“The Church That Dropped The Baton” (Revelation 2:12-17 sermon)

In 2008, the U.S. men’s 4×100 relay team was favored to win the Olympic gold medal. They had won the world championship the year before, and they were off to a good start in the first Olympic race. They finished three legs of the race, and all they had to do was hand the baton off to Tyson Gay, perhaps the fastest man in the world, to win the race. But when he reached back his hand, the baton was not there; he kept reaching for it; he could barely touch it; but he couldn’t get a grasp on it. Finally the baton fell to the track, and favored U.S. team LOST the Olympics, because they couldn’t pass the baton. In fact, a New Yorker magazine article said, if there’s a way to blow a baton pass, the United States team has done it over the past 15 years: they’ve dropped the baton, missed the baton, been too early with the baton, too late with the baton. And the thing is, in a relay, it doesn’t matter how fast you are; if you can’t pass the baton, you can’t win. 

The Christian faith is very much a matter of “passing the baton”: of sharing the gospel of Jesus and the truth of His word with the next generation, and the next, through our churches, and our families. Many of us today are celebrating our mothers and grandmothers, who have successfully “passed the baton” of faith in Jesus to us. We need to realize how important that is. It doesn’t matter how strong our own faith and practice is — if we don’t “pass the baton” down to the next generation, our faith will soon be extinguished from the earth!   

And that is what Jesus showed this church at Pergamum here in Revelation 2:12-17. They had some good things going for them, but in some crucial areas, they were “dropping the baton.” Let’s look at what He had to say to them, and to US, as He writes to “The Church That Dropped The Baton.”

I. He KNOWS the circumstances we face (in passing the baton):

:13 “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is …” Then He mentions it again at the end of the verse:  where Satan dwells.”

Historically He is probably referring to the fact that the city of Pergamum was a major center of false worship. First of all, THE single most prominent sight you would see as you drew near to the City of Pergamum, was a huge statue of the Greek God Zeus on his throne, perched high on a mountain overlooking the city. But not only that, Pergamum was also probably the single most important center for the worship of Caesar Augustus. Citizens would go to the temple, burn incense to Caesar, and say “Caesar is Lord.” Christians would say, no, only “JESUS is Lord”! But it could cost you your life to refuse — and it did cost some their lives. Jesus says here in :13 “You did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” 

So these were the circumstances Jesus was talking about when He told the Church at Pergamum: “I know where you dwell.” Their circumstances were hard. (Bob Lockhart said in his book on Revelation: it would be like trying to start an evangelical church in Baghdad, Iraq!) Some tough circumstances!

And circumstances matter, don’t they? Our circumstances don’t excuse everything we do; but honestly, our circumstances DO matter. For example, before we get too critical about the U.S. athletes dropping the baton, we need to realize how difficult that is: to be running at full speed and try to pass a metal baton to someone else. That’s hard! It doesn’t excuse it; but you can understand it. The circumstances are hard.

So Jesus is telling the pastor and the whole church here: “I know where you dwell.” I know your circumstances are very difficult as you try to pass the baton of the faith! It was true for the church at Pergamum, trying to minister in a city where Zeus overlooked the whole place, and where Caesar worship was assumed for everyone. 

But He also knows that it is getting harder and harder for churches in our day too. And I fear that it will be even more difficult for the next generation of pastors and churches. 

When I meet people, one of the questions they almost always ask is: “How big is your church?” And then they often ask, “is your church growing?” And to some extent I understand that. We want our churches to grow, we expect our churches to grow, as we share the gospel.

But we also need to realize that as society deteriorates, and people in our culture fall away from Biblical faith, it is going to be more and more difficult for churches to grow. And at some point, we need to be very careful about emphasizing growth. Someone might ask: “What do mean by that? Growth is good, isn’t it?” Not necessarily. There is a kind growth that is not good. For example, if you were living in Sodom and Gomorrah in the days of Abraham and Lot, and you had a church that was growing, and running thousands in attendance — you might question what kind of church you had, if it was so popular in a place like Sodom & Gomorrah!

So we need to watch ourselves today, too:

— There is a kind of growth you can get by compromising the gospel.

— There is a kind of growth you can have by changing the message.

— There is a kind of growth you achieve by doing “whatever it takes” to draw a crowd.

That is NOT the kind of growth we want to have. Because changing the message is “dropping the baton.” The “baton” is the gospel. The “baton” is the message of Jesus. Someone might say: “Well I could run this race a lot faster if I threw down the baton” —but the whole idea is to finish the race with the baton! Throwing down the baton is the one thing we must NOT do! Omitting or changing the gospel of Jesus is not an option to anyone who is serious about following Jesus.  Better to have a small church in Sodom, because you’re “holding the baton” of God’s word; than to have a church running thousands because you’ve “dropped the baton,” and changed or left out what God’s word says.

