Monday, December 17, 2012

Revelation - Lesson 6

Watch What You're Getting Mixed Up In

Prayer: God as we study today about Pergamum help us to learn from them about being faithful and dealing with compromising influences.  Help us to be knowledgeable of the forces of evil, and careful not to let our curiosity about these dark powers lead us astray.  Help us to do this as individuals, as a church body, and in the true Church - the body of believers in the world.  Amen!

Today we will be studying the 3rd church of the 7 who were specific recipients of letters in the book of Revelation.  Last time we studied Smyrna, this time we are studying Pergamum.

In the first century Pergamum was a city of about 150,000-200,000, it was one of the most influential cities in the Roman Empire.  Today all that is left of ancient Pergamum is ruins; however, the area is not unpopulated, the modern city of Bergama is currently located there with a population of around 55,000.

Pergamum was a beautiful city and well fortified, it was built entirely on a cone shaped hill (small mountain) rising 1000 feet above the surrounding valley, and was fortified with a stronghold (acropolis) to withstand enemy attack.  This city dominated the entire region of the broad plain of Caicus, in which the city's hill stands out, with the original city being built between the two rivers that flowed into the plain.  Because of its impregnable position it was used as a treasury.

Pergamum was the place Caesar Augustus would go when the weather in Rome got cold.  It had a famous healing center (more on that later) that was used by people from all over Rome.  The people of Pergamum perfected a parchment made out of calfskin - we get our modern word for Parchment from the name of the city.  Pergamum was not a coastal city, and was located off the great trade routes, so it was not a great commercial center; instead, Pergamum was known as a great religious and intellectual center.   It was an early ally of Rome, and was the capital of the province of Asia for 2 centuries; however, its lack of proximity to trade routes caused Rome to select Ephesus to replace it as the capital.

  • Library - Pergamum just prior to the first century had housed the greatest library of the Pagan world, it held over 200,000 volumes.  This is the Library that Marc Anthony gave to Cleopatra as a wedding gift - she subsequently lugged it off to Alexandria in Egypt & the library in Alexandria was considered the greatest library the world has ever seen.
  • Theater - seated 10,000, the acoustics were said to be so good that a whisper on stage could be heard all the way in the top row.
  • Altar of Zeus - one of the Seven Wonders of the World, known as the largest altar in the world.  This was set on a high hill, with its altar towering 800 feet over the plain.  The altar itself stood on a foundation 125' x 115', over 50' high, set in a colonnaded enclosure. In the 19th century German engineers dismantled the altar and took it to Berlin, it went on display in a Pergamon Museum in 1930, just in time to inspire one of the most brutal dictators the world has ever seen.
  • Aesculapion - part hospital, part spa, and at the same time a temple dedicated to Aesculapius (Greek god of healing).  It was the Mayo Clinic of its day, healing by a wide variety of methods - medicine & surgery (we get our word "Scalpel" from "Aesculapius"), psychology, hot baths, mud baths, massage, theater with healing messages, voices speaking positive messages through holes in the ceiling, dream interpretation.  One form of healing was being sedated and left at night in the temple to sleep, with non-poisonous snakes let loose to crawl over you - if one crawled over you it was a sign that healing power had come to you, this would be followed up by a dream interpretation.  The Aesculapion didn't accept terminal patients, and any who happened to die were taken out a "back door" to avoid tarnishing the hospital's reputation.  Caesar Augustus liked to go there - he wasn't sick but rather an alcoholic, and he'd go once a year to dry out.  People came from all over the world to this hospital, and though good medicine was practiced there the place as a whole was basically Satanic.

