Bible Study Series: Revealing Jesus in Revelation
Rev 2:12-17 Pergamum: The church that compromised
by I Gordon
Well it has been an interesting week down under in Kiwi-land. A few weeks ago a bad cyclone hit that caused a lot of damage and various land slides. While still getting over that, this last week saw a worse cyclone hit. This one saw flooding in some areas up to the roof line of people's homes. Many in the affected areas had no where they could go and were forced to spend the night on top of their roof in the howling wind and rain. Others punched holes in their ceiling and took their family up into the roof cavity as the water rose right up to the ceiling height. The next day we had a 6.3 earthquake in our capital city, Wellington. When asked about it, our new Prime Minister said 'I was looking out the window for a plague of locusts'! Interesting little Biblical reference there and certainly interesting times! All this comes on top of the terrible earthquakes seen in Turkey and Syria where over 50,000 have died. Following this a lady at my work asked me how long I think the earth has! People are nervous. They can see that things are changing around the world. They may not realise these are birth pains but that is what they are.
So we are continuing with the book of Revelation today that will show how these birth pains end. And it is a fantastic end but we are not there just yet. We are onto the third report card of the seven churches, this time to the church at Pergamum. Lovely place Pergamum... it is said to be where 'the throne of Satan' was and where 'Satan dwells'. Just possibly it might not have been at the top of a 1st century Christian's holiday destination list! Here is what we will explore today:
- What was 'the throne of Satan' and where is it today?1
- What does it mean to hold fast His name... even in difficult situations?
- Why does Balaam get a mention in this letter and what were his teachings that corrupted both Israel and the church?
- What is the hidden manna, the white stone and the new name promised to true believers?
A few questions there... Let's begin with an overview of this church and letter.
Quick Pergamum Overview
"The third church was in Pergamum or Pergamos, about 20 miles inland from Smyrna. Like Ephesus and Smyrna it was a wealthy city, but it was wicked. People in its pagan cults worshiped Athena, Asclepius, Dionysus, and Zeus... The atmosphere of this city was adverse to any effective Christian life and testimony.
Bible Knowledge Commentary
- Meaning of Pergamum : 'Thoroughly married' - A pointer to the alliance with the world that the Lord hates
- Pergamum was a wealthy city of Asia Minor and was a combination of political power and pagan worship.
- There were temples of Zeus, Athena, Apollo and others. It also had 'the throne of Satan'.
- Pergamum had a very famous library containing about 200,000 books.
- It was also known for manufacturing parchment resulting in a paper called 'pergamena'.
- Prophetically it is the church in the age of Constantine, beginning around 300AD, where Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire
As an overview, the letter has the following:
- Commendation - They were holding onto Christ's name despite dwelling where Satan's throne is. Some were faithful even unto death
- Complaint - Some were holding to the teaching of Balaam with idolatry and immorality
- Counsel - Repent or Jesus will come in judgement quickly
- Warning - If they don't repent Jesus will fight against those that hold to that which He hates
- Challenge - Those that overcome will be given hidden manna and a white stone with a new name on it
Over-riding thought: For me this letter reminded me of the importance of standing fast and firm on the truth of God's word even in difficult times. It is a reminder of the different ways that the enemy uses to try and derail our walk. But there are hidden blessings promised for the one who overcomes as we shall see!
Pergamum Report Card: The good
Rev 2:12 "And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this:
In the New Testament the sharp two-edged sword speaks of God's word. The One who has the Word is the One who is the Word... Jesus! This is significant for this church had begun well and certainly had those that did not deny Jesus' name in the midst of persecution and even death. Yet a false teaching was spreading within the church. They were moving away from the truth of God's word. Slowly but surely, leaders and doctrines were being introduced that were not Biblical. Thus we have the reminder from Jesus - He is the One who has the two edged sword. He is the One who has and is, the true word. And this word cuts through the false religions and the efforts of man to establish truth outside of Him.
Rev 2:13 '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.
Now it seems that a two-edged sword would come in handy in this place! Twice in this verse we see a reference to Satan in connection with Pergamum. Firstly it says that 'Satan's throne' is there. Secondly it says that 'Satan dwells' there. So what does that mean? The reason it says this is because Pergamum was the headquarters of heathen temples in Asia minor. The temple of Zeus in particular, along with others, was found in Pergamum and it is this that was referenced as 'the throne of Satan'. So in that day, if you wanted to worship and sacrifice to false gods, well you've come to the right place at Pergamum!
