About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Davidson at Simpson University during my senior year for a class on Eschatological Books.
Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, was without doubt written to an actual group of churches during his time. It was a letter written to literal churches with literal people in literal cities. Yet much of the book is written in a symbolic literary form. Upon learning about the churches that were written to, however, one can learn about the real first century cities and draw fundamental, timeless theological principles from the book despite the heavy symbolism. Although John wrote to seven churches, at this moment the church in Pergamum will be solely focused on. Looking at Pergamum’s cultural-historical (religious, political and economic backgrounds) and literary contexts will help illuminate the passage, and thus allow for direct application in today’s generation. Before we look at its more prominent religious and political backgrounds, addressing its history, culture, and economics will be necessary in grasping the city’s development in the Roman Empire.
Pergamum is the third city mentioned in the text. Historically speaking, it was a city of Mysia, a region of northeast Asia Minor (Ford 1975, 399). It was a famous and prosperous city with a population of about 120,000 to 200,000 people (Keener 2000, 122). Pergamum became a distinguished city following the death of Alexander the Great in 133 BC (Ladd 1972, 45). Culturally speaking, it was the first city of the Asia province to support the imperial cult openly (Ladd, 1972, 45). It emerged in the second century BC “as one of the great artistic and intellectual centers of the Greek world” (Potter 1992, 5: 229). Economically speaking, Pergamum had a school of medicine due to the health cult that was influential there (Ford 1975, 399). However, Pergamum was not quite so important as a commercial city as it was politically (Ladd 1972, 45). This helps the comprehension of why “Ephesus replaced her as the leading city in the region” (Potter 1992, 5: 230).
Pergamum was an actual city that had its purpose in history. The city was famous not because of its splendid culture and prosperous economy but because of its religious and political ties. Its culture affirmed emperor worship and as such the city took on a major political and religious role more so than it did economical.
Pergamum was a prominent city politically. It was a “natural fortress standing on a sharply protruding hill which dominated the plains below” (Ford 1975, 398). Therefore, the city was such that all the leadership duties of the region were directed upon the one who ruled Pergamum (Ford 1975, 398). To be sure, Pergamum was the capital of the Roman Province of Asia (Ford 1975, 399). This shows its dominant impression of “permanence, strength, sure authority and great size” (Ford 1975, 398) politically. Furthermore, Pergamum was a distinguished religious center as well. It contained pagan connections with Demeter, Dionysius, Athena, and Orpheus (Keener 2000, 123). Even more prominent was the famous healing cult of Asclepius (Keener 2000, 123). Still more prominent, Pergamum contained the cult of the emperor, which “the old temple of Augustus stood on the lofty rock citadel, conspicuous to anyone who approached the city” (Keener 2000, 123).
Pergamum had religious prominence as the capital of the Asian Province of the Roman Empire. To have a Christian population amidst this religious and political center would prove difficult especially when the cultural norm went against the Christian standard that there is only one Lord, one God, and one Father above. This is why the Lord Jesus says, “I know where you are living, where the throne of Satan is” (Revelation 2:13). Whether “the throne of Satan” refers to the health cult of Asclepius or the other Greek deities, or the more probable solution that it is the center for emperor worship, it is understandable to say that the city of Pergamum was so lost in cultic religion that it was evident Satan had much distinction in the city and its region. Because of this, when the Christians were forced aside from the Jews to take part in the dominant emperor worship, the Church was persecuted. The Church in Pergamum “staunchly withstood external pressures to compromise from pagan governmental and religious authorities but had permitted an apparently subtle form of compromise to develop internally” (Beale 1999, 248). Yet the Lord Jesus, the one who has the sharp double-edged sword (2:12), is not pleased with such compromise. Culturally and politically speaking, the “Romans saw the sword as the symbol of the highest authority” (Ford 1975, 398). The Lord is emphatically claiming the highest authority possible here before he addresses his Church in Pergamum. Following this claim comes his commendation of the Church and then his condemnation. The Lord Jesus commends the Church at Pergamum for holding to the faith in the Lord even amidst such persecution, but he also reprimands them for allowing compromise. Being full of a variety of dominant religious practices, Pergamum would have been likely to have perversions of the Gospel as well. It would have been an ideal place for false teachers to flourish and thus lead some astray from the Truth. It is likely that some false teachers perverted the minds of some in the Church and convinced them to take and eat meat sacrificed to idols and also to commit sexual immorality (Revelation 2:14), in which both practices were involved in cultic religions. This is evident because of their teaching’s frame of mind: “believers could have closer relationships with pagan culture, institutions, and religion” (Beale 1999, 248).
