MESSAGE TO PERGAMUM
Pergamum (KJV, Pergamos) was the capital of the province of Asia and was located in the Caicus Valley. It was the capital until 133 B.C. when the last of the Pergamum kings gave over the kingdom to Rome. This city subsequently became the first site for a temple to be build to the worship of Caesar. The temple was a commemoration to Rome and Augustus Caesar in 29 B.C. A second temple was later built and dedicated to Trajan.
Pergamum was a center for pagan worship. Worship of Asklepius and Zeus were principle gods that found their seat of worship in this city. The symbol of Asklepius was the serpent. This symbol was so prevalent that it was on Pergamum coinage. One coin pictured Caracalla saluting a serpent. The Pergamum citizens were obsessed with the image of the serpent. Because politics and religion functioned jointly in Pergamum, the cult of the Nicolaitans flourished in this region. Because of this close relationship between politics and religion, there was a great deal of pressure on Christians to compromise their faith by giving allegiance to Caesar as lord. When they did not in the years that followed the Revelation message, great persecution ensued.
With the ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt, the city of Pergamum housed a comparable library in the ancient world. It was a library that was composed of books that were written on paper made from the Papyrus plant of the Nile River in Egypt. Because Egypt maintained a monopoly on the production of papyrus writing material, parchment as a writing material made from leather, was eventually invented in Pergamum. We owe a great deal to this city because of the invention of parchment. Many great manuscripts of the Bible were preserved for us today because copies of the books of the Bible were written on parchment.
A. Word from the two-edged sword:
Since the phrase, “sharp two-edged sword” is a metaphor to refer to the word of God, then the power of Christ to attack the Balaamites and Nicolaitans was the word of God (See Ep 6:17; Hb 4:12). And indeed it would not be a happy situation to be at war with the Son of God through His word. If one finds himself in conflict with the “sharp two-edged sword,” then he knows that he has already lost the battle. When sincere Bible-loving people find themselves in conflict with the sword of the Spirit, they will immediately surrender upon learning a new truth. Those who do not are not sincere, but rebellious against all that God would teach through His word. In Pergamum, there were “Balaamites” and “Nicolaitans” whom the Son of God hated because of their teaching and immoral behavior. The picture that Jesus gives in His introduction to these disciples is that He is at war with His word against all who would teach error.
The lesson that is vividly clear from Jesus’ introduction to these disciples is that if one is going to deal with Jesus, he will have to deal with His word. Jesus had stated during His ministry, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly My disciples” (Jn 8:31). With the sword of the Spirit, Jesus is “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places” (Ep 6:12). If one is not engaged against these powers of error with the word of Jesus, then he is not a disciple of Jesus.
B. Words of tough times:
It is always reassuring that Jesus knows our labors. Not only this, but he recognizes our labors under hard circumstances, for where the disciples dwelt in Pergamum, it was not easy being a Christian. It could be said that they labored under great duress. It was as someone said, “It is not success that God rewards, but faithfulness in doing His will.” Another tried Christian correctly said,
A brick is made of clay;
So is a man.
A brick is square and plumb and true;
So a man ought to be.
A brick is useless until it has been through fire;
So is a man.
A brick is not showy as marble,
but is more useful;
Man is not made to be showy,
but to serve.
A brick fulfills its purpose only by becoming a part of something greater than itself;
The same is true of a man.
When a man fulfills this description,
he has a right to be called a brick.
The poem reminds us of Ephesians 6:10: “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.”
The better we understand the environment in which the early Christians lived in the seven cities, the better we will identify with their hardships. The social environment in which the Christians in Pergamum lived was very hostile to Christian faith. Rome became a political/religious state. Caesar was the lord, and all subjects of the Empire were to reverence him as lord. Those who did not were considered insurrectionists. Antipas was evidently one of the first Christians to suffer martyrdom because he would not bow down to a self-proclaimed deity of a political/religious state that demanded total allegiance. Regardless of the threat of death, Antipas would not live contrary to that which he believed. He was willing to trust that his Lord Jesus would carry him through into eternity. Since this world is only a momentary breath of existence for Christians, then those who make war against Christianity only transition members of the body on to their objective through martyrdom.
We have always thought the old preacher’s story of the man who walked across a canyon on a tight rope something that well illustrated many soft Christians of today. After the tightrope walker had completed his successful walk across the canyon, one overenthusiastic spectator was overjoyed, and said to the tightrope walker, “That was just unbelievable! It was amazing! Spectacular!” The tightrope walker replied, “Well, do you think I could do that with a man on my shoulders?” The enthusiastic spectator answered, “You did it so well, I believe you could.” The tightrope walker said, “Well, get on!” Spectator, “Ah ………..” After the spectator caught his breath, the he turned to the audience and asked, “Is there anyone out there who would like to ride across the canyon on the shoulders of the tightrope walker?” Jesus walked the tightrope. He asks for us to climb on His shoulders (See Rv 17:14).
