Elon, North Carolina
As we continue our study in the Book of Revelation, we come to the third letter of Jesus to a local church. It is found in Revelation 2:12-17. It is the letter to the Church of Pergamum. Before we talk about the church, I want to say a few words about the city of Pergamum to give you a little background.
Pergamum was fifty miles north of Smyrna. Pergamum is another ancient city in what is not modern Turkey. The city today is called Bergama. Bergama is the modern Turkish city that is just a few miles away from the ruins of the Roman city of Pergamum.
It is a popular tourist site today. I want to give you a little historical background. What do we know about the city of Pergamum? Ancient Pergamum was known for several things.
1) It was an important educational center
It was the home to one of the most famous libraries in the world. The second largest library in the Roman Empire was in Pergamum. The first largest was in Alexandria in Egypt which contained 500,000. The library at Pergamum had over 200,000 books in it. These books looked a little different than books today.
They were all copied by hand. The printing press was not invented until the 1400s and this library did not contain books (as we know them) but scrolls. Books did not exist yet. Books did not replace scrolls until about the fourth century.
Mark Antony later gave all of the books in the Library at Pergamum to Cleopatra as a wedding present. Incidentally, the largest library in the world today is the Library of Congress. It is the national library of the US in Washington D.C.
2) It was an important medical center
Pergamum was a center of healing and medicine. Pergamum became known throughout the Mediterranean world as a center of ancient medicine. It was where Galen set up his medical practice. Galen was the greatest physician of ancient Rome.
He was one of the greatest surgeons of the ancient world. He lived a few years after John (c.129-200 AD). Galen lived in Pergamum. That was his hometown and where he was born. Pergamum had a large temple which was dedicated to god of healing (Asclepius as the Greeks called him).
Diseased people from all over the Roman Empire flocked to Pergamum for relief. There was a healing center in Pergamum called the Asclepieum, built in the name of Asclepius, their god of healing. Asclepius is often referred to as “Savior” (σωτηρ) in Greek mythology.
The symbol of Asclepius was the serpent. Interestingly, the medical profession, like the American Medical Association (AMA), and many doctors still use the symbol of a serpent as a symbol of their profession. The symbol of modern medicine is a snake wrapped around a staff or a pole.
3) It was an important medical center
Pergamum was the center of worship for at least four of the most important pagan cults of the day. Four different deities were worshiped in Pergamum: Zeus, Athena, Dionysius and Asclepius, was the acknowledged center in Asia Minor for the imperial cult of Caesar. Pergamum was the center of emperor worship. In Asia the first two imperial temples that Rome allowed to be built in Asia were built in Pergamum.
4) It was an important political center
In each one of the letters to the churches, Jesus gives a title of himself from chapter one that applies to each church. To the Church of Smyrna (the persecuted church) Jesus said, “I am the one who died but am alive”.
To the Church of Pergamum, Jesus describes himself as the one “who has the sharp two-edged sword.” That is very interesting. That title of Jesus applied more to the Church of Pergamum than any of the other seven churches. Why?
Pergamum was the center of Roman government. Pergamum was the official seat of Rome. It was the capital of the Roman province of Asia (like Washington D.C). It was where the governor resided and the Romans had the power of the sword.
We see that in Romans 13. They had the power of life and death. When Jesus says to the Church of Pergamum that he has the sharp two-edged sword, it is both a comfort and a warning.
The COMFORT of the two-edged sword
The Romans thought that they had the two-edged sword. This was the sword used by the Roman soldiers. Jesus says, “No, I am the one who really has the two-edged sword”. It is sharp. It cuts on both sides. Jesus is the one we should really fear not the Romans.
The Romans can only sentence people to death but Jesus can sentence people to Hell. He is the one who will cast people into the Lake of Fire. He has the keys of death and hades. He is the one who will say, “depart from me into everlasting fire’.
The WARNING of the two-edged sword
How is this title a warning? The two-edged sword is a sword of judgment. Jesus tells the Church of Pergamum to repent (2:16). It is a command. This was not a suggestion, but a “Do it or else.” The Bible teaches that Judgment must begin at the house of God (I Peter 4:17).
It does not begin with the wicked. What if they do not repent? If they do not repent, the Christians of Pergamum will face the Jesus who has the two-edged sword. He will use this sword on the church if they do not repent.
That is serious business. Here He is not fighting unbelievers but believers (or professed believers) with the sword. The picture here is of Jesus at war with Christians or with a local church. Jesus says, “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16).
What Christian wants to be at war with Jesus? What local church wants Jesus at war with them? We do not want that. Some Christians may have wanted to compromise because they feared the sword of Rome but then they would have had to deal with the sword out of Jesus’ mouth. When Jesus goes to war, He always wins.
Strengths of the Church
So what kind of church was the Church of Pergamum? What would a modern-day church of Pergamum look like? As we will see, in some ways it was like the Church of Ephesus and in some ways it was very different.
In some ways it was like the Church of Smyrna and in other ways it was very different. Jesus begins the letter talking about the strengths of the church. The Church of Pergamum had some strengths. What were the strengths of the church?
1) The Church of Pergamum ministered in a very difficult place.
If you do minister in a difficult place, Jesus knows all about it (“I know where you live”). It was not easy to be a Christian in Pergamum. It is very easy to be a Christian in this country. In fact, we live in the Bible belt but there are many places in the world where it is not easy to be a Christian.
Why was it so hard to be a Christian in Pergamum? John tells us that Pergamum was where Satan’s throne was located and that Pergamum was where Satan lived. Pergamum was the city of the serpent. They loved that symbol. All of the coins minted in Pergamum had a serpent on them which also happens to be a symbol of Satan (12:9).
