Pergamum: Impressive but Compromised

Pergamum: Impressive but Compromised

Pergamum: Impressive but Compromised.

Please read Revelation 2:12-17.

A stunning library. A spectacular theater. Amazing architecture everywhere. Top-of-the-line medical school. Renowned for its sophisticated culture and the arts. Celebrity worship. A favorite vacation spot for the leaders of government. A wide variety of distracting things to experience. A group of believers willing to compromise Christian values and beliefs. Another large group in the church tolerating the compromises without holding them accountable. Does any of this sound familiar? Maybe, for example, 21st century New York, Paris, London or Rome? No, these details describe the once thriving ancient city of Pergamum in western Turkey. And in Revelation, Jesus had something prophetic to say to the church in Pergamum.

The City. Pergamum was a landmark city that was dedicated to Greek culture, religion and education. It boasted a world famous library that had over 200,000 volumes. The idea of using sheepskin or goatskin for a writing surface came from here, and is where the term “parchment” originated. The city was built on a huge hill that stood 1,000 feet over the countryside, a natural fortress that was seen from miles around. Pergamum was the center for the worship of important gods, and was the first ancient city to build a temple in order to worship a living emperor as a god. There were impressive cultic temples built to worship four popular gods in particular: Zeus, the lord of the gods, the superstar god on Mt. Olympus, whose altar and temple overshadowed everything in the area, built on a high cliff; Dionysius, the god of wine harvest, fertility, partying to the point of ritual ecstasy, the god of self-indulgent excess with widespread sexual activity; Athene, the goddess of war, wisdom and strength. Christian martyrs were burned alive in her temple; and Asclepius, the god of healing and medicine. There was a famous school of medicine dedicated to Asclepius, and people came from around the world to worship and be healed. The main symbol of Asclepius was the serpent, so the temple grounds were infested with thousands of harmless snakes. Archeologists have excavated a spectacular building complex with a number of impressive buildings, including these temples, spread in a half-circle, with a magnificent theater at its center.

Faithful. As one can imagine, in this highly idolatrous city there was a lot of competition when it came to worship. There were lots of popular gods, including the emperor, to compete with the one true God. One’s social and religious life was determined by which god one chose to worship. In this letter to the church in Pergamum, Jesus seemed to have a soft spot for the believers in that city, for so many were indeed holding strong and not compromising their faith. Jesus commended them for their loyalty and faithfulness. These believers were clinging to the faith even while literally in the shadow of Satan’s throne, Zeus’ temple.

Antipas. In this passage, Antipas was mentioned, the only martyr named in Revelation. He was martyred around 92 AD, the bishop of Pergamum at the time. He refused to bow down to the emperor, or any other god. He was a well-trained disciple of St. John from nearby Ephesus who wouldn’t compromise. He refused to deny the Faith. The city leaders responded by dragging him to the temple of Athene, putting him inside a big bronze altar, and roasting him alive. Antipas deserved special mention by Jesus because he was considered a model of Christian discipleship, and Jesus wanted to see more of that in the church.

Compromise. Despite all that loyalty and courage in the Pergamum church, Jesus had something against them. The church has too easily welcomed believers who have compromised their faith with all these distractions in the city. Too many in the church hold to the teachings of Balaam, a corrupt prophet of old who led the Israelites to stray from the Faith by luring them into sexual immorality and intermarriage with idol worshipers. And the church contained the Nicolaitans, who were neo-Balaamites, lax believers who wanted to participate in the practices of the cultic worshipers in the city. These believers were compromising in a lot of ways and were allowing pagan practices to creep into the church. This all added up to major spiritual compromise, what God would consider spiritual adultery. Certainly there was sexual looseness, but there were other compromises as well. After all, what does it hurt to burn a little incense to the emperor? And is there any harm in enjoying the sensual social life that comes from these pagan rituals? So Jesus wanted these believers to repent, and He wants the loyal believers to keep from tolerating these compromises.

Unpacking some terms in this passage:

Sexual immorality has been defined biblically as indulging in unlawful lust, whether it’s adultery or fornication, pornography or promiscuity. In fact the Greek word for sexual immorality in this passage is “porneia,” where we get our word for pornography.

Sword of Mouth is the Word of God expressing the authority and judgment of God. It is two-edged because it both blesses and disciplines, it is life-giving and it does needed surgery.

Hidden Manna is the bread that comes down from heaven. Jesus is the Bread of Life, the true hidden manna, and He provides spiritual nourishment through the bread hidden in the heart of each believer. Jesus is promising that if you don’t eat the meat offered to idols, you will be fed by the Bread of Life in your heart. Don’t flirt with the idols, and instead embrace the hidden manna.

White Stone has been puzzling biblical scholars for a long time. It is difficult to translate and there is no definitive understanding of what it means. Could it be referring to the idea that all believers are “living stones?” (1 Peter 2:5). Could it be pointing back to the hot white coal at the altar that purged Isaiah’s lips? (Isaiah 6). The term white stone literally means “shining” or “bright white” stone. Perhaps this is referring to the bright light of Jesus within us, the true Cornerstone. On this stone will be engraved our new name. Every believer is evidently given a new spiritual name kept secret between the believer and God, a name referring to the believer’s spiritual identity and true identity. Only God knows who we truly are, our most basic self. Isn’t it reassuring that we don’t have to be on a frantic search for our true self, that the Lord knows our genuine identity?¬† It takes the pressure off when we can trust in God’s understanding of who we are at the most basic level. The closer we get to Jesus, the more our true self emerges. We assume we’ll all see our new names when we reach the New Jerusalem, truly a joyful time of ultimate self-discovery.

Final Thought. Contemporary life holds a lot of temptations to idolatry. If we’re not careful, we can easily worship at many different shrines, practically speaking. We may not worship Zeus or Athene these days, but we still have aspects of life now that function as idols. An idol could be anything that we adore or bow down to. Anything that might take a lot of our time and attention. Anything that we view as important enough to make sacrifices for. Anything that forms our values and behaviors. Anything that determines how we spend our time, how we use our body, what we constantly think about. Anything that has formed our identity. Anything that captures our heart, our devotion.

If anything like that is so demanding that it keeps distracting us from the Christian faith, from the teachings of Jesus, from our life in the Word, from a lifestyle of discipleship, then perhaps something is taking subtle control and is becoming an idol. Something might be turning us into functional atheists.

Maybe the idol is constant entertainment; career achievements; educational accomplishments; the latest technology; money and material things; influence and power; an accumulation of knowledge and information; physical health and welfare; sexual prowess or identity; status and public acclaim; reputation and popularity. Even the family can be an idol if we are obsessively worshiping it instead of offering it to God. The most pernicious  and subtle idol is the self, putting our self on the throne of our life, high on the altar of ego fulfillment and self-absorption. Feeding the ego is really no different that offering meat to idols. What or who do we care most about? Around what do we orient our life? Are we compromising our first love by engaging in some of our secondary loves too profoundly?