And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: This is what the One who has the sharp two-edged sword says: “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
But I have a few things against you, that you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. But if not, I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war 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, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.” (Revelation 2:12-17)
This is a powerful letter, and there is much to say. Let me start with a little background.
Because of its massive library, Pergamum was an important center for culture and learning. In fact, the physician Galen, second only in prominence to Hippocrates, was born in and studied in Pergamum. The city saw itself as a defender of Greek culture in Asia Minor.
There was a massive altar to Zeus there, commemorating the victory of the Pergameans over the invading barbarian Gauls. It was an important center of worship. There were a number of deities there of the Greek-Roman world. There were temples dedicated to Athena, Asclepius, Dionysus, and Zeus. But overshadowing all of those was a massive edifice devoted to the cult of emperor worship. Pergamum apparently built the first temple devoted to emperor worship in Asia in 29 B.C. in honor of Emperor Augustus. It was quite a place.
Christians there were in grave danger. The city was full of idolatry, full of immorality, and the Christians were targeted because one day a year, every year, the people were required to offer a sacrifice to the emperor; and if they didn’t, they would die. If Christians said, “Jesus is Lord. I will offer no sacrifice to Caesar,” it may have cost their life. It is likely that Antipas, in verse 13, was martyred for refusing to worship the emperor.
This is a vile, idolatrous, pagan, gross, immoral place, but highly educated and satisfied with itself. For believers, pulling yourself up and out of all of that was a very dramatic thing. They were living in this massive force of paganism and constantly struggling against the allurements of very familiar sins.
This is a letter of judgment on a worldly church — a church that would not separate itself from that culture from which it had been redeemed.
But first, there is commendation:
I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
Now, we all know that Satan is the archenemy of the church. He relentlessly assaults the church with hypocrites, false teachers, temptation, and even persecution. This church, this small body of believers, is literally fighting the lion in his own den. They’re waging war at Satan’s headquarters.
In spite of all of the Satanic power and influence, the church receives a wonderful commendation: “You hold fast My name.” They clung to the Lord Jesus Christ. They never wavered.
That’s not subjective, that’s objective. They were faithful to Christ and to sound doctrine. They were Christ-lovers, and they were truth-lovers. In fact, they were faithful to Christ and faithful to sound doctrine, the gospel, “even in the days of Antipas.” Those must have been days when Christians were being killed, including Antipas.
Domitian’s reign of terror ran from about 81 to 96, right through this time period. Tradition says that Antipas was roasted to death inside a brass bull. Even then, the church at Pergamum stayed true to Christ.
This is a marvelous commendation. I mean, this is a tough place to live. You think it’s tough in America? We don’t know anything of what they were going through.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 2015, titled “The Lord’s Word to His Church: Pergamum.” In addition to serving as the pastor of Grace Community Church and the voice of Grace to You, Dr. MacArthur is the chancellor of The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif. You can learn more about TMU at masters.edu.
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