Pergamum: Holding Fast When Lies Abound
In our study of Revelation, we’ve covered Jesus’ assessment of two churches. With Ephesus, we learned that alongside doctrinal orthodoxy and moral resilience, a faithful church must excel in love. Then with Smyrna, we learned that being faithful unto death is only possible when we’ve made ourselves rich in Jesus beforehand. We have five messages to go.
But with these next five, you begin seeing a pattern. Faithfulness to Jesus attracts persecution from the world. People do terrible things to get Christians to abandon Jesus. However, the pattern also reveals that the greatest threat to the church is not persecution. It’s not from outside. The greatest threats come from within, when people inside the church make compromises and mix Christianity with worldly ideas.
Sometimes Christians make compromises in ignorance. Like a fish scarcely knows it’s in water, they scarcely discern ways they participate in the culture’s idolatry. Other Christians compromise to indulge the flesh. They like the world’s ways; and they believe things that will allow them to keep participating in it. Still others are just afraid. The fear of man, fear of losing control, fear of losing their stuff, fear of death—fears lead them to compromise truth and compromise obedience.
Whatever the reasons, compromise within the church is a far greater threat than persecution without. In Revelation, persecution is a sign that a church is faithful. Churches who look just like the world don’t pose any threat to Satan’s war. But Jesus doesn’t tolerate such compromises. Jesus wants his church to overcome. He wants his people to inherit the New Jerusalem. So, he comes to us with much-needed instruction. With the church in Pergamum, we learn the necessity of holding fast as faithful witnesses when lies abound. Listen to our Lord’s words. Verse 12…
12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
Revelation would’ve circulated from Ephesus to Smyrna along the coast. A day-long hike north would land you in Pergamum. The city was known for its high acropolis and loyalty to Rome. Not only was it well-decorated with pagan temples, but the culture promoted religious allegiance to the emperor. Christians found themselves in a city where not participating in that allegiance meant suffering the emperor’s sword.
The True King Whose Word Is All-powerful
According to Jesus, though, there’s a far greater sword to fear. Jesus recalls that sword in verse 12: “thus says he who has the sharp two-edged sword.” Again, we’re pointed back to the vision of his glory in 1:16—“from [Jesus’] mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” “From his mouth”—that has to do with the words he speaks. A “sharp, two-edged sword” is an instrument of war, a weapon to conquer. Put it together, Jesus conquers his enemies by the words he speaks. Isaiah 11:4 says of the Messiah: “…with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Isaiah 49:2, again of the Messiah: “He made my mouth like a sharp sword.”
Jesus combines these images to describe how he brings judgment on his enemies. He speaks and it happens. The same sword reappears in 19:15. When Jesus returns in glory, he strikes down the nations with the sword of his mouth. His words will end all rebel kingdoms. Rome—or any other government—might carry a sword to strike fear in their citizens. But there is one sword greater than all powers combined. It’s the sword of Jesus’ mouth. His word is all-powerful. So, listen carefully.
What Jesus Commends
Jesus follows a pattern we’ve observed before. As Jesus walks among the churches, he finds things to commend and to condemn. Observe first what Jesus commends. Verse 13, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”
Notice how he describes their city. They live “where Satan dwells.” They live “where Satan’s throne is.” Some have taken that to mean Satan’s throne was limited to Pergamum, or that his rule was concentrated there. That might be so, given the number of temples built to pagan gods in that city. Emperor worship was also stressed. As I mentioned before, the city had a high acropolis; and people often viewed their gods as enthroned on those hills where the temples stood.
But a few things lead me to see a broader picture in Satan’s throne. One is that Pergamum wasn’t unique. Pagan temples and emperor worship characterized other cities just as much. Also, as Revelation unfolds a contrast emerges between God’s throne in heaven (ch. 4) and Satan’s throne on earth (right here); God’s reign in heaven and Satan cast down to earth (ch. 12); God’s dwelling giving life (chs. 7, 14, 22) and Satan’s dwelling taking life (like with Antipas or in 13:2-7 with the Beast killing Christians).
So, it seems that Satan’s dwelling/throne is a codeword for the influence Satan has anywhere on earth.[i] Satan dwells on earth because God ousted him from heaven. Now he’s wreaking havoc on the church, knowing that his time is short. This is where they dwell. This is where you dwell. Satan’s influence is here too; and he hates your obedience to Jesus. He will do everything to keep you silent, to keep you distracted from God’s word, to keep you fearing everything besides Jesus. He will even kill your most faithful church member to shut you up. We’re in a war, people, a cosmic war.
