This week, we arrive at the third church of Pergamum. We can read Christ’s letter to this church in Revelation 2:12-17. Jesus’ first words are abrupt and startling: “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is” (Rev. 2:13). Satan’s throne!? What does that mean? Interestingly enough, the city of Pergamum was one of the most concentrated centers of idolatry and pagan religion in the ancient Roman world. The city housed temples for Dionysus and Zeus, as well as the very first temple dedicated to the cult of Roman emperor worship. Sources even suggest that Pergamum can be identified as the seat of Babylonian sun worship. No wonder Jesus refers to Pergamum as the city where Satan’s throne is! The fact that the church has maintained its identity amidst its evil surroundings is something that Jesus affirms them for. However, Jesus’ next words ought to make us sit up straight and pay attention: “But I have a few things against you…”
Here, we find a radical shift in the spiritual condition of Pergamum as compared to the previous two churches. The days of persecution are a thing of the past for the church of Pergamum. Now, the church finds itself safe and comfortable – too comfortable… Compromise has begun to creep in. The Nicolaitans were not tolerated in the first church of Ephesus, but here in Pergamum they spread their heresy within church walls! On top of that, Jesus rebukes the church for allowing the “doctrine of Balaam” to infiltrate the congregation. We, of course, all know the story of Balaam and the donkey and his attempt to curse the children of Israel for a bribe. When that plot wasn’t successful, Balaam had a new idea. “Instead of cursing the children of Israel from the outside, why don’t we get them to compromise and disobey God’s commandments on the inside? That way, they’ll simply bring the curse upon themselves!” Balaam’s new strategy was tragically successful. His tactics were to get the Israelites to compromise in the areas of idolatry and sexual immorality. Ironically, these were the same sins that the Nicolaitans were known for. The ancient doctrine of Balaam and the new teachings of the Nicolaitans were simply two sides of the same coin.
At this point, we may find ourselves sighing with relief. At least we don’t have to worry about those pesky Balaamites and Nicolaitans today! Good thing we don’t have to worry about eating foods sacrificed to idols anymore… But, let’s not jump ahead so fast. The heresy of the Balaamites/Nicolaitans was much more sophisticated than it sounds. We have to remember the cultural setting of the day. The temples were not only the religious centers of the community, but the social centers as well. The pagan temples hosted important social events and community gatherings. If you wanted to “fit in,” you had to attend these temple feasts where meat was publicly sacrificed to the gods and then consumed as a part of the worship ritual. And then, as the night would wear on… with temple male and female prostitutes at every turn, the temptation to compromise sexually was virtually inevitable. This kind of compromise was exactly what Paul warned against in 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 and 10:14-33. Paul was deeply concerned that “stronger” Christians were attending these kinds of events and partaking of these meat sacrifices because they felt “free in Christ” to do anything they wanted. But through their participation, they were actually compromising their own spiritual integrity and causing newer, “weaker” Christians to stumble. This so-called “freedom” to “do whatever you want” because it “seems all right” and “feels okay” was the real heresy of Balaamites and Nicolaitans.
You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is good for you. You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is beneficial. Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, NLT)
As I turn this around on myself and attempt to apply these lessons to my own life, I have no other choice but to confront myself with the difficult questions: Is there anything in my life that might be a stumbling block for others? Perhaps in some of my social interactions? Maybe some of my entertainment choices? I don’t want to make the same mistake that Pergamum did, and I don’t believe you do either.
In closing, I would like to offer these questions for personal reflection:
- How does Christ identify Himself to the church of Pergamum in verse 12? How is that identifying characteristic significant in light of the issue which Pergamum is struggling with?
- Why is it sometimes easier to hold on to “socially acceptable” sins in our lives? What is Jesus’ solution for this problem?
- What do you think the significance is to the hidden manna and white stone which Christ promises to those who overcome? Why do you think we will be given a new name?