This year, for my State of the Church message, I want to take a 30,000 ft. view. The church at large is beset with great danger to moral compromise. However, locally, we should not think ourselves impervious to the onslaught which is attacking the church of our Lord Jesus. We live in perilous times, and I want to summon our local congregation to look at the perils which surround us, and to take heed.
But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
This letter to the church of Pergamos requires a bit of context. It was a city north of Ephesus. The Lord Jesus tells them that they dwell where “Satan’s seat is (2:13)”. The church had held fast to the name of Jesus, and did not deny the faith, even though it cost the life one of their number (Antipas). Jesus refers to Antipas as “my faithful martyr” which the same title given to Jesus in the prologue (1:5). Pergamos held shrines to a few false deities: most prominently Dionysius & Asklepios. The cult of the former included ecstatic partaking of fertility rituals and frequent intoxication. The cult of the latter had a temple full of tame serpents; the sick would often be laid in this temple for the night, with the belief that the serpent’s touch would bring healing and revitalization. Seat of Satan indeed.
Though the church had held steadfast to the name & faith of Jesus in prior persecutions, the Lord holds their current compromises against them. Past faithfulness is no guard against future compromise. Their foremost compromise is holding the doctrine of Balaam (2:14), which is summarized as a stumblingblock of idolatrous syncretism and participating in sexual fornication. The Lord also rebukes them for toying with the Nicolaitin heresy, which He hates (2:15). He summons them to repent of this compromise, or else face the two edged sword of His mouth (2:16, Cf. 2:12).
Those who repent in faith––and thus overcome (1 Jn. 5:5)––will partake of hidden manna, and will receive a white stone with a new name. This white stone was used in Roman culture for a few purposes: victory in the various gladiatorial games, acquittal in court, and a ticket into the feasts halls & celebrations (2:17).
THE DOCTRINE OF BALAAM
The saga of Balaam (Num 22-25) is returned to a number of times throughout Scripture, and is held up as a warning to God’s people. But it is not Balaam’s attempted curses which are the focal point of the warning; in fact Joshua notes God’s preserving mercy to Israel by turning Balaam’s attempt to curse into blessings “Then Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and warred against Israel, and sent and called Balaam the son of Beor to curse you: but I would not hearken unto Balaam; therefore he blessed you still: so I delivered you out of his hand. (Jos. 24:9-10).”
It is not the presence of a false prophet who might try to curse Israel which is presented as the danger to Israel. God turns the curses of His peoples’ enemies into blessings. However, what is a danger to them is Balaam’s counsel/doctrine to Balak. Moses retells the story with a warning, “Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD (Num. 31:16).” We’ve already noted the Lord Jesus’ warning by John’s hand, but Peter & Jude warn of similar danger in Balaam’s doctrine:
- Which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness […] For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage. (2Pe 2:15, 18-19).
- Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core (Jde 1:11).
Both Peter and Jude accompany their warning against being enticed by Balaam’s doctrine by citing this Proverb: “Whoso boasteth himself of a false gift is like clouds and wind without rain. By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone (Pro 25:14-15).” Collecting all this together, we should see that the NT uses Balaam as the archetypal false teacher. But Balaam’s doctrine is not laid out like a logical argument, but it is presented as a temptation to visceral indulgence. And the most potent and poisoning indulgence is that of sexual sin.
The temptation to theological compromise is more often than not preceded by sexual sin. The logical arguments for some false doctrine flow out of a need to provide justification for behavior. We often say that theology comes out of your fingertips, which is true. But it is also a fact that we often find ways to internalize a theology which justifies what our fingertips have become fond of clinging to. The systematic theology of justifying sin follows the sin itself. Excuses are the battlements which a compromised heart erects to defend its precious.
You live in a sea of the flotsam and jetsam of sin. You and your children are surrounded by enticements to forsake the clean water of the Word to drink the sewage of Balaam’s doctrine. The soft tongue of sensual enticement will break your bone unless you put up bulwarks of living faith.
