Letters from Jesus #3
Title: The Compromising Church: Passive Pergamon.
Background of City
Pergamon is about 55-60 miles northeast of Smyrna. This city was renowned and had an illustrious history. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon under the Attalid dynasty from 281-133 BC. The city was adorned with beautiful buildings and structures.
Art and literature were encouraged in the city. Have you ever heard of parchment? Parchment was originally created in the city of Pergamon to continue the city’s library project (that rivaled the library of Alexandria) and the word parchment is derived from Pergamon. Apparently one of the Ptolemies was so concerned about the library in Alexandria that he ordered the stopping of exporting papyrus to Pergamon. The Pergamon library boasted 200,000 volumes.
In 133 BC the kingdom was turned over to Roman rule, and the kingdom became the province of Asia, not the greater region of Asia Minor, but a senatorial province. Pergamon remained the capital city of the province.
The city held temples to four of the major gods worshiped at the time, Zeus, Dionysus, Athena, and Asclepius. The city was known for its temple to Zeus. The shrine to Asclepius was also a favorite as he was a god of healing. Despite these religions, Pergamon was enthralled with the cult of the Emperors. In fact it was the first city to build a temple to Augustus and Rome in 29 BC. The city would later receive the term “thrice neokoros” after two more Caesars had temples built there, the city was a “temple warden” for Caesar-worship. In other cities, the danger toward Christians not worshiping Caesar was annual, in Pergamon it was daily.
Let’s look to see how the church in this city did.
Christ begins this letter by identifying Himself as the One with has the sharp two-edged sword.
This immediately draws our attention back to 1:16 with John’s description. This is not a comforting greeting, this impression strikes warning and fear. We see Christ’s judicial authority. This sword denotes the combining of a warrior defeating his enemies and pronouncing judgement on them.
In Revelation 19:15, John describes how Christ comes in judgement against the unrepentant. “Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” This is the same Christ addressing the church of Pergamon. How’d you like to get a letter from Christ that started that way?
Though the letter begins with a sense of warning and judgement, it quickly turns to a note of commendation.
Christ begins by telling them He knows where they live. He says, “I know where you dwell”. The idea of “dwell” here is your permanent residence. [no mention of work here or in Smyrna] Christ knows that Satan’s throne is located in this city. What do we mean by this? Well, Satan’s throne is thought to refer to a couple of things.
One of the sites that was excavated is called the Pergamon Altar, or Zeus’ Altar. This huge temple had a colonnade that measured 120 by 112 feet. The podium of the altar was about 18 feet high. Running the base of the structure for 446 feet was a frieze that depicted the mythical battle between the Olympian gods and the giants. This structure looks throne like.
Another thought is the shrine to Asclepius. This god was depicted as a snake and pilgrims would travel to Pergamon to worship here seeking healing. Since Satan is depicted as a snake or serpent in Revelation (3x Chap 12; 1x Chap 20), this might be an early reference to that image.
Another thought is that “Satan’s throne” may be the dominating cult of the emperors and Rome in Pergamon. This religion possessed the most threat to the Christians in the city, and “Satan’s throne” could refer to the ultimate power behind this cult.
Any one or combination of these suggestions may be the reference to “Satan’s throne”. Remember there were multiple temples and shrines in this city, and this gives us further understanding to Christ’s claim that Pergamon was “where Satan dwells”. Again it is the idea of dwelling at a permanent residence.
Though this church was in the pagan religious center of the provence, Christ commended them for holding fast to His name.
The church would not deny Christ. They held fast to Christ’s name and faith.
Christ says, “even in the days of which Antipas My faithful witness, who was killed among you”. Scripture doesn’t tell us any more about this witness of Jesus, but that church would have recognized the name instantly.
Tradition says that he was killed during an intense time of persecution under the Emperor Domitian. Though how Antipas was killed isn’t the point. Christ singles him out for commendation of his faithfulness. The church was faithful even during that time.
Though Christ commends them for their faithfulness, His complaint is serious.
First He tells them that there are those holding to the teaching of Balaam.
The name Balaam comes from two words creating a meaning of “people swallower”. The reference here goes back to Number 24 and 25. Where Balak king of Moab pays Balaam a supposed prophet to curse Israel though the Lord would only allow Balaam to bless Israel. Though we do read that Israel was seduced to immoral and idolatrous behavior, though Balaam isn’t mentioned in Numbers 25, in chapter 31 he is indicated as having given advice to Balak on how to cause Israel to fall.
So what was the issue in the church? In this time religious and civic life were so intertwined that it was nearly impossible to separate the two. Balaam taught Balak to place a stumbling block of seduction and idolatry before Israel. It appears that there were some in the church doing the same thing. These Balaamites were calling for the church to relax its standard and slip back into their old habits of paganism. It is possible that since sexual immorality was linked to pagan worship and feasts that some of the church did fall into these sins.
The language of the verse is that while the entire congregation was commended for its faithfulness, the entire congregation is being condemned for tolerating those in the congregation that held to Balaam’s teaching. The church was at fault for their indifference to those sympathetic to this dangerous teaching and compromising their faith.
In verse 15 Christ tells them that they are also tolerating those holding to the teachings of the Nicolaitans.
