In our present letter the Lord of the Church writes to the church at Pergamum, 60 miles to the north of Smyrna, 15 miles inland and 1000 feet in elevation. Here the opposition to the Gospel was so great that the Lord Jesus called the city the place “where Satan’s throne is”. Perhaps the Lord of the Church would say the same of the worship of Santa Muerte in Mexico City (Dowdy letter). Not surprisingly the church there had responded to the challenges in its own way, receiving both commendation and criticism from the Lord. Satan’s assault on the church in Pergamum centered on the nature of godly living and its connection to church membership.
What was Pergamum like?
It was an ancient and large city, a center of industry and commerce, science and art. Noted for its development of parchment (derived from the city name), home to numerous libraries, the place of the Roman governor’s residence for many years. It was one of places where he regularly held court, the governor alone (as in Jesus’ day) held the power of capital punishment.
Preeminent center of emperor worship with numerous temples dedicated to that purpose, also noted for its four patron deities: Zeus, Athena, Dionysos, and Asklepios. A great Altar with several reliefs depicting various gods destroying barbarians was dedicated to Zeus Soter (Savior), the God-Bull. Asklepios was thought to be the god of healing and a temple dedicated to Asklepios Soter; the belief was that he could save worshipers from the effects of sin, from disease and sickness of all kinds. Asklepios’ symbol was the serpent, the “god of Pergamum”, still in use as a medical symbol. Was viewed by Christians in Pergamum as representing the serpent of Eden. Interestingly, the original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation, “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asklepios and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods”.
In Pergamum pagan worship leaders offered salvation through Zeus or through Asklepios; it was simply expected that all would call Caesar “Lord” and offer him worship as well. For Christians to profess that Jesus Christ is the only one to be called “Lord” and salvation can be found in him alone immediately marked them as different – people to be ridiculed, criticized as narrow-minded and bigoted, considered infidels and subject to expulsion, imprisonment or death.
It was the exclusivism of Christianity that was most troublesome – only one Lord, only one way of salvation. No need to deny that Christianity was one way, but the only way? There was great pressure to be inclusive, to accept the notion that a Christian could believe in God and at least give lip-service to Caesar and maybe Zeus or Asklepios. After all, wouldn’t it be harsh and unloving to exclude those from fellowship as Christians who believed that way? What does the Lord of the Church say about that idea?
A. Characteristics of Christ v.12 the Eternal Word
Each letter begins with reference to chapter 1 vision of Christ, not only identifying the person of the author but also his role relationship with the church. Here in our text he is represented as the one who:
Has the sharp, two-edged sword. cf. Rev.1:16 the Eternal Word
The sword symbolizes the principle that the Living Word of God has the power to judge all things according to the standard of the Written Word of God. From the beginning of his letter, Jesus reminds his people that there is an eternal, absolute standard by which to measure all things: truth, salvation, worldview, daily living, church membership, worship – all and more are thoroughly addressed in pages of God’s Word.
The sword also reminded the saints at Pergamum that it is the Lord Jesus who holds ultimate power; Christ uses his power to defend his church against all her foes and will eventually use the sword of his judgment against all those who oppose God.
B. Commendation v.13
Jesus commended the church in Pergamum for remaining true to him and not denying the faith even in the face of great danger. As with previous letters, not an empty commendation: follows “I know where you live”. That, too, not a simple platitude intended to make the hearers feel good; the Lord Jesus knew from personal experience just how formidable an enemy Satan is. A sky full of warriors attending his birth, a quick trip to Egypt, a personal encounter after 40-day fast, a sudden storm, agony in the Garden, perhaps other occasions not recorded in Scripture. Jesus knew their enemy.
