Mark 1:21-45 – The Touch of the Savior

We concluded our last study with life’s single most important question: Why should I also follow Jesus? This is the bottom-line question that each Gospel writer seeks to answer by telling us who Jesus is and why He should matter to us. Matthew, for instance, introduces us to Jesus by letting us listen to what Jesus says via the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). But Mark chooses to introduce us to Jesus by letting us watch what Jesus does.

21 Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. 22 And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

23 Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!”

25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” 26 And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. 27 Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” 28 And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28, NKJV)

From here, the pace of the story rapidly picks up! Right after church, Jesus goes straight to Simon’s house and heals his mother-in-law with a simple touch. It doesn’t take long for the entire city to figure out that something wonderful is happening in their neighborhood: “At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door” (verses 32-33). I like how Luke expands on this: “and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40). On every one of them… I love this. Not one of us is excluded from the touch of our Redeemer’s hand! Not one of our situations is too far gone, too wretched, too advanced, or too difficult for our Savior’s healing: “No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed every one” (verse 40, NLT).

“Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed” (verse 35, NKJV). The pace of the story has been fast and intense up to this point, but finally, as the reader, we catch a break. We can finally take a deep breath… And what an appropriate opportunity to do so. It is crucial that we don’t skip past this verse. Take a moment with me to simply pause and drink the scene in… Jesus, finally alone with His Father. At last, the opportunity to rest in God’s Presence and to listen for His Father’s comforting whisper. Jesus is preparing Himself for what will come the following day. He is storing up the Spirit-given wisdom that He will need to discern His Father’s will in every coming challenge and circumstance. If Jesus, the sinless Son of God, needed His quiet, alone time in the secret place with the Father, how badly must we need it, too?

Yet, Jesus quiet hours of solitude and prayer are interrupted all too soon. Jesus will now put into action the discerning direction given by His Father from His night of prayer:

36 And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. 37 When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.”

38 But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.”

39 And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons. (Mark 1:36-39)

Although the community pleads with Jesus to stay, Jesus knows that His true mission has begun and He must move forward in His ministry. Those who carry the mission of God cannot—must not—remain comfortably, stagnantly in the same place. We must learn from Jesus’ example. Sometimes we, too, must say “no” to the din of demands and competing “responsibilities” in our lives. Sometimes we must say NO to a hundred reasonable, logical obligations “to ourselves” and “to others,” so that we can say YES to the one call that really matters. I love what Oswald Chambers writes:

“My determination is to be my utmost for His Highest.” To get there is a question of will, not of debate nor of reasoning, but a surrender of will, an absolute and irrevocable surrender… An overweening consideration of ourselves is the thing that keeps us from that decision, though we put it that we are considering others… Shut out every other consideration and keep yourself before God for this one thing only—my Utmost for His Highest. I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and for Him alone. (Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest).

As we follow Jesus and His small band of followers as they continue their journey, we are next confronted with one of the most dramatic and shocking accounts in the Gospel story. Bear with me for a moment as I attempt to imagine the scene:

Jesus and his followers carefully make their way down the rough Galilean trail. As dusk begins to settle, they reach the outskirts of their next city. Peter, Andrew, James, and John are excitedly conversing about the miraculous events they have witnessed over the last few days. Suddenly, a cloaked shadow plunges in front of their path. What is it? Is it an animal? A man? The figure stops for a moment, as in a daze, and then stumbles straight toward Jesus. In the clumsiness of his effort, the figure’s hood falls back behind his head, exposing one of the most revolting sights to be seen. A leper! (Luke describes this man as “full of leprosy” which means he was in the most advanced stage of the disease!) The disciples recoil in disdain and disgust. The man’s exposed face looks like that of a demonic monster, half of his disfigured face has been eaten away by the putrefying infection. Andrew stands back in paralyzed silence, but Peter, James, and John quickly grab heavy and sharp stones to hurl at the repulsive creature, a man cursed by the very finger of God! Only the quick and decisive hand motion of Jesus stops them from heaving their stones.

