May 11, 2008

Revelation 2:12-17: The Letter to Pergamos

In the previous two letters to the churches at Ephesus and Smyrna, we have learned something about God’s will for us and for our church.

In the letter to the church at Ephesus, Christ commended it for its doctrinal purity, for recognizing and confronting false teachers, and for not putting up with evil in its midst, but rebuked it because it had lost its first love.

Our Lord wants us to be doctrinally pure. He wants us to study His word, discuss with each other Who He is, what He is like, what He reveals to us about His will. He wants us to be able to recognize false teaching and to confront it, but He also wants us to feel the love for Him that He feels for us: complete commitment; enthusiastic love that puts no one else first; a love that enjoys His presence just because of Who He is; a love that we can know is with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.

From the letter, we can list the commendations and rebukes and get a sense of God’s will:

To labor for His name’s sake and have patience in the face of trials

Not to put up with evil

To be able to recognize false doctrine and reject false teachers

To persevere in our faith despite temptations and opposition

To remember our first love: the excitement of and dedication to loving and serving Him

To do the works we did in the beginning—more than doctrinal correctness, but also to worship, evangelize, love Him, and live for Him.

The letter to the church at Smyrna, we found that the Smyrnan Christians are a moving example of a people joined to Christ and His saving work, and whose faith God sustained through suffering and even death. We can know from the letter to the church at Smyrna that God may allow us to suffer for our faith and endure trials, testing, and temptation. He also reminds us that our future eternal presence with our Savior and Lord far outweighs any temporary trials or worldly price we pay because of our faith.

So from that letter, we also can make a list that gives us some sense of God’s will for us:

He allows us to suffer for our faith

We are called on to endure trials/testing/temptation

Our future eternal life with Him far outweighs any worldly price we pay due to our faith

His will is that we be faithful, even faced with death

Pergamos (also called Pergamum or Pergamon) was located in what is today western Turkey, near the modern city of Bergama, about 16 miles east of the Aegean Sea coast. Its location was on a prominent 1,000-foot-high hill in the middle of a broad and fertile plain. The city is known in history beginning in the third century B.C., and the area became a Roman province, with Pergamos as its provincial capital, during the late second century B.C. By the first century A.D., three large temples were located in the city for worshiping the emperor, and the first temple for emperor worship in Asia Minor was built there in 29 B.C.. The city also was known for the huge altar to the pagan deity Zeus located there (which Jesus refers to as “Satan’s throne” in the letter to the church at Pergamos).

Another aspect of the city’s economic and cultural practices also bears on the letter to the church. The region was known for mining, principally white marble, and, in fact, the city of Pergamos grew from a small mining village. A tradition grew in the region to use small rounded white marble stones symbolically. In the judicial system, a white stone was given to the defendant who was acquitted, and there is some evidence that white stones and black stones were used for voting on the guilt (black stone) or innocence (white stone) of the person on trial by the judges or jury. (And from this developed the voting on membership by some fraternal organizations, with one or more black stones “blackballing” or denying membership.)

In addition, in Pergamos and the region, a bondservant that was freed was given a white stone with his or her name inscribed on it as proof of his or her freedom and new status as a Roman citizen. In athletic contests, the trophy for the winner was a white stone, symbolic of special status as having overcome his opposition, and warriors returning from battle after a victory were presented with white stones with their names inscribed.

It is the white stone as a symbol of freedom and distinction to which Christ refers in the letter to the church at Pergamos: “And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written” (verse 17).

The city also was a cultural center, with a 10,000-seat amphitheater and a library containing a reported 200,000 volumes, second only to the library at Alexandria. Due to shortages of papyrus, a new medium made of calf skin was developed in Pergamos and took the place of papyrus in codices added to the library. It was much thinner and more flexible than either papyrus or vellum and was called pergaminus or pergamena after the city, a name which evolved into the anglicized “parchment.”

The letter to the church at Pergamos is found in Revelation 2:12-17:

“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, ‘These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight 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 I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.’”

