The Churches of Revelation: Part 4 – Pergamum
Hebrews 6:1 – Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God
Pergamum has a pretty amazing history. First, it is perched atop a mountain along the coast of Turkey. It was a city that rivaled Alexandria, Ephesus, and Smyrna for size, commerce, and beauty. In the mid-second century AD it became known as the top center for ancient medicine.
The famous Roman physician Galen was born in Pergamum. He was the most accomplished medical researcher of his time. Many of his procedures have survived even to this day. He was very successful in cataract surgeries where he would lift the cataract from the eye by inserting a needle behind the lens of the eye. He was also the one who invented the way to properly clean and sanitize an operating room.
As for leadership, Pergamum had very few countries holding it over time. The defensibility and the immense resource value of the city meant that those who controlled Pergamum wanted to maintain control. in 323 BC it left Alexander the Great’s hands when he died and left it to General Lysimachus. It maintained in Attalid control until 133 BC when Rome took it over. From that point it would rise and fall with Rome.
It sits almost directly north of Smyrna and is the last of the 3 coastal cities listed in Revelation 2 and 3.
The most beautiful area of Pergamum is the acropolis. It overlooks the Temple of Zeus and the Great Altar of Pergamum, known to many as Satan’s Throne. Going north from there is the Temple of Athena and the Great Library, which rivaled Alexandria’s library. It is estimated that over 200,000 documents were contained in it. The library is also the home to one of the most amazing wedding gifts of all time: Marc Antony presented Cleopatra with a significant portion of the library’s collection in order to restore what had been destroyed by fire during Julius Caesar’s occupation of Alexandria.
Do NOT tell my wife about this wedding gift or I will be buying entire libraries for gifts for the rest of my life.
From Athena’s temple and the library, you then come to the Temple of Trajan, dedicated by Emperor Hadrian around 125 AD and dedicated to the city’s defiled predecessor. It made Pergamum the first imperial cult center in Asia Minor.
This city represented the epitome of Hellenistic culture. Because of that, Christians viewed Pergamum as a city that stood against Christian beliefs. The fact that Pergamum shows up in the book of Revelation is reflective of the tension between Christians and the pagan communities around the end of the first century AD.
Christ’s message to Pergamum praises the community for maintaining their faith while living “where Satan dwells.” Antipas, a Christian bishop in Pergamum, was martyred at the end of the first century AD. This would have, for sure, caused grief and fear among the Christian community.
2 Corinthians 11:14 – And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
Christ’s message is that this church has compromised.
The Pergamum church is starting to see the difficulty in being Christian and is starting to change their ways to be more palatable to the culture around them.
This section of Scripture opens by showing the church that Jesus is the “One who has the sharp double-edged sword.” Jesus is showing that He alone has authority to judge and execute as needed. This church is not in a good place with God right now in this message.
In the first 2 churches we see that He is the One who hold the churches (Ephesus) and the first and the last who was dead come to life (Smyrna). Now we see the Judge! This church is in danger of being judged by the One who has a sharp double-edged sword.
The church in Pergamum consisted primarily of Gentiles who left their pagan lives to choose a Christian call. Even though they had converted, they started to change back to their pagan beliefs as times got harder for Christians.
We have seen this happen over and over in history. Between 300-600 AD, during the reign of Constantine, the church and world became one. Christianity got lost in the translation of heathen holidays and infant dedication. It became a mass state religion and not a life-transforming encounter with the risen Christ.
1Corinthians 3:11 – For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
We see that today as well. There are many churches that have taken the stance of the world. They have, and are trying, to fit God in the culture’s definition. Not defining culture by God. This has made a confused and impure testimony for the modern church. Those churches that try to blend culture and Christianity are dead churches. The church has been judged by Christ and lost its power or spiritual influence.
Next, the name Pergamum literally means “parchment.” Parchment was invented in Pergamum. That, coupled with the amazing medical research going on, made Pergamum a very rich city that was the capital of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor for around 250 years. The city has temples to every Roman God and even to Caesar. In that time, as long as you agreed to worship Caesar as God, you could worship anyone else you wanted.
In most cities, one day a year, everyone would have to declare worship for Caesar. Being a capital city, Pergamum would have had more than one of those days. Christians would have minimally lost their citizenship, and many their lives, for not worshiping Caesar. There are myths and legends and stories about how the city was founded and how it had grown over the years. It is a very well-documented city in Roman history.
