Jesus's Letter to Pergamum, Where Satan has His Throne
Image Above : The Pergamum Altar of Zeus currently on display in the Berlin Museum
This is the third of seven letters Jesus dictated to John for the churches in Asia Minor just a few years after His resurrection and ascension back to Heaven. We usually think of Paul, Peter, James, and John as the writers of the letters, or epistles in the New Testament, but in Revelation we have seven epistles dictated by Jesus Himself to seven different churches, however, the letters were to be read at all of the churches because the messages are for us all.
Applications to our Lives Today
There are several applications for the letters Jesus gave the churches. First, these were real local churches of the time. These letters are like report cards to each of these churches, but they also apply to all churches at all times, so we can see the condition of our church by comparing ourselves to what Jesus says. Another application is that the letters are personal letters to all Christians down through the ages. When Jesus says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” He is talking to any Christian who has the ability to hear and understand Scripture. We talked about that a few weeks ago when we studied the parable of the soils. The message of the Kingdom doesn’t make sense to those outside of the family of God. We must have the Holy Spirit to help us understand God’s Word, otherwise it is “foolishness to those who are perishing.” One final application is a surprising one. The churches and their issues seem to lay out the whole of church history from the time of the early Apostolic church until now. As we read what is happening in each church in the order that Jesus dictates the letters and compare to church history, we can see an amazing correlation. Church history as compared to the seven letters is as follows:
1. Ephesus – The time of the Apostolic Church, they apparently didn’t repent because the lampstand (church of Ephesus) is no longer in existence today.
2. Smyrna – The Persecution of the Church during the time of the Roman Empire
3. Pergamum – The beginnings of the mixing of Christianity with Paganism
4. Thyatira – The Dark Ages or the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church was in power
5. Sardis – The Reformation, which surprisingly is one of the churches with nothing good said about it!
6. Philadelphia – The Great Awakening and the explosion of world missions
7. Laodicea – The lukewarm Church of the end times
Smyrna was the persecuted church. It was one of two churches that had nothing negative said about it. Perhaps this is because they were being persecuted and Jesus didn’t want to further burden them with instructions when they were already dealing with so much. The other church about which Jesus said nothing negative was the church at Philadelphia – the missionary church. Philadelphia was also promised to be kept from the tribulation. Two of the churches had nothing good said about them. They were the church of Sardis and the church of Laodicea. Sardis thought they were doing great, and had a good reputation, but they were actually dead and their works were incomplete. Laodicea is the lukewarm church that famously makes Jesus want to vomit - yikes!
Differing Structures to the Letters
If you look closely, you will see that Jesus structured the letters differently. The closing words, “He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches,” comes before the promise to the overcomer in the first three letters, but after the promise to the overcomer in the last four letters. Always notice small details like this, because nothing is in Scripture by accident. It would seem prophetically that the first three churches will have passed completely into history before the return of Christ and the last four are still in existence. Many denominations may be represented by the churches or may even be a mixture of the last four churches. Thyatira is the Catholic church which is still in existence today. The Reformed Churches are those like the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches that follow the teachings of the reformers (most are Calvinistic). The Philadelphian church would be like the Southern Baptist and other evangelical denominations who sent out missionaries during the Great Awakening and still focus on evangelism and missions. The Laodicean church is obvious in our day as denominations are turning to liberalism and rejecting the teachings of Scripture for the ways of the culture.
The Church at Pergamum
Our focus for this lesson will be the church at Pergamum. Here is the passage:
And to the Angel of the church at Pergamum write: “The words of Him who has the sharp two-edged sword. I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast My Name, and you did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas My faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teachings of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent! If not, I will come to you soon and 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 the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Revelation 2:12-17
Jesus uses a different description for Himself in each letter that relates to the message of the letter. In the letter to Pergamum, Jesus describes Himself as the “One who has the sharp two-edged sword.” The symbolism of the sword as the Word of God is throughout the Bible. One of the most well-known scriptures concerning this is in Hebrews 4:12:
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, so He not only has the Word, but He is the Word! This will come up again when we get to verse 16 where we see that Jesus intends to use His sword against the false teachings of this church. Another thing to notice in all of the letters is that Jesus is the author but He tells us at the end of the letter to listen to what the Spirit says to the churches, so He is also saying that the Holy Spirit is the author of the letters, as well. We can see this as an affirmation of the deity of Jesus.
