Doing Heaven’s Work In Hell’s Headquarters: How Not To Become a Worldly Church Like Pergamum

I once visited a site of one of John’s seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), but I never made it to Pergamum. Or so I thought—until I began studying this church in Revelation 2 and learning about that ancient city, and exploring why Jesus would call this the place “where Satan’s throne is … where Satan dwells” (v. 13) (i.e., Satan’s hometown). What was it that made Pergamum so dark and demonic?

The more I learned about that pagan place, the more it dawned on me that I have been there—I live there! This city of Johannesburg, where Christ has called me and my church to minister, like many modern cities resembles that old, evil city more than I realised.

As I preached this text recently to our church, Christ’s letter to Pergamum hit home to our hearts with great relevance, rebuke and comfort. Allow me then to share with you a little of what the Lord has taught me about ministering in a modern-day Pergamum.

As I walked the streets of first century Pergamum, I saw why the serpent put his head office there: It was the capital of the province, with pagan temples everywhere, and the first city to build shrines for compulsory emperor worship. Add to this their ornate, huge altar to Zeus, and their biggest attraction—the temple of Asklepius, where the world came to get healing by lying down with snakes!

At first we think, “Yikes, at least the evil in our cities is not so blatant as it was back then.” But it is always easier to spot the idols of another culture than to identify your own. Idolatry is more subtle when it’s the society in which you’ve grown up, the streets you’ve travelled for years. How deceitful is the heart, how deceptive is the enemy.

Here in Johannesburg, on every corner, there is either a shopping mall shrine to consumerism, or another false church preaching the prosperity gospel, or the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Zionists, or a Catholic church, a mosque, an abortion clinic, or an Adult World, or a compromised mainstream church. Not to mention all the schools that indoctrinate the next generation with evolution, gender confusion, and unbelief of all kinds, along with drugs and illicit sex. And we think that Satan has not also made his home and set his throne in our cities?

I’m all for loving the city, patriotism, civic pride, good citizenship and appreciating God’s common grace in any culture—as long as we don’t forget that we are still aliens, strangers and exiles (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11), ministering in enemy territory, needing great vigilance and discernment against worldliness (Romans 12:2; Colossians 2:8). We love our community, but we must also hate the sins we see, since Christ hates them.

Even more so, as seen in many of John’s seven letters, we must hate compromise and worldliness in Christ’s church and in our own hearts (Revelation 2:6, 20–23; 3:1–3, 16–19). Notice that Jesus’ rebuke to Pergamum was not against that city, but against His church (2:14–16). He expects the world to be worldly, but He expects the church to be holy. He expects a clear line to be drawn between His people and Satan’s people. Christ condemns the church in Pergamum because they had not obeyed Jesus in Matthew 18 by practising church discipline and removing evil to preserve a pure gospel witness in that city (cf. 1 Corinthians 5). Instead of being Christ’s church in the world, they had let the world into the church. God has always wanted a clear line draw between His people and Satan’s kids.

This sounds like exactly our problem in South African Christianity today. Nothing would have a greater impact on Johannesburg than if churches began to practise biblical church discipline and restoration. Never mind all the places of wickedness and evil, never mind all the false churches and heretics; if only the evangelical churches in my city repented of tolerating sin, we could see spiritual awakening sweep across this land. As we celebrate this year the five hundredth birthday of Europe’s Protestant Reformation, we still pray and long for Africa’s first biblical reformation. But are we willing to start here—by practicing careful baptism, membership, accountability, and discipline in our churches?

Contemporary Christianity in Africa may not include groups called Balaamites or Nicolaitans, yet their disciples abound. They don’t need to bother eating idol food at an ancient temple when they can worship at a syncretistic, Zionist church that holds the Bible in one hand and ancestral worship in the other. Today’s worshippers don’t need temple prostitutes for their immorality when they can attend church but still indulge in endless forms of pornographic perversity on their own cell phone.

How ironic that members in the Pergamum church were ready to die for Christ (v. 13), yet would not confront enemies of Christ in their midst (vv. 14–15). Don’t say you’ll die for Christ one day, but today won’t confront sin in the church.

Let me close with three pastoral encouragements drawn from John’s letter to Pergamum.

First, Christ’s sword either cuts us now for our good, or later in judgement. To the worldly church, Christ does not come as gentle Shepherd or loving Lord as He does to faithful churches. Instead, He comes as Judge and divine Warrior, dressed in combat gear, with the sharp two-edged sword of destruction in His mouth (vv. 12, 16).

And this is not only at His second Coming, but now—through painful providences, purgings, divisions, excommunications, and even disciplinary deaths as at Jerusalem (Acts 5:1–11) and Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:19, 30). But those who’ve been regularly going under the knife of God’s Word (Hebrews 4:12; personally, and corporately as a church), and responding by repenting and obeying need not fear Christ’s swift sword of judgement.

Second, Christ knows and upholds those serving Him in the hardest places. You too may feel like you are Lot in Sodom, that your marriage, home, school, or workplace is Satan’s domain. Take heart, Christian: Your Lord sees and knows, He has defeated Satan at the cross, and He will sustain, keep, and strengthen you until the end, just as He did for His faithful martyr Antipas, the hero of the Pergamum church (v. 13).

Third, Christ calls His church to stand for doctrinal clarity. The church and her leaders at Pergamum seem to have grown weary of confronting error, or duped by its disguises. Either by ignoring or appeasing the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans, they failed to deal with this threat to their church. Likewise, our churches must realise that theological labels and doctrinal, historic categories are necessary in protecting the church. This is why we use creeds and catechisms, and why we equip our people to identify such errors as liberalism, antinomianism, egalitarianism, or the Word-Faith heresy.

Is it really worth it in the end to do heaven’s work in hell’s headquarters, to labour for healthy churches in hard places? Let our Lord Himself answer that question in v. 17, with all the dazzling rewards He promises to the faithful. “Hidden manna, a white stone, a new name”—all prizes that Christ will crown us with at His return, when we dine with Him at that glorious marriage supper of the Lamb and as He whispers that new nickname into our ears as His beloved ones.

Beloved, let this sink in: Out of all the myriads of worshippers and that vast sea of the redeemed in heaven, your Lord will give to you, personally, a pet name of loving affection! On that day, we will have no regrets that we lived holy lives for Christ in the unholy Pergamums where He has placed us.

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