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The Letter to the Church at Pergamum (2:12-17)

If the Ephesian church was guilty of elevating truth above love, the church at Pergamum had elevated love above truth. Their commitment to love and tolerance had apparently degenerated into a weak sentimentality that threatened the theological purity of the church.


Pergamum, with a population of @ 190,000, was about 65 miles due north of Smyrna and exceeded its southern neighbor in love for and loyalty to the emperor. Pergamum was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia and retained this honor well into the 2nd century. But it was not primarily for either political or economic achievements that Pergamum was famous, but for religion. Pergamum was the center of worship for at least four of the most important pagan cults of the day:


(1) Zeus – Upon entering the city one could not help but notice the gigantic altar of Zeus erected on a hugh platform some 800 ft. above the city, looking down on its inhabitants lie a great vulture hovering over its prey. Many have sought to identify “Satan’s seat” or “throne” (v. 13) with this altar. Amazingly, a reconstructed form of this altar is on display in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin!


(2) Athene  

(3) Dionysus

(4) Asclepios (or Aesculapius) – This was the most distinctive and celebrated cult of all. Often referred to as “Savior” (soter) in Greek mythology, he was the son of Apollo and was thought to have been the very first physician. The symbol of Asclepios was the serpent, which has led some to identify the “throne of Satan” with the shrine erected to his worship.


You might also recall that the symbol adopted by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare is the staff of Asclepios . . . with a serpent coiled around it.  

But above and beyond the worship directed at these pagan deities was the fact that Pergamum was the acknowledged center in Asia Minor for the imperial cult of Caesar. In 29 b.c. this city received permission to build and dedicate a temple to Augustus, three years before Smyrna was granted a similar privilege. Perhaps more than any of the other six cities, the people of Pergamum were devoted to the worship of “Caesar.” It comes as little surprise, then, that Jesus should begin his letter with the reassuring words: “I know where you dwell” (v. 13a). We have already seen that the Lord “knows” the churches, for he walks among them. In this letter, however, “He makes it clear that His intimate knowledge extends not only to the works His people do (as in Ephesus) and to the tribulation they endure (as in Smyrna) but to the environment in which they live. ‘I know where you dwell,’ He says. He is not ignorant of the fact that the Christian Church is set in the non-Christian world, and that it feels on all sides the continuous pressure of heathen influence” (Stott, 51-52).


He was fully aware that Pergamum, of all the cities in Asia Minor, would be most severely threatened by pagan influence. Thus the place “where Satan’s throne is” (v. 13) most likely refers to the primary role of Pergamum as the center of the imperial cult, and as such the center of Satan’s kingdom in the east. We call Chicago the “windy city” and Las Vegas “sin city”. Pergamum may rightly be called “Satan’s city”!


The fact that “throne” has the definite article (“the”) “suggests that the author is alluding to a specific throne (either literally or figuratively), which he expects the readers to recognize” (Aune, 1:182). Aune goes on to list 8 possibilities. In Rev. 13:2 it “says that Satan gave the ‘beast’ ‘his throne and great authority’ (cf. 16:10); thus Satan works through the ungodly, earthly political power in Pergamum to persecute God’s people” (Beale, 246). The most prominent feature of the ancient city was the acropolis, a heavily fortified fortress that rose nearly 1,300 ft. above the plain. Some have argued that it actually looks like a great throne when seen by a traveler approaching from Smyrna. But, as Hemer points out, this is “only a picturesque association which might appeal to a modern visitor without necessarily relating to an ancient reality” (85).


Vv. 12-13


As with all the churches except Sardis and Laodicea, the Lord begins with a word of commendation. It is important to note that Jesus is profoundly concerned with the preservation and propagation of truth. That is, in fact, the principal theme of this letter. He says, “you hold fast (cf. the use of this verb in Heb. 4:14; 10:23) My name (probably a reference to public witness for Christ), and did not deny My faith” (v. 13). The latter phrase is literally, “the faith of me”, and should probably be rendered “faith in me.” Simply put, these people were deeply devoted to Jesus.