The air hangs heavy with unnerving silence. Only the quiet, gentle, unflinching stare of Jesus gives the leprous man the courage to take the last few steps forward. He collapses to his knees and prostrates himself on the ground. Groveling at the feet of Christ and struggling to control his labored breathing, the man hoarsely wheezes, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (verse 40). Jesus doesn’t say anything at first. The disciples take this as their signal to ready their arms for strong, swift blows at the man—a man who has blatantly broken the Jewish laws of leprosy, daring to contaminate others with his curse. The disciples await the slightest signal from Christ to heave their weapons. The man presses his face to the dirt and braces himself for the sharp impact of hurled stones. But Jesus doesn’t give the awaited signal. Instead, Jesus slowly closes his eyes in distress and His face contorts, as if in pain… Jesus is experiencing splagchnizomai—literally in Greek, to be moved to the bowels with gut-wrenching compassion.

The disciples watch in shocked horror as Jesus then slowly stoops to the rotting, living corpse and extends His hand to do the unthinkable.  Instead of the painful blows of stones, the man feels a touch. A gentle yet firm touch. Jesus’ hand tenderly unfolds on the man’s bare head and then lovingly, almost-caressingly moves down his neck, finally resting in a firm grip on the his shoulder. The man shudders beneath the touch. He has not felt the hand of a human hand in years.  The touch is horribly uncomfortable to his benumbed body, almost painful. The man quivers in silence, not even daring to hope for what might come next. Jesus then speaks for the first time. His words pierce the oppressive silence: “I am willing; be cleansed.”

Emanating from the heavy hand on his shoulder, an electrifying shock of sensation pulses through the man’s entire being. In an instant, he feels everything—the tingling skin of his fingertips, the coarse rub of his tattered garment, the ticklish trace of the shoes on his feet, even the pain of his tender face pressed against the stony ground! The man abruptly looks up and his eyes are immediately met with the loving gaze of Jesus. He is cleansed; he is healed!

In that moment, the gospel is proclaimed—a more dramatic, exhilarating demonstration of the gospel message than could ever have been imagined! Friends, this is the unfolding revelation of the good-news message that Mark so desperately wants us to see. Mark chapter 1 begins with a vague hope, barely a whisper, of the good things that we might be able to expect from this Man who claims to be the Son of God. The chapter then progresses through the escalating miracles that this Man can perform and authority that this Man holds. And it all culminates to the unthinkable touch of the Savior’s hand –a touch that has the power make the sick well, the demoniacs restored, the broken whole, and the unclean cleansed. A touch that can change the course of history!

Mark chapter 1 ends in a cliff-hanger, I guess you could say. From such a fast-paced, short-term exposure to the narrative, we as “the first time reader” still know hardly anything at all about this Jesus guy. But one thing is certain: We absolutely must find out what happens next!

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Final Instructions

By Exodus 31, God has been giving instructions to Moses for the last ten chapters – instructions for social laws, ceremonial feast days, the construction of the tabernacle, the garments of the priests, and nearly everything in between. Finally, God wraps up the conversation by telling Moses who has been chosen to build the holy tabernacle:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship.

And I, indeed I, have appointed with him Aholiab the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded you…” (Exodus 31:1-6, NKJV)

I find these words to be of special importance. We so often think of God pouring out His anointing Spirit on pastors, ministers, evangelists, and missionaries. We think of the work of the LORD as encompassing preaching, teaching, and witnessing – but not much else. Yet here we have a beautiful illustration of God’s Spirit being poured out on an ordinary workman. “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri,” the text reads. “That’s my guy!” God says. “This is the one I have specifically called and chosen to build My holy tabernacle.” What an overwhelming privilege! I would think that this passage offers encouragement and affirmation to those of us who may not have been called to a specific vocation of church ministry. We may not be pastors or foreign missionaries, but, guess what, we’ve still been chosen and anointed to do a very special work of the LORD. You have received a unique calling that only you can fulfill! When you look at it that way, you realize that every single activity of your daily labor—no matter how menial it might seem—can be turned into an act of worship! The New Testament admonishes us to live out this “true worship” which comes by surrendering every facet of lives—whether at work or home or church—to God’s will. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1, NIV; see also 1 Corinthians 10:31.) It is both an encouraging realization as well as a sobering mandate of responsibility.

The final set of directions that God gives Moses is in relation to the Sabbath day: “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.’” (Exodus 31:12-13, NKJV). At first I found this repetition of the Sabbath commandment a little strange. Hasn’t God already given clear directions for the Sabbath in Exodus 20? Why the need to repeat? It then occurred to me, however, that the placement of the Sabbath reminder here is indeed very significant. God and Moses have just been talking about all the things that the people will need to do to prepare a dwelling place for the LORD: they will need to build the tabernacle, they will need to craft the sacred furnishings, they will need to prepare the priest’s garments, they will need to perform the dedication ceremony – and the list goes on… Perhaps God wanted to use this last repetition of the Sabbath promise as a way to remind the people that it is not their works, but God’s work, that will make them holy. God wanted His children to take a break every single week on the Sabbath day, to stop and remember – “that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (verse 13).

