A study in doctrinal corruption
The day in which we live is no time for easy-going Christianity, especially when it comes to doctrinal matters. Our society is drowning in a sea of confused values.
Life must be guided by some fixed standard of what is true, or it is so easy to get lost in the shuffle of confusing ideas and shifting principles. Our culture stands in need of Christians who know who they are and what they are doing and, most of all, Christians who are certain of what God has said in His Word. Life is always a product of thought. Behavior is the result of what we think. If our thinking is wrong then our living will necessarily be wrong. And that is exactly what happened in the church in Pergamum in the first century. They had become doctrinally corrupt and their behavior followed.
The seven churches of Revelation 2,3 were chosen because of the specific situations in their assemblies, situations which apply to churches of every age. Seven were chosen to represent all churches. These letters contain messages not just for the 1st century, but for churches of the 11th century, and the 16th century, and the 21st century.
The letter to the church at Pergamum is found in Revelation 2:12-18. Verses 14 and 15 read, “But I have a few things against you: you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
Paganism had an iron grip on Pergamum. It was home to a great altar of Zeus as well as multiple temples to pagan gods and the worship of Roman emperors. Though the Christians in Pergamum had not been compromised by the blatant idolatry of the altar of Zeus, some of them had fallen prey to a subtler seduction, the doctrinal heresy of the Nicolaitans.
According to early tradition (Irenaeus and Eusebius), the Nicolaitans were the followers of a certain Nicolaus. These followers had left true Christian doctrine and had begun to teach unrestrained indulgence. In the name of Christian liberty they taught that you could live in whatever manner you desire. No activity was to be condemned, including immorality. The Christian faith was being used as a license for lawlessness. Their logic went something like this: the body is sinful . . . Christ died for all sins . . . therefore what is done in the body does not really matter.
In Revelation 2:14 the Lord compared the situation in Pergamum to the OT story of Balaam. Balaam was a prophet hired by the enemies of Israel to curse Israel so her enemies could gain a military victory. Instead of cursing Israel, Balaam blessed Israel. It appeared that he was doing the right thing, refusing to utter a curse on God’s people. But later in the story the truth was revealed. Balaam would not openly curse the Israelites, but he privately advised Israel’s enemies on how they could conquer the Jews in a more subtle fashion. “Entice the Jews through immorality and intermarriage. They will become like your people and they will serve your gods.” And it worked. What could not be accomplished through war was accomplished through immorality. Applied to the situation at Pergamum, the corruption of the church there was not being accomplished openly, through worship of Zeus or the Roman emperor. It was being done subtly, through immorality, perhaps intermarriage with unbelievers, and doctrinal compromise.
This passage points out two problems in the church which stifle purity.
First, while condemning public evil, we sometimes make allowances for more subtle sins. For example, we renounce, in loudest rhetoric, the proliferation of pornography in our land. And well we should because it is a blight on our society. But what about our own lust … do we deal ruthlessly with that? We are appalled with abortion and condemn it in no uncertain terms as murder (which it certainly is). But what about our own hatred for our neighbor, or our Christian brother … do we deal with that?
We might lament that public prayer has been banned from our schools, but the prayer meetings in many of our churches are the emptiest of all the meetings. What happened in Pergamum is happening to many of our churches today. There is some success in dealing with corruption from without while succumbing to subtle, rationalized corruption within.
Second, and connected with the first lesson, there is a chilling danger today of haziness when it comes to doctrine. To an alarming degree, we simply do not know well what God has said and the implications of what He has said. The problem in Pergamum was first, doctrinal, and then practical. Wrong thinking led to wrong living. It always does. Beloved, the Word of God must not be only a Sunday practice. It must be part of our lives like eating and sleeping and working are part of our lives. Job said that the Word of God was more important to him than the food on his table. If we do not know what God has said, then the church is in grave danger … not, perhaps, from the pressures from outside our walls, but from subtle corruptions within our own hearts.
Striving to know and do what is right,