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The third letter

To the Church in Pergamum
12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.
15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
17 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
4. The Third Letter: To Pergamum (2:12–17)
If Ephesus was the New York of Asia, Pergamum was its Washington, for there the Roman imperial power had its seat of government. There also was built the earliest temple for the state-sponsored worship of the Emperor. Whether or not this was what Christ meant by ‘the throne of Satan’, it emphasizes the kind of difficulties the Pergamene Christians had to face. For them Satan is not merely, as at Smyrna, a slanderer working through a group of ill-disposed Jews. He appears as ‘the ruler of this world’, to take a phrase from John’s Gospel (); and what John’s first Letter would call ‘the world’ (.) is in fact the great enemy of the church at Pergamum.
It includes the power of other institutions besides the machinery of state. The enormous Pergamene library (the town gave its name to ‘parchment’), the famous healing ministry of the priests of Aesculapius, and crowning the city’s acropolis the Greco-Asiatic altar of Zeus the Saviour—all this paraphernalia of an ‘alternative society’, catering for mind, body, and spirit, is added to the overt demands of the Roman state. (In the same way we shall find in Scene 4 the beast from the earth joined by the beast from the sea to offer men a viable life-structure outside the kingdom of God. But that story must wait its turn: anticipating John’s further revelations is a fruitful way of misunderstanding them.)
In brief, Satan is working here through the pressures of non-Christian society. He persecutes; the suffering which will come to Smyrna has already come to Pergamum, and one at least has died a martyr’s death (verse 13b). He seduces; the Nicolaitans we met at Ephesus are here also, and though we know practically nothing about them, their teaching is apparently of the same kind as that of Balaam, who had led God’s people into sin long before (; ). Both the sins mentioned in verse 14 may be taken literally. Both appeared in the time of Balaam, both reappeared in the New Testament church ( and 8), and the pathway to them is the kind of temptation which is typical of worldliness in any age: ‘Where is the harm in it? Everyone else does it; why shouldn’t you?’
Seduction, or persecution—a choice of evils which the world offers the church. For a soft-centred permissive society can be curiously hard on those who refuse to go along with it. ‘They are surprised that you do not now join them in the same wild profligacy, and they abuse you’ (). The gay streets of Vanity Fair can still lead to prison and a stake: either you buy or you burn. This is not, indeed, the ten days’ reign of terror which Smyrna was to expect. Antipas was apparently the only member of the church at Pergamum who had actually been martyred. But how does Christ’s commendation read? ‘You did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas’; implying that it was always a temptation, though especially of course at that time.
For some the temptation is too strong, and they give way. Compromise creeps in; the distinction between the church and the world is blurred; there is too much tolerance, too little discipline. ‘The fault of Pergamum is the opposite of the fault of Ephesus: and how narrow is the safe path between the sin of tolerance and the sin of intolerance!’
Nevertheless in the end it is Christ they have to reckon with. The power of the sword rests not with the rulers of Rome nor with the ruler of this world, but with him (verse 12). It is the sword of judgment in two senses, discerning the truth () and punishing the evil (), and he will use it even against those in the church who will not repent (verse 16).
The terrible accusation against the church at Sardis is that, although it has a reputation for life, it is in fact spiritually dead. The New Testament frequently likens sin to death. In the Pastoral Epistles, we read: ‘[She] who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives’ (). The prodigal son is the one who was dead and is alive again (). The Roman Christians are described as having been brought from death to life (). Paul says that his converts in their pre-Christian days were dead through trespasses and sins (, ).
(1) Sin is the death of the will. If someone accepts the invitations of sin for long enough, the time comes when that person cannot accept anything else. Habits grow until they can no longer be broken. People come, as the Roman philosopher Seneca had it, to hate their sins and to love them at the same time. There can be few of us who have not experienced the power of some bad habit into which we have fallen.
(2) Sin is the death of the feelings. The process of becoming the slave of sin does not happen overnight. The first time we sin, we do so with considerable qualms. But the day comes, if we go on taking what is forbidden, when we do something without a second thought that once we would have been horrified to do. Sin, as Robert Burns had it in his ‘Epistle to a Young Friend’, ‘petrifies the feeling’.
(3) Sin is the death of all loveliness. The terrible thing about sin is that it can take the loveliest things and turn them into ugliness. Through sin, the yearning for the highest can become the craving for power; the wish to serve can become the intoxication of ambition; the desire of love can become the passion of lust. Sin is the killer of life’s loveliness.
It is only by the grace of God that we can escape the death of sin.
Barclay, W. (2004). The Revelation of John (3rd ed. fully rev. and updated, Vol. 1, pp. 127–128). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press.
But there remains a promise to those who do repent and over-come. It is not easy to understand, and many suggestions have been made, especially about the meaning of the white stone (verse 17). Since the context speaks of feasts of idol-meat and the feast of manna which God spread for Israel in the desert, perhaps the reference is to an ancient use of square stones as tickets of admission to some public entertainment. So the promise of eternal life which ends each of the first two Letters is repeated here in terms appropriate to the Christian who will not compromise with worldly pleasures and idol-meat banquets. Christ gives that man a personal invitation to the true pleasures of the banquet of heaven, which are, in fact, himself: for ‘all the promises of God find their Yes in him’, and he is the true manna, the heavenly bread (; ).
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