Pergamum: The Church of Indiscriminate Tolerance
Intro: If we moved in a north-easterly direction from Smyrna and traveled about 55 miles, we would come to the city of Pergamum. It sat on a high hill, and was a great political and religious center of ancient times. It was the capital of the Roman province of Asia (forgive my previous error).
Herschel Shanks, editor of BAR, described the city: “The oldest part of the city, the acropolis, is modeled after the one in Athens and includes its own temple dedicated to Athena. The ruins of the famous Pergamum library are adjacent to that temple. The library was said to hold 200,000 volumes and, according to Plutarch, was given to Cleopatra as a gift from Mark Antony to make up for her loss after Julius Caesar’s troops burned the Alexandria library. A… theater (above) on the steep western slope of the acropolis hill contained 80 rows of seats for 10,000 spectators…
Though much of the Roman city was dedicated to the healing arts, there were other amenities. A colonnaded street led from the medical library to a 3,500-seat Roman theater, which is still used [today]. At one time there was also a Roman arena that could seat 50,000. Legend has it that the arena would sometimes be flooded for fights between crocodiles and hippopotami.”
And in this city there lived a fellowship of Christians.
Let’s visit them this morning…
I. Christ’s credentials
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this: Revelation 2:12 (NASB95)
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 (NASB95)
Next, He gives His commendation…
II. Christ’s commendation
‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. Revelation 2:13 (NASB95)
Christ makes note of their situation. First He mentions…
- The difficulty of where they lived. “I know where you dwell.” He had knowledge of where they lived not so much in the geographic sense but the practical sense. He had complete insight into what life was like for the Pergamum Christians. They lived in a place “where Satan’s throne is.” What is that? As with so many things in Scripture, scholars have tossed this around for centuries.
***show first photo***We do know that in Pergamum there was a very beautiful and famous altar dedicated to the god Zeus. It was discovered not too long ago and now rests in a Berlin museum. Some think that’s Satan’s throne.
***show second photo***Pergamum was also known for its temple dedicated to Asclepius, the God of healing and medicine. The mascot for Asclepius worship was the snake (even today the symbol for medicine reflects this). People would come from all over the Roman Empire for healing by Asclepius, known as the “savior” of Pergamum. Maybe this was Satan’s throne.
***show third photo***Like Smryna, Pergamum was zealous in their worship of the Roman emperor, so much so that they worked hard to become the center of emperor worship, erecting temples for that purpose. Could this be what Christ was talking about?
Maybe it was all three. Regardless, the Pergamum Christians lived in a place given over to the things of Satan, a place hostile to the things of God and the people of God. Second Christ mentions…
- The tragedy of what they had experienced
One of their own (Antipas, who was probably their pastor) had been killed for his faith. But that did not deter them. They held fast to Christ’s name and did not deny Him. Christ praises the Pergamum Christians for being faithful in the shadow of Satan’s throne and the threat of certain death. Very commendable.
But, just like Ephesus, for all the good things that could be said, there was a problem. Christ delivers His condemnation…
III. Christ’s Condemnation
‘But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. ‘So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Revelation 2:14-15 (NASB95)
Christ uses an OT figure to explain this New Testament situation. To understand it we have to go back to the book of Numbers 22. The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness after failing to enter the Promised Land. As they neared the territory of Balaak, King of Moab, he got nervous. He called in a pagan prophet to curse the Israelites so the Moabites would have an assured victory against them. Three times Balaam tried to curse the Israelites but each time God overruled Him and made blessings come out instead.
Balaam could not help King Balak with cursings, but he did give him counsel: Use your Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men away from their God. It worked. They began worshipping their gods and then began committing immoral acts. The nation almost fell because of it.
The false teaching of Balaam is that of compromise: you can take the things of God and the things of the world and mingle them together. And within the church at Pergamum there were folks teaching its OK to call yourself a Christian and at the same time associate with all the pagan elements of the city. It’s OK to worship the false gods in the various temples and eat the meat offered to these gods. It’s OK to take part in the rituals and rites, many which involved sexual immorality. This teaching was very similar to that of the Nicolaitans mentioned here and in the letter to Ephesus.
Certainly there are those in the church today (in a loose sense) that teach the Balaamite and Nicolaitan doctrines. Not too long ago I stumbled by accident upon a supposedly Christian site that advocated open marriages and helped folks find partners. There are liberal churches all over the place that take tolerance to the extreme and advocate every form of godlessness and immorality you could imagine. Those things make us cringe and we would never put up with them, even for a moment. In one sense we are not tolerant of heresy like this, but we are in another.
I mean that with our mouths we preach righteousness, but with our actions and associations we live godlessness. We say one thing and do another. We condemn the lost for their sin, and at the same time completely ignore unrighteousness in our own lives and the life of our church. We are more like Pergamum than we care to admit.
