Thursday, July 15, 2021

18. The Revelation: The Letter to the Believers at Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17)

The Bible does not hesitate to condemn worldliness as a serious sin. Worldliness is any preoccupation with the physical system of life that places anything on earth before the things of eternity. Since believers are not part of the world system (John 15:19), they must not act as though they were. Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). First John 2:15–17 makes the believer’s duty to avoid worldliness unmistakably clear:

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

The church at Pergamum, like many of today’s churches, failed to follow the biblical warnings against worldliness. It had drifted into compromise and was in danger of becoming intertwined with the world.

The Correspondent

"The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this:..." (2:12b)

The holder of “the sharp two-edged sword” is the risen Christ (1:16). He communicates this letter through the apostle John. In this letter, like with Ephesus and Smyrna, Christ identifies Himself using one of the descriptive phrases from John’s vision in 1:12–17.

The sharp two-edged sword refers to the Word of God. Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” The apostle Paul also uses the metaphor of a sword to describe the Word (Ephesians 6:17). The two edges of the sword depict the Word’s power in exposing the innermost thoughts of the human heart. The Word never wields a dull edge.

This description pictures Christ as judge and executioner. Describing His appearance at the second coming, John writes that “from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (19:15). This is not a positive introduction, but a threatening one. It is the first negative introduction of Christ because the Pergamum church faced serious judgment. Disaster loomed on the horizon for this worldly church; it was and is but a short step from compromising with the world to forsaking God altogether and facing His wrath.

The Church

"...the church in Pergamum" (2:12a)

The book of Acts does not record the founding of the church at Pergamum. According to Acts 16:7–8, Paul passed through Mysia (the region in which Pergamum was located) on his second missionary journey, but there is no record that the apostle either preached the gospel or founded a church there at that time. Most likely, the church at Pergamum was founded during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, when the gospel spread from there throughout the province of Asia (Acts 19:10). Because the church was surrounded by the pagan culture, it was continually exposed to temptation, in addition to severe persecution when standing against emperor worship.

The City

"...Pergamum" (2:12a)

Pergamum was about a hundred miles north of Ephesus, with Smyrna located about halfway in between. Pergamum was not a port city but located about fifteen miles inland from the Aegean Sea. However, as the area’s ancient capital, Pergamum was considered Asia’s greatest city. The Roman writer Pliny called it “by far the most distinguished city in Asia.” By the time John penned Revelation, Pergamum had been Asia’s capital for almost 250 years (since 133 B.C). Pergamum survives today as the Turkish city of Bergama.

Much of Pergamum was built on a large, conical hill towering a thousand feet above the plain. In the nineteenth century famed archaeologist Sir William Ramsay commented, “Beyond all other sites in Asia Minor it gives the traveler the impression of a royal city, the home of authority: the rocky hill on which it stands is so huge, and dominates the broad plain of the Caicus [River valley] so proudly and boldly.” Pergamum’s huge library (200,000 handwritten volumes) was second only to that of Alexandria. So impressive was Pergamum’s library that Mark Antony later sent it to his lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. According to legend, parchment was invented by the Pergamenes to provide writing material for their library. Seeking to build a library rivaling the one in Alexandria, a third-century B.C. Pergamene king attempted to bring the librarian of the Alexandrian library to his city. Unfortunately, the Egyptian ruler got wind of the plan, refused to allow the librarian to leave, and prohibited the further export of papyrus to Pergamum. Out of necessity, the Pergamenes developed parchment, made of treated animal skins, for use as writing material. Though parchment was actually known from a thousand years earlier in Egypt, the Pergamenes were responsible for its widespread use in the ancient world. The word parchment may even derive from a form of the word Pergamum.

Because of its library, Pergamum was an important center of culture and learning. It also was a center of worship for four of the main gods of the Greco-Roman world, including temples dedicated to Athena, Asklepios, Dionysos, and Zeus. Overshadowing the worship of all those deities was Pergamum’s devotion to the cult of emperor worship. Pergamum built the first temple devoted to emperor worship in Asia (29 B.C.) in honor of Emperor Augustus. Later, the city would build two more such temples, honoring the emperors Trajan and Septimus Severus. The city became the center of emperor worship in the province, and Christians were in danger of harm from the emperor worship cult. In other cities Christians were primarily in danger on the one day per year they were required to offer sacrifices to the emperor. In Pergamum they were in danger every day.

