Church at Pergamum
The seven messages from Jesus to the churches of Revelation seem to be organized in the form of a chiasm. The term chiasm refers to the Greek letter chi, which is shaped like an ‘X’. If you’re not familiar with the term, think of a picture frame. A picture frame has an outer wooden piece, and inside that you’ll often find a mat. Inside the mat is the picture. Just as a nice frame and a well-chosen mat complement whatever is in the frame, so also chiasms often highlight whatever is at the center of the chiasm.
For example, if we examine what Jesus says about the condition of the churches, we see that the first and last church have a similar problem – the loss of first love in Ephesus is like the lukewarm state of Laodicea. Similarly, the second church addressed is like the next to last church addressed in that the churches in both Smyrna and Philadelphia are commended, not reproved, and neither church is called to repent.
The three churches in the middle seem to progress from bad to worse: the letters to both Pergamum and Thyatira mention false teaching, idolatry, and immorality, and Thyatira seems to be in a worse state than Pergamum, while Jesus says that the church in Sardis is dead! Thus, as Richard Phillips notes, ‘A chiastic pattern is useful not only in linking pairs but also in focusing emphasis on the items in the center.’
He goes on to note that ‘this raises a question about the relationship of the messages to the third, fourth, and fifth churches. The answer seems to lie in a progression that Jesus highlights as endangering not only these churches but all his churches in all times.’ Phillips and others conclude then that false teaching leads to death. James Hamilton declares, ‘This is where false teaching leads – death. This is where idolatry and immorality lead – death. No exceptions!’
Hence, from the Scripture’s presentation we can denote how dangerous a seemingly little thing can become. Phillips highlights this conclusion: ‘The third message, to Pergamum, warns against false teaching that turns Christ’s people toward worldliness. The fourth message, to Thyatira, rebukes not just false teaching but also its fruit in sinful debauchery. The fifth message, to Sardis, shows the ultimate result when false teaching leads to sinful indulgence. Jesus writes to Sardis: ‘You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead’ (Rev. 3:1). This seems to be the overall warning given by the exalted Christ to his church: if false teaching is permitted, the worldliness it fosters will lead to gross sinfulness, the result of which will be death.’
Could this be the reason the church in America is so anemic, so weak, so powerless? In Pergamum, the church was asking questions such as: How then should a Christian live in a city like Pergamum? What could one do, and what should one not do? Should one take part in the normal civic life – which included festivals of the gods, not least Rome and the emperor? Was there a way in which one might do enough to get by while drawing back from full involvement?
At this point, some in the church at Pergamum seem to have taken that permitted flexibility all the way into cultural assimilation. There’s no point standing out; we are part of this society, let’s go with the flow. Some people, faced with the challenge to deny Jesus, have refused to do so. One in particular, Antipas, has died as a result (2:13). But there are others – who are keen not to stand out. They have gone along with the prevailing culture.
The problem in Pergamum is that much of the church has lost its cutting edge, its ability to say ‘no’ to the surrounding culture. As the earliest Christians found in Acts, the church always has to be able to say ‘We must obey God rather than human authorities’, even if the ‘authorities’ in question are not the official magistrates but simply the insidious pressures of people saying ‘but this is what everybody does’.
Jesus’ response is clear. The Roman governor may wield the sword, but Jesus has the sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. His word will cut through the half-hearted spirituality that is happy to face both ways at once. Join us this week as we look at the message to the church at Pergamum, or Gardendale, or Morris, or Hayden, or Corner, or Warrior, or….
By His Grace,