  • Pergamum was considered a great religious center (paganism)
  • The official center for Emperor worship in Asia, it had the first temple dedicated to Caesar and was a rabid promotor of the Imperial Cult.
  • Greek god / goddess worship flourished (includes Zeus & Aesculapius)

A bit about Aesculapius before we dig into the letter to Pergamum - sculptures depicting Aesculapius have him holding a pole with a snake, and its believed that the legend of Aesculapius derives from the episode where the people of God encounter snakes in the wilderness, read Numbers 21:4-9. This same brass snake on a pole is mentioned by Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:14, this is speaking of His impending crucifixion (remember that brass is symbolic of judgement, the serpent is symbolic of sin).  The particular serpent-pole made in Moses time had to be destroyed during the reign of king Hezekiah (good king) because the people had started (in true pagan fashion) to worship the brazen serpent, read 2 Kings 18:4.

The Letter to Pergamum: read Revelation 2:12-17

Name of the city: Pergamum - Greek word means "Citadel", it also means "Mixed Marriage" (objectionable) or "High Marriage".

Title of Christ: "Him who has the sharp double-edged sword" - this "sword" we discussed in a prior lesson as being the active Word of God, and as representing Judgement being issued forth from the mouth of Jesus.  Read Hebrews 4:12 - a city rife with false religion desperately needed the purifying work of this sword.

Commendation:  "I know where you live - where Satan has his throne.  Yet you remain true to my name.  You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city - where Satan lives."

Believers here were living in Satan's seat of power!  Remember, Satan is not currently in hell, that is his future abode.  Satan is loose and is the prince of this world, controlling kingdoms and seeking out whomever he may devour.  Retaining a clear identity as a church of the Lord Jesus in an evil environment is worthy of commendation, they were in effect a small light in a sea of wickedness.

Pergamum had become one of the greatest centers of pagan religion in the world at that time.  A brief history of paganism: Nimrod founded Babel and is believed to have instigated a form of paganism, there are indications that Astrology may have its roots there - being a twisting of signs in the heavens given to remind people of the things of God (this is an entire study unto itself).  At that time Satan's seat of power would have been Babel.  Later Babylon is believed to have inherited the mantle from Babel, and after Babylon fell Pergamum was believed to have inherited the mantle from Babylon when the priests and their initiates moved their treasures & mysteries at the fall of Babylon under Belshazzar.  Why do you care about any of this?  It is important to remember that Satan is powerful and has many forces at his disposal, but Satan is a created being and is limited.  Satan is not omnipresent.  At the time of the writing of Revelation - by what Jesus is telling us - Satan had set up his throne at Pergamum, this is where he chose to be located.  Could he move around to other locations?  Of course he could, but this was his chosen center of operations at the time.

Antipas was only one of many martyrs in Pergamum.  Antipas was the bishop of Pergamum, ordained by John (writer of Revelation).  According to one source Antipas was so successful at driving out demons that the pagan priests (spurred on themselves by demonic forces) turned him in for failing to perform the rites of Emperor Worship.  After being turned in he continued to refuse to perform pagan rituals and was sentenced to death on the altar of Zeus - part of that altar was a hollow bronze bull designed for human sacrifice.  The sacrifice to Zeus would be placed inside the bronze bull, with their head in the bull's head, and a fire would be lit under the bull.  The person inside would slowly roast to death.  As the victim would cry out his cries would come out through the pipes in the head of the bull appearing to make the bull come to life.  It is said that Antipas, in being put to death by this method, died praying for his church.

Concerns: "You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.  Likewise you also have those who hold to the teachings of the Nicolaitans."

They had not kept out false teachers, they had not embraced those false teachings (at least not yet) but they had allowed these false teachings to come into the church and an evil influence to fester.  Uh-Oh!  They've let the "world" enter in to the church, having a "mixed marriage" (one meaning of Pergamum) - they were both faithfully following Jesus and allowing in errant teachings.

