Revelation 2:14-16

Sermon preached on September 4, 2011 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2011. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

One of my memories from growing up is of a roadside mountain spring. It's right along the Trans-Canada Highway about 50 miles from my home in a place called St. Andrew's Channel. I remember my grandfather would never drive by that spring without stopping for a drink of water. It didn't matter where he was going or how long of a trip he was taking, he would always stop at that spring. It has a pipe coming horizontally out of the hill and as you drive by it you can see water pouring out of the pipe. My grandfather loved that water. He thought it was the purest, best water. I know that some of you will find this crazy, but he stopped because he thought it was the best tasting water in the world.

I go by that spring about 10 times every summer when I'm home on vacation. But I never stop. One of the reasons I never stop is because now there's a sign next to the spring that says not to drink the water unless you boil it first. But lots of other people stop and still drink the water. As we pass by we see them. They just ignore the sign. The word is that the provincial government put the sign up so that they won't be liable in case someone sues them claiming they got sick from the water. So some people claim the spring is as pure as it ever was and still use it.

Is the spring pure or not? The answer to that question makes all the difference. If I was taking a drink of that water and someone came along and told me that they knew the water was full of harmful bacteria I'd spit it out of my mouth as quickly as I could. It would disgust me no matter how good it tasted. But I don't know for sure—so I don't drink that water.

Jesus knew that the church in Pergamum wasn't pure. In the picture that John sees in Revelation Jesus stands before the church in Pergamum with a sharp double-edged sword. He says to them,

"I have a few things against you:
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 teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you
and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth."

The church at Pergamum needed to pay attention to Jesus. His message to Pergamum is a message that all churches should take to heart.

One of the main things it tells the church is that it must be holy.

The church must not compromise with the world. We must not become like the world. We must take our cues for living from God's Word and not from our culture. Jesus wants His church to be holy.

Our text says that Balaam taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. We all know the story of Balaam and his donkey. King Balak of Moab sent for Balaam to curse the Israelites. But Balaam blessed them instead of cursing them. But Balaam was a greedy person and he came up with another scheme to help Balak. We read about it in our Old Testament reading a little while ago.

The essence of Balaam's teaching was that it aimed to take the people of God away from holiness. It tried to make the people of God like everyone else. By his teaching Balaam was trying to make the Israelites just like the people Moabites and Midianites. They were going to be idolaters like them, they were going to be sexually immoral like them. This was Balaam's scheme to get God to be angry with His people and destroy them.

What we should remember was that God was destroying the people of Canaan because of their sin. God told Abraham that the Israelites were going to be captives in Egypt for 400 years, until the sins of the Amorites was full. (Genesis 15:16) Part of the reason the Israelites were so long in Egypt was that God was still being patient with the Amorites. Their idolatry and sin were calling out for their destruction. But after 400 years the time had come—God was going to destroy the Canaanites and give the Israelites their land. In bringing His people up out of Egypt God was intending for them to be a holy people, a people dedicated to Him.

Balaam's teaching sought to undo that. His plan was to lead God's people into sin so that God would get angry with them and destroy them.

Part of Balaam's teaching could be characterized as antinomian, or against the law.

Paul referred to this teaching in Romans 6. In teaching that justification was by grace and through faith, Paul answered an objection. He wrote, (Romans 6:1–2)

"What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning
so that grace may increase?
By no means! We died to sin;
how can we live in it any longer?"

Some people, when they heard that Christians were justified through faith and not by works, suggested that Christians could indulge in sin and that, in fact, the more they indulged in sin, the more grace abounded.

But Paul allowed for no such understanding. Christ died to make us holy, not to make us greater sinners. Anyone who taught otherwise was like Balaam, a false teacher. Such false teachers abound today.

Let me give you an example. This teaching did not occur in a church, but it was taught by someone who claimed to be a Christian, and who came from a Christian background. He was my high school history teacher. It happened in my junior or senior year. In history class one day he stopped teaching history and he started commenting on morality. Apparently someone was getting married and he put the idea out that there was no difference between having sex with your wife on your wedding night and having sex with your fiancé on the night before your wedding. He said that it as all a matter of time and that time did not make a difference in making something right or wrong. I believe he said that the important thing was that they loved each other. The timing of the act did not matter.

