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Revelation Study #6: Church of the Walking Dead

Study #6: Sardis—Church of the Walking Dead

(To listen to or download the audible study, click here – Audio Study)

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One of the hit television shows the past few years is a horror program called “The Walking Dead.” Some of you may have seen it. For those who haven’t, it’s the story of a deadly disease that ravages the planet leaving the vast majority of humanity dead except for their brain stems. This allows the victims to stumble about appearing to be alive, but their minds no longer function. Instead, the disease turns them into rabid killers who feed on those who have survived. The question that propels the show is: Will the survivors band together and find a way to protect themselves against “the walkers,” or will it be every man for himself? The program purports to be a study in human nature and the various ways in which survivors might react to an apocalypse. I don’t recommend it to anyone troubled by violence and gore, because the show is filled with it.

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However, it does provide a graphic metaphor for the world in which we find ourselves as Christians. I think of that when I attend a big event like a football game and rub shoulders with those in the concourse. I remember that though everyone looks alive, most of them are dead. Unlike “the walkers,” they may not appear to be diseased—no missing arms or decayed body parts. Nor are they apt to take a bite out of me. Most of them are hungering for garlic fries or nachos. But if they do not love Jesus Christ, they are spiritually dead. So I stop and pray for the crowd, that God will in His mercy give new life to many of them, just as He did for me. Ephesians 2:4-6 reminds me, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” In fact, I believe that’s the reason we enjoy the fellowship of the saints, whether it’s a small group Bible study or a large worship service. We are nurturing and enjoying the new life that comes from having Jesus in our midst.

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Unfortunately, not every church enjoys that new kind of life. That becomes apparent as we come to the fifth church of the Revelation—the church in Sardis, which I call the church of the walking dead. Remember that in each of the letters to the churches, Jesus credits them for what they’re doing right and critiques them for what they’re doing wrong. Listen with me, then, to Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:1-2. It’s the most frightening judgment we’ve heard so far.

  1. The Doctor’s Diagnosis 

Having examined this church, Doctor Jesus says to them, “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.’”

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The church of Sardis had a reputation for being one of the most active churches of its day, for there was always a flurry of religious activity going on. But a flurry of religious activity is not a proof of spiritual life. For when Jesus examines His church, He always looks beneath the veneer of our image to our character. For fruitfulness is the evidence of spiritual life. And when He looked at this church’s character, He found they were dead and not alive. What He said to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 could be repeated here. “You are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones.”

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Several years ago, I visited the Hollywood Wax Museum with my family. There we spent an hour or more looking at some of the most lifelike figures I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was often hard to tell the living from the non-living. At one point I was looking at Keystone Cops when one of them suddenly one of them stepped out of the scene and said, “Hi!” I thought my heart was about to stop.

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That was the scene in Sardis. There was an appearance of life, but on inspection, Jesus found that most of them were spiritually dead. In fact, this church was so dead it couldn’t even conjure up a “decent heresy.” And that’s dead! Usually, when Satan attacks a church, he introduces a lie to lead the people astray. But not this church. Nor is there a hint of persecution. Why not? It wasn’t necessary. Satan had no reason to attack this church. It was already dead.

What led to this frightening condition? The obvious answer is: Live people were replaced by dead people. There were spiritually dead men in the pulpits, spiritual dead people in the pews, and spiritually dead people leading the ministries. That’s the point in verse 4 where Jesus says He only had a “few names” left in Sardis who would walk with Him “in white.” Why? Because most of them were not believers at all. And even those who were believers were on the verge of falling asleep. It reminds me of a ling from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

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“Corpses man the ship; Dead men pull the oars; Dead men hoist the sails; Dead men steer the vessel.”

You see, so often we think that what we need to improve the church is better planning and programming. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What the church needs today is not better programs, but better people—living people who are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit.

