theories, none of which can be identified for certain. Some point to the Roman imperial cult, but that was not a particularly unique feature of the city. Some others suggest the Asclepion healing center, with its serpent images and references to the god Asclepius as a savior. But the Asclepion rose to greater prominence some years after the writing of Revelation. My guess is the Zeus temple with its ever—burning altar, carved serpents and commanding presence. In any case, the opposition and persecution the church had already suffered and would suffer into the future are enough to identify the city of Pergamum as a place of particularly powerful Satanic influences Yet the Christians of Pergamum have proven faithful; their faithfulness is stated positively and negatively: "You remain true to me" and "You did not renounce your faith." In fact, faithfulness among them has been demonstrated to the point of death. A martyr from among their midst is mentioned by name: Antipas. He is called Christ’s faithful witness—that is Christ’s own title for himself in the first chapter of Revelation! But Christ also brings to them his complaint: He faults them for tolerating idolatrous compromise in their community. He mentions the teachings of Nicolaitans and Balaam. We’ve heard of the Nicolaitans before in this series: their teachings were rooted out in Ephesus. These references are linguistically linked: in Greek and Hebrew, these words mean ‘he conquers the people.’ The book of Numbers tells us the story of Balaam, a pagan priest, who was hired to curse Israel but was led by God to bless them instead. After that episode, as the people of Israel moved out of the desert and into the regions of their pagan neighbors, the men of Israel fell into sin: Numbers 25 tells us that at that time, "the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods." Note the connection between idolatry, eating, and sexual immorality. Numbers goes on to tell us that this incident came about through the leading of Balaam; who was, by the way, executed by sword—in the Greek translation of the OT, a rhomphaia. So Balaam in the OT, plus the pagan worship practices in the Roman world, connect idolatry, feasting and sexual immorality all together. What does this mean for understanding the message of Christ to the Christians in Pergamum? Basically, they are condemned by Christ because they compromised their faith through participation in these cultic meals. Some among their number were teaching that it would be OK to go to temple festivals; you could do that and still count yourself a faithful Christian. We know that these issues were addressed elsewhere in the New Testament. In Acts 15:29, the Jerusalem council decided that Gentile Christians ought not required to be circumcised, but they did need to "abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality." Again we see a connection between food, idol worship and sex. In 1 Corinthians 8—10, Paul makes connections between these sins as well as he gives guidance to believers who are trying to figure out whether meat from the temples could be purchased when sold at the marketplace. The pagan temple parties were a major issue for Christians of the first century. So what does that have to do with us, sophisticated Christians of the 21st century? Plenty! First of all, we need to recognize the most common form of idolatry: compromise. Worshipping an idol does not require choosing one way or another. We might think of idolatry as abandoning the faith to worship something else. But remember, ancient peoples were used to a pantheon of gods. You could be deeply devoted to one. But there would be nothing wrong with worshipping others too. In fact, the Roman gods represented a kind of division of labor. You’d worship Artemis for fertility of family and fields, sacrifice to Mars in a time of war, make an offering to Poseidon before a sea voyage, etc. You see, the trouble was not that Christians abandoned Christ to go to the pagan temples; the trouble was they thought there was no problem with doing both. But Christ will share his throne with no one. As the second commandment teaches, we shall not make for ourselves an idol, for the Lord our God is a jealous God. That means not having or inventing anything in to trust in place of or alongside of the only true God…" So, I think I can assume that none of you listeners today are prone to sneaking into the temple of Zeus. But then what are some areas in which we may be tempted to compromise? Remember, such idolatry always comes with a rational explanation. You can easily imagine one in Pergamum. "Look, we know there is only one God. These pagan gods are just superstitions. They aren’t real! It’s really just a kind of civic hyper—patriotism. So if I get a piece of meat that’s been offered to Athena, it’s the same as if someone waved a hand over it and said abracadabra. It doesn’t mean anything! I’ll keep from the sexual shenanigans, but there’s no real sin in eating a meal together with friends, right?" We too today are dangerously rational creatures, and can come up with arguments strong enough to convince ourselves that our loyalties to Christ aren’t really all that divided… What are some idols that may compromise our Christian integrity? What are examples of ways in which we place our trust for security, comfort, or happiness alongside or even in place of the faith we profess to have in God. For example, think of the excuses that quickly come to mind for fully engaging all of pop culture—"I appreciate these movies for their artistic expression; the swearing, the violence and the sex, they