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"Pergamum: A Church Where Satan Had His Throne" Revelation 2:12-17

Christ Opposes Satan with the Sword of His Mouth (v. 12)

The City and Its Emperor Worship

Pergamum was the center of Roman governmental functions in Asia Minor. In 29 B.C., the first temple to Rome was built in Asia Minor, in honor of the “divine Augustus.” Pergamum abounded in idolatry and temples. Prominent among them was a huge altar to Zeus at which rotating companies of priests offered sacrifices 24 hours a day. Pergamum was the seat of the imperial cult, the worship of the Roman goddess, state, and emperors. Pergamum was designated a “temple warden” of the imperial religion. Concentrated Roman influence made Pergamum the most difficult of all the seven cities in which to live. Politics, religion, and business were interwoven into a system of life that made it difficult if not impossible to function in one sphere without participation in the others.

Clash Inevitable: The Beast, the Church, and Christ’s Sword

The church in Pergamum was likely founded in the mid-50s A.D. during the missionary drive from Ephesus. It was costly to be a Christian in Pergamos. Living in the seat of Roman imperialism in Asia Minor, God’s people were under constant pressure to adopt idolatrous and immoral practices to be accepted by society and to make a living. Thus, our Lord greets them as the “one who has the sharp two-edged sword.” This is the fighting sword used by the Romans, not the broad, cutting sword often employed by the Greeks. The Lord tells his people: “I am the One who possess the sword of power and dominion, not Caesar.” What encouragement for faith! Do not lose heart, my beloved church in Pergamos. The sword, however, has two edges. Our Savior’s word topples his enemies; it also judges and chastens his people. The congregation is passive in dealing with a worldly philosophy that dishonors Christ. These must be confronted, or the Lord’s sword will be unsheathed against them. I pray we take this seriously. Unbelief and unfaithfulness, worldly thinking and living, picks a quarrel with Jesus Christ. He is the living Savior, not an ancient relic or hero we commemorate. He walks in the midst of the candlesticks. He knows our works, where our heart is. He had a zeal for his Father’s house, and he expects us to be zealous for his house, his truth, his honor, and his people’s holiness.



Christ Commends His Church in Pergamos (v. 13)

Works Especially Commendable when Costly

The tone of verse 13 is crisis. I know your works – I know your troubles, where you live, that you are serving me at great risk. Our Lord especially esteems our service to him when serving him is costly and yet willingly given. It is our comfort and inspiration that our Lord knows our troubles and guards us as we serve him. These believers dwell where “Satan’s throne is.”  Twice this is stated in one verse. “Satan’s throne” refers to the seat of Roman imperial government in Pergamum. The imperial cult posed a substantial and immediate threat to believers. Refusal to give at least token allegiance to Caesar by swearing in his name or burning incense to his image brought censure, economic deprivation, fines, and worse forms of persecution. Satan was behind this and all statism. He stirs the children of this world to build their Babel and empires to stand against God’s truth and eternal city. This understanding of “Satan’s throne” is consistent with the overall symbolism of Revelation. In chapter 13 and following, the beast is inspired and empowered by Satan’s hatred for Jesus Christ.

Confessing Christ before Satan’s Throne

Even though the Pergamum church dwells beneath the shadow of Satan’s throne, they have not denied Christ’s name. They held firmly to the Lord Jesus and his word. This is no small commendation, and it speaks volumes about the nature of true faith in Christ. True faith does not draw back before opposition and suffering for Christ’s sake (Heb. 10:38-39).  Our hearts should race with joy to be counted worthy to suffer shame for our Lord’s name (Matt. 5:10-12; Acts 5:41)! To be proven genuine when worldly pressures and fires are raging, this is one of our great glories and joys! Thus, we ought to highly esteem the witness of these believers, for we see in them courage and constancy worthy of imitation. Confronted by the ruling world power of that time, these believers steadfastly refused to bow to the image of the beast. One individual is singled out, Antipas. He is called “my faithful martyr.” His identity is uncertain, but our Lord highly honors him! Our Lord is the faithful witness, and he calls us by his own name when we stand for him (Rev. 1:5).

Did Not Deny My Faith when Blood Flowed

When we live near an anti-Christian persecuting power, religious or civil, there will be a clash. Our Lord said: “For everyone that does evil hates the light, neither comes to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:20). Light and darkness, Christ and Satan, believers as the children of light (Eph. 5:8) and unbelievers as children of the devil (1 John 3:10) cannot peacefully coexist in this world (2 Cor. 6:14). We are not to avoid this conflict. As children of light, we are “to have no fellowship with the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11). The more the light shines, the greater will be the likelihood of persecution. It is only in union and communion with Jesus Christ that we have strength for his conflict and can overcome our fears and Satan (James 4:7). Though the world demands allegiance to its name of statism, technology, pleasure, science, or perversion, the child of God swears allegiance to one name, the only name under heaven by which we must be saved, Jesus Christ our Lord (Acts 4:12). And when pressure mounts or blood flows, faith rises like holy incense to the Father, returning home to him who gave the faith. When the Lord throws true faith in the fire, the impurities are purged, and faith shines the more brightly (1 Pet. 1:7). A false faith is burned up and becomes more like the world that it loves.

