Pergamum, the city in Hell’s Headquarters
Pergamum, also called Pergamos from the KJV translation is another city of the Roman province of Asia Minor that still exists today. It is known as “Bergama”, and is located in modern day Turkey. It is primarily a Muslim city now and as of 1996 had 15 Islamic mosques. One of its mosques is a church building from ancient times. Bergama (Pergamum), is built among the ruins of the ancient city, but is not nearly as large as it was in the first century. Among the ruins today can be seen the base of the altar of Zeus, the theater, the agora, the gymnasium and several pagan temples. Today, the chief export of Bergama is cotton, wool, leather and opium.
Ancient Pergamos was located 3 miles from the Caicus river, and about 15 miles from the sea. The Caicus river was navigable for small vessels. Two of the tributaries of the Caicus were the Selinus and the Kteios. The Selinus river flowed through the city; the Kteios ran along its walls on the outside. On the hill between these two streams the first city stood, and there also stood the acropolis, the chief temples, and theaters of the later city. The early inhabitants of the town were descendants of Greek colonists from before 420 BC.
From 283 to 263 BC Philetaerus founded the independent Greek dynasty of the Attalid kings. The first of this dynasty to bear the title of king was Attalus I (241 BC – 197 BC), a nephew of Philetaerus, and not only did he adorn the city with beautiful buildings until it became the most wonderful city of the East, but he added to his kingdom the countries of Mysia, Lydia, Caria, Pamphylia and Phrygia. Eumenes II was the richest king of the dynasty, and during his reign from 197 BC – 159 BC, the city reached its greatest height.
Art and literature were encouraged, and in the city was a library of 200,000 volumes The books were of parchment which was developed here. The word “parchment,” is derived from the name “Pergamos.” Of the structures which adorned the city, the most renowned was the altar of Zeus, which was 40 ft. in height, and also one of the wonders of the ancient world. In 133 BC Attalus III, the last king of the dynasty, died and bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman government. The original Roman province of Asia was formed, and Pergamos was made its capital. Upon the establishment of the province of Asia there began a new series of coins made at Pergamos, which continued into the 3rd century A.D.
There were temples to the four pagan gods Zeus, Dionysus, Athena and Asklepios. Asklepios was the pagan Greek God of medicine and healing. The sick and crippled from all parts of Asia flocked to his temple. They would sleep in the court of the temple where they believed Asklepios would reveal to the priests and physicians the remedies which were necessary to heal their maladies. There was a school of medicine in connection with the temple.
Pergamos was also a chief religious center in the province for Roman emperor worship. In Pergamos, three temples had been built to the Roman emperors where they were worshipped as gods on earth. Being the capitol city of the province and having three temples dedicated to emperor worship, Pergamos was also the headquarters of the Imperial Cult known as the “Concilia”. This cult was responsible for the enforcement of state religion. This city was loyal to Rome and with 3 temples dedicated to Emperor worship, it was only natural that it would become a center for this imperial cult. In 29 BC the Concilia built a temple for the purpose of worshipping Augustus Caesar. They were unrelenting when it came to the enforcement of emperor worship, especially under Domitian who insisted upon it. It was possibly this group that banished John to the isle of Patmos, most probably during the reign of either Vespasian or Titus. It was certainly the Concilia who saw to it that the material possessions were taken from the Christians when they refused to serve in the Roman army or refused to bow down to the “gods” of the Romans including the emperors. It was the Concilia who issued certificates to those who they witnessed burning incense and offering worship to the Roman Emperors without which no one could buy or sell food, participate in land transactions or benefit from any government programs. It is no wonder that the Christians located in Pergamum were suffering, as they were first in line for the dispensing of the persecution of this imperial cult empowered with the authority of the Emperors and supported by the full strength of the Roman army.
Smyrna was a rival city and was a commercial center as well. As it increased in wealth, it gradually became the political center. Later, when Smyrna became the capital, Pergamos remained the religious center.
Christianity was in Pergamos in the first century and it was to the congregation of Christ’s church located therein that this part of the Revelation was addressed.
“and to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These things saith he that hath the sharp two-edged sword:”
Jesus is depicted again as having the two edged sword. As mentioned previously this is a reference back to Hebrews 4:12-13 and from our study of Revelation 1:16 and 2:16 we know this sword comes from the mouth of Jesus which means that the sword represents the words of Jesus. In Ephesians 6:17, Paul calls the word of God the “sword of the Spirit”.
