Sunday, September 1, 2013

Revelation 2:12-17: A Letter from Christ to the Church at Pergamum

Text : Revelation  2 : 12-17

Title : A  Letter  from Christ  to the Church in Pergamum
Date:  01/09/2013 
The next church  to which the Lord Jesus dictates a  personal letter  through John  the apostle,  is  Pergamum , another  prominent city in Asia ,  situated 80km's north of Smyrna.  Pergamum reached the height of its greatness under Roman Imperial rule and at that time  was home to about 200,000 inhabitants. This city housed  an impressive library  of about  200,000 volumes and was the second largest in the ancient world after Alexandria.  Parchment was invented in Pergamum after relations with Egypt soured and papyrus became difficult to obtain.  Today  this city in modern day Turkey is  called  “Bergama”.
Again, we find  here a Christian church struggling to survive in the midst of a diversity of pagan cults and idolatry. This  is true  for every of the 7 churches.   It is an accurate picture of the church in the world. Many contemporary Christians think that this assessment is too negative. They  think that  the Lord has  designed the church a place of  peace, prosperity  and  comfort.  It is  true of course  that the church of Jesus Christ is given for the comfort of the saints, but not in the way we often think. The church  provides  true perspective  and comfort  from  the Word of God; she  provides  true prayer (receiving true answers and help); she provides  true fellowship ( giving true love and  sympathy) . However, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the church has it easy in this world, where Satan has his throne.  Chapter 12 :7ff will provide us with more detail on the presence and work of Satan in the world. And so the true  church is  never at rest in this world. This revelation is therefore given to John  for the benefit of these (and any)   struggling churches in the world.  The church needs to be reminded  that she is at war. There is no time for rest now, and  John simply repeats  what is affirmed throughout the entire  Bible.  Abraham never really settled in the promised land; Israel never really was at peace for long   in her territory; the church of the NT  was always  unsettled  and on the move. All this speaks of  our longing and desire  for true rest  in that city  that has foundations, whose designer and builder  is God  (Hebr. 11:10).

The church at Pergamum is  said to be situated  "where Satan has his throne."[1] (v.13) A throne is  the symbol of dominion. A king customarily  exercises his rule from  the throne - his seat of authority. Although Satan is influential in all the cities in Asia, and indeed in the world, he  is said to have his  throne in this city. That sounds  intimidating, but   note  that  right there  we find  a Christian church.  That fact  should  greatly encourage us. The church is found  at the very portals of hell.  C.T.  Studd (1860-1931), a missionary  to  the Congo  once  wrote  in this regard: “Some wish to live within the sound of church or chapel bell.
I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”
The church in Pergamum  was such a rescue  shop   in enemy territory.  Jesus says  “I will build my  church (everywhere), and the gates of  hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt.  16:18).   From the Bible we learn  that Satan,  whilst a fearful, powerful enemy, he  is  not omnipotent. He is  a roaring  lion (1 Pet. 5:8), but he is a chained Lion [2]. He is  able to exercise dominion in the city of Pergamum, because God has allowed this  for a season.   
Another thing we ought to observe   is  whilst Satan exercises  a  world wide  influence, it is true that there are places where the spiritual darkness and oppression is so much greater, such as in Pergamum. Today  Satan has  his strongholds in the Muslim, Hindu , Buddhist  worlds and in  the Communist worlds of China and North Korea. The Western world  once  so favoured with the gospel  is   now strongly influenced  by secular humanism,  and has become   another aggressive exporter of anti -Christian  sentiments  in the world.  Of Namibia it has sometimes been said that  Satan has his seat in  Swakopmund , where a local newspaper had  reported some years  ago[3]  that there  was a group of  177   Satanic  disciples.

