The Times Of The Gentiles
The Things Which Are—Permagos
The manner in which the Lord presents Himself to this church is startling, if we reflect ever so little on it. Suppose one were to send you a message that he was about to visit you with a sharp sword with two edges, would not your first feeling be one of alarm? Would not the deadly weapon suggest anger? Undoubtedly it would and so here as one reads on he is soon made aware of the serious condition in this, the third-stage of the history of the Church, which very properly excites the Lord’s grave displeasure.
It is in place here to call attention to another principle running through this series of letters, that is not only interesting in itself, but that confirms very strongly the thought that these letters are all symbolic. It is what we may call the historic sequence observable in them. Note that in the first letter we are carried back to the very beginning of the Bible. The language is, “To him that overcometh will. I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” Here we are taken back to the sinless creation of God, and that which was denied man because of his sin is here promised to the overcomer. Then in the second letter the promise is, “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” Here again we are carried back, but not quite so far as in the previous one. It is to the time when death has come in and forms the common lot of man, outside of the Paradise of God, we are taken, and the overcomer is assured the second death will not hurt him. He may die under the violence of Satan, but not a second time — that which follows death, even the lake of fire, he will never know.
Now when we come to Pergamos we find the reference in a historical way is much later than Genesis, it takes us as far as the book of Numbers. It speaks of the manna of Exodus and the doctrine of Balaam which we find in Numbers, thus bringing before us the whole history of Israel in the wilderness. And it may be added here that in the next letter, that to Thyatira, we are carried still farther on in history, even to what is practically the end of the history of the people in the land, when their iniquity rose to its height in the horrible reign of Ahab and Jezebel.
But to return to Pergamos, which is immediately before us, we notice first that the Lord makes a singular statement about this church. He says “I know thy works and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s throne is.” Now what does this mean? In what way could an obscure town in Asia Minor be the seat of the authority of Satan? It seems utterly beyond explanation unless we view these letters as we are doing, as a panoramic view of the Church of God. Even then, what period of the Church does this describe? Let us remember that the epoch represented by Smyrna is the time of persecution, when the Roman Emperor as the tool of Satan, tore like a wild beast, the saints of God. The devil is represented as seeking to destroy the testimony of God in two way, first by means of his allies the Jews who sought to pervert the gospel and then by means of the Roman power which was stirred up by him to persecute and destroy by physical violence. But in this letter there is a marked change. The Church is dwelling where Satan dwells and where he has his throne, that is to say, the saints are at home where Satan is at home, for that is the force of “dwelling” all through the book of Revelation. The normal condition of the Church of God is, “our citizenship is in Heaven” but here they have apparently forgotten this and are settled in the world on friendly terms with its prince and god. Was there ever in Church history a change of such a radical character that it can be identified as being here spoken of by the Lord in these terms? Indeed there was and it is a notorious fact in history, not an obscure incident. All historians mention it and make much of it. The individual who figured large in this stupendous change was Constantine the Great, as he is known in the world. He was Roman emperor and in his day the Church and the world came to terms that meant a complete change in every way for both the parties to the compact. The
Roman emperor became a patron of the Church instead of a persecutor and indeed professed Christianity himself. Many of the saints wearied out perhaps by the long drawn out hatred of the world, were caught by the snare and hailed the change as a cause for thanksgiving to God.
How fitting the historical reference to the time when Israel, the earthly people of God, were passing through the wilderness. Balak, king of Moab, alarmed at the apparent prosperity and growth of the people of God, hired Balaam, a prophet, to curse them by means of his devilish incantations. Gladly would Balaam have complied with the request, for “he loved the wages of unrighteousness”. But his efforts were in vain; every attempt to curse ended in a blessing, and baffled and despairing he abandons the enterprise. But alas! he is subtle and teaches Balak the king how he may accomplish his end by ensnaring the people so that they may curse themselves. The women of Moab seduce the men of Israel into idolatry and the gross wickedness that always accompanies it, and the anger of the Lord is awakened and He smites His people in dire judgment. The story of this is found in Numbers 22-25.
And this story is repeated in the Church of God. The devil had sought by craft and cruelty to crush the whole testimony but his effort had signally failed. Never had the saints shone so brightly as when they were being hunted like the beasts of the forest. The record of that time is an epic of supreme sacrifice in face of frightful suffering and unparalleled devotion to the Lord when it meant death and shame to confess Him at all. But now all is changed. The emperor of Rome whom Satan had employed to wreak his hate on the saints becomes now the flatterer and corrupter. Neither Satan nor his tool is converted, the same hatred burns in the heart of the enemy and he succeeds alas! in dragging the Church down to his own level and finds in its bosom an abiding place and home, and thus turns it into an instrument to deceive souls instead of a beacon-light to direct them to the Christ of God.
