5. The Message to Pergamum (Rev 2:12-17)
“A Church Married to the World”
The City and the Assembly
Pergamum, a city of the Roman province of Asia, in the west of what is now Asiatic Turkey, occupied a commanding position near the seaward end of the broad valley of the Caicus. It was probably the site of a settlement from a very early date. Pergamum was one of the most prominent cities of Asia, located in the western part of Asia-Minor, about 45 miles north of Smyrna and about 20 miles from the Aegean Sea. The modern village of Bergama, Turkey, now covers part of the ancient site.
The first temple of the imperial cult was built in Pergamum (c. 29 B.C.) in honor of Rome and Augustus. The city thus boasted a religious primacy in the province, though Ephesus became its main commercial center. Pergamum is listed third of the ‘seven churches of Asia’ (Rev. 1:11) and forms the third letter, an order which suits its position in geographical sequence.
Pergamum was very wealthy, the center of emperor worship with many temples devoted to idolatry. This was the place ‘where Satan’s throne is’ (Rev. 2:13). The phrase has been applied to the complex of pagan cults, of Zeus, Athena, Dionysus and Asclepius (Esculapius), established by the Attalid kings, that of Asclepius Soter (the ‘saviour,’ ‘healer’) being of special importance. These cults are illustrative of the religious history of Pergamum, but “Satan’s throne” could be an allusion to emperor worship. This was where the worship of the divine emperor had been made the touchstone of civic loyalty under Domitian.
Here was the magnificent temple of Esculapius, a pagan god whose idol was in the form of a serpent. The inhabitants were known as the chief temple keepers of Asia. When the Babylonian cult of the Magians was driven out of Babylon, they found a haven in Pergamum.
It marked a crisis for the church in Asia. Antipas who is called, “My witness, My faithful one” (v. 13), is probably cited as a representative (probably the first to be put to death by the Roman state) of those who were brought to judgment and executed there for their faith.
Pergamum was a university town with a large library of 200,000 volumes given as a gift from Anthony to Cleopatra.
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. In Latin this title was written “Pontifex Maximus,” the title now used by the Pope. This title goes all the way back to Babylon and the beginnings of the mother-child cult under Nimrod of Genesis 10 and his wife Sumerimus. Later, Julius Caesar was elected Pontifex Maximus and when he became Emperor, he became the supreme civil and religious ruler and head of Rome politically and religiously with all the power and functions of the Babylonian pontiff.
Today a small village called Bergama is located here with a Christian testimony which continued into modern times. This church may depict the history of the church from the time of Constantine until the rise of the papacy from the time of Constantine forward.
The Christ, the Author
Again, as in each of the seven messages, the message is related to the picture of the glorified Savior in chapter one. This serves to stress His sufficiency and our need to live in the light of His person and work, past, present, and future.
“Sword” is r%omfaia, a long spear-like sword, but here it is seen with two edges to emphasize the double-edged, sharp, penetrating character of the Word of God or God’s truth as it is found in the person and work of Christ and God’s holy Word as it reveals Him.
The word “sword” is mentioned a total of nine times in Revelation. R%omfaia is mentioned five times and makaira, the short Roman two edged sword, is mentioned four times. The r%omfaia was the long and heavy, broad sword used by the Thracians and other barbarous nations who often marched irresistibly over one country after another as God’s instruments of judgment. First of all, then, it symbolizes the irresistible authority and devastating force of our Lord’s judgment (cf. 19:15).
In Revelation 1:16 and 19:15 the r%omfaia is described as proceeding out of the mouth of Christ. The mouth, an instrument of speech, portrays this as the Word of Christ. In Revelation 19:13 Christ is called the Word of God and then, in verse 15, we have the statement about the sword that proceeds out of His mouth and by which He will slay the wicked.
Interestingly, John 5:24f and 12:48 teaches us that Christ’s acts of judgment will be carried out on the basis of His Word. It seems clear the sword coming out of Christ’s mouth is a reference to the Word and is a symbol of its truth, penetrating power and authority, severity, and the fact that Christ judges men on the basis of the Word.
The sword is the symbol of the Word of Christ which separates believers from condemnation and from conformity with the world (Rom. 12:2; 8:1; 1 Pet. 1:23; Heb. 4:12). But this same sword, the Word of Christ, also guarantees judgment to the world on the basis of its absolute truth.
