Revelation 2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this".
As we have been making our way through the Book of Revelation, we have in recent weeks been exploring the kind of church Jesus wants. In Revelation 2:1-7 we met the church at Ephesus, and found Jesus rebuking her for losing her "first love", discovering the fact that Jesus wants a loving church. Then in our study of the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11 we found Jesus commending her for her courage in trials, concluding that Jesus also wants a church full of courageous faith. In today's post we will begin considering the third church addressed by Jesus in Revelation 2:12-17 - the church at Pergamum.
Pergamum - The Cultural and Political Capitol of Asia Minor
Pergamum was the capitol city of the province of Asia Minor, prompting commentator Steve Gregg to compare it to the Washington D.C of its day.1 Pergamum was famous for its ancient collection of 200,000 books and was known for being the center of pagan worship - most notably the worship of the Roman deity of healing - Aesculapius. Symbolized by a snake, the temple of Aesculapius featured a large room full of non-poisonous snakes that would crawl on hopeful worshippers lying on its floor who believed that contact with the serpents would yield forth healing. In addition to the local pagan customs, Pergamum, like the two other cities we have studied thus far (Ephesus and Smyrna), was a stronghold for Roman Emperor worship. Anyone living there who opposed such systems would had been barred from buying or selling.
Meet the Church at Pergamum - The church of Compromise
Pergamum the church was a church that attempted to straddle the fence so-to-speak. On the one hand she was a church who had in recent memory held fast to the faith and had endured spiritual and cultural pressure. (Revelation 2:12-13). In may ways her actions were noteworthy being that she was in a place that Jesus termed "the place where Satan's throne is". (Revelation 2:13) However despite her early efforts, Pergamum had come to tolerate the presence and teaching of leaders and heresies that Jesus identifies as the teachings of Balaam (Revelation 2:14) and the Nicolatians (2:15). In short, Pergamum had come to compromise, and what Jesus was desiring above all else was for Pergamum to stop compromising lest He came and dealt with the erroneous teachers with the sword of His mouth. (Revelation 2:17).
The recipe for Compromise
So what exactly was Pergamum doing that led Jesus to rebuke her so sharply? The clues to her defection comes from the historical parallel Jesus makes between Pergamum's compromise and the pagan prophet Balaam in Numbers 22-25. The tragic story of compromise that Israel did as a result of Balaam''s efforts casts much light upon what went on at Pergamum. Israel had just won a hard fought victory against two mighty kings. According to Numbers 22:1, they were camped on the plains of Moab, undoubtedly getting a well-deserved rest. The Moabites did not like the mighty Israelites camping in their backyard, and so their King, Balak, hired Balaam, a pagan prophet, to deliver curses against Israel. What follows in the remainder of the account gives the A,B,C recipe for compromise:
Israel should had known that the Moabites (and the Moabite's allies, the Midanites) were up to something since Israel had just won a major battle against two other major enemies. Once Balaam had agreed to work with Balak in pronouncing curses, he set up an altar of sacrifice not once, not twice but three times. (Numbers 23:6, 13; 25:1). Each time Balaam performed his religious ritual and attempted to curse Israel, God restrained his madness and the result was Balaam blessing rather than cursing. (2 Peter 2:14-16) As you read the account of Balaam's efforts, he keeps getting closer and closer to Israel. In comparing the places where Balaam did his dirty work in relationship to where Israel was camped, only a few miles separated them. They would had seen the column of smoke rising up from Balaam's altars. He may very well had been within visual range and most certainly the Israelites would had been briefed on what to look for whenever a suspected enemy was spying on them. Nevertheless the text is silent on their response in Numbers 22,23 and 24. The silence tells us that they did nothing to suppress the impending threat. The church at Pergamum is described by Jesus as "having some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam." (Revelation 2:14) Having something you know is not right in your life means you have at some point chosen not to do anything about it. Apathy is the first ingredient in compromise.
If apathy in one's attitude marks the first step toward compromise, then blindness to doctrine is certainly the next logical step. In Numbers 25:2 we read - "For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods." How could Israel do such a thing? They had been following Moses for 40 years. They had enjoyed a major victory and saw God do mighty miracles. Yet they turned a blind eye to doctrine.
Israel ignored the second commandment on avoiding idolatry and they forgot who they were and Whose they were. This episode in Israel's history caused 24,000 people to die. (Numbers 25:9) To purposefully blind oneself to doctrine means I refuse to be informed on the God Whom I am to love and the identity He has expressed about me in His word.
The church at Pergamum was tolerating the Balaamites and the Nicolatians who both taught the blending together of Judaism and Christianity with Paganism. The Apostle Paul in reflecting upon this very same episode in Israel's history writes in 1 Corinthians 10:12 "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall." What you and I believe ultimately determines how we will live. To neglect God's word and sound doctrine means to neglect God and sound living. If we choose to be apathetic to everything, and blind ourselves to all things, we will end up being about nothing. Compromise is a terrible state for a Christian and for a church to fall into, and Jesus wants us to avoid it at all costs.
Once more we turn to the sequence of events in Numbers, noting Numbers 25:6 "Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting." Like watching a train wreck, the inevitable progression reaches a boiling point. First there was apathy on the part of Israel to the sneaky efforts of Balaam and King Balak. That apathy in the heart led to blindness to doctrine in the mind. Once those two steps had occurred, carelessness in the realm of morality was the result. A man of noble stock in Israel, a son of one of the main tribal leaders, was brazen in his immorality, parading a Midianite woman in the midst of what would had been the equivalent of a solemn church service. How could this be? How could had it gotten this far? Well it did. A young lad by the name of Phineas ended up executing the ungodly couple, staying the plague that would had wiped out Israel no doubt. (Numbers 25:8-15)
Why is it that we grow lax in the areas of moral purity? One word - carelessness. The same three elements of apathy, blindness and carelessness that had characterized ancient Israel was operating full swing at Pergamum. She was in denial, and Jesus had to rebuke her lest those in her membership holding to the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolatians be dealt with severely by Him. (Revelation 2:16)
1. Steve Gregg. Revelation: Four Views - A Parallel Commentary. Nelson. 1997. Page 68