What a contrast! The emperor of Rome at one time issuing from his palace edict after edict giving up to death and spoliation the Church of God, now presiding over the councils of its ministers and controlling its policies. The Servants of Christ at one time hunted and proscribed, now received in the palace and welcomed and flattered and made great men in the earth. And alas! many thought it was a mighty triumph for God and even dreamed that the millennium had come. Others, however, more in the mind of God, feared it was all a mistake and mourned over the fall of the Church as they deemed it and as it was in very deed. And in the letter to Pergamos we have the Lord’s own judgment of it. Fully does He recognize that there are faithful souls standing apart from the general trend but just as fully does he express His displeasure with those who have been active in leading the Church into the net of Satan.
It will be recalled that in the fall of the people of Israel into Balak’s snare (Numbers 25), one man distinguished himself in faithfulness after such a sort as to gain for himself an everlasting priesthood. His name was Phinehas and it is recorded of him that when the people were indulging themselves brazenly in gross sin, he took a javelin and smote a guilty pair down to death. Evidently the Lord has this in mind when He says of Himself, “These things saith He that hath the sharp sword with two edges.”
But there is another evil of which He takes cognizance, besides that of guilty commerce with the world. His words are, “So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.” In the letter to Ephesus He speaks of the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, here it is their doctrine, but both deeds and doctrine are objects of His abhorrence. The church at Ephesus resisted their deeds and are commended for it; in Pergamos the deeds had developed into a doctrine held by some of them at least. What is this thing so strongly reprobated by the Lord? Many attempts have been made to construct a theory based on the existence of a man named Nicolas but it is surmise, confessedly. Not a vestige of proof has ever been offered for this and so one is forced to turn away in another direction for a clue as to the meaning of this thing. Let us take the meaning of the word itself and see if it furnishes any help. Its meaning is conqueror or overcomer of the people. We are all familiar with the word laity which simply means the people generally as distinguished from the professional class. Now while this may be all right in the realm of human affairs, what does it tell us when transferred to the Church of God? If there is in the Church of God a class called the clergy and the great bulk are known as the laity, what does it mean? Does it mean that professionalism has come into sacred things? Alas! this is exactly what has taken place. A professional class has absorbed all the prerogatives of the people of God and indeed when fully developed this class is often called the Church. A young man in thinking of a profession whereby to sustain himself says he is going into the Church, meaning thereby that he is going to be a preacher. All the Divine thought is lost both as to the Church and as to ministry. Is there anything in the Word of God that supports the class distinction here so severely condemned? Absolutely nothing, it is wholly pernicious.
It may be asked here, but is there not in the Word such a thing as ministry, and are there not ministers of the Word? Unquestionably so, but the more one knows of scriptural ministry, the more will be abhor Nicolaitanism, both deeds and doctrine. If our interpretation is correct then we may expect to see it in its full bloom in the church of Rome. How did all this mass of clerics, from the Pope of Rome down to the lowest ecclesiastic come into being? Where do we read in Scripture of the Pope, cardinals, archbishops and other dignitaries? Nowhere. It is all a gigantic imposture on Christian credulity. How then did it ever succeed in imposing itself on people? Assuredly it did not grow up in a night but rather beginning in the misty past it gradually assumed the immense proportions it has today. But how did it begin? Apparently it started with deeds at an early date by an assumption of authority because of gift on the part of some, yielded too likely by saints as a harmless thing until its encroachments on the rights and privileges of the saints of God became an established system. And practically the whole of Christendom has followed in the wake of Rome and so in almost every sect we have men set apart from their fellow saints and distinguished from them by vain and foolish titles, such as “Reverend,” “Right Reverend” and other misnomers utterly out of place in the Church of God. But this subject will be before us again so we leave it for the present.
The parable of the kingdom of Heaven that is aligned with this letter is that of the mustard seed become a mighty tree. The connection is obvious. The Church of God was small and despised to begin with, having no standing in the world and apparently having nothing to ever give it standing. Just think of it a moment in human terms. Here was a Jewish peasant without money, without influence or anything else to appeal to the world, not even attempting to gather around him a following but rather at times discouraging them from taking up His cause. Furthermore He is condemned as a criminal and executed on a Roman cross. But eventually He becomes the centre of a system that fills a large part of the world. This is the third parable of Matthew 13, and how well it fits in with the third letter of the series. The servants of the Lord have become potentates of earth and the Church is now a powerful political influence among mien. No longer is it like its Founder, despised and rejected of men, but on the contrary, it is honored and accepted as a new force in the world, to be reckoned with henceforth in its power over the minds of men. Look for a moment at our chart. In its first parable we have the Lord before us in the lowly guise of a Sower of seed, but in the later parables He disappears from the scene. In the second parable the enemy is the prominent figure, and in the third it is a mighty tree. The fourth has a woman and a tower, but our blessed Lord is absent from the picture until we reach the fourth when He again appears for a reason which will be plain when we reach it in our studies. It is a sad but most instructive story. But how significant the change in this letter immediately before us, and how entirely in accord with the parable, the Church becomes a tree rooted in the earth and becoming a great earthly power. The enemy so marked in the previous parable is not any more an enemy, he is become a professed friend and finds his home among those whom he had sought to destroy from the earth.