Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill once said, “The world has lost the power to blush over its sin; the Church has lost her power to weep over it.”
Although Ravenhill meant this for the modern world and church, it is also an apt description of the city and church of Pergamum.
The Church in Pergamum (13-17)
About 70 miles north of Smyrna stood the magnificent city of Pergamum, one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire. The city boasted almost 180,000 inhabitants (about 3 times the size of Burlington, VT) and was known throughout the world for its architectural innovations, including the temple of Athena, the great altar to Zeus, and a library that held over 200, 000 volumes. By the first century A.D., Pergamum had become not only a key political center, but a major intellectual and religious center as well. A plethora of cultic philosophies and spiritualities existed there, but the religious landscape was dominated by the Roman Imperial Cult, which recognized the Greek gods but worshipped the emperor as a “god.” The emperor referred to himself as “savior.”
The city was littered with temples, altars, and shrines, which raised money through elaborate feasts, festivals, and sacred prostitution. If ever there was a pagan city, it was Pergamum. It participated in all sorts of perverse practices, and like Las Vegas and Amsterdam today, it competed against the Corinth for the title “Sin City” of the ancient world.
Satan’s Throne (13a)
This is why Jesus says, “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne.” He empathized with the church in Pergamum because he knew how difficult it was to be a Christian in such a sinful and anti-Christian city. Satan did not literally live there, but there was a pervasive satanic presence in the place. The image of a “throne” was appropriate amid all of the statues and altars in Pergamum, and it would have brought to mind the throne-like altar of Zeus or the temple of Asclepius, the serpent god of healing, which was symbolized by a snake.
Interestingly, the Altar of Zeus still exists today. A German archaeologist, Carl Humann, began excavating the Altar on Sept. 9, 1878 and shipped it out of the Ottoman Empire and reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Kaiser Wilhelm II celebrated its erection in Berlin in 1902. Adolph Hitler became dictator in 1934 and ordered construction of the Tribune at Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg for his Nazi rallies. He used the Altar of Zeus as the model for the Zeppelintribüne. The Führer’s pulpit was in the center of the tribune, and Hitler used it as Satan’s Throne to carry out his diabolical work in the twentieth century.
“Satan’s throne” is a reference to the ungodly political powers that persecuted God’s people in Pergamum. They tried to force the Christians to accept the pagan religions, make sacrifices and offerings to the gods, and declare that Caesar is Lord and Savior.
Faithfulness amidst Persecution (13b)
But the Christians in Pergamum would have nothing to do with this! Jesus commends the church for remaining true to his name and refusing to renounce its faith in him. They refused to confess anyone other than Jesus as Lord and Savior, even when they faced persecution to the point of death like in the days of Antipas.
The only thing we know for sure about this man named Antipas was that he was a faithful witness of Jesus Christ and that he was martyred in Pergamum sometime before John’s writing of the Book of Revelation. There is a church tradition that says Antipas was the Bishop of the church in Pergamum and had been ordained to that office by the Apostle John.
It is said that the pagan priests went to the Roman governor and complained that the prayers of Antipas were driving their spirits out of the city and hindering the worship of their gods. As punishment, the governor ordered Antipas to offer a sacrifice of wine and incense to a statue of the Roman emperor and declare that the emperor was “lord and god.”
Antipas refused. So, the Governor said, “If you reject the divinity of the emperor, then that is the equivalent of rejecting the city of Rome.” Antipas was sentenced to death on the Altar of Zeus.
At the top of the altar was a hollow bronze bull, designed for human sacrifice. They placed the victim inside the bull, and they would tie him in such a way that his head would go into the head of the bull. Then they would light a huge fire under the bull, and as the fire heated the bronze, the person inside of the bull would slowly begin to roast to death. As the victim would begin to moan and to cry out in pain, his cries would echo through the pipes in the head of the bull so it seemed to make the bull come alive. Even in the midst of the flames, the elderly bishop Antipas died praying for his church.
Antipas did not renounce the name of Christ and modeled faithful Christian witness for his congregation. They followed his lead and Jesus praised them for remaining true to his name!