Here again we see the sufficiency of Christ in His capacity to meet our needs and deal with our failures. Pergamum was a church that was married to the world. They were in compromise with the world, but it is the Word of Christ which transforms us from the world.
Romans 12:1-2. I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
The Commendation and Approval
Again, as in each of the letters, we have the statement made about our Lord’s knowledge of our affairs. This repetition is not without significance. Here the Lord assures them He knows of their steadfastness in the midst of Satan’s headquarters or dominion. Satanic activity was rampant here spreading to all parts of the world because of the extreme amount of pagan idolatry and emperor worship carried on in this city.
“Where you dwell” is the Greek katoikew from kata, “down,” and oikew “to dwell.” It means, “to settle down, dwell permanently, be at home.” Another word group used of believers is the paroikos group (paroikia, paroikew) “to be a stranger, sojourner in a place, or a visitor,” (1 Pet. 1:17; 2:11; Heb. 11:9; [cf. Luke 24:18; Acts 13:17; 7:6, 29; Eph. 2:19]). Similarly, we might also compare parepidhmos, “stranger, resident in a strange place, alien” (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11).
First, there may be here a note of warning regarding their attitude toward this life and the world. This is especially true for the book of Revelation because of the use of what practically becomes a technical term for those who have settled down in the world as “earth dwellers” (cf. Rev. 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; and 17:8). Believers are to view themselves and live: (a) as sojourners, (b) as aliens, and (c) as ambassadors with their citizenship in heaven. We are never to be at home in the world in the same way that unbelievers are (cf. Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Pet. 1:17; 2:11; 2 Cor. 5:19-20 with Rev. 3:10). The story of Abraham and Lot provide us with a good illustration of this truth. Abraham dwelt in tents by faith (Heb. 11:8-10), but Lot lived by sight, he became wedded to the world and wanted to settle down there (Gen. 13:9-13).
Second, there is also a note of exhortation here as well as comfort. It reminds us that God not only knows our pressures, our temptations, and the problems we face, but that He is always there to help us if we want it. He noted they had remained steadfast regardless of the Satanic depths and atrocities of their environment and was there for them to enable them to overcome if they would only continue to walk by faith in dependence on Him.
The principle of the Christian life is not escape, but endurance and conquest by faith. It may be much easier to live somewhere else in easier circumstances, but our duty is generally to stay and become a testimony for the Lord and overcome the world in which we live. We should always remember that the grass usually looks greener somewhere else, but until we are with the Lord or in the millennium, life will be full of trials of some sort and to some degree. The call is for strength with all power, according to His glorious might, for attaining of all steadfastness and patience, joyously giving thanks … (cf. Col. 1:11-12a).
The mention of the fact they had held fast to Christ’s name, and the death of Antipas would suggest persecution and attack by Satan to destroy this church. Since this was unsuccessful, Satan turned to other methods as we will see in what follows.
“Where Satan’s throne is,” not simply seat. This statement stems from the fact of the extreme idolatry and demonic nature of the religious activity connected with the worship of the serpent god of Esculapius, the worship of the Emperor of Rome, and the persecution these Christians faced as a result.
The situation at Pergamum reminds us of the reality of the angelic conflict or the spiritual warfare of this present form of the world (Eph. 6:10). In the past, because of its godly heritage, America has been sheltered from some of the more obvious forms of demonic conflict that we have only read and heard about from missionaries. But Satan, though a defeated foe, is still alive and well and, as a roaring lion, is carrying on his havoc in the world which is now rampant in America. We are now facing Satan’s activities as never before and many believe this is in part preparing the world for the Tribulation. Satanism, devil worship, ritual murders, sacrifices to Satan, and gross immorality are no longer unheard of, but are occurring in our cities all across America. The New Age movement with its mysticism, channeling, belief in mystical forces, etc. is rampant in book stores, in schools, in our government, on TV, in the movies, in politics; it is literally everywhere. For an excellent resource regarding our present world scene as it pertains to culture, current issues, cults, and the occult, see Probe Ministries web site at http://www.probe.org.
