THE LETTER – “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it. (Revelation 2:12-17)
Background – Pergamum was located about 20 miles inland from Smyrna. Like Ephesus and Smyrna, it was a wealthy city, but it was a wicked city. Pagan cults worshiped Athena, Asclepius, Dionysus, and Zeus and the people there were generally hostile to Christians. The city was famous for its university which had a library of about 200,000 volumes, and for manufacturing parchment resulting in a paper called pergamena.
Greeting: What’s in A Name – John described Christ as “Him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” The sword is a symbolic representation of the Word of God’s two-fold ability to separate believers from the world and to condemn the world for its sin. It was the sword of salvation as well as the sword of death. This greeting anticipates Christ’s rebuke of this church for being tolerant of evil and immorality. Pergamum means “married,” and this church was wedded to some doctrines and practices that were clearly wrong.
Praise: What’s Pretty Good – Despite intense suffering, the church at Pergamum had for the most part remained “true to My name.” Pergamum had the first temple dedicated to Caesar and was a zealous promoter of the imperial cult. This is probably what is meant by “where Satan has his throne.” Nevertheless, the Christians there refused to burn incense on the altar and proclaim Caesar as Lord. The city also had a temple dedicated to Aesculapius, the god of healing, whose symbol was a serpent entwined on a staff. This symbol of healing is still used by the medical profession today. Of course, Satan has also been symbolized as a deceiving serpent. During the reign of Domitian, Antipas (the bishop of Pergamum) was reportedly killed by being placed in an iron image of a bull that was heated red-hot.
Criticism: What’s Not So Good – Nevertheless, not all was good at Pergamum. Some in the church were being influenced by the teachings of two cults.
• The Balaamites – Balaam was an Old Testament prophet who was hired by the pagan King Balak to curse the people of Israel. God prevented Balaam from actually cursing the nation. God in fact turned the curses into blessings. But Balak still got his money’s worth. While Balaam refused to curse Israel, he advised King Balak to make friends with Israel and invite them to worship and feast at their pagan altars. The presumption was, if you cannot beat them directly, do it indirectly. The Israelite men fell (were enticed) into the trap. They ate meat from idolatrous altars and committed fornication as part of heathen religious rites (Numbers 25:1–9), ultimately bringing judgment from God.
Translated as entice (“taught Balak to entice”), the word literally means stumbling-block. It refers to the part of a trap where the bait is laid. Taking the bait caused the trap to close upon its prey. Generally, this was a loop or noose, which should entangle the foot of the unwary prey causing it to stumble and fall – a vivid image of what happened to the Israelites. They took the bait, they became entangled and they fell.
At Pergamum, the enticement was food sacrificed to idols and the activities normally associated with such idolatrous practices. It is unlikely that this is the same problem Paul dealt with in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 (liberty versus conscience and causing weaker brothers to stumble merely by eating food sacrificed to idols). Here, the Lord accused some in the church of Pergamum of committing “spiritual fornication” by saying “Caesar is Lord” and perhaps “physical fornication,” which was commonly associated with idolatry. Such compromise would have made them welcome in the Roman guilds and protected them from Roman persecution. But it cost them their testimony and their crown.
• The Nicolaitans – The sect of the Nicolaitans had its origin in a misinterpretation of the doctrine of Christian liberty. What they taught is also called the doctrine of Balaam (see above). This lax tendency, on the ground of a misunderstood liberty, was springing up in Rome and Corinth at the time of Paul’s letters to the Christians of those cities. It attained further development at the time of the pastoral Epistles, and subsequently received the sect-name of Nicolaitanism. These early Gnostics practiced licentiousness since they believed anything done in the body had no effect on the soul since they considered themselves to not be under the law, but under grace. Compromise with worldly morality and pagan doctrine was prevalent in the church, especially in the third century when Christianity became popular. So, compromise with pagan immorality and departure from biblical faith soon corrupted the church. See discussion on the church of Ephesus for further information on this sect.
Exhortation – The exhortation for this church was very simple – “Repent therefore!” Repent means to abandon sin and return to God (turn around). The benefits of repentance should be as well known to the Church as it was for Israel – “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Warning – Failure to repent has its consequences. Specifically, they are warned that Jesus would “soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” The reference to the sword is perhaps an allusion to the drawn sword with which the angel of the Lord confronted Balaam when he was on his way to curse Israel. The spiritual Balaamites will have to contend with the Lord’s spiritual sword, the Word.
Promise to Overcomers – The overcomers at Pergamum were promised “hidden manna” and a “white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.” See Figure 4.5
Reflection – Christians from every era must remind themselves that liberty in Christ does not grant them a license to engage in worldliness.
Up Next – Thyatira.
Cited sources for Pergamum
- Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Re 2:8). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
- Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Re 2:8). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.
- Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 934). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (Re 2:8). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
- Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 442). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 573). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
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