A Missional Reading of the Letter to the Church at Pergamum

In the letter to the church at Pergamum, several missionally related themes are repeated. As in the letter to the Smyrnan church, the theme of spiritual warfare is present – the church will be harassed by satanic forces as it strives to be faithful to its mission. Also, the importance of protecting the deposit of sound doctrine is stressed here as it was in the letter to the Ephesian church. If the church is to maintain its witness it must maintain its doctrinal purity, for doctrine is essential to its witness – Christianity is not a content-less faith.
However, a new principle emerges related to the missional nature of the church. In addition to waging a spiritual warfare and guarding her doctrine closely, the church must watch its manner of living too. The church must not allow itself to succumb to the immorality of its surrounding culture or yield to the licentiousness being promoted by certain false teachers.
Pergamum lies approximately seventy miles north of Smyrna atop a hill rising 900 feet above the plain below, giving the city an “imposing and dominating aspect.” Ramsay describes the city, “Other cities of the land have splendid hills which made them into powerful fortresses in ancient time; but in them the hill is as a rule the acropolis, and the city lies beneath and around or before it. But here the hill was the city proper…” The city of Pergamum was home to a famous library, a gymnasia, a theater capable of seating ten thousand, and numerous important temples.
Among the most important temples were those belonging to the imperial cult. Pergamum had long been allied with Rome and was honored with the first temple in Asia dedicated to Augustus. Later (after the time of John’s writing), Hadrian would build a temple to Trajan, and still later, a third imperial temple to Hadrian would be added, making Pergamum δὶς νεωκόρος, or “thrice temple-wardens”. The city also included important temples to Demeter, Athena, and Asklepios which became a leading healing center. Also of significance, Pergamum was home to the famed Altar of Zeus. Yamauchi gives detail, “The structure is a monumental colonnaded court in the form of a horseshoe, 120 feet by 112 feet. The podium of the altar was nearly 18 feet high. The great frieze, which ran at the base of the structure for 446 feet, depicted a gigantomachy, that is, a battle of the gods and the giants. It was one of the greatest works of Hellenistic art.”
Jesus’ self-identification to the church at Pergamum, “him who has the sharp two-edged sword,” is meant to remind this church that the ultimate power of judgment is in the hands, or mouth, of Christ. It is his verdict that truly counts, not that of the Roman proconsul who merely wields only the power of the state, not the ultimate power of eternal life and death.
Jesus assures the church that he knows their situation full well; he knows they live “where Satan’s throne is.” “Satan’s throne” has been taken by some as a reference to the Altar of Zeus or to Temple of Asklepios, by others as a reference to the city as a the center of Roman power in region, and by still others as an allusion to the general appearance of the city. Osborne considers all of those options as possible, but contends that the best option is the imperial cult, for “It was emperor worship that most directly occasioned the persecutions under Domitian and Trajan, and Pergamum was the center of the imperial cult for all of the province of Asia.”
As in Smyrna, Jesus reminds the church that it is a spiritual war they are in. The great distress the church is suffering for Christ’s name is not simply at the hands of human political or religious authorities, but it is Satan working through these human institutions who is persecuting the faithful. In fact, Satan does more than hold court in Pergamum; verse thirteen describes the city as the place “where Satan dwells.” Beale comments, “The concluding phrase of v. 13 (“where Satan dwells”) is a contrast with the first clause of the verse (“I know where you dwell”) in order to accentuate the idea that light and darkness cannot dwell in peaceful coexistence. Therefore, the witnessing church will be a persecuted church.”
Jesus commends the church for maintaining their faithful witness in the face of this satanic onslaught. The believers had not denied the faith, even when Antipas, whom Jesus affirms as “my faithful witness,” was killed. Again, some of the church are or will be martyrs in the sense that they were put to death, but this is because they are martyrs in the sense that they bore witness to Christ, which is the primary sense of the word in the New Testament.
Despite their holding up under persecution, Jesus does have a complaint against the Pergamum church, and a multifaceted complaint at that. First, Jesus points out that there are some in the congregation who “hold to the teaching of Balaam.” Also, Jesus reprimands the church because “they have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Some commentators have argued that the church was facing threats internally from two distinct groups – the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans. However, the grammar of the sentence, awkward as it is, points in the direction of identifying those who follow Balaam with the Nicolaitans. Verse fifteen could read, “and (καὶ) after this manner (οὕτως) you have some who likewise (ὁμοίως) hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” The piling up of words, including καὶ, οὕτως, and ὁμοίως tend to emphasis the similarity of the groups to the point of identification one with the other. Osborne is correct, “The best solution is to take this not as a comparison between two similar movements but as a comparison between a single movement (the Nicolaitans) and the Jewish tradition about Balaam.”
