Two weeks ago we look at the first letter written to the church at Ephesus. We looked at the fact that they were able to discern those who were apostles and those who weren’t. They had a great handle on what the gospel of Jesus and was able to know when the gospel was being twisted and distorted, like by the Nicoletians. But the thing that they had against them was the fact that they had lost their first love. They lost the fact that the gospel that they had a great grasp on, was really all about love. Love of God and love of others. And if they had lost that, then they really didn’t have a grasp on the gospel. They were so concerned with right belief, but it didn’t lead to right behavior (love) so to me it wasn’t right belief.
Last week we looked at the second letter written to the church at Smyrna. We looked at the idea that this small group of followers of Jesus were facing trials and suffering and persecution. That they didn’t bow to the threat of punishment, whether that meant prison or death. And that God walked with them through that persecution because he went through it to and came out the other side. He lived, died, and was resurrected. He came out the other side victorious.
This week we tackle the third letter to the third church in Revelation. The letter to the church at Pergamum. The letter found in Revelation 2:12-17. “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”
So let’s unpack some things about the church at Pergamum and see what it might have to say to us 2,000 years later.
First, let’s do some contextual work looking at the city of Pergamum, which will help us understand the letter to the church there a whole lot better.
Pergamum was never really an important city until it became an independent kingdom of the Attalids after Alexander the great. But it’s importance really look off when the last King of Pergamum willed it upon his death to the Roman Empire in 133 BC. It wasn’t a great trading place due to it’s location 15 miles inland. But what it lacked in commerce, it made up in various other ways. One of those ways was related to a great library in Pergamum that was said to house over 200,000 parchments and the word parchment itself is derived from the name of the city. But probably the most known and greatest asset that the city had was in relation to “religion”. It was a city full of religious beliefs, temples, and idols to gods, goddesses, and people who crowned themselves as gods.
People came from all over Asia Minor to be “healed” by the god Asclepius. It was also described by some as the Lourdes of the ancient world. Lourdes being a place in France known as a place of pilgrimage (Mostly because of supposed sightings and experiences with the “Virgin Mary”). There were temples to Zeus, Dionysis and Athene. But probably one of the biggest “religions”, if you will, in all of Pergamum was in relation to the imperial cult. It was the center of Emperor/Caesar worship and had a temple to Rome as early as 29 BC and added two more later. They took their worship of the emperor seriously and was the principal center for imperial cult worship in this part of the world. There were also a plethora of heathen temples as well.
With that background let’s look deeper into the text found in Revelation 2:12-17. In verse 12 we read these words describing the risen Jesus, “These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” These words can be also found in verse 16 of chapter 1 which is a total description of the risen Christ that John then refers back to in all his letters to the churches. Verse 16 of chapter 1 says, “coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword”. This picture of the risen Jesus with a sharp-double edged sword coming out of his mouth also appears in Revelation 19:15. In a city devoted to the Roman Empire as Pergamum and home to many imperial leaders who would possess the power to bring the power of the Roman Empire and the power of the sword down on anyone who dissented, John in contrasting the sword of the empire and the sword of the Kingdom of God, being the power of the word of God to change lives and change the world as well as what Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God can do, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The Roman empire and it’s emperor my wield a sword but Jesus has his own. Not to fight violence with violence but to cut through half-heartedly faith and spirituality. And that is done by the word of God.
In verse 13 we read, “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.” This letter is written to Christians who lived in the city of Pergamum. The word live means that Christians weren’t just passing through. This was their home and they had to face these difficulties to the end.
What does it mean when Jesus (through John) says that Satan has his throne there, and the idea that Satan lives in the city of Pergamum? There are, I believe, 3 different possibilities for what John is getting at in reference to Satan, his throne and the connection to the city of Pergamum. The first one relates to the worship of the god Asclepius whose symbol was a serpent. The second possibility is that John is referring to the altar of Zeus. The third, and I believe, best possibility of what John is getting at here in this verse relates to the idea of the Emperor and Imperial Cult and the fact that Pergamum was the seat of Roman government in the whole region as well as the fact that emperor worship, as I had mentioned before, was so pervasive.
