Revelation – Week 4: The letter to the church in Pergamum

The letter to the church in Pergamum – Revelation 2:12-17

Historical context

Pergamos (Πέργαμος) – pronounced per’-gam-os – means “fortified” from purgos (πύργος) – pronounced poor’-gos – and is a primary word (“burgh”); a tower or castle.

The city was named Pergamum because of its position overlooking the Caicus Valley. Modern Bergama is situated in the valley below. Its ties to Rome goes back centuries from the time that Revelation was written. In 133BC the city was bequeathed to Rome by the city’s King.

This was one of the more important cities in the Roman province Asia. While Ephesus and Smyrna gained their importance from trade, Pergamum was a religious (and for a time the political) capital of the province. It was dominated by a hill that looked over the valley below and had many temples. Probably most important was the temple dedicated to the god Zeus. According to the historian Tacitus, Augustus in 29BC allowed a temple to be built in the city to Augustus and the goddess Roma. This temple has not been discovered. However, what was discovered is a temple to the emperor Trajan (emperor from 98AD to his death in 117AD).

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“View of ancient Pergamon”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:View_of_ancient_Pergamon.jpg#/media/File:View_of_ancient_Pergamon.jpg

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“Pergamon – 01” by Carlos Delgado. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pergamon_-_01.jpg#/media/File:Pergamon_-_01.jpg

Other important sights at the area include a theatre, a library (only second to the library at Alexandria and given to Cleopatra as a wedding gift by Mark Antony), shrines for the worship of Kings of the city, the gods Dionysus and Athena, the sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of healing, a Roman baths complex and a gym complex consisting of several levels.

Antipas is the only martyr that is named in Revelation. However, we have no further information on who exactly this was.

As mentioned before, we do not know anything of the Nicolaitans, but there is early speculation that these could have been followers of Nicolaus, one of the seven deacons appointed in Acts 6 (but unlikely that a convert to the Jewish faith would support the teaching referred to here).

The name Nicolaus means “conqueror of the people” whereas Balaam means “devourer of the people” giving a clear indication that this might be a play with names.

Either way the reference in this letter gives us a scarce clue of the teachings of the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:14b You tolerate some among you whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. 15 In a similar way, you have some Nicolaitans among you who follow the same teaching).

The story of Balaam is found in Numbers 22-24. However, there is nothing in this story to implicate Balaam in the apostasy of Israel in Numbers 25:1 – While the Israelites were camped at Acacia Grove, some of the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women. 2 These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. 3 In this way, Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the Lord’s anger to blaze against his people.

Public worship of deities was a usual practice in the Roman era. One example would be of guilds that were formed for professions. Each guild had a deity that protected it (similar to patron saints in the later Roman era: compare Martin Luther praying to St Anne, patron saint of mining to protect him in the storm when he returned home from University). Membership of the guild guaranteed one’s livelihood and provided financial security. Failure to participate in the worship of the patron deity would result in removal from the guild and thus cause financial hardship (CBC).

There are many possibilities regarding the meaning of the white stone. One of the possibilities is that it could refer to the ballot Roman citizens used during meetings. The reference will therefore implicate that the faithful are citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom with the mysterious new name possibly referring to a new person (who was reborn) (CBC).

Other meanings include two people wanting to seal a friendship broke a stone and each kept a half; on trial the accused received a black stone if guilty and a white stone if innocent; a stone was used as an “admission ticket” to a feast; and victors at the games received a stone as reward. The interpretation of the name depends on the name – if that of the Christian, it could denote admission or victory; if that of Christ it could denote a new relationship with God that is very personal (NBC).

The sword is direct reference to judgment.

Literary context

This is the third letter to the seven churches. The outline of the letter is similar to the other letters: Addressee, identification of the author, “I know” statement, encouragement (or exhortation or criticism), promise/consequence, and “anyone with ears” statement leading to a promise. This letter has an additional promise of the white stone.

