Dr. Richard L. Strauss
October 15, 1978
The postman delivering these letters to the seven churches in Asia took a course due north from the beautiful harbor city of Smyrna for about 50 miles, then turned inland (east) for about 15 more miles. As he plodded methodically through the valley, he suddenly saw a great rocky mound jutting boldly from the broad plain which surrounded it like a magnificent fortress. His first impression would have been, "Surely, this is the royal city; this is the city of authority." And he was right.
Pergamum could never attain the commercial eminence of Ephesus or Smyrna, being neither a seaport city, nor situated on a major land trade route. But it was a natural capital city, and it had held that position for several centuries, both in the previous kingdom, and now as a part of the Roman province of Asia. It had a glorious history of greatness as the most famous city in Asia, and it maintained its prestige with pride.
Politically, kings and governors had issued their edicts from its lofty summit. Intellectually, one of the most famous libraries of the ancient world was housed in its midst, containing nearly 280,000 volumes. A writing parchment known as velum was invented there. It proved to be the most durable writing material in the ancient world. Religiously, it was second to none, being a center of worship for the Greek gods and goddesses, and being the chief center of emperor worship in the provinces.
1. The Approval of Their Faithfulness
We are not surprised to find a Christian church in such a crucial metropolis as Pergamum, the seat of provincial authority. Neither are we surprised to hear how our Lord introduces Himself to that church when He writes to them. "These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword" (Revelation 2:12).
Only governors of major provinces possessed the "right of the sword," the power of life and death. The Pergamene Christians, like no other in Asia would have witnessed that power as it was held by the Proconsul who lived in their city. They needed to be comforted with the reminder that it was Jesus Christ who held the final power of life and death, a power far superior to that of the Proconsul. It affected not only physical life or death, but the eternal destiny of the soul.
Just as we would expect to find a Christian church in such an important piece as the city of provincial authority, so likewise we are not surprised to find that Satan had his headquarters there. Revelation 2:13. "I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is."
Sometimes we become most confused about the person and work of Satan. Satan is not God. He is not omnipresent; he is not everywhere. He is in one place right now. I don't know where, but he's in one place. He is an angelic being, possessing unusual powers of locomotion, but he is not everywhere at once.
He has countless hordes of emissaries who do his work, and so his power and influence are felt everywhere. Furthermore, he is not presently in hell, as many folks presume. He was sentenced to hell at Calvary, but the sentence has not yet been carried out. He is in the world today; this is his sphere of operation; his headquarters are here. He is the prince of this world (John 12:31), the god or ruler of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). And from this passage in Revelation we learn that he chooses for the center of his operations crucial areas of influence. In John's day, the seat of authority was in the city of provincial authority, Pergamum.
I wonder why Christ told John to write this. And why did Satan choose to establish his throne in Pergamum? There are several suggestions. An impressive altar to Zeus overlooking the city--smoke ascending constantly. Pergamum was the center of worship for the god Asklepios, also the god of healing. To this god was applied the name "Savior," a name which belongs exclusively to Jesus Christ. Applying this title to a heathen god was a Satanic perversion of the truth. But even more astounding was the emblem or symbol of Asklepios--it was a serpent. Ailing people would come from all over the province to spend the night in the darkness of the temple, where harmless snakes would be turned loose. To have a snake touch one of the sufferers as it glided about the room was held to be the touch of god himself, which touch would bring health and healing. Of course, the serpent is the emblem of Satan himself in Scripture, and Christ might well have been referring to this temple as Satan's throne.
But there is another explanation of this statement, and it is possible that Christ had both in view. You remember that a temple had been built in Smyrna to the Emperor Tiberius as a center for the new cult of emperor worship. It would only be logical to assume that the capital city would be the center of such activity as this, and it was. The first provincial temple for the practice of emperor worship was constructed in Pergamum, a monument to the Emperor Augustus in 29 B.C.