But he quickly adds a word of complaint that whereas they maintained their own theological convictions they had come to tolerate in their fellowship some false prophets. Clearly Jesus desires not merely that we love him and suffer for him but that we believe in him and hold the truth about him with relentless conviction. Note well: that central truth to which we must devote ourselves is the revelation of Christ’s “name”, i.e., his character, his person, his work. On that there can be no compromise, not even in the name of love. Says Stott:


“These fundamental truths cannot be compromised. The New Testament apostles make this abundantly clear. We cannot have Christian fellowship with those who deny the divinity of Christ’s person or the satisfactorinesss [sufficiency] of His work on the cross for our salvation. These are defence positions we cannot yield. There is no room for negotiation or appeasement here. To deny that Jesus of Nazareth was both human and divine, ‘the Christ come in the flesh’ is antichrist, wrote John, while to preach any other gospel than the gospel of Christ’s saving grace is to deserve Paul’s anathema” (56).


The Pergamum Christians had stood firm on this confession, to the extent that one of their number had been put to death, a certain Antipas. Antipas is the only “martyr” recorded in the seven letters. The Greek term martus, is here (v. 13) translated “witness,” and refers to someone who bears verbal and visual testimony to the person and work of Jesus. Aune chronicles a five-stage process by which martus was transformed from “witness” to “witness through death,” i.e., “martyr.”


“(1) First, it has the original forensic sense of witness in a court of law; (2) then, it is applied to someone who testified in faith in court and is killed as a consequence; (3) death comes to be regarded as part of the witness; (4) martus comes to mean ‘martyr’; (5) the notion of ‘witness’ disappears and the terms . . . are used to refer to martyrdom” (1:185).


Although they had not themselves denied the faith, they had become overly tolerant of falsehood in the assembly and had endured the presence and teaching of error. For this, Jesus severely rebukes them.


The reference at the end of v. 13 to Pergamum as the place “where Satan dwells” may simply be synonymous with “Satan’s throne” in v. 13a. On the other hand, it may also mean that evil was present in Pergamum in a particularly powerful and intense way. Could it be that Satan had in some sense made Pergamum the focus of his earthly base of operation? Could it be that this statement lends support to the concept of “territoriality” among the demonic hosts?


Vv. 14-15


We read of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. Balak, King of Moab, had solicited Balaam to curse the children of Israel who were preparing to cross over into the promised land. But God intervened. Every time Balaam spoke, words of blessing came forth. Moved by greed for the reward Balak offered him, Balaam advised Balak that Moabite women should seduce the men of Israel by inviting them to partake in their idolatrous feasts (which invariably led to sexual immorality). Balaam knew that this would provoke the judgment of God against his people (which is precisely what happened).


What Balaam was to the children of Israel in the OT, the Nicolaitans were to the church of Jesus Christ in the NT. Balaam is a prototype of those who promote compromise with the world in idolatry and immorality (see also Jude 11 and 2 Peter 2:15). The Nicolaitans had dared to insinuate that freedom in Christ meant license to sin. The fault of the Pergamenes was not so much that they had followed this pernicious teaching but that they had allowed it be vocalized in the congregation. This matter of indifference to the licentiousness of the Nicolaitans was of grave concern to the risen Lord.


What is the precise nature of their sin? “To eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit immorality” (v. 14). The former probably refers to eating food sacrificed to idols in the context of idolatrous worship. “In the OT, the idolatry of Israel is frequently condemned through the use of the metaphor of prostitution and sexual immorality (Jer. 3:2; 13:27; Ezek. 16:15-58; 23:1-49; 43:7; Hos. 5:4; 6:10)” (Aune, 1:188). In Revelation, to “fornicate” (porneuo) and its cognates usually are metaphorical for spiritual apostasy and idol worship (14:8; 17:1,2,4,5,15,16; 18:3,9; 19:2). When these words are used literally, they are part of vice lists (9:21; 21:8; 22:15).