Who are Balaam & Balak?  If you don't know I'm going to encourage you to read Numbers chapters 22-24 on your own, there isn't time to cover this here.  I will sum up - Balak was a king who wanted to defeat the Israelites, Balaam was a pagan prophet - he was a prophet but not a prophet of God.  God frustrated Balaam by forcing him to prophesy for rather than against Israel, Balaam tried to go against God and for Balak - but was undermined by God in several ways, he was even rebuked by his donkey (who God enabled to speak) - it is a rather humorous account.  In the end Balaam does God's bidding, and if that were all scripture had to say about him you might think he changed his ways and served God.... but there's more!  We're going to read a couple more scriptures concerning him: Numbers 25:1-3; Numbers 31:15-16; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11.  Balaam taught corruption by encouraging compromise, friendship with the world, and intermarriage with the world.  The Jews hadn't been able to be brought down by false prophecy, but instead were brought down by friendship with the world.

I discussed the Nicolaitans when we covered Ephesus, so if you missed that lesson please check lesson #4 in this series for more information.  We don't know for sure what they believed, but it was obviously heretical.

We see Satan at work here - if he can't destroy by direct assault he makes inroads by deception and compromise.  Satan likes to take what is good and twist it into something evil.

Exhortation: "Repent therefore!  Otherwise I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth."

For the heresies in this church Jesus emphasized that He would come against the heretics with the two-edged sword - a sword of judgement.  That two-edged sword would separate out the world from their midst, whether through their own acts of repentance or the direct intercession of Jesus.  It is always better to willingly repent than to face chastisement from the Lord.

There is a firm warning here - the Church is not to invite in that which is not of Christ, and the Church is not to remove or hinder that which is of Christ.  To do either invites the disapproval and chastisement of the Lord.  Loving sinners is good, but affirming behavior God calls sinful is compromise - a spiritual form of adultery.  In our culture today living and loving others God's way is a tightrope - it requires careful action and balance!

Closing Statement: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches"

Promise to the Overcomer: "I will give some of the hidden manna.  I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it."

Hidden Manna - The word "manna" means "what is it?"  Manna is the bread that came down from heaven to feed God's people as they wandered in the wilderness.  Hidden Manna is Jesus is the Bread of Life, the true bread from heaven (John 6:32-35,51), feeding on Christ is the only means of Spiritual Growth.

White Stone - there are several possible meanings here:
  • It may have been a reference to a stone like the Urim, which was worn by the High Priest when he entered the Holy Place and had access to the Ark of the Covenant (God's chosen throne on the Earth) - inside which was hidden some of the manna from the wilderness wanderings.
  • People of Asia had a custom of giving intimate friends a "tessera" - a cube or rectangular block of stone or ivory with words or symbols engraved on it - it was a secret, private, possession of the one who received it. 
  • Another use for a white stone in those days was by a Judge - a Judge would use a white stone to vote for acquittal for one who was on trial.
  • A common Roman practice was to give you a white stone with your name on it which gave you access to the games as well as food - a sort of ancient "ticket".  This white stone could be similar in that it gives a special right and/or privilege in God's kingdom.
  • White stone may have simply represented purity among a corrupt environment.

New Name - again some possible meanings:
  • A specific identifier recognizing a persons particular mix of gifting and/or calling, reflecting service to the Lord in this world (and perhaps throughout eternity).
  • A special name of communication and fellowship kept private between the Lord and His faithful one.
  • McGee thinks the new name will not be a name representing us, but rather a name representing Jesus - as He means something different to each of us.
  • In general, in scripture a name specifically represents the character and calling of a person.

So though we don't know the specific meaning of the White Stone with a New Name, we know that it is a special gift given by Jesus to those who overcome.

Pergamum in church history represents the Married Church - as in Married to the world - also known as the Pagan church AD 314-590.  Constantine did much to protect and promote the Church, that is the start of this period.  The problems became much more pronounced when it became the official state religion under Theodosius and people were forced to accept Christianity as their religion, with many false converts came an influx of pagan persons and pagan practices.

One last thing - I mentioned last week the crown cities, we have now studied all 3 of them, these were designated by the Romans as Royal cities in Asia:  Ephesus - political center, Smyrna - commercial center, Pergamum - religious center.

