How to Be Counter-Cultural
Do you know how a German nation followed a group of mad men?
In the 1930s, Germany fells into a deep economic depression, as well as a deep national embarrassment both caused by the aftermath of losing the First World War. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels took advantage of the situation, and rushed in holding up propaganda before the people. At first they were dismissed. But after enough time, the mind of the nation was swayed. Without lots of propaganda, which bordered on being religious, the National Socialist Part, aka, the Nazi Party, wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.
Last week we looked at what Jesus said to two churches, Ephesus and Smyrna. This week I want to look at what Jesus says to the Church in Pergamum. Because of the amount of religious propaganda in the city, Jesus sees that Satan is influencing people and systems of the city.
Now, if we imagine that the city of Ephesus was something like New York, a mega population and cultural center; then, Pergamum would be the equivalent to Washington DC. Pergamum was once the capital of Roman province of Asia—it was influential, it was a trendsetter. It had multiple temples. One temple, the one dedicated to the god of healing, Asclepius the Son of Apollo, was attached to a massive library and a medical college. And at the city’s highest point there was a temple dedicated to Zeus the Savior. And still the city boasted another temple dedicated to the worship of the Emperor Augustus.
That’s a lot of religion for one city. And where there is that much religion there is a culture of thought that hangs over a place like a dense fog. That mode of thinking, that fog, imprisons the city’s culture, imprisons its government, and so it controls the mind and soul and strength of the people. As we’ll see in a moment, Jesus looks on this control, this imprisonment, and bluntly calls it a “throne of Satan.”
Revelation 2:12–17, ESV
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.
“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
Jesus Calls Us to Awaken to Compromise
The Christians in Pergamum are standing strong in the face of persecution. In fact, one of the Christians their made the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom.
There’s so much pressure on this church to compromise with the culture around it. And the Christians don’t know what to do. What should they tolerate, what’s shouldn’t they? What’s the right balance between tolerance and intolerance?
Last week the Ephesian church had a problem with intolerance—they didn’t love well. But this week Pergamum’s problem is the opposite: tolerance. They don’t know where to draw the line.
They aren’t alone with confusion over that. So, allow me to say a few things.
First: Sin is still sin. Love and grace neither change the definition of sin, nor do they make is acceptable. Jesus died to forgive sin, not to redefine it.
The only truth in this screwed up world is God’s truth, which is a truth that is based on his own character and which he speaks into the world from outside the world. Therefore, his truth isn’t a product of the world and it can’t be changed by the world. If God says something is a sin, then it’s a sin; it’s an affront to his character and will. And if and when we have a problem with that—and we do—it means that we have a problem with God. And our problem is this: We don’t like that God is God, because we would rather be God ourselves.
The second thing: Some are inside and others are outside the family of God. It doesn’t do any good to make those outside the family your enemy because of their sin. They may be confused, wrong, sinful, needy, and scared—like us—but they don’t need to be demonized or disassociated from. When we demonize and disassociate we’re neither heard nor trusted; we lose the right to share Jesus with those outside the family.
So, If we think someone is our enemy because of who they are and what they do, then reevaluate. Our issue isn’t them, it’s us. Our battle is within us … we want too much to control what other’s do and think. When we do that we lose our freedom, we become controlled by the need to control and fix someone else.
Here’s the last thing: There’s a place within the Christian family for accountability, for judging. We’re suppose to be represent the mind of Christ on this earth. And that means at times we are to say, “No!”
Now, a lot of people screw up Jesus’ injunction: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt 7:1). They hear that bit and stop. But that’s not all that Jesus said on the matter. A few verses later he says: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5). Jesus’ whole point is: Do judge, but judge with humility within the family of faith—don’t be a self-righteous, heartless jerk.
In John 8, the Pharisees caught a woman in adultery and hauled her before Jesus. They wanted to stone her; and they’re trying to trap Jesus: Will he uphold the laws of Moses and let them do it? Do you remember how he answered them? He told them that one who had no sin gets to throw first. Eventually the accusers drifted away. So Jesus asks the woman: “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Jesus was true to the Law of Moses and the Law of Love. He didn’t say: “Go, sin doesn’t matter.” He said, “Go and sin no more.” Falling in the mud isn’t the worst thing. Staying there and wallowing in it is. “Grace meets us where we are but does not leave us where it’s found us” (Anne Lamott).
The woman didn’t need to be told to repent; her posture and tears said she already was. The church in Pergamum, however, needs to be told. They’ve swept sin under the rug. And doing that is propaganda for more sin, not grace.
Jesus Calls Us to Be Free of Idolatry
We’re so afraid today of being called intolerant that usually we don’t make a peep. We don’t want anyone to call us unloving. But, think about this, is it loving to leave a brother or sister in the Lord imprisoned by idols?
Jesus saw a very specific sin in the church at Pergamum: “the teaching of Balaam.” You probably don’t know what that is, so I’ll tell you. Back in the book of Numbers Balaam was a prophet who was asked by the King of Moab to curse Israel. He tried to do it. But every time he opened his mouth only blessings came out.
So, Balaam devised a way to entrap Israel. He had Moabite women sent to seduce and marry Israelite men, then God himself would punish Israel. And it worked. Because of sexual and spiritual infidelity God sent a plague that wiped out 24,000 Israelites. The incident is an example of “fatal compromise.”
