Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis
John is in Patmos, he probably thought his preaching days were over: he was now an old man and he is exiled on the island of Patmos. In spite of this he is to take on the most important job of his life: to see the future and to deliver a message to the churches that is frightening, awe inspiring and ultimately greatly encouraging and motivating. The first part of this unveiling (for that is what Revelation is) of God’s plan is a message to the churches. We saw last time how these messages may be seen on 3 different levels; 1). A message for the actual churches of the day located in Western Turkey, 2). A message for ‘generic’ churches of all geographies and times and 3). A message that speaks of the progression of church history over the last 2000 years or so.
This time we will look at the middle three churches: Pergamum, Thyatira and Sardis. You will recall that each message followed a similar pattern: 1)Identification of the speaker (Jesus) by one of the symbols associated with him in the first chapter, 2) What the Lord knows about each church, 3) an admonition, or reprimand, 4) an encouragement and 5) a call to listen with a promise to those who are victorious.
- Pergamum – The tolerant church
The characteristic of Jesus first mentioned in this message is his sharp double edged sword. Things were not great in this church at Pergamum. Repentance was necessary, and if it was not forthcoming those who were responsible for the wrongs in this church would be opposed by Jesus and his double edged sword.
In spite of its location (Pergamum was described by Jesus as the place ‘where Satan has his throne,’ ) the church had remained true. They did not renounce their faith even in times of persecution. The church has always found itself in enemy territory. The devil prowls around like a roaring lion and we are encouraged to equip ourselves with God’s armour in order to stand (Ephesians 6). It seems that the church in Pergamum were doing just that. But the pull of the world system is strong and it is all too easy to allow the philosophies of the world to creep into the church. There were two such issues in Pergamum.
The teaching of Baalam and of the Nicolaitans were not just tolerated but were incorporated into the church. Jesus described Pergamum as the place where Satan has his throne and it seems that features of Satan’s way of doing things were entering the church. The teaching of Baalam is associated with idolatry and sexual immorality.
If we go back to the book of Numbers we meet Baalam. Israel was on the move. Their time of wandering in the desert was over and they were headed for the promised land. God was with them and no army could stand against them. Their next move was to cross the Jordan into Moab. The existing inhabitants recognised the threat and the leader of the Moabites, Balak consulted a sorcerer (Baalam) to have a curse placed on Israel. The strange thing is that Baalam ended up receiving several messages from God himself – messages that Israel were blessed not cursed! Balak ended up in despair and sent Baalam home (without his consultancy fee it seems!). What happens next is surprising. The Israelites whom Baalak could not curse and whom God promised to bless indulged in sexual immorality with the local Moabite women and ended up worshiping their god. In spite of Baalam’s inability to curse the Israelites he advised Balak on another strategy: to entice them with Moabite women and to infiltrate them with worship of false gods. The strategy was a success and lead to great turmoil amongst the Israelites. This is an object lesson in the tactics that was adopted against the church in Pergamum. Notice that the strategy becomes successful when people inside the church open themselves up to evil influence – in the case of Israel it was by the use of attractive Moabite women. There are many things in this world that are attractive and can draw us away from the truth. The end is disaster and turmoil. Note the pattern: inappropriate engagement with the enemy and subsequent adoption of the enemy’s ways. Balak could not win a straight fight, but he could subvert his enemy. The church in Pergamum had fallen to this tactic. We must be vigilant. What aspects of the world’s thinking do we little by little adopt that subsequently draws us away from the truth?
The church in Pergamum had not just adopted the teaching of Baalam, but had moreover adopted the teaching of the Nicolaitans – they had developed a church that was divided into ‘priests’ and ‘people’. This is an attractive proposition for many churches. Surely a fully paid-for priest-class is good? They can do such a nice job with their robes and form – the ‘people’ then allow the priest-class to look after their spiritual welfare and make the rules. This is not the pattern we observe in the early church. Not that there were no paid Christian workers – there were, but the format looks to have been much more simple with the leaders serving the needs of congregations and not adopting the pattern of Old Testament priesthood. There was a need for change in Pergamum, a need for repentance. Failure to change would result in removal of the problem with Jesus’ sharp and double edged sword.
Jesus once again urges the church to listen! There would be a reward for those who overcome, the true believers: hidden manna, a white stone and a new name. Manna speaks of the benefits of God’s provision, in the church age it is hidden but one day we will be with him and it will be seen. In ancient times, a white stone was given as a sign of honour to a guest or it could be symbolic in a legal context of acquittal. As believers and over-comers our names are written on the stone of acquittal.
The church in Pergamum likely represents the period of church history from about 300 to 600 AD. It was during this period that Roman Catholicism emerged. The Babylonian cult of the worship of mother and baby was expressed in the veneration of Mary. In this we see the familiar tactic of the enemy of introducing false systems into the church.
- Thyatira – church of compromise
The city of Thyatira was known for its trade in wool, linen, dyed fabrics, leather and bronzework. You may recall that Paul met Lydia a Philippi, she was a dealer in purple cloth and came from Thyatira.