“I know where thou dwellest,”
Jesus is aware of where these Christians are. He is telling them He knows they are suffering, He knows of their persecution and their tribulations. The application for us is that we serve a God who knows us personally. He is aware of our goings on and our surroundings. He knows of our triumphs and of our failures. “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13).
“(even) where Satan’s throne is”
Pergamum was the capitol of Asia before Smyrna, home to three temples dedicated to the worship of Roman emperors and headquarters of the imperial cult called the Concelia. It was the chief religious center for the entire province and retained that status even when Smyrna became the capitol.
The worship of Aesculapius or Asklepios who was the pagan Greek God of medicine and healing was characterized by the use of snakes in the healing rituals. Non-venomous snakes were left to crawl on the floor in temple where the sick and injured slept. Asklepios had his own constellation called Serpentarius in Latin and Ophiuchus in Greek which means “serpent bearer” The name, “serpent-bearer,” refers to the Rod of Asclepius, which was entwined with a single serpent. This symbol has now become a symbol for physicians across the globe today. The “star of life” is the modern international symbol for the Emergency Medical Services which features the Rod of Asclepius as the centerpiece.
Satan is often depicted as a serpent in scripture. All Christians of all ages are well acquainted with the imagery of the serpent associated with Satan. It is almost certain that when the Christians read of Satan’s throne, they instantly associated it with the worship of Asklepios. And if not, there was plenty of other activities going on around them that would identify Satan as having a seat of power and authority from this city.
“and thou holdest fast my name”
The Christians in Pergamum were commended for holding fast to the name of Christ. In the Greek, this word (onoma), means a name in authority and character. It is important as we work through these letters to the individual churches that we take note of the positive things Jesus says as well as the negative. We know from scripture that Jesus is God (John 1:1), and that Jesus never changes (Hebrews 13:8), so we can be assured that if we take all the good things Jesus said to the churches and make sure we emulate these things in our lives, that it will be commendable for us as well. It is as important to us that we assemble all the positive things Jesus says to all the churches and strive to add those things to our lives as it is for us to assemble all the negative things He said and eliminate them.
We hold fast, cling, hang on to Jesus name, character and authority when we seek His will, obey His will and glorify His name. We hold fast to His name when we insist on being identified as Christians only instead of manmade names which glorify someone other than Jesus. We hold fast to His name today when we call the body of Christ by what it is; the church of Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:11-13.
“and didst not deny my faith, even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwelleth.”
Jesus refers to the faith as being His faith. Jesus is the one who suffered, bled and died for us. He is the one that paid the purchase price for the faith, it is His faith. We today need to be very aware of the fact that it is to His faith we are to be faithful to and not some manmade faith with man’s ideas of righteousness. We are to seek only God’s righteousness (Romans 10:3-4).
Antipas was described as Jesus’ faithful witness. He had been slain among them. The Christian persecution was already well underway. Secular writings place Antipas as an elder of the church in Pergamum, appointed by none other than John during the reign of Domitian. History portrays the death of Antipas as having been publicly burned alive in the brazen statue of a Bull by the priests of Asklepios. In Pergamum, the Christians had already been given an example of what was to come and Jesus held the death of Antipas up as a shining example for the rest to follow if need be.
As a side note, the fact that Jesus here speaks of the martyrdom of Antipas in the past tense is strong internal evidence of the late dating of the writing of the Revelation. According to history, Antipas was martyred in 92 AD.
“But I have a few things against thee, ”
Once again, as in previous messages, Jesus points out that the good they are doing does not outweigh the bad. The application today is that we cannot do enough good in hope of offsetting the bad. Those in the body of Christ who are guilty of sin cannot stand on judgment day before God and point to their good works as justification for any sin they may be guilty of.
“because thou hast there some that hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also some that hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans in like manner.”
There were some members in the church at Pergamum who were going along with the teachings of the Nicolaitans. We see here exactly what this teaching was, eating meat sacrificed to idols and committing fornication which could mean either physical or spiritual fornication, both of which the Nicolaitans were guilty of.
In old testament times, Balaam was guilty of instructing Balak, a Moabite king, of how to defeat the Israelites. Balaam knew that God would forsake the Israelites in battle if they were guilty of sin so he told Balak that if he would send women out to seduce and participate in fornication with the Israelites, that God would forsake them in battle and hand them over as punishment. The women that were sent to seduce the Israelite men were successful and they were caused to stumble. As a result of this stumbling block, twenty four thousand Israelites lost their lives.