It’s almost as if God has intentionally book-ended this entire mountain-top discourse with the Sabbath. We first read about it in Exodus 20, at the heart of God’s proclamation of the Ten Commandments (the “Ten Promises”). And here we are reading about the beautiful Sabbath promise once again at the end of Exodus 31. I think God wants us to learn something today as well. As we discussed in our previous lesson “The Law, Part 2 – Sabbath,” Sabbath is so much, much more than a mere day of the week. It’s an attitude. We can either live our lives striving to get something that we already have, or we can begin abiding in the promises that God has bestowed upon us. (See John 15:1-8.) The Sabbath signifies a salvational rest. It’s a day we observe every week, where we remember that we can stop working to earn anything with God. We can’t impress Him. We can’t earn our way to heaven. Instead, we simply rest in His self-sacrificing and eternally-lasting love for us.

And with that last reminder, God delivers to Moses His holy law and covenant – the transcript of His very own character of love:

“When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18, NLT).

Written with God’s very own finger! The question we are now left with is, “What will Moses and Israel do with this overwhelmingly-beautiful token of God’s covenant relationship?” We wait until the next chapter to find out.

“That I may dwell among them”

“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
(Exodus 25:8)

When we studied Exodus 24 last time together, we read of the seemingly-insurmountable rift of separation between God and the people. In fact in verses 1-2, God even says, “All of you must worship from a distance. Only Moses is allowed to come near to the Lord. The others must not come near, and none of the other people are allowed to climb up the mountain with him” (Exodus 24:1-2, NLT). The situation seems pretty clear cut. God is holy. The people are not. Therefore, both parties will never be able to exist in each other’s presence. But when we move to Exodus 25, we begin to grasp the amazing realization that God actually had a plan this entire time to close that distance and breach that barrier of separation. Before the fall, mankind enjoyed complete, unhindered fellowship with their Creator. Once the rebellion happened, however, we humans created our own veil of sin separating us from our Heavenly Father. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2, NKJV). Yet, in Exodus 25-31, with the introduction of the plans for the tabernacle, we begin to see the Father start to close that rift. The amazing reality is that God actually wants to dwell among us. He desires to “move in” with His people.

It is nearly impossible to overemphasize the importance of Exodus 25 verse 8 and how it fits into the comprehensive biblical story. From a literary perspective, this verse acts as a “hinge point” in the scriptural narrative. God will once again make His home among His children. What a mind-blowing prospect! And yet, as we continue to read through Exodus and Leviticus and so on, it doesn’t take us long to realize that there are still some serious limitations with this sanctuary business. God’s Presence among the people is limited to a single physical structure. Additionally, the people must rely on the mediatorial ministry of the priests on their behalf. They are still unable to access God directly. And from God’s perspective, this arrangement simply isn’t good enough.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NKJV). And so, in a breathtaking move that would alter the course of history, God executed the next step in His plan: He sent Jesus Christ to BE the tabernacle among us – the living, breathing manifestation of God. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message). In three and a half years, Jesus with His little band of followers would change the world. Yet, God’s plan was still not complete. The Person of Jesus Christ, while on earth, was still limited to a single physical place at any given point in time. At the end of His ministry, Jesus must tell His tearful disciples why He would need to go away for a while: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).

The next step, Jesus instructed His followers, would be for the Holy Spirit to come. A special outpouring of God’s Presence into our lives. And where does that leave us now?

So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22, HCSB)

Unbelievable as it is, God is now able to become more Present in our lives than was ever imagined possible! You see, God’s Tabernacle among us is no longer limited by physical space. WE are His new tabernacle! “And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” (1 Peter 2:5, NLT). Through the Holy Spirit’s ministry, God dwells within our very hearts and minds. Our Heavenly Father is completely present, totally engaged in each one of our lives, every moment, every breath of every day. And, in turn, we as the church body are to serve as the vessels of God’s Presence–His Shekinah glory–to the perishing world around us.

