The Dangerous Church – Lenten Season 2023
“To the angel of the church in 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 Balak 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” (Revelations 2: 12-17 NIV).
Revelations – Day 5 “Letter to Pergamum – The Political Church”
Can you imagine living in a city called “the Throne of Satan?” It would make me shiver and I would probably move – quickly! That was the name that John (or really Jesus) gave to the city of Pergamum in this third letter to the churches of Asia.
The letter starts out innocently enough but then it gets very deep really fast.
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword” (Rev. 2:12 NIV).
Of course, the mention of the sword refers to John’s vision of the heavenly Jesus where he describes him with the words “out of his mouth came a sharp, double-edged sword” (Rev. 1:16b NIV). The words “out of his mouth” are not included here and they aren’t necessary. We know that the sword is the Word of God, and was, in fact, Christ himself as the Truth.
But here there are other interesting connotations as well.
Pergamum was the seat of government for the province of Asia and that is part of the reason why it is called “the throne of Satan.” It was ruled by a proconsul who had almost absolute power in the application of imperial justice. And that authority was described as him holding a sword. We have something similar in our depictions of Lady Justice who is blind and holds a balance in one hand and a sword in the other.
The idea seems to be that if a Christian should find himself or herself called before the proconsul to bear witness to their faith, they should remember that it is the living Christ who holds the double-edged sword in his hand and not the proconsul. Interesting.
“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” (Rev. 2:13 NIV).
Twice the city of Pergamum is referred to as the place where Satan has his throne and where he lives. Is Jesus equating Rome with Satan? Yes and no. Every city everywhere is associated with the Evil One in the grand scheme of things. The whole world is the Kingdom of God but within it are those who are in rebellion against Him. When that rebellion organizes itself into a totalitarian state that sets itself up as the ultimate authority on earth, then they are in direct conflict with God, Himself.
That isn’t always the case, of course. This is a classic dichotomy between Romans 7 and Revelations 7. In Romans 7, Paul makes it clear that the authorities are instituted by God and that we should obey them. In Revelations 7, John (or really Jesus) makes it clear that the Roman State (and other political entities throughout time) are in conflict with God and should be resisted. So which one is it?
We will come back to this discussion when we talk about the Nicolaitans but for now, it is only important to remember that in the context of the book of Revelations, we are talking about political entities that are in direct conflict with God.
Therefore, Satan is involved in a more direct way. He is manipulating events and people to further his plans to destroy the church. Satan lives and rules from Pergamum not in a physical sense but in the sense that his political machine is running things for that region from the seat of government power in that city. We aren’t talking about spiritual influence so much as the more direct ability to move the levers of power to challenge and persecute the church.
Rome, herself, may see the church as nothing more than a nuisance but, if Satan is directly involved and is spending the time and resources to stir up the need for emperor worship and stoke the fires of animosity between pagans and Christians, then there is definitely a spiritual dimension to the conflict that Jesus wants to bring to the light.
When Jesus says, “yet you remain true to my name” right after his comment about Pergamum being “where Satan has his throne,” it would seem to indicate that the conflict is in some way more difficult there in that city.
Ephesus seemed to be all right for the most part, but it had good apostolic teaching and strong leadership to help it develop and grow. Smyrna had a beginning shrouded in mystery but, apparently, also had a very strong anti-Christian environment instigated by the Jews. Pergamum, at least at this point in time, appears to have one of the first martyrs of the region in a believer called Antipas.
According to tradition, Antipas was the first martyr in Asia. Apparently, he was slowly roasted to death in a bronze kettle during the reign of Domitian, just before the book of Revelations was written. Not a very pleasant reminder to the church that things were just starting to heat up.
So, it was probably true that Pergamum was bearing the brunt of the persecution at least at the start. And it made sense that the proconsul would start with his own city. Now that Domitian had made it clear that emperor worship was no longer voluntary, steps would have to be taken.
The truth is that we aren’t sure that Antipas died his martyr’s death because of direct mob action or through a judiciary process that led to the death sentence. The doubt comes from the fact that the Romans would not normally use a bronze kettle to roast a man to death.