Pornography – You must not take a passive posture when it comes to protecting yourself and your family from the pornification of our culture. As Chesterton once said, “Pornography is not a thing to be argued about with one’s intellect, but to be stamped on with one’s heel.” It is not necessary to frequent the skeevy part of town to come across it. Your newsfeed, your Spotify playlist, your favorite Netflix show, and the Super Bowl halftime show are channels whereby you are being slowly worn down to be indifferent to the Moabite temptresses in the tents of Israel.
Withholding Intimacy – Paul teaches that sexual coldness in a marriage is a foothold for Satan (1 Cor. 7:5). Married couples must labor to maintain a robust bonfire of intimacy. Once more, according to Paul this is needful for both spouses. This requires masculine diligence to pursue, and feminine receptivity to being pursued. If this is ignored, Satan is given a seat at your family dinner table.
Abortion – The crushing weight of the crushed skulls of the unborn weighs heavily on our culture. It guides everything. The demons are chasing an entire generation of women who’ve slain their children. But the men who insisted upon the abortion of their sons and daughters, as well as the doctors that performed the sacrifice, and the magistrates who stand idly by are all haunted by the deep shame which God’s law places upon them. This explains the through the roof use of antidepressants, and mountain of mental illnesses.
Birth Control Pills – Less obvious, but just as damning, we’ve found minute ways of treating the blessing of children as a burden. Even Christian couples have found the ease of pharmaceutical regulation of their fertility to be very appealing. We have turned the womb of a woman from a haven for covenantal life into a chemical wasteland of disinheriting unborn heirs of the grace of life.
Surrogacy – A very pressing issue is coming rapidly into the norm. Not only have we turned the womb into a tomb, but we also have made possible the ability to make the womb profitable. Christian couples who struggle with conceiving a child should see the temptation to rent a womb as a profound abdication of faith in the God who opens the womb and grants conception. Surrogacy turns wombs into slave ships, and children into the slaves of the conceited vanity of so-called parents.
Sodomy – Within a short span of years our nation has embraced the mangled notions that sexuality is not just an attribute of our humanity, but it is our humanity. Thus, to condemn whatever indulgence someone’s sexuality desires is, in the demented thinking of our culture, the unmanning of the very person. But the exact opposite is the case. The judgement of God, according to Romans 1, is seen in being given over to mere impulse. To become utterly beastly. You and your family must practice self-control, in order to have any hope to overcome what we ought to refer to as the sodomizing of our society. This demands husbands to be vigorous, and wives to be virtuous, and demonstrate for their children the particular glory displayed in masculinity and femininity.
Rushdoony is worth quoting at length: “When men equalize good and evil, they hope with Adam to open up greater freedom to man, and to make life richer in its possibilities and actualities. But relativization is a two-edged sword: life, instead of becoming richer by the overthrow of moral law, becomes thereby on the same level as death, and no better. Nietzsche saw the consequences of this vaunted freedom and collapsed under its burden. Dewey could not explain why, having relativized all things, democracy should be held to have an especial value, or man’s freedom and dignity be prized. The anarchy of values leads only to the frenzied hatred of and war against all reality, because reality has become the epitome of darkness by its equalizing absorption of all meanings. In this sorry equalization, the theology of the modern church has had no small share.”
The battle which the church finds itself in is not unfamiliar to the people of God. From the days of Phinehas to the days of the church of Pergamum and down to our own present moment, Balaam’s doctrine appeals to our fleshly lusts first and only later do we erect a legal code to justify our sin. But the solution remains the same. Repent. The Sword of the Word does battle with the disciples of Balaam. Christ promises to the repentant both bread and a new name. No longer to be called Balaamites, but to bear the name of Christ. Have you been finding Balaam’s doctrine more and more fascinating? Have you dabbled in his ways? Have you been pining to hide under the shadow of Balaam’s clouds? Then beware. Turn away. Those are clouds without water. So to the church of the Lord Jesus in this year of our Lord, 2024, cling steadfastly to Christ and give no heed to our Balaams.