The exaltation of man to the position of God, the bowing down to worship him, the calling him Lord--all this was one of Satan's most devastating blows to the progress of the gospel. Every citizen on special festival days, was required to sprinkle a few grains of incense on the fire that burned before the bust of the emperor. The suffering inflicted upon those who refused would have been one of Satan's effective tools in hindering folks from embracing Jesus Christ. That temple to Caesar may have been the throne of Satan.
Is it not strange that Satan's most effective work comes not through secularism, but through religion? If he can find a substitute to pawn off on his dupes, then he is confident they shall be kept from receiving the Savior. He is using the same methods today. By multiplying churches and religion, cults and isms, he can get the eyes of the world off of the Savior. Every religious body that denies Christ's deity and refuses to accept the substitution of His death as penalty for the sins of the world, is furthering the cause of Satan. He loves to dupe people into believing in religion, but denying Jesus Christ. Satan's throne today could well be right in professing churches--churches which deny the great doctrines of Scripture.
You can see how the presence of Satan's throne has its impact on every phase of life. The whole atmosphere of city was Satanic. Politically, the state was beginning to assume the place of God--even demanding the worship of its citizens. Religiously more cults than one could count, substituted for the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Morally, this city of the socially elite was degenerating disgracefully. Sexual immorality and loose living were rampant, as the secular literature of the day reveals.
But notice how faithful the majority of folks in the church were to the Lord in spite of the persecution leveled against them. Christ can say to them, even though you dwell were Satan's throne is, even though your assembly is next door to the devil, you have held fast My name and you have not denied My faith. There was no surrender on the part of this church. They did not call themselves by the name of the emperor, nor put their faith in him. They did not permit the immorality which was becoming more and more acceptable among the social set to have any effect on their lives. They were known by the name of Christ. He alone was their Savior; and they submitted to Him as the Lord of their lives.
I find it very interesting to compare what was happening in Pergamum with the United States of America today. Politically, we are coming more and more to the place where the state is taking the place of God. We don't need to trust God anymore--it's our government who will take care of us from the cradle to the grave. Our present trend to socialism will bring us someday to avowing that government is god, as many in the Soviet Union have already done. We are developing a greater interest in religion. We see cults and isms on the rise. Lots of religion, but not very many who believe in the deity of Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Christ on Calvary as the only means of salvation is falling into greater disrepute. And the result is that the moral fiber of our nation is collapsing. We are facing a situation quite like the Christians at Pergamum faced. It has not turned to persecution yet, but some of us may see that. Will it be said that we held fast His name, and refused to deny Him?
At one particular period in their history, the church at Pergamum had experienced intense persecution. "And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells" (Revelation 2:13b).
One of their number had even died for his faith. He is given an honorable title "faithful martyr." These folks were faithful, no matter what the cost. That is something worthy of Christ's approval. He rejoices. And He sympathizes. "I know where you dwell," says our Savior. We may be in just such similar trying circumstances: suffering ridicule for Christ, exposed to wickedness and immorality, subject to an increasing political and religious trend that grieves our hearts and makes us fear for the future of our children. But Christ says, "I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is."
He knows because He put us here. He didn't call us to a monastery but to live in the world, and by our faithfulness to Him, make some impact for Him upon that world. He has put us where we are because He has something He wants us to accomplish. There is a job to do. I believe the Christians at Pergamum did the job God called them to do in that vile, wicked, Satanic city of their day. Are you doing yours?
2. The Admonition of Their Failure
The church at Pergamum existed under the most difficult of circumstances, admittedly, but Jesus Christ did not regard that as an excuse for its failing. There is never an excuse for sin.
There were not a great many things wrong with the church at Pergamum, mind you, but there were a few. "But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality" (Revelation 2:14).
The thing that the Lord had against the church at Pergamum is that they had, in their assembly, people who held the doctrine of Balaam. They were right there with the other believers, worshipping with the rest of the Christians. And nobody was taking any steps to remove them. There was no disciplinary action suggested against them.