John will make a similar rhetorical move in his letter to Thyatira, comparing the Nicolaitans to the woman Jezebel in Israel’s past. Here, in connecting the contemporary false teachers with Balaam, he illuminates for the church the nature of the threat. John understands the Nicolaitans are a modern embodiment of the spirit of Balaam, who brought Israel into sin through seduction and compromise. Balaam first appears in the canonical record in Number 22 where he is hired by Balak to come and curse the Israelites. Balaam was, however, prevented from doing so by the angel of the Lord (and a particularly astute donkey). Yet, Moses blames Balaam for Israel’s treachery towards God, when “the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab” and worship Baal at Peor (see Numbers 25:1-9 & 31:16).
Apparently, the Nicolaitans were tempting the church at Pergamum with similar compromises, compromises that certainly promised to make life in the pagan city easier. The charge indicates that the Christians in Pergamum were being led into eating meat sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. Several interpretive issues need to be addressed regarding the nature of the Pergamum sin.
Regarding the meat sacrificed to idols, one must determine whether it was meat sacrificed to idols and sold in the marketplace or if it was meat served at pagan festivals and in an idol’s temple. Of the meat sold in the marketplace, that offered to idols and that which had not been were indistinguishable; thus, Paul instructs the church at Corinth that eating meat from the market poses no spiritual problem (1 Cor. 10:25). It seems unlikely that this is the issue at hand. The meat that the Pergamum Christians are improperly partaking in is, more than likely, meat at pagan festivals, meat served in an idol’s temples or meat served at a guild banquet. This then is a much more serious issue, involving participation in idolatrous worship.
The second interpretive issue relates to the meaning of the word πορνεῦσαι, “immorality”. Osborne rightly points out that in the Apocalypse “immorality” can be taken literally, as in sexual promiscuity, or metaphorically for idolatry. Beale and Keener are representative of commentators who take the immorality as a metaphor for idolatry. Mounce and Osborne, on the other hand, take the immorality in a more literal sense. Osborne argues convincingly, “That there is no need for such redundancy as a statement on idolatry followed by an OT metaphor for the same things.”
Thus, the Nicolaitans were leading the church into idolatry and immorality, both of which were common aspects of pagan festivals and guild associations. It is not hard to understand why a group like the Nicolaitans, teaching that participation in these feasts and guild banquets was permissible for a Christian, would be so dangerous to the church, as the temptation to compromise would have been incredibly strong as idol worship was central to the whole of public life in Asia. Of the Nicolaitan heresy, Stott writes, “They were insinuating their vile doctrines into the church. They were daring to suggest that the liberty with which Christ has made us free was a liberty to sin…This travesty of the truth was to ‘change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.’”
Not only was such participation in idolatry and immorality a travesty against the truth of the gospel of Christ, it is also a deep betrayal of the church mission. As Israel in the OT, so the church in the NT was to be a contrast people. Christopher Wright articulates this truth well, “The people of God in both testaments are called to be a light to the nations. But there can be not light to the nations that is not shining already in transformed lives of holy people.” By compromising core bastions of the faith (i.e. the uniqueness of Christ, God as the only true god, gospel as liberty unto holiness, etc.), the Pergamum Christians would be better able to fit into their surrounding culture. But, that was not their call! Central to their missional task was being a different unassimilated people. This aspect of their calling was being threatened by the Nicolaitans; therefore, Jesus calls for repentance and threatens judgment if they will not.
Jesus warns that he will come to the church and war against the heretics “with the sword of my mouth.” Beale draws attention to the connection between the threat issued to the Pergamum church here and the threat to Balaam in the book of Numbers. In Numbers Balaam was threatened with being “killed with the sword” in the hands of “the angel of the Lord”. This coming in judgment is imminent (ταχὺ, “soon”) if they do not purge themselves of this group who hold to false teaching. While “coming” in Revelation often refers to the Paurousia, here it “must be interpreted as ‘coming’ in judgment preceding the final and decisive coming of Jesus.”
To the Pergamum overcomers Jesus promises to give “some of the hidden manna” and a “white stone, with a new name written on that stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” There are several interpretive options for the phrase “hidden manna”, but the best seems to connect this phrase with the jar of manna that was placed in the ark of the covenant. If this is the proper connection, then this promise draws the church’s attention to the eschaton where the ark would reappear in the new eschatological temple, a temple which encompasses the whole of the new creation (see Rev. 11:19). The eternal blessing of eating of this heavenly food is not for those who have eaten of the earthly meat polluted by its association with idol worship.
In addition, the overcomers receive a white stone with a new name. The best possible options for understanding this reference include white stones of acquittal (versus black stones of conviction) used by jurors, stones as admission tickets to guilds and feasts, pagan magic amulets with secret names, and stones given to gladiators to mark their freedom.
Osborne concludes, “the manna and white stone are both eschatological symbols related to the messianic feast at the eschaton but also teaching the spiritual food and new name that God gives to the believer in the present as well.”
In this, the promise is once again connected to God’s mission and the participation of the church in it. If the church and her members will participate in God’s mission by faithfully living as the contrast society she was called to be, then, when God’s redemptive mission is complete, she will be blessed. Faithfulness meant avoiding compromise with the surrounding culture, avoiding its idolatry and immorality, and suffering for maintaining her witness.