To the angel of the church in Pergamum write. Revelation 2:12 NIV
Pergamum was the third of the seven churches that Jesus addressed in His letters dictated to the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos. It is located adjacent to the modern day city of Bergama, Turkey, approximately 70 miles north of Smyrna (Izmir). Pergamum, or Pergamon to which it is sometimes referred, was at its zenith a city of 200,000 inhabitants and was briefly the Roman capital of Asia Minor before the capital was moved to Ephesus. Indications are that there was a small Jewish population in the city from which undoubtedly an embattled band of believers grew, in spite of the oppression of the worship of pagan idols and the pursuit of worldly wisdom that engulfed the city.
Pliny the Elder declared Pergamum “the most famous place in Asia” and it was not without reason. At the time the city could boast of being the world center for the worship of the deities Zeus (king of the gods), Asclepius (the god of healing), and Athena (goddess of wisdom). Their shrines, along with temples to other deities, and the massive horseshoe shaped altar of Zeus, the largest in antiquities to which John refers in his letter as Satan’s throne, were all there. The altar’s base is all that remains as the altar itself now resides in a museum in Berlin, Germany. The shrine to Asclepius grew into a famous spa that became one of the most famous therapeutic and healing centers in the Roman world. Galen, a well-known Roman physician, surgeon, and philosopher was born and trained in the city. And if that were not enough, in addition, Pergamum was a center for education with a 200,000 volume library, second in size only to Alexandria, Egypt and a place where calfskin parchment rather than papyrus was first produced routinely for writing. Plutarch, well known Greek historian and writer, started the library and its fame inspired Marc Anthony to gift it to Cleopatra when they wed.
The upper portion of the city known as the Acropolis, was situated on a mountain rising 1300 feet above the valleys surrounding it, and remains the primary area of excavation and restoration of ancient Pergamum. Its commanding position made it a naturally defensible fortress with two royal palaces, cisterns, an arsenal, and barracks. That elevated site, from which all the scenes in the video posted above were filmed, housed four temples, the altar, and the library as well as a gymnasium, an Agora, and a 10,000 seat amphitheater, the steepest and most dramatically situated in the Ancient world.
Here then is an overview of John’s letter to Pergamum from the Book of Revelation with some explanatory comments (2:12-17 NIV). It follows the pattern and order used in all seven of the letters as outlined in the introductory blog post on the Letters to the Seven Churches.
- Revelation of Jesus – “These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword” (v. 12). This revelatory image is taken directly from John’s description of Jesus’ appearance to him in chapter one where he writes “and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword” (1:16)! We know from other passages in the Bible that the “double-edged sword” specifically represents the Word of God that proceeds from the mouth of God (Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12). Jesus is intentionally arming the church at Pergamum with this mighty weapon of truth because of the rampant doctrinal deception contaminating their fellowship with Him and with one another.
- Commendation – “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet 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—where Satan lives” (v. 13). This verse makes it clear that the spiritual warfare in Pergamum was intense, as was alluded to in the description of the city above. Yet in the midst of it all there were many victorious saints, standing firm even to the point of martyrdom. For this Jesus commends them and rightly so! It is enlightening to acknowledge the deceptive work of Satan in a congregation because the real battle is not against flesh and blood but against his demonic spirits and schemes (Ephesians 6:12). Identifying the source of opposition as Jesus does, and addressing it with the spiritual weapons He has given us, is imperative (2 Corinthians 10:4). It is comforting to know that Jesus is with them (and us) and undergirds His church through such trials.
- Corrective Rebuke – “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (vs. 14-15). One of the things Jesus and every writer of the Epistles warns against is deception. As the father of lies, it is Satan’s main ploy to rob Christians of God’s purpose and blessings in their lives. Here the letter calls out two sources of doctrinal error to which some in their midst have fallen prey. As with most doctrines of demons, such teaching inevitably leads to a rationale that excuses and even encourages sinful behavior. Jesus is underscoring the responsibility that the “angel” or leader of this church has to deal with this deception, lest like a leaven, it leavens the whole lump.
- Predictive Warning or Counsel – “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (v. 16). This call to repentance is for both the deceivers and the deceived, as well as the spiritual leader(s) under whose watch the deception is being allowed to continue. Since leaders have a shepherding responsibility to protect the flock, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is saying in essence “If you don’t do something about this I WILL!” And note – it is “with the sword of [His] mouth” they would do well to take heed to use, in accordance with the revelation and spiritual weaponry He has already imparted to them.
- Overcomer’s Promise – “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 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” (v. 17). There are two very fitting promises here that are meant to spur the church at Pergamum onto victory. First the “hidden manna” represents His sustaining provision to empower them to rid the church of this deception. Nothing is impossible for God. He is encouraging them to do it in His strength and not their own. Secondly, the “white stone with a new name written on it” indicates how precious, like a rare gemstone, the Lord views those who obey Him and remain faithful even unto death. This is in accord with other promises of a “new name” in the Bible which shows the Lord identifying intimately with those whom He loves by drawing them into His confidence and assigning them His own secret name (Isaiah 56:5, 62:2, 65:15, Rev. 3:12). How sweet is that for the Pergamum Christians who are privileged to share in such proprietary mysteries with the Lord Himself?
Most scholars date the Book of Revelation at 95 AD. It is encouraging that historical evidence indicates the church in Pergamum gave heed to John’s letter as it continued to grow and thrive well into the 3rd century. We know in the 2nd century it became an early seat of Christianity with its own bishop, yet not without the continuance of persecution. In 170 AD under the Roman rule of Marcus Aurelius the Christians Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonice were martyred in the amphitheater there.
Be sure to check out the three and half minute video posted above which was filmed at Pergamum for a first-hand look at this historic city. Stay tuned for more videos and blog posts on the remaining four churches of Revelation soon to follow!
Link to the TomStuart.org Website & Blog