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Reader Question Answered
We're studying Revelation this week in our Sunday School class. Several of the verses (when He's talking to each church) say that He is angry because they've eaten meat offered as sacrifices to idols. Is there more to this than just eating the meat?
One time when I was in Denver, I attended a church where the preacher was giving the last of six sermons on Revelation
. He said only one thing I agreed with, but I have remembered that one thing for more than 25 years: “Now, you may not agree with what I’m saying, but if you don’t, it’s not worth breaking communion over.” So keep that in mind today while you read my answer to this question.
was written at a time of terrible persecution of the Church. Under Roman law at that time, a person could be executed, and thousands of people were
tortured and executed, merely for being a Christian. Having evidence in your hand that you were a Christian was equivalent to a death sentence. For this reason, Revelation
is a coded message by and for persecuted people. My own feeling is that an American preacher would be hard pressed to give two consecutive useful sermons on this book, because American Christians are not persecuted.
[And don’t tell me how persecuted you feel because you saw a Darwin symbol on somebody’s bumper. Your fellow-Christians in the Middle East and Asia even today endure prison, torture, and death
for the faith. Revelation
is for them, not you.]
Now, let me just say quickly here that the vast majority of what is written about the codes in the Bible is complete claptrap. God is not into coded messages. He has been working extremely hard for about 4000 years to present His message in a clear, understandable way, and we still don’t get it. He certainly isn’t going to resort to codes. Several New Testament letters warn against the foolishness of believing people who teach so-called “secret knowledge.”
Generally speaking, Revelation
is coded in the same way that political cartoons are coded: a person, nation, or event is represented by some symbol. For example, the eagle represents the USA, the elephant represents the Republican party, and the donkey represents the Democratic party. The cartoonist knows that the readers will know this, so he doesn’t explain those symbols. In the same way, the writer and recipients of Revelation understood the symbols. The symbols are not meant to be taken too far, however. For example, the Lamb always represents Jesus. But lambs are little, weak, and wooly, and the symbol does not mean that Jesus was any of these. It means He was a sacrifice, period.
Unfortunately, 1900 years have passed, and now scholars don’t know all the code. As far as I know, everyone agrees that the Lamb is Jesus. After that, people don’t all agree even on the symbols that are “known.” For example, Babylon always represents Rome, although some Christians (very few or zero Christian scholars, actually) want it to represent Iraq or some other enemy.
So here's my general advice about reading and studying Revelation: be wary of taking any piece of it literally. Be very wary of applying anything in it to any modern situation other than persecution to death of Christians. (By modern I mean about 500 AD until the actual Second Coming.) And be very, VERY wary of accepting a result that was generated by computer, because – news bulletin – second-century Christians did not own computers. For the most part, they were too poor.
Here’s the overall message of Revelation
. God is in control of history, and ultimately, His will will
be done and His people will
be safe. Things are really bad right now, and you can’t do anything about it. You might even be killed. But you will not be separated from God!
So hang in there, stay faithful, and let God deal with the problem. The first couple of chapters of Revelation
give specific instructions to specific churches about what they need to do to improve the quality of their hanging-in-there.
So with this background, let’s talk about the verse actually referred to in this question:
Rev. 2:12-14 "To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: "… But there are a few things I have against you: there are some among you who follow the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak how to lead the people of Israel into sin by persuading them to eat food that had been offered to idols and to practice sexual immorality.
You know that by the beginning of the second century, many, perhaps the majority, of converts to Christianity were Gentiles. Around 60 A.D., there had arisen a controversy within the Church about whether Gentile converts had to keep the whole Law, as Jewish converts did, or whether Christ had freed everyone from the Law (Acts 15). James, brother of the Lord and head of the church in Jerusalem, made the following decision:
“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues."
James was saying, “Let’s cut straight to the chase. Idolatry is unacceptable to God. Eating blood is unacceptable to God. Sexual immorality is unacceptable to God. Everybody knows these things. Other than that, the Law didn’t save us, and it won’t save the Gentiles.” (The basic rule about blood is that the life is in the blood, and the life belongs to God. Strangled animals retain the blood, so that’s why they are off limits.)