Christ Condemns the Compromising Minority (vv. 14-16)

Balaamites and Nicolaitans: Idolatry and Immorality

There was a minority group in the church called Balaamites, after the father of their particular error. The condemnation of the Nicolaitans in verse 15 is likely a parallel to that of the Balaamites, indicating not so much that they are the same group but maintained the same libertine philosophy of accommodation and participation in their pagan culture. Balaam, a prophet or seer, was hired by Balak king of the Moabites to curse Israel. Balak was terrified that the children of Israel would destroy him as they had the Amorites. The Lord did not allow Balaam to curse Israel. To Balak’s great chagrin, Balaam blessed Israel four times. Being essentially dishonest and mercenary, Balaam devised a way to obtain his reward from Balak without directly cursing Israel, thus deceiving his own heart. He told Balak that Israel could be seduced away from the Lord through idolatry and sexual immorality. This is exactly what happened. Balaam’s treachery is proverbial in Scripture for compromise and wickedness (Deut. 23:4; 2 Pet. 2:14-16; Jude 5-12). His motivation was greed.

Only a Few, but the Majority Must Act Decisively

There were some in the congregation in Pergamum who followed in Balaam’s footsteps. It was not the majority of the congregation, and it may have been only a few. The Lord is not rebuking them because some were practicing idolatry and immorality but because they tolerated this false teaching that such activity is acceptable. It is one thing for there to be such sins in the congregation, and they must be dealt with by more careful oversight, confrontation, discipleship, and discipline for the impenitent. It is something very different when a church is passive in the face of such sins and tolerates a philosophy that tolerates idolatry and immorality. These two groups advocated participation in the idolatrous meals and festivals in the pagan temples. They wanted to have their earthly reward and pleasures, while at the same time, keeping their place in the church. The Lord says that true religion is “keep ourselves unspotted from the world” (Jam. 1:27), but these men endorsed accepting the way things are in the world as a way of survival. Their eating was more than eating meat dedicated to an idol; Paul said that a believer might do this in good conscience, privately, since an idol is nothing (1 Cor. 8:4). The Balaamites advocated participation in the ritual meals. They also saw nothing wrong with ritual sexuality. Perhaps like Balaam, profit and greed were their motivations. They could not do business in Pergamum without following the religion and immorality of the city, and so they chose to compromise.

Repent or Face My Sword

The beliefs and practices of the Balaamites and Nicolaitans pose an immediate danger to the congregation. “Stumblingblock” is the trigger mechanism in an ancient trap. These people were engaged and encouraged sins that would trap the people of God by leading them away from exclusive allegiance and sexual purity. Are we married to Christ or to the world (2 Cor. 11:2)? Do we use our bodies for worldly pleasure or to please our Lord (1 Cor. 6:19-20; Rom. 12:2)? Do we trust him to provide for us? We belong to Christ, and we must repent of unbelief. It is a privilege to remain steadfast to him in the eye of persecution’s storm, and we must repent of compromising with the world to save our skins and livelihoods. The command to repent is not primarily directed at the offenders but at the congregation that allows this compromising philosophy to go unchallenged. The entire congregation is not involved in the specific sins of these two groups, but they are tolerating them.

Compromise with the world, especially idolatry and immorality, are like leaven – they work quickly and pervasively (1 Cor. 5:6). The church leaders in Pergamum refused to deal with these individuals who practiced, encouraged, and taught compromise with the world as a policy of survival. Repentance entails removing the offending part of the congregation by church discipline, i.e., excommunication. If the congregation refuses, Christ will come and fight against them with the sword. Christ will chasten the church for not practicing church discipline against those who practice and advocate compromise with the world. Those who tolerate evil men and seducers in the church of Christ share in their guilt. The congregation must immediately repent. How seriously our Lord takes false and worldly doctrine in his church, especially teaching that encourages compromise with sin and rebellion rather than holiness and purity in the face of man’s wrath! Of course he commands us all to repent of our worldliness and impurities in thought and life. He also commands us to accept no worldly philosophies that teach the way for the church to survive in the world is to change his word, update his gospel, and make our peace with the world’s sins. Did he overcome the world like this? Why, if this philosophy is legitimate, there was no need for him to die on the cross – just come and modernize the Old Testament. He did not. God does not change. The “whole world lies under the wicked one” (2 Cor. 4:4). He came to rescue the dead, bear our judgment, and confirm all Scripture. He calls us to enter the same battle, not find a way to avoid pressure in living for him.