The headquarters of satanic opposition and a Gentile base for false religions. On the acropolis in Pergamos was a huge, throne-shaped altar to Zeus. In addition, Asklepios, the god of healing, was the god most associated with Pergamos. His snake-like form is still the medical symbol today. The famous medical school connected to his temple mingled medicine with superstition. One prescription called for the worshiper to sleep on the temple floor, allowing snakes to crawl over his body and infuse him with their healing power.
The MacArthur Bible Commentary
Well that sounds all rather nice now doesn't it? Not! So it is fair to say that this was a challenging area to be a believer.
As an interesting side story, you may want to know what became of the Altar to Zeus that was so prominent in Pergamum and mentioned by our Lord. Well it was found again in the ruins of Pergamum in the late 1870's by a German engineer by the name of Carl Humann. It was then dismantled and taken back to Berlin. Because of several factors including World War I and the economic depression in Germany, it didn't go on display until 1930. But in 1930 the 'Altar of Zeus', or 'Satan's throne' as it is often called, was displayed in east Berlin's Pergamum Museum along with a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon. Right in time, you could say, for the rise of Hitler, the Nazi party and World War II! In fact east Berlin, where this Altar to Zeus was reconstructed, was also the location for Hitler's headquarters. Hmmm... just coincidence right? And there, as seen below, this altar/throne remains to this day.2
So getting back to the church at Pergamum, as mentioned it was not an easy place to be a believer. Jesus specifically says 'I know where you dwell...' It was a hard place to be. Now you may not be in that type of location or situation but never forget that Jesus sees where you dwell as well...
I know where you dwell...
There are many difficult places that one can dwell. And no, I'm talking geographically! You may not dwell where Satan's throne is but maybe you dwell in an area he likes to exploit. Maybe you dwell in loneliness. Maybe you dwell in struggling health or an abusive relationship. My Mum lived with the latter for nearly her whole married life as did all of us kids. Yet Jesus heard, saw and redeemed even that horrible situation. But it took a long time. Sometimes we have to dwell in a situation longer that we would like. Israel dwelt 400 years down in Egypt before being called out to the Promised Land. Abraham and Sarah dwelt 25 years in some uncertainty, waiting for their promised son. Moses dwelt 40 years out of the limelight, down in the wilderness, before being called by God to redeem his people Israel. David was on the run from Saul, dwelling where ever he could. for roughly 7 years. Yet the Lord had a plan for all of them. So too Jesus knows where we dwell and has a plan for every extended and even unwanted stay we encounter on our journey.
Now from our text, we see that one believer, Antipas, is singled out by Jesus for special mention here for his martyr's death. Jesus says '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.' We don't know much about him as he is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. But according to church tradition, Antipas was a physician charged with that terrible crime of secretly promoting Christianity. This brought about accusations by members of the medical guild that he was disloyal to Caesar. It is said that condemned to death, Antipas was roasted alive, being placed inside a copper bull which was heated over a fire. Stories such as this and many others, like those in Fox's book of Martyr's, are incredibly sobering. These faithful believers truly held-fast Jesus' name right to the end... despite it costing them their lives.
What does it mean to hold fast?
Jesus said in this verse 'you hold fast my name'. This is a phrase/command that He said to 4 of the 7 churches. Holding fast is obviously important!
- Pergamum: Rev 2:13 'I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith
- Thyatira: Rev 2:25 'Nevertheless what you have, hold fast until I come.
- Sardis: Rev 3:3 Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent.
- Philadelphia: Rev 3:11 Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.
Here is a message for the age in which we live - hold fast for things are likely to get bumpy! Looking at the New Testament this is a common phrase where we are told to...
- Hold fast to the word preached to us (1Cor 15:2)
- Hold fast what is good (1Th 5:21)
- Hold fast the sound words taught (2Ti 1:13)
- Hold fast our hope to the end (Heb 3:6)
- Hold fast our confession of Jesus (Heb 4:14).
As a reminder, for some of those in Pergamum, holding fast Jesus' name cost them their life. Yet they did. We want to end this race well so stay close to the Lord and His word. Always remember that you are not in this alone. Here is one last 'hold fast' to end on because it is a good reminder of His part in this:
Heb 10:23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.