Study after study shows that there is little difference between the behavior of Christians and non-Christians when it comes the moral issues of our day: drinking, abortion, divorce, living together, pornography, etc. Just in the past few weeks I have been confronted with the worldly and even godless behavior of those in our own fellowship. Few things tear a pastor up more than that!
One commentator said it well: It amazes me how eagerly today’s church tries to mimic the world. If the world’s view of the family, women, or homosexuals changes, the church accommodates that change. The church becomes materialistic because the world is materialistic. The church becomes preoccupied with entertainment because the world is preoccupied with entertainment. Today’s church has a tendency to jump on every bandwagon the world parades by us, because Christians today are so eager to identify with the world. The church is not supposed to be some benevolent, nonthreatening agency whose primary goal is to achieve prestige, popularity, and intellectual acceptance. Contemporary Christians seem to think that if the world likes us, they’ll like our Savior. That is not the case (John 15:18).
Could the Scriptures be any clearer?...
Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 (NASB95)
From the text we discern that this compromise was not indicative of the church as a whole (“you have there some”). The church for the most part was faithful and had the right doctrine. But they knew there were false teachers in the congregation leading people into sin and they did nothing about it. They exercised indiscriminate tolerance and that was what upset Christ so. Where did we ever get the idea that tolerance = spirituality and godliness? Where did we ever get the idea that as Christians we are not supposed to hold our own accountable? It certainly was not from the Word of God…
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened… I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 (NASB95
I know this frightens some of you. It should. But let me show you what should frighten us more…
IV. Christ’s Correction & Judgment
‘Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth. Revelation 2:16 (NASB95)
The solution for erring before Christ is always to repent, acknowledge the wrong and turn away from it towards Christ. The consequences of not doing so were grim: Christ would come quickly and wage war!
John Walvoord explains: “Anticipating Christ’s rebuke for their being tolerant of evil and immorality, John described Him as the One who has the sharp, double-edged sword (also mentioned in 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21). The sword is a symbolic representation of the Word of God’s twofold ability to separate believers from the world and to condemn the world for its sin. It was the sword of salvation as well as the sword of death.”
Perhaps Christ would send someone like a Paul to step in and apply the word to the situation. There are preachers sent by God (most likely unbeknownst to them) to Pergamum-like churches to wage war with the word. A purging inevitably takes place: they either get rid of the preacher or the people there living in compromise.
As always, Christ closes with words of comfort…
V. Christ’s comfort
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give… Revelation 2:17
A. Something old
…I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone… Revelation 2:17 (NASB95)
Another OT allusion. Manna sustained the Israelites in the wilderness. Christ is the bread that came down from heaven! The white stone is puzzling and could refer to numerous things. Most likely it had to do with the way those on trail were found guilty or innocent.
B. Something new
To understand we must back up and look at the new things we are given with salvation…
- New Life
Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. Romans 6:4 (NASB95)
- New Body
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 (NASB95)
- New Home
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:1-3 (NASB95)
- New Name
… I will give… a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.’ Revelation 2:17 (NASB95)
Conclusion: I close with the words of Max Lucado:
Well, you may not have known it, but God has a new name for you. When you get home, he won’t call you Alice or Bob or Juan or Geraldo. The name you’ve always heard won’t be the one he uses. When God says he will make all things new, he means it. You will have a new home, a new body, a new life, and you guessed it, a new name…
Makes sense. Fathers are fond of giving their children special names. Princess. Tiger. Sweetheart. Bubba. Angel. I have a friend whose father calls her Willy. Her name is Priscilla. Growing up, he teased her by saying Priscilly. That became Silly-willy. Today he calls her Willy. No one else does. Even if they did, no one else could say it the way her dad does…
Isn’t it incredible to think that God has saved a name just for you? One you don’t even know? We’ve always assumed that the name we got is the name we will keep. Not so. Imagine what that implies. Apparently your future is so promising it warrants a new title. The road ahead is so bright a fresh name is needed. Your eternity is so special no common name will do.
So God has one reserved just for you. There is more to your life than you ever thought. There is more to your story than what you have read. There is more to your song than what you have sung. A good author saves the best for last. A great composer keeps his finest for the finish. And God, the author of life and composer of hope, has done the same for you.
The best is yet to be.
And so I urge you, don’t give up.
And so I plead, finish the journey.
And so I exhort, be there.
Be there when God whispers your name.
Church, Christian, friend, heed the words of Christ…
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
 Editor, Hershel Shanks. BAR 24:05 (Sep/Oct 1998), Biblical Archaeology Society, 2004; 2004.
John MacArthur, How to Meet the Enemy. (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996, c1992).
 Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures, 2:936. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985.
 Max Lucado, When God Whispers Your Name (Dallas: Word Pub., 1994), 190.