How is your life like the life of the church of Pergamum?  Have you become so accepting of others and their lifestyle choices that you have allowed compromise to sneak into your life?  Do you sit silently while people espouse teachings that contradict the clear teachings of scripture?

How is our church like the church of Pergamum?  Is our church voting in or allowing practices that are contrary to the teachings of Christ?  Is our church voting out or excluding practices that Christ wants us to be involved in?

Prayer:  God, show us our errors, help us to have a clear picture of how we should operate as individual believers and as a local body of believers.  Help us Lord to be a people and a church without compromise, yet a people and a church that demonstrate love.  Help us Lord to walk that narrow road, a road that sometimes feels like a tightrope, so that we are a shining light to the dark world in which we live.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Revelation - Lesson 5

Your Poverty brings Riches & Your Death brings Life

Prayer: God as we study today about Smyrna help us to learn from them about handling suffering, affliction, and resisting temptation to compromise.  Help us to value the riches we have in You over the riches the world has to offer.  Help us to do this as individuals, as a church body, and in the true Church - the body of believers in the world.  Amen!

Today we will be studying the 2nd church of the 7 who were specific recipients of letters in the book of Revelation.  Last time we studied Ephesus, this time we are studying Smyrna.

Only two of the seven cities that received letters have been continuously occupied to this day, Smyrna is one of those, though it now goes by the name of Izmir.  The church in Smyrna continues to this day; however, it is now a small underground church because of persecution. This city has been inhabited since it was founded by the Hittites in 2000 BC.  Today the city of Izmir is a commercial city with a population of around 2.8 million people (a little larger than Chicago), with around 3.4 million in the greater metropolitan area.  The current city of Izmir is considered one of the most beautiful cities of the world, at times called "Paris of the Levant" (Levant = Eastern Mediterranean).  Historically Smyrna has been a prosperous city - despite being devastated by conquest & earthquake it continues to come back & thrive.

In the First Century Smyrna was a thriving and beautiful Asian city of about 100,000 people, with strong ties to Rome.  It had an excellent double harbor, the outer of which was a deep water mooring ground, the inner was much smaller & has since filled with silt.  It was a major trading port, strategically located between Europe and Asia. 

  • Wide boulevards
  • Its Acropolis (fortification) was encircled with flowers, a hedge, and myrtle trees - it is because of this feature that Smyrna at that time was called a "flower" or "ornament" and the "crown of Asia" - one of three "Royal Cities" or "crown cities"
  • Noble Buildings
  • Theater
  • Odeum (music center)
  • Stadium
  • Beautiful temples to: Zeus, Diana, Aphrodite, Apollo, and Asclepius.
  • Pagan city recognizing many deities.
  • Enormous temple to Zeus
  • An entire "golden street" of pagan shrines
  • Primary worship was of Cybele, the "giver of wealth", and the worship is described as wild & unrestrained.

The people of Smyrna were eager to please Rome, as such they readily adopted Caesar worship, building their first temple to Dea Roma (goddess of Rome) in 196 BC.  Smyrna became an important center of the Roman Imperial Cult, worship was compulsory (required by law) for all but those of other formally recognized religions - Rome recognized Judaism but not Christianity.  Each year a Roman citizen had to burn a pinch of incense on the altar and to acknowledge publicly that Caesar was supreme lord, in return he received a formal certificate.  Anyone refusing to proclaim Caesar as Lord would be excluded from the guilds - resulting in unemployment and abject poverty.  This was an issue for Christians for two reasons: 
  • there was the temptation to "go along" in order to be able to survive economically
  • there was the threat of death for refusing to worship Caesar - many who refused died by being burned at the stake or torn apart by wild beasts in the arena

Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (appointed by John) was one of Smyrna's most famous martyrs, put to death in 166 AD.

The following is an excerpt from Fox's Book Of Martyrs:

The Letter to Smyrna: read Revelation 2:8-11

Name of the city: Smyrna - its Hebrew root is Mur (or Myrrh) which means Death and carries the meaning of Suffering or Sorrow or Bitter.

