It starts out friendly. The bird lands on the backs of large African mammals like zebras, elephants and hippos and relieves her host of ticks. What works for the oxpecker works for the ox. It’s what scientists call symbiosis: a mutually beneficial relationship between two creatures. However, it turns out the oxpecker soon turns vampire, sucking the blood from the open tick-wounds on her host’s back. The partnership has deteriorated into a parasitism that is friendly only for the oxpecker.
Jesus’ third letter, dictated to John, is directed to the church in Pergamum. Situated on the coast of Asia Minor, the Greek city of Pergamum was named using two Greek words: pergos (high tower) and gamos (wedding or marriage). Jesus speaks words to His followers that are piercing – He calls them “the sharp, double-edged sword” words. The purpose of these words is to cut through the dross of rhetoric and reveal a problem that has crept up on the unsuspecting Pergamum-livers.
He says His people have been beguiled into a marriage, a symbiotic relationship with the local culture. The group of believers that had accepted their role as the ‘bride of Christ’ had some members who were luring them into practices Jesus viewed as a dangerous compromise. The food Greeks had offered to idols was being resold to Christians at a discount. While that food was innocent enough in itself, food-buyers were also being encouraged to participate in the sexually immoral practices associated with the city’s idol-worshiping culture. The symbiosis was becoming parasitism.
It’s a delicate balance we tread, living on this earth in the popular culture of our time. We, too, find it difficult to know how to be in the world but not of the world. Haven’t we found ourselves caught up in something that at first was a help to us, but has now become a hindrance to our spiritual health? The physical necessity for healthy food becomes an obsession for overindulgence; our faithful relationship with the spouse of our youth becomes fraught with lack of forgiveness, barbed words, perhaps even the temptation to divorce; healthy exercise becomes an obsession of extreme pursuits. On and on it goes. What starts out good the enemy of our souls tries to use to destroy us.
It was that way with Pergamum. Jesus pictures for His listeners Satan sitting on the throne of Pergamum’s temple-culture. He says Satan lives there. In other words, open your eyes! Don’t be blind to the perils careless living inflicts on its victims.
Jesus’ sword-words are meant to release us from the symbiotic drift we all succumb to at one time or another. Our task is to repent (vs.16), hear and apply His teachings (vs.17), and be overcomers (vs. 17) rather than be overcome. The double-edged sword of God’s Word in the power of His ever-present Spirit is the only resource that can accomplish the task.
Are we reading the Word of God daily? Are we learning to distinguish truth from error by filling our minds with the values, encouragements and spiritual supports God has supplied us in His Word, the Bible? Unless we are deliberately taking in Christ’s teachings, we will be unable to sense that the bird on our back has shifted from symbiote to parasite.
It’s time to dust off the Bible on your shelf. Find a contemporary version that is readable, absorbable and applicable. Download it, open it, and mull over it. Start with the book of John, same fellow who wrote Revelation. The Gospel of John is a recollection of the life of Jesus, His interactions, His early followers, and His words. Find out what Jesus wants for humanity, for followers like you and me. Then let’s go do it. That’s the way to combat the symbiotic drift of this life. Farewell oxpecker. Hello Jesus.