Letter to the Church at Pergamum
Pergamum had been loyal to Rome since at least 200 B.C. By the time John wrote Revelation, Pergamum had lost its status as capital of the Asian provinces to Ephesus. We are not told in the Bible how a church was started in Pergamum, but there was one.
Jesus revealed himself to this church as “him who has the sharp two-edged sword”. (12) This was part of his appearance to John in 1:16. It is a symbol of the Word, discerning hearts and judging. This appearance indicates that correction and even judgment are coming.
Jesus described the city as “where Satan’s throne is”. (13) This is a reference to the pagan worship of the city. It sat high on a hill, with an altar to Zeus on the ridge. He was sometimes called Zeus the savior.
There is a replica of this altar and temple in Berlin, Germany.
It also had a temple to Dionysus on the side of a hill, along wit a 10,000 seat theater. Dionysys, or Baccus in Roman terms, was the god of revelry and theater. There was also a temple to Asclepius, the god of healing, and Serapis, the Egyptian god of the underworld, but also of healing, especially for the blind.
There was also a temple to honor the Roman emperor Augustus. We can see, then, that much pagan worship occurred.
1 Corinthians 10:20 equates the worship of pagan idols with the worship of demons: “I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” So, a town with much pagan worship could be called the location of Satan's throne.
Jesus commended the church for holding to the faith, even in the face of persecution. (13) A man named Antipas was martyred for his faith there. The legend is that Antipas was a physician. He may have been connected with one of the temples dedicated to healing until he converted. Jesus calls him “my faithful witness”. (13) Since John called Jesus the faithful witness (1:4), that is a high compliment.
Despite holding to the faith, the church in Pergamum had allowed corruption to come in. Jesus said that had some members who held to the teaching of Balaam. (14) The story of Balaam is told in the book of Numbers, beginning in chapter 22. He was hired by the king of Moab to curse the people of Israel on their journey to Canaan. He was some type of religious figure. The king of Moab said whoever Balaam blessed was blessed, and whoever Balaam cursed was cursed. (Numbers 25:6) However, God did not let Balaam curse Israel. Afterward, the men of Israel began to consort with women from Moab. The women seduced the men into worshipping Baal. Ballaam had advised the king of Moab to do this. Balaam was later killed by the Israelites in Midian.
Balaam did not exist at the time John wrote Revelation. So, Balaam must be a symbol. Evidently, some men of the church consorted with women from the pagan temples, leading them to sexual immorality and participation in pagan rituals. The church should have disciplined these men, but seem to have tolerated them instead.
A similar situation occurred in Corinth. 1 Corinthians 5 records Paul’s horror that the church included a man who lived with his father’s wife in a relationship. The church evidently felt enlightened by their acceptance of this man. Instead, Paul said, they should mourn and exclude the offender.
Jesus also warned that some of the church members held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Instead of opposing them, as the church at Ephesus did, the church at Pergamum tolerated them. But Jesus did not tolerate this blending of the Christian faith with pagan practice.
Jesus commanded them to repent. He demands worship in spirit and truth. Just as God would not tolerate pagan worship mixed into or added to the Levitical worship, Jesus will not tolerate worship in the church that is mixed with pagan practice. That is why we must examine every new practice in light of the Scripture.
What does Jesus tell us to do in worship? We are to:
observe the Lord’s supper; and
What does Jesus say will happen if this church does not repent? He said he would come soon and war against them with the sword of his mouth, the word of God. He would intervene to destroy false teaching. I do not know exactly how he would do that, but it likely means the end of that church. Paul noted that the Corinthians abused the Lord’s Supper and some, as result, got sick and some died. Since the punishment for the sin of Israel with the women of Moab was a severe plague, it could be that sickness and\or death is the intended punishment.
Conversely, those who hold to the faith without corruption (the one who conquers) receive two things from Jesus:
some of the hidden manna; and
a white stone with a new and secret name.
What are those things or what do they mean? Well, first, we know what manna was in the Old Testament. When the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness, God fed them with manna from heaven. In Exodus 16, God rained bread from heaven to feed them in the Wilderness of Zin. It tasted like honey and coriander. They ate it for 40 years. (Exodus 16:31) It also seemed to have appearance of a stone. (Numbers 11:7)God sustained his Old Testament people in the wilderness. He will also sustain his New Testament people in the wilderness of persecution and tribulation. But this sustenance will be spiritual more than physical. Jesus, during his own temptation and trial in the wilderness, said “man shall not live by bread alone, but by ever word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:3) He said this in response to the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread. Manna, by the way, was white. Jesus also said that he was the bread from heaven that would sustain men and women. John 6:32-35 says: “ruly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the read of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Jesus also promised to give a white stone to each believer. That stone would have a new and secret name on it. This may be a fulfillment of Isaiah 65:15: “but his servants he will call by another name”. I take this to mean that the believer has a special relationship with Jesus and the church has become his special people.
These things will come to complete fulfillment when Jesus destroys all of is enemies and brings all those who believe in him to the wedding supper of the Lamb. We will be known by him and enjoy intimate fellowship with him forever.