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Pergamum: The Church at the Devil’s Perversion

7 Churches in Revelation (Part III):

by Rev. Jerry Lepasana


Revelation 2:12-17 (NIV)
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, 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: 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.
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 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.

Today, most churches have made it a tradition to hold an annual meeting for strategic planning. More often, this annual planning meeting is designed for church leaders to come together and do extensive evaluations of the church’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. Then, out of these evaluations will come some necessary ministry adjustments, initiatives, and annual goals. I know churches that have done this who testify that doing so has provided them with greater growth and health.

Though this is significantly helpful, I recognize that the benefits are still very limited. This is due to the fact that most of the evaluations and planning we do tend to focus more on our methods and programs. Sometimes, we even go to the extent of comparing ourselves with churches who we know are growing, making the assumption that if we can copy their approaches, we will grow as well. But when we begin to examine the letters of Jesus Christ to the 7 churches in Revelation located in Asia Minor, the evaluations were not focused on their methods and programs. The primary emphasis was on their spirituality, how these churches were relating to Him, being the sovereign Lord of the church.

This is perhaps a critical reminder for all of us who desire to see our churches grow. We cannot put methods and programs ahead of pursuing the kind spirituality that keeps us living a life that brings honor and glory to God, our Savior. I know it is easier to evaluate methods and programs because we won’t often offend anyone in trying to do so. But once we begin to evaluate the level of our devotion and commitment, we then would have problems. There’s a possibility that people may accuse us of making it too personal. I challenge you to listen to the sentiments of these letters:

  • Church in Ephesus – the issue is first love
  • Church in Smyrna – the issue is loyalty, steadfastness in the midst of persecution

 

Today, as we tackle the church in Pergamum, the main issue is worldliness. Again, there is nothing mentioned about methods and programs here. All the issues are directly connected to how the churches are relating to Jesus Christ. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should not be concerned with methods and programs. What I am saying is that they should not be our number one priority. Let’s make sure that we learn from the issues addressed to the 7 churches in Revelation.

As we focus on the church in Pergamum, let’s first familiarize ourselves with the city itself. Pergamum was located 50 miles to the north of Smyrna, the last church we studied. Since Pergamum was the capital of this region of the Roman Empire, it is often regarded as “the greatest city in Asia minor.” However, in the eyes of Jesus, this city was specifically noted as the city where Satan’s throne is. Obviously, this referenced the city having an “evil environment.” Many Bible scholars believe that there were three major influences that probably contributed to this description of being a place where Satan has his throne.

  1. 1. The Temple of Asklepios, the serpent god

Asklepios is known as the god of medicine and healing. It has been said that during those times sick people were brought and laid in the courtyard of the temple of Asklepios, which was inhabited by hundreds of non-poisonous snakes.  It was believed that if one of these snakes would touch a sick person as they lay in the courtyard, then they would be healed. That’s why the image of snakes is so predominant in the medical profession. It comes from this ancient practice that was rooted in the worship of this god.

  1. 2. The Altar of Zeus

This altar was one of the largest and most famous wonders of the ancient world. It was a huge throne-like altar dedicated to the chief of all mythological gods, Zeus. This altar was forty feet high and was built to honor Rome’s defeat of an enemy army. People who worshiped at this altar and brought sacrifices were expected to say the words, “Zeus is the Savior”.

  1. 3. The Emperor Worship

The city of Pergamum was also the center for emperor worship in this region. This city had three separate temples that were built to honor the emperors. As you know from our previous study, it became a matter of Roman patriotism to worship at these temples. It was considered to be an act of treason to refuse to acknowledge the living Caesar as a living god.

This was the context of the church in Pergamum. They were in a tough environment, surrounded by paganism and idolatry. In such an environment, they needed to fully understand how they ought to be living their lives as Christ’s followers. I believe this should also be our concern today. There’s no question that we too are in a tough environment. We may not be surrounded by a lot of pagan temples, but evil is all around us. We are not ignorant of the fact that, as we move closer and closer to the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, the work of the devil will continue to intensify. The question for us is, “Are we still thriving for Jesus Christ despite our evil environment?” Or have we resigned saying, “nobody can really do it, so we don’t have to bother.” If this is our attitude, we will find in Christ’s letter to the church in Pergamum that this attitude is unacceptable to our Savior. When you examine the passage, there are four clear messages that Jesus communicates in this letter. Let’s highlight them one by one.