As mentioned above, the reference here in verse 13 is a reference to Satanic power manifested in the particular religious, political, and idolatrous character of Pergamum. It became the seat of emperor worship and, according to Hyslop who wrote The Two Babylons, it also became the new home of the mother-child cult of Babylon which was moved from Babylon after the death of Belshazzar. It was later moved to Rome.
One of the prominent features we find in Revelation is a prophetic picture of the revival of ancient Babylonianism (Rev. 17-18). This means that one of the things that will occur in preparation for the events of the coming Tribulation will be a rise, not only in Satanic activity, but of his activity in the various forms of ancient eastern mysticism and occult activity that was so much a part of this cult. We are seeing it today in the New Age Movement.
The Condemnation and Admonition
After approving what He could, the Lord proceeded to admonish. Like them, most believers have things in their lives that are good, but there is always room for improvement. There are things that are wrong! Do we have ears to hear?
The Doctrine of Balaam (14)
Balaamism, as we might call it, was a compromise in the realm of morals. For people in this city to eat things sacrificed to idols meant to engage in the feasting and orgies of the various idolatrous temples. It meant to commit fornication. The teaching or doctrine of Balaam was a perversion of the Christian doctrine of liberty (see 1 Cor. 8-10; Rom. 14-15:3; Gal. 5:13). Let’s compare the following three ways we can look at the subject of Balaam.
The Way of Balaam (2 Peter 2:15)
The way of Balaam is really the way of covetousness and refers to one who hires himself out to do religious work merely for personal gain; it’s the merchandising of one’s spiritual gifts for personal gain out of covetousness.
The Error of Balaam (Jude 11)
This refers to Balaam’s error in thinking that he could get God to curse His covenant people and bypass His covenant promises because of their evil. Seeing their evil, Balaam supposed that a righteous God must curse Israel. But he was blind to God’s faithfulness to His promises which was based on the higher morality of the cross and God’s grace though the sacrifices that pointed to the cross.
The Doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14)
Since Balaam found out he could not curse Israel, he realized he would be able corrupt them by getting them to marry the beautiful women of Moab. So he taught or advised Balak to tempt Israel in marrying the daughters of Moab. This would defile their separation and cause them to abandon their pilgrim character. It was a teaching that promoted a breakdown in separation from the world. Note that Pergamum comes from two words, per, which has the idea of “completely, thoroughly,” and gamos, “marriage.” The church at Pergamum began to lose their pilgrim character and was becoming thoroughly married to the world (cf. Jam 4:4; 1 Pet. 1:18; 2:11).
The Teaching of the Nicolaitans (15)
The reference to the Nicolaitans identifies the group who were teaching Balaamism. Note the words “thus … in the same way” of verse 15. As mentioned earlier, some think this refers to the followers of Nicolas (so say some of the church fathers), while others believe the word comes from nikaw, “to rule,” plus laos meaning “people.” Scholars are divided on the precise problem here, but it seems clear that they were subjugating the people to Satan’s authority by teaching compromise with the world which always neutralizes the church by compromise. The church loses its pilgrim perspective and adopts the viewpoint, values, priorities, and pursuits of the world.
Christians often reject the overt acts of what they think of as worldliness defined by a list of prohibitions or obligations both negative and positive, while retaining the viewpoint or attitude of worldliness. But worldliness is found more in attitudes and values than in acts because what we do is really the product of our thinking or belief system. Millions of people go through all the motions of worship each week but maintain a heart that is completely out of touch with God and end up, in reality, worshiping themselves. We can meticulously avoid all overt acts of worldliness as we might define them, and still have a heart full of hypocrisy, criticism of others, jealousy, bitterness, envy, and preoccupation with the details of life rather than eternal treasures. There are many examples we might mention of worldliness, but one example that comes to mind is the Madison Avenue gimmickry which so often goes on in the name of evangelism or church growth. See Appendix 4, on the subtle snares of worldliness.
Whoever the Nicolaitans were, they were conquering the people by bringing them under Satan’s authority through influential teachers who were tolerating or even promoting evil or license. In our study of the messages to the seven churches, we have gone, then, from “murder” to “mixture.” Martyrdom tends to purify the church, but mixture, a breakdown in biblical separation into worldliness, putrefies the church.
