The Compromising Church (Pergamum)
The Compromising Church (Pergamum)
After the death of Alexander the Great, there was an intense power struggle. Before he died, he failed to appoint a successor.
None of his generals was powerful enough to rule over Alexander’s entire empire, so they each grabbed as large a piece as possible and began fighting with one another to gain more. We call this period the Wars of the Diadochi (dy-AD-uh-kee).
After much of the dust had settled, there were four main rulers.
- Ptolemy (who ruled Egypt),
- Cassander (who ruled Greece),
- Lysimachus (who ruled Asia Minor),
- and the most powerful, Seleucus (who ruled Persia, Syria, and Palestine).
The fourth general, Seleucus, eventually defeated Lysimachus and claimed Asia Minor for himself. However, the people of Asia rebelled against Seleucus and established a small, independent kingdom, although it was only a fraction of Lysimachus’s original territory.
This kingdom was known as the Kingdom of Pergamon, and its capital was the city of Pergamum.
Pergamum became a very proud and noble city.
The Pergamenes invented a new writing material. It was stronger than papyrus, which had been used for thousands of years. This new writing material was so wonderful, it became the dominant writing material for about 1500 years, until paper eventually replaced it. This new material was parchment. In fact the word for parchment comes from pergamentum, meaning “from Pergamum”.
During Pergamum’s greatest years, their kind king built a library that was to be second only the Library of Alexandria—and it was! Of course, the books in the Library of Pergamum were written on parchment so they’d last. Access to the Library made the city one of the most educated in the ancient world.
After 150 years of independence, the last Pergamene king bequeathed the kingdom to the Roman Republic, and it was absorbed as the Roman province of Asia.
Thus, Pergamum (the city) had a long history of being the capital of Asia, despite Ephesus being the largest and richest in New Testament times.
Pergamum was extremely pagan.
This city was overrun with worshippers of the Greek gods Zeus and Asclepius. It also had the distinction of having not just one, but two different temples to the Imperial Cult.
Yet, in the midst of this paragon of paganism, there was a church striving to be faithful to a Holy God. We don’t know anything about the history of Christians in Pergamum. All we have is a single letter to them in Revelation 2:12–17.
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
This is what the One who has the sharp two-edged sword says:
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.
But I have a few things against you, that 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 sexual immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. But if not, I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war 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, 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.” (Rev 2:12–17)
Jesus describes Himself with an allusion to chapter one, where John saw Jesus with a sword sticking out of His mouth. This sword is a symbol of judgment, justice, and punishment. By coming out of Jesus’s mouth, His power clearly derives from His words.
By reminding the Pergamenes of His sword, Jesus warns them of the judgment.
This letter tells us how we can be judged as righteous within a culture that glorifies and rejoices in their wickedness. This can only happen if a congregation of God’s people is distinct and stands out from the world.
Be distinct individually by your unwavering fidelity.
“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.” (Rev 2:13)
Withstand the pressures of society.
Jesus describes the city of Pergamum as the home of Satan’s throne! This was an extremely worldly place and the cultural forces would have been overwhelming.
In America thirty years ago, most people claimed to be Christian. Now, however, the culture has shifted and Christian ethics are becoming scarce. Society expects us to buy in to their behaviors and to join in—more than ever before in our nation’s history.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may approve what the will of God is, that which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Rom 12:2)
Your personal decisions reflect who your god is; do you live to serve the God of heaven—or the god of this world? Do you serve Satan, in whose home you live? Or God, who has seated you in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6)? Where do you live?
Withstand the threats of the government.
At some point, the pressures of pagan Roman society were backed by the threats of government. The Christians who did not worship the emperor were subject to certain extra taxes. If they did not worship or pay, they could be killed! Even if they did pay the tax, if the local officials especially disliked the Christians, they could manipulate the law to have them killed easily.
Jesus praises the faithfulness of a Christian named Antipas, who was not afraid of death, but faithfully represented Christ to the end. Whatever fear he may have had, he held firm and refused to bend the knee to Augustus, Vespasian, or Domitian.
No matter how much the government grows in enforcing wickedness, stand strong in your faith.
“But Peter and the apostles answered and said, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ ” (Acts 5:29)
Withstand the fear of trauma.
After witnessing Antipas’s murder, the church must have felt absolute terror, but they did not give up. They remained stedfast in the faith once delivered to the saints.
That’s ancient Rome—but what about America? Is this a problem here?
In 2014, the Houston mayor attempted to subpoena preachers she suspected of preaching against homosexuality. In 2020, there were Christians arrested for singing in worship, despite their attempts to comply with the rules. It would have been very simple to just avoiding the topic of homosexuality for awhile, or to stop singing in worship for a few weeks.
It’s one thing to stay true when threats are just potential, but sometimes they become real.
Remain faithful regardless, no matter what pressure society and friends, government and enemies place on you.
Be distinct collectively by your undefiled purity.
“But I have a few things against you, that 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 sexual immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. But if not, I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.” (Rev 2:14–16)
The church was mostly faithful, but Jesus says He has a few things against them.
While they are mostly doing well, there are a few problems—a small number of issues to deal with. Just a few. A few things may seem harmless, but Jesus is not saying they are small things—just that they are few in number.
It doesn’t take an army of sinners to take down a whole church. Just a few critical issues.
