“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.”‘ (NKJV)
1. The City of the Epistle, 2:12.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, and a period of struggle, his empire was divided among four of his generals. Two of them, and their successors, are the kings “of the north” and “of the south” mentioned in Daniel 11. Another general took Asia Minor, the area of the seven churches in Revelation. This dynasty of Greek rulers centered in Pergamos, making it a royal city, and their luxurious living raised that city to the rank of “First of Asia” as regards splendor. Thus Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamos vied for, and claimed, the title of “First,” although for different reasons.
Pergamous was famous for several things. Among them were the magnificent temples of Zeus, Athena, Apollo and Aesculapius, who was the god of healing. His symbol was the caduceus, entwined serpents of a staff of wood, the symbol of medicine to this day. His temple was a sort of Lourdes of its day and people came from all over to be healed. Pergamos was also the birthplace of Galen, who is second only to Hippocrates in medical history. His voluminous, if somewhat inaccurate, writings were authoritative into the Dark Ages.
In addition, Pergamos was noted for the invention of parchment, probably as a result of the impressive library which was there, which rivaled the one in Alexandria, Egypt. It also enjoyed the distinction of having the very first temple dedicated to emperor worship, built for Augustus in 29 BC. There were many others built in other cities, and even others in this city, but Pergamos had the first one. It was, therefore, sort of a “cathedral city” for emperor worship. Moreover, it was the center of Roman provincial government.
The name “Pergamos” seems to have two meanings: high and lofty, and marriage. Thus the church at Pergamos seems to foreshadow that period of time beginning with the conversion of Constantine, thus ending the persecutions, but entering the church into an uneasy marriage with the world which saw it lose its true purpose and power to become engulfed in a quest for political power and prestige.
At its beginning, Christianity was tolerated by Rome because it was viewed as just another weird Jewish belief. When it became evident that even the Jews hated the sect of the Nazarene, that toleration ceased and varying degrees of persecution began, which lasted about three centuries. Then Constantine arrived on the scene. Christianity was never to be the same.
The “conversion” of Constantine is well-known, how he says he saw a vision in the sky of a shining cross with the words “hoc signo vinces” (“By this you shall conquer”) written across it. Facing an important battle at the time, he took this to mean that, in this new sign, he would be victorious. He was. (By way of irony, his motto was for a time on a certain brand of cigarettes.)
Eventually, Constantine became emperor and took his belief with him. At first, he simply made Christianity legal, thus stopping generations of persecution. It was alright if you wanted to be a Christian, but other religions were ok, too. Eventually, though, he made it official, that is, it was the only allowable religion.
Over the years, Rome came severely to persecute true believers, those who refused to go along with it, wanting simply to live by the Scriptures and not as “the church” insisted. This was also a practice followed for a long time by the Reformers against the Anabaptists and other dissidents, whose beliefs one Lutheran writer described as “dangerous propaganda.” (Charles M. Jacobs, The Story of the Church, pp. 216, 217. This was my church history textbook in college. The Anabaptists weren’t without flaws, true, some serious, but they were mainly despised because they refused infant baptism and rebaptized those who had been sprinkled as infants, after they professed faith in Christ. Hence “anabaptist: “rebaptizer”.) Though they no longer murder dissenters, that attitude can sometimes still be seen among Reformed writers in their views on certain subjects.
More importantly, Constantine used the Empire as a pattern for how things were to be done. Granted, the idea of how the church was to be organized had developed and changed since the time of the apostles; he just put the final touches on it. Gone was the NT idea that the local church was independent and self-governing; it now became just a tiny part of an enormous religious monolith, with Constantine as its head, and Rome as its headquarters. While there was some adherence to Biblical teaching for a time, (it was during this time that the Arian controversy was settled,) this gradually came to be almost completely replaced by a continually evolving Roman dogma. It did indeed become an extensive and impressive “religion,” with towering church buildings, lavish and impressive ritual, and an overwhelming and authoritarian hierarchy, but all of this has little to do with Scripture, which itself has largely been replaced by Papal decree and “official” church dogma. What little of it that’s left must be held in agreement with how the church “interprets” it.
It’s not supposed to be about adherence to any particular organization: Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Reformed, or any other, but about faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. In everything, He is to have the preeminence, Colossians 1:18.
2. Christ of the Epistle 2:12.
He who has the sharp two-edged sword.
This referred to the usual sharp-pointed double-edged sword of the Roman army. It was also a symbol in that army of a certain level of authority. Roman officials were divided into two classes: those who had the power of life or death, and those who did not. The sword was the symbol of this greater authority. In this way, the Lord presents Himself to the church as having life and death authority, authority He possesses in a higher sense than Rome ever dreamed of.
He would remind us that there is no earthly power which supercedes His, no authority which can annul His own. We are certainly commanded to be good citizens, Romans 13:1-7, but if push comes to shove in a contest between this world and our Lord’s teachings, then our Lord must have the preeminence. Cf. Acts 4:19. And remember, Romans 13 was written by a man who lived at the height of the Roman Empire and was not afraid to assert his rights as a citizen.
Our Lord would strengthen the believers of Pergamos against the fear of the human sword by the greater fear of His own sword. Also, He would remind them of His power against His, and their, enemies. The Lord did not want His people to forget Him in the midst of troubles.