But if we look at the Christian church in Pergamum, we know very little. We don’t know who planted the church there. Acts 16 gives us a little information that Paul passed through the area, but that is it. Probably our best look at Scripture is in Acts 19:10 where the ministry in Ephesus was so successful that the gospel went through Asia Minor.
Acts 19:10 – And this went on for two years, so that all the inhabitants of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the message about the Lord.
So during that gospel movement, the church in Pergamum was planted where Satan’s throne is.
This is what I find interesting. Satan’s throne is not in hell, as I would have expected. Satan’s throne is in this world. Hell is the place of his incarceration; the earth is the headquarters for his operations. So what we learn right now, especially with Smyrna and Pergamum both in the mix, is that if you want to destroy the church in the world, it is not persecution that will cause the church’s downfall, it is compromising the faith.
Revelation 2:13 – I know where you live—where Satan’s throne is!
This church was planted where Satan has his headquarters. If we look, Smyrna was planted in a city that had a synagogue to Satan. But Pergamum was planted where he leads his operations from. The synagogue in Smyrna was the perverted form of Judaism that was present. In Pergamum, the the throne of Satan is a Gentile base for false religions. This church was right in the middle of it, and was beginning to compromise.
But something else comes out of Pergamum. Jesus commends this church for living among Satan’s throne and having a remnant that maintains pure faith. Jesus told Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against His church and Pergamum is a great example. Yes, they have issues. They have compromised. But I am confident that in every compromising denomination or church, there is a remnant that God is raising up.
This remnant is working in faith, even during very trying times. One of those times is when Antipas, one of their leaders, was martyred. Tradition has it that he was burned to death inside of a brass idol of a bull. They watched this death, and the supposed victory of the pagans, and they still did not waver. Not those of the true faith.
But they did have something against them. The allowed those who would compromise the faith, to comfortably be a part of their community. They were not dealing with sin in their own church. They didn’t deny the Lord’s Name or the faith. But they were soft and tolerant of compromise with the world.
The ones they have been too tolerant of are listed in the verses. One is an Old Testament reference and the other is a New Testament one.
Revelation 2:14-15 – But I have a few things against you. You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling block in front of the Israelites: to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. In the same way, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
The Old Testament reference to Balaam and Balak is that of sexual impurity. Without going into exhaustive detail of Numbers 22-25, Balaam created a plan to get God’s people away from worshiping Him. He used sexual immorality and intermarrying Israelites with heathen cultures. This intermarrying led to pagan belief systems being introduced into families.
This has led to people eating things sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. Referring back to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, this was something that was forbidden to Christian communities.
Then there is the New Testament reference of what God has against this church. The Nicolatians are mentioned as something people are holding onto. Nicolatians were the New Testament example of Balaam and Balak. This reference goes back to Nicholas in Acts 6 who was a deacon and then left the faith and became apostate.
And churches today have people who are following the ways of Balaam and Nicholas.
So what is the answer? How do we correct this problem?
Revelation 2:16 – Therefore repent! Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and fight against them with the sword of My mouth.
Verse 16 lays it out perfectly, “Repent!”
Repentance is more than just breaking down into tears and coming to grips with your evil tendencies. Repentance is completely turning around away from the sin.
And note that God is not going to hurt those who are following the faith, even if they are tolerant of evil. No. Jesus says that if the church doesn’t repent and start taking care of business, then Jesus, Himself, would come back and fight them directly.
1 Corinthians 5 tells us that a little leaven does what? It leavens the entire thing. We cannot tolerate evil in any form. We cannot compromise on that. The church is not designed for unbelievers. It is designed for the saints of God to hold the truth and worship God. Then, as Romans 10 tells us, unbelievers will hear the Word and by hearing it will be saved.
The church cannot be a place where unbelievers feel safe or secure. Unbelievers need to feel uncomfortable coming into our churches. Yes, we need to make the church a place that reaches out to unbelievers in love, but we cannot give them a false security that they belong in the church until they know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The leaders of the church of Christ need to judge sin.
So if the church in Pergamum overcomes, what will happen? According to verse 17, they will receive manna and a white stone.
The manna is a reference to Christ, the bread of life.
The stone is more of a mystery. But there are some hints that we can follow. Whenever someone was victorious in the games at that time in history the victor would receive a white stone. This stone allowed them entrance into the after party for those who were victorious. Could this stone be the entrance ticket to heaven?
So our churches are not made to compromise. We are made to purely follow Christ and His Word. We need to maintain the spiritual purity that God has called the church to have.
Revelation 2:17 – Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.