But notice how they’ve responded to the Satanic pressure. Jesus says, “you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you…” Jesus is called the “faithful witness” in 1:5. Antipas follows in Jesus’ footsteps. He lays down his life in the path of obedience. Antipas stands as an example of what “being faithful unto death” looks like—if you remember Christ’s words to the church in Smyrna.
Jesus commends Antipas’s faithful witness. But he also commends the rest of the church for holding fast my name. What does that mean? When you look at passages where Jesus speaks of living for his name, being persecuted for his name, here’s what I gather. To live for Jesus’ name means you acknowledge Jesus’ authority, you publicly identify with Jesus in word, and you represent him through obedience. Holding fast to Jesus’ name means you keep doing all those things when others pressure you to stop.
These Christians didn’t give up when they saw Antipas die. When the authorities threatened them with, “You’re next! We will sever your head just like Antipas’s! We will make you an example!” they kept following Jesus. They keep speaking about him to others. They count the cost and still choose to obey Jesus instead of fearing man. Their endurance is commendable to all.
What Jesus Condemns and Threatens
But that endurance is under threat. As time passed, that endurance slipped for some in this church. They’ve compromised with worldly ideas. Look now at what Jesus condemns and threatens. Verse 14, “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
Some wonder whether the Nicolaitans are an additional group of false teachers to those mentioned in verse 14. But I don’t think that’s happening. The Nicolaitans are the contemporary version of Balaam’s false teaching and its results. The situation with Balaam becomes a type, in other words. Balaam’s deception and Israel’s compromise with idolatry, immorality—that story keeps reappearing throughout history. It just wears different disguises; and some in this church have been duped.
What happened with Balaam? Balaam first appears in Numbers 22. He’s a pagan diviner. People pay him to interact with the supernatural. 2 Peter 2:15 tells us that Balaam “loved gain from wrongdoing.” We also learn that a donkey is more spiritually perceptive than Balaam. So, not a great guy. Then there’s Balak, who is king of Moab. He doesn’t like Israel. He views them as a threat. He hires Balaam to curse Israel. But that goes bad. God frustrates that plan, such that Israel winds up more blessed instead.
How, then, would Balak get them? Not by attack from outside. He would get them to compromise from inside. Numbers 31:16 says that Balaam eventually advises Balak to seduce the Israelites with the women of Moab, such that they would give in to idolatry. That event is recorded in Numbers 25:1-3: “The people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel…”
What happened? Balaam teaches Balak to put a stumbling block before Israel. Some in Israel makes compromises. They accommodate the stumbling block, and it leads to infidelity. They break covenant with God. They join the Moabite women in their idolatry and immorality. Apparently, the Nicolaitans have convinced some in this church to make similar compromises. Some have embraced their teaching to the point of accommodating idolatry and immorality. Notice, they haven’t left the church; they’re still in the church: “you have some holding…” They’ve embraced false ideas that have led to infidelity, that have led to compromise with worldly ideas and practices.
The Lord does not tolerate such compromise among his people. As the story goes in Numbers 25, the Lord sent a plague on Israel that killed 24,000. Twenty-four thousand perished due to their compromise. The Lord knows how detrimental it is to the life of his people. So, building on this Old Testament example, Jesus warns them in verse 16: “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them [i.e., the people making these compromises] with the sword of my mouth.”
He doesn’t specify what judgments his word will cause. But we know enough from Scripture elsewhere that you don’t want the Lord’s word against you. Think of the flood, the plagues on Egypt, the ground swallowing Korah’s sons, entire nations getting toppled overnight, some in the Corinthian church dying after abusing the Lord’s Supper—all because God spoke a word of judgment. Making compromises to accommodate the world’s idolatry and immorality invites severe judgment. Making friends with the world makes us enemies of Jesus.
What Jesus Promises
For those who repent, though—for those who listen to Jesus and take seriously his warning—look next at what he promises. Verse 17, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
These promises are more challenging to discern, especially the white stone. I’ll tell you what I can put together, though. Let’s start with the “hidden manna.” Exodus 16 is where we first learn about manna. Israel is in the wilderness. God nourishes his people with manna there. Manna wasn’t something the people produced or grew. It was a miraculous food that came with the morning dew. Bread from heaven.
Jesus is drawing from that story and promising an even greater type of nourishment, a nourishment that doesn’t just sustain us physically but spiritually. He calls it “hidden manna.” Meaning, you can’t see it with your eyes; it’s something stored up in heaven that must be given you by God. Here’s a clue, though, to understanding when it comes to us. In 12:6 and 14 you find a picture of the faithful community being nourished in the wilderness while under Satan’s attack. Revelation 12 depicts a greater exodus, with God nourishing his people through the wilderness, which is now.