Myrrh was 1 of the 3 gifts given by the Magi to the Christ child, it is a naturally occurring oleoresin (we might call it a sap) and has a variety of uses:
  • Perfume
  • Anointing Oil for Priests
  • Purification product for Women
  • Pain Reliever
  • Primary use: Embalming
Myrrh is interesting in that it gives off its fragrance when crushed - there are symbolic implications that tie to Christ, but that's another study.

Title of Christ: The First and the Last, who died and came to life again.  Jesus is the First Word & will have the Last Word, He is in control!  The suffering they would face is for God's purposes and according to His perfect plan - as Christians in the U.S. we  find the persecutions they had to face appalling, how little we understand God's ways - how He uses persecution to purify & strengthen His Church, much like the refining and tempering of metal.  Jesus mentions His death and resurrection to this church of sorrows whose very name means death, this church experienced much martyrdom so reminding them of His resurrection would given them hope that they too would be resurrected.

Commendation: Jesus knows their afflictions and poverty, yet He tells them they are rich; also, Jesus recognized that they were being persecuted by some false-Jews that He called a "synagogue of Satan".

Having refused to worship Caesar Christians would be unemployed / unemployable and impoverished.  In Greek there are two words for Poverty, this is the stronger of the two: ptocheia (pronounced toe-chay-uh) - the state of having nothing at all, implies beggary.   Remember that poverty could have been alleviated by a pinch of incense offered to Caesar, but at what cost Spiritually?

Jesus tells them that though they are poor in this world they are Spiritually rich - rich in the things of God, riches stored up in heaven.  It's interesting that only in the book of Revelation is the city of Smyrna mentioned.  Jesus specifically recognized this struggling church, this church may not have had the approval of "man" or "the world", but they had the approval of the Lord.  Paul describes well what hardships did for his ministry - 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 - the church at Smyrna could be described in like manner.

Smyrna had a large and actively hostile Jewish population, which would have made being a Christian there particularly difficult.  Were these the ones Jesus called false-Jews and a "synagogue of Satan"?  We don't know for certain, but here are some possibilities:
  • perhaps the Jews hostility caused them to "turn in" Christians to the Roman authorities, resulting in arrests / persecution / martyrdom - we know that in the 2nd Century the Jews in Smyrna were instrumental in persuading the Roman officials of the city to execute Polycarp & even went so far as to carry logs to the pyre on which he was burned.
  • perhaps these were Jews in nationality only, who went along with the Caesar worship, but still claimed to be Jews (perhaps keeping them from being forced into Caesar worship themselves).
  • perhaps these were Jews claiming to be "true Jews", claiming conversion to Christ but attempting to inject Jewish Legalism (circumcision party) - Acts 15:1-11
  • perhaps these were Jews claiming to be converts but attempting to continue the priesthood (thus calling them a synagogue).
  • perhaps these are not Jews by nationality, but claiming to be those who have "replaced" the Jews in inheritance (i.e. inheriting the promises of God given to the Jewish peoples).  These teachings are alive today, we call them "replacement theology"; these teachings are in error in that they assume the Church has replaced the Jews in God's plans.  They ignore the scriptures that show God is not finished with the Jews, we will see that later in the book of Revelation.

Concerns: None - which makes it interesting that the city (though renamed) and its church (though small & underground) are still in existence.

Exhortation:  They were encouraged not to be afraid of what they were about to suffer.  They were told that the devil would put some of them in prison to test them, that they would be persecuted 10 days.  They were encouraged to be faithful even to the point of death, that if they did so Jesus would give them a crown of life.

