Revelation – Pergamos, The Epoch of State Religion
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith He which hath the sharp sword with two edges; 13) I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. 14) But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. 15) So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate. 16) Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth. 17) He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.” Revelation 2:12-17.
Pergamos, or Pergamum, was located about forty miles northeast of Smyrna in the Caieus Valley and on the imperial highway running along the coast of Asia. It was named by the Aeolian Greeks soon after the fall of Troy in the twelfth century before Christ, making it one of the oldest cities of Asia and of the world. Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamos were rivals for first place among the cities of the province and also of Asia Minor.
Pergamos was named for the lofty hill on which the ancient city was built. The name therefore means tower, height, or elevation, and carries with it the idea of exaltation. It was the exalted city. The name also indicates a union as through marriage. The lofty hill on which the ancient city was built and from which it took its name was an immense rock rising one thousand feet abruptly out of the broad and fertile valley. The walls of the elevation were almost perpendicular, except on one side, where there was a steep and narrow passageway to the top, which was easily fortified and guarded. Because of its natural defenses the city of Pergamos was considered an impregnable stronghold. There, Lysimachus deposited his treasure, valued at $10,000,000, because he considered it the safest place in his kingdom.
A Famous City
Pliny called Pergamos the most illustrious city of Asia. It was the educational center of Western Asia. There Homer, one of the earliest poets, studied and wrote, because of the great library which contained 200,000 volumes. It was second only to the world-famous library of Alexandria. These libraries caused a long and bitter rivalry between the two cities. Egypt, in order to curb the growth of the Pergamum library, withheld shipments of papyrus, the ancestor of paper. To meet the emergency the Pergamenians dressed the skins of animals, on which to do their writing, calling the new writing material Pergamus, and later, Parchment. The rivalry between the two cities ended when Mark Anthony removed the Pergamum library to Alexandria as a gift to the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, with whom he was infatuated.
“A royal city,” exclaimed Sir William Ramsay, as he viewed the ruins of the ancient city of Pergamos. In deed it was “a royal city” and a royal residence. It was the capital of the kingdom of Pergamum under the Attalid kings. Attalus III bequeath-ed his capital and kingdom to the Romans in the year 133 B.C. and they formed it into the Province of Asia.
For 250 years, Pergamos was the official capital of the province. From Pergamos the decrees of the Caesars were executed throughout the province. This gives force and meaning to Christ’s introduction to the church of Pergamos: “These things saith He which hath the sharp sword with two edges.” The broad double-bladed Roman sword was known as “the cut and thrust sword.” It was the emblem of the highest official authority, carrying with it the power of life and death, and this power was vested in the proconsuls of the province, who lived at Pergamos. The governor wielded the sword of Rome from this impregnable fortress.
Pergamos was also the seat of a Roman supreme court. To this city prisoners were brought for trial from all parts of the province, and were sentenced by the power that ministered life and death to all. Therefore, the sword that proceeded out of the mouth of Christ is a symbol of His judicial authority. He too wields the power of life and death to all who hear His message. His Word “is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) The One who has all power and authority speaks to the church located in the city where official authority and power dwells.
Throne of Satan
Jesus said to His people in Pergamos, “I know where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s (seat) throne is.” “Throne” is a better rendering than “seat,” for the same original is translated “throne” in Revelation 1:4 and 3:2. The capital of the province was also the headquarters of the pagan religion of the province, for in all ancient nations church and state were united. The ruler of the state was also the head of the religion of the state. Satan is called both “the prince of this world” and “the god of this world,” and he attempts to pattern all earthly kingdoms after his own. He has ruled the world through human governments, which he has controlled by means of his false and counterfeit system of religion. When Rome ruled the world, the capital of the empire was also the throne of Satan.
Pergamos was a city of heathen temples and a pantheon of pagan deities. Temples were built and dedicated to Jupiter, Zeus, Athena, Dionysius, and Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine. The Temple of Zeus was the most celebrated of all the temples of Pergamos, and was dedicated to Aesculapius, “the serpent god” or “god of healing.” It was also known as the Temple of Aesculapius, who was called “the Great Physician” and “the Saviour.” He was also given other titles showing that he was a counterfeit of Christ. In this temple a living serpent was kept and worshiped. Serpent worship was so universal in Pergamos that many coins have been found with a picture of a serpent entwined around a pole. It is unfortunate that this pagan embalmer of healing had become the caduceus of the modern medical profession.
