Tottering at the Abyss: Pergamum and Thyatira’s Courtship with False Religion

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There and Then

The Book of Revelation, unfortunately shrouded in mystery and confusion, is perhaps the most practical book in the Bible. It is the text God used to launch forth an army of martyr witnesses that neither Imperial Rome nor intransigent Judaism could intimidate or silence. This army, the church of Jesus Christ, was shaped and galvanized by its appropriation of a central identity that sustained it through the direst persecution and even scandal. The book reminds Christians living in Asia Minor of two key things. First, that they have an identity found in Christ, the conquering Lamb and lover that prevails over every possible threat. That even though they struggle with slander, deprivation, coercion, torture, and death, nothing can ever separate them from God’s eternal, covenantal love. Second, that they, as the covenant children of God, saved by the blood of Christ, must, in union with him, follow him. That means maintaining an unbreakable witness that is not compromised by the world, the flesh, or the devil. The central theme of Revelation is this idea of faithful witness, as the Church of Jesus Christ, regardless of consequence, to the glory of God and the joyous extension of his kingdom.

 

It is not pie-in-the-sky platitudes that characterize the text of Revelation. It is full of blood and guts-even horror as believers are described as those who have to confront constantly the militant hatred of the world characterized by the false religion of emperor worship and an emerging rabbinic Judaism that totally rejects God’s revelation in Christ, both with regard to his trinitarian roots and his redemptive work on the cross. Christians are seemingly caught in a vise formed from these two malicious forces. As they struggle to maintain their faithful witness, some succeed and others fail. Christ, because he loves his church, speaks directly into the lives of both groups. Two churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, are commended to maintain what they already have, a faithful witness despite the circumstances. There is a danger, of course, that they could be intimidated out of their faithful stand. Five churches, however, are rebuked and warned because they are headed down the wrong road. Some appear; perhaps on the basis of their wealth and deceptive sense of security, to have lost their witness because of their complacency. They have made their peace with the world; deluded to the point that they thought they controlled it.

 

Others, however, such as the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira, have a different problem that threatens their witness and even their standing as churches. Their problem concerns a ruinous association with false religion.  Let’s take a look at Jesus’s addressing each church in turn. In Rev 2:12-17, Jesus speaks directly to the church in Pergamum. It is a city with some notoriety since it was home to the oldest temple devoted to emperor worship. So, we know that one jaw in our vise of false religion is there. It is a precarious place. The believers live near Satan’s throne (13). Nevertheless, they have not yet discarded their witness, even in the aftermath of the martyrdom of a witness named Antipas. The bad news, however, begins to crowd out the good. Some people imitate Balaam, the false prophet (Num 25:1-2; 31:16) who taught Balak to seduce Israel away from Yahweh (14). The way in which this syncretism was expressed was that professing believers were eating food sacrificed to idols and practicing sexual immorality (probably in a ritualistic way associated with the pagan temple). Others took to the teaching of the Nicolaitans (15). This error pointed toward spiritual immorality.

 

Taken altogether, we can see God condemning the practice of eating meat left over from pagan sacrifices and rituals. One did not need to attend the pagan worship to eat the pagan meat. It was offered at a discount in the marketplace. Christians, often cash-strapped in this hostile environment, apparently found the affordable meat a bargain too good to pass up. Perhaps they comforted themselves with the knowledge that they did not believe in the falsity of the pagan worship. This was not, however, good enough for Christ. In his view, eating this was tantamount to sanctioning the pagan practices and sexual license associated with it. Paul identified this with eating with demons in 1 Corinthians 10. The viewpoint here is of this type of compromise serving as an open door to hell. Christ’s perspective is not complicated. It is that any association with the practices of other religions is both a denial of believers’ essential witness to Christ and an indication that their membership ultimately resides with Satan, not God.

 

They are warned on the basis of their participation with false religion. God will war against them with the sword of his mouth (16). In other words, he will not speak for them before the throne of God the judge. Rather, he will curse them. Just as God sent a plague against unfaithful Israel, seduced by Baalam’s syncretism (Num 31:16), killing 24,000 people, so will these people be cursed for also following after false gods by participating in the same sorts of pagan practices. Nevertheless, there is great news for those who repent of this syncretism. The faithful who resist such syncretism will be given abundant spiritual food by God (17). This is crucial encouragement to people that are tempted by what seems to be a bargain. The promise is amplified. They are told that they will, if they remain exclusively faithful, receive a white stone, an entry pass into the a final victory banquet. Again, we see the powerful motif of food. False religion tempted them to compromise their faith by offering them material benefits. Christ trumped this temptation by offering eternal sustenance and celebration, feasting as children at home with their God.

 

Thyatira, addressed by Jesus in Rev. 2:18-29 is another story altogether. It isn’t known for much at all. This is a wonderful example of God’s economy. It is the least important place, as far as the world is concerned, but to it is written the longest letter. The believers are approached by Christ who comes in all of his revealed grandeur and holiness, with eyes like a flame and feet like polished bronze (18). The image is critical to understanding the rest of the text. The Thyatirans are also compromising with false religion and Christ wants them to clearly understand that he is confronting them with all of the power and purity of the godhead. Sometimes it is easy for us to fall into rationalizing or compromising sin because we limit Christ’s glory, deity, majesty or holiness. It may be implicit in the text that this is one source of the Thyatirans’ problems.

