Driving Between Two Ditches (Revelation 2:12-17)
A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Part 5
I think that the most difficult thing about being a pastor was probably the fact that I often found myself needing to teach on an issue—and teach with passion—despite the fact that I didn’t really measure up on that issue myself.
No one assumes that pastors are perfect. But then again, they kind of do. They suspect that pastors have this being-a-Christian thing pretty much nailed down. After all, they’re professional Christians, right? I don’t think I ever projected perfectionism. I tried to make it clear that I was always including myself in my exhortations to the congregation. But still… How do you preach passionately about giving when you’re not a particularly passionate giver? How do you urge people to be compassionate when you’re not all that compassionate? How do you encourage purity of mind, when that’s really not something you’ve got nailed down?
I once heard someone ask John Piper if he considered himself a joyful person. After all, he had written the book on finding our deepest joy and satisfaction in God. He said something like, “No. It’s called ‘Desiring God.’ Not ‘I Have Arrived at Deepest Joy In God.’ I’m not a particularly joyful person. I just know what I want really badly.”
That’s why it’s taken me so long to write this post. It’s tough to write passionately about something I don’t have nailed down. But I know what I want really badly. When you’re a pastor, Sunday’s going to come whether you want it to or not. The people are going to be there. You have to say something. Blogging is obviously different. There’s not that handy built-in deadline. But I need to write this. I’m not standing up until it’s done.
In Revelation 2:12-17, God turns his focus to Pergamum, the third of the seven churches in Asia Minor. the church at Pergamum had almost exactly the opposite problem of the church at Ephesus. The Ephesians were so concerned with doctrinal integrity and internal maintenance of purity and solidarity in the church that they had become completely ineffective at reaching people outside the church. The church at Pergamum, on the other hand, was so concerned about engaging their culture that they had increasingly begun to accommodate and blend with their culture.
Some of them clearly had stood firm. Despite the fact that the social pressure to participate in pagan worship in the many temples in Pergamum was so intense that God describes the city as “where Satan has his throne” and “where Satan lives” (v. 13), he affirms many of the believers:
“Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city…” (v. 14)
But many had not stood firm. There were apparently some in the church who were leading others into idolatry and sexual immorality. People who in the name of cultural engagement and “relevance” were enticing their brothers and sisters to compromise their convictions and throw themselves into the stream of the ways of Pergamum. John draws on a story from the Old Testament to illustrate what was happening:
“There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.” (v. 14)
Greg Beale explains: “Balaam was a pagan prophet hired by Balak, king of Moab, to pronounce a curse upon the invading Israelites. God prevented Balaam from doing so and caused him to issue a blessing on them instead (see Num. 22:5–24:25). However, Balaam subsequently devised a plan in continued disobedience to God whereby some of the Moabite women would entice the Israelite men to ‘defect from the Lord’ (31:16) by fornicating with them and joining with them in the worship of their pagan gods (25:1–3). This plan was successful, and God punished the Israelites for their idolatrous involvement. …Balaam became proverbial for the false teacher who for money influences believers to enter into relationships of compromising unfaithfulness, is warned by God to stop, and is finally punished for continuing to disobey.”
The truth is that every believer, at some point, is going to deal with either “Ephesus-think” or “Pergamum-think.” Maybe both. My experience is that most people who grow up in the church are trained in “Ephesus-think” and they have to figure out how to break out of it and become ambassadors of Christ who effectively engage the world without slipping into “Pergamum-think.” On the other hand, it seems that most people who come to Christ later in life find “Pergamum-think” more natural, and they have to figure out how to weed immorality out of their lives and build solid Christian relationships without slipping into “Ephesus-think,” where they don’t have a single genuine friendship with a non-believer and are completely ineffective at drawing near to messy people who are far from Christ.
I’ve lived in both kinds of “think” and unfortunately I’ve allowed myself to be burned by both. Apparently I’m not particularly good at living in either Ephesus or Pergamum. I want internal purity and congregational cohesion, but there have been times when those pursuits have made me worthless as an evangelist and “friend of sinners,” like Jesus. And I want to engage with culture and form substantive, genuine relationships with messy people. But there have been times when those pursuits have drawn me too far in to the place “where Satan has his throne,” so to speak.
I want to be better. I want to be stronger. I want to set a better example. I want to drive the road between these two ditches without ending up in either. And here’s what I’m clinging to:
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (v. 17)
This is God’s promise of blessing and reward to those who are victorious. And victory, in this case, is navigating the opportunities and dangers of Ephesus and Pergumum while remaining “true to my name.” (v. 13). Those who have lived too long in Ephesus should not go be citizens of Pergamum. And citizenship in Ephesus is not the answer for those who have lived too long in Pergamum. As our lives bring us through the temptations and blessings of being both a citizen of the world and of heaven, our call is not to plant feet firmly in either until heaven comes to earth. Rather, our calling is to faithfulness in both.
To the faithful, God promises “hidden manna”—sustenance, provision. Life. And he promises a “white stone with a new name written on it” (v. 17). Wright explains: “Pergamum’s great buildings were made of a black local stone. When people wanted to put up inscriptions, they obtained white marble on which to carve them. This was then fixed to the black buildings, where it stood out all the more clearly. …The fact that nobody knows this name except the one who receives it [means]… Jesus is promising to each faithful disciple, to each one who ‘conquers’, an intimate relationship with himself in which Jesus will use the secret name which, as with lovers, remains private to those involved. The challenge to avoid the false intimacy of sexual promiscuity is matched by the offer of a genuine intimacy of spiritual union with Jesus himself.” (Revelation for Everyone, 23)
So, God, make me faithful to you through Ephesus and Pergamum. Make me true to your name as I navigate the church and the wider world. Forgive me for the times I have failed to engage the world without being infected by the world, and for the times I have become so insulated by the church that I haven’t loved the lost well. Wash away my filth, heal my wounds, and help me to do better for you this time around. Amen.