Now what was the doctrine of Balaam? Most of you know who Balaam was; we had a series a few years ago about Balaam. You remember that heathen diviner who offered to influence any god you wanted for a price? So Balak, the king of Moab, hired him to curse the nation of Israel. But Balaam encountered a God that he couldn't influence. As a matter of fact, he found that he himself was under the control of the Lord, and he ended up blessing Israel rather than cursing her. Nowhere in the story do we learn what the doctrine of Balaam was. We can only surmise it from what happened later.
Read Numbers 25:1-3. "And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel."
Immorality and idolatry. It seems as though Balaam was responsible for this atrocity in some way. And when we turn over to Numbers 31:16, we are assured that he was. "Behold, these [women] caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord."
Now whom did Balaam counsel? I have seen commentators who say he told Balak to have his women entice the Israelite men to sexual relations. And others say he counseled the Israelite men not only to go ahead and commit immorality but to also enjoy it, because after all, they were God's covenant people and nothing could hurt them. Maybe both are true.
The doctrine of Balaam is the doctrine that says God is love. God is grace. God sent His Son to die for our sins. Our sins are covered. We live under God's grace. So do anything you want to do. God won't hurt you. It won't hurt your relationship with God. You are the object of God's grace...all your sins are covered. His false doctrine was that if you belong to the Lord, you can do anything you please, and it led to vile conduct on the part of the Israelites.
Now, there were some in the church at Pergamum, teaching the same thing. It was the same old antinomian controversy Paul had faced in those who wanted to turn the grace of God into license to live as they pleased. The argument was, God is a God of grace, His provision at Calvary covered all our sin, so the more we sin, the more God's grace is evidence to us. Nothing can happen to you in the center of God's grace. Go ahead and commit a little idolatry. Go ahead and commit a little immorality. Go ahead and eat a feast in the temple Asklepios with your pagan neighbors. Go ahead and put a little incense on the fire burning to the emperor. Go ahead and enjoy yourself. Everyone else that is anybody engages in a little loose living. Why shouldn't you? God's grace will protect you.
It almost sounds convincing, doesn't it? There is only one problem: It is a vile, blasphemous lie from the pit of hell--an offensive stench in the nostrils of a holy God!
No true believer ever talks that way. "How can we who are dead to sin live any longer therein?" asks the Apostle Paul in Romans 6:2. God has made a provision whereby His sinning saint may be restored to fellowship with Himself. Thank God for 1 John 1:9. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
But that is no excuse for sin. Maybe some believers also need to memorize 1 John 3:9. "Whosoever is born of God does not continually sin."
To go out day after day, and continue in sin without repentance reveals that we may have never been genuinely born again. God does not look with a favor on this false doctrine which has crept into some churches, maybe even into ours.
It is the same as the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes which appears in verse 15. The Greek word Nicolaitane means the exact same thing as the Hebrew name Balaam: "conqueror of the people." These were the men lording it over folks, claiming false authority, and seeking to force their false doctrines upon them. The Ephesian church was commended because it hated the deeds of these Nicolaitanes. But when we get to the church at Pergamum, there is no longer hatred. There is tolerance. The church had become careless in this matter of tolerating sin, especially the sins of idolatry and immorality, and it was grieving the Lord.
There needs to be a change of mind here. "Repent" cries the Lord in verse 16. "Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth." Notice the distinction between you and them. God is grieved with the whole church for its lack of church discipline, for its refusal to deal decisively with those who were living in sin, and He calls on the whole church to repent. Repentance would involve putting their finger on the sin and dealing with it sternly with a view to bringing the guilty parties to restoration. If they refuse to deal with it, Christ says He will come to that church, "I will come to you quickly," but that He will fight against them, the guilty individuals. He will do what the church refused to do. He will cleanse the sin, and purge out the sinners. The weapon will be the very sword of the Word.
Christ feels quite strongly about tolerating sin in a church, sin which destroys the unity of the Spirit, and weakens the testimony of the church. It seems like the church today is tolerating more and more. Sometimes we justify our acceptance of these things by twisting Scripture. And the world smiles and says, "Just give them a little time. They'll be doing everything we do soon enough." Jesus says, "Deal with sin. If you don't, I will." Let us not become careless like the church at Pergamum.
