I’d like to play a game with you today – a game of true or false.

I’m going to make a couple of statements.

Jot down on paper or mentally in your head

whether you think each statement is true or false. Ready?

One year of our lives is equivalent to seven years of a dog’s life.

True or false?

The French dictator, Napoleon was a short man. True or false?

Humans only use 10% of their brains.

If you swallow chewing gum, it will stay in your body for seven years.

Cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis.

All of these statements are false.

Most people think you just multiply by seven to get your dog’s age,

but experts tell us this is simply not true.

It’s just a made-up number that’s been circulating since the 13th century more than likely due to some monks at Westminster Abbey.

And surprise, surprise – Napoleon was not of diminutive height.

In fact, there’s good reason to believe Napoleon was

actually a bit taller than the average Frenchman of his day.

As for the other statements about only using 10% of our brains,

swallowing chewing gum and it remaining in the human body for 7 years,

or cracking one’s knuckles leading to arthritis, they are all false.

But don’t feel too bad about believing falsehoods.

These “so-called” facts still show in the press

as well as in academic publications.

According to the British Medical Journal, even doctors endorse

many of these so-called “facts” that are just plain untrue.

Why do we so easily harbor false beliefs?

Psychologists have shown we all tend to make mental shortcuts – accepting what we are given at a face value

and relying on what others tell us – in order to quickly process

and understand all that is happening around us.

We tend to do this especially when we perceive

we don’t have the time or the energy to stop

and carefully examine and reflect upon what is really going on,

what is actually true.

Not surprisingly, these shortcuts more often than not

steer us in the wrong direction – can get us into trouble or worse, contribute to the spread of error and falsehoods.

We return to Jesus’ letters to the seven churches

as recorded in the Book of Revelation – letters addressed,

not only to particular, geographically-rooted

faith communities in the 1st century but also

telling and applicable for every church since that time.

Today, we are going to learn that truth matters –

– that the truth of the Gospel must be known,

must be shared, and must be contended for.

Together we will discover the truth of the Gospel is not something

that can be shaped to accommodate the life we’re already living.

No, truth be told – the truth that is Jesus Christ – seeks to shape us

– to radically transform the existence we settle for into the kind of life

we were always meant to live. (TEXT)

Jesus addresses this letter to a community of His followers

living in the city of Pergamum.

Insert map of Asia Minor (Pergamum)

Situated 16 miles from the Aegean Sea,

Pergamum was located on the northern side of

the broad valley of the Caicus River.

The city was built on a lofty, isolated rock around a citadel hill

roughly 1,000 feet above the plains.

Insert pic of Pergamum ruins

Many of the city’s public buildings were built into the side of the hill.

Now Pergamum was not as important of a commercial city as

the two cities we’ve been to so far over these last two weeks,

Ephesus or Smyrna.

Pergamum was known more as a hub of political and religious activity going all the way back to the 3rd century B.C.

An important military center at that time for the Attalid Kingdom, Pergamum was one of the first cities to welcome

the emerging Roman Empire as an ally.

Then, in 133 B.C. King Attalus III died without any heirs

and had bequeathed Pergamum to the Romans.

This resulted in the creation of the province of Asia by the Roman Empire.

In 29 B.C., after receiving permission from the senate,

Pergamum became the first city in the Empire

to build a temple to a living emperor – Augustus.

In fact, there were lots of temples and altars to be found in Pergamum.

Besides the site dedicated to the imperial cult of worshipping Caesar,

two other religious highlights stand out.

First, there was a famous temple centered around devotion to Asclepius,

the son of Apollo, who was hailed as the Greco-Roman god of healing.

Travelers from around the known world journeyed to

Asclepios’ temple, hoping to feel the touch of one of

the tame snakes that slithered all around inside

– believing the touch of the serpent has the ability to heal them.

The other religious highlight in Pergamum

was found at the summit of its acropolis.

Towering more than 800 feet high stood

a massive colonnaded court in the shape of a horseshoe

– a soaring altar in honor of the god of the Greco-Roman gods, Zeus.

When Jesus speaks of Pergamum as being the place

where Satan has his throne”

I know where you live—where Satan has his throne.”

Revelation 2:13

– some believe he is referring to

this colossal monument that cast such a large shadow over the city.

But others perceive Jesus to be alluding to something much more sinister.

You see, the symbol of city of Pergamum was the sword

because Pergamum was one of the few cities to which

Rome had given the right to inflict capital punishment

and thus served as the judgment seat of the Empire in the east.

