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.”’
Profile of Pergamos: Pergamos was located north of Ephesus and Smyrna and was situated 15 miles inland. The city was known for her beauty, seen as an educational center, was the political and military capital of the region, and a center for pagan worship.
To this point, aside from the three temples dedicated to Emperor worship, Pergamos had temples dedicated to several of the most prominent Greek and Roman gods. The two most notable was an Altar to Zeus set high above the city on the acropolis and recognized as one of the wonders of the ancient world. The second was the Temple of Asclepios who was represented by a serpent and known to be the god of medicine and healing. Historians say that sick people from all over the empire would travel to Pergamos hoping to be cured by the “serpent savior.”
In the substance of His letter Jesus points out that “Satan’s throne” was located in Pergamos proceeding to also say the city is “where Satan dwells.” Though Jesus is emphasizing how Pergamos was a satanic stronghold and place of satanic influence, there is nothing in the text to indicate we shouldn’t take Jesus’ words literally.
Contrary to most depictions, I hope you know that Satan is not currently living in hell. Because Satan is a created being he’s not omnipresent meaning he’s limited to time and space. In Ephesians 2:2 Paul refers to Satan as the “prince of the power of the air.” While I can’t say where he is today during the time of Jesus’ letter he was residing in Pergamos.
It would seem there was something about the city that caused Satan to chose Pergamos as his home base. While some speculate the Altar of Zeus or the Temple to Asclepios might have had something to do with it one of the more probable (and interesting) theories takes you all the way back to the fall of Babylon.
There seems to be some historical evidence to suggest that when the Persian King Xerxes destroyed Babylon in 487 BC the Babylonian priesthood moved to Asia Minor settling in the city of Pergamos. As a result it was in Pergamos where they continued to carry on the rites and secrets of a pagan religion that dated back to Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. It’s interesting to note that according to Numbers 22:5 Balaam (the prophet specifically mentioned by Jesus in this letter) was also likely from the area of the Euphrates (Babel).
“I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is…” The coupling of these two ideas tells us that Jesus was impressed with their “works” especially in light of their location and the culture therein. Though this church was up against incredible spiritual warfare, temptation, and immorality they were enduring and remaining faithful!
Jesus also says, “You hold fast to My name…” These Christians not only relied on Jesus, but they actively defended the name and nature of Jesus. “And you did not deny My faith…” Though they were in the middle of the fire of spiritual oppression generally speaking these believers still remained true to the faith in the face of such contrary forces.
Jesus specifically mentions their faithfulness “even in those days which Antipas was My faithful martyr!” While we have no other mention of Antipas in Scripture, church tradition claims he was the pastor of Pergamos who, as a result of Domitian’s persecutions, was martyred by being baked alive in a bronze bull located on the Altar to Zeus.
“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.”
What is interesting about this particular letter is that while Jesus is clearly referencing two different doctrinal beliefs that were creeping into the church, in His criticism He holds the faithful responsible for allowing these doctrines to be taught in the first place.
“I have this against you” (faithful believers) that “you have there (church) those who hold the doctrine (teaching) of Balaam” and “the Nicolaitans.” It would appear the issue Jesus had with this church wasn’t these unfounded doctrines or even the people who taught them…
Instead Jesus was being critical of those who were allowing these things to exist within the church and weren’t doing anything to stop them. While Pergamos is often referred to as the Compromising Church she might be better titled the Apathetic Church.
In order to unpack what was actually taking place in this church it’s important to define what Jesus means by the “doctrine of Balaam” and the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans.”
Recap the story of Balaam and the Moabite King Balak - Numbers 22-24 and 31.
2 Peter 2:15, “They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness…”
Jude 1:11, “Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah.”
While it’s clear from these passages “the way” and “the error of Balaam” had to do with his greed… And though it would be easy to see the “doctrine” as having something to do with the particulars of what Balaam taught Balak… I’m of the opinion his instructions were simply the byproduct of his doctrine and not necessarily the doctrine itself. (That the doctrine wasn’t specifically about “sexual immorality” or “eating this sacrificed to idols.”)
Note: In the structuring of the Greek sentence this line “who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel” refers to “Balaam” and not “his doctrine.”
