To the Angel at Pergamum, Part 2

What follows is part two of a three-part series of an article I wrote on Pergamum. Part one can be found here.

“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).

The theater at Pergamum. The two trees in the upper center of the picture on the hill mark the location of the altar to Zeus.

Following the typical structure to these seven letters, Jesus moves from commendation to accusation. After extolling them for remaining faithful to his name (Rev 2:13), he now provides a correction for their lack in other areas.

“But I have a few things against you…” (v. 14)

This has to be one of the most terrifying things for a person to hear: that the resurrected Jesus would have something against you. Sometimes we run the risk of domesticating Jesus. He becomes merely a friend who is there to hang out with us. At times he could be viewed as a secret lover as depicted in some modern worship songs. Or he becomes a divine butler who is there to wait on us hand-and-foot. Or he is our spiritual counselor, guiding us to our best life or helping us to achieve our maximum potential. Or he is our cosmic therapist whose sole purpose is to help us with our problems. Regardless of whatever value these perspectives might have, what is often assumed about Jesus is that he, at his core, is benevolent. It is assumed that Jesus is just a bighearted, good-natured, compassionate buddy. In a word, Jesus is benign.

That is not, however, how the resurrected Jesus is depicted, especially to his seven churches in Revelation. To these churches he is one whose “eyes were like a flame of fire” (Rev 1:14), his feet were like “burnished bronze, refined in a furnace” (v. 15). His resounding voice was “like the roar of many waters” (v.15). Jesus’ face was reminiscent of “the sun shining in full strength” (v. 16). His appearance was such that John’s first glimpse caused him to immediately fall prostrate: “when I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (v. 17). To the gathering of believers at Pergamum he comes with a “sharp, double-edged sword” unsheathed (Rev 2:12; cf. 1:16). We certainly do not want this Jesus to have anything against us! Let’s hear what he might have to say.

“you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam…” (v. 14)

Despite their faithfulness to Jesus, their holding fast to faith in him in the face of outward persecution, the saints at Pergamum had a weakness: embracing false teaching.

What Jesus has against this church was that they had some who held to the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Some see these as two names for the same false teaching, for Balaam means “devourer of the people,” while Nicolaitan can mean, “conqueror of the people.” In any case, little historical detail is known about the exact nature of this heresy. The church at Ephesus was celebrated for refusing to give in to the Nicolaitan teaching (Rev 2:6). The church at Pergamum was another story, however. The character of this teaching’s deviation from the teaching of Christ is illustrated using a familiar story from the Jewish scripture: the story of Balaam found in Numbers 22–25.

The temple area within the city walls of Arad in southern Israel. The mikveh for ceremonial washings is out of the picture to the right. The large, square stone alter is the alter for burnt offerings. The "Holy of Holies" is the small room in the upper left corner of the picture.

Many might be familiar with the name Balaam from Sunday school as the man with the talking donkey. However, he had a more sinister streak than is often presented in Sunday school lessons. The people of Israel, who were lead out of Egypt a generation earlier and had received the ten commandments at Mount Sinai, were preparing to enter into the land that God had promised. Balaam was a foreign prophet summoned by a local king to place a curse on the people of God. Although the LORD intervenes, Balaam is nevertheless credited with luring the Israelites into sexual immorality with foreign women and worshipping the Canaanite god, Baal. For this reason, Balaam is considered a false teacher in Judaism and is epitomized as “wicked” in contrast to the faithful, Abraham (Avot 5:19). His actions were scandalous and resulted in a tragic episode in the life of Israel.

In light of this imagery, the core issue with the teaching that some believer’s at Pergamum were adopting was likely an accommodation of the worship of Christ with other forms of worship. These other forms were probably standard cultural forms of worship which included such things as idolatry and sexual immorality. They were faithful to Christ to be sure. But they were likely embracing some of these cultural worship practices as well. In other words, the church in Pergamum were serving “Jesus plus…” They were guilty of blending and syncretizing faithfulness to Christ with other unacceptable practices.

The "Holy of Holies" in Arad. In the holy place at the Temple in Jerusalem is where the ark of the covenant was kept, signifying Yahweh's presence. Notice that in this sanctuary there are two standing stones and two altars in the foreground.

Doesn’t this same sort of syncretism confronts us as well? I had the opportunity to go to Israel last May. In one of the cities in the desert south of Jerusalem, named Arad, I explored the remains of a Jewish temple structure dating to the time of Solomon. This is significant because the real Temple was in Jerusalem; there should not be a Jewish worship site anywhere else. When I got closer to the “Holy of Holies”, the place where God’s presence dwelled and where the ark of the covenant was kept, I noticed that there were two stones and two altars. After a moment, what I witnessed overwhelmed me: I realized that they were worshiping Yahweh… and something else! It was shocking and offensive to see this site. I was angered at their lack of faithlessness to Yahweh! But soon after, I immediately was confronted with the other things I worship alongside of Jesus. I was struck that I, in so many ways, was not unlike the ancient Jews at Arad. I, too, was an idolater. And so were some of the saints at Pergamum. Just as Balaam undermined ancient Israel, the Nicolaitan heresy was undermining the church at Pergamum. And just like the Nicolaitan heresy, a pluralistic blending of Christ with others undermines us as well.

[Part three on Friday.]

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