How could this happen to a church? Several steps are involved. First, believers stop depending on the Holy Spirit for their power and direction and start relying on self. Next, sin is tolerated in the church and unbelievers feel comfortable attending the church’s services and social functions. But instead of leading them to salvation, they are accepted into membership just as they are. Finally, those who truly love the Lord become disgruntled and withdraw from attendance at the church leaving its leadership in the hands of those who do not know the Lord. So that in the end it has the appearance of a church, but in reality it’s nothing more than a religious social club without the Spirit of God.

 

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This is what happened to many of the mainline denominations at the beginning of the last century. Most of the pastors loved the Lord. But a few unbelieving pastors began to deny the fundamentals of the faith like the Deity of Christ and the infallibility of the Bible. Masquerading as true believers, they worked their way onto the central boards of the denominations, which made the decisions for the churches—which missionaries would be sent out, how money would be sent, what their doctrinal positions were, and who would teach in the seminaries. Finally, hundreds of good pastors and churches felt forced to pull out of the denominations. Understand! This was no polite parting of the ways. This was war! Many churches were forced to buy back their buildings which were owned by the denominations. And pastors, like my wife’s grandfather, lost their denominational pensions. It was a scandalous situation that occurred because the world was allowed to worm its way into the church and take control.

The same thing could happen to your church. The first generation which plants a church is filled with passion and dedicated to the things that matter. But with the passing of time, a second generation grows up acknowledging the same beliefs, but lacking the passion of their parents. So by the third generation it’s doubtful that those who claim to love the Lord really do. That’s why there is always a need for revival in the church. Without it, a church gradually begins to die. That was the Sardis problem. They lacked the life that comes from loving Christ.

a.  Spiritual Deficiencies

SevenStarsSeveral factors contributed to their deadness. Notice, first, their spiritual deficiencies. Remember that in each of the letters Christ emphasizes something about Himself that is needed by the church He is addressing. In this case we see a hint of two deficiencies by the way He introduces Himself in Revelation 3:1. He says, ““And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”

The “seven Spirits,” you’ll remember, refers to the Holy Spirit in His seven-fold fullness. Why does Jesus emphasize that here? Because there was no evidence of the Spirit’s presence in this church. That’s not to say He was completely absent. If He had been, then no one would have been saved. Romans 8:9 says, “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” Yet Jesus says in verse 4 that there were still a few who were faithful to Him. The problem was that the majority of the members were religious people who had never been born again by the Holy Spirit. So they lacked the new life which Jesus gives us. These false believers then took over the leadership of the church making carnal and worldly decisions. This grieved and quenched the Holy Spirit within the few members who were still trying to follow Christ. Jude 1:19 says of them, “These are sensual persons who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.”

The first step in overcoming this problem, then, was for the majority of the members to cry out to God for the new life that comes from the Holy Spirit.

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The “seven stars,” on the other hand, refers to the pastors of the churches. Why does Jesus highlight them here? He’s indicating that the church lacked the right kind of leaders and encouraging them to call out to God for a godly team of pastors and elders who love Christ and are filled with His Spirit. Because as the pastors and elders go, so goes the church. That is the frightening principle of leadership. People get the leaders they deserve. If they are seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, God gives them good and godly leaders. But if they are worldly and selfish, then that is the kind of leaders they get. Makes me want to pray not only for our church, but for our country as well!

b.  Environmental Factors

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Several environmental factors also affected this church. First, Sardis was the capital of Lydia and a major center of trade. It was called “the first metropolis of Asia, Lydia, and Hellenism.” Yet despite its busyness, the city was nothing like it had been in its heyday. For instead of building for the future, its citizens were always looking back to the glories of the past—a certain formula for decline. Second, it was a morally sick society. Herodotus, the Roman historian, said it had a reputation for lax morals and open licentiousness. But it is the military history of this city that is most interesting. Sardis was built on a 1500-foot plateau with a river at its base, which served as a natural moat and made it one of the most impregnable cities of its day. And yet, three times it had fallen to surprise attacks, which the inhabitants said “came like a thief in the night.”