With a basic understanding of the cultural-historical context of Revelation 2:12-17, that is the religious, political, and economical background of Pergamum, the literary context of the passage can now be explored. Noting mainly the commendations and condemnations of the Church in Pergamum from the Lord, the literary context of the passage breaks down as follows: “Christ commends the Church in Pergamum for its persevering witness in the midst of persecution, condemns it for its permissive spirit of idolatrous compromise, and exhorts it to inherit end-time fellowship and identification with Christ” (Beale 1999, 245). The Lord first commends the Church for its perseverance among persecution for not submitting and adhering to idolatrous worship of the emperor. Even amidst a city known for its pagan religious practices that were required of the state lest one would commit high treason (Beale 1999, 246), the Church was able to withstand the persecution set before them; the Lord commends them for so doing, especially because Antipas, the faithful witness (Revelation 2:13), was killed there. Second, the Lord condemns the church for its few members who compromised and gave in to idolatrous practice and worship. However, the Lord does not stop there. He encourages and calls the Church in Pergamum to remain in him, to be victorious by repenting of their wrongs and standing fast for him in the face of opposition and persecution. Pergamum, a place where Satan was influential, was still a place that the Church could endure for Christ. The Lord who bears the highest authority is pleased when his Church stands firm for him, but he is not pleased when it compromises the Truth for a lie. Such compromise requires repentance else the wrath of God be put into effect. Sword language is used again, perhaps to say that Christ will go to war against those who do not repent on his own authority, the highest authority around, or perhaps it could be because of the Balaam reference in which Balaam was threatened and killed by the sword because of his actions, and so the Lord is continuing to do so with similar prophets and false teachers who’s actions cause His people to be led astray (Beale 1999, 250-1). But Christ desires his Church to be victorious so that it may partake in the eternal presence of the glorious Lord (Beale 1999, 253).
Pergamum, a most important political and religious city, has been addressed in Revelation chapter two according to its cultural-historical and literary contexts. As a result, the exploration of its timeless and fundamental theological principles is now possible with direct application to follow shortly after.
Revelation 2:12-17 reveals three fundamental and timeless theological principles. First, the Lord Jesus Christ is the one who holds the highest authority not only over the Church but also over the whole world. No one else, no other thing, no other god, no ruler or governing authority has nearly as much power and authority as the Lord Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), his authority does not change and it is constantly supreme over all else in creation. Second, the Lord Jesus Christ expects his Church to stand up against opposition and persecution and be victorious over it. Those who receive the Gospel are not to turn from it in the face of uncomfortable peer-pressure or government-issued persecution. Christ commands that his people be victorious over it; those who are victorious will be awarded eternal life with him and the Father. Last, Christ demands a life of no compromise in his people. The Lord has made it clear that there is no room for idolatrous acts or fornication in the Church, whether or not it is spiritual or physical, and such actions are to be dealt with. When they are not, the Lord will step in and deal with it himself, a most frightening thing for it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God (Hebrews 10:31). These three theological principles are fundamental in the lives of all those who believe and they are timeless truths that resound throughout all generations from the first century forward.
There was a church that recently underwent a split. It became divided over several issues, however one primarily influenced the split: the pastor. The pastor who had originally started the church has recently retired. Since then, all those who have tried to fill in his position have not been, shall we say, “good enough” in comparison to the retired founder. The church members had without a doubt placed their faith, trust and focus on the pastor rather than on God. Their spiritual lives became dependent on this pastor so much so that when new pastors came with new ideas and new philosophies of how to run the church the people went mad saying, “That’s not how Pastor used to do it so it is not the way we are going to do it now.” Ultimately, this stubborn thinking tore the church apart and caused far more harm than good. The problem in this church is that the members forgot who had the authority and power of the church, that is Jesus Christ. The members of this church forgot that Christ is supreme and not their pastor, and the Church belongs to Christ and not its Christ-appointed shepherds. This church teaches all other churches and the Church as a whole an important lesson: one’s faith, trust, obedience, allegiance and loyalty belong in Christ under his authority alone and no one else’s, not even one’s pastor. When we set pastor’s up on a pedestal at the same level and authority of Jesus Christ we have taken what belongs completely to Him and given it to someone else who not only is undeserving of it but is also incapable of handling it. It results in a disservice to ourselves, to the pastor, to the local church, to the global Church, and finally to Christ. Always remember to place all trust, hope, faith, obedience, power and authority in Jesus Christ, the supreme ruler of all creation.
There was a different church that underwent persecution. Persecution can take form in many different avenues such as death or public humiliation. In the case of this church, it was persecuted by way of lawsuits. The church is a decently large church. At the time of the lawsuits the church was trying to get its permit to build on a large piece of land. However, the residents from around the local area of the church did not want this large church to build a huge sanctuary. The church was meeting at a public high school on Sundays, but because of the vast amount of people who attended, the local CHP department had to direct traffic to help the cars move in and out of the parking lot. The local residents were aware of the large amount of traffic that the church brought in and they did not want that more near their homes. Furthermore, the residents did not want people to come to their houses on Sunday mornings asking them for money and to join the church. As a result, the people of the city sued the church in an effort to not allow them the permits required to build on the land that they had bought. The church fought back only to be sued a second time. In the end the church won both lawsuits, but it was not because of well-founded arguments or well-paid lawyers. The church won because it stood fast for Christ, giving witness to the glory of the Gospel and the work that it had done in the people of the church resulting in the impact that those people had on the city. The church did not back down in the face of persecution, rather it showed itself victorious by standing firm in its witness for Christ. In so doing it won the lawsuits and gained its permits to build the church it so desperately needed to help accommodate all the people already attending and all those looking to attend. Always remember to stand firm for Christ in the witness of the Gospel, for it has the power to save and to provide strength for overcoming persecution no matter what it may look like, whether it be peer-pressure, humiliation, death, or lawsuits.
