The church in Pergamum is both praised and rebuked, because they allowed the false doctrines of the Nicolaitans to infiltrate their teachings.
Pergamum, located in the west of what is now Asiatic Turkey, occupied a commanding position near the seaward end of the broad valley of the Caicus about 45 miles north of Smyrna and about 20 miles from the Aegean Sea. The modern village of Bergama, Turkey, now covers part of the ancient site.
Pergamum had once been the capital of the Roman province of Asia, but Caesar Augustus had made Ephesus the center of the financial and administrative functions for the province. The city thus boasted a religious supremacy in the province, though Ephesus became its main commercial center.
Pergamum was a university town with a large library of 200,000 volumes given as a gift from Anthony to Cleopatra. It was a very wealthy city and the center of emperor worship with many temples and idolatrous practices. This was the place ‘where Satan’s throne is’ (Rev. 2:13). The phrase has been applied to the complex of pagan cults, of Zeus, Athena, Dionysus and Asclepius (Esculapius), established by the Attalid kings, that of Asclepius Soter (the 'savior,' 'healer') being of special importance. These cults are illustrative of the religious history of Pergamum, and Jesus' accusation that Pergamum is "Satan’s throne" indicates the level of idolatry that was practiced there, such as emperor worship. This was where the worship of the divine emperor had been made the touchstone of civic loyalty under Domitian.
Here was the magnificent temple of Esculapius, a pagan god whose idol was in the form of a serpent. The inhabitants were known as the chief temple keepers of Asia. When the Babylonian cult of the Magians was driven out of Babylon, they found a haven in Pergamum.
It marked a crisis for the church in Asia. Antipas who is called, "my faithful witness" (v. 13), is probably cited as a representative (probably the first to be put to death by the Roman state) of those who were brought to judgment and executed there for their faith.
The title of the Magian high priest was "Chief Bridge Builder" meaning the one who spans the gap between mortals and Satan and his hosts. In Latin this title was written Pontifex Maximus, the title now used by the Pope. This title goes all the way back to Babylon and the beginnings of the mother-child cult under Nimrod of Genesis 10 and his wife Sumerimus. Later, Julius Caesar was elected Pontifex Maximus and when he became Emperor, he became the supreme civil and religious ruler and head of Rome politically and religiously with all the power and functions of the Babylonian pontiff.
Today a small village called Bergama is located here with a Christian testimony which continued into modern times. This church may depict the history of the church from the time of Constantine until the rise of the papacy from the time of Constantine onward.
In this hostile environment the church receives Jesus' praise for holding fast to his name and not denying their faith in him, even in the days of Antipas, who was killed for his faith. The congregation had tasted martyrdom for Antipas had paid the ultimate price to maintain his testimony and in so doing he became the reflection of Jesus, the preeminently "faithful witness."
I Timothy 6:11 - 16 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which God will bring about in his own time--God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.
In this third letter to the church in Pergamum, the third of the seven of Asia, in the order of its geographical sequence, Jesus identifies himself as the one with the "sharp, double-edged sword." In Revelation 1:16 John related to us how he saw Jesus as the one with the double-edged sword coming out of his mouth. Now Jesus says that it is He who is writing to the church in Pergamum.
The circumstances of Antipas' death are veiled in mystery, but it was apparently related to the presence of "Satan's throne" in the city. The persecution of Christians instigated by emperor Nero was limited to Rome and its environs. Three decades later Domitian conferred upon himself the title "our lord and our god," but even then no empirewide policy mandated the execution of Christians. Nevertheless, those steeped in Rome's civil religion, especially Asians accustomed to deified monarchs, would view with suspicion anyone who declined to honor the emperor as lord and god.
Such simmering suspicion could boil over into mob violence or arbitrary bureaucratic decisions to teach such troublemakers a lesson in loyalty. When Satan flexed his strength on the site of his throne, silencing Antipas' witness by bloodshed, the church stood fast.
After commending them for their perseverance even at the murder of Antipas, Jesus takes them to task because they tolerated destructive doctrines in their midst.
