Topical Scripture: Revelation 2:12-17
When Janet and I were married in 1980 I became a bigamist. I was already married to a 1966 Ford Mustang coupe. From the beginning we were a marriage of three, much to my new wife’s chagrin.
I had to sell my Mustang a few years later after a neighbor wrecked it while it was parked on the street. I’ve always suspected my wife of complicity in the crime. She was delighted to see her competition drive away. I still miss that car.
My Mustang was perfect in every way except one: the thermostat. This was the device which regulated the temperature of the car’s engine. Unfortunately, the “289″ Ford engine had a thermostat which was too weak, and the car would eventually overheat. So I had to replace it two or three times a year–a small price to pay for love.
I soon became an expert on thermostats, at least for old Mustangs. I learned the basic difference between a thermostat and a thermometer: a thermostat controls temperature, while a thermometer reflects it. One changes its environment, the other becomes like it.
What we are in public is the thermometer. Everyone knows that it was hotter than Hades around here in August. We’re all hoping for a better September. What we are in private is the thermostat. How healthy is the one in your car? Do you even know where it is? But if it breaks, pretty soon the entire engine overheats and the car shuts down.
We’re going to work on our spiritual thermostats today, because they are the key to spiritual success, joy, and power; or to spiritual defeat, frustration, and failure.
Checking your thermometer
Jesus’ letters to his seven churches are addressed in a circular route. From Smyrna the road north followed the coastline some 40 miles before turning in a northeastern direction up the valley of the Caicus River. About 10 miles inland from the Aegean Sea stood the city of Pergamum.
Because of her inland location the city could never attain the commercial and trade importance of Ephesus and Smyrna, but in political prestige she surpassed them both. If Ephesus with her trade and wealth was the New York City of Asia, and Smyrna with her beauty and culture was their San Francisco, then Pergamum with her political significance was their Washington, D.C.
Built on a cone-shaped hill a thousand feet in height, Pergamum dominated the valley below. From this height her inhabitants could see the Mediterranean Sea fifteen miles away. Her name in Greek means “citadel,” and she was. A citadel of evil, that is.
Jesus calls her the place “where Satan has his throne.” The reason was simple: this was the seat of emperor worship on the continent of Asia Minor.
The city had been given to the Romans back in 133 B.C. In 29 B.C. they became the first city on earth to build a temple to the worship of a living emperor. When they became the capital of the Empire on the continent, such emperor worship became the mandatory requirement of every inhabitant.
Once a year, every resident was required to bow before a bust of Caesar, burn a pinch of incense as a sacrifice, and say “Caesar is Lord.” The person then received a certificate proving that the sacrifice had been made, and was required to carry it at all times to show to any who demanded it.
According to tradition, by the end of the first century such sacrifice was made at the Temple of Trajan, a magnificent marble structure which still stands today.
It was here that Antipas, the only person named in the entire Book of Revelation, refused to worship Caesar and died for his faith. His name means “against all,” a commitment he honored with his death.
Every other Christian in Pergamum could expect the same fate. If parents would not deny Christ, their children were brought to the Temple, where their throats were cut unless their mother or father worshiped Caesar. What would you do? What would I do?
The Bible requires that you “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2). To give our “bodies” is to give our lives, completely and totally to God. Why is this so hard for us?
I have been taught that religion is a private, personal thing, a kind of spiritual hobby. Who wants to sacrifice for their membership in a garden club? I enjoy playing tennis, but I’m not willing to die for the game or to defend a tennis court. I have long admired Charles Spurgeon, but I’m not going to lose my job to defend his theology.
In a world which separates the spiritual and the secular, Sunday and Monday, church and the “real world,” why pay a price to follow Jesus in public? Because such an integrated commitment to him is the only way the Christian faith works. He can bless only what he can touch and control. He can bring the car safely home only when he is driving it. He can heal a body only when he can operate on it. When I separate God from Monday, I lose all he can do for my work, my family, my money, my life.
Are you paying a price to follow Jesus in public? When last did it cost you something to stand for him? A client, because you would not compromise your integrity? A friend, because you would not do what he or she wanted to do? When last did you share your faith? When last did you take an unpopular stand for him?
It may cost us something to serve Jesus on Monday, in public, in the “real world.” But we gain far more than we lose.
Checking your thermostat
So that’s the public part of faith, the thermometer everyone can see. Christians in Pergamum were doing well in this regard. But there’s more to their story, and ours.
The letter continues: “Nevertheless, 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” (v. 14).
