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Studies in the book of Revelation: When it’s hard to say no

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 2:12-17

Jesus’ letters are addressed in a circular route. From Smyrna, the road north followed the coastline some 40 miles before turning in a northeastern direction up the valley of the Caicus River. About 10 miles from the Aegean Sea stood the city of Pergamum.

Pliny, the Roman governor of the area, said Pergamum was “by far the most distinguished city in Asia” (Historia naturalis 5.30). For more than 300 years she was the capitol city for the entire region.

Built on a cone-shaped hill a thousand feet in elevation, Pergamum dominated the valley below. From this height the inhabitants of the city could see the Mediterranean Sea 15 miles away. “Pergamum” in Greek means “citadel,” an appropriate description of the city.

Her history began 400 years before Christ, and was a story of constant warfare. Attalus III (ca. 170-133) bequeathed his entire empire to Rome, so that Asia Minor became a Roman province with Pergamum as its capitol. The city retained this status until AD 130.

Pergamum was Rome’s capitol in the region; it was Satan’s as well: “I know where you live–where Satan has his throne” (v. 13). His temptations were three in number.

First: cultural possessions. Pergamum had an outstanding school of art; and was best known for its library, second in size only to the famed library at Alexandria, Egypt, with some 200,000 volumes.

Parchment (animal skin used as writing material) was invented in Pergamum, in conjunction with its library. And when scholars in Pergamum found their parchments difficult to store as scrolls, they invented the “codex,” or book, to bind them together. The stadium of the city is well preserved and stunning as well. And sculpture was highly developed in Pergamum and famous for its quality.

This cultural prosperity may explain why the cult of the Nicolaitans thrived in Pergamum. The sophistication of the society made this heresy very attractive and persuasive.

Second: religious performance. Gigantic altars to the pagan gods stood at every corner. The most famous was the altar to Zeus. Forty feet high, it rested like a throne 800 feet up Pergamum’s canonical hill. All day long it smoked with sacrifices offered to Zeus. Carved around its base was one of the greatest sculptures of the ancient world, a frieze of the Battle of the Giants which proclaimed the victory of the Greek gods over the barbarian giants. These ruins are still visible to visitors today.

The shrine to Athena was important as well. This is the first site a visitor to Pergamum sees today. A third shrine was dedicated to Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing. Sufferers from around the world flocked to it. As a result, medical wards, schools, and priests made their headquarters in Pergamum. Galen, second only to Hippocrates in ancient medical significance, was born in Pergamum and made its medical practice even more famous.

As we will see, there are very clear parallels between the pagan worship of the city and the Balaamite heresy so prevalent in the church.

Third: political power. This was the official center in Asia Minor for the imperial cult. In 29 BC Emperor Augustus gave permission for a temple to be erected in Pergamum to “the divine Augustus and the goddess Roma” (Tacitus, Annals 3.37). This was the first temple in all of Asia built to the worship of a living ruler. Soon the people added a second and third temple as well.

The ruins of the temple of Trajan are still visible today, a reminder of the idolatry of the city and its constant pressure on the Christian church.

Faithful but flawed

As his letter to the Pergamum Christians begins, Jesus speaks a word of hearty commendation: “you remain true to my name” (v. 13). The Greek says, “You are holding onto my name”–“holding” means to grasp tightly onto a treasured possession. Jesus’ “name” denotes his character or person. These Christians are honoring the third commandment in a city which breaks it daily.

Then Jesus describes their courage in another way: “You did not deny my faith.” They have held his name by refusing to deny their faith. And this refusal has come at great cost: “even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city–where Satan lives.”

Antipas is the only person named specifically in any of Jesus’ seven letters to his churches. His name means “against all,” a reputation he fulfilled to the death. He refused to bow the knee to Caesar or proclaim him lord, and paid the price of faithfulness with his life. Every Christian in Pergamum could expect the same consequences for keeping the faith.

Satan cannot defeat the church by a frontal assault, so he attempts an insidious strategy: idolatry, then heresy. First he uses idolatry: “You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (v. 14).

Here’s the story in brief. Balak, the king of Moab, tried to entice Balaam the Hebrew prophet to curse Israel, but Balaam refused. However, he did even worse. He arranged a plan whereby the daughters of the Moabites seduced the men of Israel. Then these men led the Israelites to sacrifice to the pagan god of Moab and worship him (Numbers 22-25). From then to now, Balaam stands for the deception of idolatry.

And so Satan attempts a successful, strong church in the same way, enticing us to worship things or people other than God.

Second, Satan employs heresy: “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (v. 15). We met this heretical group in Ephesus. Apparently they practiced a kind of Gnosticism, an early heresy which taught in part that physical actions do not bear on our spiritual lives.

In the letter to Ephesus we learned that Jesus “hates” this heresy. Unfortunately, the Christians in Pergamum did not.

A pivotal choice

Now these Christians are confronted with a monumental decision: “Repent, therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (v. 16). Jesus began his letter to Pergamum with the same image: “These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword” (v. 12).

This is the same sword which came “out of his mouth” in his earlier vision to John (1.16). This is an image for the word of God which is “sharper than any two-edged sword’ and “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4.12). With the sharp sword of his mouth, Jesus will conquer all nations (Revelation 19.15) and will cleanse his church in Satan’s capitol.

Those who repent and return to Jesus will have the “hidden manna” (v. 17a). The Jews believed that when the Messiah comes, he will bring with him more of the wilderness manna first given to Israel in the days of Moses. Here Jesus promises to replace the food they’ve sacrificed to idols with the feast of the Messiah.

And they will also receive “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (v. 17b). This probably refers to the tessera, invitation stones on which were engraved the names of people invited to special feats and functions.

Jesus promises that his people, restored to doctrinal purity, will have a new name. This promise fulfills the prediction of old: “You will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow” (Isaiah 62.2).

We will suffer for our faith. But Jesus promises that the results of our faithfulness will always be worth their price.

The church at Pergamum illustrates the fact that idolatry is a constant temptation for believers. We learn here also that heresy is a perennial enemy of the faith. And we discover that God rewards faithfulness beyond all that it costs.