Unfortunately, the church in Sardis contracted the same complacent attitude. Planted 40 years earlier by the Apostle Paul, its members were still rejoicing in its past victories rather than actively serving the Lord today. They were apathetic, arrogant, and about to suffer great loss. For Jesus says to them in verse 3, “I will come upon you as a thief,” unless you repent.

  1. The Doctor’s Prescription 

How does a church reverse a case of spiritual lifelessness? The Great Physician prescribes a three-step treatment plan, each step intended for a different group within the church. The first step is intended for the religious unbelievers.

a.  Wake Up!

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Or “be watchful!” as some translations put it. This is a call to vigilance in the face of danger. What danger were they facing? Verse 3 gives the answer, “But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” This is a reference to the Second Coming and the same warning Paul gave in 2 Thessalonians 5:2 where he wrote, “You yourselves know perfectly that the Day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.” He then went on to say that this is a judgment which is going to fall, not on believers, but on unbelievers. In fact, we’re going to learn in our next study that true Christians are going to be removed from the earth before this judgment begins. This command, then, was not intended for the genuine saints in Sardis, but for the dead ones—unbelievers who had sneaked into the membership of the church, reminding religious people everywhere that no amount of religiosity will save you. To receive eternal life, you must believe in Jesus and receive Him as your Savior.

This warning had special meaning for those in Sardis. The city was built like a giant watchtower overlooking the valley below. This made the people feel very secure. But this sense of security led to disaster on three different occasions.

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The first time was in 549 B.C. when Cyrus the Great invaded the city. In order to conquer it, Cyrus had to find a path to the top of the plateau. But how? The answer came one night when one of his soldiers was standing guard at the base of the cliff. He noticed an object rolling down the side of the hill. One of the Sardinians dropped his helmet! Not knowing that he was being observed, the soldier quietly made his way down the cliff, retrieved his helmet, and headed back to the top. Watching him, the Persian realized there was an easy way up, at least for a few of them. So he quickly gathered together a band of warriors and headed in the same direction. Climbing over the wall into the city, they found everyone asleep. The people felt so secure that they had only posted a single guard. History records that Cyrus captured the city in one night.

That’s how the religious unbeliever feels. Because of his religious activities and Christian friends, he feels safe. But his is, in fact, the most precarious position of all. His exposure to the truth not only makes him more accountable to God, but his religious affiliations cause him to neglect the most important relationship of all—a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Don’t make that mistake! You may have attended church for years. But that is not what makes you a Christian. Jesus said, “You must be born again…unless a man is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” How can you be born again? By calling out to Jesus for salvation. John 1:11-13 explains, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” So if you’re religious but lack spiritual life, you need to wake up and be born again by receiving Jesus as your Savior. By the way, did you know that is what “Sardis” means. It means “escaping ones,” reminding us that we can escape the wrath to come by trusting Jesus our Savior.

b.  Reach Out!

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Verse 2 continues, “Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.” Not everyone will agree with my interpretation, but I believe this is a challenge to the real, Spirit-filled saints in Sardis. They are to strengthen the carnal Christians in the church who are no longer actively serving Christ. They are just “remaining.” In that case, what’s our responsibility as Spirit-filled Christians? To shake them awake and help them get their eyes back on Jesus. Because whether or not they’ll admit it, they don’t like what they’ve become. They too have a God-given desire to be like Christ. It’s just that they’ve been defeated by the enemy so often that they’ve lost their hope and are ready to fall asleep. Galatians 6:1-2 clarifies our duty: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in a trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Some of us need to wake up. Others of us need to reach out. And step #3, Jesus speaks to the carnal Christians themselves, telling them to think back.

c.  Think Back!

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Not in the sense of reliving the past, but in the sense of remembering what was had in Christ and how we went wrong. One preacher said, “When you get lost, the fastest way to get back on track is to return to the place you got off and start again.” That’s Jesus’ counsel in verse 3. “Remember, then, what you have received and heard. Keep it and repent.” He’s warning them to shake themselves out of their spiritual stupor and start following Him again.

