“Write to the messenger of the congregation in Pergamus: ‘He who has the sharp two-edged sword says these things: I know you are holding fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of my faithful martyr Antipas, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.’” (Revelation 2:12-13 McCord)
When we begin examining the Christians in Pergamus (or Pergamum), we discover what looks to be an exemplary group of Christians. They were standing up for Jesus, even though they were being persecuted. Even when some were being killed, presumably because they would not deny Jesus, they still were true to Jesus – and at least one Christian had been killed. This was taking place “where Satan lives” and Satan was the evil behind what these Christians were going through.
When you find Christians who have such a strong faith, you would think that they would not allow anything or anyone to undermine their faith. Sadly, this was not the case.
“But I have a few things against you: some there cling to the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to entrap the children of Israel, to eat sacrifices to idols, and to fornicate. In the same way you, likewise, have those who follow the doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” (Revelation 2:14-15)
Although these Christians were willing to endure persecution, we find that some were compromising their faith. They had become involved in the worship of the Roman gods. We know from archaeology that the Asklepios cult and its practice of medicine was prominent in this town. They also had temples to Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, as well as a temple to worship Augustus (Octavius Caesar), recognising him as a god.
Jesus identified their compromise as “the doctrine of Balaam”. This refers back to the book of Numbers when Balaam wanted to curse Israel but God had him bless them instead. In order to bring them down, Balaam advised the Moabite king Balak to get the Israelites involved in the worship of their idols as a way to defeat them – and many Israelites died as a result (you can read about this in Numbers 22-25).
Pagan worship involved eating food that had been given as a sacrifice to the false god and sex with the prostitutes who were part of that shrine. This seems to have been a widespread temptation for Christians as both Peter and Jude mention it in their letters. Many think the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans” was the same [Foy Wallace pointed out in his commentary, The Book of Revelation, that “the term Nicolaitane is the Greek equivalent of the name Balaam in the Hebrew, and they both meant ‘the destroyer of the people’. (p.93)].
What would lead Christians who were standing up so faithfully for Jesus to become involved in idol worship – including the fornication that went along with it? Many suggest it had to do with their being able to conduct their business. To belong to the appropriate trade guild they would have had to worship at the designated god’s shrine, or perhaps give worship to the emperor himself. Sadly, they didn’t trust in God to sustain them in their difficult times.
How could this be corrected? “Therefore, change your heart! If not, I will come soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:16). They had to stop being involved in idol worship and give themselves entirely to serving Jesus.
And isn’t this the solution to any sin we are involved in? We need to change our view of sin and turn our lives around, devoting ourselves wholly to Jesus.
“Let him, who has an ear, hear what the Spirit says to the congregations.” (Revelation 2:17)
photo: image in Parthenon, Nashville, Tennessee
Readings for next week:
24-28 June – use this week to catch up if you have fallen behind in your readings.