Seductive Licentiousness; Revelation 2:14
Grace is the hallmark doctrine of biblical Christianity. You don't fund any other religious systems or secular philosophies talking about the concept of grace. Grace is the magnificent truth that underlies everything in the Bible. It has been said that grace is the sum total of the entire plan of God towards fallen mankind. But as fallen man in his attempt to define reality on his own terms, as fallen man just seeks to assert his own will and press his own will on God's creation, and to define life on creaturely terms rather than on the creator's terms, manages to consistently pervert and misshape the doctrine of grace. One extreme that we have is that grace is simply defined into something that is earned, something that is merited, something that is worked for, something requiring man to perform up to a certain level and then we are worthy of grace. On the other extreme we have the equal but opposite perversion of grace where grace is frequently cheapened and diluted by trivializing and minimizing sin and its destructiveness on all aspects of God's creation, and especially on the individual human being. Along with that trivializing and minimizing of sin there is an equal trivializing and minimizing of the cost of dealing with sin. That goes by the name of licentiousness. What so often happens when grace is taught is that people go to the opposite extreme and say, "Well, Christ paid for all my sins, salvation is free, so I'm free to sin because my sins are paid for." In that process what we have done is diminished our whole concept of what sin is and what its consequences are, but we've also diminished the value of what Christ did. When we talk about salvation being free we need to remember that all that is being said is that salvation is free to us. Salvation wasn't free to God. Salvation cost God the Father God the Son. There was a price that had to be paid for, our sins and on the cross.
These two opposing poles of licentiousness on the one hand and legalism on the other are actually the opposing trends of our sin nature. At the core of the sin nature we have lust patterns which move us in numerous directions. Sometimes it moves us toward legalism, sometimes licentiousness. At different stages of our Christian life we are going to find that we move in different directions. At one stage you may have been fairly licentious and at another stage you might realize that you've become somewhat arrogant and legalistic. So we have these various lust patters: approbation lust, power lust, sex lust, materialism lust, all kinds of different lusts, and these move us in these two different directions. As we manifest our sin nature we have personal sins in the area of weakness—sins of the tongue, overt sins, mental attitude sins, but our sin nature also produces human good. Human good is simply our attempt to try to impress God with our morality. So as we emphasize one or the other we go in different directions. When the emphasis is in the area of human good we are going to trend towards asceticism and legalism. When we are emphasizing personal sins then we move in the direction of licentiousness, lasciviousness, and antinomianism. All of those are roughly synonyms. But these drive us in such subtle ways, and as arrogance dominates the soul—and remember that arrogance is at the core of all sin nature activity—we become blind to our own failures, our own sins, our own trends, and we find ways to justify those.
Remember, when we talk about the various arrogance skills we begin with talking about our self-absorption, and we move from self-absorption to self-indulgence and from self-indulgence to self-justification. We get so adept at self-justification and rationalization for sin that by the time we are probably three or four years of age we are no longer aware of the ways we are justifying and rationalizing our own sin nature. It isn't until the Holy Spirit and the Word of God comes along after we become a believer that He starts dealing with us in terms of these areas of arrogance. But the trend for most of us is that we want to justify it: it is not really sinful. Because these habit patterns of sin for dealing with the pressures of life become second nature to us we find ways to rationalize and justify those sin habits, those sin patterns, in ways so that we don't really have to deal with the sin. Actually it is more comfortable just to go the path of least resistance and sin, and then of course we confess it and we are back in fellowship. Then we don't have to go through that horrible process of trying to deal with the sin patterns in our life. But we forget that there are always consequences.
So as we continue to look at this third short epistle in Revelation chapter two we realize that at the core of the problem in Pergamum is the problem of licentiousness. Licentiousness has created an arrogant blindness that has led them into a position where they don't realize just what they are doing and that what they are doing is wrong. In the process they have compromised with sin and with human viewpoint so that it is affected the evidentiary testimony of the church in the angelic conflict.
In Revelation 2:14, 15 we have the condemnation of the church at Pergamum. "Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans."