That is absolute nonsense. It is not true at all. But that's what he was advocating and a lot of students just accepted it.

Does timing matter? According to the Bible, time does matter. For example, in discussing how two people and bound in marriage, Paul wrote in Romans 7:2–3,

"by law a married woman
is bound to her husband as long as he is alive,
but if her husband dies,
she is released from the law of marriage.
So then, if she marries another man
while her husband is still alive,
she is called an adulteress.
But if her husband dies,
she is released from that law and is not an adulteress,
even though she marries another man."

Time matters. In Exodus 22:26 God said to the Israelites,

"If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge,
return it to him by sunset,"

Timing was very important. If they failed to give the cloak back by sunset, it was a sin. The man would be without a covering for the night and would be cold.

In Deuteronomy 16:6–7 God gave instructions about the Passover sacrifice. He said,

"you must sacrifice the Passover in the evening,
when the sun goes down, on the anniversary
of your departure from Egypt."

The sacrifice had to be on a certain day at a certain time. If it wasn't, it was sinful. Timing was everything. When God told Abraham to go and offer Isaac as a sacrifice, the implication was that he was to do it almost immediately. Abraham got up 'early' in the morning to carry out God's commands. Timing is vitally important.

Common sense even tells us this. For example, if a lifeguard was alerted to the fact that someone was in trouble in the water, what would you think of that lifeguard if he delayed? He would be negligent. In a situation like that he needs to drop everything and go and save the person who is in trouble. In such a situation he wouldn't have time to finish a phone conversation, or to finish the crossword puzzle he was doing. For him to argue that time didn't make a difference would be ludicrous. Everyone knows that in many situations, timing is vitally important.

Balaam's teaching was an attack against the holiness of God's people. It told the people of God that they could be just like everyone else in the world.

Christians, guard yourself against such teaching. God wants you to be holy and pure. In 1 Peter 1:15–16 the apostle quotes Leviticus 19:2 and says,

"But just as he who called you is holy,
so be holy in all you do; for it is written:
'Be holy, because I am holy.'"

And Hebrews 12:14 says,

"Make every effort… to be holy;
without holiness no one will see the Lord."

In Romans 12:2 the apostle Paul wrote,

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

Christian, if anyone ever tells you that you don't have to be holy—recognize that he's like Balaam. He's not from God. There are churches and teachers all over our country now that will tell you that it's all right to be just like people around you. They will tell you that you don't have to be sexually pure, that's it's okay to live with someone before you're married. They will tell you that it's actually better to do that than not to—because that way you'll know if you're compatible. They will tell teens that premarital sex is okay because, 'everyone is doing it'. They'll tell you that homosexuality is okay.

Such teaching is Balaam's teaching. Christians, you need to be pure. It doesn't matter how old you are, whether you're young, middle aged or old. It doesn't matter what your situation, whether you're in high school, college, whether you're working or retired—God wants you to be holy.

You can say, 'no' to sin and temptation. You can be pure in this dark world. As the apostle Peter told Christians in 2 Peter 1:3–4,

"His divine power has given us
everything we need for life and godliness
through our knowledge of him who called us by
his own glory and goodness.
Through these he has given us
his very great and precious promises,
so that through them you may participate
in the divine nature and escape
the corruption in the world caused by evil desires."

The second part of Balaam's teaching had to do with idolatry.

Christians must not have anything to do with idolatry.

Christians, you are here to worship God. You are here to serve Him. You are here to put Jesus first in your life. You are here to be totally devoted to Him—to praise, honor and glorify Him. Don't let anyone take you away from that goal.

Balaam taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols. We may wonder what was wrong with eating food sacrificed to idols. In 1 Corinthians 8:4–8 the apostle Paul wrote,

"So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols:
We know that an idol is nothing
at all in the world and that there is no God but one.
For even if there are so-called gods,
whether in heaven or on earth
(as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords'),
yet for us there is but one God, the Father,
from whom all things came and for whom we live;
and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ,
through whom all things came
and through whom we live.
But not everyone knows this.
Some people are still so accustomed
to idols that when they eat such food
they think of it as having been
sacrificed to an idol,
and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.
But food does not bring us near to God;
we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do."

