The messages of Jesus to the seven churches of Asia provide valuable insight into not only the divine perspective of life in His body but also to the dangers and perils which confront the church and individual Christians. It is important to remember that Christ’s messages to the seven churches were intended not only for those Christians living at the time of John’s writing but for those throughout the current age as well. Jesus repeatedly declares, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Let’s begin our study of the church in Pergamos with a consideration of the background of both the church and the city where it was located. At the time of John’s writing, the city of Pergamos was the capital of Asia Minor. Pergamos was located about 70 kilometers (45miles) north of Smyrna and about 35 kilometers (21 miles) from the Aegean Sea. The modern city of Bergama, Turkey (population about 60,000) now covers the ancient site.
Pergamos was famous for its temples. In fact, it was the location of the first temple dedicated to the emperor worship cult (built in about 29 BC). Once each year, every Roman citizen was required to enter the temple, offer incense and declare that “Caesar is god.”
Another important temple in Pergamos was the one dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Individuals with infirmities or diseases would come to this temple and pass the night lying on the floor. Non-venomous snakes would be released and it was believed that if a serpent touched the individual during the course of the night he would be healed. The touch of the serpent was thought to be the touch of Asclepius himself. Perhaps this temple and the others found in Pergamos are what is meant by Jesus’ reference to the place of“Satan’s throne.”
The name of the city was most likely derived from an ancient word meaning “height” or “elevation” but interestingly the word has additional significance in Greek. Just as the city of Smyrna (derived from the word myrrh, a burial spice) had a name which was indicative of the spiritual trials of those Christians, Pergamos has a literal meaning which casts light on the spiritual condition of the church located there. The name is a compound word consisting of “gamos” meaning “marriage” and the intensifying prefix “per” (huper=English hyper). Thus implied significance of the name is “twice-married.” To understand how a church could become doubly married, let us consider the text of Jesus’ message:
And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight 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 I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it. Revelation 2:12-17
Jesus begins His remarks to the church by describing Himself as the One “who has the sharp two-edged sword.” The terminology immediately brings to mind Hebrews 4:12 where the Word of God is described in precisely the same fashion. The Bible is portrayed as being able to divide that which is seemingly indivisible (joints and marrow, and soul and spirit). The church in Pergamos had been contaminated with an influx of worldliness from which it surely seemed impossible to separate. But Christ and his Word are able!
Jesus, who in His earthly ministry had been tested in an unparalleled manner by Satan, assures the Christians at Pergamos that He understands the trials which they endure. He describes Pergamos as the place “where Satan dwells.” He further states that it is the location of“Satan’s throne.” A throne symbolizes the very center of power. Yet in spite of being in the crucible of satanic dominion, the Christians had held fast to Jesus’ name. Their steadfastness was exemplary.
Satan’s methods are not always overt and open. In fact, he is the master of subtle deception. The tactics used by Satan in Pergamos had gained him a solid foothold within the church. It is to this insidious danger that Jesus gives warning in his words to those Christians—as well as to all of us.
Of crucial importance to appreciating the message of Jesus is an understanding of the doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. The doctrines seem to be related, perhaps even identical. Indeed the terms Balaam and Nicolaitan have similar meanings. Balaam is derived from the Hebrew “baal”(meaning “lord”) and “ham” (meaning “people”) resulting in “Lord of the people,” while Nicolaitan comes from the Greek “nikao” (meaning “conquer”) and“laos” (meaning “people”) resulting in “conqueror of the people.”
With this in mind we must consider the enigmatic story of Balaam as related in Numbers 22-25; 31:16. Balaam was a prophet hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the nation of Israel. In this regard, Balaam sought to curse Israel four different times but each time the curse was turned into blessings. Perceiving that he was unable to curse Israel Balaam suggested to Balak that Israel should be tempted through corruption from within, which would then result in God’s discipline. This was accomplished through immorality and idolatry. Balaam was a man able to use very religious and pious language. He even seemed to know God or at least know about Him. His heart, though, was thoroughly wicked and sold into greed and corruption.
