I haven’t tried it, but I have heard that it is easier to get a light bulb in your mouth than to get it out. I do know that it is easier to let sin into your life than to get it out. The same is true in the life of the church.
In the letters to the churches in Ephesus and Laodicea, Jesus rebukes them for what they left out. In the letters to the churches in Pergamos and Thyatira, Jesus rebukes them for what they allowed in. Ephesus and Laodicea left out their love and devotion. Pergamos and Thyatira let in idolatry and immorality. The infiltration of idolatry and immorality among believers has been a threat since the early days of the church. Ananias and Sapphira idolized money and popularity in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 5). Paul had to deal with the shame of sexual immorality in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 5).
The church today should be concerned about the idolatry of living by the world’s values rather than by God’s values, and the immorality of permissive sexual behavior that has crept into its membership. In an article titled “Tracking Christian Sexual Morality in a Same-Sex Marriage Future,” professor Mark Regnerus concludes from his survey of more than 15,000 Americans that “Churchgoing Christians who support same-sex marriage are more likely to think pornography, cohabitation, hook-ups, adultery, polyamory, and abortion are acceptable. And it’s reasonable to expect continued change in more permissive directions.”1 In Revelation 2:12-29, we learn what our Lord thinks of the church’s concession to idolatry and immorality, and what He wants us to do about it.
Jesus introduces Himself to the church in Pergamos as “He who has the sharp two-edged sword” (2:12).2 The two-edged sword depicts Christ as a mighty warrior and represents His Word as His weapon.3 With it, He discerns our thoughts and knows the intentions of our hearts. He uses His Word to execute His judgments. Before we see His judgment against wickedness in the world in chapters 6-20, we experience His judgment against sin in the church in chapters 2-3. Christ loves His church and desires it to be pure: “as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
To the church in Thyatira Jesus is He “who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass” (2:18). Christ has the penetrating insight along with the strength and stability to make and carry out righteous judgment in His church. Jesus’ penetrating eyes do not see just what is bad; they see what is good also. Jesus judges what is to be commended as well as what is to be corrected. To the local congregations of His church, He begins with what He can praise. In Thyatira, He praises their tireless work. In Pergamos, it is their faithfulness in the midst of danger (2:13).
The believers there lived in one of the most threatening environments of that day for Christians. Jesus refers to it as the place where Satan’s throne is. Can you think of a place that would be more dangerous for the Christian than Satan’s hometown? Pergamos was identified as the base of Satan’s operations because of all the cultic activity there. “The healing cult of Asclepius was famous at Pergamum.”4 The throne-like altar of Zeus located there included sculptures of serpents. Tributes to many other gods were prominent in the city. “However the greatest immediate threat to believers would have been the cult of the emperor.”5 “Rome was tolerant of religions as long as they did not make universal claims that might compete with loyalty to the state.”6 They were fine with religious people as long as they would still confess “Caesar is Lord.” Christians however confess only one as their Lord, not Caesar but Jesus (Romans 10:9). Jesus commends the believers in Pergamos for holding fast to His name and not denying His faith. Even when one of the members from their own church is killed for his faith in front of them, they remain loyal to Christ. The Pergamos Christians demonstrated remarkable faith.
Antipas was their brother in Christ. He was someone’s son, maybe someone’s brother, husband, or father. They watched him die for refusing to deny Jesus as his Lord. Is one simple phrase, “Jesus is Lord,” worth dying for? Someone might say, “It’s only words. Just say ‘Caesar is Lord’ and spare your life. Spare your family and friends the grief of seeing you die. You can still believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord.” That’s what man might say, but listen to what God says: “confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart. … For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:9, 13; HCSB). Jesus emphasizes the importance of words when He contrasts the good man and the evil man in Luke 6:45. He explains, “For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” In other words, your mouth reveals what your heart really believes. The person who confesses “Jesus is Lord” under the threat of death really believes that Jesus is Lord. Do you really believe Jesus is Lord? Would you confess it no matter what? Antipas really believed it and died for it. His family and friends really believed it and refused to deny their faith even after they saw Antipas die. No wonder Jesus has words of praise for them. That’s what makes Jesus’ rebuke so shocking (2:14-15).
As faithful as the believers in Pergamos are, their one fault is that they have allowed the unfaithful in. Jesus rebukes them because they have among them some who follow the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. The teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans is basically the same thing. The difference is that Balaam lived 1500 years earlier and the Nicolaitans are their contemporaries. Balaam led Israel astray and the Nicolaitans are leading Christians astray. Balaam taught Israel that it was okay to participate in feasts that honored idols and to practice sexual immorality. The Nicolaitans are teaching “that unlawful unions are a good thing, and … the highest happiness [is] in pleasure.”7 They both taught that you could be loyal to the Lord and live for the world at the same time. That’s like vowing to remain faithful to your spouse and sleeping around at the same time. The church in Pergamos was allowing followers of this teaching to remain in their membership. Thyatira, a church down the road went a step further. They allowed a false teacher of this doctrine to be in their congregation (2:20).
