The Church at Pergamos

Revelation 2. 12-17

Verse 12. Pergamos was a famous city of the Roman province of Asia. It had already achieved fame in antiquity as according to Pliny the invention of parchment had taken place at Pergamos and it boasted of a 200,000-volume library. It was an impressive place and its very name in Greek means ‘citadel’. But the most famous aspect of Pergamos was that it was the centre of pagan worship and included the great altar of Zeus and a shrine to Asklepios the god of healing. Asklepios was depicted as a serpent and is still to be seen today in the caduceus as the symbol of the medical profession. CHARLES describes the city as the ‘Lourdes of the ancient world’. It was also the place of the first temple of the Roman imperial cult built in 29 BC in honour of Augustus and thus became the leading religious centre in the province. Here then was a place where the church was especially liable to come into direct conflict with the imperial cult of emperor worship in Asia.

The message is addressed to the angel of the church in Pergamos without any further qualification. Christ speaks and presents Himself to this church as the One who has a sharp two-edged sword ready to execute judgment. It represents the word of God which when ignored can be a lethal weapon.1 Here in this context the two-edged sword of Christ is set against the imperial threat to the church posed by the Roman Empire. Roman governors had the right to execute people or the ‘right of the sword’.2 MOUNCE recognises this contrast and suggests that the sovereign Christ with the two-edged sword would remind the threatened congregation that ultimate power over life and death belongs to God. With this sort of dramatic opening we are immediately aware of pending judgement but the commendation comes before the formal complaint is made.

Verse 13. Christ appreciates that these believers live in the very place where the persecuting powers had their headquarters, ‘where Satan’s throne is’. This expression has given rise to a number of theories. DEISSMANN was certain that ‘Satan’s throne’ could only have been the altar of Zeus as typical of the representative of satanic heathendom. WITHERINGTON though thinks that a monotheistic person such as John would see more likely reference to the worship of the Emperor, for worship of a mere mortal in John’s view was an abomination that could only be prompted by Satan. Others think that the reference could be to the cult of Asklepios who was designated ‘Saviour’ and whose symbol was a serpent. HEMER acknowledges that these particular views are not necessarily mutually exclusive but sees this as a reference to Pergamos being the principal centre of Emperor Worship. In his view, the strength of this interpretation resides in its recognition of the historical and textual context.3 This is probably the right interpretation as there are clear ‘polemical parallelisms’4 here. The believers at Pergamos had not denied the name of Christ even when one of their number (Antipas) had been publicly executed and thereby witnessed5 to his faith by laying down his life. Antipas became a symbol of resistance6 by refusing to worship Caesar and call him Lord.7 Again it is emphasised that this took place in the enemy’s camp, i.e. where Satan lives. BEALE points out that this concluding phrase is a contrast with the first clause of the verse (‘I know where you dwell’) in order to accentuate the idea that light and darkness cannot dwell together in peaceful coexistence. Therefore a witnessing church will be a persecuted church.

Verses 14-15. Despite their heroic stance against the imperial cult in the past they had nevertheless compromised their faith by allowing within their ranks some people that adhered to the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. This latter group is also referred to in the message to the church at Ephesus.8 Balaam’s story is drawn upon by Christ to show the danger of compromise and the parallel experience of the nation of Israel. Moabitish women prostituted themselves to the Israelites and then seduced them to idolatry with disastrous results.9 This also involved eating pagan food that had been offered to idols.10 AUNE suggests that the association of opponents with disreputable characters from the past (guilt by association) is one technique used to vilify them. The message of Christ to Pergamos was that there could not be peaceful coexistence or compromise with pagan culture and institutes. This quandary about abstaining from eating meat that had been offered to idols is a familiar theme throughout the New Testament. It was a significant debate at the council at Jerusalem, Acts 15. 20-21, where abstinence was advised. Paul also deals with the issue in 1 Cor. 10. 14-21. But it is clear from the severity of the complaint against Pergamos that many were happy to compromise their faith. Refusal to participate in religious festivals that included fornication and eating food offered to idols would have meant social exclusion and probably financial austerity.11 This shows the contrast with Balaam who is not just condemned for trying to link Israel with Moab but his desire for financial gain, 2 Pet. 2. 15; Jude 11. The second group condemned by Christ are the Nicolaitans who may well have been propagating similar teaching. HEMER suggests that Balaam and the Nicolaitans are alike in the name and alike in nature.

Verse 16. The opening words of this verse represent a ‘dative of disadvantage’ literally ‘I am coming, to your cost’. Christ speaks in a vivid present tense to those who appear quite content to compromise their faith. If they do not repent they will face Him in battle. Once again the weapon of correction is the sword. It is interesting to note the parallel here with Balaam and the angel of the Lord who met him with a drawn sword and gave him the opportunity to repent, Num. 22. 21-35.

Verse 17. It is through the Spirit that Christ communicates His challenge to Pergamos. The person who is prepared to rise to this challenge and persevere becomes a conqueror in his own right.12 They are promised a reward of hidden manna as opposed to forbidden food (fruit?) and a white stone marked with a new name only known to the recipient. Manna would remind them of God’s daily provision for Israel as they wandered in the wilderness, Exod. 16. 14-26, and hidden manna was linked to the pot of manna put into the Ark of the Covenant, Heb. 9. 4, and only visible to God. What this means is that God would sustain them, despite the external opposition and ultimately (as did Israel) reach their promised destination. The number of interpretations of the white stone is legion. MOUNCE provides the most plausible explanation and one that links nicely with the manna. He regards the stone as a tessera that served as a token for admission to the banquet. The new name on the pebble seems to represent the mark of those who genuinely belong to Christ as contrasted with those who have the mark of the enemy, Rev. 13. 16-18. WITHERINGTON writes ‘Christians did not have to compromise on earth by socialising with pagans in temples when they had a much better engraved invitation to a much better banquet’.

This pithy message is a microcosm of many issues that are fully fleshed out in the remainder of the Book. In historical terms these centre on the great conflict between allegiance to Christ or to the powers that be in the world. But this message should not be limited to the contemporary historical setting of emperor worship and the idealistic symbolism of the timeless struggle between the Christian and the totalitarian state. What we must not fail to see is the eschatological knot of human history clearly pointing us to the ultimate eternal reign of our Lord and our God.

Footnotes

1

See Isa. 11. 4, 49. 2.

2

Cp Rom. 13. 1-4.

3

The word ‘throne’ is always an official seat or chair of state in the New Testament.

4

This idea was coined by Deissmann to explain how the cult of emperor and worship of Christ seemed to mirror one another. For example the title ‘My Lord and God’, John 20. 28, is later assumed by the Emperor Domitian ('dominus et deus’).

5

Antipas is described in a similar way to Christ Himself, Rev.1. 5 and 3. 14.

6

See Heb. 11. 4

7

Suffering or being reviled for the name of Christ was to suffer because of one’s exclusive allegiance to Christ, 1 Pet. 4. 14.

8

Per contra, the church at Ephesus is commended by Christ because they hated the teaching of the Nicolaitans, Rev. 2. 6.

9

See Num. 25. 9, where some twenty-four thousand died as a consequence of this seduction.

10

The church at Thyatira seems to have tolerated a similar practice in their congregation, Rev. 2. 20-23.

11

HENDRIKSEN states that refusal to join in these feasts often meant that a man would lose his job, his trade; he would become an outcast.

12

The Greek word to conquer was very common as an epithet of the Emperors. One can almost see a play on words here with this word and the noun ‘Nicolaitans’ having similar etymology and meaning. By obeying Christ they would conquer those who by their very nature claimed to have conquered.

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