Pergamum was the third of the seven churches to which John was directed to write. Pergamum was the political capital of the Roman province of Asia. The governor of the province, which included the territory where the seven churches were located, resided there. He alone had the authority to inflict capital punishment. Lower courts in the cities could inflict lesser punishments such as exile, confiscation, fines, and flogging, When it was determined that the crime deserved the death penalty, the case was forwarded to the governor in Pergamum who had the power of the sword.
Pergamum had numerous shrines to pagan deities. There was a massive temple dedicated to Asclepius the god of healing, whose symbol was a pair of twisted snakes and the wings of the god Hermes, which is today the symbol of the medical profession. People came from over the world to seek healing there. Numerous large testimony stones have been unearthed with people’s names on it, what they were healed of, and a praise to Asclepius for providing healing.
Pergamum also had a huge temple built to Zeus, the “King of the Gods” with a large throne like altar. There also was a temple to the goddess Athena, and Demeter, the goddess who provided for food, and Dionysius, the god of wine and debauchery, whose worship was so depraved that the even the Romans for a time forbid his worship in Rome as a danger to public morality.
The city of Pergamum was an early adopter of Emperor Worship as well as the worship of Rome herself. It was the first city in Asia to erect a temple to an emperor who was still alive as a god. Offering incense to Caesar was considered to be the duty of a good citizen. Those who refused to do so were looked upon with great suspicion. If this refusal also advocated a rival loyalty to an alternate culture such as the Christian’s worship of Jesus, then it was considered as an act of treason punishable by death.
Although Pergamum was not the economic power that Ephesus had, it surpassed it in culture. It boasted of the second largest library in the world to Alexandria. Parchment was invented there as an alternative to Egyptian papyrus. Parchment was much more durable, and this was the material which preserved the New Testament.
There were Jews who had lived in Pergamum, and they would have been exempted by Roman privilege from worshiping the Emperor. However, they had been the victims of confiscation of their funds which were supposed to go to the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus does not directly allude to their opposition to the church in Pergamum as he does with Smyrna and Philadelphia. Rather, the pressure here seems to have come from the Romans and the citizens of Pergamum proper.
Exposition of the Text
The oracle to the church at Pergamum is introduced in the same manner as the previous chapters. As each church’s message refers back to a part of the description of the vision John had of the exalted Jesus, the part that Jesus directs the church at Pergamum’s attention to is the sharp two-edged sword coming from Jesus’ mouth. This would tell the believers there that the ultimate power of life and death did not reside in the Roman Governor who could speak the word of a death sentence, but in Jesus Himself. This would serve as a warning to the church that it would be far better for them to offend the governor if need be rather than to offend Jesus. The governor had power only over the first death, but Jesus has power over the far more terrible second death. The believer was encouraged by this to remain faithful to Jesus at all costs and not compromise. We do read elsewhere in Scripture to do our best to be law abiding citizens and to obey our leaders as well as strive to live at peace with all people. Peter says we should never suffer at the hand of the government for doing evil. However, there is a time that the Christian must suffer, if need be, for doing good. This desire to live peaceably cannot be at the expense of faithfulness to Christ. The believer is also reminded that this Jesus also speaks the word of eternal life, a sentence that more than nullifies the sentence of death spoken by the governor.
In verse 13, Jesus reminds the church that He is aware of how evil the city they dwell in is. In fact, Satan has his throne there. But just what about Pergamum makes it the throne of Satan? The problem is that there are so many good candidates. The temple dedicated to Asclepius would be a good choice. Their god was a snake. One can only think of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Another would be Demeter whose devotees would soak themselves in the blood of a slain bull. Dionysius with its drunken orgies would fit the bill. Cases could be made for Zeus and Athena as well. Or is it a reference to Emperor Worship? To fail to observe the worship of the Emperor could get you sent to the Proconsul’ s seat who represented the Emperor and who could sentence one to death. If one had to be picked from this group, the last one would be my choice. Otherwise, as many commentators have concluded, it was all of these as a whole.
Jesus commends the church for holding fast to the faith. When they were pressured to deny the claims of Jesus, they had steadfastly refused. One of them, Antipas, seems to have resisted to the point of execution. He is singled out by name and is even given the same title given to Jesus Himself. Like Jesus, Antipas was faithful in his testimony unto death. Jesus then again refers to the city as the place that Satan lives. It must have been a real challenge to be a witness for Christ there. Yet we are called to storm the gates of Hell itself. That this church did.
Up to this point, the church was doing quite well. That is, until we get to that strong Greek “but” in verse 14. Everything that the church was doing right was cancelled out by what it was doing wrong. Unlike the Ephesians who had tested its teachers and thrown out those whose teaching did not measure up, the Pergamites had allowed them to remain and continue their false teaching. These false teachers were doing what Balaam had advised Israel’s enemies to do. He was not allowed to curse them directly by the intervention of God though Balaam’s own donkey as well as future visions. Every time he tried to curse Israel, a blessing came out instead. Finally in desperation, he counseled that the best way to curse Israel was to get their God so mad at them that God would curse them Himself. So he told the enemy king Balak to invite Israel to a drunken feast with sexual immorality and probably worship of idols. This advice worked, and Israel was cursed.
