The Letter to the Church at Pergamum

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In our previous two letters to the churches in Revelation, Ephesus and Smyrna, we have learned something about God’s will for us and the ecclesia.

In the letter to the church at Ephesus, Christ commended the ecclesia for it’s doctrinal purity, for recognising and confronting the false teachers, and for not tolerating evil within, but rebuked it because it had lost its first love.

God wants us to be pure in doctrine, He wants us to study his word, discuss it with each other, be able to recognise false teaching and to deal with it, but he also wants us to feel the same love for Him that he feels for us, a complete eternally deep love that puts no-one else first, a love that is pure and strong just because of who God is, a love that is within our hearts and minds.

The Letter to the Church at Smyrna shows an example of those united with Christ and his saving word, knowing that they may suffer for their faith, enduring trials and temptations, but reminds them that the eternal future outweighs any temporary trials or worldly price that we pay because of our faith.

This time we are looking at the next letter, written to the church at Pergamum, also called Pergamos or Pergamon.

Pergamum was situated around 40 miles past Smyrna along the ancient Roman postal road in the area known today as Western Turkey and near the modern city of Bergama, about 16 miles inland from the Aegean Sea. The city stood prominent on a hill of 1,000 ft, in the middle of a wide, fertile plain. The city’s history begins around the third century BC and the area became a Roman province, with Pergamum as it’s provincial capital, during the second century BC. By the first century AD there were three large temples located there in the city for worshipping the emperor and the first temple was built there in 29 BC. The city was also known for the huge altar to the false God Zeus, which is perhaps what is referred to by Satan’s throne in the letter to the church.

The city was also a very cultural city, with a 10,000 seat amphitheatre, and a library containing a reported 200,000 works, second only to the library at Alexandria. Due to the shortage of papyrus, a new material made from calf skin was developed in Pergamos and replaced the use of papyrus. It was much thinner a more flexible than either papyrus or vellum and was called pergaminus or pergamena after the city, a name that has become the anglicised “parchment”.

So as we finish the letter to Smyrna, the message to the church of suffering, the church promised the crown of life upon faithfulness unto death, so we begin the letter to Pergamum.

Rev 2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.

Revelation as we know is full of symbolism and deeper meaning. The name Pergamos has a dual meaning, the combination of two greek words, Purgos and Gamos. Some interpret as castle or high tower, but it can also mean married or united by marriage. The literal translation of Pergamos can be seen as “married to the high tower” suggesting some of the character of the church, and if we think about what the high tower might be, we see from the letter that the high tower wasn’t Christ, but rather the world around, making a compromise with the world rather than allowing themselves to be persecuted by it. But uniting with the world while it made life easier for them, allowed themselves to become married to the system and leaders of the time.

Jas 4:4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Jas 4:5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

Because they had gone the way of the world, Christ introduces himself as the one who has a sharp two-edged sword. They have lost the ability to discern from right and wrong, good and evil, and can no longer keep the two apart. The sword is the living word of Christ, able to separate the light from darkness, piercing men’s hearts or striking down the false. Christ wields the same sword today through scripture, allowing us to use it as a weapon against the false teachings of the world.

Heb 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

So on to the message to Pergamum.

We have already mentioned that Pergamum was a centre for idolatry, with enthusiastic emperor worship, a centre for the worship of Zeus, the statue of Zeus at Olympia being one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was also an important region for the worship of several other pagan cults, including Athena, Asklepios, and Dionysius (also known as the Bacchus, the god of drunkenness). As in other regions, the Christians at Pergamum were tempted to compromise in their faith in order to enjoy the benefits of Roman citizenship. The Roman government tolerated any religious practice that also recognized and worshipped the emperor as deity. The choice facing the church was remaining faithful and suffering the cultural and economic consequences, or compromising his or her faith in order to work and prosper.

We must recognise that the problems here are still problems that exist in modern churches today, and so the message is still very relevant to us. There have been many throughout history who have compromised their faith to gain some worldly benefit, perhaps some gain of political power, or wealth, but there have also been those who have remained faithful to Christ and make no concessions when it came to the name of Christ.

When we look at the letters to the churches at Ephesus and Smyrna, we find no indication of compromise, and, in fact, the letter to the church at Smyrna recognizes (and commends) the suffering they chose to endure rather than worship false gods.

