King Balak feared that the Israelites would overwhelm his nation. He had good reason to feel afraid; the book of Numbers tells us that the children of Israel had already defeated several neighboring countries when they reached Balak’s kingdom. The news of their victories preceded them. Balak wasn’t sure that his armies could stand up to the Israelite onslaught he’d heard described, so he hired a holy man named Balaam and demanded that he curse Israel.
In our day, we might call Balaam a witch doctor. He was not a worshiper of the God of Israel, but God had nonetheless spoken to him.
Balak offered Balaam a sizable amount of money to entice him to curse Israel, but the Lord had already spoken to Balaam. Balaam told Balak’s representatives, “Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” (Numbers 22:13)
Balaam’s Blessings and Curses
King Balak was insistent. He placed Balaam on the side of a mountain overlooking the camps of Israel and said in effect, “Here they are. Now pronounce a curse upon them.” Balaam opened his mouth, but instead of a curse, a blessing came out.
King Balak was not amused. “We’re paying good money,” he thought, “for a curse.” He took Balaam to another hillside overlooking the camp of the children of Israel and demanded once again that Balaam curse the people of Israel. Balaam opened his mouth and again, instead of a curse a blessing came out.
Balaam suggested that Balak take women from his kingdom and send them to entice and seduce the sons of Israel. These women were to commit acts of sexual immorality with the soldiers, and in the process offer worship to other gods.
That is exactly what happened. In the Old Testament, this story is known as the sin of Baal-Peor. The sons of Israel went into the tents of daughters of Balak and they committed immorality with them and worshiped the gods of the kingdom of Balak.
Balaam’s Treachery Repeated in the Nicolaitans
Keep this story in mind when you read the letter to the church at Pergamum in Revelation 2:
But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teachings of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. (Revelation 2:14)
The church addressed in this passage was under the influence of a sect called the Nicolaitans. It is possible that these were the false teachers referenced in the letter to the church at Thyatira. (Rev. 2:18ff) We do not know much about this early Christian sub-group, but it seems they were a cause of trouble for Pergamine church:
Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Revelation 2:6)
We can deduce from the scant amount of evidence available that this group somehow thought they no longer needed to be morally circumspect. The Nicolatians apparently taught that believers no longer needed to pay attention to the reality of temptation.
Perhaps they reasoned that, because they were in Christ Jesus, their spirits were holy and pure. Since God would ultimately do away with the human body they were free to live in any way they wanted.
Perhaps some of them thought–this is hinted at in the letter to the church at Thyatira–that it was a mark of courage to storm the gates of Hell. They may have believed in submitting themselves to various forms of immorality in order to prove that the power of God was stronger than the power of sin.
Apparently one member of the church in Pergamum had been arrested and put to death because of his devotion to Jesus Christ. That kind of external pressure had not caused most in the church to turn away from their faith in Jesus Christ, but the church was infected with a cancerous subversion, the Nicolaitans.
The early Christians’ watch words
There is a very serious spiritual danger for those who do not pay attention to their own moral obedience before the Lord God.
The earliest Christians had a number of watch words. They used these words and phrases repeatedly to remind themselves that they needed to be morally circumspect.
One word was submit. Believers should submit to the Lord God and to one other.
Another term was put off; believers should put off the deeds of darkness.
Believers should also put on. They should put on the Lord Jesus Christ, put on the new person, and put on the armor of God.
Another expression was watch and pray. You’ll see this phrase a lot in Ephesians, Colossians, James, and 1 Peter. When New Testament authors use these words they are remembering the words that Jesus gave to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the powers of evil were approaching He told the disciples to watch and pray. The word watch was a constant reminder to early Christians that their adversary the devil prowled about like a roaring lion seeking whom he might devour.
We are called to obedience.
Rules are not the full substance of our faith. Nonetheless, we are greatly deceived if we think that our historical theology, our evangelism, our worship, our ethics, or our eschatology are separated from the fact that we must be obedient to the commandments of God.
We belong to one another in Christ Jesus, and we are responsible and accountable to one another and for one another. Like it or not, we have been called to be a people of holiness who are obedient to the commandments of God.
God created the world so that there is a moral order. As we live our lives in obedience to the commandments of God we experience personal fulfillment — we experience the development of who we really are made to be.
The preceding was adapted by Rachel Motte from a sermon Dr. Sloan delivered at Tallowood Baptist Church on July 15, 1990.