These were the kinds of things they faced in Pergamum in the first century; do they compromise with Caesar worship; do they compromise with Zeus worship? Everybody was doing it. And these are kinds of decisions we face in churches today: how much of the Bible’s message will we compromise in order to attract bigger numbers of people? It’s hard to pass the baton of the faith in our culture now, but I’m telling you: it’s likely to get much more difficult in the days ahead. And churches WILL be tempted to compromise to attract more.  But Jesus says here to us as a church, “I know.” “I know where you live.” He knows our circumstances as a church. He knows what we face. But He’s telling us: don’t drop the baton!

The same thing is true for us as individuals too. We live in a time today when it is hard to “pass the baton” of our faith to our kids and grandkids:

— The whole world order is working against us: the media; school, friends, peer pressure

— Our flesh is working against us; tempting us and our families

— And to add to that, there is a real devil and demons who are fighting against us as well. 

I was just reading a history of the 1960s and 70s, and I thought: man, how hartd it was to raise kids in that time: the age of “free love,” pervasive drugs, the whole society in turmoil, tvs in homes bringing an influence that hadn’t been there before, music, peer pressure; professors teaching kids the Bible isn’t true. I think Jesus would have said to parents in those days: “I know where you dwell …”. He knew those circumstances; that it was hard to “pass the baton” of the faith to your kids in the 60s & 70s. 

But we might add to that: it’s hard to raise kids TODAY! Maybe harder than ever before. Now Satan is reaching into our kids lives not only through tv and movies but also the internet, and computer programs and phone apps that many of us as parents and church leaders don’t even know exist! And do all you can do, there’s still no way to keep it all out! The devil’s wicked arms are reaching out to ensnare our kids and grandkids and even ourselves. 

So Jesus says to us as parents and grandparents today: “I know where you dwell; where Satan’s throne is …”. I know you live in 21st century America, where Satan is camped out BIG TIME! And it’s hard to pass on the baton of the faith where Satan dwells. He knows that.

This also applies to some of the situations we face personally too. Jesus KNOWS our circumstances. He KNOWS our situations. You may have some things going on in your life right now, that NOBODY knows about, and it is SO hard. And maybe you’re not the kind of person who goes around telling everybody about your personal difficulties — many of us don’t. But you know what? You can take comfort in this: JESUS KNOWS. He says, “I know where you live.” He knows your situation. He knows your circumstances. Glen Ladewig posted on Facebook the other day a quote from his Community Bible Study in II Peter: “It is easier to endure suffering when we know that God is aware of what is happening.” That’s really true. And that is just what Jesus says here: “I know where you live.” I know your circumstances. And I am with you, and will help you, through them! 

II. Jesus CARES what we believe and practice (as we pass the baton):

One of the most prominent features of this letter is how Jesus repeatedlyaddresses their teaching. He says “I have a few things against you”:

— :14 “you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam”

— :14b “who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block”

— :15 “some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”

“Teaching … teaching … teaching …”. THREE TIMES in this letter he mentions their TEACHING. Which tells us something important: 

What you believe, and what you teach, matters to Jesus. It makes a difference what you believe. 

The Lord specifically mentions here the teaching of Balaam. That’s a story from the Old Testament: Balak the king of Moab hired the prophet Balaam to curse Israel, but Balaam said he couldn’t do it; they were God’s people. But :14 here tells us that Balaam taught Balak to seduce the people of Israel to “sacrifice to idols” and “commit acts of immorality.” So the teaching the Lord is referring to here is teaching that leads to the worship of false gods, and to an immoral lifestyle. The same kind of teaching that Balaam used to seduce Israel was now contaminating the church at Pergamum. They were “dropping the baton” in their teaching and practice of their faith. And significantly, Jesus says He CARES about what they believed and taught. 

We need to hear that, because an increasing number of people today have the attitude that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere.” That is just not true. It does matter, so much, what you believe. 

In the 1930s, the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie went on some archeological digs to Syria with her husband, archeologist Max Mallowan. A number of Muslim natives there helped them dig and sort the artifacts. But at one point in their trip, she wrote that several of the men became ill, and had to stay behind in their tents. But the difficulty was that the other men would not go near them. They would not take them food or water or help them in any way. Her husband Max told the other workers: “(These men) will starve if no food is taken to them.”  But their fellow-workmen shrugged their shoulders and said:  “Inshallah.” “Inshallah” is Arabic for “if it is God’s will.”  (Agatha Christie, Come, Tell Me How You Live, pp. 76-77)

She said these men just kept saying, “Inshallah,” “Allah’s Will.” They just thought God’s will would happen no matter what they did, so they weren’t going to do anything to help their co-workers! They were basically just going to let them just sit there and die! But the thing is, their attitude and actions in this situation were based on what they BELIEVED. Their teaching and doctrine impacted what they DID.