Sadly, the doctrine of Balaam had made inroads into the Church at Pergamos. The church was tolerant and“broad-minded” toward those who claimed to be Christians but who lived like the world around them, holding their same carnal desires and pleasures. The church was being slowly corrupted from within just as had occurred with Israel fifteen hundred years previously. And just as with the Christians at Pergamos, Balaam’s doctrine has also infiltrated the modern church and the lives of many contemporaryChristians.
The Lord calls upon the Christians of Pergamos to repent. Repentance has several aspects:
1. Repentance involves a recognition that one’s actions and attitudes are displeasing to the Lord.
2. Repentance involves a desire to change (or be changed).
3. Repentance results in active steps to achieve that change.
A very similar situation to that of Pergamos is found in 1Corinthians 5:1-9. In Corinth, there was a man who had taken his father’s wife. Instead of putting the flagrantly immoral man out of the church indiscipline, the Corinthians boasted of their broadmindedness in tolerating him and his sin. Paul rebuked theCorinthians sharply and they repented. In his second epistle to the Corinthians Paul commends their actions:
Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted. 2 Corinthians 7:9-10
This same repentance is what Jesus calls upon the Pergamos church to display. It is likewise what the immediate response of every Christian should be should he perceive the world’s values creeping into his life.
For those willing to hear His admonitions and to obey them, the Lord promises the hidden manna. Manna was, of course, the daily provision of God for the children of Israel during their wilderness wanderings and so the application to the Christian’s present earthly sojourn is clear.
However, the manna described here goes even beyond that. Note that it is called the “hidden manna” which refers to the sample of manna that was placed in a golden bowl in the Ark of the Covenant. Jewish tradition holds that Jeremiah hid this manna after Israel had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians. When the Messiah returns, according to the tradition, God will abundantly provide for His people again.
Thus the promise is that despite everything, be they trials and persecutions or even the believer’s own failures, God’s faithfulness is unchanging. The Lord provides all that we need. The hidden manna, though, speaks not only of God’s provision for needs but of a future abundance of blessing.
There are several possible interpretations of the significance of the white stone, all of which are both appropriate and wonderful:
White and black stones were used by tribunals of ancient times to indicate guilt and condemnation (a black stone) or innocence (the white stone). In similar fashion, the Christian has been declared guiltless before God.
A white stone was given to the champions of the ancient games. In this case, the stone was called a tessera. The tessera granted the possessor access to various forms of public entertainment. In like manner, the Christian has been granted access to the glories and wonders of heaven.
Likewise, a white stone was often times used to grant admittance to the parties and banquets of the wealthy. The Christian will be a participant in the greatest banquet of all, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.
Finally, the reference to a secret name is especially endearing. Names are oftentimes indicative of the relationship between a person and the one who is addressing him. For example, those who know nothing about me may refer to me simply as “mister” or “sir.” Those who know that I am a missionary but nothing further sometimes call me “pastor.” Moving to an increasing level of fellowship and closeness, within the church itself many call me “brother Jim.” Even more intimately my children call me “dad.” And of course, at the highest level of human intimacy, my wife may use one of several terms of endearment when speaking with me. The name which I will receive from Jesus will be so personal that it will be known only to Him and me. It speaks of an indescribable closeness and fellowship. How truly remarkable that the Lord of all creation will speak to each one of us personally and lovingly.
As we close this short study of the church at Pergamos we must make mention of the man to whom Jesus gave special commendation, Antipas. As with the other names found in this chapter, the word seems to indicate something deeper than a mere name. The name Antipas literally means “against all.” One can assume that Antipas died a martyrs death because he did indeed stand against all. He stood against not only corruption but he was willing to stand against the Roman system as well. Tradition teaches that he was roasted to death inside a bronze bull idol under which was placed a blazing fire. Although Antipas is unknown in the Bible apart from the brief mention in this passage, it is heartening to note that the God saw his faithful and took note. So it is with each one of us. God sees our dedication, service, and love for Him. May these qualities in our lives remain pure and unstained from the world and from all of the enemy’s assaults.
Jim Haesemeyer (to be continued)