Rival forms of worship in Pergamum

– including the civil religion of the cult of the emperor

being wedded to dictatorial power of the sword

– the right to execute anyone at will,

made for a dangerous and lethal environment

for a community of Jesus followers.

We know very little about the church at Pergamum.

It’s not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible.

We have no record in scripture or tradition of it

being a stop on Paul’s missionary journeys.

We have no idea how the church got planted,

how big the community became,

or who the leader of the congregation was.

All we know is from what Jesus outlines in this letter.

And based on what Jesus describes the church of Pergamum

– like many other churches in Asia Minor – was facing persecution.

Whether this persecution took the form of an official widespread campaign

or was a result of repeated flare-ups of mob violence is unclear.

You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city

where Satan lives.” – Revelation 2:13

Either way, things had gotten so bad

the church in Pergamum had lost one of their own

– someone named Antipas

– the only named victim of persecution in the book of Revelation.

Jesus pauses to praise this unknown martyr,

speaking of him in the same way he spoke to John

at the start of this revelation – as his “faithful witness.”

Despite this tragic loss – even as the threat

of the sword of Rome being pulled from its shield remained –

Jesus commends the Christians in Pergamum

Yet you remain true to my name.” – Revelation 2:13

for holding fast to His name – for staying strong

in resisting the external pressure to deny Christ.

And yet, all was not well in the church at Pergamum.

While Jesus affirms this community for standing firm

in withstanding the threat of the sword,

Jesus also expresses grave concern about

more of an internal danger within the church

because of the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” – Revelation 2:14 – 15

We might remember this group being vaguely referred to

in Christ’s first letter to the church in Ephesus.

Now, in this letter to the church in Pergamum,

we get a bit more information about the Nicolaitans

as their teaching and their practices are likened to

that of someone named Balaam.

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” – Revelation 2:14 – 15

In pointing to Balaam, Jesus is referencing a person and a story

from Israel’s long Exodus from Egypt through the wilderness

to the Promised Land.

The part of their journey involving Balaam

is recorded in Numbers, chapters 22 – 25 and 31. Here’s a quick recap.

As the Israelites continue to travel through the wilderness,

they are approaching the plains of a place called Moab.

The king of Moab, Balak, seeing the horde of Israelites

approaching on the horizon, is struck with great fear

– having heard of how the Israelites previously had defeated

the Egyptians and more recently, the Amorites.

Figuring the best defense is a good offense, the Moabite king

recruits a highly regarded prophet for hire named Balaam.

Balaam is contracted to curse the encampment of Israel.

If he successfully ruins them, King Balak promises to reward him greatly.

But before Balaam even departs toward Israel,

the Lord shows up to him in a dream cautioning him

not to follow through on the job.

Balaam initially follows God’s direction

and refuses to go and curse Israel as planned.

But when King Balak throws the promise of even more money at his feet, Balaam puts himself back on the case.

What happens next in this story is both comical and fascinating.

Every time Balaam opens his mouth to curse Israel,

the Lord restrains what Balaam purposed to say

and instead moves Balaam to pronounce blessings over Israel.

Three times this happens.

And ironically, the three oracles uttered by Balaam contain

some of the most beautiful prophecies in all of scripture

concerning the blessed future of Israel

and the eventual arrival of the Messiah, of Christ.

The fact that Balaam ended up becoming God’s mouthpiece

did not, however, turn Balaam’s heart toward the Lord.

Being restrained and unable to directly harm the people of Israel,

Balaam comes up with a different plan for bringing them down.

Balaam advises the Moabite king, Balak,

to adopt more of an indirect form of attack

– to seduce Israel with wine, women, and song

and thus lead them into both physical and spiritual adultery.

Balaam’s cunning plot works in leading Israel away from

worshipping the one true God, YHWH and into idolatry

the worship of the gods of Moab.

So bringing this back around to Jesus’ admonition

against the church in Pergamum, what exactly is happening?

Much like Balaam did to the Israelites,

the Nicolaitans are luring the Christians in Pergamum

to indulge rather than to resist the offerings of the Roman Empire.

… they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.” – Revelation 2:14

Specifically, Jesus rebukes the church for

eating food sacrificed to idols and for committing sexual immorality.

Working backwards in terms of this indictment,

the charge of sexual immorality, while it possibly could be literal,

the use of this particular Greek word through the Book of Revelation

is metaphorical – referring to spiritual apostasy.