The American culture promotes compromise, it promotes sexual immorality. It’s come so that if you don’t accept homosexuality, gay marriage, and living together without marriage that you’re labeled intolerant, unloving, ungracious, you might even be accused of being “un-Christian.” You’re the one with a problem.
Please understand: sex is more than a physical act. It’s spiritual. It’s a place in which intimacy, connection, and acceptance are communicated—and that makes it good. It’s why God gives it to man and woman in marriage. That intimacy is so powerful that the Bible uses it as a parable to tells us about the relationship between Jesus and the church.
It isn’t loving to tell a bother or sister in faith, “Hey, everything is permissible. Grace, grace, grace.” That’s not love, that’s malign neglect. It leaves your friend in bondage to culture, in bondage to them self, and does not help them learn to trust and lean on Jesus.
What we have is situation where the cultural currents are moving so fast and have such a pull, that popular Christianity seems to get caught in the undertow. The definition of sin is changed. The culture has become a god that establishes truth, not God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
Friends, I can’t put it any more plainly than this: when that happens it’s idolatry.
Jesus isn’t talking to the Roman culture here, he’s talking to the church. He’s telling the church that it’s capitulated to the culture. The church needs to repent and take action in keeping with repentance.
Jesus Calls us to Be Counter-Cultural
So, the big question that Jesus’ message to the church in Pergamum tackles is: How do you live in a society full of propaganda; a culture that is speaking one message through every possible medium, which is counter to the heart and ways of God himself?
I offer you one principle this morning, which is this:
If the activities and attitudes of the culture push you towards having your needs met outside of Jesus’ provisions for you, then Jesus is calling you to be counter-cultural in that area.
You might feel that if you don’t feed that inclination, scratch that itch, jump on the bandwagon, or drink from that well that you’re going to shrivel up and die or get run over.
But Jesus has a promise for us to hear in this text this morning. Jesus is saying, “If you’ll come and walk with me in your felt desert, I’ll feed your soul. I’ve provision you can’t see. I’ve got “hidden manna.” If you’ll venture faith, we’ll enjoy intimate fellowship. I know you want to feed yourself, but don’t worry, I’ll feed you.”
At the end of the passage there is mention of a “white stone.” Do you know what that’s all about? It’s about intimacy. It has a special name on it that only Jesus and the recipient know. What’s Jesus doing then? He’s saying, “I’ve got a pet name for you;” he’s engaging in divine pillow talk.
The Lord Jesus isn’t standing here and saying, “Now you all better just shape up, or else!” He’s saying, “I know you’re lonely; I know you’re lost; I know you’re empty; I know you’re trying to fill yourself, but come to me. I’ll embrace you; I’ll hold you. It’s me, I’m what your soul is true longing for.”
Do you see? That’s his call to holiness. His call isn’t a call to dry morality, duty for duty’s sake. Rather, it’s a call to relational intimacy with him.
“I am the one who will give you want you most need, and as you come to me, you’ll leave that other thing; this is how I sanctify you. I don’t take away your deep desire for acceptance and security and intimacy. No! I call you to myself through that desire. I am the one who will fulfill that desire,” the Lord Jesus says.
In his book, Sacred Romance (pp. 181–182), John Eldredge writes about the pain of not belonging:
Being left out is one of life’s most painful experiences. I remember the daily fourth-grade torture of waiting in line while the captains chose their teams for the kickball games. As each captain took turns choosing a player, descending from best to worst, our rank in fourth-grade society was reinforced. Though others fared worse than I—“Don’t make us take Smitty, we had him last time”—I was never the first to be chosen. No one ever said, “Wait—we get Eldredge this time!” I didn’t feel wanted; at best, I felt tolerated. And then there was junior high cafeteria. After buying lunch, you carried your tray out into the dining room, looking for a place to eat. There was an unspoken hierarchy that determined where you could sit. I walked over to table filled with the “cool” kids, but before I could sit down, one of them sneered, “Not here, Eldredge, we’re saving this for someone else.”
Throughout our lives, each one of us lives with a constant nagging that we never quite fit in, we never truly belong. We’ve all had enough experience to teach us that we will never be allowed into the “sacred circle,” the place of intimacy. …
On the other hand, there is the joy of having someone save a place for us. WE walk into a crowded room at church or at a dinner party and someone cares, he waves us over, pointing to a chair he’s held on to especially for us. For a moment we feel a sense of relief, a taste of being on the inside.
When Moses was in the wilderness he pleaded with God to go with him, saying, “If I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight.” So God promises him: “My presence will go with you and give your rest.” Moses heard that, but feels the need to double check so he says: “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight.” And the Lord said to Moses once more, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (Exod 33:12–17). In other words, “Moses, I’ve looked into your heart; and, I’m willing to let you look into mine. I’ve got a white stone for you, Moses.”
That’s his promise to you this morning. “I am going … to prepare a place for you,” Jesus says (John 14:3), “I know your name.”
As you trust that promise, as you lean into it, you’ll find a capacity to be counter-cultural. It won’t even cause a great effort, for it will be the outworking of your faith in and intimacy with Jesus.
Let the one who has an ear hear what the Spirit says.