Paul made the case in his letter to the church at Corinth that mature Christians know that idols really aren’t anything but rocks, and that meat sacrificed to idols is just meat - no better or worse than other meat (I Cor. 8). Nevertheless, he said, you as a mature Christian may mislead a weaker Christian or unbeliever by eating such meat. The weaker Christian may think, “Well, I saw Joe Mature worshipping Apollo by eating a sacrifice, so Apollo must be acceptable.” Misleading a weaker Christian in this way is a grievous sin (Mat. 18:6). So Paul’s argument was that technically it’s okay to eat meat sacrificed to idols, but you do need to be careful about the circumstances. Another form of worship of the various sets of gods was temple prostitution. Paul made no case that sexual immorality was acceptable under any circumstances.
(Just in case you think people aren’t influenced by your position in the church, here’s a quick story. I was a guest at a wedding reception, sitting with one of my Bethel students. Her teenage son and his friends wanted to go up to the buffet table earlier than their assigned place in line. She said, no, go back and sit down. I said, “Aw, they’re kids, they’re hungry, let ‘em go.” She turned to her son and said, “Oh. Well, if Mrs. Hunter says it’s okay, go on ahead.” But really, who am I
to make such a decision about someone else’s kids at someone else’s wedding?)
Now, Pergamum was a Gentile city and a center for idolatrous worship of the Roman gods. Meat sacrificed to idols was in plentiful supply, and sexual immorality was rampant. In this setting, the Gentile converts needed to make a clean break with their old ways, in spite of Paul’s argument. The chances of backsliding and of misleading new converts were simply too great to be fooling around with technicalities.
The verse in Revelation
talks about Balaam and Barak and the people of Israel, which is a story from Numbers 22 to 31. This was okay. Being Jewish was not a crime in the Roman Empire, as long as you didn’t try to convert anyone. But it’s not really talking about the people of Israel, right? It’s talking about Christians; that part has to be in code, because they were breaking the law just by being Christians. In addition, the story takes you back to the Moabite gods, which the Romans didn’t care about, especially since the verse in Revelation
is against them. But again, it’s not really talking about the Moabite gods, it’s talking about the Roman gods in code.
Then the verse gets to the point. It warns against “leading the people … into sin by persuading them to eat food that had been offered to idols and to practice sexual immorality.” This is almost straightforward, uncoded text: Don’t lead people into sin by following the worship practices for other gods.
So yes, there is more to this than eating the meat. By this time, mature Christians knew that meat sacrificed to idols was just meat. But they couldn’t take the chance that immature Christians, especially in a heathen setting like Pergamum, would be misled theologically and then led into actual sin by seeing anyone in the church eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The same thing holds true for sexual immorality. It happens to be a sin in and of itself, but it was also a religious practice for various gods. So if a Christian were, say, having a non-religious affair, newer Christians might think it was a part of the worship of Venus/Aphrodite.
Today, we don’t have a problem with meat sacrificed to idols, but there are other ways that we can mislead immature Christians and nonbelievers. No matter what example I give, I’m bound to step on somebody’s toes, so let’s take Sunday-morning activities. At least that one doesn’t step on my
toes. As a mature Christian, I could make a case that as long as I take time for worship at some point during the week, I don’t have to go to church on Sunday. (I could even cite scripture.) But if I take my children to a sports event on Sunday morning, I am sending a message both to my children (weaker Christians) and to the unbelievers (who scheduled the event) that worship is not important. Remember the story I told you up above. Other people at the sports event will say, “Well, Mrs. Hunter is a Bible teacher, and she thinks it’s okay to skip worship for a sports tournament, so go on ahead.” Sending that message would be a sin for me, and it could lead to serious long-term effects for the kids and unbelievers.
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.
Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the
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Bible-study participants. Thanks to the
Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers
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errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.
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