“But I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. In a similar way, you have some Nicolaitans among you who follow the same teaching. Repent of your sin, or I will come to you suddenly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
‭‭Revelation‬ ‭2:14-16‬ ‭NLT

The story of Balaam and Balak can be found in Numbers 22-24. It’s a fascinating read, involving angels with swords and a talking donkey. Balak, of Moabite royalty, wanted Balaam to curse the oncoming Israelite nation because he was concerned that they would “…devour everything in sight, like an ox devours grass in the field!” He involved the Midianites, and together they asked a man called Balaam to curse the Israelites, but instead he ended up blessing them, delivering the message God told him to say. The story concludes with Balaam cursing the surrounding nations after blessing the Israelites. Balaam wasn’t a Godly man, because the Scriptures record that he was involved in divination, a practice that carried the death penalty for the Jews. He was also a Gentile. However, that did not stop God using him to deliver His message. In several places in the Bible we see that if necessary, God will use influential people in Godless nations to carry out His plans. 

At the start of Numbers 25 we see that the Israelite men were starting to cohabit with Moabite women, even getting involved in their Baal worship. And as a result they were guilty of the sins in the complaint we read about in today’s Scripture, they sinned, “by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin”. Though we cannot find a direct Scriptural reference to Balaam teaching the Israelites how to sin, the theological consensus seems to be that Balaam advised Balak of a more devious response and solution – get them involved in the sinful practices of the Moabites and Midianites so that God will punish them. And in Numbers 25 the story of their sin and its consequences played out to a sad conclusion.

After referring to the story of Balaam, John continued in today’s verse, by exposing the Nicolaitans amongst them. They too followed the same practices of eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. As we found earlier, the Ephesian church had also been infiltrated by adherents of this sect. 

Jesus’ response to those engaging in these sinful practices was a warning. He said that He would come to fight them with “the sword of [His] mouth”. And this fight would happen suddenly. Back in the wayward Israelites’ day, when their sin with the Moabites had been uncovered, the solution was physical, with God sending a plague which only stopped with a gruesome ending – one of the ringleaders and his foreign partner were skewered by a spear. But “the sword of [His] mouth” attack against the Pergamums was not to be through some physical punishment. It was through God’s Word, the Scriptures, bringing repentance from sin. The Old Testament remedy was a physical death. The New Testament solution would end up a spiritual death. But in both cases, and in the context of eternity, the outcome was the same. Eternal death.

Back to our usual question – how do these verses help the 21st Century pilgrim? One lesson is that we pilgrims must diligently maintain the purity of our faith. Sin has a habit of creeping up on us, nibbling away at the margins, disguised as something minor or inoffensive, something easily rationalised away. Remember – our adversary the devil is extremely good at finding our weak spots. In the garden of Eden, the serpent found a chink in Eve’s armour, – “Did God really say…” (Genesis 3:1). And followed it with a plausible, subtle, and clever restatement of God’s instructions. 

Another lesson is that the worldly practices around us, and as portrayed on films and television, can numb our spiritual discernment. The constant bombardment from devil-backed lobby groups, from advertising, from conversations with people who aren’t Christians, will potentially dull our senses and, particularly when we’re tired, will lead to sin. Each day we must put on our Ephesians 6 armour, and take up the sword, God’s Word. By so doing we can be effective witnesses, counter-culturally standing as beacons of hope in a dying world. And if we have weak spots that the enemy will penetrate, we must avoid the circumstances that can give him an opening. 

A common tactic of the enemy is to revive our embarrassing memories. He will remind us that because we once did something bad, we are no good and not suitable to be a child of God. But we must tell him that we have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. We are new creations. No more defined by our past, but instead defined by our future. In Hebrews 12:1, we read, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us”. The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:13b-14, “… I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us”.

The Pergamums earned a rebuke from Jesus because they allowed worldly customs and idolatry to prevail in their lives and in their church. Let us not fall into the same trap.

Dear Jesus. We thank You that You love us too much to allow us to wallow in customs that You disapprove of. We pray David’s prayer from Psalm 139 today, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends You, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” Amen.

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