The Church at Pergamos
The letter to the church at Pergamos is the most critical of the letters we’ve studied so far. In fact, Christ introduced himself in verse 12 as a judge wielding a sharp two-edged sword. According to verse 16, he is ready to use his sword to fight against the impenitent.
But what was the problem here? This is made clear in verse 14 and 15. The church at Pergamos had welcomed into its midst some who held to serious error, viz., those who held the doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. Although the church as a whole may not have embraced their aberrant theology, it nonetheless tolerated it. And toleration of this kind of error is compromise.
Considering the circumstances in which this church found itself, it’s not hard to understand why it would have embraced such a broad ecumenicity. But this, of course, is not an excuse. Whereas Ephesus boasted its worship of Diana and Smyrna its allegiance to Rome, Pergamos was the center of worship for four of the most important cults of the day: Zeus, Dionysus, Athene and Asklepios. Of greater importance yet, Pergamos was the provincial capital of Asia Minor as well as the designated center for the worship of Rome, making a conflict between the state and the church almost inescapable. In fact, Pergamos was the first city to erect the temple Caesar Augustus. This is doubtless what the Lord meant when he described Pergamos in verse 13 as the place where Satan’s seat is. To protect the imperial cult the Roman government had also granted the proconsul of Pergamos the sovereign use of the sword, which he could exercise at will.
In this context, Christ reminded the church that he is the sovereign sword-bearer. He alone has power over life and death, not just in this world but also in the world to come. Even the proconsul of Pergamos, as great as he may be in the eyes of Rome, will eventually stand before the awful judgment seat of Christ. Christ alone must be feared, for he judges the thoughts and intents of all hearts.
The Church’s Faithfulness
In spite of the church’s compromises, the Lord Jesus commended it in verse 13 for its works and its faithfulness during a previous persecution. Apparently, this persecution had been especially severe, for a man named Antipas had given his life as a testimony to Christ. This makes Pergamos the only one of the seven churches of Asia Minor known to have had a martyr before John wrote the book of Revelation.
However, there is no indication in the message to the church at Pergamos that it was currently suffering persecution or that it would do so in the immediate future more than any church of its day. In the letter to the church at Smyrna, Christ warned his people that their suffering would be especially intense, though short-lived. Nothing of the kind is said here. Instead, the Lord commended the church to encourage it to remain faithful under a different kind of trial.
But this only makes the church’s compromise that much more difficult to understand. Why would the church have remained faithful during times when its members were suffering and dying for the faith, and then compromise later when things were quieter?
The fact is that this is not as difficult to understand as it may seem. The threat of violence and death reminds us of the importance of what we believe and the urgency of communicating it to others. But when threats cease, we sometimes lose this sense of the importance and urgency of the gospel, and for the sake of peace we give more and more latitude for error. In this sense, it can be harder to remain faithful to Christ in a predominately unbelieving but not openly hostile society than when facing the executioner’s sword.
A good illustration of this point comes from the early fourth century. Constantine, after supposedly seeing the sign of victory in the sky, issued the Edict of Milan (AD 313), which adopted what we might call a friendly neutrality toward the church and prepared the way for the church’s full recognition. Since Constantine considered himself a Christian, his edict made it immediately fashionable for Roman citizens to join the church with or without any real commitment to the gospel. On one occasion it is reported that twelve thousand people were baptized in the city of Rome. The unfortunate result of this was that the church started to look more and more like the world. The church had not affected the society, as much as the society had affected the church. Thereafter, the church became more and more pagan.
The church at Pergamos was especially sensitive to these kinds of problems. It was situated in the religious and social capital of the region. Twice the Lord says that it was a world occupied by Satan himself. In verse 13 he wrote that Pergamos was where Satan’s seat is. Here the word translated seat is literally “throne” (ὁ θρόνος). The end of the same verse adds that this was also the place where Satan dwelleth.
There is a sense in which we can say that all opposition to the gospel comes from Satan. It either comes from him directly, which may have been the case here, or indirectly. But the good news is that the prince of darkness has been bound and cast into the bottomless pit for a thousand years (Rev. 20:1–2; cf. Matt. 12:22–32). He has been defeated, and specifically he has been defeated for you. That’s why Paul wrote to the Romans that the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly (Rom. 16:20). James says, Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (Jas. 4:7; cf. I Pet. 5:8–9). He has no choice but to run from those who are covered by the blood of Christ.
In spite of the fact that some within the church were willing to tolerate serious error, overall the church remained faithful to Christ and his gospel. Thus, Christ commanded the church: I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth (v. 13). What a testimony to us, who suffer much less but succumb to our trials more easily!
Compromises with Pagan Practices
As we have seen, though, all was not well with the church at Pergamos. In verses 14 and 15 Christ wrote, But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate (Re 2:14-15).