Of course, under Nero almost anything was possible but, even that, was more about Nero’s own perversion and evil than about the imperial judicial system. In any event, we have stated before that this whole process was a combination of the willingness of the Roman officials to try these cases as well as the antagonism and accusations of the populace to bring these Christians before the courts. All of it, in whatever form it manifests itself, is part of the persecution and suffering that Jesus is talking about.
When Jesus commends them with the words “yet you remain true to my name,” it begs the question of whether there were others, besides Antipas, who simply saved themselves by renouncing Christ before the proconsul. We know that sixty years later from the story of the martyrdom of Polycarp and from the proconsul Pliny’s letter to the emperor Trajan in the second century, it was standard courtroom procedure to ask Christians to renounce Christ publicly to save themselves.
This suspicion that there were others in the church of Pergamum who saved themselves from the death sentence by renouncing Christ in front of the proconsul makes sense in the political hotbed of Pergamum as we will come to see later.
“Nevertheless, I have a few things against you. You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam who taught Balak 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 Nicolaitans” (Rev. 2:14,15 NIV).
There is a lot here to unpack but the first thing is to go back to the story of Balaam, the prophet, and Balak the king of Moab and Midian.
The people of Israel are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Jericho is before them, the desert behind them. They had just defeated Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites, who would not let them pass peacefully through their territory. Now they were in Moab and Midian and the people there were terrified at what would happen to them, not just because there were so many people but also because they had defeated the Amorites (Numbers 21: 21-35 NIV).
Apparently, Balak, the king of Moab, didn’t think the direct approach of war with the Israelites was going to work so he tried a more devious route.
He had heard of a prophet in the region named Balaam who seemed to have some connection to Yahweh, the God of that region across the Jordan and beyond Jericho. He simply claims to believe that “those you bless are blessed and those you curse are cursed” (Num. 22:6b NIV). He wanted Balaam to put a curse on these people to soften them up enough for him to go to war with them “and defeat them and drive them out of the country” (Num. 22:6b NIV).
It isn’t clear who Balaam really was, but he made his life as a spokesperson for El Shaddai or Yahweh, the same God of the Israelites. Whether or not Balak, the king of Moab understood that it was the same God his enemies also worshipped is unclear. Like other shadowy characters during the time of Abraham, like Melchizedek, the priest-king of what would later become Jerusalem, Balaam was somehow in contact with the true God.
We will call him a prophet, even though that is very generous. He was also involved in sorcery and magic (Num. 24:1 NIV), so it is hard to connect him with the God of the Israelites at all. Some people claim that he was probably just a common “diviner” that God chose, in this instance, to work with and use as his mouthpiece. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem at all surprised that God would speak to him in such a direct manner which suggests some history between them.
So, Balak gets together “the fee for divination” (Num. 22:7 NIV) and sends his emissaries to bring Balaam to the place where the Israelites were encamped across from Jericho in the territory of Moab and Midian.
Why they didn’t just let them pass through their territory unmolested is also a mystery but perhaps it was fear they would overstay their welcome and bleed the area dry of water, grass, and other resources. In fact, the complaint that the people made to their king was exactly that. “This hoard is going to lick up everything around us as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Num. 22:4 NIV).
When the “elders of Moab and Midian” arrived with their petition and the appropriate fee, Balaam invited them to stay the night. Apparently, it was at night, probably in a dream, that God would normally talk to him. The first message was clear. Don’t go with them. These people are my people and “you must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed” (Num. 22:12 NIV). Balaam passes on the message and the elders go back to Balak, the king of Moab, with the answer.
But Balak doesn’t give up. He thinks it is just a question of motivating Balaam and impressing him with his power and authority. He sends “other princes, more numerous and more distinguished than the first” (Num. 22:15 NIV) with promises of even greater riches. Balaam is firm in his answer, but then he allows them to stay the night just in case God has something further to say to them.
Apparently, Balaam was up to something. He accepted the payment and went to meet with Balak to do his bidding. Balaam is not so innocent. On the one hand, our passage simply says that God gave him permission to go but then we get the whole story of Balaam’s donkey who talks to him. In fact, it is the story of Balaam’s donkey that explains why God gave him permission to go in the first place.