You say, “Is it worth the effort?” Notice the three-fold blessing Jesus adds to His wake-up call. He promises in verse 5 to 6, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

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White garments pictured two things in the ancient world: 1) Purity, which is why brides still wear white on their wedding day; and 2) Victory. Quite often, when a Roman general won a battle, he would clothe himself in a white robe as a symbol of his victory. And that’s the promise here. One day, because of our victory in Christ, we will be clothed in brilliant white clothing, shining like the stars of heaven. But let’s not forget. It isn’t because of our righteousness that we’ll be clothed in white. Revelation 7:14 gives the reason for our victory. John begins in verse 13, “Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ So he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’” It’s the righteousness of Christ we’re given, not a righteousness of our own.

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Furthermore, He promises, “I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.” Some people worry, “Can a Christian have his name written down in the Book of Life, do something wrong, and suddenly have it blotted out?” No, that is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus promised that those who truly believe in Him will never perish. Nor can anyone pluck them out of His hand. Instead, He’s saying that He is unlike the other kings and rulers of earth. For example, in John’s day, a king would keep a register with a list of the subjects in his kingdom. And if a person committed a crime against the state, his name would be removed and his citizenship revoked. Or if a person moved, his name would be blotted out and put on another register. Or if a person died, his name would be erased. In other words, Jesus is promising that “petty kings may blot your name out of their books, but I will never blot your name out of My book—not if you truly belong to Me. He isn’t hinting that we can lose our salvation if we’re not careful; He’s emphasizing the opposite—that “you’re eternally secure in Me.”

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Finally, He adds, “I will confess his name before My Father and His angels.” Isn’t that incredible! One day Jesus will stand before His Father and all the angels of heaven and say, “Gary belongs to Me!” He won’t be ashamed to call me His own. In fact, what’s the only condition attached to this promise? That we confess Him before others today! “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven.” Have you done that? Have you awakened to your need of Jesus Christ and let others know about it in a public way?

 

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Nobody likes alarm clocks. I’ve owned many over the years and I can’t remember even one whose sound I enjoyed. But that’s intentional, isn’t it? If if they weren’t obnoxious, we simply roll over and go back to sleep. Likewise, some of you may not have enjoyed this study. But that’s an indication that you needed to hear it and that you’re sleepier than you think. So don’t hit the snooze button now that you’ve finished reading or listening to it. Shake yourself out of your complacency and start living for Jesus Christ with all your heart, mind, and strength.

(To read or download this study, click Written Message. To download the Powerpoint slides for teaching these materials, click Message Slides.)

 

Revelation #5: Pergamum – Courage or Compromise?

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(To listen to the message, click Audio Message. To download the message, click Written Message. For the Powerpoint presentation, click Slides.)

Study #5: Pergamum—the Compromising Church

Have you ever wondered how the bat became a creature of the night? Aesop, the Greek storyteller, gave his take on it. He said it happened as a result of a war between the animals. The beasts and birds were fighting for control of the earth, and the bat, being a consummate politician and not wanting to risk the disfavor of either side, decided to join both parties. When the birds were winning, he winged around with the birds. When the beasts prevailed, he walked and pretended to be a mouse. But finally, his duplicity was found out and he was rejected by both groups. So today he hides his face in shame, only daring to appear at night.

batOf course, that fable wasn’t intended to teach us about bats. The bat is what he is, not because of his misbehavior but because of God’s design. Aesop’s fable, like all his stories, was intended to teach us something about ourselves. In this case, the disgust with which we view the coward and hypocrite. If you and I believe something, we should believe it strongly enough to say so. For if we try to please everybody, chances are we’ll wind up pleasing nobody, because there are few people we respect less than those who lack the courage of their convictions.