You see, at the core of his story sits the reality that Balaam viewed God’s Word as a means to an end. Though he was an anointed prophet whom God spoke to and through, and while Balaam received genuine prophetic visions, it seems he was always looking for a way he could use God’s Word to profit himself! In a sense Balaam presents a prototype of a corrupted teacher who twists the truth of Scripture for their own personal gain.
Jesus also points out that “you have there those who hold to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” In His first letter to the church in Ephesus Jesus mentioned that He hated “the deeds of the Nicolaitans,” but in this instance it’s their “doctrine” He found equally despicable.
As we mentioned two Sundays ago, this Greek word “nikolaitês” is a compound word “niko” meaning “to conquer” and “laites” meaning “the people.” Many scholars believe the “Nicolaitans” were an early group seeking to re-exert authority over the people by claiming the need for a priestly intermediary. David Guzik observes that “the title possess the idea of a proud authority and a hierarchical separatism.”
So with these things in mind… What twisted doctrines were being taught in this church that were motivated by greed, and fostered the need for a priestly intermediary?
While Ephesus represented the Post-Apostolic Church and Smyrna the Persecuted Church, this church in Pergamos represented the next period of church history known as the Byzantine Church or the Church of the Roman Emperors.
Last Sunday we noted how beginning with Nero for some 250 years the Christian church endured ten waves of Roman persecution. And while each of them was brutal it could be that the final persecution by Diocletian and his successor Galerius proved to be the worst.
In 303 AD Diocletian rescinded the legal rights of Christianity and a mass slaughter ensued. Eusebius wrote of the martyrs, “For they drew the stoutest branches together with machines, and bound the limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those for whom they contrived this. All these things were done, not for a few days or a short time, but for a long series of years.”
He writes of one instance when “a hundred men with young children and women, were slain… being condemned to various and diverse torments… some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the very executioners grew weary and relieved each other.”
What is truly amazing is that while this persecution was brutal Eusebius wrote that “in these conflicts the noble martyrs of Christ shone illustrious over the entire world… the evidences of the truly divine and unspeakable power of our Savior were made manifest through them.”
Recognizing the climate is important for it sets the stage for what came next… Though the persecution of the church had been intense, because the church continued to grow and the public perception of what was taking place began to wain, in 311 AD, while on his deathbed, in his final act as Emperor Galerius issued what was known as the “Edict of Toleration” formally putting to end any and all violence directed towards Christians.
Then one year later, in 312 AD, as the armies of Constantine marched into a final battle he hoped would reunite the Roman Empire, Constantine claims he received a vision from God of a cross with the command, “In this sign, you will conquer!” The next day before their campaign he instructed all of his troops to adorn their shields with this Christian symbol.
Because Constantine’s armies proved victorious, in what some have seen as proof of his conversion and others as simply a shrewd act of political savvy, in 313 AD, Constantine took the “Edict of Toleration” one step further by issuing the “Edict of Milan” formally legalizing Christian worship and restoring all of the property that had been confiscated.
In the edict Constantine wrote, “It is proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best…” For the first time in maybe her entire history the church throughout the Roman world was finally free to operate openly in society without the fear of religious persecution.
Though the official merger of the Church and State would come 60 years later, history does show that Constantine became very involved in Christian affairs. And while there were instances when this proved beneficial for the church (Council of Nicaea which rejected Arianism and produced the Nicene Creed), overall the favor of the Roman Emperor yielded several unintended and in many ways tragic consequences.
Because the church now enjoyed the protection and financial support of the State, two things immediately happened: (1) The church became susceptible to institutional corruption by those who saw her as a way to amass power. (2) In order to keep her new favor with the State the church began justifying moral and theological compromises.
One would be right to observe that once the Satanic strategy of persecution failed the wily devil saw privilege and power as the way to minimize the churches effectiveness. The old saying is true… “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Let me explain how those corrupted by power were able to twist God’s Word in such a way that it not only justified moral compromise but created a theological need by which those who controlled the church could get rich in the process.
First, the theology of grace was twisted to justify moral compromise. Because the church was scared of loosing political favor the notion of God’s grace was twisted whereby Christian liberty became a license to sin. A person was permitted to live like hell and still go to heaven for “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” (Romans 5:20)
Secondly, the church became the dispenser of grace. Instead of taking sins directly to Jesus (coming to the cross) and receiving God’s grace by faith, a theological position was beginning to emerge that required sins be taken directly to the church (confession to a priest) who would then provide instructions as to how God’s grace could then be earned by works.