See, it matters what you believe. What you believe impacts every area of your life: your relationship with God, your relationship with others; and whether you will go to heaven or to hell, everything depends on what you believe. Never say, it doesn’t matter what you believe. It does! Jesus says here, He cares about what we believe as a church. 

Too many churches, all across our country, and all over the world, are “dropping the baton.” They aren’t passing on the genuine faith.

A few years ago at a Conference of Bishops at the Church of England, they were addressing the decline of attendance at their churches. One Bishop (the Rt Rev Robert Paterson) said: “The trouble is that what is on the label of the Church tin is still not what is in the tin. On the label, the church tin says ‘open here for salvation, peace, hope, purpose, love, Kingdom,’ but when it is open, inside the tin we so often find humbug.” 

This is JUST what Jesus is talking to the church at Pergamum about here. When you come to a church, you should find what the Bible teaches about man, that we have all sinned, and our sins justly deserve the wrath of God, but that Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins, and He rose again on the 3rd day to save us, if we’d repent of our sins, turn AWAY from them to follow him. 

But Jesus told the church at Pergamum that when people opened the “tin” of their church, that’s not what they found. Instead when they “opened the tin” they found the teaching of Baalam; they found the teaching of the Nicolaitians; they found the teaching that you can live immorally if you want to, and that God is ok with that.

And unfortunately that is what people are finding when they “open the tin” of many chuches in OUR country today! When they when “open the tin” of many churches, instead of the Gospel of Jesus they find the “prosperity gospel” that Jesus will make you rich; or they find the “libertine gospel” that Jesus doesn’t care about your immoral lifestyle. When you open the “tin” of many churches in America today you don’t find the Bible, instead you find HUMBUG!  Because many of our churches have dropped the baton of the genuine faith & practice of the word of God. 

That’s one of the reasons why our church a couple of years ago adopted the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as our official church statement of faith, because it clearly sets forth the Biblical doctrines we believe and puts them in our Church Constitution: that there is ONE God, who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; that Jesus Christ is both “fully God and fully Man,” and that personal faith in Jesus is required for salvation, and there is no other way besides Him; that marriage is between one man and one woman; and that the life of the unborn child matters to God. We want to be a church that “passes on the baton” of the true faith of the Gospel. Jesus says here this is important; I care about that. He wants us as a church to pass the baton of the true faith down to the generation.

And what’s true for our church is also true for us as individuals too. This Mothers Day, many of us can look back on our Christian upbringing. Many of us had Christian mothers and grandmothers who brought us up in the Lord, who took us to church, who taught us what the Bible said. Some of my very first memories are of my mother reading Bible stories to me. Some of you were brought up just like that too. 

It can be said of many of us like Paul did to Timothy in II Timothy 1:5, “For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in our grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well.”

This is probably one of the greatest “Mothers Day verses” in all of the Bible. Paul says to Timothy: your grandmother believed; your mother believed; and now YOU believe. This verse shows the “baton” of genuine faith, being passed down from one generation to another. Is that what YOU are doing?

If you are child of a godly, Christian parent, you can look back and say “My mom was/is a genuine Christian; she has a real, Biblical faith in Jesus and believes the word of God.” That’s great — but have you taken that baton from her?  Do YOU have a genuine Biblical faith? Do you know absolutely for sure that Jesus Christ is YOUR own Lord & Savior; that you have a real, personal relationship with Him, and that you are certainly going to heaven when you die? Has the “baton” been passed down to you? And do you know what you believe? Do you know what the Bible really teaches, so that you won’t be deceived by every smooth-talking preacher on tv or the internet?

And if you can say Yes, the baton HAS been passed down to you, then the question becomes: are you passing it down to YOUR children/grandchildren? Do THEY have your faith? Have they been saved and baptized? Do THEY know what the Bible says so they won’t be deceived by all the false teachers in our world? 

See, you can’t let up. You know how many people it takes to win a relay race? Every single member. Every single one has to do their best in order to win. You know how many people it takes to LOSE a relay race? ONE. All it takes is one person to drop the baton — and the whole team has lost. It only takes ONE person to lose a relay race.