The Same Evil Working Today

That his holy vengeance is presented in such terrible terms should humble and arouse us to take decisive action in our day. We may not bow to the beast for economic survival but trust the Lord for our daily bread. There must be a clear line of demarcation between the church and the world –no fellowship with the deeds of darkness, no bowing to Caesar’s throne. Especially condemned is any participation by the church in the pagan rituals and festivals of her surrounding culture and any form of sexual immorality. Believers fall into sexual sin, and in the absence of confession and repentance, this must be rebuked and disciplined. This was not the main issue in Pergamum – it was the church’s failure to rebuke and discipline those who practiced and advocated the Libertine philosophy. We may not make our peace with idolatry, political polytheism, and sexual perversion. We must not draw our standards of acceptable sexual behavior from a pagan world. We must not join the world with our fingers crossed in hopes that this will help us preserve our lives. If we love our lives in this world, we will lose them (John 12:25). We must reject cheap grace in every form. True grace teaches us to “deny ungodliness and fleshly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world” (Tit. 2:12).

These are hard things for us to hear, for similar pressures are mounting against us. We hear voices raised in support of compromise, acceptance of sodomite and lesbian marriage, obeying ungodly and unlawful edicts of the state, and participating in our own forms of emperor worship to keep our jobs – supporting “queer month” and other such evil. We must come out from among them, but we shall do this only if Jesus Christ is real to us and our chief pleasure is to please him. Cold orthodoxy or emotional frenzy never kept one soul faithful. The faithful, like Antipas, are those who love the Lord Jesus and desire to obey him with all their hearts. The faithful hold fast to Christ’s word. If you and I are to bow the knee to Christ when Satan heats statism’s furnace, it will only be by the power of Christ in us. He gives us this power only in fellowship with the Spirit. We must not grow comfortable with idolatry and state worship. We must not lose the ability to blush over the impurity of our age. We must fight back by resisting these sins in the church and practicing discipline against those who advocate a philosophy of compromise with the world. And if we are moving in the direction of compromise through any form of “having other gods before us” and living impurely, we must immediately repent. The Lord Jesus takes our sincere worship and our purity with utmost seriousness. We cannot follow Christ and make our peace with the world. Our choice is faithfulness to Christ or his judgment.

If We Will Hear Christ’s Word (v. 17)

Hidden Manna: Heaven’s Food

Our Lord makes another promise to overcomers. All the promises in all these letters belong to all believers in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). The believers in Pergamum are given the specific promise most suited to their present crisis and need. Overcoming in their case means exposing and expelling the Balaamites and repenting of idolatry and immorality of every form. Overcoming also entails maintaining their steadfast allegiance to Christ in the face of mounting Roman opposition to the “Way.” The compromisers undoubtedly responded: we will starve if we do not compromise, if we last that long. Not to pay homage to Caesar is usually fatal. Christ’s promises suit the danger. First, Christ promises to feed his people with the “hidden manna.”  This is almost certainly a reference to the spiritual food Jesus gives to his people as the bread of life (John 6:35ff.). The manna is hidden because only believers in Jesus Christ see and eat the true food that sustains life in this world and gives everlasting life in the next. It is “manna” because Christ’s food sustains his faithful people throughout the wilderness wanderings on the earth. The only way this manna can be enjoyed, however, is by rejecting the “meat” of pagan religious and sexual practices. It may look like we must eat the world’s bread, i.e., accept its present order and demands, in order to survive. If we will trust and obey the Lord, he will give us unlooked for, otherwise unknown bread to sustain us. There is a future aspect of this manna. The only ones who will sit down at the heavenly feast with Christ to be served by him are those who spurn the poison food of the world and eat the bread of Jesus Christ and his word.

White Stone with a New Name: Heaven’s Dominion

Jesus also promises a “white stone with a new name written on it.” One use of a white stone in the ancient world was as a ticket of admission to the festival of the pagan gods. Jesus draws on this image to say that only those who overcome the pressure to compromise and maintain the faith steadfast to the end will be entitled to his bread. If churches compromise and fail to maintain a believing separation from the world and discipline over its members, then she will be denied access to the heavenly bread that Jesus gives his people.

This white stone has a new name engraved upon it, a name known only to the one who possesses it. In Revelation 3:12, Christ promises the overcomers in Philadelphia that he will write his new name upon them. Overcomers share in Christ’s victory, exaltation, and reign. By overcoming, their righteousness is vindicated, thus showing their new name: “redeemed, faithful, righteous.” Taken together our Lord promises to fellowship with us and feed us. We share in his sufferings, but we also share in his reign. He will reward us for refusing to worship the beast and practice immorality. Those who practice and encourage libertinism he will strike down with the sword of his mouth, as well as those who refuse to confront and remove them from his church.

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