The city of Pergamum was a key center of commerce, education, government and religion in Asia for several centuries and had a population between 120,000 and 200,000. Although it wasn’t located on any of the great roads of the time like Ephesus and Smyrna, it was considered the greatest city inAsia. At the time John wrote Revelation, Pergamum had been a capital city for nearly 400 years.
As a center of education, the library at Pergamum contained over 200,000 parchment scrolls, second only to the great library of Alexandria,Egypt. Parchment, made from the smoothing of animals skins, was invented inPergamum and the word parchment is derived from the name Pergamum.
As a capital city in Asia, Pergamum was an administrative center for government. As such, it became the center for Caesar worship as well as other pagan religions. There were temples built here to Zeus, Athena and others and most still remain here as ruins. As we look at Revelation 2:12-17 we will note that it refers to Pergamumas the Seat of Satan, quite probably because it was such a hub of paganism.
Now that we’ve taken a brief look at the culture and religious importance ofPergamum, let’s take a look at the passage from Revelation 2 to see just what the early church here had to contend with.
To the angel of the church of Pergamum Write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp double-edged sword. I know where you live- where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city – where Satan lives.
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you. You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balik to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolatians. Repent therefore. Otherwise I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
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. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
As we look at these verses and the context of the time we see that Jesus first commended some of the people of the church at Pergamumand rebuked others. I think it’s important to understand what a difficult place Pergamum was for the people of the church who were living there. Christians who didn’t conform to the pagan practices of the city were persecuted. One believer named Antipas was put to death. But that wasn’t the only form of persecution. There was also persecution of a more subtle nature. It is quite probable that these other forms of persecution were most responsible for the actions of the part of the church Jesus takes to task in this passage.
Being identified as the Seat of Satan, the practice of pagan rituals, feasts and celebrations were woven into the culture and even the economy. Besides living under the possible threat of death, pagan religious practices here were tied to every other part of life, especially the ability to earn a living. If a person didn’t participate in a certain number of annual pagan feasts, many of which ended in drunken orgies, they weren’t allowed to belong to trade guilds and other forms of earning a livelihood. Often the threat of dying a martyr’s death will bring solidarity to people and give them the courage to stand up against their oppressor as seen with persecution Christians endured in Rome. But what we see here as the sin of compromise. It can creep in gradually and in the minds of many that compromise is justified, explained away or ignored. That’s what Jesus was speaking against. But before we get to that, let’s look at Jesus’ positive statement at the beginning of the passage.
“I know where you live – where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You do not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city – where Satan lives.”
There were other places the believers in the church at Pergamum could have chosen to live – places where the persecution may have been less and they may have been able to live “under the radar” without compromising their values. Yet they chose to remain here. They chose to live in a difficult place. They chose to remain in Pergamum where they could be a light in the darkness – A place so dark and difficult Jesus called it the place where Satan lives – a place where Satan’s rule was strongest. That took a lot of courage and commitment. The easy thing would have been to just move on. But they believed that the principle to live by wasn’t one of escaping from a place of difficulty, but to remain to do what they could to conquer the evil that was there. These people demonstrated that it was possible to be a Christian under such circumstances, even in the face of persecution. For that, Jesus commends them.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with all the church. Others, perhaps because of the healthy economy of Pergamum and the opportunities living in such a prosperous city offered, chose to remain as well. But to do so and still live in peace and prosperity, they did not remain true to their faith and values. They lived a lifestyle of compromise.
That life of compromise was so serious that we are told some held to the teaching of Balaam, while others held to the teaching of the Nicolatians. We’ve heard of Balaam from the Old Testament. However the Nicolatians were a group that came to exist at the time of the early church. The doctrine of the Nicolaitans appears to have been a belief that is based upon a recognition of the mercy of God as the ground of salvation, but it makes the fatal mistake of believing that man can freely partake in sin because the Law of God is no longer binding. Basically they believed that a believer didn’t need to live a life separate from the lifestyle of the world. Some even reveled in that lifestyle.
Put that in the context of our world today and you can see why that belief was popular. A person can profess to be a Christian, and may even have made a profession of faith, but chooses to live a sinful lifestyle. As followers of Christ, we need to always be aware of how easily we can be gradually attracted into accepting the compromise of our values. The value system of the world is constantly re-enforced by mass media. If we are not always aware, believers can fall victim to sin over separation and perhaps even be convinced there is nothing wrong with it. Such was the case with some of the church in Pergamum.
Others were condemned for tolerating the pagan lifestyle that was finding its way into the church. Not speaking out against the people in the church choosing to follow the beliefs of Balaam or the Nicolatians was also not acceptable to Jesus.
The solution for the segment of the church that has fallen away is direct, simple and consistent. Repent. Nothing complicated about that. The solution is the same for all sin. And like the answer for sin has always been, it wasn’t something believers who have turned to go their own way always choose to do. Many of the people in the church inPergamumchose to continue taking the easy and sinful path they were on. It always comes down to how we choose to exercise our free will.
The message to take away from this writing to the church atPergamum has several points.
-Be wary of how believers can be seduced by compromise.
-Be aware of how easily compromise can creep in and how attractive it can be because it’s easier, and often more popular to compromise than to stand firm to our convictions.
– Compromise brings a consequence.
– Like any sin, we can repent and be restored when we compromise our beliefs.
– Remaining faithful brings reward.
Here at Autumn Ridge we have been blessed with a wonderful congregation. As we continue to grow and look to the future we can take a valuable lesson from the church at Pergamum. The Lord commends and blesses those who stay true to their faith. In the face of the ever changing values of the world, we need to encourage each other to remain true as followers of Christ. ~Karen Foster