While standing against Satan's frontal assault the church had let a dangerous enemy slip through the back door, so to speak: The Nicolaitans. During Israel's wilderness wandering, God had prevented the prophet Balaam from cursing the Israelites, as we have read in Numbers 22, so Balaam found a subtler avenue of ambush, advising Balaak to send Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men. Great alienation from God occurred and great punishment was inflicted upon Israel because of their lack of faith in God. Now the Nicolaitans at Pergamum were replicating Balaam's strategy, luring Christians into sexual and spiritual infidelity.
Early Christians, who converted from paganism, were particularly susceptible to the confusion preached by the Nicolaitans regarding food sacrificed to idols and inappropriate sexual conduct. The church at Corinth, across the Aegean Sea from Asia, also needed instruction on sexual issues and food offered to idols. Let's read some of the passages in Paul's letter to that church regarding this very same issue. One will recognize that the language is as fitting today as it was then.
I Corinthians 5:1 - 13, 6:12 - 20 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? 3Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. 4When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
6Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? 7Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast--as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. 9I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people-10not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.
11But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you."
6:12"Everything is permissible for me"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me"--but I will not be mastered by anything. 13"Food for the stomach and the stomach for food"--but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh."
I Corinthians 6:17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.
Although food offered to idols doesn't defile it, as we know from what Scripture teaches us in
I Corinthians 8:4 - 6 and 10:25, 26 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), 6Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. 10:25Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."
The social context, however, can turn the innocent act of eating into a serious sin, either by sending mixed signals or even by sharing the table of demons at banquets in honor of pagan deities. It is, therefore, a matter of the heart of the believer and not any authority of the pagan belief that is at stake here.
I Corinthians 8:7 -But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. 9Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak, 10 For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols. 11So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
I Corinthians 10:24 Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
I Corinthians 10:27 If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake-29the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? 30If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? 31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God-33even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
Just as Paul commanded, "flee from idolatry," he also commanded that we "flee from immorality." Dabbling with idolatry or immorality denies that we belong to Jesus, our jealous husband who tolerates no rivals, because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in us and who we received from God. We were bought at a price and should, therefore, honor God with our bodies.
Although only some of the congregation at Pergamum adhered to the Nicolaitan error, the whole church had to repent because the church discipline was lacking, tolerating the error among some of them. In terms of these errors, Jesus warned the church to exercise a zero tolerance policy, for the sake of the church and for those who strayed.
Let's spend a brief moment on this commandment to repent. The Lord calls the church to repentance with a sharp warning of judgment with the sword out of His mouth, indicating that the judgment is based on the truth of His Word. Remember, the sword symbolically represents the two-fold ability of the Word of God to separate believers from the world while at the same time condemning the world for its sin. It was the sword of salvation and deliverance as well as the sword of death.
Worldly thinking must be dealt with positively and quickly or it eats into our lives individually and corporately.
I Corinthians 5:7 - 11 Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast--as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. 9I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people-10not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
These passages defined exactly the charge that Jesus had against the church in Pergamum, that they tolerated the influence of the Nicolaitans.
Like cancer, worldliness eats deeply into our viewpoint of life and what we expect from it. This impacts our values, and then our priorities and pursuits. And while we may begin to recognize much of its presence and seek to root it out, some of its remnants often remain below the surface, hidden like barnacles below the waterline on a ship.
The Lord counsels the church to repent. The verb "repent" is here an active aorist imperative in the Greek text which carries with it an element of urgency. It calls for an immediate response, one designed to arrest the direction in which the church was going. The word here used for repent means literally "to change the mind." It is one of those generic terms that must be understood within the context in which it is found just as the word 'deliverance' in Philippians 1:19 in which the Greek swthria, means "salvation, deliverance, or preservation".
In both the Old and New Testaments, repentance means 'to change one's mind' but the question must be asked whether it refers to a mere intellectual assent to something different or is there more to it. Biblical repentance involves not only changing one's mind intellectually, but it also demands a change of heart resulting in a change of behavior.
Repentance is used in Scripture in at least three ways:
Matthew 21:28 - 30 …There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 29'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go.
