Breaking Open the Word: Revelation 2:12-17

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (common domain)

September 9th, 2018: Letter to the Church of Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17)

               Today’s sharing opened with some thoughts about the city of Pergamum itself. Highly regarded in the Roman Empire, it boasted an enormous altar to Zeus, as well as the second-largest library in the ancient world, and it was the site of the invention of the paper called parchment. An impressive list of honors and achievements, no doubt . . . but as one Sister bluntly put it, “Jesus doesn’t care!” The “sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 2:12) of His word cuts through this empty show of earthly power, even calling it “Satan’s throne” (Rev. 2:13) It is the Church in Pergamum, persecuted and yet faithful, that truly deserves praise.

               However, just like the Church today (or at any time, for that matter!), these faithful had their share of problems. In this Letter, Christ refers to “some people there who hold to the teaching of Baalam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the Israelites.” (Rev. 2:14) This is a reference to an episode in the book of Numbers (Ch 22-24 and 25:1-3) in which a pagan king, Balak, hires the prophet Baalam to curse the Israelites. Baalam, however, can only speak the words of the LORD, which are of course a blessing on His chosen people. But when does Balaam give Balak the advice to lead Israel astray? Though this particular part of the episode is not directly narrated in Numbers, it is referred to in several places throughout Scripture (e.g. Num 31:16 2 Pt 2:15, Jude 11). It seems that this part of the story was passed down through Jewish oral tradition!

               Based on our study, it seems that the “Baalams” of Pergamum were so-called Christians that were advocating compromise with pagan culture (like the Nicolaitans in Ephesus – they are also referred to in this Letter -- Rev. 2:15). Rather than holding the world to a higher standard, they sought to lower Christianity’s morals to “fit in.” However, if there’s one lesson that the history of the Church teaches, it is that doctrine without morality just doesn’t work! One Sister had an interesting observation on this topic: even though Baalam in the Old Testament didn’t say anything the LORD didn’t tell him to, he still found a way to promote sabotage against the Israelites through actions. What a parallel with the scandals in the Church today, where some have been paying lip service to the truth while completely disregarding it in their actions!

As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ....If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.
— 1 Cor 12: 12, 26

               However, neither the faithful Christians in Pergamum nor we can just sit back and say, “well, at least we’re not the ones doing anything wrong.” Christ in this passage addresses the Church as a whole, because in the Mystical Body the actions of one member affect every other member. In the case of sin, the whole Body is harmed. But if that is true, the opposite is equally so: the prayers, penance, and witness of the faithful members are a powerful help to the entire Church!  So rather than being discouraged by the sins we see, we can take them as a call to action, offering our love and reparation with greater faith than before. And above all, let’s not forget that we’re on the “winning team” – our Savior Jesus Christ is the ultimate Victor over sin, Satan, and death!

               We’re so glad you’ve continued to join us for this study of the Book of Revelation; be sure to stick around for next week, when we’ll explore the Letter to the Church of Thyatira! (Rev. 2:18-29)