Then to the angel of the assembly in Pergamos write, “these things says the One Who has the sharp, two-edged sword: I have perceived where you dwell, where the throne of the Adversary is, and you are holding fast to My Name, and you did not deny My faith and trust, even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful and trusted one, who was put to death among you, where the Adversary dwells.
“But still, I have some things against you, for
“(1) You have there ones taking hold of the doctrine of Balaam, who was teaching Balak to throw a snare in front of the children of Israel, to eat sacrifices to idols and to engage in illicit sex.
“(2) And in this manner, you have ones taking hold of the doctrine of the Nicolaitans as well.
“Therefore, repent: but if not, I am coming to you quickly, and I will do battle with them with the sword in My mouth.
“The one having an ear: Listen, comprehend, attend to what the Spirit is saying to the assemblies. To the one overcoming I will give the hidden manna, and I will give to them a white stone, and upon the stone a new name that has been written, which not even one perceives except the one who receives (it).”Revelation 2:12-18
As old and as important as Smyrna was, Pergamos was even older and more important—in fact, the oldest city in the province of Asia, and its capital as well. The library at Pergamos, with (according to Plutarch) 200,000 volumes, was second to none save the famed library of Alexandria, Egypt with (some say) upwards of 700,000 volumes.
If Smyrna was the first to raise a temple to Roma, Pergamos did three better, for they were the first to build temples for Caesar Augustus, for Zeus, and for the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. Pilgrims came the world over to seek healing at this temple.
Interestingly, the Greek word for parchment was pergamene, named for Pergamos where parchment was first made.
Throne of the Adversary
Or Satan’s Throne, may have indicated the seat of Rome’s power, since Pergamos was Rome’s capital in Asia. But, it is also possible there really was a center for demonic worship there. Either way, this centrality of adversarial power was the cause of martyrdom for Antipas, one of Jesus’s faithful ones living in Pergamos. None of the other seven assemblies addressed in Revelation had yet experienced that level of persecution, but the Greek scriptures record martyrs had already elsewhere and earlier lost their lives for the sake of Christ.
- Apostle James, John’s brother, died by the sword at Herod’s command.
- Deacon Stephen, was stoned to death in Jerusalem by enraged antiChristians.
Church tradition records the martyrdom of several of the apostles.
- Peter, crucified upside down in Rome, 64 CE by the Emperor Nero.
- Andrew, crucified in the Greek city of Patras, 60 CE.
- Thomas, pierced through by a spear in Mylapore, India, July 3, 72 CE.
- Paul, beheaded in Rome, 67 CE, by the Emperor Nero.
Most likely, the Roman authority executed Antipas for his faith in Christ, and refusal to worship the emperor or the gods of Rome (which gives weight to understanding the Throne of Satan to be the seat of Roman power).
Jesus commended the believers of Pergamos for holding fast to Jesus’s name, in faith and trust, even when faced with the martyrdom of one of their own.
Erosion of Right Doctrine
But if the Ephesian Christians had subtly replaced their love for God and each other with a love for righteousness and right doctrine, the Pergamonian Christians had subtly allowed the erosion of right doctrine in their own midst, while they still held to their faith and trust in Christ.
Doctrine of the Nicolaitans
Jesus had commended the assembly in Ephesus concerning the Nicolaitans, saying you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, just as I hate them. These were strong words from Jesus. But there must have been something about the Nicolaitans’ teaching that so undermined faith in Jesus, that Jesus hated their works. Yet at least some among the Pergamonian believers were willing to go along with the Nicolaitans.
It was not their only flirtation with false teaching. There were also those who were taking hold of the doctrine of Balaam. This was a serious matter, tracing back to the days of the Exodus.
Doctrine of Balaam
The story of Balaam is told in the Book of Numbers, Chapters 22-24, and Chapter 31 (the summary of Balaam’s career, referenced in Peter’s letter, can be found here in Balaam the Seer, Balaam the Mountebank, Balaam’s Oracles, and Balaam’s Revenge). He had been hired by a consortium of Canaanite kings led by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Israelite tribes, which lay encamped along Moab’s borders. God had granted supernatural victory, battle after battle, to Israel, and the few peoples left were terrified.
But Balaam was not able to follow through with his contract. God would not permit curses, and instead filled Balaam’s mouth with blessing, to the impotent rage of King Balak and his allies. Nothing could be done, however, for once pronounced, the blessings—which were also prophecies—could not be unsaid.
Nevertheless, Balaam found a way to exact his revenge on the Israelite people. At some point, realizing he was not going to get any of his fees for augury, since he had been forced to bless God’s people, Balaam suggested Balak and his allies send their women into the Israelite camp.
While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.
These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.
Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel. The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and impale them in the sun before the Lord, in order that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”
Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, he went after the Israelite man into the tent and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the Israelites.
Nevertheless those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.Numbers 25:1-9 (NRSV)
The Council of Jerusalem had enjoined believers of Gentile backgrounds to avoid these very things, food sacrificed to idols and illicit sexual encounters.
The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers and sisters of gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.
Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, we have decided unanimously to choose men and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials:
(1) that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols
(2) and from blood
(3) and from what is strangled
(4) and from sexual immorality.
If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.Council of Jerusalem, Acts 15:23-29 (NRSV)
Yet, the Pergamonian believers had allowed these very things to creep into their lifestyle.