So if you are dwelling in loneliness, a difficult relationship, trying health conditions or persecution from unbelievers... hold fast. Hold onto the Lord and your faith knowing that He is holding onto you! There is a temptation in the midst of uncertainty to doubt His goodness. The enemy loves to whisper in your ear in times like this. This even happened to that amazing man who was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in the womb - John the Baptist. While languishing in the uncertainty of a dark cold prison, John sent word by his disciples to Jesus asking 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?' To which Jesus replied: "Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them." And then He adds this telling final word: "And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me." (Matt 11:2-6) It can happen to all of us. Don't get offended if the Lord is not acting as you think He should but hold fast and don't let any root of bitterness grow!
Pergamum Report Card: The bad
Rev 2:14 '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.
The New Testament speaks about 'the way', 'the error' and 'the teaching' of Balaam. These are all closely connected but with a subtle variation:
- The way of Balaam: 2Pe 2:15 'They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness.' The way of Balaam gives the underlying problem of greed and a love for money that motivated Balaam and false teachers.
- The error of Balaam: Jud 1:11 'Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam's error...' Balaam's error was acting on his greed, putting money ahead of truth and God's people. Thus compromising himself, and ultimately, the nation of Israel.
- The teaching of Balaam: Rev 2:14 '...you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel...' The teaching of Balaam was the means of brining Israel down. For money he was willing to teach the enemy of Israel their weaknesses and how they could be corrupted.
Two specific issues are mentioned in our Revelation passage - Balaam taught Balak (the king of Moab) how to get the sons of Israel to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. This was achieved through the use of enticing Moabite women as explained in the book of Numbers:
Num 25:1-3 While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. (2) For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. (3) So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel.
Num 31:16 "Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.
The enemy's change of tactics & the church
So look at the change of tactics... Initially Balak, king of Moab tried to get Balaam to curse Israel. But God prevented the curse from occurring. So Balak then followed Balaam's advice and used Moabite women and immorality to lure Israel away from their God. And that worked! When you look at church history you see something very similar. Against the previous church, Smyrna, the enemy used persecution to try and stop the church. But that failed. In their trials and tribulation the believers drew closer to the Lord. So there was a change of tactics. If persecution doesn't work, maybe compromise through immorality will? So in Pergamum, the teaching of Balaam took hold. And as we shall see below this had profound implications for this period of church history!
But for you also, remember that your enemy is both a dragon and a serpent and is not above changing tactics! That is, he can try persecution as well as cunning and deception! (Rev 12:9). He can promise you the world, or try take it from you. He can always change tactics so be on guard!
Rev 2:15 'So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Now the teaching of Balaam was not the only issue. There was also the teaching of the Nicolaitans. We saw this teaching mentioned earlier in the letter to Ephesus. There they were commended for not allowing this teaching to take hold. Here we find that things are changing and it has come into the church. As a reminder, some teach these were followers of Nicolas, mentioned in Acts 6 who apparently later became apostate. Like Balaam, he led the people into immorality. Others point out that the meaning of Nicolaitan is 'one who conquers the people' and believe that a priestly class had sprung up in the Church, domineering the rest of the people.3 If this is true then it closely aligns with the prophetic period of this church as we shall now see.
Pergamum: The prophetic time period
Prophetically this church points to the age beginning with the Roman Emperor Constantine who came to power in 306AD and reportedly converted to Christianity. One account of Constantine's conversion states that he saw a great cross in the sky and underneath were the Greek words "en toutoi nika." This means "In this sign, conquer." So Christianity soon became the state religion of the Roman Empire and this had massive implications. Firstly, believers were no longer persecuted by the state. Great! However masses of people were now baptized into the state run church without any personal faith and they brought with them their pagan practices and idolatry. This prophetic age of Pergamum was living up to the meaning of its name and being 'thoroughly married'... but to the state! Thus you see why the teaching of Balaam (who corrupted Israel through false alliances with the women and idolatry of Moab) was mentioned in this letter. Under the era of the persecuted church of Smyrna you could lose your life for holding to Jesus. Under the prophetic era of Pergamum you could be persecuted for not being part of the church! Under Smyrna if someone called themselves a Christian you would believe them for the cost was so great. Under Pergamum most claimed to be a Christian while just adding Jesus to their current list of worshipped deities. As I said above, never be surprised when the enemy changes tactics to prevent true faith! Suddenly the church had some wheat along with a lot of chaff. Sound familiar?