So what influences were  there  in  Pergamum that it was   said  that  this  is “where Satan’s throne is ”?
·        Pergamum was famous for its worship of Aesculapius  - the god of healing. Because of the healing powers attributed to him , he was also known as "Sōter" (Saviour). Thus we  have here a striking symbolism of the power of the Anti-Christ who wants people to think that he is the true saviour of men. The large temple  of Asclepius built in the 4th century B.C.  was considered one of the most famous therapeutic and healing centers of the  Greek and Roman world.  Galen[4] (c. 130 – 210 AD)  who  after  Hippocrates  is considered to be the most important  physician of ancient times,  was born in Pergamum, receiving his training at the Ascleipion
·        The Serapeum : This was a temple  to the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld,  built  in the lower city of Pergamum.  The Serapis cult was founded by Ptolemy I and was originally centered in Alexandria.  Held to be a god of healing, particularly of blindness,  Serapis was one of a number of Egyptian deities worshiped in ancient Greece and Rome. 
·        Caesar worship.  The emperors of Rome had themselves deified and worshipped as gods. A 2nd century  marble temple dedicated to the emperor Hadrian  was found here. 

To this church the Lord speaks -  “the words of Him who has the sharp  two edged sword”.  This sword in 1 :16 is said to "come out of his mouth". ( see also Hebr. 4:12). What does this mean? It simply means that the words of our Lord Jesus always cut straight, accurately and fairly. A man-made sword cannot compare. This sword penetrates our inmost being. And if it does not cut with the edge of salvation, it cuts with the edge of condemnation, for the word of redemption to all who believe is at the same time the word of destruction to those who refuse to believe.[5] And as such our Lord speaks to the church at Pergamum.

a.        Once again note, that Jesus "knows" where  they live . He knows   their situation.
b.     "you hold fast  my name"… This church is faithful to Christ.This must be understood against the contrast with the evil environment. Many clung to the names  of  Aesculapius, Serapeum,  Caesar and Zeus, but  in the midst of these idolatrous surroundings these  believers held firmly to the name of Jesus. They kept the faith. They were not seduced by their surroundings .
c.     "you did not  deny  my faith  even in the days of Antipas…”. Unlike the church at Smyrna which was about to enter into a time of severe persecution (see  2:10), the church at Pergamum had already experienced persecution. One of their number, whom Jesus calls "Antipas , my faithful witness" (probably their pastor) was martyred here. One can imagine that the death of their leader  would have been a severe blow to the church, but this church clung to Christ , not renouncing their faith. That is commendable !
From what we have learned so far of the church at Pergamum, we are full of admiration of this church. It is hard to imagine that one could say anything in rebuke to such a faithful church. And yet ….

Let us consider firstly what these things are, which are worthy of rebuke :
(i)                       "You have some  there who hold the teaching of Balaam" (v. 14)
(ii)                     "You have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans" (v. 15)

The teaching of  Balaam “who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin" refers to Numbers 22 - 25 & 31:16. When the Israelites came  out of Egypt they took possession of the promised land. The Moabite king Balak became very worried and summoned Balaam - a  supposed wonder worker - somewhat of the character of a Judas. Balak wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites - but he could not,  because the Spirit of God would not let him.  Now this Balaam, whilst he was forced to bless the Israelites on this occasion,  is said in a number of Scriptures (i.e. Numbers 31:16 ; 2 Peter 2:15 ; Jude 11 ) to have led the Israelites into the worst form of sin - Numbers 25:1 - sexual immorality and sacrificing to idols. He caused Israel to compromise  and  we read that  24 000 died in a plague inflicted upon them by the Lord. Whilst  God  holds Israel fully accountable for this sin, the one who lured Israel into this sin was Balaam. There are Balaam like characters in this church, and they were not dealt with.
The Nicolaitans (who are  also mentioned in the letter to Ephesus – 2:6) held to similar teachings and practises .