The Greek word that is used in this text for martyr is martus. Some believe that this was the beginning of the use of this word for those who would be martyrs for their faith. But in the context, it was originally used to refer to a Christian who died for his faith. Every other faith has plagiarized the word, especially those of non-Christian religions whose adherents would die for their faiths.
The phrase “Satan dwells” identifies the religious environment in which the disciples lived in Pergamum. Jesus’ use of this phrase means that where Christianity does not dwell, Satan dwells. Satan, therefore, dwells among men through those who do not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Any non-Christian environment would be a place where Satan dwells.
B. Words of condemnation:
Jesus’ words of judgment of the disciples in Pergamum would make one sit up straight in his seat (Rv 2:3,4). Some of the disciples were harboring those who taught two abominations in reference to belief and behavior.
1. The teaching of Balaam: Balaam was a prophet of God until he was tempted with money to curse the coming Israelites (See Nm 22:7). This condemnation is based on the fact that he taught King Balak “to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit fornication” (Rv 2:14). Balaam received the price of a hireling preacher in order to preach that which was asked by those who supported him. Balaam sold his ministry to anyone who would pay him a salary. Barak wanted the curse of God to come upon the Israelites, so he went looking for a preacher who would teach that which would cause God to rain down judgment upon the people. When preachers are in the ministry for financial gain, they will preach what their supporters demand. And often, they will not preach truth that runs people away who have no interest in the truth (See 2 Tm 4:1-4). Could this be the same apostasy that was described by both Peter and Jude when they wrote of the sin of Balaam prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70? (See 2 Pt 2:15; Jd 11).
It is interesting that the serpent became an idol symbol of the pagan religionists of Pergamum. When Israel complained against God on their way to the land of promise, God sent serpents among the people to bite and kill the complainers (Nm 21:6-9). Moses made a bronze serpent and put it upon a pole. Everyone who looked on it lived (Nm 21:9). In the religious culture of Pergamum, however, anyone who would compromise with what the serpent stood for would spiritually die. Moses presented an opportunity to live with the symbol of the serpent. The false teachers presented the symbol as an opportunity to die. God will simply not allow His people to compromise their moral behavior through fornication, or His teachings through fellowship with idolatrous beliefs.
2. The Teachings of the Nicola-itans: This is the second time this cult is noted in the messages of Jesus (Rv 2:6). The Nicolaitans were also in the city of Ephesus, which means that their teachings were scattered throughout the region of western Asia Minor. It is significant to note here that Jesus said that some “hold the teaching.” Jesus is very serious about what we believe, for it is erroneous beliefs that lead us to do those things that are contrary to moral behavior. And about this teaching, Jesus said, “which thing I hate” (Rv 2:15). Jesus hates certain teachings. He loves all men, but hates those teachings that corrupted good moral behavior.
From this exhortation we know why Christians study their Bibles with zeal. They do not want to be ignorantly believing a teaching that Jesus hates. If one would fear the judgment to come, then certainly he should check everything he believes with the words of Jesus, just in case he believes something that Jesus will eventually reveal that He hated. It is because of these two statements of Jesus in verses 6 and 15 that we study our Bibles. It is as a young granddaughter asked her grandmother why she read her Bible every day. The grandmother responded, “I’m just studying for the final.”
It is significant to note that the Greek word “hold” (kpateiv) that is used in 2:15 means “to hold fast.” In other words, the attitudes of those who believed the teaching of the Nicolaitans were so dogmatic that they would by no means give up the teaching. They were going to believe the teaching regardless of what scripture might be found to prove that the teaching was erroneous. It is for this reason that we might assume that the Nicolaitans promoted some teaching that led to immoral behavior. These disciples were caught up in something that had caught hold of their moral behavior. The faithful disciples could do nothing about it, since the “Nicolaitan disciples” were so dogmatic about their immoral behavior. We learn from their dogmatic spirit that error is not proven to be truth simply because one is dogmatic about his error.
C. Words of war:
When one holds a teaching that Jesus hates, then one should expect war. Jesus encouraged the faithful disciples who stood against the “Nicolaitan disciples” that “I will fight against them with the sword of My mouth” (Rv 2:16). The war would break out if the “Nicolaitan disciples” did not repent of their belief and behavior, for Jesus knew that if this infestation of sin was not eradicated from the fellowship of the faithful, it would force the removal of the flickering lampstand from Pergamum. It seems that Jesus lost this battle, for His conflict with sinful teachings is through the medium of faithful disciples who know and can effectively use the sword of the Spirit (Ep 6:17). If the faithful disciples become ignorant of the word of Jesus, then they have lost the battle for Jesus. We must never forget what the Spirit said in another context to the saints in a city a few kilometers away from Pergamum:
Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places (Ep 6:11,12).