3. The Assurance of Their Favor
I want you to note that while the letter was written to the entire church, its application must be received by each individual. "He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." Then again, the promise to the overcomer which is appended as a postscript, as it has been in every other letter, is a promise to individuals.
They are individuals who have trusted Jesus Christ for eternal salvation. They have been born again by God's grace, and will ultimately overcome sin and death and spend eternity in God's presence. What is the promise to the overcomer in Pergamum, the true believer in that city, the one who has remained true to the Lord?
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 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" (Revelation 2:17).
Let's take the second part first.
a. The Promise of the White Stone
He will be given a little white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knows except he who receives it. There are scores of interpretations of this promise, some based on customs of the day, others on some Old Testament reference. The question is, what would it have meant to the Christians at Pergamum who received it?
All I can do is choose the idea which seems to be most plausible. In the ancient world there were little white stones known as stones of friendship, on which certain signs or letters were inscribed, and the bearer of that stone possessed rights of hospitality to the house or social event of the person who offered it. It was a sort of ticket of admission. It may have been to a home, to a feast in the temple, to a banquet, or to some other prominent social function. When a person in Pergamum became a Christian, there were not many little white stones that they could keep if they had them, nor was it probable that they would receive any more. They were socially ostracized. But Christ has for them a little white stone, and it has a new name inscribed on it--probably the new name of our Savior Himself (Revelation 3:12; Revelation 19:12), which He shall possess when He returns. That little white stone was an invitation to a heavenly banquet, to the marriage feast of the Lamb.
b. The Promise of the Hidden Manna
What's to eat at the feast of the Lord? Jesus says to the overcomer, "I will give to eat of the hidden manna."
What's that? Well you know that the Lord commanded Moses to fill a pot with manna, and hide it away in the Ark of the Covenant, as a reminder of the wonderful way God fed the Israelites in the wilderness. That manna was a symbol that looked forward to Jesus Christ Himself. He said, "I am the bread of life: he that comes to Me shall never hunger; and he that believes in Me shall never thirst" (John 6:32-35). The one who has trusted Christ for salvation shall feast on Him and be fully satisfied. Eternity in His presence shall be like an indescribable feast that satisfies our every need and fulfills our most cherished desires.
Is your heart hungry today? Do you feel empty and unfulfilled? Is there something missing in your life that you cannot explain? Have you tried to find satisfaction? Maybe you've even tried religion, but it didn't help. What you need is a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Jesus died for your sins and rose again, that you might be proclaimed righteous and accepted by God. He lives today and is waiting to come into your heart, into your life, and to become a part of you. You can come to know Christ right now. He will meet the needs of your present life, and He will give you the promise of a glorious eternity in His presence when your greatest desires will be met as you enjoy Him. Receive Him now.
Those who have believed and gotten to know Him intimately can testify that He fulfills them and satisfies their longings. This isn't something you just put on and look happy about. When you get to know Jesus Christ intimately, it's real. He satisfies.
Admit that you need Him and acknowledge your sin. Trust Him as your personal Savior. Let's pray.
Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for our Savior the Lord Jesus. We thank You that He lives, and we thank You that He lives in our hearts, and we thank You that He's real. And we thank You that He's coming again, to receive us unto Himself, that where He is, there may we be also. Father, we ask You to help us to have the same kind of faithfulness to You that the majority of the Pergamene Christians had. And God, we pray that we may stand true for the Lord Jesus Christ. Then deliver us from their error, Father, in a day of increasing immorality and degeneracy on every side. It's so easy to fall into the mold of the world. God, deliver us from that. We pray that we may not establish legalistic principles and condemn people because they don't maintain our lists of things, but God, help us to be sensitive to Your Spirit's guidance in our lives. We pray that we may be a radiant testimony to the purifying power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We ask it in His precious name and for His sake. Amen.