To the Angel at Pergamum, Part 1

Our church is in a series on the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2–3) for the Lenten season. I was privileged to write an article for a resource that complimented the series. I was assigned the church at Pergamum. What follows is part one of a three part series.

“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 “ ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it’” (Revelation 2:12–17 ESV).

In John’s glorious vision of the resurrected Jesus, he hears the messages given by Jesus himself to seven communities of his followers. To the third of the seven churches – Pergamum – in the book of Revelation, Jesus speaks.

“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write…” (v. 12, TNIV)

The ancient city of Pergamum in the distance. Modern city of Bergama can be seen in lower right.

Pergamum lies 15 miles east of the Aegean Sea. Only about 70 miles from Smyrna, the church Jesus addressed in the previous verses. Pergamum enjoys a fascinating history. However, it is a history long mired in paganism. Dionysius, the god of vegetation had an alter there. Asclepius Soter (“savior”), the god of healing had a large, official center in the city. The Greek goddess Athena had an alter as well as a library. But perhaps the principal alter in terms of size was the alter to Zeus. This structure dominated the skyline of ancient Pergamum, standing on the cliff above the city. The massive throne-like edifice was one of the most famous altars in the ancient world. It was built to celebrate the deliverance of the citizens of Pergamum from their enemies centuries earlier, a deliverance credited to “Zeus the Savior.” It is difficult to imagine how sacrilegious it was to the followers of Jesus in that city to see the outright idolatry on nearly every corner.

However, the pinnacle of this profusion of paganism was the worship of the Emperor of Rome. Also known as the imperial cult, Emperor worship was precisely that: the worship of Rome and of Caesar as its God incarnate. It was the city of Pergamum that was awarded the first temple to the worship of Caesar a little over a hundred years earlier. If Ephesus was the financial center of Asia Minor, Pergamum was certainly the religious capital.

An altar dedicated to Zeus at Pergamum. Looking to the East, with the modern city of Bergama in the background.

Perhaps it is the massive alter to Zeus or to the pervasive Emperor worship that the resurrected Christ is referring to when he says to the church at Pergamum, “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne” (Rev 2:13). This is the Devil’s turf.

Imagine the extreme difficulty of having to remain loyal to Jesus in a culture so thoroughly antagonistic to your beliefs. It is not always easy to remain faithful to Christ even in our culture today. But a place like west Michigan would hardly deserve the descriptor, “where Satan lives.” Nevertheless the struggle of faithfulness remains. It stretches the mind to think of living out the way of Jesus in a place portrayed as where “Satan lives,” and where “Satan has this throne.” But that is precisely what the believer’s in Pergamum were forced to deal with on a daily basis while living in Satan’s hometown.

“Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me…” (v. 13, TNIV)

It was in the face of this massive Satanic confrontation between the exalted Christ and his imperial imposters, between the true Savior and false-deliverers and healers that the believers of Pergamum’s faithfulness stands in stark relief. Indeed, in light of such fierce opposition, Jesus’ commendation is high praise for any of his faithful followers: “Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives” (Rev 2:13).

For Jesus, and John as well, the association between his “name” and believing and trusting in him is strong. Your name in the ancient world was more than what people called you. A name signified your fundamental nature, your basic distinguishing traits. The name, Jesus, means “Yahweh saves,” which is characteristic of him indeed. The recorder of this vision in Revelation, John, began his gospel by emphasizing belief in Jesus’ name: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 ESV). He also ended his gospel in similar fashion: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31 TNIV). Even Jesus offers a warning for those who do not believe in his name, referring to himself saying, “Whoever believes in him [e.g. God’s Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18 TNIV). John would later encourage his flock with these words: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 NIV).

The first commendation given the believer’s at Pergamum by Jesus himself is that they “held fast” to his name. It is the name Jesus – and no other! – by which people can be saved (cf. Acts 4:12). It is a name worth clinging to even unto death, which apparently was a real possibility to the faithful in the city. All we know of Antipas is that he most likely was put to death for failing to offer sacrifices to the Caesar due to his loyalty Christ. For which Jesus refers to him as “my faithful witness.” For the believer’s at Pergamum, it is not the name Zeus, nor Athena, nor Asclepius, nor Dionysius, nor Roma – not even the name, Caesar – in whom they trusted for their salvation. It was only the name, Jesus. What better word of approval could a group of Jesus’ followers receive than, “you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me” (Rev 2:13 TNIV)?

[Part two tomorrow.]

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