The false teacher in Thyatira is a woman whom Jesus refers to as “that woman Jezebel,” emphasis on “that.” This is no compliment. Modern synonyms for Jezebel are: floozy, harlot, hooker, hussy, slut, etc. She was teaching what the Nicolaitans were teaching, not outside the church, but in the church. Can you imagine being in her Sunday school class? No wonder Jesus’ rebuke to these churches is so harsh (2:16, 22-23).
Christ is sympathetic to believers who endure persecution from an unbelieving and sinful world, but He will not tolerate the weakness of giving in to the sins of the world, and neither should we. Notice that in His call for repentance in 2:16, Jesus is addressing the faithful believers concerning the unfaithful in the church. “Repent, or else I will come to you” (the faithful) “and will fight against them” (the unfaithful). What were the faithful to repent of? They were to repent of tolerating idolaters and fornicators in the church (2:15). It is the church’s responsibility to discipline its sinning members. The church is not to tolerate idolatry and immorality among believers. We are to call for repentance and lovingly discipline those who refuse.
I feel like proper church discipline is so rare today, and so difficult, that it can easily be misunderstood and abused. Therefore, it is wise to consider what church discipline is and is not. It is not for condemnation, but for restoration. It is not hunting for hidden sins, but confronting open sins. It is not for the world, but for the church. It is not for the repentant, but for the unrepentant. It is not to be hasty, but methodical according to Matthew 18. It is not pleasant, but it is necessary. It is not meant to crucify, but to purify. It is not hating, but loving. “We call people to repent because we love them. … And if they do not repent, we are to follow the steps prescribed in Matthew 18:15-18 because we love them and want to keep them from judgment.”8 If they repent, it will save them from being disciplined by Christ. If they reject our discipline, they will face His. The discipline of the church is milder than the discipline of Christ in the same way one child warning another child is milder than if the parent has to step in. “Those who belong to Jesus repent of sin. The refusal to repent of sin identifies someone as unregenerate.”9 Those who refuse to repent align themselves with Jezebel (2:21).
The New Testament teaching on church discipline is so clear that I cannot deny it. If you ask me if I believe in church discipline, I will quickly say yes. If you ask me if I practice church discipline, I will hesitate. The fact is it scares me to death. I’m scared of offending people. I want to avoid their wrath. I don’t like being accused of judging. I don’t like being called a legalist or a hypocrite. I’m afraid of making mistakes. What if I come across as unloving. What if I confuse the facts. It would be much easier to ignore the whole situation and pretend not to know anything. There is no way to avoid all the possible pitfalls of church discipline. It would be nice if we could administer it flawlessly and the person receiving it would immediately respond with submission and repentance. It would really be nice if a sinning believer would discipline himself and we wouldn’t even have to get involved. Nevertheless, God gives the church the responsibility to discipline one another. The question comes down to this: whom do we fear more, God or man?
Jesus promises to reward those who obey Him. Notice how the rewards fit the obedience. To those who overcome by remaining faithful, Jesus promises manna, a white stone, and a new name (2:17). Manna is in contrast to idolatrous food. A white stone is in contrast to immorality. And a new name is in contrast to the names you are called for remaining pure, like preacher boy or little miss goody two-shoes. To those who lovingly but firmly confront open sin in the church, Jesus promises power over the nations and the morning star (2:26-28). Power over the nations is the right to rule with Christ. The morning star is Jesus Himself, first prophesied in Numbers 24:17, “A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, … And destroy all the sons of tumult.” The star is clearly identified in Revelation 22:16, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.” “Like the previous verse, the promise of the morning star is a promise that the overcomers will be identified with Jesus and share in his rule.”10 Those who lead well on earth will be given greater leadership responsibilities in the kingdom of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). “The process of church discipline is preparation for ruling in the age to come.”11 Church discipline is an issue we cannot ignore forever. Either we administer it correctly now or be corrected later. Either we hold one another accountable now or be held accountable later. Either we withhold the benefits of membership now or we lose rewards later.
Contrast God’s rewards with what a man might reward us if we didn’t confront him with his sin. What do you think he might reward the church for ignoring his sin? Peace? Yes, the peace of avoiding his anger. Growth? Yes, growth in ungodliness. Comfort? Yes, so comfortable that we become weak. Popularity? Yes, so popular that we lose our witness. There is no reward from man or from God for not confronting sin in the church. If we allow sin in the church, we dishonor our Savior who died to cleanse us from sin. If we have the courage to confess, “Jesus is Lord,” then let’s have the courage to live for Him. Let’s do what He does; let’s confront sin in the church. Let’s confront it right now.
Are you living in sin? Don’t wait for a brother or sister to find out about it. Don’t put them in the awkward and unpleasant position of confronting you with your sin. Don’t let it get to the point that it needs to be made public. And by all means, don’t let it come to being separated from the church. Repent and return to Jesus. Do whatever you must do to make your situation right. Jesus has not stopped loving you. The same Jesus who loved you enough to die for your sins, loves you enough to discipline you. He loves you and will restore you the moment you repent. If your sin is private, repent in private. If your sin is public, repent in public. You will not be disciplined for repented sin.
2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982.
3 See Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12.
4 Keener, Craig. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000. Print. 123.
6 Ibid. 139.
8 Hamilton, James M. Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. Print. 90.
9 Hamilton, 98.
10 Hamilton, 101.