Seven Letters to Seven Churches: The Letter to Pergamum
Today as we continue our series Seven Letters to Seven Churches, we come to the second chapter of Revelation where John the Elder writes a letter to Pergamum. Hear now the Word of God.
12 ‘And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:
13‘I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. 14But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling-block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. 15So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.’
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
The city now called Bergama is the ancient site of Pergamum, which appeared on the map of the region as far back as the third century B.C. It gained fame because it defeated a group of invaders, which were, surprisingly enough, the Celts. We associate the Celts with Scotland and Ireland, but they actually lived throughout the continent of Europe and as far as Asia Minor. Known by some as the Gauls because they occupied part of France, the Celts probably named the city of Galatia.
Attalus III, a ruler of the region surrounding Pergamum, died in 133 B.C. Because he had no heirs, he bequeathed that domain to the Roman Empire in order to prevent a civil war from erupting. Since that time the citizens of Pergamum had been extremely devoted to the Roman emperor and empire. They fought battles against and ostracized their near-neighbors who were foes of Rome, people who would have actually had more in common with them.
The citizens of Pergamum regarded themselves as staunch defenders of Greek culture. Wanting to fashion themselves as a Greek city, they built a temple on a ledge on the side of a mountain that reminded them of the Acropolis in Athens. This temple served as the centerpiece for the city. There they worshipped the Greek goddess Athena and recognized Zeus, head of the Greek pantheon, by placing a huge statue of him in the temple. From a distance that structure, some forty feet high with columns across the front, looked like a throne. It may be that John had that temple in mind when he made reference to Pergamum as the throne of Satan in Verse 13.
Just beneath that replica of the Acropolis was a large stone face in the side of the mountain. A carving there, done in relief, represented what was called the Battle of the Giants, a battle between the Greek gods and all of their foes, especially the Celts. That carving reminds me of the one in the face of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Some of you have seen that huge carving that depicts three Civil War heroes: Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and General “Stonewall” Jackson. That depiction in Georgia is much larger than the one at Pergamum, but no less important to its citizens.
Pergamum’s significance stems not from its commerce as in Ephesus and Smyrna, but from its role as the administrative seat of Roman government in Asia. The Romans knew that they could depend upon Pergamum to be loyal and found no need to change the location of the capital.
Because of Pergamum’s desire to be a Greek city, the people wanted to have a large library that was second only to the great library in Alexandria, Egypt. The king plotted a course to fulfill this ambition by trying to lure, bribe, the great philosopher Aristophanes to Pergamum. This attempt would resemble an NFL team trying to recruit and sign an NFL star player. As a way of protecting star players, the NFL can put a franchise tag on the player, which boxes him into a contract for one year.
Ptolemy, the king in Egypt, did not want to lose Aristophanes, who was living in Alexandria at the time. He literally locked the philosopher into staying by arresting him and putting him in jail. That course of action prevented Aristophanes from going to Pergamum.
Because Ptolemy was so embittered that Pergamum tried to steal his star philosopher, he placed an embargo against Pergamum, saying the city could no longer import papyrus, a tall reed that grows by the Nile River. As you know, the pith of the reed was used to make a product similar to brown paper. Papyrus was the writing material of the ancient world.
How could Pergamum possibly develop a library without papyrus? Necessity is the mother of invention.
Pergamum had an abundance of animal skins
up on the hill animals were being sacrificed twenty-four/seven to the gods and goddesses such as Zeus and Athena. They realized that once those skins were tanned and polished, they could be used as a writing surface. Now known as vellum, those skins have proven to be more durable and longer-lasting than papyrus. You have seen in museums or in books the same process in Native American art, which also used the inner skin of a buffalo hide. Those skins allowed Pergamum to develop a very fine library. In fact the name that has been applied to those skins – parchment – came from the city of Pergamum.
Did John call Pergamum the seat of Satan because this temple on the hill resembled a throne? Possibly. John could have had other reasons though. A huge cult of people worshipped a second god in Pergamum known as Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Temples dedicated to this god were similar to hospitals where physicians practiced medical arts. The caduceus – a staff entwined with a serpent – served as their symbol of the medical profession. Hippocrates was the best known of these physicians. Galen, however, the second only to Hippocrates, was born in Pergamum. Is the worship of this god the reason why John called the city the seat of Satan? Almost all commentators say no.