So it seems pretty clear from this incident in the Book of Numbers what was going on here. The persecution of the church was not working. The church did not renounce (curse) Jesus, even threatened with death. When Satan saw this, he followed the advice given to Balaam. He smuggled false teachers into the unwary church. They apparently taught the way of compromise. Give God His due, and give the devil his due. Why not just try to get along. Why not go to the feasts of the other gods. One could reason that they weren’t gods anyway, so what was wrong with having a little fun. And it burning incense to Caesar would get the authorities off their back why not, so long as they did not worship Caesar in their hearts as a god. Couldn’t they just get along with people of other faiths? After all, weren’t they really worshiping the same god under different names?
The meat they were eating that was offered to idols was probably not that sold in the meat market after the sacrifice. The context makes it clear that these teachers were actually inviting the members of the congregation to actively participate in the pagan festivities which also involved immorality.
Jesus would have none of this. He as Yahweh in the Old Testament did not put up with it then, neither would He put up with it now. He sent prophets in the Old Testament to speak the word of the LORD to Israel, to command them to repent, or else. Here, Jesus Himself warns the believers at Pergamum to repent immediately, or else! Jesus who has the two edged sword in His mouth would speak the sentence of death against those who did not repent. They had a lot more to fear than the local governor. Jesus was about to go to war against them. In the Old Testament the challenge as given “Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel”. In other words, prepare to meet God on the field of battle which would be suicide. It would in the same manner be suicidal for the church members here that did not repent. I would suppose the first step in this repentance was to cast the false teachers out of the church.
In verse 17, the command for the church is to listen to the message of the Spirit. This is followed by words of comfort and promise if they would repent and do what was right. To those who overcome is first given the promise of the hidden manna. This means God would provide for them. They did not have to Pagan temples for food. Demeter was not the one who provided the harvest. They were also to receive a white stone from the Lord. As part of a jury trial, a white stone stood for acquittal and a black stone was the vote of death. By Jesus offering a white stone, He was offering them life, even if the proconsul showed them the black stone of death. Or perhaps we can think of the inscribed testimony stones erected to Asclepius. It is Jesus who heals, not Satan.
We cannot be sure what is meant by the secret named inscribed on the stone means. But it would have meant something to the hearers.
Does God have different standards for us, than He did for Ancient Israel and the church of Pergamum? We know that the Scripture teaches us that God does not change. If so, then the warnings given to the church at Pergamum are just as valid to the church today. From what we have seen so far in the churches of Revelation we have examined is that God expects faithfulness from His people, even under intense pressure. This is evidenced in doctrinal and moral purity. When we look at the church today, we see all kinds of people who call themselves teachers. Is the message they bring line up to the Word of God?
We have many who call themselves prophets and apostles today. They claim to have a message from the Spirit. And looking at their teaching, we can only conclude is that either the Bible is wrong, God has changed, or that the message from the Spirit trumps what the Word says. Or we must conclude that the teachers are false teachers. The danger from the inside as we have noted is always greater than that outside. The Devil by corrupting the church tempts God to curse it. He is unable to destroy the church from the outside. Times of persecution have only served as fertilizer for the church.
We as a church need to challenge the teaching that is going on in our church today. The word of the church today is to accommodate to the world, which is nothing more than surrender. Those who claim that we need to change the message and accommodate ourselves to the world’s culture so that we can offer Christ are simply deluding themselves and others. The question is not whether the message of the cross is relevant to today’s culture. It was a scandal in the cultured Greek world as much as it is today. The question is not to make the message relevant to the world. Rather it is to make people relevant to God who speaks the word of life and death. It is human wisdom and culture that is irrelevant in the eyes of God.
Indeed, at the final judgment, there will be one of two sentences pronounced by the one who has the sharp two-edged sword. One is “Enter into the joy of the Lord”. In other words, “You are relevant here”. The other sentence is “Depart from me! I never knew you”. In other words: “You are not relevant here”. Seeing then that the time is short, then we should spend our time here preparing for that day. This is no time to compromise.
Ancient Israel compromised and worshiped other gods at the same time as they claimed to worship Yahweh. Today, we do not directly serve gods of gold and silver. We just serve gold and silver as gods. We serve mammon and not God. We seek the praise that comes from men and not that which comes from God alone. We are more concerned about offending cultural norms that we are about offending God. When God’s people refuse to be faithful, they assimilate into the surrounding culture and lose all Christian identity. Compromise is the avenue to suicide. We simply cannot eat at the table of God and eat at the table of demons. We need to be faithful to God’s standards of marriage and faithfulness in marriage. To serve other gods is a violation of our identity as the bride of Christ. It is adultery. And as our relationship with God is reflected in the way we see and treat others, it results in adultery and immorality in our human relationships.
We then need to take our Christian commitment seriously, or else.