Corresponding to this, eating things sacrificed to idols was also a stumbling block to the Christians. Under the Roman persecution, Christians were denied the right to buy food in the empire unless they offered worship to the emperors. Food was hard to come by for the faithful yet there was plenty to be had if they wanted to participate in the great public feasts where the meat of the animals who had been sacrificed to pagan gods was being served to the public. Hunger is a powerful incentive and many Christians gave in and participated in these public feasts which were often times accompanied with wild drunken, riotous and often times unrestrained sexual behavior which caused many of them to stumble. Benjamin Franklin once quoted: “He that lieth down with Dogs, shall rise up with Fleas.” In scripture were are commanded to “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22) and “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers: for what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity? or what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what portion hath a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement hath a temple of God with idols? for we are a temple of the living God; even as God said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, And touch no unclean thing; And I will receive you,” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17).
The Nicolaitans started out as Christians who participated in the public feasts and eventually stumbled and became just as bad as the pagans they associated with. The application for us today is the same. Stay away from evil influences. Avoid situations that can cause one to stumble. Shun activities that are not wholesome and righteous. Do not join in with sinful worldly activities, lest we too become tempted and stumble. It is a foolish individual who would dance with the devil and participate in activities where sinful behavior prevails. Satan makes sin attractive but those who company with Satan flirt with death.
“Repent therefore; or else I come to thee quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of my mouth.”
Jesus warns the church to repent. Repentance is a sorrow of heart that leads to a change of behavior. The church at Pergamum had to change their behavior. They were accused of tolerating something Jesus hated. This is a “repent or else” warning where Jesus said he would wage war with those who held to this doctrine. Being in a position where Jesus Christ, the Son of God, would wage war against someone who was a Christian is a serious thing. This is not a war that any Christian could hope to win. In short, Jesus told these Christians to repent or die. These were the options available to the Christians at Pergamum. These same options are the only ones available to Christians in similar sinful situations today.
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.”
Notice what Jesus says here. He knows this is being written down in words that Christians will read. he knows this message is going to be delivered in written form. The Christians who read this letter were going to hear what the Spirit was saying through the words written by John. Today, we hear what the Spirit says in the same way they did in Pergamum. Through the written word. When we hear the Word of God, then we are listening to the Spirit.
“To him that overcometh”
To those who overcome. To those who resist temptation, to those who prevail no matter what, to those who do not give in to Satan and worship idols and eat meat sacrificed to them, who remain faithful against all odds will receive the following rewards.
“to him will I give of the hidden manna”
Manna is what God sustained the children of Israel with during their time in the wilderness after they left the Egyptian bondage and before they were allowed to enter the promised land. To the first readers of the Revelation, manna would represent that which sustains one’s soul. Hidden from those who refuse to see it, but available to all who would accept it freely. “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that heareth, let him say, Come. And he that is athirst, let him come: he that will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).
“and I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it.“
The Greek word for Stone in this instance means a pebble, so there is some disagreement among scholars as to what is meant here. Following is my best guess as to it’s meaning. Those who overcome become “fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” which is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Ephesians 2:19-20). White is a symbol for purity and truth and the chief cornerstone all faithful Christians receive is Jesus Christ. The name written on the stone most likely represents either “Jesus Christ” or “Christian”. Scripture teaches that the faithful “shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name.” (Isaiah 62:2). “The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). Peter referred to followers of Christ as “Christians” in 1 Peter 4:16 and Agrippa told Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Secular writings about followers of Jesus Christ contain numerous instances of the name “Christians”. This name was a well established designation both historically and scripturally. Since all scripture is given by inspiration we know that the term Christian, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, is from the mouth of God.
And the only people who know this name are the ones who receive the name of Christ. Our lives are “hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Jesus prayed: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 11:25). There are things hidden from man which only be fully known when Jesus returns and we see Him as He really is. (1 John 3:2). Those who never receive the figurative white stone with the new name on it will never get to fully know Jesus Christ in all His glory.
The Christians at Pergamos were living in a tremendous center for oppression and persecution. They were for the most part faithful except for their leniency towards the Nicolaitans. They were warned to modify this behavior or suffer the consequences of a war with Jesus Christ.
In applying this to our Christian life today, we need to take heed to the words of Jesus. The circumstances under which the Christians in Pergamum were living did not have any effect on whether or not they were expected to be faithful to God. Likewise today, we must be aware that we too are required to be just as faithful as they were then. We must be intolerant of doctrinal error, ever vigilant and willing to persevere and overcome against all odds, even to the point of death if need be.