Letters from Revelation 2 & 3

Healthy Intolerance

Revelation 2:12-17

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Reiterate the setting of these seven letters (MAP).  One of the ways we learn priorities is by what respected figures praise and rebuke (GOOD ATHLETIC COACH).  In the same way, we can learn what Jesus prioritizes (and what we should prioritize) by what he praises and rebukes these churches for.

We come now to the third letter—to the church in Pergamum (read 2:12-17).  What does Jesus mean when he says that Satan lives in and rules over Pergamum?  Not that it was the headquarters of the world-wide Satanist movement, but that Pergamum was the stronghold of two of the most diabolical institutions in the 1st-century (UPPER ACROPOLIS SLIDE):

It was the center of idol worship in Asia Minor.  It boasted temples to Athena and Dionysus.  It also had a magnificent temple to Asklepios, the serpent god of physical healing whose symbol still stands for medicine today.  Pergamum was also a center for Zeus worship, and had a great altar to Zeus that now stands at the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin.  In many of these temples, worship involved a ritual meal that resembled an orgy—including drunkenness and sex with the temple priestesses.  You can imagine the attracting power of these worship centers.

Pergamum was also a center of Caesar worship.  In 29 B.C., it became the first city of Asia to receive permission from Rome to build a temple dedicated to Caesar worship (TRAJAN’S TEMPLE).  Rome didn’t care how many gods you worshiped, as long as you worshiped Caesar and publicly acknowledged him as Lord and Savior.  Otherwise, you could be convicted of treason and be executed.  You can imagine how intimidating this was.

Commendation: Uncompromised proclamation

Jesus commends them in 2:13 for their uncompromising commitment to proclaim him as the only Lord and Savior (“you remain true to my name”), in spite of the threat of governmental persecution.  One of their members (Antipas means “against everything”) had evidently refused to renounce Jesus by calling Caesar “Lord”—and paid the ultimate price.  (One later tradition says that he was roasted alive inside a hollow brass bull.)  Even this had not intimidated them into silence.

This commendation teaches us that sharing our faith and communicating Jesus as the only way to God should be a super high priority for those who call themselves Christians.  We’ll spend more time talking about how to communicate this message in two weeks (Philadelphia)—but for now let’s note that following Jesus means faithfully telling others that he is the Lord!

Rebuke: Moral compromise

While Jesus praises them for their uncompromising proclamation that he is the Lord, he rebukes them for compromising his moral leadership of their lives (read 2:14,15).  “A few things” refers to two different forms of moral compromise, one obvious and one subtle but just as serious:

Some of them were justifying habitual sexual immorality.  We know very little about the Nicolaitans beyond this passage.  They were evidently a group of false Christian leaders (maybe centered in Thyatira—see 2:20) who taught that it was OK for Christians to participate in the sex orgies at the pagan temples.  We don’t how they justified this. They may have argued that since Christians are completely forgiven, it doesn’t matter how they live morally.  They may have wrongly cited the apostle Paul, who argued that it was Ok for Christians to buy and eat meat from the local markets even though it may have been sacrificed to idols (though he strongly condemned taking part in pagan temple meals and sexual immorality).  They may have argued that they could win more people to Christ by joining in on this popular form of entertainment.  What we do know is that members of the Pergamum church were doing this—and Jesus was extremely upset about it.

Less obvious but nonetheless serious is that fact others (especially the leaders?) were tolerating this behavior (NLT: “You tolerate some among you...”).  They weren’t attending the temple orgies, but they weren’t taking to task those who were.  The former were compromised morally by committing sexual immorality, but the latter were compromised morally by omitting to discipline those who were.  Like the husband/wife who looks the other way while his/her spouse becomes an alcoholic, like the athletic coach who ignores the horrible attitude of a star athlete, so these members (especially the leaders) are morally culpable for enabling the committers and endangering others who are influenced by their poor example.

Let’s think about how this criticism applies today. 

American Christians live in a culture in which sexual immorality and substance abuse/dependence have become normal and (with a few key exceptions—child sexual abuse and severe substance addiction) morally acceptable.  One would expect the evangelical church to stand out as a healthy (if minority) alternative to this (Matt.5:13 – salt as both a seasoning that attracts by brining out flavor and a preservative that prevent decay).  But the statistical difference between American evangelicals and American non-Christians in these key areas is shrinking rapidly.1  The key ideological factors in this horrible trend include evangelical members’ increasing acceptance of moral relativism and radical individualism (i.e., lack of real community, which includes healthy moral accountability).  But this trend also signals a major failure on the part of church leaders, who fail to argue the case for these moral convictions, or to create healthy community structures, or to bring adequate discipline to bear on members who are living in flagrant moral compromise.  I have spoken with many evangelical pastors who know that this kind of moral compromise is rife in their churches—but who refuse to do anything about it for fear of losing members and (I suspect) their jobs.  Jesus is upset about this because it hurts his church and undermines the mission he has given his church:

Non-Christians, whose lives are being destroyed by moral ignorance, need to be able to see Christian communities that are both loving and morally healthy—so that the people in them are being healed from moral damage and becoming more loving and more morally whole.  “Pergamum” churches, no matter how clear and bold they are about Jesus as the only way to God, will not be able to attract people to Jesus without this healthy moral distinctiveness.  Maybe that’s one reason why the American evangelical church hasn’t grown over the past 25 years!
Christians who are trying to follow Christ need to be in community that includes healthy moral support and accountability.  When this is lacking, they become demoralized in their own struggle against sin, and moral compromise spreads.  The result is a dysfunctional community—teachings that lack moral conviction, spiritual death and weakness because of pervasive hypocrisy, etc.