This is especially true of spiritual convictions. Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. In other words, serving Christ is a fundamental choice of masters. Joshua earlier referred to this when he demanded of God’s Old Testament people, “Choose you this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

The truth is that fallen man never likes to be pinned down. Because he finds his strength in what others think about him—his family, his friends, his neighbors, his co-workers—he is always asking himself, “What will people think of me if I do this or that?” But the Bible warns that “the fear of man brings a snare.” When we become too concerned about what others may think, it not only destroys our usefulness to Christ, it also enslaves us to the opinions of others.

That was the dilemma in Pergamum, the third church in our study of Revelation. Located in a city that was hostile to Christ, the believers faced this decision: Do I go along with the crowd and try to keep from offending those around me? Or do I ignore the peer pressure and take a stand for Jesus Christ, even if it isn’t the popular thing to do? To help us understand why they made the decisions they did, but even more importantly, to help us make the right choices, there are four major facts I want to emphasize about this church. The first fact is—pergamum-1

  1. Where They Lived

The letter begins, “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write, “These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: ‘I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.’” Three things stand out about this city. First, it was a strategic city. When the Roman legions conquered Pergamum, it became their provincial headquarters and the capital of Asia Minor for over 400 years. Second, it was a culturally elite city, famous for its theaters and art galleries and boasting a university with a library of 250,000 books. Third, and most important to understand, it was the devil’s city. Jesus says in verse 13, “You dwell where Satan’s throne is.”

You say, “I thought Satan’s throne was in hell?” No, the Bible teaches that Satan is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), not the next, and that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19) In fact, the Bible says he deploys his demons like a military commander appointing the strongest demons to ruler the greater cities and the lesser demons to rule the smaller cities. The angel Gabriel referred to this in Daniel 10:13, where he explained why he was slow in bringing the answer to Daniel’s prayer. It was because the prince (or demon) of Persia resisted him and he had to wait for Michael the archangel to come to his aid. So, yes, the devil does have a kingdom, but its throne is right here in this world. In John’s day, it was located in the city of Pergamum. Today is likely located in some other strategic spot.

pergamumTheaterWhy did the devil choose Pergamum? Well, not only was it a capital city, it was also fertile soil for false religion. There was the strictly enforced worship of Caesar. There was the worship of Bacchus, the god of drunkenness. There was also the 100-foot altar of Zeus erected on the side of a cliff, which looked like a giant throne. But the most awful evidence of Satan’s presence was the temple Asclepius, the serpent-god. Its reputation as a healing center was so well promoted that people came from all over Asia hoping for a cure. The patient would enter his temple, be given hallucinatory drugs, and then be led through a tunnel filled with snakes. From openings in the walls, voices would whisper, “You will be healed. All praise to Asclepius who is healing you. Asclepius has touched your body.” History reports that a few were healed, but others died of snake bites, and many emerged from the temple hopelessly insane.

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You may wonder, “Where is Satan’s throne today? And what demons control the city where I live?” Only the Lord knows for sure. But I assure you: We’re living in occupied territory. Drugs. False religion. Sexual perversion. The Pergamums had nothing on us! Yet the good news is, we can be faithful, no matter how much evil we face. The devil is a liar and has convinced himself (and some of us) that this is his world, and there’s nothing we can do about it. “After all, look at the hold he has on the schools, the media, the government!” But then we read Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell within it.” Jesus added, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples…and lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” Suddenly we realize, it is not a hopeless battle. In fact, even if it were, it is still worth being faithful to Christ. As someone has said, “I’d rather fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed, than succeed in a case that will ultimately fail.

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  1. How They Succeeded

Jesus continues in verse 13, “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” In spite of their wicked surroundings, Christ was pleased with these believers for two reasons:

First, they held fast to His name. Did you know that confessing Christ’s name is an essential part of salvation? Romans 10 tells us that to believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord is a good thing, but that the proof of our salvation is whether or not we’re willing to confess Him with our mouths. “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is without your mouth that you confess and are saved.” There are no secret disciples, then. Jesus never called anyone to follow Him privately. Instead, He said, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him will I confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him will I deny before My Father who is in heaven.”

