Monday, April 26, 2010

Sermon on Revelation 2:12-17, for the 4nd Sunday of Easter, "Easter Letters: Pergamum--Hidden Manna"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is part three of our sermon series, “Easter Letters,” and is on the letter to the church of Pergamum. Last week we heard about the church in Smyrna, whose believers faced difficult persecution, poverty, slander, and even death, but were called to endure and not be afraid as they trusted in their conquering Lord. Today in the letter to the church of Pergamum, we find a church that is in the midst of a hotbed of false worship to other gods, and the temptation to live a worldly and impure life. They are called to repentance, and victory with their Lord who fights with them against temptation and idolatry. He promises to the conqueror, to eat of the hidden manna. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The introduction of Jesus in this letter to Pergamum immediately strikes us as fierce. “These are the words of Him who has the sharp, two-edged sword.” This is the same description as in chapter 1:16, where Jesus is described as having a sharp, two-edged sword coming from His mouth, and a face shining with the full brightness of the sun. It’s a rather terrifying picture. Added to that is the warning to the church that unless they repent, that He will come and war against them with the sword of His mouth.

It echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah, who described the coming Lord as judging the poor and the meek of the earth with justice and equity, but striking the earth with the rod of His mouth and killing the wicked with the breath of His lips (Isaiah 11:4). The idea of Jesus standing as the judge of all humanity, at the end of time, was absolutely unbearable to the Pharisees and Sadducees. At His hearing before the Sanhedrin and the High Priest after His arrest, He said that “I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). The High Priest tore his robes in outrage and told the council, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” So they crucified the Lord of glory, the very One who will stand in righteous judgment over all One day.

It is terrifying to think of Jesus in judgment in this way—who can please such a holy and righteous judge? What were the believers in Pergamum to do, to be spared from the Lord warring against them with the sword of His mouth? Well first we need to understand what that sword is. As always, Scripture is its own best interpreter, and if we search the Scriptures we find in Hebrews 4:12 that the Word of God is like a sharp, two-edged sword, which is living and active, sharp and piercing to our soul and spirit, our very thoughts and intentions. It isn’t a physical sword of violence, or of military might, but it’s the far more powerful word of God that comes from Jesus’ mouth. But why describe it as a two-edged sword? The sharp, penetrating edge of the Law can expose our sinfulness, even in our thoughts and intentions. We cannot hide from the Law of God, which speaks what is right and wrong.

But the same sword that can go on the offensive can also be used for defense and protection. Just as the sharp edge of the Law wars against sin and evil, it also wars against the devil and temptation that would harm us. The second sharp edge of the Word is the message of the Gospel that guards and defends us against evil. When we find that image of Christ in judgment as fearful, we need to give attention to whether we stand with Him or are opposed to Him. If we stand opposed to Him, or remain unrepentant of sin, then it is fearful to face the Law-edge of His sword. But if we repent of our sin and stand with Christ, then it is actually a deeply comforting image, that Jesus stands guard against the deceptive and deadly attacks of the devil. That He is the strong shepherd who guards the sheep against the ravenous wolves and lions. For those who hear His voice and follow Him, He is their strength and shield, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

But just as happened in Pergamum, the church faces the threat of those who would come in and teach it misleadingly. Christ called them to repent because there were those among them who were leading people to eat meat sacrificed to idols and participate in sexual immorality. Today we can face the same pull to divide our allegiance between the true God and other pursuits. Anything from mixing a little bit of another religion into our spirituality, to our pursuit of money. But Christ clearly taught that divided allegiance to God is no allegiance at all. One cannot serve two masters, “for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Likewise, the practice of sexual immorality, using sex outside its God-given boundaries of marriage between one man and one woman, is also not possible for the Christian. It doesn’t matter how easily the society accepts it. The Christian is called not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2).

The church of Pergamum was in danger of succumbing to the pagan influences around them. Jesus acknowledged their challenging situation by saying, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” Calling Pergamum Satan’s throne could have a number of explanations, that fit with the situation here.

First of all, like Smyrna, the metropolis of Pergamum had a strong cult of emperor worship, and it was the pressure to comply with the sacrifices to Caesar that caused Christians to either cave in to deny Christ, or to be martyred. The Roman Caesars were megalomaniacs about their power. Nero carried the title “savior of the inhabited world” and “the Lord of all the world,” while Emperor Domitian insisted on being addressed as “Lord and God.” These outrageous claims of mere men, however much power they held, are nothing but a Satanic parody of the true Savior and Lord of the world. The Resurrected Lord whom Thomas confessed as, “My Lord and My God.”

Whatever fear of Caesar’s sword drove the weak-willed to worship and sacrifice to him, this couldn’t hide the fact from Christian eyes that such worship of men was at the foot of Satan’s throne, not the throne of God. If anything shouldn’t be missed from the book of Revelation, it’s this—that despite all the chaos of the end times, it’s the True God who reigns on His heavenly throne who controls all these events, and who’ll have the final victory one day. Again and again in the book of Revelation, the reader is directed to God’s throne to see who’s ultimately in charge of all things. It’s at His throne alone, and in His name alone, that we’re to worship. You can see this also in the other epistle from Revelation printed in your insert today.