Satan is known in the Scriptures as “that old serpent,” perhaps because the serpent was his agent in bringing about the fall of man. The symbol of poison and sin and death became the god and emblem of healing and life in Satan’s false religion, and thus it remains to this day. The Temple of Zeus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the ruins of which are still visible. Bacchus, the god of wine, and Venus, the goddess of lust, were also worshiped in Pergamos. There paganism reigned supreme, with all its impure and licentious rites. Satan’s throne was there.
When Cyrus captured the city of Babylon, the ancient seat of Satan’s counterfeit system of religion, the supreme pontiff and his retinue of priests fled from the city and ultimately made their residence in Pergamos. Here they re-established their Babylonian worship and made the kings of Pergamum the chief pontiffs of their religion. A century later, Caesar became both emperor of Rome and Pontifex Maximus of the religion of the empire. He was given divine honors, which he handed down to his successors. These were later assumed by the popes, the supreme pontiffs of ecclesiastical Rome. Thus, Pergamos became the connecting link between the two Babylons, the ancient and the modern. The papal system is patterned after that of Babylon and Rome. This is another reason for the statement of Jesus that Pergamos was the place “where Satan dwelleth.”
The Christians of Pergamos lived at the very headquarters of Satan. The fact that they were in such close proximity to Satan was no excuse for failure of defeat. The place of our birth and the circumstances under which we live are taken into consideration in the judgment. (Psalm 87:4-6) God often places His people under very unfavorable conditions that they might be shining lights among those who sit in darkness. The local church of Pergamos could not escape the situation without an ignominious retreat, and Satan refused to surrender his stronghold.
The Pergamos Period
Not only does Pergamos carry the meaning of power and exaltation, but is also indicates union through marriage. The Greek word gamos means marriage. During the Pergamos period the church was exalted to royal power and kingly authority through a union, or marriage, with the state. Satan had failed to crush the church and destroy Christianity through persecution, and he therefore changed his policy. Christianity had won in its great struggle with paganism, and Satan, as it were, joined the church in order to ruin it from within through amalgamation with the world and union with the state. When Satan failed to accomplish his purpose through violence, he corrupted the church through worldly alliance. Rome boasted of her ability to assimilate anything that contributed to her strength. In the person of Constantine, the church mounted the throne of the Caesars and reigned as queen. The church that was “espoused as a chaste virgin to Christ” was united in marriage to pagan Rome.
During this period Paul’s warning applied and his prophecies were fulfilled. (Acts 20:29, 30) Pagan beliefs and practices were brought into the church, and Christianity was so changed by heathen influences that it virtually became “baptized paganism.” During this time Isaiah 2:2, 3 was fulfilled, and the church was established “in the top of the mountains” or government of Rome, and “above the hills,” or smaller states, where she dictated the laws of the land and became so popular that “all nations” flowed into it. Isaiah’s prophecy will again be fulfilled just before the end, when the message to the church of Pergamos will again be applicable and meaningful.
During this period of compromise and apostasy, Christ had loyal followers who held fast to His name without denying the faith, even though they lived “where Satan dwelleth.” Jesus commended these faithful disciples. Antipas, one of the saints who suffered martyrdom in the city of Pergamos, is set forth as a symbol, or representative, of all the faithful of that period. He was doubtless a prominent leader in the local church, and probably the bishop or pastor. According to tradition he was bishop of Pergamos, and was martyred during the persecutions of Domitian by being shut up in a brazen bull which was heated till it was red hot. He ended his life with praises and thanksgiving to God.
Like Luther at the Diet of Worms, Antipas stood against all compromise with the world and sealed his faith with his blood. This was the fate of millions who stood out against the paganizing of Christianity during the period of amalgamation with the world and marriage with the state.
Jesus asserted that He had some things against the Pergamos believers, chiefly because they were accepting the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. In the Ephesian period Christians refused to tolerate evildoers, and they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans; now they not only tolerate them in their midst but listen to their teachings. “Some that cling to the teaching of Balaam.” (Weymouth.) Balac was the king of Moab, and Balaam was the prophet of God who turned traitor to secure worldly gain and kingly favors. He is definitely symbolic of the compromises of the Pergamos period, when believers turned traitor to the cause of genuine Christianity to gain the favor of Roman officials. Josephus and Philo declare that Balaam showed Balac how to set a trap for the children of Israel so as to entice them into the twofold sin of idolatry and fornication, which always go hand in hand. Acts 15:20
Idolatry in any form is disloyalty to God. “Balaam is here represented as the prototype of all corrupt teachers.” (Numbers 25:1, 2; 31:15, 16.) Just as Balaam bartered his religion for wealth and honor, so the priests of the paganized Christian church bartered religious rites, ordinances, relics, and indulgences for worldly gain, and making the church of God “an house of merchandise.”