I used to worry, “Does that mean if I get nervous and fail to confess Christ in a moment of fear, I won’t go to heaven?” No, Jesus wasn’t talking about a one-time denial. If that were true, no one would be saved! Peter denied his Lord three times and still found forgiveness. But if we suffer an ongoing embarrassment to be identified with Christ, we need to double-check our salvation. Because that isn’t normal for a child of God. On the contrary, we ought to feel a holy pride that we belong to Jesus. As Paul wrote in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of salvation for everyone who believes.”

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Let me ask you. Have you taken that initial step of confessing your love for Jesus Christ by being baptized as a believer? If not, it’s important that you do that as soon as possible. Many of us were christened as babies, but we didn’t realize at the time what we were doing. That is why the Bible says that baptism is for those who know Jesus and have committed their lives to Him. Baptism doesn’t save us. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But there is something about confessing Christ publicly that seals our salvation and makes it real.

Second, they did not deny His faith. Or to put it another way, they spoke out for Christ even when it wasn’t the politically correct thing to do. Antipas is the best example. His name means “against all,” symbolizing his willingness to speak out for Christ even if it meant standing alone. History says when he was brought before the statue of Caesar, he was told, “Swear that Caesar is Lord.” But he refused. “Jesus is Lord and there is no other God but He.” The Roman official exclaimed, “Antipas, don’t you know that the whole world is against you?” To which the great man replied, “Then Antipas is against the whole world!” He was then placed inside a brass bull, which was heated with fire until he slowly roasted to death. Antipas was an obscure little man in church history. But he is the one we remember when we think of Pergamum.

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And who knows? Maybe it will be the same way when we look back on the church of today. When I think of heroes, the names of Billy Graham, James Dobson, and Jim Elliot come to my mind. But is it possible that some little known saint will head the list instead? The girl who stands up in her classroom and politely says, “Teacher, I don’t believe we came from monkeys. I believe God created us.” Or the young man who stands up among his friends and says, “You bet I go to church, and I’m proud of it. Why not come with me?” Or the single mother who says to her children, “Yes, I know everyone else is doing it. But this is a Christian family and we’re going to please the Lord!” Those are the real heroes among us. Those who are willing to risk the wrath of the crowd and say, “No,” even when the rest of the world is saying, “Yes.”

Courage. That’s what we need more of today. Winston Churchill put it like this, “Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning.” He was right! The reason we American Christians have had so little impact on our modern society is because we fail to add to all our other virtues the courage to stand up for what is right. We’ve seen where they lived and how they succeeded. Unfortunately, their success did not last. Let’s see why.

  1. Why They Faltered

The Lord continues in verse 14, “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.”

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Jesus cited two acts of disloyalty by this church. First, they tolerated the Nicolaitans. Who were the Nicolaitans? The word comes from two words—niko meaning “to conquer” and laos meaning “the people.” It was a heresy in which the leaders of the church began to act as lords over the congregation, taking on powers and privileges which God never intended. In fact, many scholars believe this is when the non-biblical distinction between clergy and laity began, the leaders creating a hierarchy of deacons, elders, pastors, and bishops. But the Bible is clear. The ground is level at the foot of the cross, we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God, and though there are offices in the church, leaders are to be humble examples to the flock, not lords over the congregation. (1 Pet. 5:3) Therefore, Jesus said to them, “This thing I hate!”

Why did Jesus use such strong words? Because of two dangers. They were robbing God’s people of the opportunity to use their spiritual gifts under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. You see, there are some pastors who give their people the impression that “you cannot serve the Lord in this church unless I give you my permission.” That’s wrong! After all, whose church is it? Not mine or yours. It belongs to Jesus. He purchased it with His own blood. So pastors and elders can give their counsel, and if you’re wise, you will listen to them. But the permission and authority to do ministry in the church comes directly from Jesus Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit, not any human leader.