It appears that Balaam was enticed by the promise of riches and decided to go on his own to meet with Balak and do his bidding. The next day he leaves, riding on his donkey’s back, and “the angel of the Lord” appears on the road ahead with a drawn sword. The donkey heads into the fields on one side and simply stops. After a lot of beating with his staff, the donkey continues only to find himself on a narrow path between two rock walls. The angel of the Lord appears again, and the donkey stops and presses hard against one of the walls and crushes Balaam’s foot. Again, the poor donkey is beaten by Balaam’s staff. The third time there is no escape, and the donkey simply lays down and refuses to move no matter how much Balaam curses it and beats it with his staff.
Then God allowed the donkey to speak and rebuke Balaam for beating it. The conversation was rather comical if it wasn’t so serious. The donkey could see what Balaam could not see. The angel of the Lord was there to slay Balaam, not the donkey and so he was saving Balaam’s life. Finally, Balaam’s eyes are opened to see the angel of the Lord and he repents, and God allows him to go to Balak but only if he spoke the words that God would give him.
It was in this way that Balaam became known in Jewish history as the mercenary prophet, the one who would go against God’s will for payment. But the sin of Balaam did not stop there. The angel of the Lord gave him permission to go but he warned Balak, the king, that he would only be able to speak the words that God gave him. So, over a period of time trying one thing and then another, he ended up blessing Israel three times and actually predicting the defeat of Moab in the process. Instead of cursing Israel, he blessed her and was paid handsomely to do so by Balak, the enemy of the people of God.
What irony. But the story isn’t over yet.
Although the connection is not all that clear in the biblical text itself, apparently the Midianites decided to get involved and try to get the Israelites to sin. After all, the God of Balaam would not bless the Israelites if they sinned against him. There were other stories circling around the camps of similar problems during their time in the desert (the sin of Achan in Joshua 7:21 NIV). If Balaam couldn’t curse them directly, they would give God a reason to curse them. They would cause the people of Israel to sin.
Things would now get a bit ugly.
“While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So, Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them” (Num. 25:1-3 NIV). God sends a plague. Many Israelites died. Both the Moabites and the Midianites were involved. It was a dirty tactic that worked. We would call it demonic. They were both the deceivers, and the accusers, and God’s anger was kindled toward his people.
And who gave them this bright idea?
Jewish tradition indicates that it was Balaam himself who “taught” them this little trick. The Balaam story had been developed over the years as a cautionary tale in the Jewish midrash and served two purposes. The first was to point out that doing God’s work for economic gain was not acceptable and the second was that leading the people into breaking their covenant with God by being involved in the religious worship of the religions around them was a heinous crime against God.
Jesus pointed out during his ministry on earth that
There were two elements to this covenant-breaking sin that are pointed out in the original story and reflected time and again here in the book of Revelations. The first is “eating food sacrificed to idols” and the second is “committing sexual immorality.” It is easy to say that these two things are straightforward and clear enough, that they are two, unrelated but terrible sins, and that we should not participate in either one. True enough. But it misses the point entirely. Not only are they connected but they are two sides of the same sin – idolatry.
After all, Paul had clearly stated in his writings that “eating meat sacrificed to idols” was not a problem (I Cor. 10:28 NIV) but that for the sake of the believer with a “weak” conscience, he would not eat it in front of them. That seems straightforward enough.
So, what’s the problem?
We find the answer in the story of Balaam’s final trick to get the Israelites to sin. We know something about Baal worship from later stories when the Israelites were in the land. It was dirty business and included religious sexual intercourse to mimic Baal, the thunder god, in his intercourse with Asherah, the goddess of the land and fertility, by means of rain (which was always in short supply). Forget about infant sacrifice for a good harvest and other nefarious practices, suffice it to say that it was not God’s favorite religion, and he swore to eradicate it from the promised land.
So, this was not merely an extra-marital affair by some womanizing believer who couldn’t keep his pants on. This was a religious affair by Israelites who ate meat sacrificed to idols, bowed down to them, and worshipped them as a precursor to the sexual intercourse that was the climax of the religious event. No doubt the end justified the means in their own mind, but it was covenant-breaking all the same. And it made God angry. Rightly so.
In that context, we need to understand what Jesus is saying to the church. It wasn’t just about eating meat one bought from the marketplace that probably was sacrificed to idols before it got there. It was about participating in the “worship” of those idols by eating the meat as a symbol of your reverence and then finishing your involvement with sexual intercourse with the temple maidens who were brought there for that very purpose.