Elsewhere in scripture, the biblical writers often employ

sexual imagery to describe unfaithfulness to God – spiritual adultery.

In the Old Testament, the idolatry of Israel is frequently condemned through metaphors of prostitution and sexual immorality.

The primary point of contention is idolatry rather than sexual sin

– paying homage and giving allegiance that belongs solely to the Lord

to another false god.

That this is Jesus’ ultimate concern is reinforced by his calling out

of Pergamum Christian’s practice of eating foods sacrificed to idols.

Various animals were being ritually sacrificed and dedicated to other gods.

The meat from those sacrifices were then sold in public markets

and later served at public feasts or private gatherings.

Such meals typically were held in honor of the god

to whom the animal was sacrificed.

It was believed that the god was the honored guest of the meal.

In both Jewish and Greco-Roman understanding,

eating a meal at someone’s table expressed a bond of loyalty

– of devotion not only to the person but to whatever or whoever

they were celebrating.

The key issue is the participation in these meals

rather than eating the meat from these sacrifices.

We might remember the apostle Paul dealt with this concern

in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live…

But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

” – 1 Corinthians 8:4 – 6, 8

Paul taught that it was permissible to eat meat that came

from animals sacrificed to idols – that the meat itself was harmless

to a person whose faith was firmly in Jesus Christ.

Paul’s one caveat, however, was that a follower of Jesus

ought not to eat such meat if doing so was going to create confusion

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”

1 Corinthians 8:9 – 13

and possibly harm the faith of the less mature –

those who were new to following Jesus

or possibly struggling in their belief in Christ.

Paul, in this one stance, creates a helpful guide for followers of Jesus.

If we are strong in our faith in Christ,

then we don’t have to live in fear and avoidance

when it comes to partaking of the things of this world

that are apart from Jesus.

Out of our freedom in Christ, much is permissible.

But at the same time, we must be discerning.

We must be careful and sensitive to

what rivals or weakens the practice of our faith as well as

what harms or threatens the emerging faith of others in following Jesus.

Sometimes, while we have freedom in Christ, it is better if we abstain

– especially if our participation in any way leans towards giving

our devotion and allegiance to anything or anyone other than Jesus.

For the church in Pergamum that was

facing persecution for their faith in Christ

the active participation of Christians in temple feasts

– feasts meant to honor pagan deities,

the active participation of Christians in the regular displays of patriotism

– giving glory to the emperor – the Empire of Rome,

not only was sending the wrong message,

it was leading the church away from following the truth of Jesus

and instead centering their lives around a lie.

It is important to understand

the approach of the Nicolaitans like that of Balaam

was one not of explicit attack upon having faith in Christ;

it was the seduction of teaching that was no harm

but rather more benefit in having a more accommodating approach

to the ways of the Roman Empire – while following Jesus.

The temptation that the Christians in Pergamum

succumbed to was the allure of the art of the compromise.

It was being argued that conforming to the social, economic, and political practices of the Roman Empire was just being a good neighbor,

showing oneself to be an upstanding citizen.

If Christians didn’t just want to survive – stop being harassed –

but also make any inroads in sharing their faith

and leading others to Jesus, then they needed

when in Rome to do like the Romans do.”

After all, you have to give a little to get a little.

To be in the room where it happens

we have to be willing to play by the rules of the game.

This is just good, strategic policy to gain power

and doesn’t have to change what we believe about Jesus.

But what we believe about Jesus isn’t what really matters.

It is following Jesus – living for Christ, living like Jesus –

that witnesses to our faith – to where our ultimate loyalty resides.

And we can’t, we won’t be following the truth of Jesus

while we are busy accommodating the lies of false gods.

The snare of idolatry looks different in our day

than it did in the days of the church in Pergamum.

The false gods we worship aren’t visibly cast into busts, figurines,

or enormous temples.

Our idols, while less conspicuous,

bear the same ideology of the false gods of our ancestors.

They are constructed around the values of safety and security,

comfort and convenience, power and control.

Our idols don’t bear the names of would-be gods,

they carry the moniker of competing philosophies – of -isms.

Our modern day idols are things like materialism, consumerism, nationalism, racism, sexism, ageism, individualism, and so on.

Again, the issue here is not one of participation

– of not being a part of this world in which we live.

God did not remain apart from us

but came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ.

And Jesus calls us in following Him not to withdraw

but to go and share the Gospel to the very ends of the earth.