Pergamum’s Compromise (14-15)
Even though Jesus praised the church at Pergamum for not renouncing his name, he still had a few things against them. Some of the church members had compromised their faith by engaging in practices that were not consistent with their faith. The compromise is explained through references to the compromising relationship Balaam had with Israel in the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament: King Balak of Moab could not conquer Israel with military force, so he hired the evil prophet Balaam to attack Israel spiritually by pronouncing curses. But when God only allowed Balaam to utter blessings, he advised Balak to attack the Israelites by seducing them into idolatry and sexual immorality. The Moabites overcame God’s people by leading them into compromising sin.
This is exactly what was happening to some of the members of the church in Pergamum. The cult of Balaam and a group called the Nicolaitans were enticing the Christians to compromise their faith by participating in the pagan practices of eating meat sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality. Even through God’s Word clearly prohibited these practices, Satan used these groups to compel the believers to compromise their godly convictions. The cults would say ungodly things like, “It’s not really that bad! Everybody else is doing it! It’s not hurting anybody! If you can’t beat them, join them!” And because some of the Christians feared being marginalized or ostracized, they decided to conform to the culture of Pergamum rather than the character of Christ.
Pergamum’s Warning (12b, 16)
Since this church had compromised so severely, Jesus introduces himself to the church by reminding them that he is the one who has the sharp double-edged sword coming out of his mouth, an image of his sovereign justice and judgment. After he points out there sin in verses 14-15, he challenges them to repent from their sins of idolatry and sexual immorality and he warns them that unless they change their ethical positions and spiritual practices, he will fight against them with divine judgment and justice.
Pergamum’s Reward (17)
But to those who hear Jesus’ words, repent from their sin, turn away from their compromising tendencies, and remain faithful to Jesus until the end, he will bless them with the reward of eternal life. He uses the symbols of hidden manna and a white stone to represent eternal life. Jesus is saying that if you refuse the idolatrous meat sacrificed to idols, I will sustain you with what comes from heaven. White stones were associated with votes of acquittal in ancient courts. Conversely, black stones were given for guilty verdicts. Jesus is saying that those who remain faithful to him until the end will receive a vote of acquittal from their sins, a new name (which means a new identity), and gain entrance into the eternal community of the redeemed.
The Church in America
In many ways, the American church is like the church in Pergamum. We are trying to live the Christian life and remain faithful to Jesus Christ in the midst of a pagan culture. There are numerous pressures to adopt the values of society and be conformed to the image of this world. As a nation, we don’t bow before statues of Zeus and Athena, but we do erect altars of arrogance, podiums of pleasure, and shrines of selfishness. American culture worships the gods of power, money, materialism, success, celebrities, and entertainment! It is difficult to be a faithful Christian when we dwell in the shadow of Satan’s throne—in a culture of opposing beliefs and values.
I believe that Satan is using the same strategy with the American church today as he did with the church in Pergamum two-thousand years ago. He doesn’t openly attack the church through external persecution; he attacks it subtly by tries to get us to compromise our biblical values and to conform to the culture around us.
The world’s values and God’s values are very different. The world’s business ethic says, “Do what you have to do to get ahead!” God’s business ethic says, “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” The world tells our young people, “Have sex when you are ready.” God says, “You are not ready to have sex until you are married!” The world says, “Get what you can while you can get it.” God says, “It is more blessed to give than receive.” The world says, “It’s your life, live it how you want to.” God says, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price.”
The church faces incredible pressure to conform to American culture. In some ways, of us are guilty of compromise. Some of us have adopted the culture’s views of society, business, and sexuality. Others have embraced the culture’s political and social positions. Some just “go with the flow” of everyone else at work or school because we are afraid of being marginalized or ostracized. How have you compromised?
Like the church in Pergamum, Jesus offers us the opportunity to repent from the areas where we have compromised. And if we remain faithful to his Word, his ethics, his positions, his practices, and his life, we too will be rewarded with hidden manna, a white stone, and a new name!