Background and History
Pergamum was the capital of Asia for 200 years and had the second largest library, mostly of scientific and medical books in Asia at that time. The reason for this was the altar to the God Asclepius was located here. He is the god with the coiled snakes around his staff. The symbol of this staff is still used in medicine today. It may even date back as far as the bronze serpent rod in the Old Testament, which cured the people of snake bites, but was ultimately a model of Jesus who would become sin (a serpent symbolizes sin) and when we look to the cross, we are saved from our sin. The devil, however, loves to take the things of God and pervert them into false worship.
The name Pergamum is made of two parts: a root “per” meaning inappropriate, (as in pervert), and “gamy” meaning marriage as in bigamy, polygamy, monogamy, etc. So the word means an inappropriate marriage. As Christians we are betrothed to our Bridegroom who is coming to take us to the marriage supper of the Lamb. The Old Testament also uses the imagery of Israel being the wife of YAWEH, but she is unfaithful. The whole book of Hosea uses this imagery. The letter to Pergamum describes the problem Jesus has with this church is that some of them are mixing false worship with Christianity. They are not being faithful to the Bridegroom. We’ll see more about that when we look at the story of Balaam and discover who the Nicolaitans might be. It’s not surprising when we see the amount of false worship in the city. In order to get along with culture, this church probably was incorporating parts of idol worship into the worship of Jesus. Think about today’s church. Are we tempted to compromise and bring in the beliefs of our culture in order to stay relevant and get along with the outside world?
The first thing Jesus says to the church is that He knows they are dwelling in the midst of evil where Satan has his throne! Isn’t it comforting to know that Jesus is aware of our circumstances and the evil that surrounds us every day, yet He is always with us. Interestingly, according to Roman mythology, the god Zeus was born in Pergamum. The altar of Zeus was originally in Pergamum, but was moved to Berlin, Germany in 1930 by the Nazis and placed in a museum where it remains today. Isn’t it interesting that Hitler’s holocaust against the Jews was a foreshadow of the final Antichrist’s attempts to destroy the Jews during the Tribulation and it was Hitler who was fascinated with this altar and wanted it to be displayed in the museum in Berlin? Some sources even make the claim that Hitler was involved in Satanic worship. Just a few years after the museum was opened, Hitler commissioned Albert Speer to design a grandstand in Nuremberg from which he would give his famous speeches. The architect amazingly decided to use the Altar of Zeus as a model for the platform. On September 15, 1935, Hitler announced the Nuremberg Laws that began the systematic annihilation of millions of Jews. It was also in Nuremberg that Hitler used the phrase Final Solution for the first time in public. Hitler’s Final Solution is known as the Holocaust, a word that comes from a Greek word meaning “a wholly burnt animal sacrifice.” On the ancient Altar of Zeus in Pergamum, burnt sacrifice was practiced. Centuries later in Germany’s Nuremberg, on the redesigned Pergamum Altar, Hitler announced his Final Solution to the world and this time, the burnt sacrifice was six million Jews.
The next thing Jesus did was to give them a commendation that they were holding fast to His Name and not denying the faith, even though Antipas was executed there for refusing to sacrifice to idols and teaching others to refuse to do so, as well. The pagans burned him inside a copper bull where they offered sacrifices to Zeus and it was said that he loudly prayed for God to forgive them and died peacefully as he burned to death. The word “antipas” means against all, so even though he was a real person who really lived, he also represents all of those who would come after him and be opposed to false worship or false teachings in the church as he was, even to the point of death. All of those who hold fast to Jesus’s Name are like Antipas who was faithful unto death.
There were others in the church, however, who were holding to the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. The story of Balaam is found in the book of Numbers chapters 22-25. It warrants its own study, but I will attempt to summarize what he did. Balaam was a prophet of God, but he was a wicked prophet, which is a bit puzzling. He was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to pronounce a curse on Israel. Balaam knew that he could only say what God told him to say and that the children of Israel had God’s blessings upon them, but Balak wouldn’t take no for an answer. Balaam ended up receiving three different prophetic blessings from God which he pronounced over the children of Israel. The scripture just says that both he and King Balak went back home after the incident. But when we get to Numbers 31, we find out that Balaam was responsible for telling the king to get the women who worshipped the Baal at Peor to entice the Israelite men to worship their god with them, which included all kinds of sexual immorality. It was because of this incident that God sent a plague among the children of Israel and killed 24,000 people (see Numbers 25). So, in effect, Balaam taught the Moabites how to get God to curse their enemies so that he could receive his pay from Balak.