These passages deal with repentance, a change of mind, with a real result, but it has nothing to do with salvation. For real repentance to be effective, a change of heart should be the result.
Acts 2:38, 39 Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call."
Acts 5:31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.
Ephesians 1:7, 8 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
First, we acknowledge our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, and then (the other side of the coin) we turn to Christ in faith as the only means of salvation.
The Issue: Either we repent of our worldliness, acknowledge its presence and evil and commit to moving in a godly direction, or we face divine discipline and the loss of our light-bearing capacity—our very purpose for existence as a church. It appears they did. A Christian church has continued into modern times in the modern city of Bergama.
The Solution: The Christian needs to live in the Word, the two-edged sword, which penetrates and transforms us by the renewing of the mind with the mind of Christ.
Romans 12:1, 2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I Corinthians 2:14 - 16 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: 16"For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.
This includes keeping our focus on eternal treasures.
Matthew 6:19, 21 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal, 21for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
I Peter 1:10 - 12 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
The alternative is divine discipline on the basis of that same Word, which, if neglected, results in our discipline according to the warnings and principles of Scripture
John 15:1, 2 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful."
Hebrews 12:4 - 8 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you 6because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." 7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father. 8If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.
The church must confront the Nicolaitans as Scripture teaches us in,
II Timothy 2:25, 26 Those who oppose [the servant of the Lord] he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
If they do not repent, the Lord will come quickly to make war against the Nicolaitans with the sword of his mouth.
Not all of the promises and threats of Jesus' coming in Revelation refer to the Second Coming. Here Jesus is not saying that his bodily return to earth will come soon if the Nicolaitans fail to repent, but will be postponed if they turn around.
Rather, since Jesus already walks among the lampstands, he will come quickly by intervening in the church's life through his providential control of events and the work of his Spirit to call the Nicolaitans to account. And not only the Nicolaitans, but all the enemies of the church. When the Corinthian church abused the Lord's Supper, the result was illness and death in the congregation. Providential instruments of discipline are motivated by Christ's love and are directed to the good of the church because,
29 …anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. (I Corinthians 11:29 - 32).
Similar visitations of purifying judgment would come to the church at Pergamum unless they repent and apply church discipline. It is the same with us today.
The familiar ending again admonished the congregation to have an open mind, open ears and allow the word of God to enter their perception. Here the victor is promised of the hidden manna, a reference to the manna that sustained the Israelites in the desert. The victor will also receive a white stone with a new name written on it known only to the one who receives it.
In Pergamum the victor is the believer who not only stands fast in the face of external pressure where Satan's throne is, but also resists temptations to conform for the sake of personal convenience. Revelation portrays the church's sojourn on earth as a journey in the wilderness just as Israel had sojourned in the desert, living off the manna given by God to sustain them.
Moses knew that the manna received in the desert pointed beyond itself, teaching that man does not live by bread alone but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord, as we read in,
Deuteronomy 8:3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Matthew 4:4 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
John 6:31 - 35 Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.' 32Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34"Sir," they said, "from now on give us this bread." 35Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."
Jesus announced that the manna pointed to his sacrificed body as the true bread out of heaven. Though the church's circumstances seem as desolate as a desert, Jesus sustains it by this word, revealing himself.
The white stone points to the climax of the church's pilgrimage. In the ancient world white stones were used for various purposes, such as to deliver judgment in which a black stone was given to the accused indicating judgment and a white stone indicating acquittal. In Revelation the name that the stone bears is more important than the connotations of its color. Only the recipient knows the name, just as only the one who rides the white horse, knows the name of the Word of God. The name is a shared secret between the Lord and the recipient, blending mystery and disclosure.
The victor's new name could be his transformed identity in Christ, as the renaming of Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Saul to Paul, and of Simon to Peter signaled their transformation by God's power and grace.
To us who hold fast his name, Jesus gives a new name to mark us as his property and to reshape our identity to fit his perfection.
Romans 8:29, 30 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
 Reworked from material from Biblical Foundation Studies and Triumph of the Lamb, A commentary on Revelation by Dennis E. Johnson