The Commendation

"I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells." (2:13)

Despite the difficult circumstances, the believers at Pergamum courageously maintained their faith in Christ. He commended them for continuing to hold fast His name, even though they lived “where Satan’s throne is,” where Satan dwells. Many suggestions have been offered as to the identification of Satan’s throne. Some identify it with the altar of Zeus in Pergamum, an altar 120 by 112 feet in size located within a colonnaded court that included a podium almost eighteen feet high. Such an impressive structure could easily merit the designation “Satan’s throne.”

Others connect Satan’s throne with the worship of the god Asklepios, prevalent in Pergamum. Asklepios was the god of healing, and people came from across the ancient world to be healed at his shrine. Asklepios was depicted as a snake, and nonpoisonous snakes roamed freely in his temple. Suppliants seeking healing either slept or lay down on the temple’s floor, hoping to be touched by one of the snakes to be healed. Such symbolism would undoubtedly remind Christians of Satan (Revelation 12:9). During the reign of Emperor Diocletian, some Christian stonecutters were executed for refusing to carve an image of Asklepios.

Others point out that, as noted above, Pergamum was the leading center of emperor worship in the province of Asia. Emperor worship certainly posed the greatest threat to the Christians in Pergamum. It was for their refusal to worship the emperor, not the pagan gods, that Christians faced execution. Satan’s throne could easily be understood as a reference to the might of Rome under the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), speaking against the true God by the emperor-worship cult.

For any or all of those reasons, Pergamum could understandably be called the city where Satan’s throne is. In the midst of those difficult and trying circumstances, the believers continued to dwell in Pergamum. In other words, they “hung in there.” Despite the persecution they endured, the believers at Pergamum continued to hold fast the name of Christ and did not deny the faith.

The church at Pergamum maintained its faithfulness even in the days of Antipas, whom Christ described as “My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you.” Nothing certain is known about Antipas apart from this text. He was probably one of the leaders of the Pergamum church. According to tradition, he was roasted to death inside a brass bull during the persecution by Emperor Domitian. Here was a man who paid the ultimate price for his refusal to compromise. Because of his faithfulness, the risen Lord commended Antipas with a title used elsewhere to refer to Himself: “My witness” (Revelation 1:5; 3:14). Antipas’s faithfulness and courage were a rebuke to those at Pergamum who were tempted to compromise with the world.

The Concern

"But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching 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. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans." (2:14–15)

The church at Pergamum remained loyal to Christ and His truth. Yet all was not well. After commending the believers there, Christ informed them, “I have a few things against you.” His concern was that they had some who held to false teaching. While the majority of the believers at Pergamum were faithful to the truth, there were some who followed wrong doctrines. While many in the Christian realm today make light of doctrine and theology as unimportant, that is not the perspective of Christ. Tragically, the rest of the church was tolerating the heretics’ error instead of confronting them. Like many churches today, the church at Pergamum failed to obey the biblical mandate to practice church discipline (Matthew 18:15–18).

Specifically, Christ was concerned with two heresies. The first was associated with an Old Testament character. The second was associated with a New Testament person. First, some were following the teaching of Balaam. The story of Balaam, an Old Testament prophet for hire, is found in Numbers 22–25. Fearful of the Israelites because of what they had done to the Amorites, Balak hired Balaam to curse them. After trying unsuccessfully three times to curse Israel, Balaam came up with another plan. Since he was unable to curse the Israelites, he decided to corrupt them by teaching Balak to tempt them to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. He plotted to use Moabite women to lure the Israelites into the behavior of the godless world around them involving sexual immorality and idolatry (Numbers 25; 31:16). That blasphemous union with Satan and false gods would destroy their spiritual power. Balaam’s plan succeeded. However, God intervened and brought judgment upon Israel, executing 24,000 people (25:9), including many of the leaders (25:4–5). The drastic action halted the Israelites’ slide into immorality and idolatry.

