I was privileged to write an article on Pergamum for a series on the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2–3) for the Lent. [Note: Due to the length of these posts, I have extended the series to four parts. Part one can be found here and part two here. The following is part three with part four coming Saturday.]
The Solution Jesus Recommends
Jesus first commends the church for remaining faithful in an unfaithful city (v. 13), but rebukes them for embracing of false teaching (vv. 14–15). He now moves to his proposed solution. Of all the solutions that the resurrected Jesus offered to the seven churches, the one to the believers at Pergamum was the shortest, with only two words: “Therefore, repent” [Greek, μετανόησον οὖν].
Repentance. What a foreign concept in our culture today! Many might be tempted to think that repentance entails a pitiful wallowing in regret. For many it brings to mind images of ashen faces or of sitting on a pile of dung in sackcloth. I read a story years ago about one man’s act of penitence: he crossed his eastern European country kneeling on a small cart using only his hands to propel him forward. He did this to repent of his sins. Such acts certainly make the concept of repentance unpleasant.
However, extreme acts of contrition are not necessarily the biblical picture of repentance. The word used here in Greek is metanoia, and means to “change one’s mind.” But the writer likely has as the background the concept of repentance drawn from the Hebrew scriptures. There are two Hebrew terms that together capture the idea of repentance: the verbs nakham, which means “to regret, be sorry,” and shub (pronounced, “shoov”), which means “to return.”
Throughout the Bible, the metaphor for how a person conducted their life was a “walk.” God’s teaching of how to live righteously is described as a “road, way, or path.” Sin is a walking off the path. To repent, therefore, certainly included the ruefulness of having wandered away from God and his teaching. However, to stand off the path declaring to God your regret for having strayed is an deficient view of repentance. Surely, it would include sorrow and remorse – the nakham – but it never stops there. Repentance moved beyond nakham to shub. It involved a return, a “turning around” from where you have wandered back to the path that God has paved for you. Wallowing in shame and guilt is not the idea. The idea was to come back.
It is helpful to keep this image of repentance in mind as we hear Jesus’ words. The church at Pergamum in some measure had wandered off the path by following these false teachers. Jesus was not calling them to wallow in self-loathing for being hoodwinked by these crafty impostors. Rather, to truly repent, to shub, involved abandoning the woeful false teachings that drew them away from whole-hearted devotion to Christ. Jesus was calling them back from the wilderness of fraudulent instruction to the path he has provided, instruction that was passed on to the apostles and received in the churches.
What is interesting to note is whom Jesus holds responsible. To be sure, Jesus will have to hold accountable those who perpetrate the false instruction (cf. Jas 3:1). But here the emphasis is on the church – on the individuals who “hold fast” to the teachings. Jesus doesn’t just hold the teachers responsible for what is taught, he also holds the faithful responsible for what we receive and believe. Perhaps Jesus was calling those in Pergamum – and us as well – to be more like those in the city of Berea, whom Paul visited on his second missionary journey: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11 ESV). We today have a responsibility to rigorously search after the truth of what others might say about God. Due diligence is required of those who follow Jesus to study and scrutinize what is taught from the scriptures.
And if we have found that we have believed something incorrectly, we can always “repent”.