There was another church that underwent compromise. The head pastor of this fairly large church came out and admitted before the congregation that he had been involved in an adulterous act with another woman. The pastor had compromised his beliefs, his faith, and his religion for sexual immorality. The pastor forgot that Christ expects a life of no compromise. One must serve Christ completely; this means that the life of the Christian cannot have any part in fornication or adultery, specifically speaking. However, the church also compromised. When the pastor left, about one third of the congregation left as well, not with the pastor, but to various places. The church was guilty of idolatry—they idolized their pastor. They compromised their belief in Christ by placing their faith in their pastor, a place where their faith did not belong. The pastor was guilty of allowing his heart to be unfaithful to Christ and the church was guilty of allowing their trust to be placed in a place not suitable for their faith. Always remember to place all trust, faith, and belief in Christ, which is the only place that these belong, and always remember to remain faithful to Christ under all circumstances.
As seen in these three churches, today’s generation still struggles with the same nettlesome situations as the Church in Pergamum did in the first century. Today’s church still struggles with persecution in various forms, in keeping the faith and placing Christ at the highest authority possible, which is his rightful place, and to remain faithful to the Lord regardless of the circumstances. In other words, the spirit of the Church is still that of the first century, and it is important to take the heart of the message of the text, that is the fundamental and timeless theological principles, and apply it to our lives today if we are to address the issues we have in this generation that are the same issues the Church at Pergamum had long ago. Therefore, the believer should affirm four things in his or her life: Christ’s authority; perseverance; and victory.
Christians should strongly assert and proclaim that Christ is in authority not only over their lives but also of the whole world. It is to Christ that Christians therefore submit. And should Christ demand something of them that goes against what the world demands, it is to Christ that the Christians will give in. Do not give in to the world. Practically speaking, do not even put your faith in a person, pastor, friend or family member; your faith belongs to Christ for he is the one who is your Master. When you find yourself leaving a church because the pastor screwed up, you must ask yourself where your allegiance lies. Is it in the highest authority, Jesus Christ? Or is it in the pastor who is subject to the highest authority? Always bear in mind where your loyalty is. If it is not completely in Christ, then you need to change something. Keep Christ first in your life and make him your number one authority in your life because that is where he rightfully should be.
Christians should boldly embody perseverance in the face of opposition, if the face of enemies and adversaries, or in the face of persecution in its many forms. Christ calls his servants; he demands their total allegiance. If you are a Christian, you may not fall back or retreat. Christ demands that you stand your ground as his representative and reign victorious. This means that when someone pokes fun at you at school you turn the other cheek and let go of your pride for the sake of Christ. This means that when someone totally mocks you for your faith on a public forum at a website that you do not respond in the harshness of words, but you refrain from even a hint of disdain and speak out only with love. You are to persevere and not shrink back when persecution comes your way. Stand tall for Christ.
Christians should proclaim victory in their lives. This is not bragging, rather it is claiming what the Lord has promised for those who end up victorious shall partake in the eternal life with the Son and the Father. It is the understanding of God’s work in one’s life. It is the realization that you are a new creation. It is the confirmation that you are a child of God and will be with your Father for all eternity in a place that he has prepared for you in heaven. This means you may not believe in a lie that you cannot persevere and that you are worthless. To proclaim victory is to believe in the Truth. To believe in the Truth is to accept Jesus Christ. No, you are a child of God and you are a servant of the highest authority in the universe—you can persevere because the Lord who values you so much that he died for you will help you do it. You are victorious—live like it. Abstain from the world’s desires and take on only what Christ desires. Quit partying. Quit getting drunk. Quit sleeping around. The party life for many Christians is a spiritual fornication and idolatrous act that detracts their faith. You do not have that luxury because you are called to be victorious. Devote yourself completely to Him. Be faithful to your Master.
The text of Revelation 2:12-17 sounds out boldly for all generations, but it can only be heard clearly in light of the cultural-historical and literary contexts. Because the understanding of these contexts made possible the understanding of the timeless and fundamental theological principles within the texts, we can now relate to the ancient city of Pergamum and therefore use the Scripture and apply it to our lives today. Remember: Christ ought to be the number one authority in your life; stand firm for Christ no matter what; and do not compromise for anything—be victorious!
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Keener, Craig S. 2000. Revelation. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids:
Ladd, George Eldon. 1972. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids: William
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Potter, D. S. 1992. “Pergamum.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. v. 5. David Noel
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