At the core of this condemnation are two different theological ideas that have become prevalent in Pergamum. We call these theological ideas because at the core of all behaviour we hold on to some theological principle. It may be wrong but at the core of everything in life there has something to do with theology. Theology is the study of God. So at the very core of everything is a view of ultimate reality because that is where God is. So no matter what we are doing in life, no matter what our decisions are, if they involve anything that is ethical it includes—maybe in a way that we are not aware of—some view of ultimate reality, whether they are absolutes or not, whether there is accountability or not, whether there is a future judgment or not, that is always implicit in every single moral or ethical decision. When we get to the point where we thing it really doesn't matter, that either grace has covered everything that we do so it doesn't matter whether I sin or not because after all Jesus Christ continuously cleanses us from all sin, or whether we adopt just a view that there is no ultimate judgment or accountability, that all comes under the guise of licentiousness: antinomianism, that there are no real absolutes that I need to hold myself accountable to. This idea is what underlies both of these systems, both the thinking and the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Grace versus licentiousness. What does grace mean? Every denomination of Christianity talks about the value of grace. You can talk to a Roman Catholic and they will tell you that they believe in grace. However, if you are going to receive the grace of God it is mediated through the sacraments and if you participate in the sacraments you receive grace. Jesus merited the grace of God at the cross and so all of God's grace is put in a treasury of merit that we tap into as we participate in the sacraments. Well, see what they have done is through a lot of verbiage they have redefined grace in terms of works. You have to do something, you have to be worthy of salvation. In many approaches to the Christian life what Jesus Christ did on the cross wasn't to provide you with salvation as a one hundred per cent substitute for you, what He did on the cross simply makes you saveable. It is potential: you are saveable if you do the right thing, if you participate in the right rituals, if you clean up your life, if there are certain sins that are no longer evident in your life then that salvation has been activated. But what grace means is the unearned or unmerited favor or blessing of God toward fallen creatures who deserve His most severe condemnation. In other words, what grace means is you don't get what you deserve, you get something better. We all deserve eternal condemnation because we are born sinners, we have the imputation of Adam's sin and we commit personal sin. We are under condemnation and if we got what we deserved and God gave us what we have earned it would be eternal condemnation. Romans 6:21, "The wages of sin is death." The context there is not talking necessarily about eternal condemnation, it is in the context of talking about the spiritual life, but the principle is still true that you earn something by sin, and that is condemnation. So all of God's grace is based on the fact that God the Father paid the price for sin by sending His Son to die on the cross for us. Grave, therefore, isn't something that is free, it is something that cost God the Father. It cost Him His Son. John 3:16.
Some people might ask: "How could this cost God anything? How can God who is totally self-sufficient lose anything? He can't; He can't lose anything of His nature, but something dramatic and unusual and unexplainable takes place during that judicial transaction on the cross. God the Father imputed to Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity to whom He has been eternally united, all the sins of human history, so that the second person of the Trinity becomes judicially guilty of all those sins: "He who knew no sin was made sin for us." It is so painful to God the Son in this judicial separation that He creams out: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" The "you" there is a singular you, it is not a plural. So He is not talking to the Father and the Spirit, He is talking solely to God the Father. We don't have anything in the Scripture that talks about what is happening on the side of God the Father at that moment. But God the Son is experiencing all of the pain and misery that a Holy God would experience in bearing the sin of mankind. So what is going on on the other side of the equation? God the Father is also experiencing that same judicial separation because He is imputing the sin to the Son, and during those three hours it is costing God the Father. So Jesus Christ is a sacrifice, and one of the key ideas of a sacrifice is that you are giving up something that is valuable to yourself. And God the Father did that when He sent the second person of the Trinity to become a human being in the act of the incarnation. So what we see that grace is not free, it is just free to us; but it cost God the Father something. There was a transaction that occurred in the incarnation and hypostatic union that while it doesn't change deity at its very ontological core (in terms of His essence, so it doesn't violate immutability) what happens in the incarnation is that the second person of the Trinity adds to Himself true humanity, and there is this unity of the second person of the Trinity with humanity that goes on forever and ever and ever. That will never change. Something happens in the throne room of God after that. There is now the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ that is present in the councils of the Trinity. This is something that shook heaven in some sense. So grace is such a powerful concept when we understand what it cost God, and that sin was such an egregious breech of the entire creation that the only possible solution was for Jesus Christ, the second person of the trinity, to enter into human history and go through this inexpressible pain and misery in this judicial punishment. We can't minimize the consequences of sin. When we realize that it was just that innocuous act of Adam eating a piece of fruit in disobedience to God that brought all this pain, misery and suffering into human history we realize how complex the consequences of sin are.
When we confess our sin there is a restoration to fellowship but it doesn't mean that the consequences are removed, though sometimes they are. Many times God in His grace ameliorates the consequences for our sins, so that He constantly deals with us in grace. But the issue is on our side we diminish the significance of sin because we don't think enough about it. So what grace means at salvation is it is free to us, it emphasizes this payment of a price. That is part of the whole concept of redemption: to pay a price. A price was paid that freed us from the slave market of sin. So the picture in the New Testament is one of this payment of a price that took place on the cross.
