18) How High the Price of Purity? (Revelation 2:14-16)
Although grace is surely amazing, it is also subject to distortion, especially by those who use it to excuse loose and licentious behavior (see Galatians 5:13; Jude 4). The justification comes in a variety of forms. For example:
“If all my sins have been forgiven, they are now of little consequence.”
“If I can’t be saved by works, I need not be concerned with their absence in my life.”
Still others say:
“If Jesus has set me free, I’m obligated to no law or leader.”
Perhaps the most egregious expression of it was stated rhetorically by Paul himself in Romans 6:1,
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”
The church at Pergamum was infested with people who thought in precisely such terms. They were called Nicolaitans. In an earlier meditation I suggested that “they were evidently licentious and antinomian and advocated an unhealthy compromise with pagan society and the idolatrous culture of Ephesus.” Now we see that they were present in Pergamum as well.
But there was a difference in the response to them in these two congregations. According to Revelation 2:6, the Ephesians “hated” the work of the Nicolaitans and refused to tolerate their pernicious behavior. The Pergamemes, on the other hand, had welcomed them into the fellowship of the church and given them freedom to propagate their destructive ways.
There’s no indication these false teachers had openly denied the “name” to which the others at Pergamum held fast. In other words, I doubt if the error of the Nicolaitans was a denial of the Incarnation of Christ, his propitiatory work on the cross, or his bodily resurrection. Rather, as noted above, they were guilty of turning the grace of God into licentiousness. But let’s look more closely at the error of their ways.
How serious was their presence in the church at Pergamum? Serious enough to provoke Jesus to say: “I have a few things against you” (Rev. 2:14a)! That ought to alert us to the depths of this problem. He describes them as holding to “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Rev. 2:14-15).
We read of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. Balak, King of Moab, had solicited Balaam to curse the children of Israel who were preparing to cross over into the promised land. But God intervened. Every time Balaam spoke, words of blessing came forth. Moved by greed for the reward Balak offered him, Balaam advised Balak that Moabite women should seduce the men of Israel by inviting them to partake in their idolatrous feasts (which invariably led to sexual immorality). Balaam knew that this would provoke the judgment of God against his people (which is precisely what happened).
What Balaam was to the children of Israel in the Old Testament, the Nicolaitans were to the church of Jesus Christ in the New. Balaam is a prototype of those who promote compromise with the world in idolatry and immorality (see also Jude 11 and 2 Peter 2:15). The Nicolaitans had dared to insinuate that freedom in Christ granted them a blank check to sin. The fault of the Pergamemes was not so much that they had followed this pernicious teaching but that they had allowed it be vocalized in the congregation. This matter of indifference to the licentiousness of the Nicolaitans was of grave concern to the risen Lord.
What is the precise nature of their sin? They put a stumbling block in the way of God’s people “so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (v. 14). The former probably refers to eating food sacrificed to idols in the context of idolatrous worship. Perhaps, then, the Nicolaitans were advocating, in the name of Christian freedom, participation in the worship service both of the local church and the local pagan temple (a similar problem existed at Corinth; see 1 Corinthians 10:14-22). They evidently weren’t in the least bothered by such compromise.
And what of the reference to the practice of “sexual immorality”? Often in the Old Testament spiritual idolatry was described metaphorically in terms of prostitution and sexual immorality (see Jeremiah 3:2; 13:27; Ezekiel 16:15-58; 23:1-49; 43:7; Hosea 5:4; 6:10). In Revelation, to “fornicate” (porneuo) and its cognates usually are metaphorical for spiritual apostasy and idol worship (14:8; 17:1,2,4,5,15,16; 18:3,9; 19:2). When these words are used literally, they are part of vice lists (9:21; 21:8; 22:15).
However, we can’t dismiss the possibility that the Nicolaitans were teaching that forgiveness of sin and their new found freedom in Christ have now released them from what they regarded as “slavish obedience” to rules and regulations concerning sexual conduct. How tragic that today we still hear such arguments in the defense of both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.
But why not just “live and let live”? Is it really necessary that the faithful in Pergamum confront these libertines? Why rock the boat? Doesn’t Christian “love” call for tolerance and “minding our own business”?
I’ll let the words of Jesus answer those questions: “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:16).
Two things deserve comment. First, the repentance Jesus calls for entails immediate acknowledgment of the error in their thinking and the lack of courage in their stance regarding the antinomians. “Recognize and confess,” says Jesus, “that you are doing no one a favor by overlooking and allowing such sin in your midst! Confronting the Nicolaitans may be uncomfortable for you, even painful, but not nearly as painful as the judgment they will suffer if they remain in their sin!” This call to repentance may also include the ultimate expulsion from the church of the Nicolaitans should they choose not to respond favorably.
Second, notice that Jesus says “I will come to you” soon, but will “war against them”. The faithful at Pergamum aren’t off the hook. If they don’t repent Jesus will bring discipline against them (in precisely what form we aren’t told). But the Nicolaitans will be the focus of judgment. It is against “them” that Jesus will make “war”. Such language suggests that their lack of repentance would be evidence of a lack of saving faith. Their persistent licentiousness and morally compromising behavior undermines their claim to know Jesus in a saving way.
The Christians in Pergamum had sacrificed the ethical purity of their congregation on the altar of “love” and for the sake of some nebulous “peace” they feared to lose. Purity often comes at an extremely high price. But we must be prepared to pay it. Confrontation is never pleasant, but it often reaps a bountiful harvest. By all means, pursue love, but not at the expense of truth or in such a way that overt sin is left to fester and spread in the body of Christ.