Balaam became infamous, and is referred to two other times in the New Testament. Peter compares false teachers to Balaam, “who loved the wages of wickedness” in 2 Peter 2:15. Jude tells us that Balaam destroyed himself for financial gain in verse 11. Satan’s tactics don’t really change all that much. He still uses people – even people within the church, unfortunately, - to entice others to sin by mixing worldly ideas about worship with the true worship of God.
There is no explanation in Revelation about the identity of the Nicolaitans. We only know that Jesus hated their teachings. If you break the word down into its roots and look at the definition, you see “nicao” which means to conquer or rule over, and “laity” which means the people. It is possible that this was the beginning of the church structure involving the Popes ruling over the church and the terrible apostacy and evil that ensued over the next 1000 plus years. It’s interesting that Jesus’s answer to the problem was fighting with them, meaning those who were the false teachers, with the sword of His mouth. That would be His Word. He would send someone who would use scripture to teach the people the truth about how we should worship God and structure the church. The Word of God is sufficient to destroy every false doctrine, but we, as the church, need to be familiar enough with Scripture that we know a false doctrine when someone tries to “sell” it to us.
It appears that these false teachers were advocating eating meat sacrificed to the idols and participating in the immoral sexual activities associated with idol worship. In Acts 15, the council at Jerusalem met to determine what part of the Jewish Law, if any, the new Gentile Christians should obey. Their decision was in verses 19-21:
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write
to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.
All of these things had to do with pagan worship. We are not to mix pagan rituals and worship with the worship of God. This is, unfortunately, what happened when Emperor Theodocius made Christianity the state religion of Rome in 379 AD and the pagan Roman priests and worshippers mixed their religion with Christianity. That’s where we get yule logs, and mistletoe at Christmas, and Easter bunnies who hide eggs, etc. It’s also where we get the worship of Mary, the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God, along with praying to dead saints, etc. These things seemed to be sneaking into the church here with the willingness of some to participate with idol worship, then later it would become full blown in the letter to Thyatira.
Jesus gives two promises to the overcomer in this letter. First, He promises them some hidden manna. Manna was the food God provided for the children of Israel while they wandered in the desert. The word manna means “what is it?” The children of Israel not only didn’t know what it was, they didn’t know where it came from. It was God’s provision for them so they would not die. In the New Testament we learn that Jesus is the true Manna that came down from Heaven. He is the true Bread of Life that sustains us while we are in this world (wilderness) and He keeps us from dying – not physically, but spiritually. Those who partake of Christ will live forever with Him and never die.
The second promise is similar. In the ancient courts, a black stone represented a guilty verdict, and a white stone represented a verdict of not guilty. We are pronounced innocent of our sin when we become a Christian because Jesus satisfied the penalty by paying our debt on the Cross. When God forgives our sin, He also forgets it and casts it as far as the east is from the west, never to be brought up against us again. Our new name will be written on that stone. It seems that perhaps we will all get new names in Heaven that fit us better than our current names. Jesus was in the habit of changing names all throughout the Bible. He changed Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah by adding the “hey” or breath letter. God’s breath is His Holy Spirit. He changed Jacob’s name to Israel, Simon’s name to Peter, and Saul’s name to Paul. All the names had a meaning and the meanings fit the people better than the names given to them by their parents. Remember also that sometimes angels came and announced to parents the name they were to give their children. So, God is interested in our names for some reason.
Some questions to ponder concerning applying this letter to our own church and our own life:
Are there false teachings coming infiltrating the church at large today?
How can we be better at identifying those things that are contrary with Scripture?
How do we fight against those things coming into our lives and our church?
How does the devil tempt us to accept or tolerate false teachings?
How can we speak the truth in love to those who are being led astray by false worship or false teachings in their church?
This was a Sunday School lesson that I taught at New Hope Baptist church on Father's Day. I hope you enjoyed it and learned something from it. Thanks for visiting my blog!