Scholars say the reason is because Pergamum, the administrative center of the Roman Empire in all of Asia, highly emphasized emperor worship.
Rome did not like disturbance or trouble of any kind. They wanted peace at all cost, using Pax Romana as their theme. Rome had an idea of using a unifying factor in the very expansive empire: one day a year everyone would go to a temple altar and worship the emperor by offering a sacrifice. As they made the inexpensive or simple offering of a pinch of incense, they were to say, “Caesar is lord.” The hope was that this practice would help unify the Roman Empire, just as the spread of the Greek language throughout the region had accomplished.
True Christians refused to recognize the king as lord. Jesus was Lord, no other. Saying that Caesar was lord would deny their faith as Peter had done or betray their faith as Judas had done. Their refusal resulted in persecution. Every Roman governor had power to some degree, whether limited or extensive. Some, including the governor of Pergamum, had what was called the Power of the Sword, which gave him the authority to execute anyone he chose. One such Christian mentioned in today’s text, Antipas, was martyred in Pergamum for being a faithful witness to Jesus Christ.
Think about the live oaks along the coast of South Carolina. Those trees look strong and sturdy. They can certainly live for a long time, as in the case of the Angel Oak. Many precautions have been taken to preserve this oldest living tree east of the Mississippi River. It has had many surgeries to prevent it from rotting, from the inside out.
The devil can destroy a church, a person, and a country in one of two ways. Satan can attack from the outside, which was happening in Smyrna. Satan can also attack the church, causing decay from the inside. The living Christ rebukes Pergamum, warning against the danger of being led astray, of violating the Christian faith and principles. The fear is not that the church will knuckle under to the pressure of persecution, as in the case of Smyrna. The danger for Pergamum is that it will decay from the inside out.
We see in our text a reference to the story of Balaam and Balak from the book of Numbers. Balak summons Balaam to put a curse on the people of Israel who were living on the plains of Moab and camping along the Jordan. At one point during Balaam’s trip to meet with Balak, the donkey bolts and heads out into a field. Another time the donkey scrapes the rock wall, nearly pulling off Balaam’s leg. A third time the donkey stops and lies down in the middle of the road. Every time the donkey misbehaves Balaam whips his animal unmercifully. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would certainly not approve of this treatment.
Finally the donkey, in self-defense, speaks in fluent Hebrew, asking, “What are you doing? I am your faithful animal.”
Suddenly Balaam is able to see what this donkey sees, the angel of the Lord impeding the journey.
The angel says to Balaam, “Continue on your journey, but I will not give you permission to curse the people of Israel.” The angel adds, “Your donkey is smarter than you are,” not a comment to make to someone with the ability to place a hex on a group.
Once Balaam reaches the campsite of the Israelites, he thinks he is going to curse the people of Israel according to Balak’s wishes. Each time, however, God turns the curse into a blessing.
In the text John mentions the Nicolaitans, people who persuaded the Christians to compromise their faith and convictions. They had made comments like, “Worshipping other gods is fine. Everyone is doing this. Go to the feasts, and eat the food offered to idols. That will not matter. Have a little fun in life.” We read in Numbers 25 that the men of Israel began indulging in sexual immorality with Moabite women. They ate the food sacrificed to the gods, bowed down before these gods, and joined in worshipping Baal. John refers to the Nicolaitans as a way to address the decay coming from the inside out among the people of Israel.
Paul also wrote against the behavior of allowing the world to squeeze Christians into its mold: “Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). He wrote in II Corinthians 6:17, “Therefore come out from among them and be separate.” Jesus said to his disciples in John 17, “I want you to be in the world but not of the world.”
The john-boat in my backyard is not much of a boat as long as it remains in my backyard. If I put it in a pond, it can perform its intended job. If it becomes of the water it fills with water and becomes part of the structure on the bottom of the pond.