Like the Israelites who were seduced by Balaam’s false teaching, some in the church at Pergamum followed the ways of their surrounding culture (Jude 10–11). Peter rebuked the Balaamites in 2 Peter 2:15–16: “Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet.” As God severely judged Israel for such living, Christ threatens to do the same here (see 2 Corinthians 6:14–17). Despite the graphic example of Israel, some in Pergamum persisted in following Balaam’s teaching. They believed one could attend pagan feasts, and still join the church to worship Jesus Christ. However, James wrote that “friendship with the world is hostility toward God” (James 4:4; see also 1 Peter 2:11). The issue of whether Christians could participate in idolatrous feasts had been settled decades earlier at the Jerusalem Council, which issued a mandate for believers to “abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:29).

The second heresy tolerated at Pergamum involved a New Testament figure named Nicolas. The context indicates that the teaching of the Nicolaitans led to the same wicked behavior as that of the followers of Balaam. As discussed earlier, Nicolas was one of the seven men chosen to oversee the distribution of food in Acts 6. Whether he rebelled (as some of the early church fathers believed) or his followers twisted his teachings is not known. Abusing Christian liberty, the Nicolaitans also taught that Christians could participate in pagan sexual practices. (As noted earlier, the believers at Ephesus fully rejected this fasle teaching.)

The majority of the believers at Pergamum did not participate in the errors of these two groups. They remained loyal to Christ and the Christian faith. Yet by tolerating the groups and refusing to exercise church discipline, they shared in their guilt and incurred the Lord’s judgment.

The Command

"Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth." (2:16)

The only remedy for sinful behavior is to repent. “Repent” is from a Greek word used to describe a change of mind that results in a change of behavior. While tolerance is celebrated in our culture, tolerating heretical teaching or sinful behavior in the church is sin. Christ warns them, “I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.” The entire church faced Christ’s judgment: the heretics for practicing sin, and the rest of the church for tolerating it.

The church cannot tolerate evil. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, who were proudly tolerating a man guilty of incest, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:6–7). The goal of the church is not to provide an environment where unbelievers can just feel comfortable. It is to be a place where they can hear the truth and be convicted of their sins so they can be saved (Romans 10:13–17). Gently (2 Timothy 2:24–26), lovingly, graciously, yet firmly, unbelievers need to be confronted with the reality of their sin and God’s gracious provision through Jesus Christ. Sin will never be suppressed by compromising with it.

The Counsel

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 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 the stone which no one knows but he who receives it." (2:17)

Christ concludes His letter with words of encouragement. As noted earlier, the phrase “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” stresses the vital importance of Christ’s words and responsibility of believers to hear and obey them. The promises are addressed to him “who overcomes,” a phrase encompassing all believers (1 John 5:4–5). Christ promises three things to the faithful members of the church at Pergamum.

First, He promises to give them some of the hidden manna. Manna was a honey-flavored bread God used to feed the Israelites during their years of wandering in the wilderness (Exodus 16). According to Exodus 16:33, the Israelites were to remember God’s provision by keeping a jar of manna inside the ark of the covenant during their travels. The hidden manna represents Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life who came down from heaven (John 6:48–51). He provides spiritual sustenance for those who put their faith in Him. The hidden manna symbolizes all the blessings and benefits of knowing Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

There has been much speculation about what the white stone symbolizes. Some link it with the Urim and Thummim on the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:15, 30). Those stones were used to determine God’s will and represented the right of the high priest to request guidance from God for the leader who could not approach God directly. Somehow, God caused those stones to disclose His will. According to this view, by this white stone God promises the overcomers knowledge of His will. Others identify the white stone as a diamond, the most precious of stones, symbolizing God’s gift of eternal life to believers. It seems best, however, to understand the white stone in light of the Roman custom of awarding white stones to the victors in athletic contests. A white stone, inscribed with the athlete’s name, served as his ticket to a special awards banquet. In this view, Christ promises the overcomers entrance to the eternal victory celebration in heaven.

There will be a new name written on the stone no one knows but the person who receives it. As the phrase indicates, we cannot know what that new name is until we receive it (Deuteronomy 29:29). The Greek word here translated “new” does not mean new in contrast to old, but new in the sense of a different quality. The new name will serve as each believer’s admission pass into eternal glory. It will uniquely reflect God’s special love for every one of His true children.

The Pergamum church faced the same choice that every church faces today. It could repent and receive all the blessings of eternal life in the glory of heaven. Or it could refuse to repent and face the terrifying reality of having the Christ declare war on it. Maintaining the path of compromise ultimately leads to judgment.