The doctrine of Balaam was not a system of theology like Calvinism or Lutheranism. Rather, it was a methodology that Balaam encouraged Balak to use to make the Lord’s people bring God’s curse upon themselves. And it was a fairly simple methodology. Balak sent Moabite prostitutes to seduce the men of Israel. Then, once they stole the hearts of the Israelites, they invited them to participate in the sacrifices and worship of their false gods. Unfortunately, this program worked and 24,000 Israelites died as a result. The only thing that saved the nation was the fact that Phinehas the priest interceded for it by carrying out the Lord’s sentence of judgment against the offenders.
What we see here is that direct attacks sometimes do not accomplish much. If the devil came to you and said, “I am the devil; worship me,” you would probably dismiss him right away. But when he comes in a disguise and cloaks his purpose, it’s harder to see what he’s up to and, therefore, also harder to resist him. In this instance, Balaam knew that criticizing the strictness of God’s law would get him nowhere. So, he advised Balak to conceal his real designs under the perfumed sheets of an army of seductresses.
This account is recorded in the twenty-fifth chapter of Numbers. However, not one word in this chapter indicates that Balak’s insidious plot had been suggested by Balaam. Perhaps this was either because it was common knowledge at the time, in which case there was no need to mention it, or because it wasn’t discovered until later. In any case, there can be no doubt that Balaam was the main culprit. Numbers 31:16 says, Behold, these [i.e., the Moabite women] caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
Not very long ago, there was a cult named the Children of God that practiced the doctrine of Balaam. In an effort to attract men, they evangelized them by having their women seduce them. There was nothing morally wrong with this, they said, because they were doing nothing more than showing God’s love to men who did not know what real love was. They called this method of evangelism “flirty fishing” and stopped using it only because of the AIDS epidemic of the mid-1980s. This cult still exists today, though now it goes by the name The Family International. Interestingly, its current statement of beliefs contains an article on sexuality that still does not restrict intimacy to married adults. It says that “heterosexual relations … between consenting adults of legal age … [is] permissible according to Scripture.”
While we don’t really have enough information in our text to determine how the doctrine of Balaam affected the church at Pergamos, the fact that the Lord specifically mentioned pagan sacrifice and fornication in verse 14 suggests that these two sins were certainly involved.
The second group that carried its pagan influence into the church at Pergamos was the Nicolaitans, who are mentioned in verse 15. They were also mentioned a few verses earlier in the letter to the Ephesians (v. 6).
The first thing we note is that the Lord said very little about the nature of the Nicolaitans’ error. Since he spent so much time describing the doctrine of Balaam, this seems rather odd. The answer is that the Lord actually said more than we think. The word translated so (οὕτως) at the beginning of verse 15 is a comparative adverb that literally means “with reference to what preceded.” The point of comparison may be simply that the church was tolerating two groups espousing error, but it is far more likely that the two errors were themselves similar.
In fact, it’s even possible that the two groups mentioned in verses 14 and 15 were one and the same. There are two reasons why I say this. First, the words translated which thing I hate (ὅ μισῶ) should probably read in a similar way (ὁμοίως), which has much better textual support. This, then, would give us a double emphasis on the similarity of the two groups. Second, the meanings of the two names is the same. Jewish rabbis believe that Balaam (בִּלְעָם) means “he rules the people,” and Nicolaitan (ὁ Νικολαΐτης), if derived from the verb, could be translated “he overcomes the people” (νικᾷ λαόν).
Christ commanded the church at Pergamos to repent (v. 16). He expected the church to exercise discipline by removing those who were teaching contrary to apostolic doctrine. Refusal to do this would bring his quick judgment. The Lord said, Or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
There are three things about the Lord’s threat of judgment that are important. The first is the pronouns: Christ said that he would come unto thee, i.e., unto the church, but that he would fight against them, i.e., those who were holding to Balaam’s doctrine. So, only the wayward members of the church had to worry. Christ promised much better things to the faithful. Second, Balaam himself fell by the sword of judgment. The angel who stood before his ass held a sword in his hand (Num. 22:23, 31). This was prophetic of what would later happen. When the Jews executed the kings of Midian, they also killed Balaam. Numbers 31:8 says, And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain;… Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword. Those who follow Balaam’s errors will suffer Balaam’s fate. And third, Jesus promised to fight against the Balaam’s followers with the sword of his mouth. This is the same sword that he held in his hand in chapter 1 (v. 16) and would reveal more fully in chapter 19 (v. 15). It is the preaching of the gospel, which he would use to overcome the enemy. Those who thought they had the victory over others would find themselves conquered by the word of the cross.
The church at Pergamos ceased long ago. Either it failed to rectify its problem or the Lord removed its candlestick for another reason.
The Promise to the Faithful
As with the other messages to the churches, this one ends with the Lord promising the faithful in the church at Pergamos his favor. But note, again, that here as in each of the seven letters, the faithful are those who overcome. The word translated overcometh (νικάω) in each instance is the same word from which the Nicolaitans (τῶν Νικολαϊτῶν) derived their name. The Nicolaitans believed that they had the victory, but Christ assured his people that it is really those who remain faithful to him who are victorious. In Pergamos, they needed to demonstrate their faithfulness by conquering their toleration of soul-jeopardizing error.