The Counsel and Appeal
In verse 16, the Lord called this church to repentance with a sharp warning of judgment with the sword out of His mouth, suggesting that the judgment is based on the truth of His Word. Remember, the sword symbolically represents the two-fold ability of the Word of God to separate believers from the world while at the same time to condemn the world for its sin. It was the sword of salvation and deliverance as well as the sword of death.
Worldly thinking must be dealt with positively and quickly or it eats into our lives individually and corporately (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7-9). Like cancer, worldliness eats deeply into our viewpoint of life and what we expect from it. This impacts our values, and then our priorities and pursuits. And while we may begin to recognize much of its presence and seek to root it out, some of its remnants often remain below the surface, hidden like barnacles below the waterline on a ship.
The Lord counsels the church to repent. The verb “repent” is here an aorist imperative in the Greek text which carries with it an element of urgency. It calls for an immediate response, one designed to arrest the direction in which the church was going. “Repent” is metanoew, “to change the mind.” Here is one of those generic terms that must be understood within the context in which it is found just as with the word salvation (cf. in Phil. 1:19 the Greek swthria, “salvation, deliverance, preservation”). “In both the New and Old Testaments, repentance means ‘to change one’s mind.’ But the question must be asked, about what do you change your mind? Answering that question will focus the basic meaning on the particular change involved… . Biblical repentance also involves changing one’s mind in a way that affects some change in the person. Repentance is not merely an intellectual assent to something; it also includes a resultant change, usually in actions.”45 Repentance is used in Scripture in at least three ways:
(1) A repentance that is merely a change of mind about something in a context that does not deal with salvation (Matt. 21:28-32). It is a real repentance, a change of mind, with a real result, but it has nothing to do with salvation.
(2) A repentance that is unto salvation. In a context dealing with salvation or eternal life, etc., it has to do with changing one’s mind about one’s condition in sin and need of the saving work of God in Christ. It is equivalent to faith or a part of faith like two sides of a coin (cf. Acts 2:38 with 11:17; Acts 5:31 with Eph. 1:7, and Acts 19:14). First, we acknowledge our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, and then (the other side of the coin) we turn to Christ in faith as the only means of salvation.
(3) Then there is a repentance that deals with some spiritual issue in the Christian life in which repentance is a change of mind concerning the path we are following and is equivalent to confession of specific sins with a view to spiritual change, pursuing the path of godliness. This is the usage in these letters.
The Issue: Either we repent of our worldliness, acknowledge its presence and evil and commit to moving in a godly direction, or we face divine discipline and the loss of our light bearing capacity—our very purpose for existence as a church. It appears they did. A Christian church has continued into modern times in the modern city of Bergama.
The Solution: The Christian needs to live in the Word, the two-edged sword, which penetrates and transforms us by the renewing of the mind with the mind of Christ (Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 2:16). This includes keeping our focus on eternal treasures (Matt. 6:19f; 1 Pet. 1:12f). The alternative is divine discipline on the basis of that same Word, which, if neglected, results in our discipline according to the warnings and principles of Scripture (John 15:1f; Heb. 12:5f).
This warning is immediately followed by a special exhortation and assurance.
The Challenge and Assurance
“He who has an ear …” is again an appeal to the individual for spiritual change. Spiritual change in a church has to begin with the individual.
“To him who overcomes …” Here is God’s challenge to believers to overcome by faith in the Savior’s victory and provision. Specifically, overcoming in this context meant to refuse to eat of things sacrificed to idols and to remain sexually pure, to avoid fornication, and remain distinct and separate from the world. While initial faith that is genuine brings one into union with Christ, it is the continuation of an active faith from living in the Word, feeding on the things of Christ, that overcomes and leads us into the abundance and sufficiency of Christ’s life with great reward both now and in the future.
The Hidden Manna
“The hidden manna” is literally, “of the manna, the hidden.” It is a restrictive attributive which defines the distinctive identity of the manna. With this construction, there is some emphasis on the hidden character of the manna. In the Old Testament, the manna stood for God’s faithfulness to provide and sustain His people through the wilderness wanderings in place of the leeks, melons, garlic, and onions of their old life in Egypt, an apt picture for the world system. As a memorial to God’s faithfulness, a portion of the manna was placed and thus hidden in the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 16:32-34; Heb. 9:4). Trench calls our attention to the fact that it was after this manna was laid up in the Ark that it obtained the name, “hidden.”46
Manna was also called, “food from heaven” (Ps. 78:24). In John 6:48-51, the Lord spoke of Himself as the true bread from heaven that gives eternal life in contrast with the manna in the Old Testament. He said, “your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died” (John 6:49). While the manna sustained their physical life for a time, it was only a picture of the one who would come and who would give life and life abundant (John 10:10).