Rev 2:13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.

We serve a God who knows everything, he knows our physical condition, he knows our spiritual condition. In the letter to Ephesus Christ tells them he knows their works, labour and patience. To Smyrna he tells then he knows of their works, tribulation and poverty, and here he begins by telling them he knows where they dwell. Christ knows where we dwell physically and spiritually, and while we dwell with Christ spiritually then all is well, even if we physically dwell where Satan’s throne is.

Eph 2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, Eph 2:5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– Eph 2:6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

We a restricted to dwelling on the earth in our bodies, journeying through the world as strangers, but through Christ we have been raised up out of this world spiritually and while we don’t let the two mix we are fine, but when we mix the teachings of God with the traditions of men, trying to combine heavenly and earthly things together we make an impossible attempt to fuse light and darkness together in one place.

When Solomon says there is nothing new under the sun, this is very true when it comes to human nature, repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Throughout history man has tried to widen the path of salvation but all they have succeeded in doing is watering down the truth until it has become of no merit. Yet the churches around the world will still feed the world false doctrines in an attempt to compromise with the world, to promote its agenda, trying to fit in with the world. But we mustn’t forget that for followers of Christ, the time in this world is meant to be a journey, not a destination, but why are we so anxious to build our homes in it? Remember Christ knows where we dwell, but is it in heavenly places, or is it where Satan’s throne is?

A true follower of Christ places his trust in him, and this is where Pergamum left the path, for they thought if they associated with the governing powers, comprised what they thought was a little, in order to obtain more, it would be a worthwhile deal. However Christ condemns their actions, and points to one Antipas who remained faithful even unto death.

While the church as a whole tolerated false doctrines, there were still those who would not deny their faith. Little is known about Antipas, the Bible tells us he was faithful to Christ, resisting the will of the majority who wished to make concessions to the powers of the time. He was probably the pastor or bishop of the church in the city. There is a tradition that he was arrested by the Roman government and they attempted to force him to recognise the validity of the various pagan religions on the basis they were older and more established than the young Christian faith, but he refused, citing Christianity’s roots from the very creation of the world, and was thrown on the sacrificial fire for his non-compliance. It didn’t take much to be condemned in those days, merely refusing to address Caesar as Lord would be enough to bring out the executioner. In the face of this, many would compromise, many distorted, many denied, but there were those who remained faithful, even unto martyrdom, who served as an example for true believers throughout time.

We are fortunate in this country not to have too many conflicts with the governing powers, allowed to get on with our spiritual lives largely without hindrance, nor do we have the threat of public execution hanging over our heads. If we were however living under constant threat of death if we didn’t bow to the wishes of the government, how many of us would be willing to compromise?

The problem is, once we have compromised then we are open to the influences of evil company, which corrupts good habits.

1Co 15:33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”

It seems that many churches today have forgotten this universal law, and Pergamum didn’t keep this at the forefront of their minds and gave themselves over to ideas that they had no business getting involved with. Although man can easily contract disease from another man, the same can not be said about good health. Man is more susceptible to evil than he is to good and has a greater power to spread evil than to spread good.

Rev 2:14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.

There were a few things to be said against the church at Pergamum, of its mixing with the world, but what made it worse that it was done under the formality of another doctrine, namely the teaching of Balaam. This was no longer a sin committed out of weakness or ignorance, but rather something that was calculated and based upon the philosophy of others, but was in conflict with the teaching of God and it was the basis of that doctrine which had displeased God.

The church at Pergamum is thought of as the “compromising church”. The members expressed their faith for Christ on one hand, but on the other, they accomated the world around them, compromising where it was convenient to do so. There are so many churches today that follow the same pattern, where large parts strive for cultural harmony, or political correctness and ignore some fundamental Bible teachings.

Through his teaching, Balaam laid a trap for the children of Israel, separating them and dividing them from the truth of God, as well as from each other. He advised the Moabites to tempt the children of Israel with their women.

Num 25:1 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. Num 25:2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Num 25:3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.

Num 31:16 Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.

It started with harlotry, and then it advanced to an invite to partake of the sacrifices to the Moabite gods, and then it progressed even further when the people ate and bowed down to the gods of Moab and ended with the Lord’s anger against Israel, when he sent a plague among the congregation of the Lord.