Dr Tim LaHaye, in 'Revelation - Illustrated and made plain', notes the introduction of the following corrupted practices during this period:
- 300AD - Prayers for the dead
- 300AD - Making the sign of the cross
- 375AD - Worship of saints and angels
- 394AD - Mass first instituted
- 431AD - Worship of Mary began
- 500AD - Priests began dressing differently than laymen
- 526AD - Extreme unction
- 593AD - Doctrine of purgatory introduced
- 600AD - Prayers directed to Mary
Pergamum Report Card: The challenge
Rev 2:16-17 'Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war 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, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.'
The message to this church was to repent and supposedly remove the ones that were teaching these evil doctrines. Otherwise the One with the sword of His mouth would fight against them! But there are also promises to the overcomers. They would receive hidden manna, a white stone and a new name written on the stone. Let's explore these promises.
Manna was God's provision to the children of Israel in the wilderness and is a type of Jesus Christ. It is fellowship and experiencing Him that is important. He is the One that satisfies. He is the One who sustains us... for eternity! He said this clearly:
Joh 6:32-35 Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. (33) "For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world."... "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.
But note this is often 'hidden manna' as mentioned to this church. Believers feed on that which the world doesn't see. As we hold fast His name. we are sustained during difficult times with that which the world cannot see or experience... coming from His life within!
Believers will be given a white stone. This has typically been seen as alluding to both acquittal and reward6. 'Our Daily Bread' writes well on this stating:
"Our Lord’s message to the church at Pergamum has a curious reference to “a new name” written on “a white stone” (Revelation 2:17). What could this mean? There are two plausible explanations. In an ancient court of law, when defendants were condemned, they received a black stone with their name on it. If they were acquitted, they received a white stone. Similarly, those who have trusted Jesus Christ for salvation will receive an acquittal from the judgment of God. What a relief it is to know that our sins are forgiven!
Another explanation comes from the ancient Olympic games. When athletes won, they were awarded a white stone, which was a token of honor.
Together, these illustrations show us the wonderful balance of the Christian life. We are saved by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet obedient Christians often struggle as they seek to serve the One who saved them. One explanation of the white stone is a picture of unearned acquittal. The other shows that we will be rewarded for acts of good works (1 Corinthians 3:13-14)."
As mentioned in the Believers Bible Commentary, it was also given as an expression of welcome given by a host to his guest. So which is it? Well I'm happy to take all three! It is a sign of acquittal, victory and welcome into our new home.. I'll take that! That is a stone you want!
Some key people in scripture were given a new name5. For example Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel. Simon became Peter. Each time it is significant and the new name given by God represents that which He sees that the person has, or will, become. Well it seems that all born again believers will receive a new name!
Your earthly Father and Mother had the right and honor of naming you originally. My earthly Father and Mother called me 'Iain' - which comes from the Hebrew name Yohanan meaning "God is gracious". I'll take that! But your heavenly Father has the right to name you next! And that is an eternal name. What will you be called? What aspect of your character will be displayed in that name?
So what have we seen? The Pergamum church was founded in a trying neighborhood. They were in a place where false religion and temples to various Roman gods abounded. It was a place where Satan's throne was and where he was said to dwell. While some in this church held fast to Jesus' name and the faith, unfortunately compromise entered in. The teaching of Balaam was prominent in this church leading to false alliances, idolatry and immorality. And eventually this compromise led to a fulfillment of the meaning of their name - 'thoroughly married'. As we have seen, prophetically this played out in the age of Constantine where the church, state, and pagan religions were joined. And this still plays out today. So this letter is a reminder not to compromise. It is a reminder in trying times to hold fast the name of Jesus, knowing that He is holding fast onto you.
And always remember the promise to true believers. A promise of hidden manna, hidden sustenance, for those that overcome such challenges. There is also the promise of a white stone... a stone representing acceptance, victory and welcome into a new heavenly home! True believers will receive this welcome. And a new name will be given to the overcomers, through faith in Jesus, that enter that new home!