The second danger of this heresy is that it lets God’s people shift their responsibilities to the professional staff. “After all, Pastor, that’s what we pay you to do. Besides, you’re better at it than we are—the counseling, the confronting, the visiting, the evangelizing, the organizing. I have a good theological words for that—Baloney! That’s not why you pay your pastor or others on the ministerial staff. Ephesians 4:12 says the reason Christ gave pastors and teachers to His church was “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” In other words, pastors exist not to do your work for you, but to help you do your work better. In fact, other than preaching and making the most difficult decisions facing the church, I am hard-pressed to think of one other job in the church that only the “clergy” can do. I believe the saints can be trained to do it all!

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The second evil they tolerated was the doctrine of Balaam. Who was Balaam? He was a powerful and demonically-inspired false prophet who was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the people of Israel. Three times he tried to do so, but each time God stopped him—once by speaking to him through the mouth of a donkey. So when “Plan A” failed, he turned to “Plan B.” He advised the Moabites to send their daughters to intermarry with the Israelites. By doing so, he accomplished two things: 1) He made the Israelites hesitant to fight the Moabites, since they were now their in-laws. 2) He ate away at the moral core of Israel by introducing idolatry and immorality to their homes. The Israelite men married the beautiful daughters of Moab and began to accept their false religion and the immoral practices that went with it. What Satan failed to do through cursing, he very quickly achieved through compromise.

Nor have his tactics changed. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” So, in Pergamum, when persecution didn’t work, he began to raise up leaders who assured the people, “It doesn’t matter who your friends are as long as you love Jesus!” So, while continuing to speak out for Christ, they began to form wrong relationships—Christians marrying non-Christians, believers becoming business partners with unbelievers, and God’s people visiting the temples of idols.

What about you? Have you let the world, the flesh, and the devil worm their way into your life? I talked to a Christian couple some time ago who innocently entered into a business partnership with an unbeliever—a very nice unbeliever—and then spent the next three years trying to get out of it without losing their shirts as a result of all the unethical decisions he was making. Or perhaps you’re viewing movies and television programming that have no place in a Christian home. Or maybe you’re letting your children or grandchildren spend time and money on video games that do not please the Lord.

Last but not least, I warn young adults and your parents that according to 2 Corinthians 6:14, Christians are not permitted to date non-Christians. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

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But you say, “I only want to date him, not marry him!” Perhaps so. But the fact is, you don’t marry someone you haven’t dated. And having watched the pattern develop from start to finish dozens of times, I can tell you it almost always ends in sorrow. Typically, the girl says, “I’ll date him until I lead him to Christ, and then will I marry him.” But rarely does that happen. Rarely does the unbeliever make a genuine commitment to Jesus Christ. He may say he has, because the girl is attractive and he wants the benefits of a Christian wife. But rarely does the believer lift the unbeliever up to her level of morality. The lesson of Balaam is that we’re pulled down to their level of unbelief. So, parents, teach your children to trust the Lord not only their salvation, but also for His choice of a soul-mate.

As a personal testimony, I can tell you it was difficult for our two daughters to wait and pray until God brought loving Christian men into their lives. But their patience paid off. Our older daughter has just celebrated 12 years of marriage to a wonderful Christian man and pastor. Our younger daughter will soon celebrate 8 years of happy marriage to a very faithful and devoted Christian man. All of which brings great peace and joy to our hearts as parents.

 

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I’m the last person on earth who wants to keep you from making friends with unbelievers. After all, that’s how we lead them to Christ. But there is a difference between being friendly toward unbelievers and forming partnerships with them. That’s what we need to avoid. For that was and is the doctrine of Balaam. We’ve learned where they lived, how they succeeded, and why they faltered. Now notice a final fact with me. Notice—

  1. What They Risked

First, they risked judgment. Jesus continues in verse 16, “Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.” Did you notice the two different pronouns Jesus used? Two groups are being addressed in this verse—you and them.