So what is  it that causes  the Lord Jesus to rebuke the church at Pergamum?   It was the sin of compromise! The church somehow tolerated  members in its midst who lived immoral lives and indulged in idolatry. Jesus says twice… "you have some there …"  and it seems as if this  church  had failed  to  discipline these members. May I remind you that church discipline is  not an option in the church[6].  The Lord   of the church  expects the church (particularly the leaders)  to watch over the doctrinal purity  and the moral behaviour of its members.  If ever there was a text in scripture that should remind us of the fact that our Lord expects us to be serious about these issues, here it is!  And we must not play down the seriousness of this. There was a real danger that the church would become like the world in  Pergamum, even as  Israel threatened to become absorbed by the evil culture of the Moabites in Balaam's day.
Somehow, in Pergamum, the guard was down. This  easily happens when  the church is perpetually under pressure. When under pressure it is not good enough to  focus only  on the external threats. We must also guard the inner life of the church , and if there are those among us that  threaten the spiritual life of the church they need to be disciplined.  

 "Therefore repent. If not  will come to you soon and war  against them with the sword of my mouth."  What must the church do?
1.    The church must repent. The church dare not minimise this serious compromise in her midst. God is not pleased with compromise!  As an  illustration see the entire history of the Kings of Israel. Repenting does not simply mean to say "I am sorry". The word used here    (Gr. metanoia) literally means "have an entire  change of mind". That means that the church in Pergamum  needed to deal  with these  people in their midst.  
2.     If  they would not do it, the Lord Himself will do it , 'to make war with them'. If they will not act, Christ will act. Our Lord certainly will take steps to purge the church  from  such evil  people. The way in which He would have done it is to exercise 'temporal judgments' in the church.


Our Lord ends on a positive note -  a two- fold encouragement to those who remain faithful in the Church of Pergamum, and who have an ear to hear! (Note the appeal to the individual)
1.        He will feed him with the "hidden manna". This is not difficult to understand . Manna is the bread that the Israelites ate in the desert for 40 years. It was the sign and symbol of God's  provision - foreshadowing the true bread from heaven that was to come.  Jesus is the true bread of life (the true manna from heaven) and He nourishes them unto eternal life. Those who are hearing what the Spirit is saying are obedient, and they shall  receive grace and sustenance from Christ by feeding on Him.  This will be their strength to withstand all the attacks of  Satan- even in  places where he has his throne.
2.        He will give him a white stone with a new name written on it. We are not entirely certain  what this white stone  was.  It clearly would have made sense  to those who received this letter. There was a custom however  in  the ancient world – the tesserae, (little stones of friendship) on which was  inscribed a combination of letters. These stones were issued  to various friends who then had free access to the house and a standing invitation  to its hospitality.[7] Whether  this is so or not , we don’t know. But it illustrates the point. This  white stone is said to bear a new name .Much said about the "new name" in Scripture  (cf. 3:12 ; 14:1 ; 22:4). This name is known only by him who receives it.  That means that he who overcomes is not only fully accepted by God - but God deals with that individual in a very private a personal way. In heaven we shall not simply be numbers, but we will have a special new name and a special relationship with God. All this is really the fulfilment of an age old promise : "You shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the Lord will give” (Isa 62:2; 65:15 ; 43;1). Our Good Shepherd Himself said that "he calls his own sheep by name" (Jn. 10:3f)


The church exists in this world, in difficult  circumstances. Some churches  live closer to Satan’s  throne  than others.  But  this does not give the church reason for less vigilance. At all times  we must watch  the internal challenges of the church. We cannot be tempted  to allow   spiritual and moral compromise in our midst. We must be careful of the seductive teachings of the  Balaam’s and the Nicolaitans and their modern counterparts . If we do allow this,  we need to be prepared for the cleansing actions of the Head of our church.
 By persevering we will receive sufficient encouragement  from Christ, the head of the church . He will give us sufficient  of His manna – bread on our desert journey to survive , and in the end we will receive that  assurance – that white friendship stone by which we gain  access  into eternal glory. Amen!

[1] This is  the  2nd of many references to Satan in the book of Revelation
[2] See Pilgrims Progress
[3] Allgemeine Zeitung , Mittwoch , 27 Januar 1999
[4] We have a street named after him in Windhoek West
[5] The Book of Revelation , Philip  Edgcumbe Hughes, Eerdmans , p.  27
[6] See  Matthew 18:15-20 ; 1 Corinthians  5
[7]  Richard Brooks :  The Book of Revelation ,  Evangelical Press , p. 38

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