The hidden manna is not merely a promise of future nourishment; it is the promise of present nourishment as you endure the wilderness. If you choose obedience over compromise, Jesus will nourish you with heavenly food. Every morning, he will meet you with his bread. You will be like that hungry Israelite, waiting for the dawn, and every day find God faithful to nourish you, to satisfy you until you feast in his kingdom.
The other promise is a white stone with a new name. I stopped reading after thirteen different interpretations. Some relate it to priesthood, since 14:1 depicts the church wearing the Lamb’s name on their foreheads. Others compare it to a stone used for admission to a feast—like your personal ticket to the Lamb’s wedding feast.
A far better possibility likens this to stones used in voting. The only other place this word appears in the New Testament is Acts 26:10. Paul describes the days when he persecuted the church, and he says, “I cast my vote against them”—literally, “I cast down a stone against them.” The idea being a black stone condemned a person; the white stone vindicated them. In this case, Jesus will see to it that we are personally vindicated for our faithfulness. All these have their own weaknesses…
Wherever you land, though, we can say this much with certainty. This stone is good—it’s Jesus’ reward. It’s personal—he will give it to you. It’s permanent—he engraves the name on stone. It marks a purified, triumphant people—like the white linens elsewhere in Revelation. It also sets you apart for the newness of God’s kingdom. Think “new heaven and new earth,” “New Jerusalem.” Jesus will also give you a new name. That could be Jesus’ own new name—3:12 says that he will write on us “the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem…and my own new name.” Isaiah 62:2 might also sit in the background: God promised his people a new name—“You shall no more be called Forsaken…but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her.”
What can we do to hold fast?
Are you imagining this—Jesus giving you a new name that says, “My delight is in you”? Sinners, unclean, wretched, deserving only forsakenness—yet now “My delight is in you.” What grace! I don’t understand everything about this white stone and the new name, but I know enough to want it badly. I also hunger for the hidden manna. So, how can we respond to make sure we overcome? What can we do to hold fast as faithful witnesses when lies abound in this wilderness? Preserve and proclaim.
First, preserve. Preserve the truth by not compromising Christianity with worldly ideas. Balaam put a stumbling block before Israel, and they made compromises that led to idolatry and immorality. How do Christians nowadays make compromises?
One example could be Christians accommodating worldly ideas on sexuality. Some like the Spiritual Friendship community teach against homosexual practice but don’t find homosexuality itself a “morally culpable issue.” Others like Revoice confess the historic Christian doctrine of marriage yet still use language like “gay Christian.”[ii] Rosaria Butterfield has it right: “their theology in no way allows for an understanding of why homosexuality, even at the level of desire, is sinful and needing the grace of repentance…We must maintain that we who repent and believe stand in robes of righteousness as beloved sons and daughters of God, even as we do daily battle with any and all sexual lust…We are not our sin, and we ought never to let it define us.”[iii]
Another example is what some have called the “social justice” movement. God commands Christians to do justice, to let the oppressed go free, to pour yourself out for the hungry, to plead the widow’s cause. We should stop abortion and human trafficking. We should upend racism and adopt the orphan. At the same time, some Christians pursue this from a starting place that undermines the gospel and leads to idolatry. They divide people into group identities instead of seeing our shared heritage in Adam. They dismiss truth and logic as constructs of the oppressive class instead of embraced as objective gifts imbedded in creation. Two members meetings ago, I passed out seven copies of Confronting Justice without Compromising Truth by Thaddeus Williams. Some of the bad ideas associated with the “social justice” movement are being repeated by Christian leaders. I commend his work to you. Stay alert.
Here’s another way Christians have compromised with worldly ideas. Some have called it Christian nationalism. Definitions of Christian nationalism vary. What I have in mind is the notion that “my country is God’s favorite, and we have a unique relationship with God.” It’s echoed in the words of a Christian leader who said, “America is the last hope of Christianity.”[iv] It’s reflected in a sermon by Robert Jeffress at FBC Dallas last summer with the title, “America Is a Christian Nation.” Its most extreme forms were seen last December in the so-called Jericho March. It even comes out when we walk around with “a chip on our shoulder looking for our rights.”[v]
It is true that, in God’s providence, America has been used in special ways. We also don’t want to embrace the revisionist histories that skew the truth and ignore the good things about this country. But if we’re not careful, our loyalty to this nation can eclipse our vision for Christ’s kingdom, which is not of this world and which also consists of a countless host from all languages, tribes, tongues, and peoples.
If we’re not careful, instead of bowing our knee to Jesus, we will bow our knee to the autonomous self-determination so championed by our country. If not careful, your rights will become an end in themselves, where you’re willing to subvert even legitimate authority when God’s word has commanded you to submit. If not careful, “freedom” will become just a disguise to do whatever you want, instead of that freedom having the higher goals of pursuing “the common good, and protecting the weak and innocent,”[vi] and reflecting God’s compassion and generosity in Christ.