In a culture dominated by paganism, a city permeated by the very power of Satan, experiencing daily onslaughts against truth and faith, saints in Pergamum had kept the faith. One among them, Antipas, a faithful witness (μάρτυς) for Christ, apparently attracted too much attention and was executed for the sake of the Gospel. In spite of that they stayed faithful. But…
C. Criticism v.14-15
Follow the teachings of Balaam (known as Nicolaitans in Pergamum). Tolerates serious error within the church – compromises in both orthodoxy (right teaching/doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice/living). Balaam a false prophet hired by Balak to curse Israelites; prevented repeatedly from doing so, blessed them instead under direct control of Holy Spirit. Realized God would not allow a frontal attack, advised Balak to use another tactic: don’t try to get the Israelites to deny or abandon their God, persuade them to follow other gods along with their God and use your pretty women as bait. See Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16; 2 Peter 2:10-20 Convince them it doesn’t have to be either-or, it can be both-and.
Pergamite version of Balaam were Nicolaitans, those who claimed no conflict between professing Christ and implicitly supporting cultural norms. Practiced that belief by holding membership in good Christian church while maintaining immoral relationships and participating in pagan celebrations. Why would a group of committed Christians want to tolerate these sorts of things? How could they possibly get to that point?
Why?… something other than determination to stand firm on the absolute truth of God’s Word becomes the priority. Friendships, attendance numbers, favor with the community, financial pressure: if we take a stand on this issue, people will get mad and leave or we’ll lose our tax exemption or the landlord will evict us. Besides, we’re tired out from all the opposition, we’re supposed to be loving, can’t we just be friends and get along?
How?… rationalizing, spin, literary gimmicks, false dichotomies. I don’t believe it’s right for me but who am I to say you can’t make that choice? It’s all a matter of interpretation; you interpret it one way, I interpret it differently. That fit the culture of the 1st century, things are different now and we don’t have to be bound by the same rules. Maybe everyone else is meditating or thinking about their god, I’m praying so it’s OK. It isn’t about gender or even marriage, it’s about commitment and faithfulness. That is a matter of faith and faith is private; when in public, do as the public does.
D. Instruction v.16
Repent. To repent requires a change of mind or purpose; requires two things – “from” and “to”. The “from” is obvious: it’s a wrong way of thinking about how a Christian should live, how to follow Paul’s injunction to Titus that “we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age”. (Tit. 2:12) The “to”, the right way of thinking, is identified in Jesus’ threat against the church in Pergamum. If they do not repent, the Lord Jesus will fight against the problem members “with the sword of [His] mouth”.
The saints in Pergamum were challenged to do two things: recover a right understanding of God’s Word, and, apply Biblical principles to their own personal lives and the life of the church. It is the Bible that shows up Balaam for who he truly was, that identifies the errors of the Nicolaitan way of thinking and living. It is also the Bible that directs each local church how to guard and maintain the purity of her membership. Christians in Pergamum needed to get their own lives in order individually, then deal with the church membership roll, eventually removing any who remained stubbornly unrepentant.
E. Promise v.17
Will receive hidden manna and a white stone with a new name on it. Unlike the food offered to idols and then purchased in the marketplace, Christ promises hidden manna, bread from heaven. He is the manna, bread, that nourishes to eternal life; a full supply of the hidden manna strengthens against Satan’s onslaughts, nourishing saints in this life and the next.
Christians in Pergamum who refused compromise and rejected inclusivism could expect to be hauled before the Roman governor and charged as infidels. Even if the judge cast a black stone to indicate a guilty verdict, the overcomer can count on receiving a white stone from the Lord Jesus. In the sight of God, the believer is justified – declared “not guilty” – and purified by the indwelling Holy Spirit, a verdict that guarantees acceptance and entrance into God’s presence.
Jewish neighbors in Pergamum called Christians “Nazarenes”, branding them as members of an illegal movement attempting to overthrow the government. The Lord Jesus will give to the overcomer a new name that signifies a new relationship – child of God – and a new identity – having citizenship in Christ’s kingdom, in heaven.
The contrast couldn’t be greater between the gifts of the world to be found in Pergamum or any other community and the gifts distributed by the Lord of the Church. The good gifts are only available, though, to those who overcome: in this case, those who overcome the tendency to compromise, to be unbiblically inclusive. For us to be included in that number, we must both know the Word of God and apply the Word in all areas of life – personal and public. May God give us grace to be living examples of Paul’s exhortation in Phil. 2:5 “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”