Email from Jesus – 3. The Tragedy of Open-Minded Christianity
Revelation 2: 12 - 17 Would you rather be open-minded or narrow-minded? We all know the answer to that, don’t we? If you are open-minded, you are accepting, tolerant, observant, unbiased and understanding. But if you are narrow-minded, you are bigoted, conservative, tough skinned, opinionated, reactionary and intolerant. So, let’s all be open-minded. But is that always a good idea? “No sane person wants a banker who says that two plus two equals three. We do not want a pharmacist who just throws together any drugs that may suit his fancy. We want him to follow exactly the doctor’s prescription. This is true narrow-mindedness. We commend this quality in lesser matters - finances and health. But many condemn it in matters of religion.” Where God has spoken, his truth is not up for debate. We don’t debate “Do not murder” or “Salvation is found in no one else” or “Abstain from sexual immorality.” We believe that Jesus meant it when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Christians are narrow-minded about God’s truth. We believe that God has spoken in his Word and that his Word is to be obeyed, not debated. Writing to the church at Pergamum, Christ confronts a congregation that had become too open-minded for its own good. Pergamum was 100 kms north of Smyrna. (MAP) A great university could be found there with a massive library of 200,000 books. As the ancient capital city of Asia Minor, it was filled with beautiful palaces and pagan temples. (PICTURES) Taking centre stage was the massive altar to Zeus, the god of all gods. Pergamum was also known for its temple in honour of Asclepius, the pagan god of healing whose emblem was a serpent entwined on a pole. Sick people came to the temple from vast distances hoping to be healed. All the pagan rites of antiquity were practiced there. Pergamum combined a toxic mix of political power, pagan ritual and Greek philosophy mixed with Caesar worship. Every citizen was expected once a year to offer incense and declare “Caesar is Lord.” We need to hear what our Lord says because many churches today find themselves in the same position. What do we learn when we read this letter from Jesus? 1. No Church can Live on its Past v. 13 The church at Pergamum certainly had a great heritage. During days of intense persecution a man from the church named Antipas had paid the ultimate price for his faith. We know nothing more about Antipas. What matters is that Jesus knows his name and knows that he would not give in to the pressure around him. Though forgotten on earth, he is remembered in heaven. So it is for all the brave martyrs. Their blood has become the seed of the church worldwide. But where there is heroic virtue, great danger lurks. A church with such a great past may assume that it is meeting the challenge of the present day. Was the church at Pergamum guilty of honouring Antipas while neglecting to follow his godly example? Where are the heroes like those of the past? Where are the modern soldiers of the cross? Where are the Luthers of today? Where are the Spurgeons of today? 2. No Church can Live on Courage Alone v. 13 Don’t miss the good words Christ has to say about this church. When Jesus says that Satan has his “throne” there, he means that Satan has found a place where he can exercise diabolical influence over an entire region. Through some combination of idol-worship and sensual pleasure, Satan held sway over that city. It was a region covered with a dark cloud of evil. I believe Satan still has his “thrones” today. There are areas and places where Satan has held sway for many generations. Missionaries know all about this. They speak of cities clothed in spiritual darkness, so deeply resistant to the light that every gospel advance meets fierce and bitter resistance. We need not think only of remote tribal areas held in demonic bondage through ignorance and fear. We are likely find Satan’s throne today in places of cultural influence, in the great universities, in the seat of political power and in the halls of commerce. Satan has many friends in the halls of power. Satan has many friends on the Internet. It is to the credit of the church at Pergamum that despite the prevailing intellectualism and the widespread paganism, the early Christians had established a foothold in the shadow of Satan’s throne. It was not easy to be a Christian in Pergamum. It is not easy today to be a Christian. If there is not outright opposition, there is subtle and unrelenting pressure to keep quiet, to cut off the hard edges of your faith and to refuse to speak openly about Jesus Christ. A great battle rages between the God of this world and the God of the Bible. In that battle the believers in Pergamum had not yet yielded ground. What, then, was their great failing? 3. No Church can Live with Error in its Midst v. 14, 15 Here is the nub of the problem: “You have people who hold . . .” We see in those 5 words the weakness of this otherwise brave congregation. In the name of misguided love they refused to cast out those who held the “teaching of Balaam” and the “teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Both phrases refer to the same general tendency. There were some in the church who advocated a loose doctrine and even looser morality.In the name of being “open-minded,” they held that the Christian church should be an exceedingly broad fellowship. Sounds very contemporary to me. Evidently at The First Church of Pergamum, they said something like, “We preach the old doctrines of the faith, the doctrines handed down to us from the apostles. But if you do not agree, we will still make room for you within our fellowship. If you disagree about idol-worship, you may still be counted among us. If you frequent the temple prostitutes, we frown upon it but you may still find a happy welcome here. If you dislike the preaching about heaven and hell, you may still be part of our congregation.” It is very seductive. We all like the idea of the “Church of the Open Door.” Come one, come all, come just as you are. But when that is pressed too far, the church ends up a mixture of truth and error, purity and impurity and sooner or later the