I           STIMULATE YOUR FEAR TOWARDS JESUS CHRIST: (v.12)

As we have seen in the previous letters, each letter starts with a picture of Jesus Christ that is directly connected with what is going on in the church.

  • For Ephesus – Jesus is the one who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. (v.1)
  • For Smyrna – Jesus is the First and Last, who died and came to life again. (v.8)
  • For Pergamum – Jesus has the sharp, double-edged sword.

This is a powerful picture of Jesus Christ being described like a mighty warrior who a sharp double-edged sword. Contrary to the common image that we have of Jesus Christ as meek and lowly, He presents Himself as a warrior prepared to go against the evil behavior that the people of the church has tolerated amongst them. The truth is that our behavior as believers will always be determined by our view of Jesus Christ.

Do we have a balanced perspective of Jesus Christ? There is no question about Him being meek and loving. But don’t overlook the fact He is also holy and just who will never tolerate sin. The believers in Pergamum needed such a reminder in order to stimulate their fear towards Jesus Christ. They needed to see Him as the one who is getting ready to judge them severely because of their failure to address sin in their lives.

How is your fear towards God? Have you maintained the kind of fear that will keep you consistent in living a righteous life? In the Old Testament, Noah was spared from God’s judgment due to his healthy, holy fear towards the Lord.

Hebrews 11:7 (NIV)
7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

Noah’s environment was so sinful that God justified judging them with a universal flood. But Noah was able to live righteously in such an environment because of His fear towards the Lord. Certainly, this is the kind of fear that can keep God’s people living righteously in the midst of our evil environment.

When you jump to verse 16, the Lord identifies His sword as – “the sword of my mouth.” There are several references in the New Testament that refers to the double-edged sword as the Word of God. Notice Hebrews 4:12 which says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

The Word of God is a double-edged sword because it promises blessings to those who obey it, and it also promises curses to those who disobey it. Every one of us who believe in the Word of Christ must be willing to stand on its validity when it promises both blessings and curses.

II        STRENGTHEN YOUR PROFESSION OF FAITH: (v.13)

After giving the church a vivid picture of a mighty warrior coming to deal with sin, Christ proceeded to give the church some special commendations, following the same pattern seen in the previous letters. For the church in Pergamum, the two praises from the Lord centered primarily on their faithfulness in their profession of faith.

  1. A. Their Commitment  – “You remain true to my name

The commitment to the name of Jesus is the commitment to the lordship and deity of Jesus Christ. His name is above every name and is the only proper object of worship.

Philippians 2:9-11 (NIV)
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In an environment where other gods (Asklepios, Zeus, and Roman Emperor) compete for love, loyalty, and worship, the church stood on the conviction and commitment that Jesus is the only one worthy enough to receive everything.

  1. B. Their Courage – “You did not renounce your faith in me

The commitment of the church to remain true to their faith was subjected to some serious testing. The reference to the killing of one of their leaders, Antipas, suggested that the pressure to deny Jesus Christ went to the extent of being threatened by death. According to tradition, after Antipas was arrested for not bowing and giving allegiance to Caesar, he was placed in a hollow brass statue of a bull and slowly roasted to death while the idol was heated in a fire. Though this happened to their leader, the church courageously stood for their faith.

I hope we don’t miss the truth here. Satan will do everything in his power to target our profession of faith. He will pressure us; even kill us if he could, in order for us to turn against our Savior. In our context, what is it that Devil is using to keep us from proclaiming our faith to others- ridicule from friends and loved ones, the fear of being branded as close-minded fanatic? I pray that we will remain strong and faithful knowing this level of commitment and courage brings great honor and glory to our Lord Jesus Christ. Rest assured that such faithfulness will never go unnoticed with our Savior.

III        SAFEGUARD YOUR MIND FROM FALSE BELIEFS: (vs. 14-15)

The next two verses dwell on two specific failures of the church of Pergamum. If you carefully examine these failures, they are rooted in two false beliefs.