As previously mentioned, the church at Pergamos existed in a city of extreme idolatry, with enthusiastic emperor worship and a center of the cult of Zeus, whose altar was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was an important center for worship of several pagan cults, including Athena, Asklepios, Dionysius (also known as Bacchus, the god of drunkenness), and Zeus.

As in other regions, the Christians at Pergamos were tempted to compromise in their faith in order to enjoy the benefits of Roman citizenship. The Roman government tolerated any religious practice that also recognized and worshipped the emperor as deity. In order to have the right to operate a business, work as a day laborer, own property, or expect to receive equal or fair treatment from the authorities and the courts, one had to recognize the Roman emperor as a god and attend worship services to him. The Christian religion was monotheistic, however, and the authentic and faithful Christian could not participate in recognizing any other deity. The choice facing the Christian was remaining faithful and suffering the cultural and economic consequences, or compromising his or her faith in order to work and prosper.

When we studied the letters to the churches at Ephesus and Smyrna, we find no indication of compromise, and, in fact, the letter to the church at Smyrna recognizes (and commends) the suffering they chose to endure rather than worship false gods.

But in the church at Pergamos, we find compromise has taken place: “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.”

While not many specific details are known about the “doctrine of Balaam” in the early church. For the story of Balaam, see Numbers 22-25. Balaam tried without success to sell his prophetic gift and curse Israel for money offered to him by Balak, who was the king of Moab. He attempted to arrange for the women of Moab to seduce men of Israel into intermarriage, and the result was the unholy union of Israel and Moab, leading to the Israelites participating in worship and feasts to the pagan gods of the Moabites. The “doctrine of Balaam” in the early church involved tolerance of, and participation in, pagan religions. In Pergamos, many of the Christians followed the “doctrine of Balaam” in participating in emperor worship so they would be allowed to participate in commerce, work, own property, etc.

Christ also rebukes the church at Pergamos for following the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” Irenaeus, a second-century church leader, describes the Nicolaitans as a sect had arisen in the early days of Christianity and which believed that since Christians are saved by grace and free from the law, nothing they do could be called evil. In his doctrinal work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes that the Nicolaitans “lead lives of unrestrained indulgence” as a right of Christian liberty. Clement of Alexandria, another second-century church leader wrote about the Nicolaitans: “They abandoned themselves to pleasure like goats, leading a life of self-indulgence.” Those following the doctrine of the Nicolaitans felt free to participate in worship of the emperor and other pagan deities and lived according to cultural standards of greed, promiscuity, social position and power, rather than godly standards. Today, the “doctrine of Balaam” is generally used in reference to that part of Christianity regarded as having compromised with their cultures instead of holding to biblical values.

The Lord commends the church for doing works of faith, however, and because “you hold fast to My Name and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (verse 13).

Obviously, not all of the Christians in Pergamos compromised their faith. This commendation indicates that while the church tolerated false doctrines (as noted in the rebukes), many of the Christians nonetheless were known as followers of Christ and would not deny their faith.

Antipas was a leader of the church in Pergamos, probably its pastor or bishop of the church in the city and other congregations in surrounding areas. There is a tradition that he was arrested by the Roman government, which attempted to force him to recognize the validity of the various pagan religions on the basis that the older religious ideas were, in fact, more honorable than the young Christian faith. He refused, citing Christianity’s roots in the very creation of the world and mankind. This so infuriated the Roman governor that he had Antipas thrown into the sacrificial fire on the altar in the temple of the Roman emperor and burned to death.

In the history of the church, the church at Pergamos is thought of as “the compromising church.” It tolerated among its members Christians who on the one hand expressed their faith in Christ as their Savior, but on the on the other hand accommodated their walk of faith to the world around them. They compromised where it was convenient to do so as a means of fulfilling their worldly desires and accommodating their culture. There are significant parallels in the Christian churches of the world today, especially in the United States, where large segments of the church strive for cultural and political correctness and ignore or deny some biblical standards in favor of the current “pagan gods” of opulence, political correctness, and toleration of personal sin.

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