Smyrna had a synagogue of Satan in the city but Pergamum had the throne of Satan in the city. That was where his base of operations was located. Pergamum was the headquarters of satanic opposition to the church. It was a satanic capital, a satanic stronghold. Satan has his operations all over the world but apparently his throne was located in Pergamum.
All rulers have a throne, or seat of government where they rule from. Does Satan still have a throne today? Yes. Is his throne still located in Turkey? It is probably not located there today. It has moved. Where is the city where his throne is located today? Is it London? Is it Chicago? No one knows but it is probably where there is the greatest organized persecution of Christians on the planet.
2) The Church of Pergamum was faithful in the midst of persecution.
The Church of Pergamum was a persecuted church. Now last time we saw that the Church of Smyrna was also a persecuted church. The difference is that at Pergamum the persecution was by the state. It came from the government (Romans). In Smyrna the persecution came from their fellow citizens (the Jews).
At Pergamum, Christians not only experienced persecution, they experienced martyrdom. None of the other seven churches had anyone who had been martyred yet, except at Pergamum. At Smyrna, there were some people who Jesus said may experience martyrdom soon.
At Pergamum, Christians experienced persecution but they were faithful in the midst of that persecution. Jesus said, “You remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city” (2:13). We know absolutely nothing about Antipas.
His name means “against all” but it was a common name. One of the Herod’s was named Antipas. All we know is that he refused to compromise. He refused to give up his faith and deny Christ and according to church tradition, he was burned alive. He was roasted to death.
That raises this question. How strong is our faith? If we were threatened with martyrdom or having our head chopped off, would we deny our faith or would we remain faithful to Christ and not deny his name. How strong is our faith? How would you like Jesus to call you his faithful witness? That sounds like a great epitaph to have (Matthew 10:32-33).
Weakness of the Church
Many believe that the reason Jesus did not criticize the Church of Smyrna is that it was the persecuted church. How could anyone criticize a persecuted church? There’s one problem with that. Jesus did criticize the Church of Pergamum and it was also a persecuted church. Jesus says in 2:14, “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you”.
So what was wrong with this church? It was a fairly good church. It had a lot of strengths but it had one problem and it is a common problem that many churches have today? What problem did this church have? It was a doctrinally sound church. It was an evangelical church. It probably had a good outreach program.
The chief sin of the church was that it was overly tolerant. It had room for everyone on the church. Everyone was accepted and everyone was welcome. It did not discriminate against anyone and it did not practice church discipline. There are many churches like this today.
The motto of famous mainline denomination today is “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors”. It is right on their website . They are open to everyone. Open to gay pastors. They would even be open to the Nicolaitans, just like the Christians at Pergamum were. There are ecumenical churches right in our own city. Then try to foster unity with every church (whether liberal or conservative).
They work with everyone. They work with every denomination. They work with Roman Catholics and even other religions. One prominent church in Elon has partnered with the university to build a multi-faith center that is costing millions of dollars. How does this relate to Pergamum?
The chief sin of the church, according to Jesus, was that they that had some in the church who held to the teaching of Balaam and some who held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. There were false teachers in the church and they allowed it. They had no problem with it. In many ways, this church was the exact opposite of the Church of Ephesus.
The Church of Ephesus kept false teachers out of the church. They applied tests to keep out false teachers but the Church of Pergamum let them come into the church. The problem with the Church of Ephesus is that it elevated truth above love. The problem with the Church of Pergamum is that it elevated love above truth.
Having said all that, we need to make one important qualification. There should be intolerance in the church when it comes to essential doctrines but there should be tolerance when it comes to non-essential doctrines.
In some fundamental churches, everyone thinks exactly alike on everything. There is no diversity. If you disagree on anything you are branded a heretic. There are some things and some doctrines we should tolerate in a local church. We have to distinguish between major and minor doctrines. How do we know which doctrines are minor and which are major?
In some churches, every doctrine is major. All doctrines are essential. Minor doctrines are not salvation issues. They are not as clear in Scripture and they are doctrines that people who believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and are thoroughly conservative hold different views on.
The letter ends on a positive note. Jesus gives three promises to this church. He says, “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” The three promises are hidden manna, a white stone and a new name. No one knows exactly what these three promises are.
Promises to This Church
1) They will be given hidden manna
The manna is the bread that God supernaturally provided for the Israelites in the wilderness. They would not have survived without it. Manna kept the Israelites alive for forty years in the wilderness and ceased to appear when they first harvested their crops near their new homeland (Joshua 5:12). This manna was hidden in the Ark of the Covenant in a golden jar (Hebrews 9:3-4).
It was later put in Solomon’s Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, no one knew what happened to the manna but there is Jewish legend which says the jar of manna that mysteriously disappeared will be revealed by the Messiah. All who overcome will one day receive some of the hidden manna from Jesus.
2) They will be given a white stone
White stones were used for several things in the ancient world. In ancient courts, the accused were acquitted or condemned by vote of a jury. The voting member would cast a white pebble for “acquittal” or a black pebble for “guilty”. White stones were also used for admission to certain functions and festivals. You needed a white stone to get in. It was your ticked to get in. That is another possible meaning of the white stone.
3) They will be given a new name
This is an allusion to Isaiah 62:2. We will not just get a new name; we will get a new name that “no one knows except the one who receives it.” You will not know my new name and I will not know yours. It will not only be a new name, it will be a secret name. It does not necessarily mean that we will get rid of our old names. Where will the name go? It will go on the white stone. It will go on your admission ticket.