Who are the “them” in this verse? False teachers who like Balaam were leading God’s people into sin. How do we know? Because of how they are punished—with the sword of His mouth. This is a reference not to the small sword used by Roman soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, but to the large two-handed sword used to decapitate the leader of an enemy army. It speaks of Jesus’ complete and everlasting victory over all of His enemies.

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Christians are often gullible. The moment someone claims to be a Christian, we say to ourselves, “Well, then, he must be OK?” What we forget is that Satan can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive us. Then when they begin to teach things contrary to the Bible or form their own little following, we give them the benefit of the doubt, “He’s just a misguided Christian who has gotten off the track.” Not so! 1 John 2:19 explains, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they are not all of us.”

The second group is identified by the word you. Who does this refer to? Backslidden Christians who are giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And the warning of Jesus is: Come out from among them and be separate, or “I will come to you quickly!” This isn’t the Second Coming, but Christ stepping into the midst of His church to bring judgment. You say, “Will God really judge His children?” Absolutely! Not for the purpose of condemnation. Romans 8:1 assures us, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” But God does discipline us so we don’t continue to put ourselves into circumstances that would cause us to be condemned with the world. (See 1 Cor. 11:32.)

The story is told of a farmer who was bothered by crows eating his new corn. So he loaded up his shotgun and crawled along the bottom of his fence to get a shot at them. Unfortunately, he also had a sociable parrot who, hearing the noise of the birds, decided to join them in the garden. BOOM! BOOM! The farmer pulled the trigger. Climbing over the fence, what did he find lying on the ground next to the dead crows? His pet, badly ruffled with a broken wing, but alive! Carrying it up to the house, his little girl tearfully asked, “Daddy, what happened to Polly?” Before he could reply, the parrot spoke up, “Bad company! Bad company!” For as 1 Corinthians 15:33 warns, “Bad company corrupts good morals.”

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Not only does He allow us to suffer the natural consequences of our sins, Jesus also reminds us, “There are rewards to be lost, if we do not repent.” The letter closes like this, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the white stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.”

The “hidden manna” refers to soul-satisfying fellowship with Jesus, the Bread of Life. Just as the Israelites enjoyed bread from heaven, you and I find everything our souls long for in Jesus Christ. Why is He called the “hidden manna?” Because fellowship with Him is something the world knows nothing about.

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I remember a phone call I received shortly after I became a Christian. A friend called me on Friday night and asked me, “Want to go drinking tonight?” “No,” I said, I don’t think so.” He said, “Well, then why don’t we go to the drive-in theater and see if we can pick up some girls?” “No,” I said, “I don’t want to do that either.” Then he mentioned a few other possibilities, and each time I said, “No, I can’t. I belong to Jesus Christ now, and it wouldn’t be pleasing to Him.” So, finally, in frustration he asked me, “Then what in the world do you do for fun now?” I remember I didn’t have a good answer for him at the time, because I was new at being a Christian. But even if I a good had an answer, I doubt he’d have understood it. Why? Because the joy we experience as Christians makes no sense to the world. They’re looking for a happiness based on happenings, when in fact the greatest joy of all simply comes from knowing Him.

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And not only is their soul-satisfying joy at the present time, the “white stone” reminds us of the special places of honor reserved for us in His kingdom. In ancient times, the Romans rewarded their athletes by giving them white stones with their names written on them, which served as entrance passes to the feasts that were held after the games. So, combined with the hidden manna mentioned above, I believe this is a reference to the special places of honor we will enjoy at that future feast called the marriage supper of the Lamb.

So ask yourself before we finish. How clean is my life before the Lord? Have I shown the courage to be in the world but not of it? Or am tolerating things the Lord hates? Remember:

All the water in the world, however hard it tried, could never sink a sailing ship, unless it got inside. All the evil in the world, the wickedness and sin, can never sink your soul’s craft, unless you let it in!

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