  1. A. Teaching of Balaam

If you want to familiarize yourself with this teaching, you have to read the full story in Numbers 22-25. Balaam was a prophet of God who prostituted his gift of prophecy to King Balak, king of Midianites and Moabites, for monetary gain. King Balak hired Balaam to curse Israel as they were crossing their borders en route to the Promised Land. As Balaam tried to curse Israel, God intervened and made him bless Israel instead. After Balaam recognized that there was no way he could curse Israel, he realized that he would be able to corrupt them by getting them to commit immorality with the beautiful women of Moab. He then advised King Balak to send their daughters to tempt the men of Israel into marriage, eventually leading to participation in their idolatrous worship. This moral failure angered the Lord, resulting in a judgment that killed 24, 000 people. (Numbers 25:1-9)

  1. B. Teaching of Nicolaitans

We heard about this teaching in Christ’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, seen in chapter 2, verse 6. They were professing Christians who tried to combine Christianity with the practice of temple prostitution that took place at the temple of Diana, the goddess of love and lust. So the Nicolaitans were people who believed that Jesus did not demand righteous living among His followers.

Allow me to explain what was going on in the church of Pergamum. While this church that was trying their best to establish a strong, faithful profession of their faith (v. 13), they failed to recognize that Satan was slowly corrupting them because of their failure to safeguard their beliefs. Folks, the battle lies in the mind. When we are not able to safeguard our minds from false beliefs, our character and conduct will be corrupted. False beliefs lead to faulty behaviors.

To be more explicit, what were the faulty behaviors that the church of Pergamum tolerated? We find that there were definitely intermarriages with pagans, sexual immoralities, idolatry, etc.

Is it possible that we have not been doing a good job of safeguarding our lives as well? Is it possible that we are also tolerating relationships with unbelievers, or sexual immorality expressed in pre-marital sex, friends with benefits, co-habitation, and pornography? Remember, Satan is ruling our world today, and he wants to corrupt us so he can weaken our profession of faith. How can we safeguard our minds?

  1. 1. Do Not Love the World

1 John 2:15-17 (NIV)
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
16 For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world.
17 The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

Let’s guard our hearts so that we don’t love the world in exchange to our love for God. Clearly, there’s no way we can love the world and love God at the same time. Love for the world pushes out love for God.  Love for God pushes out love for the world.

  1. 2. Do Not Live Like the World

Romans 12:2 (NIV)
2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Not only does the Bible command us not to love the world, but we are also commanded to stop acting like the world. The phrase “Do not conform . . . to the pattern of this world,” can literally be translated “to form according to a pattern or mold of this world.” Who are we allowing to mold us? Is it the world or the Word of God? Who has the greatest influence in your mind? We need to carefully examine our lives to see whether we as believers have become more godly or worldly over the years.

IV        SANCTIFY YOUR WALK TOWARDS A VICTORIOUS LIFE: (vs. 16-17)

Last but not the least, the Lord ends this letter to the church of Pergamum by calling them to repent. As we have already learned, in the New Testament, to repent means to change. For this church, change meant sanctifying their walk from the sinful lifestyles they have tolerated within their church. They needed to purge themselves from all the immoralities and all the worldliness. If they failed to do this, they would have had to expect the Lord to bring imminent judgment upon them. But if they positively responded and cleansed themselves, the Lord promises to give two special blessings.

  • The Hidden Manna

Manna was the food that came directly from God while His people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. It was the food that sustained them and allowed them to thrive against all the enemies they needed to overcome in order to conquer the Promised Land. Many Bible scholars believe that this hidden manna can be understood as the special grace that will sustain us in the midst of all the difficulties of our Christian journeys. It is the supernatural strength that will allow us to triumph against all the temptations of the Devil.

  • The White Stone with a New Name

Some commentators believe that this white stone with a new name is taken from the practice of the Roman Empire in giving a special banquet to all the winners of athletic competition. The entrance ticket to this banquet is a white stone with the winners name on it. For the believers, this white stone can mean our entrance ticket to the great heavenly feast referred to in Revelation 19:6-9 as the wedding supper of the Lamb.

Indeed, the Lord has many precious promises to everyone who is doing their best to live victoriously for Him. The hidden manna sustains us today while the White Stone will be a future blessing. How is your life today? Are you still conscious of trying to please the Lord by living a pure life for Him? In the Corinthian church where there was also a lot of immoralities and worldliness, the apostle Paul reminded them that far greater blessings can be bestowed to those who live faithfully out of their love for Him.

1 Corinthians 2:9
However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”