The Letter to Pergamum: Revelation 2:12-17

Pergamum is located about sixteen miles from the Aegean Sea. It was not as important an economic or commercial center as Ephesus or Smyrna, but it was an important religious center. The city contained temples to Zeus, Athena, Dionysos, and Asklepios. It boasted one of the world’s greatest libraries. It was so famous, in fact, that the word “parchment” is derived from its name.

2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword

This letter is one that mentions specific persecution. In a city like Pergamum, which served as the capital of the province and a center for emperor worship, the local authorities would bear the “right of the sword” to execute at will those who might rebel against imperial authority. But here it is the sovereign Christ who possesses the double-edged sword of final judgment. John mentions the sword that protrudes out of the mouth of Christ earlier in 1:16.

Many scholars point to the significance of the sword’s location: the mouth. The sword of Christ is not a sword that brings violent destruction like the sword Caesar carries in his hand. It is the sword that brings truth and discernment. Certainly the central issue for Pergamum is “witness.” They are being called to be a witness for Christ. But the kind of witness they are matters. Their call is not to respond to the empire with its weapons, rather they are – like Christ – to bear the sword of truth.

Serving Christ rather than Caesar is central. But how one respond to their enemy is part of the way one witnesses to the rule of Christ.

13 I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.

There is great speculation over the meaning of the term “Satan’s throne.” Here is a good description from Carol Rotz: “Several historical possibilities have been suggested: the temple of Augustus and Roma that may have been built at the foot of the acropolis at Pergamum; the altar of Zeus; the proconsul’s bench where he sat to judge; the temple of Asklepios who was designated Savior and whose symbol was the serpent; or Pergamum as a center of Christian persecution, the Imperial cult, or Greco-Roman culture. It may even refer to the uniquely shaped major hill (acropolis) in the city. Whatever the specific reference, the threat to Christianity is clear. There is a rival throne to that of God and the Lamb” (Rotz, 70).

In the Scripture Satan is always seen as the great accuser. He is viewed as the one who, as in the case of Job, tests the faith and commitment of the people of God. It seems likely, given the political and cultural climate of Pergamum, that the faithful there will continually have their faith tested.

John mentions the likely martyrdom of Antipas in Pergamum. Antipas is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible and so we are left to theorize about the circumstances of his life and death. Some scholars have speculated that the unusual name Antipas was given to this person originally in honor of Herod Antipas – the son of Herod the Great who reigned over Galilee during the time of Christ’s ministry. Thus, it may be the case that Antipas the martyr was a radical convert from allegiance to Rome to commitment to Christ.

New Testament scholar Bruce Longenecker has written an amazing little book around the character Antipas entitled The Lost Letters of Pergamum. The book is a series of fictional letters between Antipas and Luke. In Longenecker’s tale Antipas is building a great library (which existed) in Pergamum in honor of the emperor and would like to add Luke’s writings to the library. Through the reading of Luke’s gospel and then later Acts he becomes interested in Jesus and begins meeting with a couple of local gatherings of believers in order to learn more about this unusual carpenter from Nazareth.

One of the “churches” Antipas meets with is quite accommodated to the culture surrounding it. The people there are interested in Jesus as a moral teacher, but find many of his ideas about wealth and power antiquated. The other house meeting that he encounters is quite different. The culturally elite leader of the meeting serves the lower class members, and there is a bond between them that both fascinates and convicts Antipas.The members of the second church are put on trial for disloyalty and Antipas chooses to die in their place.

I highly recommend the book not just for its interesting narrative value but because Longenecker does such an amazing job of describing what life would have been like in the first century for Christians in places like Pergamum.

14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. 15 So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

The letter to Pergamum seems to be the inverse of the letter to Ephesus. The Ephesian Christians became so focused on standing up against false teaching and pagan practice that they lost their essence of love. Pergamum, on the other hand, struggled with living so close to the culture that its life was accommodated to the values of the culture and its witness was in danger of being lost.

The story of Balaam is found in Numbers chapter 22. He led the Israelites astray by consorting with the daughters of Moab. John uses this image to describe the work of the Nicolaitans (mentioned also in the letter to Ephesus). The primary issue apparently has to with meat sacrificed to idols. Meat was frequently sacrificed to the local gods at pagan feasts before being shared with the public or sold in the open market. This issue had been important in the ministry of the apostle Paul as well.

“Fornication” in this text may refer simply to a lack of fidelity to God. In the Scriptures running after idols is often thought of in terms of marriage or covenant fidelity. To worship other gods is frequently described as a lack of marital fidelity to God (see for example Hosea). But it also in this case may imply that some who were participating in the cultic worship practices of Pergamum – like the festivals where the meat was sacrificed to the idols – were also entering into the physical and highly immoral acts that surrounded those pagan feasts.

16 Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

The promise of Christ is that his judgment will come, but those who keep fidelity to him will receive hidden manna and a white stone. During the time of Balaam the Israelites were being fed with manna. Like the young men of Judah living in Babylon who refused to eat at the king’s table but were fed by God’s blessing, those who avoid being accommodated to the practices surrounding the meat sacrificed idols will be fed not only by Christ’s presence but ultimately by his eschatological feast.

The white stone may refer to the tessera that is the ancient equivalent of a ticket used for admission to public festivals. Avoiding accommodation to the first century culture may lead to alienation, but those who are faithful are promised admission to the messianic feast. Johnson argues that, “The interpretation that makes the best sense to me is the so called tessera hospitalis. When two friends were about the part they would divide a white stone in half. Each friend would inscribe his or her name on one of the halves and give it to the other. It became the symbol of their friendship and the symbol of their promise to maintain that friendship as long as the stone lasted. Jesus is promising intimate friendship to those who overcome. His name on my half. My name written on his half. It is my new name that he writes – my new identity that he gives me” (Johnson, 86).

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