Because the people now needed the church to dispense God’s grace so they could receive His forgiveness, the church amassed incredible power and control over the people (“Doctrine of the Nicolaitans”). And you know, as a fact of history, it didn’t take long for the church to figure out a way monetize their new found influence.
It was during this period of history that the concepts of penance, indulgences, purgatory, icons, and relics began appearing in the church. Literally, the church was ruling over the people utilizing a set of twisted doctrines meant of personal gain (“Doctrine of Balaam”). You could live in moral compromise and still receive God’s grace for the easy price of $19.95!
“Repent or else… I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.” While we understand repentance is a fundamental changing of the mind that leads to a change of direction, the pressing question to consider is… What was Jesus commanding the faithful element of this church to repent of?
The answer is found when Jesus says, “Or else… I will fight against them.” The criticism of this church was that they had been lackadaisical in how they were handling the growing influence of these doctrines. They weren’t doing anything to stop them.
And understand… It was not just their failure to act or this faithful remnant’s cowardice to take a stand that Jesus is wanting them to repent of… He’s wanting the faithful to fight against those who would twist His Word to gain power over His people!
“Or else…” Jesus promises He’ll handle it Himself. “I will fight against them…” In the Greek “polemeô” literally means “to war with them.” It’s not an accident that Jesus began this letter by introducing Himself as “He who has the sharp two-edged sword.” In this warning He now explains that “the sharp two-edged sword” is in actuality “the sword of His mouth.”
Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
In considering all of these things in their historical context you have to wonder how a corrupt element within the church was able to introduces so many non-Biblical doctrines? Answer… It was during this period of history that church leaders stopped teaching the Bible and the people largely stopped reading it for themselves!
Interestingly enough… The church of Pergamos largely failed to heed Jesus’ warning forcing Him to make good on His promise. Consider that the fundamental catalyst for the Protestant Reformation that rejected all of these non-Biblical doctrines was a return to God’s Word!
Jesus closes the letter with two promises “to him who overcomes:” First, “I will give some of the hidden manna to eat…” In provoking this image Jesus is promising that there is nothing better than the perfect provision one receives from His word (Exodus 16). It’s food for the soul. In John 6:41, “Jesus said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.’”
Secondly, “I will give a white stone…” Though white stones were used all throughout Roman society for various purposes, it would seem because on it was “written a new name which no one knows except him who receives it” the stone was probably a special invitation or reservation with the destination most likely being heaven.
The greatest danger for any church is not outside opposition, but inward corrosion. This church was determined to hold the front line against the enemy. Though the opposition in Pergamos was fierce they were determined to remain steadfast in their service. They boldly defended Jesus’ name even refusing to deny the faith in the face of martyrdom…
And yet, there was a problem… Though we can say this church was still on guard for a frontal attack, they were ignoring a spreading cancer within the camp that would yield the same deadly result. Satan had switched tactics. His strategy was no longer opposition. It was infiltration. He entered the church with the intention of destroying her from within.
How does Satan destroy a church from within? Because he knows that false doctrine leads to wrong living, just like he did with Eve in the garden (Genesis 3) and later tried with Jesus during His wilderness temptation (Matthew 4), Satan will attempt to twist the Word of God in order to lead God’s people into rebellion and sin.
And this is why Jesus is reminding the faithful to be ever vigilant when it comes to false doctrine being taught in His church. History attests that when the church no longer fights to remain doctrinally sound the consequences are catastrophic! “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
There is a final point to be made… If you don’t study God’s Word, it’s safe to say you probably don’t know God’s Word. And if you don’t know God’s Word then you won’t know when it’s being twisted, how to defend it, or possess the skills to use it when you need to stand against the attacks of a very real enemy! You’re in danger!
The story of Eve presents a pretty powerful example of what happens when someone doesn’t know God’s Word, had a bad teacher who added to God’s Word, and ultimately was lead astray by a false teacher who twisted the truth.
Genesis 2:16-17, “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Genesis 3:1-6, “Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, "Has God indeed said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?" And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'" Then the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.”
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