The enemy’s plan is never revealed until it’s too late. When Balaam advised Balak to bring out the women of Moab, he knew it would go further than just that. He was teaching Balak how to separate the people of Israel from God and set them on the path to ruin. Once one compromise has been made a greater compromise will often follow.

There are churches today that hold the doctrine of Balaam, teaching people to commit harlotry with the world, promoting half measures so they can walk with God and the world at the same time. The numbers in the churches who advocate this duplicity have pushed the true believers to the side and can even be despised by the majority for their failure to compromise, labelled as old fashioned and not with the times. Cultures change, but the doctrines of God never have.

This is what Peter has to say about false prophets…

2Pe 2:14 They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 2Pe 2:15 Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, 2Pe 2:16 but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.

Another great evil had crept in too, and that was of the Nicolaitans. We discussed this when looking at Ephesus, where it was rejected by the Ephesians, but allowed to prevail at Pergamum.

Rev 2:15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Irenaeus, a second-century church leader, describes the Nicolaitans as a sect that had arisen in the early days of Christianity and which believed that since Christians are saved by grace and free from the law, nothing they do could be called evil. In his doctrinal work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes that the Nicolaitans “lead lives of unrestrained indulgence” as a right of Christian liberty. Clement of Alexandria, another second-century church leader wrote about the Nicolaitans: “They abandoned themselves to pleasure like goats, leading a life of self-indulgence.” Those following the doctrine of the Nicolaitans felt free to participate in worship of the emperor and other pagan deities and lived according to cultural standards of greed, social position and power, rather than godly standards.

Although these destructive forces can be found within the body of believers, we can apply it individually too. We should always begin looking at our own problems first before considering the problems of others.

Rev 2:16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.

Christ gives the command to repent in relation to the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. It was a serious warning, for if they didn’t repent then there would be consequence for Christ would come quickly and fight them with the sword of his mouth. The good that was in the church couldn’t cover or atone for any of the sin that had crept in. Evil can not be atoned by doing good, but rather repenting of the evil. Whatever justification there was in trying to accommodate themselves into the world, they had strayed from the path and must repent. By standing firm in the Word of God, and allowing it to dwell in our hearts we can overcome evil.

1Jn 2:14 I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. 1Jn 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

1Jn 5:4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith. 1Jn 5:5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Rev 2:17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’

The reward for the one who overcomes the evil will be to receive some of the hidden manna.

The manna is the true spiritual food and in contrast to the idol meats in v14. Those who overcome the evil will be entitled to partake of that spiritual food which has been laid up for the people of God, hidden from them perhaps because they didn’t know what it was, or because it was laid in a golden pot and put in the most holy place where only the high priest could see it once a year, or because it was at first hidden by the dew. In Psalm 78 it is called the angels’ food and the grain of heaven. It is unavailable to those of the world.

Joh 6:31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Joh 6:32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. Joh 6:33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Joh 6:34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Joh 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

The hidden manna is closely linked to our hidden life in him. In order to be hidden in him we must be first dead to the world, only then are we able to live a hidden life in him, nourished by him.

Col 3:3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Col 3:4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

The city’s economic and cultural practices may be evident here too. The region was known for mining and a tradition grew in the region to use small rounded white marble stones within the judicial system. A white stone was used by the jury to vote for innocent and a black stone to vote for guilty. From this some organisations developed a system of voting for membership and hence the term blackballing to deny membership.

In addition to the system of stones being used in the region, the defendant that was set free was given a white stone with his or her name inscribed in it as a proof of his or her freedom and new status as a Roman Citizen. In athletic contests the trophy was a white stone, symbolic of having overcome the opposition, and warriors returning from battle were given white stones with their names inscribed.

In the same way the white stone mentioned in our letter to the church, it is a symbol of freedom “and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

It has also been said, that masters of ceremonies used white stones to write the names of invited guests for the wedding dinner. In this context we can interpret the white stones, written with the new names, as the names of those who will join Christ for His wedding feast.

God has called us out of the world by name, and once having heeded His call He calls us by a new name. If we remain faithful, if we endure, if we strive and pursue righteousness, it is this new name that we will hear when we stand before Him. If however we chose disobedience and sin, our new name will not be on His lips, but rather our old ones.

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