And yet, we know this can’t be the end of the story. There’s something still desperately wrong with the reality in which we find ourselves: “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering…” (Romans 8:23). There now remains just one final step in God’s plan of restoration for His people. It’s the event–the moment–we’re all holding out for with everything we’ve got:

And I heard a loud voice, which came from the throne, say, ‘God’s dwelling place is among men and He will dwell among them and they shall be His peoples. Yes, God Himself will be among them’…

I saw no sanctuary in the city, for the Lord God, the Ruler of all, is its Sanctuary, and so is the Lamb (Revelation 21:3, 22, Weymouth New Testament)

The Lord God Himself will be our sanctuary… No more need for a physical tabernacle structure in this coming City. Because our Heavenly Father is at last able to fully and completely dwell among His people. No more sin, no more suffering, no more separation.

Passover

“Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” Pharaoh’s defiance has reached its apex, and now God is about to show up on the scene and let Pharaoh know just who the LORD is. Exodus chapters 7 through 10 tell us all about it. In a series of intensifying plagues, God takes each of the Egyptian deities head on to prove His supreme power. Yet, Pharaoh stubbornly persists in his defiant pride. Finally, in Exodus 11, the LORD pronounces the final plague which will succeed in getting Pharaoh’s full attention: throughout all the land of Egypt, each and every firstborn child will die.

But, thank God that we have Exodus chapter 12. In this chapter, God outlines the simple, yet very specific, instructions on taking a lamb without spot or blemish, sacrificing it, and smearing its blood on the doorposts of each home. Every family that follows these instructions exactly will be spared from death. The plague will “pass over” their home.

Interestingly enough, the instructions for the Pesach feast marked the beginning of a brand new year and a new calendar system for the Hebrews (Exodus 12:2). It’s as if God was saying, “Remember all those years in slavery? Well, you can forget them now! We’re wiping the slate and starting over again from scratch.” As G. Campbell Morgan puts it, “God is ever the God of new beginnings in the history of failure.”

On the tenth day of this new year, each family was to choose a perfect lamb. For the next four days, the family was to take care of that little lamb in the home. The lamb was to be loved and cared for, treated as a part of the family. Can you imagine how difficult it was for the family to then take the cherished pet and slaughter it? This practice was intended to teach how heart-wrenching the sacrifice of Christ, our Passover lamb, would be, as well as the terrible, ugly consequences of sin.

The blood of the lamb was then to be applied to the doorposts of the home. Why the doorposts, I wonder? Maybe it’s because doorposts represent the every-day activities of our world. The Scripture often speaks of our “coming in and going out” – the daily rhythm of our lives, so to speak. (See Psalm 121:8.) I am reminded then, that when we accept the gift of Jesus, it is something that covers our entire lives. Not one piece of our daily routine can be left out of His all-encompassing sacrifice. Likewise, the Hebrews were instructed to eat every bit of meat of the paschal lamb (Exodus 12:9-10). None of it was to remain to the morning. When we think of the sacrifice of Jesus, we can’t pick and choose what part of Him we want, can we? No, we must take all of Him and accept ALL of His atonement for us. This has profound, course-altering implications for how we live our lives.

I think it’s fascinating that God gave all these instructions and instituted this feast–a party of celebration, really–all BEFORE He ever delivers His children. It takes some faith to celebrate your freedom before liberation actually happens, doesn’t it? In our way of thinking, we would put the deliverance first, and then have a party to celebrate it. But not God – He reminds us that we can have such faith in His Word, that we can begin celebrating even now.

Finally, the scripture goes on to say, “And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years–on that very same day–it came to pass that all the armies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:41). It may have seemed like God was silent those 430 years, just like it may seem like God is silent and distant in our lives during some seasons. Yet we can know with full assurance that God is constantly, ceaselessly working behind the scenes to accomplish his purpose for us with exact and perfect precision.

It’s a thought that we can take hope and courage in.

The Lukewarm Church – Laodicea

We have reached our final destination in our journey through the seven churches – the church of Laodicea. Please take some time to read Revelation 3:14-22 so you can follow along.