Another compromise is when we mix Christianity with pragmatism. We come to think that winning is more important than obedience and integrity. We act like it’s okay to misrepresent our political and theological opponents because, “Hey, we’re on the right side.” It comes out in other ways too, like Christians pretending that “it doesn’t matter if the actual criminals get due process,” or “we don’t have to give justice to the bad guys, we just have to beat them.” That is not being a faithful witness.
Compromises like these are leading churches into false worship and immoral choices. Guard yourself from these compromises.
Also, preserve the truth by patiently equipping one another in the truth. Without knowing the truth, we have nothing to offer the world in our witness. Make it a point to know the truth and to help each other know the truth. Read your Bible regularly and pray for discernment. Come to the Equip classes Sunday morning. Read the historic creeds and confessions to understand what the church has confessed across the centuries.
If you spend much time on the internet and social media, recognize that, unless you take measures to work against it, Google and Facebook are only feeding you what you want to believe. You’re in a “filter bubble” that “distorts your perception of what’s important, true, and real,”[vii] that gives you a customized world that revolves around you and reinforced the ideas you would’ve held anyway. We need the Scriptures and other Christians outside our circles—and other Christians who’ve preceded us in history—to give us better perspective and discernment.
Hold each other accountable to the truth. When someone comes to you and says, “I don’t think you’re seeing this correctly,” humble yourself. Listen to their input. Then give yourself to rigorous study to correct your thinking. If you see someone compromising Christianity with worldly ideas, approach them about it. Understand that people make compromises for different reasons. Ask lots of questions to understand why the compromises are happening. Sometimes compromises occur in ignorance, and further discipleship is necessary. Sometimes they occur to satisfy sinful desires, and those desires need addressing. Sometimes it’s a result of fear: fear of losing friends over the Bible’s teaching, fear of not fitting in, fear of ridicule for believing Jesus is the only way. Sometimes it’s the result of sorrow and loss. People are in different places. Know them first, and then you’ll be better able to equip them.
So, preserve the truth. But we can’t stop there. Second, we must also proclaim the truth by being faithful witnesses like Antipas. Revelation holds up Antipas as an example. Imitate Antipas as he imitated Christ. What does your witness look like? At home? At work? With neighbors? Earlier we discussed living for Jesus’ name. Do you acknowledge Jesus’ authority? If so, do you publicly identify with Jesus in word, by confessing him before others, by sharing his grace and glory with people who do not know him. How does he come up in your conversations with others? How are you praying to share the gospel with others? What about representing him through obedience? Is it your habit to cave to the pressures of temptation? When circumstances require much sacrifice, do you run and hide from people? Or do you draw near in the path of love, taking up your cross like the Savior?
Those who suffer in the name of Christ (like Antipas)—they are examples to embolden us in our witness. When Paul wrote to the Philippian church from prison, he says, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Paul’s imprisonment gives the Christians back home confidence and more boldness to speak the word without fear. That’s what Antipas’s death should do for us.
That’s what faithful witnesses everywhere should do for us. When they stand fast under trial, God means for their lives to embolden our witness. Who are some people that you’d like to share with? Commit to praying for those people regularly. In what ways might you need more boldness to speak on Christ’s behalf? Commit to asking God for boldness each day. Also, remember that with each step of obedience in this wilderness, Jesus promises to nourish you with heavenly food. He promises to help you through the wilderness until you enter the New Jerusalem.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
[i] That squares with the Gospels presenting Satan’s influence over the nations in the temptation narrative. Or Acts 16:16-24 where you find the city’s commerce built on Satanic oppression. Or Paul handing someone over to Satan (i.e., outside the safe-keeping of the church into Satan’s realm).
[ii] From a quote taken from their website: “To support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”
[iii] Rosaria Butterfield, “What is Wrong with Gay Christianity?” (February 14, 2018), taken from https://rosariabutterfield.com/new-blog/2018/2/14/what-is-wrong-with-gay-christianity-what-is-side-a-and-side-b-anyway.
[iv] Taken from an interview with Michael Horton at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/christian-nationalism-heresy-or-hype/.
[v] Taken from a quote by a missionary writing to Elisabeth Elliot’s parents when they left America to Belgium in The Shaping of a Christian Home. The full quote is, “If it has not already been done, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic just dump overboard all the supposed superiority we Americans think we have over most other folks! Enter Belgium as a sinner-saved-by-grace, and not as an American! ... Don't be going around with a chip on your shoulder looking for your rights.”
[vi] Robert P. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press), 164.
[vii] Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble (New York: Penguin, 2011), 20.