I have been writing about Jesus’ messages to the seven churches of Revelation. Today, we’ll continue with a look at the church at Pergamos.
Pergamos, as stated last week, vied with Ephesus and Smyrna for the title, “First City of Asia”. Pergamos was briefly the capital of the Roman province of Asia, before the capital was transferred to Ephesus.
Pergamos was granted the title of metropolis and as a result of this an ambitious building program was carried out: massive temples, a stadium, a theatre, a huge forum and an amphitheatre were constructed. In addition, at the city limits the shrine to Asclepius (the god of healing) was expanded into a lavish spa. This sanctuary grew in fame and was considered one of the most famous therapeutic and healing centers of the Roman world. Galen, after Hippocrates the most famous physician of antiquity, was born at Pergamos and received his early training at the Asclepeion.
Asclepius was a hero and god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology. Asclepius represents the healing aspect of the medical arts; his daughters are Hygieia (“Hygiene”, the goddess/personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation), Iaso (the goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (the goddess of the healing process), Aglæa (the goddess of beauty, splendor, glory, magnificence, and adornment), and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy). He was associated with the Roman/Etruscan god Vediovis and the Egyptian Imhotep. He was one of Apollo‘s sons, sharing with Apollo the epithet Paean (“the Healer”). The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today.
Those physicians and attendants who served this god were known as the Therapeutae of Asclepius.
Pergamos reached the height of its greatness under Roman Imperial rule and was home to about 200,000 inhabitants. The city was an early seat of Christianity and was granted a bishopric by the second century.
Now, on to the message to the church at Pergamos.
Jesus starts out this message as He does each message to the churches by saying “I know your works”. We have discussed what Jesus means when He says this. He is saying, “I know how you live – on what you spend your energy”.
Then, Jesus says an amazing thing. He says:
I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.
So, Jesus is saying that He recognizes Pergamos as the place where Satan has his earthly throne.
Take a look at this drawing of Pergamos.
We’ve already detailed that, at the city limits stood the Asclepeion, the hall of medicine inspired by the god of healing. Pergamos was also the center of Imperial cult worship, the worship of the emperor of the Roman world. After the death of the Roman emperor Trajan, he was deified by the Roman senate and a temple to worship him was built in Pergamos. The city also contained temples for the worship of Dionysus, god of wine and madness, Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, and Zeus, god of thunder and the sky and leader of the Greek pantheon of gods.
The church in Pergamos was commended by Jesus for holding fast to His name and not denying their faith in such a pagan atmosphere.
Could Jesus say the same about us in the pagan atmosphere we live in?
Jesus commended the church for holding fast to the faith in the difficult days of Antipas’ martyrdom.
According to Christian tradition, John the Apostle ordained Antipas as bishop of Pergamos during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. The traditional account goes on to say Antipas was martyred in ca. 92 AD by burning in a brazen bull-shaped altar for casting out demons worshiped by the local population. A bull was one of the signs of Zeus.
In spite of their trying circumstances, Jesus also had some things that needed correction in the church of Pergamos.
First, Jesus said that the doctrine of Balaam was being taught in Pergamos.
Balaam, a prophet from Mesopotamia, was willing to use his God-given talents for illicit purposes. Even though he knew Balak was God’s enemy, he tried to sell his prophetic gifts to help him. When that didn’t work, Balaam counseled Balak on the most effective way to weaken Israel. This was through seduction, using Moabite and Midianite women to tempt the Israelites into sexual relationships and into pagan rituals. The Israelites who participated brought God’s judgment upon themselves (Numbers 25:1–9).
According to 2 Peter 2:15, Balaam’s “way” is a choice to promote falsehood for financial reasons. According to Jude 1:11, Balaam’s “error” was his willingness to accommodate pagan beliefs out of greed. Jude 1:4 also refers to the sin of those “who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality.” One trait of false teachers in the church is that they attempt to turn Christian liberty into a “freedom” to be promiscuous (see Romans 14:1–5).
The teaching that the body could not do the works of the spirit was rampant in this period. It was a corruption springing from Greek thought. Many believed that, if the spirit was saved, the works of the flesh didn’t matter because “flesh was flesh”. This was based in the teaching that Jesus could not have lived in flesh but only “appeared” to, so the body was not redeemed.
We find the doctrine of the Nicolaitans operating in Pergamos as well. This was mentioned as operating in the city of Ephesus, which was close to Pergamos.
Early church fathers mentioned this as originating from the deacon, Nicolas, who taught false liberty like the sharing of wives and involvement in idolatrous practices.
Jesus said that the church must repent or He will come quickly and fight against them with the sword of His mouth.
Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. Revelation 19:15
This sword is reserved for the enemies of God. We must not allow corruption of the word of God to deceive us concerning our status as His children!
To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.
We know what the manna is: food given from heaven for the children of God. Jesus said that He was the bread that came down from heaven that if one eats, he will never die. But, this is called hidden manna. Why is it called hidden?
Remember, Jesus would use the characteristics of the area in which the churches were located to display a spiritual truth.
Pergamos was full of temples. Many Jews longed for the Ark of the Covenant which had disappeared upon the destruction of the Jewish Temple. The next time we see the Ark mentioned is in Revelation 11:19:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.
To him who overcomes, even in the face of death as did Antipas – that one will see the Ark again in the Temple of God in heaven!
As for the white stone with a new name written:
This is difficult to understand but:
A suggestion is that the reference is to the stone or pebble of friendship, called tessera hospitalis, graven with some legend or device; and which gave to its possessor a claim of hospitality from him who gave it. Some such tickets admitted those invited into the heathen temples on festival days, when the meat which had been offered as a sacrifice formed part of the feast. The stone is called white; but the word does not imply that it is a stone of white colour, but that it is shining, glistering white. On the stone is graven a new name. The giving of new names is not uncommon in the Bible: for example, Abraham, Israel, Boanerges, Peter. The new name expressed the step which had been taken into a higher, truer life, and the change of heart and the elevation of character consequent upon it.