Wednesday 21 September 2011

Cheap ice-cream and false teachers

As a young Christian, I read the book of Revelation and got the word “Nicolaitans” mixed up with the word “Neapolitan” - as in Neapolitan ice-cream. It was my least favourite ice-cream. My friends and I would buy it cheaply from Sainsburys and we thought we were getting a real bargain because, of course, Neapolitan had three flavours of ice-cream in one tub - chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. The problem was everyone dug into the chocolate. Some didn’t mind the vanilla (as long as it was covered in chocolate sauce). And the strawberry was always left behind; usually as a melted, sticky mess.

I guess, back then, as I read in Revelation how much Jesus hated the practices of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6), I thought it must have been the same as my hatred of cheap ice-cream.

Hopefully, we learned a bit more about who the Nicolaitans actually were, in our passage from Revelation this week.

1. False teaching
Jesus rebukes the Christians in Pergamum for “holding to the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:15). But the question is: What did the Nicolaitans teach?

We get a clue from the previous verse. Jesus compares this teaching to a well-known Old Testament account. “You have a people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin.” (Revelation 2:14)

Balak was the King of Moab who hired the prophet Balaam to curse the people of God (The account is recorded in the book of Numbers 22 to 24). Things didn’t go according to plan, as God caused Balaam to bless the Israelites instead of cursing them. King Balak became angry and frustrated with Balaam, but the prophet replied that it was God who was preventing him from doing his job. Yet Balaam did propose a solution for the king; a loophole, as it were. Instead of cursing the Israelites directly, all King Balak had to do was lead the people of God into sin. God would be angry with them, and God himself would pour out judgement on them for their sin.

Jesus equates the teaching of the Nicolaitans with that of Balaam: “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Scholars have pointed out that both names carry the same meaning - “Nikan” in Greek and “Bilah” in Hebrew mean “to conquer or rule”; while “laos” and “‘am” both mean “people”. This was teaching on sin - how to conquer your enemies and exercise power over your enemies - by causing them to fall into gross sin.

2. False worship
The Israelites sinned by “eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14). It is important to understand that at the heart of this sin was false worship. The reason why God was angry with the Israelites was because “Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor” (Numbers 25:3). They had forsaken God and worshipped idols.

This is not to say that that sexual sins are not serious - they are. Yet what Balak did was to tempt the people of God using sex, to participate in the worship of a foreign god. This is also clear from the accompanying reference of “eating food sacrificed to idols”.

What makes such situations of gross sin so difficult to deal with, is deception. Paul deals with these two very issues - of sexual misconduct (1 Corinthians 6:15) and eating food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:10, 10:21) - in his first letter to the Corinthians. There it was evident that pride had kept the Christians from recognising these acts as foolish and sinful. The Corinthians thought they knew better - better even than the apostle Paul. Yet, in reality, they were being deceived (1 Corinthians 6:9).

Similarly here, the church of Pergamum was strong when it came to withstanding physical persecution from Satan (Revelation 2:13). Jesus even commends one of their own, Antipas, whom he calls “my faithful witness” - the Greek word “witness” being the English word for “martyr”. These Christians in Pergamum faced death and stood strong. Yet they faced temptation and fell into idolatry.

3. False teachers
Teachers like Balaam and the Nicolaitans were not condemned for committing sin, but for teaching others to sin. Balaam himself did not commit such acts. He did not lure the Israelites to worship Baal. All he did was tell Balak how to get the job done.

The teachers in a church are the leaders of that church. We need to be very careful who we allow to take the pulpit on Sundays; who we ask to lead bible study in our groups; who we entrust to teach our kids in Sunday School.

Most of all, we need to ensure that what is taught - from the pulpit, in our bible studies and in our Sunday schools - is nothing else but the full revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ - his death on the cross as the only payment for the forgiveness of our sins. Not ideas about church programmes. Not opinions about politics. Not ten ways to be successful. Remember: the teaching of Balaam was a “how-to” on influencing, on winning, on conquering your enemies, your friends and your people. That is not the gospel.

The corrective given by the Lord Jesus himself in this passage is his word - the sword of his mouth.

Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Revelation 2:16

Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
All Your purposes for Your glory.
            (“Speak O Lord” by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend)

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