Balak, the king of Moab, tried to entice Balaam the Hebrew prophet to curse Israel, but he refused. However, Balaam did even worse. He arranged a plan whereby the daughters of the Moabites seduced the men of Israel. Then these women led them to sacrifice to the pagan god of Moab and worship him (Numbers 22-25). From then to now, Balaam stands for the deception of idolatry.
It is idolatrous to adopt unethical business practices, for they put money before Jesus. It is idolatrous to gossip or slander, for they dishonor God and his people. It is idolatrous to commit personal immorality, for it dishonors the Spirit of God who dwells in us (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). Private sin is idolatry, for it puts itself before God.
Then Jesus warns them: “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (v. 15). They were an early heresy which taught that physical actions do not affect our spiritual lives. And so we can be involved in sexual immorality or any other private, physical sin, without spiritual consequence. We can abuse alcohol and drugs; we can engage in pornography or other sexual sin; and still keep our souls intact. But we cannot. The world may not see that our thermostat is leaking, but it is. And soon the engine will be ruined.
Eighty percent of the warships sunk during World War II were attacked by submarines. Just because we cannot see the danger does not mean we’re safe. And the danger is very real.
What was your last private sin? Why is it such a problem? Because God’s word says it is. Consider Proverbs 26:27: “If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it; if a man rolls a stone, it will roll back on him.” That’s why Romans 6:23 warns us that “the wages of sin is death.”
Why is this true? Because private sin always becomes public. David’s adultery is known to 30 centuries of history. Moral failures by recent television ministers are easy to recall. Even if we don’t see the sin itself, we see its effects. Alzheimer’s affects the patient long before it is diagnosed. Lung cancer shortens your breath before it is discovered. Private sin affects our effectiveness and service in ways we may not even realize at the time. And it creates a sense of guilt and hypocrisy which grieves and plagues us all through our days.
Why is this true? Because, as Jesus said, the branch must be connected to the vine to bear fruit (John 15:4). If the body is not connected to the head, it will die. I found some poison ivy in our backyard the other day. Being very allergic to the stuff, I knew not to touch it. Instead, I reached out with long-handled clippers and cut it off at the root. The leaves were just as green and poisonous as before. But three days later, they were withered and brown.
Churchill said that an army travels on its stomach, that supply lines win the war. Christians travel on their knees–our connection with Jesus wins the spiritual war. Secret sin stifles that relationship, cutting the power at its source. And the results, over time, are disastrous.
So Jesus says, “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (v. 16). If we do not deal with our private sin, Jesus will. He will treat us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must, but he will do whatever it takes to remove the malignancy on our souls. If he must expose our sin to the light of day in order to defeat it, he will. If he must use disease or disaster to bring us to our knees, he will. Any loving father will do whatever it takes to rid his child of cancer. You would; I would; God will.
But when we pay the price of personal integrity, we receive his “hidden manna,” spiritual food like unto the food from heaven which fed the children of Israel in the wilderness. We will receive a “white stone with a new name written on it”; this was the tessera, an invitation to a great banquet. God will always repay our faithfulness–always.
This week I was reading in Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, where this faithful, imprisoned Christian reminded his readers of the time Samson killed a lion and left its carcass on the side of the road. When he passed it later, bees had used it for their nest and made honey in it (Judges 14:5-9). Bunyan commented: “Temptations, when we meet them at first, are as the lion that roared upon Samson; but if we overcome them, the next time we see them, we shall find a nest of honey within them.” Guaranteed.
Our society is more prosperous than ever before. I read this week that we will spend $22 billion this year on luxury bathrooms alone. Yet the number of people who say they are “very unhappy” has risen 20 percent since the 1950s, and depression rates are 10 times higher than they were 50 years ago.
Why? This week I also read J. P. Moreland’s new book, The Lost Virtue of Happiness. He says that our culture has a distorted definition of happiness. We see it as a feeling of pleasure which we achieve through the gratification of our physical desires. The ancients knew better. For them, happiness was “a life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness,” not a life consumed with self and self-gratification. And they were happier than we.
D. L. Moody was right: what you are in the dark, that you are, and no more. If your thermostat is broken, eventually your thermometer is going to show it. Where have Balak and the Nicolaitans found you? What private sin is keeping you from the presence and power of Jesus? From public commitment and courage and joy?
As I learned from my 1966 Mustang, the time to fix a broken thermostat is today. Tomorrow the engine may be ruined. This is the warning, and the invitation, of God.