Pergamum, the Worldly Church Revelation 2:12–17
Pergamum was noted for its pagan religions and many heathen temples. Among others, they worshiped Dionysus, the god of vegetation, and Aesculapius, the god of healing. A medical school was attached to this pagan cult, and the well-known symbol of the medical profession—a serpent twined around a staff—first appeared there. The great altar dedicated to the chief Greek savior-god, Zeus Olympus, was located in Pergamum, along with an altar to Athena, patron goddess of Athens. Roman Emperor worship was practiced in Pergamum, its first temple being erected in 29 B.C. Citizens were required to burn a pinch of incense at the foot of Caesar’s statue, honoring him as a god. Those who refused to do so were immediately arrested.
Another satanic religious system, which had been started in Babylon by Semiramis, wife of Nimrod, found a new home in Pergamum when Babylon was captured by the Persians in 539 B.C. With the worship of Caesar, Zeus, Aesculapius, and other pseudo-gods, Satan had firmly established himself throughout the city.
Scripture indicates that Satan is “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), who goes throughout the world (Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) “like a roaring lion … seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). It seems natural, therefore, that Satan would set up his operation in the center of idolatry, learning, and the healing arts. In this way he could control the mind of man through learning, the body of man through healing, and the soul of man through pagan religion. And the church of Pergamum was begun right where “Satan’s throne” (v. 13) had been set up. With the church taking its stand in the midst of Satan’s dwelling place, it would be only a matter of time before conflict arose.
The Lord revealed Himself to the church of Pergamum as “he who hath the sharp sword with two edges” (v. 12), which refers to Christ’s Word of judgment. His Word is “living, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
Christ was well aware of the “works” (v. 13) of the believers at Pergamum. He also knew the conditions in which this church had to live out its commitment to Him and the pressures they faced. He praised the believers for their commitment to Him in three ways. First, they were holding fast to His name (v. 13). There was a remnant of believers in Pergamum who loved the Lord and remained loyal to Him in the shadow of Satan’s throne. Second, they had not “denied [His] faith” (v. 13), meaning that they had not denied faith in Him. They recognized the truth about Christ and were wiring to confess explicit faith in Him as the only Savior to be followed and worshiped as God. In so doing, they put their lives on the line in a society controlled by Satan and full of heathen worship. Third, Christ recognized Antipas, whom the Lord called “my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth” (v. 13). The name Antipas means against all. He died standing faithful to the name and doctrine of Christ, which was being opposed by satanically inspired men.
Although the church at Pergamum was faithful to the name of Christ and His doctrine, the Lord had two complaints against it. First, the church tolerated the false “doctrine of Balaam” (v. 14) in the fellowship and did not expel those who held it. Balaam was a gifted prophet who prostituted his gift for financial gain and worldly honor. He was hired by Balak, king of Moab, to pronounce a curse on the nation of Israel. Balaam tried to curse Israel but failed on three attempts (Num. 22:14–21) because of the restraining power of God (Num. 23–24). Unable to curse Israel, whom God had blessed, Balaam conceived a plan to have the men of Israel enter into mixed marriages with Moabite women, thus producing spiritual compromise (Num. 22:5; 23:8; 31:15–16). When Satan could not physically destroy the Israelites, he tried to destroy them through unions with ungodly neighbors, so that Israel would no longer be separated to the Lord but would be defiled with idolatrous and immoral practices.
In verse 14, Christ mentioned three practices within the doctrine of Balaam that corrupted the believers in Pergamum. First, Satan tried to entice the church with the world, possibly through mixed marriages, thereby bringing in all the worldly practices connected with infidelity to corrupt their walk with the Lord. Second, he attempted to spiritually corrupt the church by enticing them “to eat things sacrificed unto idols,” thus bringing in idolatry. Third, Satan tried to corrupt the church through the sexual sin of “fornication.” These practices were condemned by the first church council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:19–20).
Christ’s second complaint against the church at Pergamum was that it tolerated “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate” (v. 15). This was a doctrine held by professing believers in the church, wherein they claimed to have liberty in Christ, which led to licentious living, denial of God as creator, and freedom to eat foods offered to idols. What was a deed in Ephesus became a doctrine in Pergamum.
The name Pergamum means married and is a picture of a church that became married to the world. Christians are admonished to not conform to this world’s system (Rom. 12:2), for the world hates Christ and His followers (Jn. 15:18–19; 17:14). Those who would be friends of the world are enemies of God (Jas. 4:4). The church must remember that union with Christ is like the marriage relationship (2 Cor. 11:2–3; Eph. 5:30–32), and it should not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers or the dark works of the world’s system (2 Cor. 6:11–7:1).
The Lord commanded the church at Pergamum to “repent” (v. 16). True repentance involves three things: contrition of heart, confession of sin, and a change in conduct. He warned them that failure to repent would cause Him to come to the church quickly and “fight against them with the sword of [His] mouth” (v. 16). The Lord will not tolerate compromise within His church; He will fight against all who defile it.
Christ promised three things to the overcomers. First, they will be given “hidden manna” (v. 17) to eat. When Israel came out of Egypt (a type of the world), they were given bread from heaven called manna (Ex. 16), which sustained them throughout their wilderness wanderings. Christians are promised “hidden manna” from Heaven that the world cannot see. Christ, who is the “bread of life” (Jn. 6:48–51), provides spiritual sustenance for believers during their pilgrimage in this world.
Second, faithful believers are promised a “white stone” (v. 17). Being given a white stone by Christ assures believers of acceptability and favor with God, which was a great comfort to those who were living in the wicked city of Pergamum and were suffering satanic persecution.
Third, believers are given “in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth except he that receiveth it” (v. 17). The individualized name provided for each believer symbolizes the personal and intimate relationship that the believer will experience with the Lord in Heaven.
The Lord warned the church at Pergamum to guard against compromise in the areas of morals, false teachers, and heretical doctrine. The same warning is necessary and must be heeded by churches and individual believers today.