What happens in licentiousness is that you come along and say that either that really doesn't matter or great, now that was accomplished so now I can do whatever I want to do. What happens when you adopt that attitude is it diminishes and trivializes grace. It affects our future role in the kingdom of God.
The condemnation: The first statement is that there are those who hold the doctrine of Balaam. The Lord says, "I have a few things against you," and that is not the best translation. Actually, it is only two. The Greek word OLIGOS [o)logoj] which means a small number. It isn't a large number of problems. The word here translated "hold" is the verb KRATEO [kratew]. Here it is a participle, "those who continue holding," present active participle. It is an ongoing action: You consistently adhere to the teaching/doctrine of Balaam. This is in contrast to the use of the verb in verse 13 where in commendation the Lord Jesus Christ said: "You hold fast to my name." The point is that the congregation as a whole here has taken a lax attitude toward sin so that it has created an environment in the congregation where people think that it is okay to violate these principles of the Word of God because, after all, we are going to be forgiven. As a result of that the congregation is being affected by this minimization of sin.
"You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam." Teaching is the verb DIDASKO [didaskw], aorist active indicative, culminative aorist, he "taught" in the past; "who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality." The Balaam account is found in Numbers 22-25; 31:16; Deuteronomy 23. In summary, Balaam was this Gentile prophet, a believer, from the same area of Mesopotamia where Abram had originated. He was invited by Balak the king of Moab to come over and for a price curse the Jews. It is one of the early indications of anti-Semitism in the Old Testament. The whole episode of the talking donkey is to picture Israel as an innocent, and Balaam is being asked to come and beat on the innocent Israel. God is trying to get Balaam's attention and communicate to him that he was dealing unjustly with the poor creature he has, and in the same way he was going to deal unjustly with Israel. After it was all over with and after Balaam had attempted three times to curse Israel (he never did) he disappears. What we learn from what is said in Numbers 31:16 and Deuteronomy 23 is that he left and then came back and he became a personal advisor to the king of Moab. He is out of fellowship and operating on a licentious principle, and though God prohibited him from cursing Israel he comes back to Moab with an idea. It was to get all the good looking women in Moab and open up a fertility shrine to the phallic cult, then have all these women function as cultic priestesses. As soon as the Jewish men get a look at the Midianite women what they are going to do is come to the temple, forget all about God and the Ten Commandments, and they are going to want to unite with the temple prostitutes. This would completely destroy them internally through compromising their allegiance to God. That is exactly what happened.
We have to go to the New Testament to pick up the accurate interpretation. There are three passage in the New testament that talk about Balaam: Revelation 2:14; Jude 11—"Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam's error; they have been destroyed in Korah's rebellion." So Jude ties these false teachers to Cain, to Balaam, and to the rebellion of Korah, three different instances in the Old Testament. But here Jude refers to greed in terms of the error of Balaam. He sold out the Jews for what he could gain personally. Colossians 3:5 says that greed is tantamount to idolatry. In 2 Peter 2:15, 16, also talking about false teachers: "They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—a beast without speech—who spoke with a man's voice and restrained the prophet's madness." So we have the error of Balaam in Jude 11; the way of Balaam in 2 Peter 2:15; the doctrine of Balaam in Revelation 2:14. The way of Balaam is to love the wages of unrighteousness. He didn't love unrighteousness, he loved the benefits of unrighteousness. He loved the personal gain, whether it was personal pleasure, security, whatever it was that is what the focus is in 2 Peter 2:25. His focus is what he gets out of licentiousness. The New Testament affirms the historical veracity of the talking donkey.
The actual error of Balaam is indicated in Numbers 31:16, "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the Lord's people." There it is seen that is was as a result of the counsel of Balaam that this conspiracy developed. What the Israelites have done by going to the women of Midian is that they have assimilated human viewpoint into the divine viewpoint thinking that God wants Israel to have. He is going to set apart Israel as a unique nation. The sex isn't linked to sex for sex's sake because the sex is linked with this religious ritual worship. It is viewed very seriously by God because the result of this assimilation, this unity with the cultic prostitutes will destroy the spiritual life of Israel. The principle sis that whenever we compromise with human viewpoint in whatever area it sets the stage for the destruction of our spiritual life. Once we start rationalizing and justifying those compromises then it makes it easier to do that the next time and easier after that, and before long we have assimilated a number of very comfortable human viewpoint thought practices or overt behaviour styles that work for us but are actually working against our spiritual growth.
