Saturday, 11 June 2016 22:41

17. Church in Pergamum, beginning of church division * Revelation 2:12-17, Part 1 of 2

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12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write; These things said he which has the sharp sword with two edges;

13 I know your works, and where you dwell, even where Satan’s seat is: and you hold fast my name, and have not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwells.

14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication.

15 So have you also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.

16 Repent; or else I will come to you quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

17 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches; To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knows saving he that receives it.

 

PART 1

 

*** Historical setting ***: The ruins of Pergamum are located to the northwest of the modern city Bergamo, in Turkey, and about 40 miles northeast of Smyrna. Pergamum (or Pergamon, or Pergamos) was built on the flat top of a mount. It was a true citadel. Ancient documents mention the city as early as 399 BC. After 188 BC, the city gained more power and importance, and was greatly expanded with a very large city wall of about 2.5 miles. Under Roman rule, Pergamum was briefly the capital of Asia, before it was transferred to Ephesus. Pergamum received the title of metropolis, and so a massive building program was established. As a result, construction of new public buildings developed in full force. Pergamum had multiple large pagan temples, a stadium, a large forum, a theater, an amphitheater, bath houses, and a healing center (the Asclepeion). It also had the second largest library in the ancient world, housing about 200,000 volumes, and second only to the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Pergamum was the intellectual center of Asia. At it’s hight under the Roman Empire, it reached about 200,000 inhabitants.

The most famous Pergamum-born figure is perhaps Galen, who is said to be the most famous physician of antiquity. He received his early training at the Asclepeion. The Asclepeion was a healing temple in honor of the god of healing Asclepius, where sick people would come to find physical and spiritual healing. The symbol for this god was a snake twisted around a staff, which is still a symbol used in the medical profession today. And so, it was a common practice in the Asclepeion to let non-venomous snakes crawl around the rooms where patients were asleep.

The Asclepeion was only one of the pagan temples of Pergamum. People could choose to go to the temple of Athena, Dionysus, Trajan, Heroön, Demeter, Hera, Isis, and also Zeus. Both Zeus and Asclepius were known as “the savior”. The altar of Zeus was located on the hill above the city on the upper part of the Acropolis, and it looked like a very large throne. It measured 119.55 ft × 112.20 ft x 40 ft, and part of it is currently in exposition in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin. This altar to Zeus undoubtedly came to the mind of the first Christians when they read that Jesus knew they lived where the throne (or seat) of Satan is (Revelation 2:13).

Pergamum was the first city to promote the worship to Roman emperors. This made Christian life difficult, just as it did in Smyrna. Citizens were also required to once a yer pay homage to the emperor, saying “Cesar is Lord”, and receive a certificate that attested their loyalty to Rome. Failure to comply with this pledge would result in persecution and death. The union between state (Roman Empire) and pagan religion was perhaps the strongest in Pergamum when compared to all cities in the province of Asia.

The city had a booming business of parchment paper production. The word parchment is derived from the word Pergamum. Some researchers claim that the name Pergamom, which gave origin to the modern name Bergamo, means “high settlement/base” in Hittite language. This makes sense with the fact that Pergamum is located on the top of a mount. There is also the view that Pergamum (or Pergamos) comes from the Greek Perga + Gamos, meaning earthy + marriage. Under this interpretation, the “Perga” or “earthy” portion likely refers to where the city is located, high up on the mount.

 

*** Biblical View ***: The church in Pergamum is also only mentioned in the book of Revelation. Just as with the church in Ephesus, the church in Pergamum was faced with those people inside the church who were preaching false ideas that corrupted and compromised the basic truth of the Gospel. Ephesus rejected those false teachings, and the majority of the church stood firm on the truth. Based on what Jesus wrote to the church in Smyrna, we can also infer that they also rejected any false teachings, since they were told to remain faithful. Persecution to the church in Pergamum was just as real as it was for the other churches throughout Asia. But here in the church of Pergamum, we see a new problem. This issue seems to be so serious, and somehow more severe than in the previous two churches, that Jesus spends quite a bit of the letter talking about the people who are following the teachings of Balaam and the ones following the teachings of the Nicolaitans.

As we saw in study #13, the Nicolaitans and the followers of Balaam were teaching that there was not problem in compromising the true doctrine in order to justify their participation and involvement with the pagan customs of the time, and avoid persecution, death, and impoverishment. The majority of the church in Pergamum seems to still be holding fast to the true doctrine (Revelation 2:13), but the growth of those preaching compromise had become a serious cause for concern (Revelation 2:14-15). This shows the beginning of the division in the church. On one side, there were those like Antipas, the faithful martyr. And on the other, there were those following the attractive ways of the adjusted truth.

2 Peter 2:12-22 warns us about false prophets. This excerpt is from the New Living Translation:

12 These false teachers are like unthinking animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed. They scoff at things they do not understand, and like animals, they will be destroyed. 13 Their destruction is their reward for the harm they have done. They love to indulge in evil pleasures in broad daylight. They are a disgrace and a stain among you. They delight in deception even as they eat with you in your fellowship meals. 14 They commit adultery with their eyes, and their desire for sin is never satisfied. They lure unstable people into sin, and they are well trained in greed. They live under God’s curse. 15 They have wandered off the right road and followed the footsteps of Balaam son of Beor, who loved to earn money by doing wrong. 16 But Balaam was stopped from his mad course when his donkey rebuked him with a human voice.

17 These people are as useless as dried-up springs or as mist blown away by the wind. They are doomed to blackest darkness. 18 They brag about themselves with empty, foolish boasting. With an appeal to twisted sexual desires, they lure back into sin those who have barely escaped from a lifestyle of deception. 19 They promise freedom, but they themselves are slaves of sin and corruption. For you are a slave to whatever controls you. 20 And when people escape from the wickedness of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then get tangled up and enslaved by sin again, they are worse off than before. 21 It would be better if they had never known the way to righteousness than to know it and then reject the command they were given to live a holy life. 22 They prove the truth of this proverb: “A dog returns to its vomit.” And another says, “A washed pig returns to the mud.”

Note that in the verse found in 2 Peter 2:15, we read that the false prophets are going on the opposite direction from God, and are following the footsteps of Balaam. 2 Peter 2:13 makes it clear that these false prophets arise from within the church, as it says they were “a disgrace among you”, and “as they eat with you in your fellowship meals”. 2 Peter 2:14 says the false prophets “lure unstable people into sin”. Now we see why Jesus has been saying a message of “keeping the faith” and of “returning to the first love”. He wants His people to be stable in God’s truth.

 

*** Overview ***: The church in Pergamum was located in a very dangerous place. It sat right where the throne of Satan was (Revelation 2:13). The multitude of options in pagan worship was tremendous. The close connection (or 'marriage', to go with one of the meanings of Pergamum) between the Roman rule and pagan worship was so strong that remaining faithful to the pure truth of the Gospel became a great challenge. The temptation to follow a much more convenient, and apparently safer way of life, where you could conform slightly with some of the pagan behaviors, was a very appealing way to avoid persecution and death. But as the Bible says, this was a "lifestyle of deception” (2 Peter 2:18). The false teachers who were bringing division in the church of Pergamum were however at the brink of war against the sword of Jesus’ mouth (Revelation 2:16). His sword is His Word (Hebrews 4:12). And just as it was in the beginning, the war we are fighting now, the war that broke out in Heaven (Revelation 12:7), is the false word of Satan against the true Word of God. It is no surprise, that in the city where Satan had his throne, Jesus came to the church carrying His powerful sword of truth. God’s truth is what keeps us stable, and firmly going in the right road of freedom and righteousness.

   
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