That the Nicolaitans was simply another name for the Balaam sect is evident from v. 15 – “in the same manner (houtos)” you have some holding the teaching of the Nicolaitans “in the same way” (homoios). The “you also” probably refers to the presence of this influence in Ephesus previously mentioned in 2:6.


V. 16


If the Pergamenes do not repent (one element of which was the expulsion of such antinomians from the church), disciplinary judgment is quickly forthcoming. But it isn’t the Pergamenes only who will feel Christ’s displeasure. The Nicolaitans will suffer the wrath of a divine warrior (the “sword” of v. 16 picks up the “sword” of v. 12).


V. 17


To the overcomer, i.e., those who repent and neither participate with nor permit the activities of the Nicolaitans, there is three-fold reward.


hidden manna – John’s thought is no doubt drawn to the manna because of the allusion to Balaam, in whose time Israel was being fed with manna from heaven (according to Jewish tradition, precious stones fell along with the manna). Hebrew tradition records that a pot of manna was preserved in the ark of the covenant (Ex. 16:32-34; Heb. 9:4). According to 2 Maccabees 2.4-7, when the temple was destroyed in 586 b.c., either Jeremiah or an angel supposedly rescued the ark, together with the manna, both of which would be preserved underground on Mt. Sinai until the messianic age, when the manna would again become the food for God’s people. When the Messiah would come, Jeremiah would reappear and deposit both ark and manna in the new temple in Jerusalem.


But the manna, most assuredly, is Jesus himself (John 6:31-35,48-51). The manna here promised to God’s people is a heavenly reward, an eternal feasting, if you will, on all that God is for us in Jesus. But what is the significance of the adjective “hidden”? (1) It could mean that this manna is “reserved” or “kept” only for those who enter into the age to come. (2) It may be described as “hidden” because it was placed in a jar in the ark.


a white stone – There are at least a dozen interpretations of the meaning of the white stone. For example, white stones signified, as opposed to black ones, acquittal by a jury. In pagan religions people would carry an amulet or stone with the name of their deity inscribed upon it. It supposedly was used as a source of magical power. If this is the background to John’s reference, “the written name will be that of God or of Christ, as in Rev. 3.12 (cf. 14.1; 19.12). The point is then an allusion to ancient ideas of the power of divine names. To know the name of a deity was to possess a claim upon his help: here the power of Christ to save and protect is exalted over that of his pagan rivals” (Hemer, 99). They were also used as tokens of membership or tickets for admission to public festivals. It may be that the white stone is a symbol for the believer’s admission to the messianic feast of Rev. 19. “The white color of the stone portrays the righteousness of the saints in not compromising and ‘soiling’ themselves (cf. 3:4), for which they are acquitted” (Beale, 253).


a new name – The primary question here is whether this new name given to the overcomer is Christ’s or the individual’s. Beale believes that the “name” in 2:17 is a reference to the “name of my God, the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God, and my [Christ’s] new name” in 3:12. These are not separate names but “all refer to the intimate eschatological presence of God and Christ with his people” (253), as expressed most clearly by 22:3-4.


I’m inclined to think that the “new name” in 2:17 is one given to each individual believer and that it “symbolizes the individual’s entry into a new life, status or personality. . . . The thought may then be compared with that of 2 Cor. 5.17” (Hemer, 103-04). In other words, because those who are in Christ are now “new creations” it is only fitting that they should each receive a “new name” suitable to their position in and relationship with Jesus. The fact that “no one knows” this name except for the individual “who receives it” points to the intimate, private nature of one’s life in God. There is something in my relationship with God, as well as something in yours, that is reserved for the secret depths of our individual souls.


We must also take note that the “new name” of 2:17 is an allusion to the prophecy in Isa. 62:2 (“And the nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your  glory; and you will be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord will designate”) and 65:15 (“but My servants will be called by another name”) about Israel’s future kingly status and restoration to Yahweh, here now applied to individuals within the church.