Also, Pergamum had a giant Temple to “Zeus-Savior,” which held a throne-like altar and artwork with serpents—a frequent symbol for Satan. Asclepios, another pagan god associated with serpents, also had a prominent temple in the city, and promised healing as well as some sort of salvation. These and other false places of worship earned Pergamum the description of “Satan’s throne.” Dead and powerless idols promised to give life, healing, safety, protection, etc. This is why false worship is so dangerous and deadly, and why Jesus warns us so urgently against it. But a person who is caught in false worship may be sincere and passionate about their faith. Depending on what their belief urges on them, they may even be moral and upstanding citizens. If so, then why is false worship so bad? Someone might look on that and say that religion has served its good purpose. But false worship is to trust in a god that cannot save. It’s too put your confidence, your hope—whatever you hold to be the highest good—it’s to place that trust in something that is inherently untrustworthy.

Take an analogy for a moment. We’ve had plenty of news about cars having factory recalls lately, and about protecting consumer safety. Imagine what it would be like if people knew that a certain type of car was being sold and driven that had completely faulty GPS systems that always guided you to the wrong destination. And the car’s brakes only worked sporadically, and had an increasing tendency to fail the closer you got to your destination. Now, what if instead of warning people about the useless GPS and the erratic brakes, the thinking that prevailed was this: “Well, people really like that brand of car, and it’s got really great styling and looks like all the other cars. We wouldn’t want anyone to think that something was wrong with their car. As long as they trust the car to drive in it, and as long as they obey the rules of the road and drive safely, nobody needs to tell them anything. Besides, who really knows their destination? Maybe they will get there safely anyway, and we don’t want to interfere.”

Does that make any kind of sense? No! We’d be held responsible for negligence and withholding life-saving information! If the car is not trustworthy, it doesn’t matter how sincere the driver’s trust is in it, or how well they obey the traffic laws—it won’t save them from getting in a terrible accident. If our faith is put in something inherently untrustworthy—if we worship something false, whether it be the identified god of some false religion, or the unidentified gods of our own making—then it won’t matter how sincere our faith is. It won’t matter how our lives look outwardly. If we put our trust in something that must ultimately fail, then we are steering for disaster with no brakes to apply. False religion and false worship, however sincere, cannot bring us to heaven.

We need a true and trustworthy ‘vehicle’ to get us to heaven. We need to be assured that our faith is in something that truly can deliver us safely, whose GPS reads true, and whose brakes and engine are properly functioning. The responsible and caring thing for us to do is to warn people of getting into unsafe and unreliable vehicles. Even if the “crash” that they might experience by trusting in a false god may not even happen until after their earthly life—that by no means reduces the danger or the urgency of warning them. In fact it makes it all the more serious. On the broad road that leads to destruction, death is the point of no return. We pray to God that such will hear the call to repent and turn back from that treacherous road. God posts warning signs all along the way, and we need to watch for those who would tamper with those signs. There is ‘one way’ to heaven, and that is through Jesus Christ.

Jesus calls to the church of Pergamum and to us. We’re surrounded by false paths and false worship that tugs and pulls on our souls. But to the one who conquers with Jesus, to the one who takes their stand with Jesus, who bears His living and active Word in His mouth—to this person Jesus promises support for the hard journey home. He promises to them that “I will give [them] some of the hidden manna, and I will give [them] a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Manna was the heavenly waybread or traveler’s food for the Israelites in their difficult journey in the wilderness. So also Jesus promises heavenly waybread, the “hidden manna” to believers. What is the hidden manna? It is the spiritual “bread of Life” which sustains us in the spiritual wilderness of life. Jesus, is the Bread of Life, and He is the true and trustworthy ‘vehicle’ of salvation.

By putting one’s trust in Jesus, we’ll never be misled, and He alone can safely deliver us to the destination of heaven. He is the ‘hidden manna,’ because when we eat the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, the true body and blood of Jesus is hidden there. We participate in a “foretaste of the feast to come” in the holy supper that truly contains Jesus’ bodily presence, though hidden from human eyes. But visible to the eyes of faith is the eternal banquet that is spread before us, the heavenly marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which we already participate in now, at the altar. Visible to the eyes of faith is the body and blood of Jesus, taken in our hand and in our mouth—a spiritual waybread for our journey, giving us the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. And we bear on our foreheads and in our hearts the new name that has been given us in baptism—the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—to mark us as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. As we gather now to eat the heavenly manna from above, we sing our praises to our God above, Alleluia! We pledge our trust to Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit, three-in-one, to whom alone we give our worship! Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. The city of Pergamum is only mentioned here in the Bible. It was a city full of pagan temples that may explain the phrase “where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.” A throne-like temple to Zeus and a temple to the god Asclepios both had serpent-like artwork and sculptures, and the title “savior” was used of these false gods. Also, the strong emperor worship cult here set the sword of Caesar against the ‘sword’ of the Lord.

2. Identify the following in the letter to Pergamum: (these basic features are repeated in each letter)
Image of Christ:
Local detail about the church:
What Christ sees: A) Good B) Bad
Call to Repent:
Promise to the One who Conquers:

3. What is the “sharp, two-edged sword” proceeding from the mouth of Jesus? Rev. 1:16; Heb. 4:12; Eph. 6:17. Cf. Isaiah 11:4; 49:2. How does the Word of God have “two edges?” What do they do?

4. Why is it impossible for Christians to “divide their allegiance” between the ‘gods’ and immorality of the world, and the true God and His calling on our life? Matt. 6:24; Rom. 12:2. Where can false worship and false allegiances (faith) ultimately lead us? How can we find safety instead?

5. What is the ‘hidden manna’ that Jesus gives to those who conquer with Him? Cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-4; 16; John 6:22ff. What do we receive in hand and in mouth? Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23. What heavenly banquet does this anticipate and join us to?

No comments: