Monday, November 3, 2008

A Message To Seven Churches - Part 3, Pergamum

Continuing along the postal route from Smyrna the next church we encounter is the church at Pergamum, and this is the next church that Jesus addresses in Revelation chapter 3.

The city of Pergamum (or Pergamos) is the modern Turkish city of Bergama. The city is situated near the Caicus River in northwest Asia Minor opposite the island of Lesbos about 15 miles from the Aegean Sea and about 50 miles north of Smyrna. The city occupied a commanding position near the seaward end of the Caicus river valley and was probably settled at a very early date.

The city of Pergamum became an independent kingdom in the third century B.C. under the leadership of Attalus I who defeated the Gauls, and the city stood as a symbol of Greek superiority over the barbarians. In 133 B.C. Attalus III, the last king to rule in Pergamum bequeathed his kingdom to the Romans; his kingdom comprised parts of Phrygia, Ionia, Caria, Lydia, and Mysia. After his death the Romans constituted the province of Asia Minor and made Pergamum its capitol city. Under Caesar Augustus the province was reconstituted as a senatorial province and had a governor of consular rank who governed as proconsul. It was probably at this time that the capitol of Asia Minor was moved from Pergamum to Ephesus.

Pergamum was most well known for its library, which was second only to the great library of Alexandria and contained over 200,000 items. The Egyptians, being concerned that this library would surpass their own refused to ship any papyrus to Pergamum. As a result, a new form of writing material, a type of parchment, was developed in Pergamum called Pregamena charta. In addition to this new form of parchment the wealth of the city was also derived from agriculture, silver mining, stockbreeding, and textiles.

Pergamum was also the first city to build a temple for the purpose of emperor worship when in 29 B.C. a temple was erected there in honor of Augustus. In addition to this temple the city also boasted temples for Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and Asclepius. Asclepius was the Greek god of healing, and in addition to the shrine that honored him Pergamum was famous for its medical center where the famous physician Galen worked in about 160 A.D.

In the message to this church Jesus said that Pergamum was the place where Satan’s throne was, and the place where Satan dwells. This could be a reference to the worship of Asclepius since the snake was his symbol and he was known as the “savior-healer.” It could also be a reference to the multitude of pagan cults that were practiced there, it could be a reference to the practice of emperor worship that began in this city, or it could just be a reference to the persecution that the Christians in this city were facing, which is the work of Satan.

Now that we have a little background on the City of Pergamum let’s look at this message:
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this: ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.’”
Revelation 2:12-17 (NASB)
Once again we see Jesus beginning His message by using one of the descriptions of Himself that we saw in the first chapter; in this message He calls Himself “The One who has the sharp two-edged sword.” As we saw when we looked at this back in chapter one this description has to do with judgment for sin, and that the sword represents the Word of God. Jesus is addressing the church in Pergamum as the One who will judge sin, and He will judge it with His Word. Of this introduction John MacArthur says:
This is not a positive, promising introduction; it is a threatening one. It is the first negative introduction of Christ because the Pergamum church faced imminent judgment. Disaster loomed on the horizon for this worldly church; it was and is but a short step from compromising with the world to forsaking God altogether and facing His wrath. 1
The letter then begins, after the identification of the sender, with a commendation. Jesus tells them that even though they live in the place where Satan’s throne is, and even though they witnessed the death of Antipas who was martyred for his faithfulness, they are still holding fast to the Name of Jesus, and to their faith.

Notice that Jesus says that this city is the place where Satan’s throne is, and the place where Satan dwells. As I stated above, there are several different interpretations as to what this could mean; in his commentary on Revelation Warren Wiersbe says, “Pergamos had the first temple dedicated to Caesar and was a rabid promoter of the imperial cult. This is probably what is meant by “Satan’s seat” in Revelation 2:13. The city also had a temple dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing, whose insignia was the entwined serpent on the staff. (This is still a medical symbol today.) Satan, of course, is likewise symbolized as the serpent (2 Cor. 11:3; Rev. 12:9; 20:2).” 2

John Macarthur adds:
Asclepius was the god of healing, and people came from all over the ancient world to Pergamum, seeking to be healed at his shrine. Asclepius was depicted as a snake, and nonpoisonous snakes roamed freely in his temple. Suppliants seeking healing either slept or lay down on the temple’s floor, hoping to be touched by one of the snakes (symbolically representing the god himself) and thereby be healed. Such symbolism would undoubtedly remind Christians of Satan.3
Robert Van Kampen tells us that that the word:
Throne is used throughout the New Testament to depict the place of official state or chair of state. Matthew 5:34 states, ‘But I [Jesus] say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God….’ Heaven is the official seat or chair of the state for God Almighty. Why Pergamum was chosen as Satan’s official seat is not indicated. However, this is where Satan lives.4
After commending them for their faithfulness Jesus says in verse fourteen that He has a few things against them; He tells them that they have some who hold to the teaching of Balaam (Rev 3:14), and they have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Let’s look at each of these individually:

First we are told that there were some who held to the teaching a Balaam “who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.” To understand what Jesus is talking about here we need to see what we can learn about Balaam. According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary Balaam:
[W]as a man of some rank among the Midianites. He resided at Pethor in Mesopotamia. It is evident that though dwelling among idolaters he had some knowledge of the true God; and was held in such reputation that it was supposed that he whom he blessed was blessed, and he whom he cursed was cursed.5
So the story of Balaam goes like this. There was a man by the name of Balak who was the king of Moab and as he observed all that the Israelites had done to the Amorites and became fearful for himself and his people, so he hired Balaam, a prophet, to curse the Israelites so they would not be able to defeat the Moabites. Balaam tried to curse the Israelites for Balak, but every time he did he ended up blessing them. Since he was not able to curse them he told Balak that he didn’t have to curse them to defeat them, he just had to get them the men of Israel to marry the women of Moab and then the Israelites would forsake God which would, in effect, have the same result as if he had been able to curse them. So Balak did as Balaam had said, and the Israelites married the Moabite women and began to worship the gods of Moab just as Balaam had predicted.6

So what Balaam did was teach Balak that if he could get the Israelites to compromise and intermarry with the world they could be defeated. This is what was going on in the church at Pergamum; they were brining into the church the practices of the world. They were beginning to compromise their beliefs and were allowing the world to creep into the church. And by doing so they were leading the faithful of the church astray.

The other thing that Jesus mentions is that they had some in their midst that were holding to the teachings of the Nicolaitans, which if you remember from the message to Ephesus is something that Jesus said He hates. In Ephesus they also hated the Nicolaitans, but here in Pergamum there were some who were embracing this teaching. So what exactly was the teaching of the Nicolaitans? The word Nicolaitan comes from two Greek words: first is the word nikao, which means, “to conquer, [or] overcome.”7 Second is the Greek word laos, which means “the people.” 8

So the word Nicolaitan means to conquer the people and what it is referring to is the practice of setting up a clergy and teaching that the people have to go through them to get to God. This doctrine is believed to have originated with Nicolas; one of those chosen to be a Deacon in Acts 6:5. John MacArthur tells us that:
Whether he [Nicolas] became an apostate (as some of the early church fathers believed) or the Nicolaitans, his followers, perverted his teachings is not known.9
What we do know is that Jesus said that He hates this teaching, and that some in the church at Pergamum were following this doctrine.

Jesus tells this church that they need to repent quickly, or else He will come to them and war against them with the sword of his mouth. The only cure for them, and for us, when dealing with sin is to repent. Failure to repent would result in “the One who has the sharp sword” making war against them. Likewise, when we fail to repent of the sin in our lives Jesus will come against us with the sword of His mouth. Note here that the message to repent was given to the church as a whole, and not just to those who were following the false teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. Jesus says in verse sixteen “Repent, or else I am coming to you quickly, and will make war against them.” It is the responsibility of the whole church to be sure that false doctrine is not being taught or followed by the congregation. John MacArthur adds here:
The entire church faced the battle sword of Christ’s judgment, the heretics for practicing their heresy and iniquity, and the rest of the church for tolerating it.10
Now in verse seventeen Jesus once again makes a promise to the one who hears and follows the message that He has just given. This time He says that He will give them “hidden manna” and a “white stone” which has a “new name” written on it. Manna was the bread that the Israelites were given in the wilderness and it represents the provision of God. In John 6:48-51 Jesus teaches us that He is the Bead of Life that came down from Heaven and that those who eat this bread will live forever. By saying that the overcomers would be given the hidden manna Jesus is telling them that they would have Him, not as the one who was coming to war against sin, but as the one who is the Bread of Life providing their every need.

The white stone mentioned here is a little harder to define. The Believers Bible Commentary tells us:
It was a token of acquittal in a legal case. It was a symbol of victory in an athletic contest. It was an expression of welcome given by a host to his guest.”11
All three of these could apply to the Christian: through the blood of Jesus we have been acquitted of our sin, we are victorious over the world, and He will one day welcome us into His home.

But that is not all that He says here; Jesus also says that the overcomers will receive a new name. The verse tells us that no one knows the name on the stone, and that we will not know it ourselves until we receive it. John MacArthur tells us:
The new name will serve as each believer’s admission pass into eternal glory. It will uniquely reflect God’s special love for and adoption of every true child of His.”12
What more could we ask for? Jesus promises His provision, the forgiveness of our sin, and a new name that reflects His love for us!

Everything in Pergamum was not bad, they were being faithful and holding fast to the Name of Christ even though they were living where Satan dwelt, but there were some who were beginning to compromise and to follow false teachings. The message to the church in Pergamum is as applicable to us today as it was to them in the first century. This message is a warning against compromise, whether is morals or in doctrine, and it is a call to repentance. When we see that we have fallen short the overcomer is the one who repents and comes back in line with the teachings of the Bible. In the message to the church at Pergamum those who do are promised a blessing, and those who refuse are warned.

1 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (83). Chicago: Moody Press.
2 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1989). The Bible exposition commentary. "An exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire 'BE' series"--Jkt. (Re 2:12). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
3 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (86). Chicago: Moody Press.
4 Robert Van Kampen. Revelation Commentary Ch2 Pg5 (© Orlando Fl.: Sola Scriptura
5 Easton, M. (1996, c1897). Easton's Bible dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
6 You can read the whole story of Balaam in Numbers 22-25 & 31:16
7 Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W. (1996). Vine's complete expository dictionary of Old and New Testament words (2:660). Nashville: T. Nelson.
8 MacDonald, W., & Farstad, A. (1997, c1995). Believer's Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments (Re 2:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
9 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (89). Chicago: Moody Press.
10 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (89). Chicago: Moody Press.
11 MacDonald, W., & Farstad, A. (1997, c1995). Believer's Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments (Re 2:17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
12 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (91). Chicago: Moody Press.

Next week we will look at the church at Thyatira.
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Trevor Hammack said...

Good work on the Seven Churches. Sunday night I began a series of sermons on the Seven Churches of Revelation. I have posted the first sermon on the Preaching Today blog. For those who may be interested here is the link:

thia said...

Thanks 4 ur share :)

Chris said...

Pastor Hammack,

Thank you for the kind words. I have been listening to your sermons on Sermon Audio for a couple of years and have learned a lot about how to put together a Bible study from your preaching, and I actually use several of your study methods (although somewhat modified) to do my background work when I am beginning a new study.

So let me take this opportunity to thank you for all the work that you out into what you teach and give you some encouragement because although we have never met you have had a profound impact on my Christian life.


Trevor Hammack said...

Thanks for the kind words Chris. I am honored to hear that God has used my messages to be helpful. I pray God uses both of our blogs in a mighty way. Please know you can contact me anytime by e-mail: or by phone 325-695-8202

Have a great night

Trevor Hammack

Trevor Hammack said...

You may be interested in a new feature that is for blogs. It converts all your post into audio files. People can listen to your blog or subscribe to it as a podcast. It is free and really cool. I just added it to the preaching today blog. Let me know what you think.