The identity and teaching of the Nicolaitans are somewhat mysterious. There are three major thoughts on them.
The first comes from the church father Irenaeus claiming that the Nicolaitans were the followers of Nicolaus of Antioch, one of the seven in Acts 6 who later apostatized.
Second, this sect began through a misinterpretation of a statement by Nicolaus, and that this group lived a life indulging in fleshly living and were an early sect of Gnostics.
The third though is that since the word nicolaitan is a Greek compound word meaning “conqueror of the people” (and the Hebrew counterpart is Balaam, “people swallower/devourer) they were forerunners of some sort of clergy/laity distinction or hierarchy.
So what is the answer? I don’t know. I’m not sold on any of these three arguments at this time.
Whatever the Nicolaitans taught, it seems that is was similar to the Balaamites teachings. It appears that they taught a blending of Christian life and the Greco-Roman society. Some try to link this to Paul’s teaching, but this is a perversion of Paul’s teaching of liberty. Paul taught to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols to not offend a weaker brother and the link between idols and demons.
This church was strong in its faith before persecution, but compromised its holiness by tolerating pagan, worldly teaching within its membership.
Now that Christ has brought His complaint against the church, what are they supposed to do? [state point 3, read 16-17]
First Christ tells them to repent.
The church needed to repent of its toleration and leniency toward those accepting the corrupting and heretical teachings. The call to repentance is also for those corrupting the church.
Repentance is a change in action and thought. “It is an appeal to begin at this moment a complete change” (Thomas, Robert L., Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary, © 1992, p143).
John MacArthur puts it this way, “ The church must not accommodate the sins of professing believers who insist on living as close as possible to the corrupt culture. ‘A little leaven leavens the whole lump’ (1 Cor 5:6). We must confront such worldliness (a term mostly absent from church vocabulary today)” (MacArthur, John, Christ’s Call to Reform the Church, © 2018, p 100).
Christ calls for repentance, but issues a warning as well. He tells the church that if they don’t repent He would come and use the “sword of My mouth”. The picture is that of a warrior coming in force. This is the same picture that we see later in the book at Christ’s second coming (19:11-21). The language here seems to demonstrate the imminent return of the Lord and shows that if the church did not repent before that time, Christ would come in judgement against them.
The church was called to repentance to show its genuine faith and its devotion to the holiness and purity of the church. The failure to genuinely repent would have “dreadful consequences for them (Thomas, p197)”.
After the call to repentance, Christ issues His call to listen and His promise. This statement of “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” is a call to the wider audience. Yes these letters had specific churches in mind, but these letters have lessons that every church and Christian needs to hear.
The first promise Christ gives the overcomer (or true believer) is the “hidden manna”. Manna of course was the bread given to Israel during their wanderings in the wilderness. Like many things in Israel’s history, this pointed to a future, greater, heavenly something.
Jesus said, “I Am the Bread of Life”, He provides His people with spiritual food. That Christ is the true manna, is at least one of the suggestions for the “hidden manna”. Other thoughts are that the manna alludes to a future reward and that believers being satisfied with spiritual food now is a foretaste of future fulfillment.
It should be noted that this church was charged with worldliness and the eating of unholy food sacrificed to idols, and then Christ promises heavenly food to the true believers.
The second promise is a white stone.
There are many, many suggestions about what the white stone symbolizes. The one I think is best refers back to a custom of the time where a white stone was given as a ticket into a special event or was given to a victor of the games to enter a special feast.
It is then suggested that the hidden manna my refer to the Messianc feast, and this stone being inscribed with a person’s name serves as an individualized guarantee of admission to the feast.
There is a third promised that is directly linked to the “white stone”, that is a “new name”.
There are a number of suggestions for this as well, but only one makes sense to me. It is thought that this new names is individualized to the believer and somehow shows the uniqueness of how God worked with this person and the honor and affection God has for him.
John MacArthur said it this way, “Whenever I have preached on this passage, someone will invariably ask what I think the secret name is. The whole point is that ‘no one knows.’ It is no doubt a name of personal affection and honor—a name that marks out God’s triumphant overcomers and reflects His love for His adopted children (MacArthur, p102)”.
So what are we supposed to take away from this?
1. Christ centered, gospel centered churches need to be vigilant in their teachings and doctrine.
We need to be careful not to let worldly teachings and philosophies enter the church. I was speaking with one of you this week, and the concern this person had for their grandchildren and children that are attending a church of a different denomination in a nearby town. Their granddaughter was told by a pastor at this church that John 3:16 isn’t true and that there is more than way to God. Within the last month two different “celebrity” mainline Christians have renounced their faith and are now looking for answers.
2. The Church of Pergamon should be a warning to every church and christian.
This is why we have saved church membership and candidates meet with myself and the deacons; this is why we have a statement of faith, this is why we have church discipline and restoration as a part of our constitution. These are ways we can protect our churches from worldliness and false doctrine. But just because we have these things in place is not enough. Affirming sound doctrine and practicing it are different. James 1:22 tells us to be doers of the Word, not just hearers.
3. Worldliness has been a threat to corporate and personal holiness since the OT.
See to what God Israel in Leviticus 18:1-5:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances. You shall observe My judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.”