What is it Jesus is doing here?  He is encouraging them to continue in their faithfulness, but He is also telling them their sufferings are going to increase.  This sounds "wrong" in the minds of most of Western culture, since we are of the opinion that we get what we deserve - but these faithful ones didn't "deserve" more suffering, they hadn't done anything wrong!!  So in a way this sounds cruel, but in actuality the Lord is showing them kindness.  Part of the problem is that our thinking is based on the teachings of other religions prevalent in our culture - teachings about Karma and the like - but these teachings are pagan!  The truth of the matter is that if you belong to God you have very real enemies in the spiritual realms - Ephesians 6:12.  Jesus himself is pointing out that the devil is the source their suffering, this suffering is not chastisement for a wrong they have committed.  These spiritual forces of evil want you to believe that you get what you deserve; but the truth, God's truth, is that you get what you don't deserve - both in suffering John 15:18-19 and in grace  Romans 11:6.  He is warning them that suffering is going to come, allowing them to be prepared for the suffering they don't deserve; however, they are recipients of His grace, a reward that no man deserves.

Jesus reminds them not to be afraid to face the sufferings to come, the very title He used of Himself would remind them ultimately who was in control - the author of life who was victorious over death was the one speaking to them!  He also let them know that there were limits on their suffering of "10 days", limits He was enforcing.  I don't know about you, but as for me I am much more able to endure pain & suffering if I know that it will end.

What are these 10 days & when did they happen?  Ok, here's where there are differences of opinion.  Apparently the expression for "days" in Hebrew can be idiomatic for epochs, or short periods of time.  It may be that there was a specific literal 10 day period for which we don't have a historical record - it wouldn't be surprising for that to be the case.  If seen idiomatically there is a "10 day" record of persecutions - there are 10 Roman Emperors that specifically targeted Christians for persecution, starting in AD 54 with Nero and ending in AD 313 with Diocletian, with none of their reigns being consecutive (breaks between each era of persecution).

They were told to be faithful even unto death - and many were martyrs, they were promised a "crown of life".  This crown is not believed to be salvation - which cannot be earned by a work, even if that work is martyrdom - but a special reward stored up in heaven for those who suffer for Jesus sake.  The word for "crown" here is not a royal crown but a victor's crown - more like a trophy, a medal, or a blue ribbon of today. 

Closing Statement: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches"

Promise to the Overcomer:  The overcomer will not be hurt at all by the second death.  The first death is physical death, the second is death of the soul and spirit - not a ceasing to exist but rather a permanent state of separation from God.  This is a continuation of the idea prevalent through this letter to Smyrna - they will face persecution to the point of death, but the one who is victorious over death has assured their victory over death as well.

Looking at overall church history Smyrna represents the Persecuted church or Martyr church, a time frame in church history of approximately AD 100-314.  Smyrna - Myrrh - Death & Sorrows - the name certainly fits.  Have persecutions stopped?  No!!  In fact persecutions are on the rise, in the last century more people have been martyred for the faith than in all the previous centuries combined.  It is costly to be dedicated to Christ, in some places more than in others.  As end-time pressures increase persecution will also increase, God's people need to be ready to face the fires of persecution.  Will we remain faithful?  To do so will we in America have to resort to becoming an underground church like the one that still exists in Smyrna (Izmir) today?

How is your life like the life of the church of Smyrna?  What sorts of persecutions do you face?  Are your persecutions increasing?  Are you standing firm & refusing to burn the incense that the world insists you burn?  If the time comes when faced with a choice to stand for Christ or loose everything will you be ready?

How is our church like the church of Smyrna?  What sorts of persecutions does our church face?  Where has society or government attempted to force our churches into compromise or silence?  Are you seeing an increase in persecutions?  Will our church stand firm?  Are we willing to go underground, loosing all of our wonderful buildings and programs in order to stay true to Christ?

Prayer:  God, thank you for your grace, we don't deserve it and can't earn it.  Help us Lord to be a people and a church that are prepared for persecution, the world hates Jesus & it will hate us too.  We've lived a well-cushioned & safe existence in this country, but things are changing - help us not to be afraid, help us to stand strong - even if it means imprisonment or death.  Help us as we face persecutions to focus not on our momentary struggles, but rather on an eternity in your presence when all sufferings will have ceased.  Amen!