The word Hagios means saint. Christians are to be saintly, holy, different from the world. Christians are not to assume a “holier than thou” position, however. Our anthem today, “Holy Is He,” illustrates this concept so beautifully. God is holy, and we are to be holy as He is holy.
The word for witness, marturious, is the same word from which we get the word for martyr. A faithful Christian witness might not become a martyr, but the witness must live an uncompromised life.
In this letter the living Christ talks about coming to Pergamum with a sharp two-edged sword. Those words are similar to those used in the letter to the church in Smyrna, a church under pressure of persecution. He commands them to repent. If they fail to do so, he promises to “make war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Will Jesus begin slashing and burning? No. What is that double-edged sword? Hebrews 4:12 says it is the living and active word of God. Ephesians 6:17 says the two-edged sword is the word of Christ. This double-edged sword is the gospel truth that Christians need to hear and follow.
The sword cuts two ways: it can open our minds so that we see clearly the truth of Christ; it can open our hearts, laying them bare before God. The issue Christ addresses in Pergamum is not persecution. It is the willingness to compromise faith on the altar of social approval, a mistake we dare not make.
After Peter preached his sermon at Pentecost, the Scripture says the people were cut to the heart and asked, “What must we do to be saved?” The Word of Christ can absolutely open us up to the truth. The living Christ says here in this text that he is coming with this sword, the word of truth.
Those who endure would receive two rewards: hidden manna and a white stone.
Let me get this straight. Jesus will give us a reward of manna, a sticky substance secreted by tamarisk trees in the desert when punctured by an insect? Manna is to be considered a reward?
Let’s look a little deeper here. It is true that God provided the people of Israel in the wilderness with manna, which they called the “bread of heaven.” The people stored a pot of the substance in the Ark of the Covenant, which eventually made its way into the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, and finally into the temple of Solomon. A Jewish legend says that when the Babylonians destroyed the temple of Solomon, the prophet Jeremiah took that manna to Mount Sinai and hid it in the cleft of a rock. When the Messiah comes that hidden manna will be discovered.
What John promises here is not just some sticky goo. The manna is a symbol of hope that Christ is going to conquer. It symbolizes the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus. Some scholars read this passage and say this manna is the Lord’s Supper. After all, Psalm 78:24-25 calls this the bread of heaven, the bread of angels. Jesus himself said, “I am the bread of life” several times in John 6. All of that is certainly applicable.
The second reward for being a faithful Christian is a white rock, a pebble. The significance is a little more complicated. In ancient courts a member of the jury literally cast his verdict by tossing a stone into an urn. If the juror thought the person was guilty, he cast a black stone. Maybe the phrase “blackballing someone” to keep them out of a fraternity or organization originated from that practice. A white stone cast into the urn meant acquittal. Once all stones were cast, the judge would dump the urn. A majority of black stones rendered the person guilty. A majority of white stones meant the person was acquitted.
The white stone had another application as well. In the games so common among the Greeks, a victorious person received both a wreath made of laurel or olive branches and a white stone inscribed with the name of the master of the games. That white stone granted this hero access to any event in a public institution. It was a mark of membership, a sign of belonging. The Romans had a similar practice for gladiators. If a gladiator had fought well in the arena and survived to old age, he would receive a white stone with the letters SP, representing the Latin word for valor. From that point on the person of valor had the freedom to go anywhere.
A part of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is the Way of the Righteous, which recognizes Gentiles who supported and aided Jews during the Holocaust. Trees have been planted there to honor various people like Oscar Schindler and the ten Boon family. Other trees recognize people who were unknown, especially people from Denmark and Norway. Around the base of these trees are white stones placed there out of respect for those who risked their lives for the sake of others.
Jewish people do not take flowers when they visit a grave. They place a white stone there as a symbol of respect.
John says in this letter that those who remain true to the faith will receive hidden manna, the bread of heaven, which represents the coming of the Messiah. They will also receive an inscribed white stone, which represents freedom and protection.
I sometimes think about a very important question a seminary professor asked: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” If someone told you, “We are going to put you in jail and persecute you because you are a Christian,” could you or others offer proof?
Have you acknowledged Christ Jesus as your Savior? If not, could I invite you to make that decision today?Kirk H. Neely © February 2013