We see how seriously God takes this kind of compromise with licentiousness. In Numbers 25 we see what happens. First of all, when this rebellion takes place (and it is viewed as a rebellion) Moses is told to deal with it harshly. The first thing he is told to do is to round up all the leaders and to publicly hang them, so that everybody gets the message—verse 4. The second consequence is that the judges of Israel were to carry this out. Moses had organized the people under judges so that each group was basically overseen by them—verse 5. However, one of the Israelite tribal leaders was name Zimri had become involved with a Midianite woman. Phinehas the son of Aaron, realises the seriousness of the sin and what they were doing and chases them down. He takes his spear and catches them in the tent together and he skewers both of them. On top of that God sent a plague that killed another 24,000 Israelites who had become involved in the fertility cult. That seems pretty serious to most people but God is demonstrating that you can't just come along and compromise and justify sin in your midst without it ultimately destroying you. That is what happens with licentiousness. To demonstrate how seriously God took this He gives a high commendation to Phinehas at the end of the chapter and He enters into an eternal covenant of peace to indicate that one of his descendants would always serve in the high priesthood. God honors what Phinehas did so greatly, that he saw the seriousness of the situation and took it in hand and killed these two individuals, that he enters into a private covenant of promise with Phinehas. That tells us how seriously God takes sin, even in grace, because He knows that is why He had to send His Son to the cross.
Furthermore, the consequences don't end in Numbers 25. A few months later we come to the events in chapter 31. In chapter 25 we see the consequences to Israel where God has to punish Israel to get their attention. But that doesn't end it because they are only half of the equation, the other half were the Midianites. In chapter 31 God tells Moses to gather the troops and go to war against the Midianites. They are to kill all the males (v. 7) and then the kings of Midian (v. 8) and it lists the rulers there, and it also lists Balaam. Balaam is killed by the Israelites at this point. Then the Jews took all the women captive. But see, they are compromising again. The order was to kill everybody. They came back and Moses rebuked them. He tells them to take all of the children and kill all of the male children and they were to kill every woman who had had sexual relations. That all seems bizarre to our ears, and of course liberals like to come along and distort the whole concept. But what God is demonstrating in events like this with Israel is the seriousness of sin and the consequences of it. This was a lesson Israel would never forget, but it established a pattern of sin that is repeated down through the ages, and that is the compromise with human viewpoint.
In Revelation 2:14 a "stumbling block" is a SKANDALON [skandalon], from which we get our word "scandal," and it means a trap or a snare laid with a tempting bait to entice an unwary animal. The beautiful Midianite women were the bait in the trap of idolatry. The trap involved sexual immorality, so the stumbling block is assimilation into the idolatrous thinking of the phallic cult. What is a modern day counterpart to the phallic cult? The phallic cult was fertility worship, the idea that somehow we as human beings have to have some kind of interaction with certain gods and goddesses and they will make the land fertile. Remember that this is an agricultural society. So they were concerned about the rain, the weather, the crop production, and the idea was that if you somehow engaged in sexual activity that when the gods and goddesses looked on they would get the same idea, that they needed to go out and procreate and these gods and goddesses would produce fertility in nature. But what are they after? They are after prosperity, they are after success in their job, their career, and they are trying to do things that somehow motivate and manipulate the gods to give them prosperity. Do we see that kind of things today? Sure we do. For example, a lot of the charismatic churches are teaching a health and wealth gospel, a prosperity gospel. That is all it is, a modern day version of the ancient fertility cult. It is the idea that you can do something through your prayer life, through your spiritual life, through giving to God, through following certain procedures that they outline, naming it and claiming it, making it a positive confession, "planting that seed" (terminology coming out of a doctrine originated by Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagan called the "seed-faith doctrine"). One of the most pernicious doctrines taught today is that if you give ten per cent to God, that is your seed faith. You plant that seed and God is going to restore it to you a hundred fold. But it is just a modern version of this ancient perversion of the fertility cult.
The same thing was going on in Pergamum. It is licentiousness, a total distortion of grace. That is why the Lord Jesus Christ makes such an issue out of this in the church at Pergamum because they are destroying the concept of grace. That is what is ultimately involved in eating things sacrificed to idols and the sexual immorality, that this was incorporated into those fertility rights of the idolatrous practices that were present there is Pergamum. This same thing also characterized the Nicilaitans.
The conclusion to this condemnation is that they had distorted and perverted the grace of God in order to justify these sinful actions where they were assimilating with the human viewpoint pagan culture around them in order to lessen the differences, the contrasts between their biblical viewpoint teaching and the human viewpoint teaching of the pagan crowd. We find that same pressure today, that we are constantly as believers pressured to somehow compromise with the world around us so that we don't stand out, so that we don't come under the rejection of the cosmic system, so that we don't have to deal with the pressures of the hostility of a pagan world that surrounds us in everything we do from business, family, and everything else.