Now we come to Jesus’ short letter to the church in Pergamum. Once again we turn to MacArthur for background: “Pergamos [literally] means “citadel” and is the word from which we get parchment—a writing material developed from animal skin, which apparently was first developed in that area. Pergamos (modern Bergama [in Turkey]) was built on a 1,000-foot hill in a broad, fertile plain about 20 miles inland from the Aegean Sea. It had served as the capital of the Roman province of Asia Minor for over 250 years. It was an important religious center for the pagan cults of Athena, Asklepios, Dionysius (or Bacchus, the god of drunkenness), and Zeus. It was the first city in Asia to build a temple to Caesar (29 B.C.) and became the capital of the cult of Caesar worship.”
Re: Satan’s “throne,” he writes “On the acropolis in Pergamos was a huge, throne-shaped altar to Zeus. In addition, Asklepios, the god of healing, was the god most associated with Pergamos. His snake-like form is still the medical symbol today.”
Since the city was such a center for paganism and Caesar-worship, it’s not surprising that some persecution had occurred, culminating in the martyrdom of at least one faithful believer named Antipas. According to church tradition, he was burned to death inside a brass bull. We don’t know a lot more about him, but our Lord does, and chose to mention him by name, thus placing that name in his eternal word. If God chose to put my name into his word, I think I’d prefer it be for this reason, not because I couldn’t get along with another Christian and was causing strife in the church, wouldn’t you?
But there was a problem in the church. Today tolerance is considered the beginning and end of goodness, but our Lord doesn’t think so. The church there tolerated false teachers, the spiritual heirs of Balaam and folks who held to the “teaching of the Nicolaitans.” We’ll get to the latter group in a moment, but Balaam is a name that goes back to the desert-wandering days of Israel. He was hired by Balak (king of the Moabites) to magically curse God’s people. That didn’t work: As Balaam said in frustration, “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?” He tried multiple times to curse Israel, but each time the Lord took over his mouth and turned what he was about to say into a blessing. If you want to read the entire story, here it is.
So Balaam tried a different tactic. He advised Balak to entice the Israelites into sexual immorality and idolatry, and that worked a lot better. Israel fell into the trap, indulged in sin, and the Lord judged them for it. Over 24,000 Israelites died as a direct result. Yes, if Balaam wanted to harm Israel, that was a lot more effective. Probably the first set of false teachers mentioned in Revelation weren’t calling themselves “followers of Balaam,” but as far as our Lord was concerned, they were his spiritual heirs since they were using basically the same tactics: enticing God's people into sexual sin and thus judgment.
What about these “Nicolaitans”? MacArthur: “Nicolas means ‘one who conquers the people.’ Irenaeus writes that Nicolas, who was made a deacon in Ac 6, was a false believer who later became apostate; but because of his credentials he was able to lead the church astray. And, like Balaam, he led the people into immorality and wickedness. The Nicolaitans, followers of Nicolas, were involved in immorality and assaulted the church with sensual temptations. Clement of Alexander says, ‘They abandoned themselves to pleasure like goats, leading a life of self-indulgence.’ Their teaching perverted grace and replaced liberty with license.” So apparently they were peddling the same garbage as the first group.
What was this message? “It’s perfectly fine for a follower of Jesus to indulge in sexual immorality. Even if it’s a sin, God will forgive you. Why don’t you go ahead, so that he has a chance to forgive you even more? Sin isn’t that big a deal.”
The church has always been in more danger from inside forces than outside ones. Persecution tends to drive us back to the Lord and encourages us to depend on each other as the Body of Christ (which is how it’s supposed to work). It wakes us up and tends to restore the eternal perspective: It’s hard to mistake this world as our home when persecution ramps up. On the other hand, heresy and false teaching and temptations to abuse God’s grace are a lot more insidious. It’s a Siren’s call, and we listen to it to our eternal regret. Although we’re saved by grace, our Lord still has a sword in his hand, and if we don’t listen to his softer voice in the form of his Spirit speaking through his word, he’ll get our attention in much less pleasant ways.
Thankfully, today’s letter ends on a positive note. Keep in mind that if you’re a true believer, the promises in vs. 17 apply to you. He’ll give you the “hidden manna.” What’s that? What--or rather who--is our manna? Our bread from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ, of course. He will give us himself, which is more precious than anything else we could’ve dreamed of. And the “white stone with a new name written on it”? White stones were usually used as an admission pass to a celebration or a party, with the invitee’s name written on it. Since I’ve placed my faith in Christ, he’s given me an “admission pass” into his Kingdom with a new name on it. In him, all of us have a new name, but this one is personal and intimate, like a “pet name” between lovers or close friends. Jesus said he calls each of his sheep by name. To a big company or a government bureaucracy you’re just a number, a set of data in a computer. But he has a name for you which is utterly unique among all his millions of followers. He’s given this name to no one else in all creation.
There are plenty of lessons here. I’ll let you and the Spirit decide how to apply this.
Lord Jesus, thank you so much for calling me by name, giving me admission into your Kingdom, and giving me a name you’ve given to no one else. By your grace, please help me to live like one of yours.
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