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.
Revelation 2:14 (ESV)
Patriotism and nationalism can quickly slide into idolatry. Throughout history, emperors and dictators, from the Caesars to Napoleon, have demanded they be worshipped. Today, many ruthless states demand unthinking devotion and allegiance from their citizens. Those who resist are brutalized or executed. In stark contrast, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ alone is the Lord of the nations. When the Church turns its nation’s culture into an idol or adopts a “my country right or wrong attitude,” God goes to war against the Church.
The church in Pergamum lapsed into such cultural idolatry. Pergamum was proud of its civil religion. They erected the first temple to worship Augustus Caesar in Asia Minor (“Satan’s throne” in v. 13). Imperial worship included animal sacrifice to honor the supposedly-divine Caesar, as well as such Greek deities, Zeus, Asclepius, Demeter, and Dionysus. Sexual intercourse accompanied these pagan rituals. Apparently, the Christians in Pergamum joined in the activities, revealing the decline in courage since the days of Antipas, the faithful witness who became a martyr because of his faith (v. 13).
Christ refers to this cultural compromise as the work of Balaam, the ancient, pagan prophet who led Israel astray to serve Baal and engage in sexually immoral practices with the Moabites (v. 14; Num. 25:1-3, 31:8). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus observed that Balaam knew that if he could corrupt Israel’s morals, God would surely judge them. The church compromised their worship and sexual ethics by living and abiding by the customs of their pagan neighbors. Deluded and confused, they thought they could view God and Caesar as relative equals. By the sword of His mouth—His Word—Jesus promised a battle against those inside the church, namely the Nicolaitans, who preached harmony with compromise and wickedness (vv. 15-16).
In certain quarters today, the Church has reached a concord with Balaam’s spiritual descendents. Sexual immorality runs rampant in both pulpit and pew. Self-described tolerant Christians and denominations countenance pagan ritual alongside the worship of the one true God—most notably in “interfaith” gatherings. Others confuse national identity with vital Christianity when in fact all earthly kingdoms will recede and collapse before the kingdom of our God and Christ (Rev. 11:15). When forced to choose, will the Church deny its cultural Caesars or the Lord Jesus Christ? As the opening words of the letter to the church at Pergamum states, Christ bears the “sharp two-edged sword.” Churches which toy with the idolatry of Balaam are forewarned.