Remember that we are reading seven letters from Jesus to seven different churches. Letter number three begins in verse 12:
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum…” (Revelation 2:12).
Pergamum is the compromised church. The word Pergamum means “objectionable marriage.” In this case, a marriage between church and state. Just after 300 AD, a new Roman empire arose under Constantine, and Constantine decided that he would conquer under the sign of the cross. Christianity became the national religion, and politics and power corrupted the church. Suddenly it was cool to be Christian. That’s bad. When everyone calls themselves Christian, you find a lot of hypocrites, and genuine Christianity becomes hard to find.
To the compromised church, Jesus presents himself as “him who has the sharp, double-edged sword” (2:12). That’s the Word of God, and the Word pierces and separates.
Jesus encourages this church. Many remained true to His name, and did not renounce their faith. This is important to see in every church. Even in the midst of compromise, there are true believers. Remember Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds. But in verse 14:
“Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam,” (2:14).
Balaam was a wicked prophet in the Old Testament. King Balak wanted to destroy God’s people, to curse them. But he couldn’t do it. So Balaam told Balak – here’s what you do… Get your pretty pagan girls, have them seduce the men of God, and in the middle of adultery, worship another God. And it worked. They cheated on their wives, and on God. And they were destroyed by their foolish lust.
Balaam’s teaching was the bad marriage: mix worship with adultery, God’s people with idolatry. He seduced God’s people into cheating on God.
Back in Constantine’s empire, when Christianity gained political power, the church was seduced, compromised, and corrupted. Lots of pagans joined the church without actually changing their hearts. They kept their pagan customs and holidays, but Christianized them. Christmas trees, Easter eggs, lent, celibate priests with high hats and all the rest – all came from pagan customs. Household altars to pagan gods were replaced with altars to Mary or Jesus, or Christian saints.
Now in some ways, I think they meant well. But what happened is exactly what it says in verse fourteen about Balaam’s story: idolatry and sexual immorality. Just watch how the world celebrates St. Patrick’s Day or Mardi Gras, and tell me that’s Christian. Sorry Patrick, you deserve more than green beer and drinking songs. Then verse 15 says:
“Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (2:15).
This could mean a couple things. One possibility: nico means power, laity means people. So Nicolaitans can mean power over the people. When church and state were joined, the church took on a structure that looked more like government: pushing the leaders up and the people down. Common people had to go through priests and bishops and popes to reach God. In verse 16, Jesus says:
“Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16).
So how does Jesus fight against all this compromise and corruption in the church? With the sword. That’s the Word, the Bible.
The Word of God pierces – it checks our motives. And it separates – so we know what is from God and what is just green food dye. The Bible reminds us there is one mediator between God and man. You don’t have to go through priests, popes, or saints. You go straight to Jesus. God’s word sanctifies – makes us holy – and washes away the world’s corruption.
Listen. Christmas trees and Easter eggs are not inherently evil, but they’re not really Christian either. Candles to saints, even fasting for lent, are nowhere to be found in the Bible. They were all pagan.
So should you stop? I don’t know. That’s between you and God. Certainly you should check your motives. If you are trying to earn points with God or pay off sin, then stop. That’s not Biblical.
And for you who want to see Christianity get more political power, learn a lesson from church history. Power corrupts. And enforcing Christian values on non-Christians often backfires.
Read Jesus’ letter for yourself, and take it to heart. Jesus still hasn’t given up on His church, and he still rewards those who overcome!