So let’s take a look now at what they are to be commended for and what they are to be criticized for. We find both of these things in the second half of verse 13 through verse 16 which says, “Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
The thing that they are commended for is the fact that even in the midst of trials and persecution and in the midst of emperor worship, the believers at Pergamum didn’t renounce their faith in Jesus. Even when their brother in the Lord Antipas was put to death for his faith in Jesus. Not much is known about Antipas although legend has it that he was roasted in a brazen bull. And so in the midst of that season of persecution they didn’t deny Jesus. They remained faithful.
But at the same time that they remained faithful, there were some who held to the teaching of Balaam and some who held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans (unlike those in Ephesus who knew that the Nicolaitans weren’t teaching the gospel). This reference to Balaam is referring to the story of Balaam in the Old Testament (Numbers 31). The allusion here is spelled out with the reference to Balaam’s teaching of Balak to entice the Israelites to sin. And what were the sins that not only the Israelites fell into in relation to Balaam’s teaching but also in relation to what was taking place in Pergamum? According to Leon Morris in his Revelation commentary here is what the issue was “Two points are singled out, the eating of food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. It is possible that the former refers to meat which had been first been offered to idols and was then sold on the open market and the latter to sexual sins in general. but it is more likely that both refer to idolatrous practices. Feating on sacrificial meat and licentious conduct were usual accompaniments of the worship of idols, both in Old and New Testament times.”
Jesus through John calls on the church at Pergamum to repent or otherwise he will fight against them using the sword in his mouth. And now before you think this is a picture of Jesus putting aside his non-violent, enemy loving life to get violent, this is another picture of the power of the word of God. Jesus clearly means the words that he speaks has the power to either comfort us or confront us.
The ending of the letter is the exhortation to the church at Pergamum which is found in verse 17 which says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” What does hidden manna mean and what does getting a white stone with a new name written on it? Hidden manna is a reference no doubt to the manna that came down from heaven to sustain the Israelites in the wilderness during the Exodus out of Egypt. There may be an allusion to the Jewish idea that when the temple was destroyed that the prophet Jeremiah hid the pot which contained the manna that was in the Holy of Holies and that when the Messiah came it would reappear.
And regarding the white stone with a new name on it, there are more than 7 different possible understandings. I won’t go into all of them but here are the two that I found most possible and most intriguing. The first one is that there was a custom in the ancient near east, and in Pergamum of guests being given a stone with their name on it as a ticket to admission. Connects with being given entrance into the Kingdom of God. The second one, especially fitting to the issue that the believers were facing in Pergamum that some wanted to blend in and not drawn attention to themselves, and tried to compromise in some areas as not to bring the sword of the Roman empire down on them. You see Pergamum’s great buildings were made from from local black stone. When people wanted to put up inscriptions, they obtained white marble on which to carve them. This was then attached to the side of the building. And so a white marble inscription on the side of a black building would stand out all the more clearly. And so Jesus, through John, was calling the follower of Jesus to stand out more clearly. To not blend in. To not play it safe. To not compromise with the Roman Empire but to follow Jesus with everything and like a city set on a hill, or a light in the darkness.
So what does the letter to the church at Pergamum have to do with us gathered together here in Lancaster? What might be the areas of compromise that we as individuals and as a church are making so as not to stand out? Where have we lost the “cutting edge”? Our ability to say no to surrounding culture? What other applications to our lives and church can this text speak to us about? These are some of the questions that we’ll unpack together.
1. What thoughts, questions, insights, comments, applications, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture text and/or the message?
2. The church at Pergamum is sometimes called the compromising church. That they compromised to not draw attention to themselves. Where do we tend to compromise with the world? Where have we lost our “cutting edge” and our ability to say no to the surrounding culture?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?