Keep sin out of the church.
“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 sexual immorality.” (Rev 2:14)
The first problem was those who teach the doctrine of Balaam. Just like Balaam, their behavior encouraged sinful behavior like idolatrous compromise and fornication.
The two specific items mentioned (eating things sacrificed to idols and committing fornication) recall the instructions of the Apostles in Acts 15. At that time, the Apostles and leaders of the church sent letters to the Gentile converts to emphasize the most important aspects of their repentance. They specified abstaining from “things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication” because those were particularly associated with idolatry and pagan cults.
These were baseline moral standards, yet no one was doing anything about these members.
We must not tolerate or affirm sin within the church. Many churches do not advocate sin necessarily, but they affirm or accept sin in the lives of those who struggle with it.
We must remove unrepentant sinners from the church, so they do not defile it!
“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, also was sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people; I did not at all mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the greedy and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is a sexually immoral person, or greedy, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Cor 5:6–11)
Keep false teaching out of the church.
“So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” (Rev 2:15)
Jesus now rebukes the church in Pergamum for similarly accepting the Nicolaitans.
We don’t know much for certain about the Nicolaitans. They seem to have taught sinful behavior like the group mentioned in verse 14, but based on other early church writings, they had an element of Gnosticism. The Nicolaitans not only embraced a free lifestyle, but also promoted false doctrines.
Why the distinction in these two groups of people? It seems Jesus wanted to emphasize that iniquities and heresies can both corrupt the church.
We must not accept sin or false teachings, but confirm everything on the basis of the word of God.
“Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” (Rom 16:17–20)
A pure church stands out and looks different. If we compromise as the body of Christ, we will not different than those around us.
In a world of hypocrisy and insincerity, people notice a church whose members are sincere and genuine.
Be distinct eternally by your untainted victory.
“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.” (Rev 2:17)
It is wonderful to know that we have victory with Christ. At the close of this letter, Jesus describes the Christian hope as unique in three ways.
If you overcome, Christ will sustain you.
First, Jesus promises “hidden manna.”
What is “manna”? Manna was the special bread God fed the Israelites with in the wilderness. It appeared in the morning and they gathered it up to eat.
“Hidden” manna is only accessible to those God gave it to. He hid it from those He does not permit to consume it. The sustenance and providence that Christ makes available are not accessible to those who are unfaithful. Just as God did not give manna to the Egyptians, this spiritual sustenance is not for those who are outside Christ.
When Satan tempted Him to turn rocks into bread, Jesus famously quoted Deuteronomy 8:3. In that verse, “that which proceeds out of the mouth of God” actually refers to manna provided by God.
“He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”
Jesus uses this verse apart from literal bread or manna. He applies it to the spiritual bread and teaching that God provides for man. If you are faithful, Christ will give you not only physical blessings, but He will also sustain you spiritually, feeding you with His words.
He offers that same bread to you; every spiritual blessing is in Christ and is offered to those who are in Him as well (Eph 1:3).
If you choose to be distinct spiritually, Christ will make you even more so by His instruction and providence.
If you overcome, Christ will acquit you.
“…I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone….” (Rev 2:17)
The reference to a “white stone” sounds odd, doesn’t it?
First, it’s not a stone like used in construction—it’s a pebble, a white pebble.
Nowadays, we use ballots, but back then, they used pebbles for voting. In a jury, the members would cast a pebble to signal their opinion. Black pebbles signified conviction and white signified acquittal.
By giving us a “white pebble,” Christ casts His vote—the only vote that matters! If you allow yourself to become like the world, you will not receive this vote from Christ. Instead, you will receive the “guilty” vote, just like the world you emulated.
Remember that sword of judgment Jesus started the letter off with? Christ is both Judge and Jury. He will try us by His words and find us guilty or innocent based on our faithfulness to Him.
And if you are faithful, Christ will read your name out of the Book of Life in the Day of Judgment. Forgiveness of sins is only available to those who are faithful in Christ.
If you overcome, Christ will receive you.
“…I will give him… a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.” (Rev 2:17)
The last line about a new name sounds mysterious and exciting, doesn’t it?
Some people think the new name is “Christian,” but we all know that name. No, this new name is another symbol of being unique, of being special.
A few times in Genesis, God gave new names to people whose faith had developed to a special point, or who were being given a special promise. He did this for Abram, Sarai, and Jacob. In the new Testament, Jesus did it for Simon. All those individuals had deep and special relationships with God.
When you finally break free of the shackles of the world, coming out of it and being distinct, aligning yourself with the Lord instead—He will grant you a new name. The fact that only you know the name means that it is truly special. God cares about you as an individual; you can have a special relationship with God for yourself.
If you do not give God your all and allow yourself to dance and play with the world, you’ll never be close to Him in that special way. But if you are holy as God is holy, putting away the thoughts and words and actions of the world, focusing on your relationship with God—you will find that God is focused on that relationship as well and that He will draw you even closer.
If you overcome, you will be exceedingly blessed.
The city of Pergamum was extremely worldly and ungodly. The Christians who lived there constantly felt pressure to assimilate and conform. Unfortunately, some of them caved. Jesus reminds them that it’s important to be distinct, because His people are distinct. If you are different in this life, you’ll receive a different life in eternity.