Saturday, August 22, 2009

Christ's Message to the Church of Pergamos

In my ongoing review on the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, I began by sharing my understanding of certain aspects of the end times and how I see them. Then last week I started a review of the letters Jesus dictated to His disciple John while he was a prisoner on the island of Patmos. This week I will cover the letter to Pergamos, the compromising church.
The Roman historian Pliny called the city of Pergamum the most illustrious city in Asia because of all its statues, temples, monuments, and public buildings. Strategically located high on a humped or cone shaped hill that dominated the Caicus plain, Pergamum had an excellent view of the sea and distant mountain ranges making it an important military town that was fortified and well defended. Both Smyrna and Pergamum were a part of the same kingdom ruled by Attalus III, who was shrewd enough to help Rome defeat the Seleucids during the Punic Wars. When Attalus died in 133 BC he bequeathed his domain to the Roman Empire. Thus Pergamum realized a partnership with Rome that would last the duration of the Roman Empire’s dominance in Asia.

Among its public buildings Pergamum had the empires second largest library and a theatre that seated over 20,000 people. With temples dedicated to Athena, Dionysus, Asclepios, Roma, Zeus, and various roman emperors like Trajan, only Athens could boast of more respect for the gods. By the time John had his vision, Pergamum had become the very center of Emperor Worship in the Asian province. Many bible scholars believe the phrase, “where Satan dwells”, refers to this emperor worship while others claim “Satan's throne” to be a reference to the Altar of Zeus (Rev 2:13). Still others believe that Christ was referring to the worship of Asclepios the pagan god of healing.

People from all over the empire would come to Pergamum to be healed by Asclepios. Snakes were a symbol of this cult and Asclepios’ temple was infested with snakes, even to this day we use the snake as a symbol of the medical profession. The Greek historian Pausanias of Lydia kept a journal about his travels and the different cities he visited. In describing the temple of Asclepios he wrote,
“I looked upon Asclepios who was sitting on a throne with his hand upon the head of a serpent”. Pausanias
The serpent was actually a totem of the god Asclepios. Pausanias wrote how many harmless varieties of snakes had free run of this shrine as well as other shrines like Dionysus. Dionysus supposedly offered his followers life after death along with a meaningful life on earth through sexual indulgences and the consumption of raw meat and wine. Those who joined in on the activities of worshiping Dionysus, would get so wild in their sexual practices that the festivals were outlawed in the city Rome because they were considered to be too immoral! The images engraved on coins excavated from archeological sites are those of snakes amidst fruits & vegetables, and some coins even that portraiyed the Emperor Caracalla standing before a snake coiled around a tree. Therefore wherever the Christian went he would be confronted with cultic practices that included the very symbol of the evil one himself the, snake.
The definition for the Greek word Pergamum (Πέργαμος ) is objectionable marriage, which alludes to the church mixing the truth with lies of questionable teachers, such as the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:15). The church is being charged by Christ for compromising with the world, in that some held to the doctrine of Balaam. Just as Balaam taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel) some 1400 years earlier, there were some teachers in the Pergamos church who taught that it was lawful to eat things sacrificed to idols, and that committing sexual immorality was not sinful. We read in the letter to the Ephesian church that it is credited for hating the Nicoalaitans, however in Pergamum the church was embracing the very doctrine that was detested by Christ Himself. Peter anticipated that such problems would exist when he wrote his second letter some 30 years earlier.
“They are spots and blemishes, carousing in their own deceptions while they feast with you, having eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin, enticing unstable souls. They have a heart trained in covetous practices, and are accursed children. They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor.” (2Pe 2:13-15)
There is no way to know if those teaching the false doctrine at Pergamos were being paid as Balaam was, but we do know that sexual immorality and compromise with idolatry was not only tolerated but even advocated by some in the church. It is wise to remember that it is not those who are outside the church structure who mislead the brethren but the sheep in wolves clothing that lead the flock astray from within the Church’s ranks. Too often believers run after words that suit their individual tastes rather than hold fast to the simplicity and radical demands that the Gospel makes upon them. Timothy was warned by Paul about this when he said that instead of following sound doctrine they will hire teachers who will scratch their itchy ears. (2 Tim 4:3-4) As that happens the church will start to resemble the church of Pergamum and compromise their walk with Christ.

While the church was admonished to repent from following these false teachers (Rev 2:13), I must point out that some held fast to their faith. One of them, Antipas, was even put to death for his faith. According to some ancient sources the second bishop of Pergamum was a dentist named Antipas. Then there ts the theory that the word Antipas describes the type of person or persons who at that time related to the phrase “ the things which are" in Rev 1:19. The word Antipas (ἀντί) in Greek, can also signify "against all, over against, opposite, or instead of. So the use of the word antipas here could be a designation of those who were faithful in their opposition to false teachers who corrupted the truth. There is no way to proof either of these explanations, but I offer them both for consideration.

The letter continues that Christ tells those who do repent, that they can expect a white stone with a new name and some of the hidden manna. (Rev 2:17). To the Greeks, a white stone was a symbol of acquittal, whereas a black stone was a judgment of guilt. The implication here being that those receiving a white stone will be justified as innocent and gain victory over the second death. The idea of hidden manna reflects a Jewish tradition, (from the Apocrypha book II Maccabees) about the pot of manna that was placed in the ark for a memorial to future generations (Ex 16:32). When Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in the sixth century BC, Jeremiah supposedly took the ark and its contents and hid them underground in Mt Nebo. There it was to remain until the coming of the Messiah when Jeremiah would reappear and return the ark and its contents to the new messianic temple in Jerusalem. (2 Mac 2:4)
Among historicists and some futurists, Pergamum is representative of the imperial church age that started with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD and lasted until about 606 AD. This is a period of time when the church and state merged, or as the meaning of Pergamum alludes to, it entered into an objectionable marriage. The majority of converts during this time became Christian in name only, bringing their pagan practices and lifestyles into a compromised church. We see the same kind of problems that the Pergamos church was faced with in many churches today. Like those of the Pergamos, they too can repent and receive all the blessings of eternal life in the glory of heaven or they can refuse to repent and face the terrifying reality of having the Lord Jesus Christ declare war on them. Far too many churches today would rather maintain the path of compromise with the world, and it is this compromise that will inevitably lead its members to eternal damnation. This letter is a warning that churches today should heed by taking a strong stand for God’s truth and refusing to compromise with the world.

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”, I pray that those who read His words will call upon the name that is above all names, and gain eternal salvation.

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