evil tends to spread so that sin no longer seems very sinful. We are seeing it happen before our eyes in the area of sexual ethics, especially in the great cultural shift surrounding gay marriage. The simple truth of the matter is that until very recently the Christian church in all of its branches condemned all forms of homosexual behaviour. We have a 2000 year track record of consistency on this issue based on what the Bible clearly teaches. But now we’re not so sure. Even in evangelical churches a subtle change is underway. The slide doesn’t happen overnight, but I can tell you that once it starts, you can move fairly quickly. The worst of it is this: Many people in the congregation have no idea what just happened. They keep on attending. They keep on giving. They keep on supporting the church. Meanwhile the church has become schizophrenic. On one level it remains faithful to the Bible. On another level it tolerates those who promote unbiblical (and ungodly) teaching. The end result is a church that receives both a commendation and a harsh warning from the Lord. No church remains in the Pergamum stage forever. You can’t hold fast to sound doctrine while harbouring those who promote immorality. In the end the church must go one way or the other. 4. No Church can Live in a Divided State Forever v. 16 Christ takes personal offense when his church harbours immorality. He threatens to pay a personal visit to Pergamum and fight against the evil teachers. Who exactly is supposed to do the repenting? Certainly the false teachers need to repent. It’s their only hope of avoiding eternal damnation. But the greater call must be to the church itself for harbouring moral and spiritual compromise. In the name of “open-mindedness” and “toleration” and even “building common ground,” many churches have subtly compromised the gospel. I believe the Lord Jesus is speaking more to the church itself than to the false teachers. Pastors must repent. Elders must repent. Deacons must repent. The congregation must repent. The church must decide what it wants to be. It’s so easy for a church to focus on being popular in the community. One could easily imagine the church at Pergamum saying, “We desire to be known as a church where everyone is welcome and everyone’s opinion is honoured.” Sounds good, but is that really biblical? Jesus warns that if the church doesn’t take strong action, he will do it himself. His judgment is always harsher than ours. The same Jesus who said, “Come to me” also said “Depart from me." It’s a frightening thing when Jesus says, “I will fight against you.” You’re going to lose every time. Your arms are too short to box with God. Better just stick with what the Bible says. Kick out the moral compromisers. If they won’t get right with God, kick them out of the church. Unless you’d rather fight with Jesus. Jesus has the right to make that judgment because he judges with perfect judgment. v. 12 - these words come from “him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” The sword speaks of Christ’s unswerving, unsparing judgment. He sees through the facade of religiosity to the truth underneath. If you allow these false teachers to remain in the church, not only do you corrupt the church, you allow the false teachers to think they are safe when in fact they are hanging by a thread under the sword of God’s judgment. We do them no favours by allowing them to stay in the fellowship of the church. 5. No Church can Live Without a Word of Hope v. 17 Christ’s message ends in a series of wonderful promises to those who overcome by faith. In contrast to the pagans who offered hidden mysteries, Jesus offers something much greater to those who follow him. Hidden manna speaks of personal communion with the Lord. Jesus is saying, “I am greater than all the allurements of the world. Those who eat the Living Bread and drink the Living Water will never hunger or thirst again.” The white stone speaks of acquittal and purity. But what is the “new name written on it, known only to him who receives it"? No one knows for certain because no one living has ever received that white stone with the new name on it. That awaits us in heaven. Sometimes we wonder what heaven will really be like. If there are millions of people there, will we ever even see the Lord? Will he really know us? Most of us struggle to keep track of a 100 or 200 names. How will we not get lost in the crowd when we get to heaven? In heaven no one will ever be lost in the crowd. Our text offers us a wonderful assurance. We will each be known by the Lord as a husband knows his wife. He will call us by a name that only we will know. Despite the great throngs, we will say of the Lord, “I am my beloveds and he is mine.” In that great day, when we finally reach heaven, we will know even as we are known, and Jesus will be both our Lord and our most trusted friend forever. So we come to the end of this solemn message from our Lord. His words must be taken with utter seriousness. It is not enough to be orthodox in our theology. It is not even enough to have courage in the face of community opposition. We must go beyond that to say that we will not tolerate in the church those who threaten the purity of its testimony to the world. This is certainly not a politically correct message nor will it likely win many friends in the secular media. But it is a message we must heed if the church is truly to be a lighthouse in the darkness and an oasis of healing to a broken and hurting world. We cannot help sinners by saying that sin is not sinful. Christ came to save sinners, but if the church no longer believes in sin, we have nothing to offer to the world. Where sin is winked at or renamed or where the church turns a blind eye to moral compromise in its midst, to precisely that extent the church commits spiritual suicide. Truth never excuses sin. This is the message of our Lord to the church at Pergamum, and it is his message to the church today. May God help us to stand strong for the gospel in this age of moral compromise. If people call us narrow-minded, let us take it as a compliment and stay the course. Let’s be as narrow as God’s truth is narrow and as broad as God’s grace is broad. Amen.