We immediately notice that Laodicea is the only church to receive absolutely no praise or commendation. Jesus does not waste time with flattery or undeserved praise:

I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. (Revelation 3:15-17, NLT)

Wow. Christ’s words are not minced are they? Smugly self-satisfied, the Laodiceans have lulled themselves into a death spell. This is not just an apathetic church; this is an arrogant church. It’s a church that prides itself in its own spiritual “wealth” of knowledge and its own garments of righteousness. There is not a more dangerous place for a church to be than this state of arrogant indifference! Jesus pleads with the church to recognize their true state of wretched need. Jesus then invites all to come to Himself! He is the ultimate source of everything the church needs for victory:

So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. (Revelation 3:18-19, NLT)

The pure gold offered by Christ represents the truth and faith which our spiritual walk is established on. He gives His garments of righteousness which transform our character into His spotless image. And then, there’s the eye salve. With His healing eye salve, we will be able to see ourselves as we really are – sinful and in desperate need of a Savior! But most importantly, we will have sight with which to clearly see Jesus Christ, and it is by looking into His wonderful face, “that the things on earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” By beholding Him, we become transformed from the inside out!

 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:18, NKJV)

In Revelation 3 verse 20, we find one of the most amazing invitations in Scripture: “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends” (NLT). As I was growing up, my mom kept this picture in one of our family rooms. It made an impression on me from a young age.

BeholdIStandAtTheDoorI love how this picture illustrates the Savior knocking gently and softly calling, “Hello? Is anyone home?” Also notice another small detail: there is no knob or handle on the outside of the door… The door can only be opened from the inside. This is the door to our hearts and Jesus cannot – He will not! – force His way in. We alone must make the choice to welcome Him.

I cannot think of a more appropriate way to conclude our study on the seven churches. Jesus stands at the door and knocks. We’ve spent the first chapters of Revelation getting to know what He’s like and what He’s all about. Now, as we face the subsequent chapters of Revelation and the sobering future that they unveil, we have a choice to make… Will we let Him in? Will we let Jesus be our Guide and Companion through as we journey through these last days of human history?

The Corrupt Church – Thyatira

It’s been a blessing to be able to study through the letters to the seven churches with you! This week, we explore Revelation 2:18-29 – Jesus’ words to the fourth church of Thyatira, a church that we often refer to as “the corrupt church.” Despite its problems, however, most of the members of the body are sincere believers. Jesus first begins by commending this group for its effective works of ministry: “I have seen your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things” (Revelation 2:19, NLT). Notice how these concepts are related to each other:

Love leads to service; faith leads to perseverance. If you love God, you will serve his people. You cannot help it. It is the sign that you love that you are willing to serve. And if you have faith you will persevere; you will understand that God is in control and things will work out according to his purpose. (Ray Stedman. “Thyatira: The Worldly Church”)

If only the testimony to Thyatira stopped there! “But I have this complaint against you. You are permitting that woman–that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet–to lead my servants astray. She teaches them to commit sexual sin and to eat food offered to idols” (v. 20, NLT). Our first question is, of course: Who is Jezebel? We understand that this was not a literal person in the church, but rather a symbolic figure referring to a spirit of heretical teaching. Jezebel was, of course, the evil queen of the Old Testament who forced pagan Baal worship on the Israelite nation and who massacred God’s true prophets. So, notice the progression that we have seen over the last few churches: In the first church, Jesus applauds the Ephesians for “hating” the deeds of the Nicolaitans. The third church of Pergamum, however, has begun to “tolerate” some who “hold” the doctrine of the Nicolaitans and Balaam. Finally, Thyatira “allows” this Jezebel to openly “teach” God’s followers to abandon themselves to sexual sin and idolatry! The Jezebel heresy is the worst of all.

But what did this influence actually look like? Was it as blatant and obvious as a church teacher plopping down an idol in front of the congregation and telling them to worship it? What we have to understand is business in the city of Thyatira was conducted through a confederation of trade guilds or unions. If you wanted to do business in the city, you were supposed to be a part of one of these guilds and attend their meetings. These meetings were often held in one of the pagan temples and consisted of sacrificing meat to idols and participating in drunken orgies. This quote sheds more light on the situation:

So [Christians] had to make a choice. It was difficult to live in Thyatira for this very reason. But apparently Jezebel had begun to teach that it was all right for them to go along with the requirements of the guild, that they needed to submit to the pressures of the world around in order to make a living, and that God would understand and overlook this. Her philosophy was what you often hear today: “Business is business.” If business practices collide with your Christian principles, then your principles have to go — because you have to make a living. Have you ever heard that argument? (Ray Stedman. “Thyatira: The Worldly Church”)

Jesus closes his letter by once again encouraging the members of the church who have not been fooled by this trap: “I will ask nothing more of you except that you hold tightly to what you have until I come. To all who are victorious, who obey me to the very end… They will have the same authority I received from my Father, and I will also give them the morning star!” (vs. 24-28, NLT). I love how Jesus promises to give the overcomer the “morning star.” From Revelation 22:16, we know that Christ is the Bright and Morning Star. Jesus is promising to give us nothing less than Himself!