Analysis

  • The reference to Jesus as the one with the sharp two-edged sword refers to His capacity or office of judge.
  • Despite living in a city where the practices of this world (as opposed to the heavenly realm) are prevalent, most members of the church remained faithful – even to the point of death.
  • Despite most members standing firm against temptation, they tolerated (and clearly allowed in their midst) those who actively taught that it was good to eat meat offered to idols and to commit sexual sin. There might be a play on words or an incorrect translation of the word πορνεύω (porneuo, pronounced porn-yoo’-o) that could also mean apostasy (similar to the Hebrew word used for adultery – the link should be obvious). However, the traditional translation of fornication or sexual sin may well be in view here as an ageless issue. Sexual promiscuity also played a part on deity worship – especially with fertility cults.
  • A deeper analysis of the text in verse 16 reveals something interesting: There is a call for repentance, but it is not clear who is asked to repent. Is the call addressed to those who are tolerant or to the Nicolaitans? The context from verse 14 seems to indicate that the call is addressed to those who tolerate, but the judgment seems to be addressed to the Nicolaitan leaders and their followers. This verse reminds one of our responsibility to correct those who are deceived.

See James 5:19 My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, 20 you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.

Also Ezekiel 3:16 After seven days the Lord gave me a message. He said, 17 “Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately. 18 If I warn the wicked, saying, ‘You are under the penalty of death,’ but you fail to deliver the warning, they will die in their sins. And I will hold you responsible for their deaths. 19 If you warn them and they refuse to repent and keep on sinning, they will die in their sins. But you will have saved yourself because you obeyed me.

  • The first promise to the victorious (i.e. those who persevere and remain faithful to the end) is manna hidden [in heaven –not in the Greek text]. This is a clear reference to provision (refer background information regarding the guilds), but in addition that that there was also an expectation among the Jews that with the coming of the Messiah, the manna hidden in heaven would be eaten at a messianic banquet.
  • The second promise is then most likely an invitation – to the reborn person – to attend the banquet. Of course, any of the meanings listed in the background information fits well with the text and it is therefore probable that multiple meanings were intended.

Reflection

The key point revolves around syncretism and toleration of pagan practices within the Christian community. There seems to be a strong indication that those who remain faithful have a responsibility towards those who are deceived by the teachings of the Nicolaitans.

Application

One can think of many applications in modern society.

  • Christians are expected to compromise in various areas in the name of toleration. Revealing clothing, tattoos, homosexuality, premarital (or extra marital) sex, choice of popular music (refer to some of the lyrics) are only a few examples;
  • There is also a direct application to business practices – such as “in order to gain work/promotion, you must …. [fill in the blank, there are many possibilities];
  • Within the Christian community there can also be diversity despite clear Biblical teaching to the contrary. The word of faith and prosperity movements come to mind immediately, but there are other popular “movements” that are similar. The distinguishing mark is in that most of these movements God is the servant and we sit on the throne – almost like the genie in Aladdin’ lamp.

It is also interesting to note the contrast between this church and that of the Ephesians. While the Nicolaitans were present in both churches, the Ephesians remained steadfast in their doctrine at the expense of love for each other. The church in Pergamum tolerated – maybe because they saw it as love, but as pointed out above in the reflection, real love is when you do not tolerate but speak truth.

Do Not Judge Others

Matthew 7:1Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. 2 For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. POINT 1: JESUS IS THE JUDGE

3 “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? 4 How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? 5 Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. POINT 4: WHEN YOU DO THIS BE HUMBLE, DO INTROSPECTION, AND BE DIRECT.

DO YOU LOVE ENOUGH TO TAKE THE RISK TO LOSE A FRIEND, BUT GAIN A BROTHER?

DO YOU TRUST ENOUGH TO ACCEPT CORRECTION?

The Narrow Gate

13 “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. 14 But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.

The Tree and Its Fruit

15 “Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. 16 You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? 17 A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. POINT 3: OBSERVE BAHAVIOUR

True Disciples

21 “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. 22 On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ 23 But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ POINT 2: THIS IS IMPORTANT – ETERNAL CONSEQUENCES

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