The promises here are especially interesting. Verses 17 tells us what they are: the faithful will be allowed to eat hidden manna and they will receive white stones with names written on them. What makes these promises somewhat unusual is that neither the manna nor the stones are mentioned anywhere else in Revelation.
The first promise hidden manna. Manna was the food that God provided for the Jews who left Egypt under Moses. It served as an indication of God’s love and care for his people, in spite of their hardness of heart. Here, however, the manna is hidden. If the Jews had so described it, they would probably be referring to the old Jewish tale that Jeremiah hid some of the manna before the Ark of the Covenant was lost. They look forward to the disclosure of this manna someday in the future. But coming from the Lord, the fact that the manna is hidden probably indicates it is spiritual in nature, and thus stands in contrast to the things sacrificed unto idols in verse 14.
Although manna is not specifically mentioned elsewhere in Revelation, Revelation has a lot to say about eating and drinking, which reaches its peak toward the end of the book. In chapter 19 we find the Lamb’s wedding banquet, and in the last two chapters there are references to eating from the tree of life and drinking the water of the river of life, etc. All of this makes it clear that Christ wants his people to enjoy his benefits fully.
The white stone is a little more difficult. We have no specific instances in Biblical history that suggest any special significance to white stones. The most that the Bible says is that the color of the manna itself was occasionally compared to white stones. Numbers 11:7, for example, says that the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium.
On the other hand, extra-Biblical sources show white stones were in common use among Jews in the first century. In a courtroom, for example, a white stone was a vote for the acquittal of the defendent, while a black stone was meant that he was found guilty. In our text, this would mean that those who remain faithful to Christ have been forgiven of their sins. But there is another use of white stones that seems to fit the immediate context a little better. White stones were also used as invitations to important dinners. This, coupled with the promise of manna, indicates that those who overcome will participate in the Lamb’s great supper. It’s even more likely that both uses of the white stone go together, viz., the reason those who overcome are invited to the supper is that they have been covered by the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, symbolized in chapter 19 by the saints wearing pure white robes to the marriage celebration.
On each of the white stones there was a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. But what was the new name written on the white stones? The Lord revealed it to the church at Philadelphia in the twelfth verse of the next chapter. To the faithful he said, Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. The name, then, is the name of God, the name of the city and the name of Christ.
Yet, we’re not really talking about multiple names. In our text, the name written on the white stones is singular. It refers to the fullness of fellowship that believers have and will always have with the triune God. This is what knowing the name of God meant in the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 9:10 says, They that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, LORD, hast not forsaken them that seek thee. Likewise, Isaiah wrote, Therefore my people shall know my name: therefore they shall know in that day that I am he that doth speak: behold, it is I (Isa. 52:6). According to Revelation 22:4, the fellowship of believers with God is so intimate that they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads (cf. 14:1). In fact, believers will not only have the name of the city of God. We will be that city that comes down from God out of heaven (Rev. 21:2).
This name is also new. Its newness lies in the fact that the work of Christ in the new covenant has given us a new standing before God (cf. Isa. 62:2; 65:15). As our mediator, Christ also has a new name (Rev. 3:12). And the reason no one knows this name except those who receive the stones is obvious: only those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and find their whole salvation in him participate in this glorious covenant of life and fellowship with the Lord.
The church at Pergamos had some work to do. By and large it was faithful to Christ, but its toleration of doctrinal error spelled compromise. The church needed to repent.
Unfortunately, the possibility of compromise is especially a problem when errors are more subtle. This is the problem of our own day. The world tells us that the gospel is not academically respectable. It doesn’t meet the intellectual needs of the twenty-first century. The creation story in Genesis 1 could not possibly be true, since the theory of evolution is portrayed as a scientific fact. Believers cannot be justified by faith alone, since this wasn’t the issue that the New Testament deals with. The Reformers of the sixteenth century had it all wrong. The Bible cannot be the Word of God because it is impossible for God to be the wrathful judge that it describes. And we certainly shouldn’t oppose abortion or homosexuality, since our opposition demonstrates a lack of love for mothers who don’t want their “fetuses” to interfere with their lives and for those who are genetically attracted to the same sex. The list could go on and on.
We have to live everyday in a world in which unbelievers urge us to believe something that they can respect. But we need to heed what Christ wrote to the church at Pergamos. He will fight against those who compromise with the sword of his mouth, but he rewards the faithful with everlasting fellowship with himself. In the end, only the Lord’s approbation matters.
May the Lord keep us from tolerating error in the name of getting along with the world, so that we might enjoy the endless blessing of our God that are ours only through the work of Jesus Christ! To the triune God be all praise and glory, now and forever. Amen.