We all have to work in the marketplace.

We all have to take part in the political process.

We all have to engage our neighborhoods.

The key is we are called to be in this world, but no longer of this world.

As children of the Kingdom of God

– as witnesses to the inbreaking even now of the reign of

the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Jesus, the danger is

when our participation becomes allegiance –

when we choose to bow down and give our ultimate loyalty

to what is not of the Lord instead of remaining singularly devoted to Christ.

As we come to believe whatever we have is ours – our possessions

– rather than gifts we have been given by God

for the stewardship of His purposes,

when our defense and protection of what we have,

what we want, and what we can get override Jesus’ call about

what we need, what we are to give, what we are to share,

we are bowing down before the twin tower, false gods

of materialism and consumerism.

When our allegiance to the flag

and to the agenda of our country – right or wrong,

and the enthusiasm and spirit of our patriotism

are stronger than our commitment to

the Great Commandment and the Great Commission,

civil religion – nationalism – has become our idol.

As we cling to deep-rooted prejudices

and refuse to acknowledge both the scars of the past

and the still unresolved and perpetuating wounds of the present

borne of discrimination due to the color of one’s skin,

one’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or age,

and yet continue to blindly or consciously benefit from such inequalities,

our devotion to the Kingdom of God has been compromised

by our devotion to the status quo of self.

Let it be said one more time, the answer to seduction of idolatry

is not to build a wall around ourselves

or to create some sort of Christian bubble

and put up a sign that says, “No Trespassing.”

Such separation only leads as Christians to practice

yet another form of idolatry – that of operating out of

an air of false superiority, presumptive judgmentalism,

and arrogant pride in ourselves rather than

bearing the compassion and forgiveness of Jesus.

If not separation, what then is the answer –

the remedy for avoiding compromise or conformity –

settling for less than we can be, for less that we are called to be,

for less than who Jesus and what the Gospel is?

Jesus reveals the solution to the church at Pergamum and to us

in the description he gives of himself at the start of this letter

– as the One who has the sharp, double-edged sword.

These are the words of him who has

the sharp, double-edged sword.” – Revelation 2:12

This image of Christ was first given to John,

the transcriber of this vision and these letters, back in chapter 1.

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me…

In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword.” – Revelation 1:12, 16

Later in this letter to the church at Pergamum,

Jesus, as he presented himself to John, speaks of this sharp, double-edged sword as coming out of His mouth.

Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them

with the sword of my mouth.” – Revelation 2:16

It’s a familiar picture first referenced by the prophet Isaiah

and later mentioned in letters to the Ephesians and the Hebrews –

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Hebrews 4:12

one that represents the Word of God – the all-encompassing truth,

the authoritative wisdom, the very means by which the Lord creates.

This Word of God comes from the mouth of Christ

because Jesus is the Word of God

– the creative force, the law and instruction,

the character and purpose of the Lord – made flesh.

How as Christians are we to engage a broken world

without our broken but being mended selves falling victim

to the seduction and allure of false, would-be gods?

How are we to discern and recognize what is truth even as

we are fed lies wrapped in religious language

and served temptations packaged with a Christian veneer?

By regularly submitting ourselves to the truth of the Gospel.

By daily being both in our Bibles and in the Spirit

– praying, studying, worshipping – and yielding

as the sword that is the Word of God

– the character and will of Christ –

pierces all our defenses, pricks our conscience,

wounds our pride, cuts away all the fat born of our ego and pretense,

and both reveals and heals the errors of our humanity

– of our thoughts, words, and actions lived apart from Jesus.

Jesus calls the church in Pergamum, calls all who follow Him, to repent.

The Greek word translated as repentance is “metanoia.”

It means to “think again” or “to change one’s mind.”

Most Christians wrongly associate repentance as something that

only needs to be done when one has done something wrong.

Biblically, however, repentance is presented as a daily, repeated action

– not just after we’ve done something wrong

but in order to prevent us from ending up in the wrong.

If we are imperfect people – works in progress by the grace of God,

then we constantly need to be reoriented, recentered back to Christ.

As broken people living in a broken world,

still learning to live and not yet arriving in terms of the Kingdom of God,

apart from Jesus we can easily be enslaved by false ideas.

Since most lies alway contain some truth,

because we are already inclined to believe what we want to hear,

we can’t always tell the difference between what’s good and what’s evil, what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s true and what’s a lie,

especially if what’s evil, wrong, and false are made

to look very, very attractive.