Jesus’ feature of eyes of blazing fire and feet of burnished bronze are in view: features that speak of judgement. There was love, faith, service and perseverance in evidence in Thyatira, but there were significant problems. They tolerated ‘that woman Jezebel.’
Just who exactly was Jezebel? Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab – one of the kings of Israel. She was not an Israeli. She brought her religion with her and sought to make the worship of Baal and Asherah the national religion of Israel. You might remember how Elijah feared for his life – it was Jezebel whom he feared. Jezebel’s husband Ahab was not of the line of David, thus the northern nation of Israel had a false king and through Jezebel adopted a false religion. Thus Jezebel represents a religion that is opposed to God. Sadly the church in Thyatira had become intimately involved with this sort of activity. It is not in anyway overstating the case that the worship systems associated with Jezebel are Satanically inspired (see verse 24). The problem was that those involved refused to repent: God would deal with this in judgement. It seems that judgement however would need to await the return of Jesus.
Thankfully there were true believers in Thyatira. The message to them is not exactly upbeat – ‘hold on until I come.’ The Satanic practices that had taken over the church could not be removed, Jezebel would not repent.
This church will be given rights to reign with Christ in his Kingdom. The rule will be an uncompromising rule – no more Jezebel! Jesus quotes Psalm 2:9 – it will be iron rod rule. This church will also receive the morning star. The morning star comes before the dawn of a new day. In the book of Job the morning star is associated with joy and Jesus is referred to as the morning star later in Revelation. Thus this seems to be associated with the true believers being united with Christ in joy.
In its historical context Thyatira seems to be associated with the church in the period from about 600 to 1500 AD – the period in which the church is dominated by the Roman Catholicism. In this period authority of the Pope was established apportioning to him supreme authority over the church as well as civil rulers. The church had now moved dramatically from its original form. Just as Jezebel introduced false religion to Israel, a similar influence was felt in the church. The church became intertwined with the state and declared the kingdom of God to have two arms, one political lead by the emperor and one spiritual lead by the pope.
Sardis was about 30 miles from Thyatira, it had grown wealthy through its important position on the trade route on which it sat. Sardis was well known for its pagan worship of the goddess Artemis – the remains of the temple to Artemis remain to this day. The city was known for its trade in wool.
Jesus is introduced as the one who holds the seven spirits of God (or the sevenfold spirit of God) and the seven stars in his hand. The mention of the sevenfold Spirit of God was perhaps a reminder to this church that spiritual life comes from the presence of God’s spirit – as we shall see, this church needed some of that life. The mention of the seven stars in Christ’s hand is a reminder of his protection.
So what was known about the church is Sardis. Here’s Jesus’ words ‘I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.’ That’s a sad commentary – a church who seems to be alive but which is in fact dead. Perhaps this church was living on past glories, living on merely a reputation rather than a reality. There’s been an almost unbroken witness in our little church in East Grinstead since 1810. In the early 1800s men from East Grinstead took the gospel to the surrounding villages of Turners Hill, Copthorne and West Hoathly. I wonder if they came back today – what would they make of us? Would they reckon that we were living on past reputations, appearing to be alive, but with only a flicker of life?
Jesus’ reprimand to the Sardinian church was that their deeds were unfinished. They had begun something but had given up. They had been alive but now the life was almost gone.
The encouragement for Sardis was to wake up! And for them to ‘strengthen what remains and is about to die.’ The picture is rather like a fire that has gone out, there are still some glowing embers, but the direction of travel is extinction. What the fire needs is some fuel and some stirring up to bring in air and fan the flames. It was not too late for the Sardians to wake up and fire themselves back into life. Sometimes we need to look in the mirror and face reality – it was time for this church to do just that. God’s Spirit would help – he is always present and waiting for us to make room for him in our lives.
Next Jesus encourages the Sardians to look back, to remember what they had received and heard, to hold fast to it and to repent. The Sardians had received the gospel from the apostles, it was time to get back to that, to turn around from where they were and return to truth. If this church did not wake up they would be found asleep and unprepared for the return of the Lord.
There is a promise for those who have remained true, the true believers will be dressed in white and will walk with Jesus – what a promise! This white garment speaks of a purity that is God-given. The Sardians were perhaps concerned about their outward appearance – when inwardly they were dead. Those who had remained alive inside would have this demonstrated externally with white garments. These victorious believers will have their names permanently entered into the book of life. In ancient cities, the names of citizens were entered into a register until their death. On death their names were removed. For those who are in Christ, by believing in him – their names are written in the book of life, but they will never be blotted out, because they have eternal life in Christ. The message concludes with the now familiar ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
This church seems to represent the church in the period from about 1500 to 1700. The period of reformation when indeed some of the truths of God’s word were re-introduced into the church – this was not a complete success but the foundation was laid for the more successful next church in the series, the church of Philadelphia.