So why does Jesus make a big deal about it here?

I believe different things are in view. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul was referring to meat that had been dedicated to an idol, and was then later sold in the marketplace. Eating that was okay as long as it did not cause a weaker brother to sin. But since the practice in Pergamum is closely tied to sexual immorality it seems that some people in the church at Pergamum were actually engaged in idolatry. This seems to be confirmed by the reference to Balaam. Numbers 25 tells us that the Moabite women invited the men of Israel to the sacrifices of their gods. We read, (verse 2-3)

"The people ate and bowed down before these gods.
So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor."

In Numbers 25 the Israelites actually indulged in idolatry—so it seems likely that some people in the church of Pergamum were doing the same. They were eating food sacrificed to idols in the context of idolatrous worship. That was a great sin. As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:20–22

"the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons,
not to God, and I do not want you
to be participants with demons.
You cannot drink the cup of the Lord
and the cup of demons too;
you cannot have a part in both
the Lord's table and the table of demons.
Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy?"

G. K. Beale writes that what was in view was probably trade guild festivals which involved celebrating patron deities through feasts. He suggests that refusal to participate in such activities would have resulted in economic and social ostracism. Some religious teachers in Pergamum were arguing that it was okay for Christians to indulge in such feasts. He writes, (Revelation, p. 249)

"Like Balaam, this was a group of false prophets who were encouraging participation in idol feasts by teaching that such permission was permissible for Christians. We may speculate, as have others, that this course of action was rationalized by thinking that it was only an empty gesture that fulfilled patriotic or social obligations and was legitimate as long as Christians did not really believe in the deities being worshiped."

But they were totally wrong. Christians, recognize that you can't be a friend of God and of the world. As the apostle James said in James 4:4,

"You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship
with the world is hatred toward God?
Anyone who chooses to be a friend
of the world becomes an enemy of God."

Beware of teachers who will tell you that you can be just like the world. Craig S. Keener writes, (The NIV Application Commentary)

"As a religious 'prophet,' 'Balaam' probably sanctified the values of the culture by providing theological justifications for them, such as, 'Since an idol is really nothing, my worshipping it does no harm'… Like Balaam and Jezebel, we can sanctity worldly values by attributing them to God."

Keener continues,

"when we value what the world does instead of valuing the kingdom, we forfeit our role as witnesses for Christ's kingdom in this world. Too much of Western Christianity has become indistinguishable from our culture, too much of our 'evangelistic' effort geared toward persuading the world that we are acceptable because we are just like them. If we affirm what the world affirms, or, more often, live as the world does, to what then do we invite them in conversion that differs from what they already experience?""Revelation called the churches in Asia to wake up to the reality that the world and the church were locked in a fight to the death, and that the church could 'overcome' only by rising to the battle and risking martyrdom in its uncompromising witness for Christ."

Today our society, with all the influence of the media, in trying to influence us to become like them. Today's society is full of idols—pleasure, sports, work, sex, money, power, politics. Christians, don't take your cues on how to live from our society. Take them from God's Word. Don't compromise with the world—be holy. Stand apart from the sin and idolatry of the world. Be a good witness for Jesus.

Three short lessons in closing.

First, Christians, ask yourselves,

what does Christ have against you?

What are you doing in your life that Christ is displeased with? He stood before the church at Pergamum with a sword and told them that He was displeased with some of their practices. Study God's Word. Change your life. Do what the Word says.

Secondly, for Christians, it's implied here that

it's not enough to be pure yourself.

Jesus wants you as an individual to be pure. You have an obligation to be holy. You are to keep yourself from sin. But what's implied here is that you have an obligation to keep the church pure. Support the church and your leaders when the seek to bring sinners in the church back to God's way.

Lastly, for those who aren't Christians,

you should take note of what happened to Balaam and to those who listened to him.

Numbers 31 tells us that Balaam perished by the sword of God's armies. Numbers 25 tells us that 24,000 Israelites died because they followed Balaam's teaching.

In the incident with the donkey Balaam was warned with the sword. (Numbers 22:31) But he didn't take the warning to heart. What about you? This passage warns you with the sword. Are you going to choose Jesus, and life, or sin and death? Go to Jesus. Ask Him to save you. Find life in Him.