I pray that today, you see that The Christian faith is a relay race. The true gospel of Jesus been passed down from the first century to today, from church to church, from person to person. It’s been passed down from parents to children and granchildren, from generation to generation.

Do you know how many generations it takes to LOSE Christianity? ONE. Someone has well said, “Christianity is always one generation from extinction.” You can have the greatest heritage of faith in your family, with great Christian people and workers — but all it takes is ONE generation to “drop the baton,” and it all stops right there. 

That’s why Jesus says, it matters. It matters what we believe. Don’t be the church that drops the baton. Don’t be the mom or dad who drops the baton. Don’t be the child who drops the baton. The next generation, your kids, grandkids, everyone who follows you, depends on it!

III. He Rewards Our Faithful race with His baton!

Jesus makes several promises here to the person/church who listens to Him and overcomes: At the end in :17 He says “To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on it …”. 

There’s been a lot of speculation as to what these things mean, but some things appear to be clear:

— Manna was the special provision God gave Israel in the wilderness; so Jesus says, follow Me, and I will give you “hidden manna;” in other words, I’ll provide for you in ways that others don’t have. That’s a good word for the church that might be afraid of losing members if they “hold to the baton” of Biblical faith. Jesus says, don’t make your decisions based on money. Trust ME. Hold to My word, church, and I’ll provide all that you need! We have seen God provide for our church even through COVID —  and I believe He will CONTINUE to provide for us, if we will continue to be faithful to proclaim His word!

— There have been several suggestions as to what the “white stone” with the name on it is, but I think the best is that in ancient times, when a jury was making their decision about the guilt or innocence of a defendant, if they voted for innocence, they would turn in a white stone. So Jesus says to His people: be faithful to My word, and I’ll give you a “white stone”! You won’t be guilty of compromising My word. 

— In :16, Jesus also says about those who do NOT repent, “I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.” The City of Pergamum was the residence of the Roman Proconsul, to whom all the people in the area were accountable politically. His sword ruled the area, and everyone feared his judgment.

But Jesus says: “I have the two-edged sword.” I am your ultimate Judge. Don’t fear what the Roman Proconsul might do to you; don’t fear what the idol worshipers around you might do to you — fear ME! Obey ME!  And that’s a good word for us today, too. Don’t fear the people & circumstances around you. Live for JESUS. Be faithful to HIM. Carry the baton of the true faith and practice for Him. And don’t listen to the hundreds and thousands of voices who will tell you otherwise.

Years ago we lived in northeast Oklahoma, not far from the town of Bristow. Bristow at that time was known for their high school basketball, and one evening they had a big game, and for a halftime promotion they had a contest: they blindfolded several contestants, and let them scramble for money that was scattered all over the floor. The one who gathered the most, got to keep it. So they said “Go”, and everyone in the gym was yelling and screaming, but this one candidate was more successful in gathering money than all the others, and he won. After the game, the local newspaper interviewed him and asked how he was so successful. He said, I knew SO many people would be yelling and screaming and telling me what to do, and it would be too confusing. So I picked out ONE person in advance, and I only listened to them, and they directed me from one dollar bill to another. He said it helped tremendously, to just LISTEN TO ONE VOICE. 

That’s a pretty good lesson for us today, too. Everyone in this world is going to tell you how they think you should run your life: how you should live, what you should buy, what you should believe and do. You hear different things from friends, family, the media: “Go this way; do that!” Life can be a madhouse of voices. But Jesus says here: HE will give you the manna; HE will give you the white rock; HE will be your Judge. Jesus says there is only ONE voice you need to listen to, and He says, that voice is MINE. When you and stand before God, you will not be accountable to your friends. You will not be accountable to your family, or to the media, or to all those people who thought they knew what you should do with your life. Jesus says you’re going to be accountable to ME. Was He your Lord & Savior? Were you faithful to carry HIS baton? So run the race for Him; carry the baton for HIM; and carry it faithfully for HIM, until you’ve passed it on the next generation, and finish the race, and run to see Him! 


— Jesus knows your circumstances today. Maybe no one else knows — but HE does! Talk to Him about them. Ask Him to help you with them.

— Maybe you’re one of those who have been listening to people who’ve said it doesn’t matter what you believe. But today you see that Jesus does care. It matters what you believe. Some of us need to ask the Lord to help us read His word every day, and get back into church regularly, and know what we believe, and pass it down to others.

— ARE you passing your faith on to others: to your kids/grandkids? What do you need to do to make that happen — in your home? In bringing them to Sunday school and church?

— And has the “baton” of the faith come to YOU? Do YOU know Jesus as your Lord & Savior? If not, you need to make sure of that today …

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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