Nikalaos means “those who conquer the people,” or the laity. The forces were working that finally conquered the church and turned it into a semipagan system in which the officials exalted themselves to kingly power and royal authority over the laity. It is said that Balaam in the Hebrew language has practically the same meaning as Nicalos or Nikalaos, in the Greek. Thus, the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitans are mentioned together here because of their similarity. There were not necessarily two different groups in the church who were apostatizing.
As Israel of old was deceived, entrapped, and corrupted by the doctrines and practices of Balaam, so also were the Christians of the Pergamos period being contaminated by the teachings and practices of the Nicolaitans, the antitype of Balaam.
“Repent; or else I will come unto to thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth,” was the warning, or threat, of the Author of the epistle to the church of Pergamos. The entire church was called upon to repent, indicating that all had been affected by the developing apostasy. The threat, however, was against those who had accepted and were teaching the false doctrines. “I will contend with such men with words that will cut like a sword,” is the Twentieth Century New Testament translation. There must be no delay in the work of repentance and reformation. They must “repent at once.” (Weymouth.) Jesus virtually said: “If you do not repent and reform at once, I will fight these apostates and compromisers with the sword of My mouth.”
It was with a drawn sword that the Lord withstood Balaam to thwart his evil purpose against Israel of old; so Christ here represents Himself as standing before the church of Pergamos with a drawn sword threatening all who refuse to take heed to His cutting message with the fate of the ancient false prophet who was slain by the sword of Israel, which was in reality the sword of the Lord. While the minister and the church in general are responsible for prevailing conditions, Christ does not say, “I will fight against thee,” but “against them,” that is, the guilty ones in the church. “Or else” implies that if the minister and officials failed to perform their duty, the supreme Head of the church would visit the apostates with judgments. It was the duty of the pastor to do such faithful reproving that “he would either recover them for the truth, or else drive them wholly from the communion of the church.” (Trench, Richard C. Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia. 5th Edition, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., Limited, p. 131, 1890)
The Promised Reward
As an incentive to repent, Christ offers access to the hidden manna and also a white stone containing the overcomer’s divinely given new name describing his new character. A pot of manna was placed in the Ark of the Covenant in the most holy apartment of the earthly Sanctuary as a pledge that all who obey the law will be fed. (Hebrews 9:3, 4) This became known as the “hidden manna,” because it was hidden from all except the high priest. Christ declared Himself to be the real manna or “Bread of Life.” (John 6:26-63) He said that only those who eat of the living bread that came down from heaven can have eternal life.
In the same wilderness where Balaam tempted ancient Israel, the Lord fed His people with “angels’ food,” or the “corn of heaven.” This bread of heaven was secretly provided during the night. The promise is that all who resist the temptations of the evil one will enter “the secret place of the Most High” and experience a close and lasting fellowship with the “Bread of Life.” Just as the manna was hidden in the unapproachable holy of holies of the earthly Sanctuary, and Christ is hidden from our view in the heavenly Sanctuary so the heavenly manna, the Word of God, when hidden in the secret chambers of the heart, gives spiritual nourishment and protects from evil. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee,” said the psalmist.
Reference to the “white stone” is doubtless borrowed from one or more of several well-known customs in which white stones or pebbles were used. Trench declares that, “‘White’ is everywhere the colour and livery of heaven.” (Trench, p. 135) All who lived in Pergamos, the capital of the judicial system of the province, were acquainted with the custom of the judges in using white and black stones, or pebbles, in making their decisions, the white standing for acquittal and the black for condemnation.
The Masonic and other lodges still use white and black balls in balloting for candidates for office. The divine promise is that Christian victors will be given the decision of acquittal by the supreme court of Heaven. White is the color of innocence, purity, joy, and victory. The white stone given to the overcomer not only is symbolic of victory but also indicates a pledge of an eternal friendship with Christ.
The promise indicates that the victor over sin will be given a passport to Heaven because he has been absolved from all guilt; that he will be given a new name to describe his new character; and that he will be given angels’ food, and have right to the Tree of Life. Taking into consideration all the implications of the hidden manna and the white stone, this is one of the most precious promises contained in Holy Writ, and should be a great incentive to repent and accept all the counsel of the mighty Counselor.
This “exceeding great and precious” promise is just as verily for us as for the members of the church of Pergamos.