Philippe R. Sterling
The Lord Jesus judges the church at Pergamum that tolerates false doctrine (Revelation 2:12-17).
It’s amazing how similar the New Testament world is to ours.
When John wrote down Jesus’ message to the seven churches, philosophies from the East, from Egypt, from the hills beyond Pergamum, were sweeping through the Mediterranean world. People were spiritually hungry, but not spiritually disciplined. Many of these cults involved sexual rites. Some promoted excessive use of wine or drugs.
Today people are spiritually hungry, but they ignore the true source of life. Instead they dabble in astrology, mysticism, eastern philosophy, or worship the secular trinity of money, sex, and power.
Pergamum had people within the church who were succumbing to false teaching. The same thing is happening to believers today. Let us learn from the Lord’s message to the believers at Pergamum and reorient ourselves to God’s truth.
Forty miles north of Sardis sits ancient Pergamum. Pliny, the Roman writer, called it “the most famous city in Asia.” It was the center of Roman power and authority in the province. It became the site of the first temple of the Caesar-cult, erected in honor of Augustus Caesar. The city also housed an ancient temple to the God Zeus. The altar from that temple is in the Berlin museum and was often visited by Adolf Hitler.
There was no distinction between religion and politics in Pergamum. The city’s coins depicted intertwined serpents to represent the interconnection between the sacred and the secular. For the pagans in this city, politics was religion and religion was politics. For the Christians, there was a constant temptation to compromise their beliefs and practices for political and economic gain.
Pergamum was known for its asklepium, a healing and medical center. Here, religious meditation, dream interpretation, snake-handling, and medical arts were combined for healing purposes. The Sacred Way led from the Asclepion, built in honor of the god of healing, toward the acropolis, which rose a thousand feet above the plain. Near the summit stood the immense altar to Zeus.
Portrayal of Jesus
Jesus describes Himself as the One who has the double-edged sword (see Rev. 1:16). Why does He use these words? Check out Hebrews 4:12. The Word of God is compared to a “double-edged sword.” Jesus wields the powerful and true words of God which keenly discerns thoughts and motives.
Praise for the Church
Jesus began His letter to the church at Pergamum by telling them, “I know where you live” (verse13). He was fully aware that these believers were surrounded by a non-Christian society and exposed to its values, standards, and pressures. He knew how difficult things were for them.
Jesus assured these believers that He knew that they dwelt in a city under Satan’s control. He understood the persecutions and temptations they experienced from the rampant Satan inspired religions. He praised them for holding fast to Him in the face of danger and persecutions.
Many believers in the church of Pergamum died for their faith. Jesus singled out one man and called him “My faithful martyr.” The word “martyr” meant “witness” and has come to mean those who witness by their death.
Church tradition tells us that Antipas was brought before a statue of Caesar and told to swear that Caesar was God. But Antipas proclaimed that Jesus alone was Lord, and that there was no other God but Him. Antipas was put inside a brass bull which was heated with fire.
Criticism of the Church
What were the believers doing wrong? They were tolerating those who followed Balaam’s teachings and that of the Nicolaitans.
Do you remember who Balaam was? You may remember the talking donkey incident.
Here’s the story from Numbers 22–24. Balaam was a prophet who was hired by a king named Balak to utter a curse on Israel. God would not let him do this, making his donkey talk back to him. But Balaam advised Balak to send women to seduce the Israelite men (Numbers 31:16). These women drew these men into the worship of false gods, and that meant disaster for the Israelites (Numbers 25:1-3). Balaam’s clever notion was to break down Israel by an indirect attack on their morals and faith. Balaam is a prototype of corrupt teachers who betray believers into fatal compromise in morals and beliefs.
Now that you know this about Balaam, what do you think was going on in Pergamum? Several religions of the area involved religious festivals and temple prostitution. Apparently, some of these people were infiltrating the church and leading some believers into sexual immorality and idolatry.
The Greco-Roman world looked upon sexual promiscuity as an acceptable way of life. For example, Demosthenes stated, “We have prostitutes for the sake of pleasure. We have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation. We have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately and of having a faithful guardian of our household affairs.” Cicero argued, “If there is anyone who thinks that young men should be forbidden to love a prostitute, he is extremely severe. He is at variance, not only with the license of what our age allows, but also with the customs and concessions of our ancestors.”
There were those in the church who said, “That is the way to live, as everyone else around you.” So they said that the accepted standards of the world are to be the accepted patterns of life for believers. Do we have this doctrine of Balaam around toady?
What about foods sacrificed to idols? We are free to eat or not to eat such food (see Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8; 10:20-30). Why is it such a problem here? Apparently believers were being drawn into pagan cults by participating in their feasts. As such it would be better to avoid these feasts altogether.
Who were the Nicolaitans? Irenaeus said that they were followers of Nicolaus of Antioch, a proselyte who was among the seven men chosen to serve the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 6:5), who had forsaken true doctrine and lived in unrestrained indulgence (Against Heresies I, 26:3). Hippolytus confirmed this by noting that Nicolaus left correct doctrine and had the habit of indifference as to what a man ate and as to how he lived (Refutation of Heresies 7:24). Although Clement of Alexandria defended Nicolaus by explaining that his followers had misunderstood him, he observed that the Nicolaitans abandoned themselves to pleasures like goats in a life a life of shameless self-indulgence (The Miscellianes 2:20). They advocated license in matters of Christian conduct, including free love.
It may be that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans was dualistic. They reasoned that the human body was evil and the spirit was good. A believer, therefore, could do whatever he desired with his body because it had no importance.
These false teachers believed that a little idolatry or a little immorality or a little compromise of the truth couldn’t really hurt anything. In fact, such compromise made Christianity all the more tolerable in a pagan city.
Today there’s a similar spirit within the church. When believers commit adultery, cheat in business, or compromise their doctrinal or moral standards to fit the situation, they fit into the Pergamum mentality.
What were the believers supposed to do? Repent! How might they do that? Recommitting themselves to God’s truth and separating themselves from those who teach things contrary to God’s truth.
Penalty or Reward
What does Jesus threaten to do? Come and get rid of the false teachers Himself. There’s mention of the sword again. What’s that about? The sword of His mouth is His powerful word of judgment.
Twice in our text, the Lord talks about His “sword.” It seems that He’s talking about His Word. This is the way to oppose false teaching, by grounding ourselves in Scripture.
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The admonition is the same as the comparable commands to Ephesus and Smyrna.
Promise to Overcomers
To those who overcome, Jesus promised three things: 1) hidden manna, 2) a white stone, 3) a new name.
Hidden manna from heaven is the nourishment needed for spiritual health. Jesus does not want us to be lured away from fellowship with Him. If we refuse to be drawn away by the enticements of false religions, Jesus promises us “hidden manna,” special fellowship with Him.
Jesus will also give us a white stone inscribed with a new name. Such a white stone with one’s name on it was the basis for admission to special events. It was also a well-established custom to reward victors at the games with such a token enabling them to gain admission to a special feast. The “hidden manna,” the other part of the reward suggests a reference to the Messianic feast. The white stone is, then, a personalized tessara, which would serve as his token of admission to this great future feast. The giving of the white stone to the believer indicates that he has been favored by Jesus. The new name might reflect the proven character of the overcoming believer.
Conclusion – Don’t Be Deceived!
WWJS to the church tolerating false doctrine: “Don’t succumb to false teaching.” Don’t tolerate false teaching. Those who keep themselves from error will receive a double blessing in the life to come. The one who overcomes will enjoy special heavenly meals with the Lord Jesus. The one who overcomes will be honored with a special name. Feast with Christ today and feast with Him in glory.