Before we Xeniods throw a self-righteous snit about this, we should take a good look at our own church (home groups as the core of our church).  I fear that we are starting to resemble the church in Pergamum!  We’re pretty good about sharing our faith and standing tough on Jesus as the only way to God—although I think we can do better.  But over the last few years we are noting an alarming increase in home group members who are succumbing to both of these kinds of moral compromise. 

We have increased incidence of justified serious moral laxness (EXTRA-MARITAL SEX; PORN HABIT; UNRIGHTEOUS DIVORCE; CHRONIC ALCOHOL &/OR DRUG ABUSE). 
QUALIFICATIONS: Now the fact that we have lots of people in Xenos who commit these sins is not the issue.  Many people who attend Xenos Bible studies haven’t yet received Christ—and have this kind of lifestyle.  Our role is to introduce them to Jesus, who alone has the power to change their moral thinking and behavior (GOSPEL).  I think this is a sign of health—that we’re reaching out to unchurched people (versus Christian transfers).  Many people in Xenos have come to Christ with this kind of baggage.  I thank God for the patience people showed me as I struggled to get free from my drug habit.  They agree with the Bible about these matters, and admit it when they fall, and ask for/cooperate with help to gain growing freedom. 
I’m talking about people who know Christ, and who know his moral will for them—but who are living this way without a struggle and justifying it (“I’m under grace;” “I have sexual needs;” “The Bible isn’t against this;” “You’re being legalistic”).
Worse yet, we are seeing increasing examples of leaders and committed members who are tolerating this (DELIBERATE IGNORANCE/”DON’T ASK DON’T TELL;” IGNORE THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM; TALK ABOUT THE PERSON RATHER THAN TO THE PERSON; FAILURE TO CONFRONT & ARGUE USING GOD’S WORD; UNWILLING TO DO “MORAL INTERVENTIONS” IN EXTREME SITUATIONS).  Believe me, I know this is complicated and difficult—I agonize when I have to do this in our home group.  That’s why we provide home group consultants to advise and help in this area.  But out of allegiance to Jesus, out of love for the person, out of concern for the health of other home group members, and out of commitment to show our visitors a different way of life, we need to be willing to practice this kind of “tough-love!”

Counsel: Repent

Read 2:16.  “Repent” isn’t very complicated.  It means “Quit tolerating this moral compromise!”  There is such a thing as unhealthy tolerance, and there is a need for healthy intolerance.  We cannot be “tolerant” like our culture and be faithful to Jesus who authoritatively tell us not only what is true but also how to live!  That’s why spiritual integrity involves being culturally relevant, but commitment to be different morally.  It involves loving people, but hating the sin that is destroying them.  It involves affirmation and encouragement and forgiveness, but also righteous outrage about justified and entrenched moral laxness.

If we refuse to repent and help one another to repent, Jesus says he will discipline us directly.  We can discuss what this might look like in Q & A, but let’s focus right now on what it looks like to repent.

If you’ve been living a morally compromised Christian life:

Acknowledge (without excuses or rationalizations) your own unfaithfulness to Jesus, and decide that you will return to following his way.
Go to your brothers and sisters, tell them about your unfaithfulness, ask for their advice and support, and cooperate with their direction.  If you’re not in a home group, get in one, because isolated Christians are defeated Christians!  If you are in a home group, build friendships that include this kind of healthy accountability.
When you repent, Jesus will restore your spiritual vitality (EXPLAIN).  Your repentance can also make a huge impact on your home group (EXAMPLE)!

If you’ve been tolerating moral compromise in your Christian friends:

Acknowledge your unfaithfulness to Jesus and lack of love by ignoring this.
Go to them and apologize for sinning against them by your omission.
Exercise appropriate discipline.  Read Gal.6:1 – be gentle and humble and empathetic, but go to them!  Call on them (using God’s Word) to turn around—pledging your support to help them.  If they blow you off, don’t give up.  Try again, perhaps with someone else to help you make the point. Don’t be a permissive enabler—be a heroic representative of Jesus!
Many of them will respond, and thank you (eventually) that you loved them enough to discipline them.  The bonds of love that form through these difficult conversations often turn into precious friendships!

1 "The research shows that people’s moral profile is more likely to resemble that of their peer group than it is to take shape around the tenets of a person’s faith... Moral values are shifting very quickly and significantly withinthe Christian community as well as outside of it."  David Kinnaman, “A New Generation of Adults Bends Moral and Sexual Rules to Their Liking” – see http://www.barna.org