3. Contents of the Epistle, vs. 13-17.
– A reference to their perilous position, v. 13.
The letter to Smyrna emphasized their sufferings, so the Lord said, “I know your tribulation.” The letter to Pergamos emphasized their situation as being in the very seat of the Roman government in Asia, hence in a place of special danger, so Jesus said, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.”
The citizens at Pergamos were known as “chief temple-keepers of Asia.” A Babylonian cult called the Magians, being driven out of Babylon, found a haven in Pergamos. The title of the Magian High Priest was “Chief Bridge Builder,” meaning the one who spans the gap between mortals and Satan and his hosts. It was acknowledged as the highest priestly office in paganism and was a title held by Roman Emperors, including Constantine, who kept it. In Latin, this title is Pontifex Maximus. (Who, today, bears that title?)
“you hold fast to My name.”
The Lord commends His people for their faithfulness to His name in the very center of the worship of the emperor’s name. This is especially important in view of the problems in the church with some who seem to have wanted to compromise with that worship. We note that it wasn’t the name of the church or the name of the pastor which was lifted up, but the name of the Lord Jesus. Baptists aren’t the only ones who emphasize a denominational name, instead of that of the Lord Jesus. And how many pastors, etc., want to “make a name” for themselves? As a young man, I worked for a pastor who required that my car carry a sign urging people to “hear (his name).” There were some wonderful people in that church and I was privileged to know and work among them, but they were woefully untaught in the things of God.
It’s still true that not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends, 2 Corinthians 10:18.
– A Rebuke of Their Perverse Practices, vs. 14, 15.
1. the doctrine of Balaam, v. 14. Cf. Numbers 22-25. Balaam was the one who taught Balak to seduce Israel by tempting them to break God’s law against idolatry and immorality. It seems there were some in the church at Pergamos who saw nothing wrong with going to pagan temples, where gross immorality was part of their “worship.” Perhaps it was simply to escape persecution, perhaps merely to make it easier to make a living in that world of pervasive paganism. When religion was ungodly, Satan persuaded men that it ought to affect every part of their lives. Now that Christ has revealed the true religion, which is to make men holy, Satan persuades men to limit it to an hour or so on Sunday.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, who had a similar problem, that they were not to have fellowship with demons, 1 Corinthians 10:20. We’re to separate from all sorts of falsehood, regardless of the reasons given for it. Some of the believers at Pergamos seem to have forgotten this.
2. the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, v. 15. What was isolated deeds in Ephesus, 2:6, was doctrine or practice in Pergamos. In a city as government-oriented as Pergamos, such a development perhaps is not surprising, But again, we see Satanic contradiction. In the state, which is to govern men, we find a rebellion against authority and the desire to be free of all restraint, while in the church, which is to be self-governing and independent, we see the development of great denominational structures which drown out the voice and vote of the local assembly. Constantine was probably as responsible for this as anyone because he made it fashionable, even mandatory, to be a “Christian” and gave the bishops great position and power.
– A Repetition of a Peremptory Prerequisite, v. 16.
It’s not enough that things are done because everyone is doing it, or that’s how we’ve always done it. Things must be done in according with the Word of God. Granted, there’s a lot in our world that the Word says nothing about, for example, the laptop on which I write these words or the car out in the driveway. I don’t think that means that God expects us to go back to laborious hand-copying of things on parchment or riding on donkeys and camels. It isn’t so much what something is, as how it’s used. For example: again, the computer. A marvelous invention, yet the most popular websites are pornographic. Because of that, should we get rid of all computers? 1 Corinthians 10:31 is still true, Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
Concluding some instructions covering various situation in life, Paul also wrote, and those who use this world as not misusing it, 1 Corinthians 7:31. We have to live in this world, but we’re not supposed to forget that we’re going to have to live in the next one, as well.
Christ wants us to clear out the “leaven” of this world in our worship and service of Him. He tells the church to repent.
– A Revelation of Precious Promises, v. 17.
1. Again, the promise isn’t made to every professed believer, but only to those who “overcome.” Now, this doesn’t mean some sort of perfection, or some sort of exclusive “club” which only the very best are able to join. It means those who are faithful to the Lord Himself, not just to some church or other organization.
2. the rewards.
There’s a lot of discussion about what these various things mean. Based on the circumstances of each church and letter, here’s what we think.
– the hidden manna. Believers have a source of nourishment and strength this world knows nothing about and can do nothing either to supplement or hinder. This is a promise of “resource.”
– a white stone. – a “tessara”. Such stones seem to have had several uses. The one relevant to Pergamos was probably the judicial one. A black stone indicated guilt; a white stone, innocence. The believers at Pergamos, and other believers, were being found guilty of atheism because they refused to offer incense to the Emperor’s statue. Our Lord says He finds the overcomer innocent, regardless of what men might say. This is a promise of reconciliation, that those who once were enemies of God and rebels against His rule are now His servants, yes, even become His children, as we see in the final promise.
– a new name. This idea occurs a couple of other times in Scripture. Perhaps the best known is Paul, whose name originally was Saul. There’s an example of this in the Old Testament, as well. In Isaiah 62:4, Israel is given a new name. In both cases, this change signifies a change in relationship, a permanent and irrevocable change.
To this church, who lived in constant danger of losing their lives, our Lord promises everlasting life
We also have been given exceedingly great and precious promises, 2 Peter 1:4.