don’t influence me." A focus on your physical health can be an idol, betraying our trust in God for our well being: "God called our bodies a temple, so we ought to keep our bodies in peak physical condition. I’m not obsessing, I’m training." One’s country can become an idol, when patriotism or nationalism becomes like a religious commitment: "Everyone knows that if Jesus were here on earth, and a citizen of this country, he would vote for the same party I always do. Voting for the other party just isn’t possible if you are a real Christian." For many men especially, watching sports can become an idol, a pursuit which replaces other commitments and responsibilities that are opportunities to live out Christian obedience: "Hey, the time I spend away from my family and away from church watching my team is an important form of recreation for me; it’s a way to relax. Besides professional sports are a good model for discipline and teamwork. Engaging in fun activities can become a form of hedonism, the worship of pleasure: "I know that it will mean I can’t be a part of church, but really, I can worship God just as well out in nature on a golf course anyway." When we examine our lives, it may be uncomfortably easy to find possible idols that seek to compete with Christ for our attention, affection and yes, even worship. What is the right response when we discover idols in our lives? The message to the church at Pergamum tells us. We are to repent! In correcting these Christians, Jesus called for repentance and said little more. But we know what he means. First we repent in our hearts, asking forgiveness for our idolatry. And we go beyond that to curb our actions; we stop doing what we ought not do, we stop committing the sins that offend the holiness of God. That’s the good news of life in Christ: with him, repentance always means an opportunity to start afresh. In his message in Revelation 2, Jesus warns of the negative consequences of continuing in their idolatrous compromise: he will come among the Pergamene Christians with a sword. It is the second reference to rhomphaia sword. And here it is explicitly a threat. If they do not repent, Christ will come among them and fight them with the sword. Again, we are reminded of Balaam, and consider his experiences with the sword. You may remember that when an angel blocked his path, that angel held a sword. And after the battling the Midianites, the Israelites captured Balaam and they put him to death, by the sword. The judgment is real, and it is spoken out loud: the same punishment will befall the spiritually compromised believers. But Christ also describes the positive consequence, the blessing that will come to them if they truly repent: they will receive hidden manna and a white stone. Now what Does Jesus mean here. Quite honestly, we don’t really know. But it does call to mind Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. In that time, God provided. And we are reminded here that God provides, always; no need to hedge our bets with God by seeking out the compromising security provided by an earthly idol. Nourishment for a Christian’s spiritual journey need not be found in pagan temples or their modern day equivalents. Jesus Christ provides for all our needs, for he is the bread of life. In his closing words to this ancient church, Jesus also promises faithful believers a white stone, with a hidden name. And what does this mean? Again, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but we don’t really know. I’ve read at least 7 different interpretations. Is it a reference to the Old Testament high priest’s outer cloak or ephod, with stones containing the names of the tribes of Israel on it? Perhaps it is a reference to the way a jury in those days cast their votes for an acquittal: tossing a black stone in a jar meant guilty, but a white meant innocent, and therefore not to be executed. Or maybe it is a reference to the charms or amulets worn by ancient pagans, with the name of their god on it, as a protection against evil. We just don’t know. But in each explanation, there is the suggestion of finding ultimate security in the promises of God. . What would it look like, to put aside all others, and focus on Christ? How can we hear the call to live a life of integrity—faith integrated into every aspect of our lives—as we spend our days on earth before the face of God? We need to recognize our spiritual hungers, and have them satisfied by the right nourishment, time spent with Jesus Christ, our bread. We will not be distracted from our worship by modern day idols of any kind. They will not, the can not, give us the comfort that truly lasts. No, we will follow Jesus whole heartedly, and so find our security within the walls of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that will never crumble. All who have an ear to hear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the Church.

About the Author

Everett Vander Horst

Everett Vander Horst is the senior pastor at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his wife Christa have been married for 14 years, and have 3 children: Laura (10), Eric (7) and Jason (5). A Canadian, Everett grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. After graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1996, he and Christa moved to British Columbia where Everett was ordained as pastor in the Telkwa Christian Reformed Church. They took the call to Shawnee Park CRC in 2001. When he is not pastoring, Everett enjoys digital photography, fishing as well as building toys and furniture in his basement woodshop.

More >>