This exhortation was given to the disciples over in Ephesus, for the Spirit knew that the teaching and behavior of the Nicolaitans was coming, if not already in Ephesus in A.D. 61,62 when Paul wrote the above message. It was an insidious teaching, against which the disciples needed special encouragement to stand against, both through letter and vision. But because the disciples dropped the sword of the Spirit through their ignorance of the word of God, they lost the battle for Jesus.
When disciples allow sinful behavior to remain within the fellowship of the body, the whole body is affected. Such was allowed to happen for a period of time among the disciples in Achaia ( See 1 Co 5:1,2). There was fornication among the disciples. They had failed to purge out this leaven from among themselves. So Paul exercised his right as a Christ-sent apostle and said to all of them,
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are assembled, and with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Co 5:4,5).
Paul had written to the Christians in Achaia that they not associate with anyone who was a fornicator (1 Co 5:11). His instruction was to “put away the wicked person from among yourselves” (1 Co 5:13). And such should Christians do in reference to any fornicator who would seek to remain in fellowship with the church. But in the case of the fellowship of the disciples throughout the city of Pergamum, they had a similar problem, but the problem had evidently become so common, that the faithful brethren had little influence over the matter. But in reference to moral sin among the fellowship of the disciples, it must always be as the Chinese proverb, “Master easy, servant slack.” Their Master in heaven was not being slack with His servants in the Pergamum church. Discipline was going to be enacted. If the faithful were not vigilant about these matters, the whole fellowship will be corrupted. And if the fellowship was corrupted, then puff.
D. Word of promise:
Again Jesus used the word “overcome” to define the fact that Christians are in a spiritual struggle against the spiritual host of wickedness. For those who would overcome in this spiritual conflict, there were two promises given:
1. The hidden manna: During His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of the manna that came down out of heaven to preserve Israel from death throughout their wilderness wanderings (Jn 6:27-32). He metaphorically applied the literal manna from heaven to Himself. “For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (Jn 6:33). During His ministry, the Jews to whom Jesus said these words did not understand. They could not get their minds off the literal and on the spiritual meaning of the metaphor. So Jesus explained further, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me will never hunger. And He who believes in Me will never thirst” (Jn 6:35). Because of the hardness of their hearts, the audience of religious leaders to whom Jesus spoke these words could not find in them the truth that Jesus was the “hidden manna” (bread) that came down out of heaven to give life.
We would take Jesus’ definition of the bread from heaven in John 6 to the context of Revelation 2:17. The bread of life is hidden only from those who have no hunger for it. When one has no hunger for Jesus, then certainly Jesus cannot bring eternal life into his existence, for he will not do what Jesus says is necessary to have life. Those who are bent on living the immoral life are not looking around for any words of condemnation concerning their life-style. And so, the manna of life will always be hidden from those who seek to live after their own lusts.
2. The white stone: The Jewish disciples understood the symbolism of this metaphor perfectly. Stones in Jewish history represented different things. Because the stone in this context represented the object upon which was written a name, then the stone represented that name. On the breastplate of the high priest of Israel, there were twelve stones. Each stone represented one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
In this context it is a white stone. White represents holiness, glory and purity (See 1 Pt 2:5,9). The new name written on the stone would be explained further in the message to the disciples in Philadelphia:
He who overcomes, I will make a pillar in the temple of My God …. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name (Rv 3:12).
And then again the 144,000, which number is representative of the people of God in the Old Testament era and the people of God after the cross, are named before God. On these “His name and His Father’s name” are “written on their foreheads” (Rv 14:1). And finally, another explanation in reference to the finality of all things and the salvation of the saints: “They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads” (Rv 22:4).
In the message to the disciples in Pergamum, Jesus simply begins the identity of the people of God that will be revealed through the book. Christians are identified by being named. The fact that the “new name written that no one knows except he who receives it” is not the nonsense of some who suppose that this is a “secret name.” In this case, it is Jesus who gives the name, not the one who receives it. We must understand this in the historical context of the persecution of Christians by those who claimed that they were religious before their pagan idol gods. These persecuting idolaters were doing the will of their god by persecuting those they believed were against their god. In the historical martyr of Antipas in Pergamum, those who martyred the faithful Christian were doing the will of their gods. They did not believe that Antipas was actually claimed (named) by the one true and living God in which he believed. His murderers believe that his God was a false god. They did not know this God because they had created a god after their own imagination. They were thus doing the will of their god by martyring the one who was named by the true God.
The One who has numbered the hairs of every Christian’s head (Mt 10:30), knows those He has named. The rest of the unbelieving world may not know the special relationship the baptized believer has with God, but the relationship is there and will result in eternal glory when they overcome.
Jesus was giving the disciples in Pergamum the opportunity to hear and obey His instructions. If they did not, then puff. The flickering flame would be gone.
[Schedule for next Lecture: March 18]