Perhaps in the original story of the Moabites and Israel, it was not such a clearly religious program of worship. Perhaps they kept it more natural and “innocent” as part of their deception. We don’t know. All we know is where it ended up – “bowing down to Baal Peor.” A clearly religious act.
Now wait just a minute. Are you saying that the Romans practiced these kinds of things? Not really. There were still some who practiced something similar within the Roman Empire, but this kind of worship was not the norm at this time.
Well, then, what are we talking about? We are talking about worshipping false gods, about participating in religious practices, “bowing down to Baal” and breaking covenant with God. We are talking about keeping ourselves pure in our loyalty and love for God through Jesus without compromising our relationship with him by participating in emperor worship.
And now we are back to the original, political, issue facing the church. I call it a “political” issue because that is ultimately what it was. There is a fine line between tolerance and intolerance. In the church of Ephesus, Jesus praises them for their intolerance of heresy but reminds them to keep their heart pure and full of their “first love.” But in Pergamum, none of that is mentioned. They are not intolerant of heresy. They are, in fact, too tolerant of it altogether. What is going on?
You have to appreciate the difficulty here. We really don’t know much about Nicolas, the leader of the Nicolaitans. He is only mentioned here in the book of Revelations in two places and then in some of the letters of the Church Fathers. His group died out rather quickly, but Jesus seemed to think that their “sin” was indicative of a larger problem that would plague the church throughout the ages. After all, it had been a thorn in the side of the Israelites throughout their time in the Promised Land as well.
So, what is this really all about?
Like I said, it was a political question. The Nicolaitans simply took a more compromising attitude toward the surrounding pagan society and religion than Jesus was happy with. After all, they just wanted to avoid clashing with Rome and believed that they could maintain a peaceful coexistence.
They were focused on the Romans 7 attitude toward the ruling authorities as instituted by God and needing to be obeyed. Jesus, himself, broke down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. He seemed to indicate that they could co-exist with Rome when he said that they should give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s and to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17 NIV).
Paul seemed to support their cause when he claimed that meat sacrificed to idols did not affect our Christian freedom (I Cor. 9,10 NIV), that the authorities should be obeyed (Romans 7 NIV) and that we cannot, nor should not, avoid sinful company altogether (I Cor. 5:10 NIV). After all, you cannot avoid all contact with paganism in the Gentile world even though the Jews tried to do that in their homeland and drove Jesus crazy with their pettiness.
Every meeting of clubs and trade guilds would involve pagan rites, every involvement in the marketplace, and the very coins of the empire had the emperor’s head engraved on it with a divine radiance. The Romans themselves, especially the educated ones, didn’t take the emperor’s claim to divinity seriously. It was a harmless gesture of political loyalty and nothing more.
But all of that misses the point. The difference between Romans 7 and Revelations 7 is easily resolved when you understand it as two different points on a spectrum. Under normal circumstances, the state is ordained by God and functions under his authority. We should obey them as much as possible but only up to a point. When they try to force us to disobey a higher authority all bets are off.
Just because the pagan gods do not really exist, does not mean that pagan religion and worship do not have real power in the lives of people. Once the state crosses the line into open conflict with the kingdom of God, the stakes change, the parameters change, and our response must change.
As long as the emperor keeps his proper place, we can obey both him and God, but when he insists on being God, then all bets are off. Now there is war. Now there is no neutrality. The very fact that the State tries to destroy the church indicates that there is something more going on, that Satan is directly involved, and that now the witness of the people of God must be clearer and stronger than ever before.
The error of the Nicolaitans is to insist on a collaboration and peaceful co-existence with a force that is dedicated to destroying the church. This choice between “collaboration” and “resistance” is nothing new, of course, and we see it in the struggles with Nazi Germany in World War II.
Which approach does Jesus condone? Does he have grace for the collaborators? Not at all. It would appear that the desire for collaboration and peaceful co-existence while others are laying down their lives for the cause is an indication of indifference and disloyalty at the very least.
Just like with Balaam, it would seem that there are ulterior motives. Perhaps not a mercenary one (although perhaps an economic one). More likely, it comes from fear and unbelief. They are so convinced of their own justifications that they “teach” people to sin against God by participating in the religious “paganism” of emperor worship.