 

Like the previous letter, Christ enumerates the church’s good points first. Love, service, patience and works all stand out. This appears to be a caring church, involved in its community. Just as Thyatira is a humble place, these are humble people (19). They are not used to dominating others. They apparently do not tell others what to do. That may also be a key element in their decline. “You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols (20).” They not only allow this false prophet to peddle her false teaching within earshot of the believers, but they do something much worse. They allow her to entrap  people in this web of false religion. Note something else that the messages to both churches express. Christ objects not simply to false belief, but the ethics, the lived out practices in the community. It makes no difference for them to plead that, despite this outward compromise, they have a genuine, personal, spiritual relationship with Christ. Clearly that is not what the text itself describes.

 

We can see that clearly in verses 21-23. God will judge and destroy not only Jezebel, but all those who associate with her. In other words, one does not need to be a priest or prophet in a false religion to merit destruction. The same is true for those that associate with the practices of them. Again, we see the key thrust of Revelation. Nothing must destroy, misdirect, or fatally compromise the faithful, outward witness to Christ. The bottom line for Thyatira, and us, is found in 23. “And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.” Jesus knows the professing church inside and out. Because he does, he will judge everything: inner conviction, outward profession, and outward works. Having Jesus in your heart is not enough.

 

Those who have not fallen into this pit are not to be so judged. Even though they are powerless believers living in an insignificant city, they will be given authority over nations, backed by the transcendent power of the godhead. Ultimately, the text points to a promise for the faithful witnesses of eternal security and significance in the arms of Jesus. These are powerful words for powerless people that are tempted to believe that they have no alternative other than living with the religious and cultural proscriptions of surrounding hostile religion. Believers that remain faithful, open, unambiguous witnesses for Christ as part of his visible church are, in Christ’s promise, already overcomers.

 

Here and Now

Proponents of insider movements and other syncretistic errors would have us believe that people can own Christ but live within Islam. In practice, what does this actually look like? Does it mean that you identify yourself as a Muslim? Most certainly. Then, you cannot identify yourself publicly with the rest of God’s church, which is never simply plural for “believer.” Would you attend mosque, pray the namaz, go on hajj, fast during Ramadan, and recite the shahadah? You certainly would do some, if not all of these. In folk Islamic cultures, however, the one thing you would not ignore would be the feasts and sacrifices. These, more than anything else, bind you to your local community, regardless of what you privately believe and others think of you. As long as you continue to observe the sacrifices, you may avoid confrontation and persecution. Perhaps, in your mind, you think that such a compromise with the religious roots of these cultural practices can be rationalized. After all, wouldn’t it make you a better witness? Rationalization, however, is never to be the foundation of our ethics as believers. The Word of God is. The texts we explored above, along with a multitude of scriptural references, all testify to the requirement for believers to scrupulously avoid any association with other religions. These all ultimately destroy our witness.

 

It also seems to me that this propensity to resort to syncretism supposedly in the name of witness reflects an origin in our own Western cultural syncretism. We think that what is needed is a manipulative approach that coaxes Muslims into the kingdom. Surely allowing and even encouraging Muslim “believers” to participate in Korbani (ritual sacrifice), cannot be a bad thing. After all, isn’t it just a cultural activity that doesn’t erase your testimony? Really? How is this different than our innumerable “revivals” and “crusades” that led millions of people to say  “yes” to Jesus without ever really being changed by Jesus? All we teach people to do is get a little “fire insurance”, a false confidence that if we make the profession, perhaps if we are even baptized or take part in the Lord’s Supper, we are safe. How false a picture of God’s saving grace this is! How little regard we show for the glory of God and the holiness of our Lord. How little understanding of his exclusive promises and his uncompromising demands. Better to take the words of Revelation 3:11 to heart: “I am coming soon. Hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”

 

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About Author

Basil is a minister in the Presbyterian Church of America, a former moderator of the International Presbyterian Church, a European-based denomination started by Dr Francis Scheffer, and assisted in the creation of the Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh. A former church planter, he has pastored two churches and served cross-culturally for much of the last 30 years.

2 Comments

  1. I find this sort of response interesting in that it bears no resemblance to the text in hand. There is not one scintilla of evidence that the obvious excesses in Pergamum and Thyatira were the consequence of poor contextualization. Taken as a unit, all seven churches testify to local compromises with false religion and idolatry. Should not this therefore serve as a better judge of insider anecdotes than the supposed deficiencies that its proponents raise? This is the only valid sort of approach that precludes erected straw men that can justify any approach. In the Book of Revelation, as in the preponderance of the Bible, we have a solid, covenantal respond to religions. Insider movements add nothing to that knowledge, other than to confirm the wisdom of God in contrasting the one true faith with a world of false religion.

  2. Salaam-Corniche on

    Thank you for your Biblical commentary, Basil. I present you a challenge. In an unpublished position paper on the insider movement a certain Mr. XYZ he talked about people’s concern with syncretism, mentioned the two churches you cited and then stated:
    “However, the radical contextualization of insider movements rooted in the Scriptures can actually be a powerful antidote against syncretism. It is the poorly contextualized, and thus poorly understood gospel, that can give root to syncretism. We must entrust this process to the Spirit.”
    How would you respond?
    Shalom

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