With a promise like that, I think we are all encouraged to continue to “hold tightly” to what we have in Jesus! That is our surest protection.

The Compromising Church – Pergamum

This week, we arrive at the third church of Pergamum. We can read Christ’s letter to this church in Revelation 2:12-17. Jesus’ first words are abrupt and startling: “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is” (Rev. 2:13). Satan’s throne!? What does that mean? Interestingly enough, the city of Pergamum was one of the most concentrated centers of idolatry and pagan religion in the ancient Roman world. The city housed temples for Dionysus and Zeus, as well as the very first temple dedicated to the cult of Roman emperor worship. Sources even suggest that Pergamum can be identified as the seat of Babylonian sun worship. No wonder Jesus refers to Pergamum as the city where Satan’s throne is! The fact that the church has maintained its identity amidst its evil surroundings is something that Jesus affirms them for. However, Jesus’ next words ought to make us sit up straight and pay attention: “But I have a few things against you…”

Here, we find a radical shift in the spiritual condition of Pergamum as compared to the previous two churches. The days of persecution are a thing of the past for the church of Pergamum. Now, the church finds itself safe and comfortable – too comfortable… Compromise has begun to creep in. The Nicolaitans were not tolerated in the first church of Ephesus, but here in Pergamum they spread their heresy within church walls! On top of that, Jesus rebukes the church for allowing the “doctrine of Balaam” to infiltrate the congregation. We, of course, all know the story of Balaam and the donkey and his attempt to curse the children of Israel for a bribe. When that plot wasn’t successful, Balaam had a new idea. “Instead of cursing the children of Israel from the outside, why don’t we get them to compromise and disobey God’s commandments on the inside? That way, they’ll simply bring the curse upon themselves!” Balaam’s new strategy was tragically successful. His tactics were to get the Israelites to compromise in the areas of idolatry and sexual immorality. Ironically, these were the same sins that the Nicolaitans were known for. The ancient doctrine of Balaam and the new teachings of the Nicolaitans were simply two sides of the same coin.

At this point, we may find ourselves sighing with relief. At least we don’t have to worry about those pesky Balaamites and Nicolaitans today! Good thing we don’t have to worry about eating foods sacrificed to idols anymore… But, let’s not jump ahead so fast. The heresy of the Balaamites/Nicolaitans was much more sophisticated than it sounds. We have to remember the cultural setting of the day. The temples were not only the religious centers of the community, but the social centers as well. The pagan temples hosted important social events and community gatherings. If you wanted to “fit in,” you had to attend these temple feasts where meat was publicly sacrificed to the gods and then consumed as a part of the worship ritual. And then, as the night would wear on… with temple male and female prostitutes at every turn, the temptation to compromise sexually was virtually inevitable. This kind of compromise was exactly what Paul warned against in 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 and 10:14-33. Paul was deeply concerned that “stronger” Christians were attending these kinds of events and partaking of these meat sacrifices because they felt “free in Christ” to do anything they wanted. But through their participation, they were actually compromising their own spiritual integrity and causing newer, “weaker” Christians to stumble. This so-called “freedom” to “do whatever you want” because it “seems all right” and “feels okay” was the real heresy of Balaamites and Nicolaitans.

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is good for you. You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is beneficial. Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, NLT)

As I turn this around on myself and attempt to apply these lessons to my own life, I have no other choice but to confront myself with the difficult questions: Is there anything in my life that might be a stumbling block for others? Perhaps in some of my social interactions? Maybe some of my entertainment choices? I don’t want to make the same mistake that Pergamum did, and I don’t believe you do either.

In closing, I would like to offer these questions for personal reflection:

  • How does Christ identify Himself to the church of Pergamum in verse 12? How is that identifying characteristic significant in light of the issue which Pergamum is struggling with?
  • Why is it sometimes easier to hold on to “socially acceptable” sins in our lives? What is Jesus’ solution for this problem?
  • What do you think the significance is to the hidden manna and white stone which Christ promises to those who overcome? Why do you think we will be given a new name?