After all, what was the big deal? A little pinch of incense and a harmless whisper of loyalty to the emperor would get them out of hot water and allow them to continue to be part of the church and carry out their mission to preach the gospel.
But teaching and encouraging people to become involved in religious ceremonies and worship where they “bow down to Baal Peor” for any reason whatsoever is a heinous sin and that is Balaam’s error. It doesn’t matter if you believe that it is justified or reasonable. That is not for you to decide. Jesus makes it clear, and it is rather obvious to all true believers. It is a betrayal of our relationship with God who is a jealous God and deserves all of our worship and praise and devotion.
“Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:16 NIV).
The call to repent is for the whole church, for the “political church” which valued tolerance above truth when Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NIV). The call is to be intolerant of heresy but to do so with grace and the desire to restore the offender to the truth of the gospel.
And if they would not take care of it internally, Jesus would send someone with the power of his double-edged sword, which is the truth of the gospel, and “fight” against them. Perhaps he meant that he would send a prophet or one of the apostles with signs and wonders following to clean up the mess that they had made of things in that church of Pergamum. Antipas was a good start but now they were getting off the path.
“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” (Rev. 2:17 NIV).
What is this “hidden manna” that Jesus is talking about?
According to Jewish legend, some of the manna that came down from heaven was placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Hebrews 9:4 NIV) and later in golden jars in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. When the temple was about to be destroyed in 586 B.C., Jeremiah supposedly went into the Temple to retrieve the manna and hide it somewhere.
Again, according to Rabbinic legend, this “hidden” manna would reappear from heaven when the Messiah came. Jesus called himself the “bread of life” (John 6:35 NIV) and therefore he is the fulfillment of the “legend” of the hidden manna revealed from heaven that nourishes the people of God in the desert of this life.
Some commentators understood the “hidden manna” to indicate some sort of secret knowledge known only to Jesus (or to the Father) that would be revealed only to select people at the appropriate time. But it is better to understand it in terms of a promise that Jesus would “nourish” the one who overcomes with a closer presence, a more direct communion, a spiritual connection with Christ who was the true “hidden manna” of God.
What then of the white stone and the new name written upon it?
As we see in other similar promises of reward, the white stone speaks of the ancient practice of erecting stones (and later altars) in significant places or near important events as a way of communicating with the people of generations to come about the importance of what happened in that place.
The white stone indicates permanence and purity in their “witness” to what happened in their suffering and martyrdom, a significant event in the timeline of heaven. Their “faithful witness,” like that of Antipas, would not be forgotten, neither on earth nor in heaven but would remain forever.
And the new name written on that white stone?
A new name always indicates a new character, a new relationship with God, and a new and transformative experience that requires a new name. When Abram became Abraham it indicated a new beginning, a new covenantal relationship with God. This new name is only given (and can only be given) to those who have discovered that closeness with Jesus that comes from suffering together for the sake of the gospel.
That new name may in fact be the “secret” name of Jesus (Rev. 3:12,13 NIV) that indicates a new level of commitment, a new level of loyalty, a new experience of the “glory” of the character of God in Christ. In the end, it is a new understanding of the love of God that fulfills the requirements of justice through his own suffering and death.
That promise takes my breath away, to experience and be honored as someone who, in the strength of Christ, was able to experience that deep divine commitment of love to save his people no matter the cost.
Do not for one moment believe that these promises and rewards are stale or static or uninteresting. They are not generic but specific to the experience they are rewarded for. To share in the experience, the character, the “glory” of divine love no matter the cost. It brings new meaning to Paul’s words that to share in the glory of Christ we must first share in his suffering (Rom. 8: 17b NIV). To suffer for and with Christ is to have greater intimacy with him and to participate in his character, his “glory.”
That is enough to bring a tear to the eyes of the tearless cherubim and encourage the heart of the most fearful believer on the eve of their greatest temptation and greatest opportunity to give witness to the transformative love within.
Those who have been involved in suffering for the gospel throughout church history would certainly attest to the experience of finding their walk with God more intimate, more encouraging, and more powerful than ever before.
The promise is finding fulfillment already on this side of heaven.
The Desert Warrior