Hence, we need to regularly repent – to think again

or as the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, chapter 12,

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

– Romans 12:2

Do not be conformed to this world

but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

In the end, the question this letter raises for us,

is simple and yet challenging.

Who or what is shaping us? Molding us?

Are we, by the grace of God,

being renewed and grown into the mind of Christ

or are we letting our minds be taken captive

by the values and priorities of something else, someone else?

Over and over again, the Bible cautions us,

We are what we eat. We become what we consume.

Where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.

Do we take this warning seriously?

Or is it possible we’ve even grown more careless,

more suspect than the church in Pergamum ever was?

Living in the information age

where any information or news we don’t like can be deemed fake news,

where we simply forward links to articles that we don’t even read first,

where algorithms are constructed to mediate the sort of content

(true or not) that will catch our attention

where we’ve been worn down, worn out,

and don’t know who or what to trust anymore

how quickly we can slip into

and just remain in a perpetual state of careless indifference.

How comfortable we can become in practicing a faith in Christ

that lacks any sort of reflection, that claims no time for discernment,

that divorces following Jesus from having to think critically,

from needing to be grounded in truth.

The 2nd of the Ten Commandments – of our Creator’s rules for life –

is the prohibition against idols.

The Lord forbids us from making idols

not because the Lord has an image problem

– but because we aren’t adept enough to create a fair likeness of God.

Even more than this,

we are forbidden from casting God in any other image,

because WE – as humanity – are the image

that God already has created to reflect Godself.

We are created in God’s image

– to reflect and represent the Lord’s character and purposes.

And while this image has been marred by human sin,

thanks to Jesus Christ, the image of our humanity

is being reshaped by forgiveness and grace.

The snare of idolatry – settling for less than we can be, for less that we are called to be, and thus reflecting less than who Jesus, what the Gospel is, isn’t just causing danger to ourselves; it is harmful to our neighbor.

As Christians, the question of who or what is

shaping us, molding us, matters because

we have been called to reflect Jesus truthfully, rightly

– so that others may see, know, and receive Christ in their lives.

When we bear false witness,

we misrepresent who Jesus is and what the Gospel is all about.

This is why Jesus warns the Christians at Pergamum – and us

– that His word is a double-edged sword.

Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” – Revelation 2:16

The sword of truth will one day become the sword of judgment

– striking down all the lies – the deception, the manipulation

– and laying bare what is real, what matters, what lasts.

We need to wake up and recognize how little

we are allowing Jesus to form us and our children

if all we are exercising are a few table prayers and weekly church service.

If the rest of our time and energy is being devoted to

everything else but Christ, then we are being primarily shaped

and formed by a rival, by a false gospel.

Jesus will hold us responsible to that measure of truth we have known,

to that measure of truth we have lived.

But we need not be afraid of this as Christ’s caution here is not about

scaring us into studying up and getting smarter and wiser on our own.

As always, the warnings of Jesus always comes with a promise

– an invitation – not to try and save ourselves

but to embrace the salvation He offers us.

To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. 

I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” – Revelation 2:17

When Jesus speaks of giving hidden manna

and a white stone with a new name on it to the one who is victorious, Jesus is not speaking in a future tense – if we accomplish something.

No, Jesus is reinforcing what He already has done for us.

We already are victorious because of

what Christ has done on the Cross, through the Resurrection

and thanks to Pentecost.

Jesus already has given us everything we need.

He has given us Himself – wholly and completely –

by the Word and the Spirit.

Jesus is the hidden manna – the true bread that is the Word of God.

Jesus is our sustenance

– the One who satisfies and enables us to keep going.

The white stone with our new name is the symbol of our new identity

– that “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live,

but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Jesus already has given us everything we need to remain in the truth.

We just need to abide regularly in and with the truth that is Christ.

Lies are parasitic. They can gain traction because we feed them

– believing them, spreading them.

In the end, they take more away from us than they ever give.

But we don’t have to settle for fast food, for junk food

– for half-truths about our identity, our purpose, and our destiny

– half-truths that might go down easy

but ultimately will make us sick and unwell.

Instead of being seduced into being less than we are,

becoming less than we can be, and making Jesus into

less than He is for us and for all the world,

let us hunger and being satisfied by

– the sustenance of Jesus’ life and example

– of His ongoing presence and power in our lives.

For in Christ alone are all the riches of wisdom and understanding.

In Christ alone is truth that truly satisfies, the truth that will set us free.