From the use of manna in Scripture and from the nature of the promises to the overcomer, I would suggest there is a two-fold meaning and application here:
(1) It has a present meaning or application. It refers to the sufficiency of the person and work of Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Word which the world does not know or see since the natural man does not see or discern the things of Christ (1 Cor. 2:14). Therefore, believers need to daily feed upon His life in the Word for daily sustenance and blessing (cf. Heb. 3:7f). This and this alone can make us fruitful believers, and provide true happiness and stability of life, something which the allurements of the world simply cannot give.
(2) It has a future meaning. The promise of manna looked forward to a greater capacity to enjoy all the manifold blessings and glories of the kingdom in the presence of Christ that would come to the overcomer who refused to eat of the things sacrificed to idols.
A White Stone
By repeating “I will give,” there is an emphasis on the grace of the Savior and the second gift is highlighted as distinct from the first. Though rewards are promised for faithfulness, they are still a matter of the grace of God for it is by His grace and strength that we experience the capacity for faithfulness.
“A white stone.” This is perhaps the most difficult to interpret of all the rewards mentioned in chapters 2 and 3 because of the various uses of white stones and because no other passage tells us anything about white stones.
Stones were used in the secret societies as amulets of protection and by judges who determined a verdict by placing a white and black stone in an urn. If the white one came out it meant acquittal of all charges. But, since there will be no need of protection in eternity and because I believe these are rewards to believers who already stand acquitted, justified in Christ, neither of these seem to fit with what John had in mind.
“Stone” is pshfos and may be used to designate a precious stone, like a diamond. This idea is supported in this verse by the word leukos which may mean more than just white, and can be equivalent to “splendid, shining,” or even, “glistening.” Compare the following verses which support this interpretation (Matt. 17:2; Rev. 3:4, 5; 6:11; 7:9, 13; 19:14). Some seek to connect it in some way to the promise of the hidden manna, the Ark of the Covenant, and the priesthood. They see it as a diamond which corresponds to the Urim and Thummim worn by the high priest and would speak of special priestly prerogatives and access into the very presence of God. Others see an analogy to the stone awarded to victorious gladiators or warriors when they returned from battle. It would be much like a ‘well done’ for service rendered.
There was also a custom in John’s day in which special stones were given which entitled the bearer to special hospitality and friendship. As you can see, there were many customs and several possibilities for the meaning of the stone. Whatever, it clearly symbolized special blessing and privilege that will be given to those believers who overcomer the influx of the world on their lives.
A New Name
“A new name which no one knows …” Here the Lord promises us a special name. Why? It could show intimacy and God’s personal love and concern for each one of us, but as a special reward for believers who overcome, it probably has a different significance.
It undoubtedly demonstrates something of the character of the overcomer or something of his new responsibilities or both. Abram’s name was changed to Abraham to portray the fact that he was to become the father of a multitude. Jacob, which means supplanter, was changed to Israel, the one over whom God would henceforth rule. Unstable Simon became Peter the little rock. Similarly, the overcoming believer is promised a new name which may show something of what God has accomplished in his or her life through a walk of faith in faithfulness.
The custom of giving a new name to mark a new status was known in the heathen world as well. The name of the first of the Roman Emperors was Octavius; but when he became the first of the Emperors he was given the name Augustus. This very name marked his new status; he was now unique and superhuman and more than man.47
The significance of a new name, then, would not be lost on readers living in John’s day since only recently the title of the Roman emperor had been changed. Thus, the new name to be awarded faithful believers was an assurance that they would one day be elevated to a position superior even to that of Augustus. The gift of this new name marks the believer’s entrance to a new and higher stage of responsibility symbolizing new and greater authority. Regardless of the meaning, for our day when we are often identified by an impersonal number, it highlights the fact we are not just impersonal numbers, but those who are personally known and loved by God.