Pergamos was situated some 80 miles north of Smyrna. It was for a time the official capital of the Roman province of Asia, but Ephesus eventually overtook it in importance because of the latter’s more favorable location for trade and transport. Pergamos was known for its culture and pagan religion, housing a famous library and temples to various heathen gods such as Zeus, Athene, Aesculapius and Dionysius. In the name of Aesculapius there were numerous medical facilities in operation, and the snake symbol became associated with these. This symbol is still linked with the medical fraternity today. The cult of emperor worship was strong in Pergamos, and Christians could be persecuted if they refused to offer incense to the image of the emperor.
The Lord presented Himself to the church as having a sword. This was a symbol of authority, power and judgment as seen in John’s earlier vision of Christ in His glory (Rev 1:16). The word used here does not refer to the Roman soldier’s short two-edged “Spanish sword” worn high on his right side and used for quick stabbing movements, but to a larger sword used to strike one mortal blow. The Proconsul of Asia was conferred with the “right of the sword,” jus gladii, thereby having the power over life and death.
Once again, the perception of Christ is noted when He said to them, “I know …” He commended all their best efforts, given that they lived in a virtual stronghold of Satan. The many temples to heathen deities must have felt spiritually claustrophobic as the Christians moved around the city, and the power of darkness would have been palpable at times. Certainly, when someone like faithful Antipas was martyred, the believers would have been deeply affected. Antipas practiced medicine but was condemned to death for being a Christian. He was shut up in a copper image of a bull and died a horrible death when this hollow structure was heated until it was red hot. Despite all these hindrances, the believers in Pergamos had sought to remain loyal to the name of Christ.
Sadly, there were other things that could not be overlooked by the omniscient Lord. The evil world around them had made inroads into their lives. As John wrote of the “doctrine of Balaam,” he was referring back to the Old Testament character who was bribed by King Balak to curse the people of God. Through divine intervention, Balaam was unable to curse the nation of Israel. However, he was still able to compromise them through immorality and idolatry (Num 25:1-3; 31:16). The relevance of this story to the Christians of Pergamos was that the pervasive temple prostitution and the sale and consumption of foods offered to idols were real temptations. There were those teaching that such things could be accommodated and were not incompatible with Christian testimony.
In addition, for the second time in John’s seven letters, we read of the Nicolaitans – not now of their deeds but rather of their doctrine that some had imbibed. There is no clear evidence as to exactly what this false doctrine entailed. Some Bible commentators have taken a cue from the meaning of the name (“the conqueror of the people”), suggesting that this was a group with pretensions of grabbing power so as to dominate others and rule over them in the church (cf. Diotrephes, 3Jn 9). In the context of our letter, it could also be the first-century manifestation of the Old Testament doctrine of Balaam already mentioned, compromising God’s people so that they tolerated or indulged in unholy living. This would result in any line of separation being blurred and prevent any testimony from being effective.
With a note of solemn urgency, the Lord called upon the assembly to repent; otherwise those who had sinned would be judged with the sword of His mouth. This implies that His words of condemnation and judgment would be uttered with total authority. None would be able to withstand them.
His promise to the overcomer was of eating hidden manna and being given a white stone upon which a new name would be written, understood only by those who received it. These blessings from the hand of Christ signify the honor that He will bestow upon those who have been faithful to Him. They also suggest an intimacy of fellowship with Himself. The manna which the Israelites ate in the wilderness was food for the body (Exo 16:35). The bread of life from heaven is Christ Himself, the essential food for every soul that believes on Him (Joh 6:33-35). The golden pot of manna was kept in the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, seen only by the eye of God. Only God sees His Son as He really is, but we can enter into that enjoyment in a daily walk and personal fellowship with Himself, feeding upon Him as He is revealed in His Word.
An Application for Today
Our doctrine – the truth we believe – is vital to how we live. Wrong doctrine, whether it be that of Balaam, the Nicolaitans, or of anyone else, will influence our conduct. That is why it is so important for the shepherds of God’s people to guard the flock from anything that would be contrary to the Word of God. There are so many erroneous ideas swirling around today in the religious world at large that constant vigilance is required.
Wrong ideas, however insignificant they might seem, have an insidious effect upon us; they can spoil our communion with the Lord, as well as mar our testimony before the world. Furthermore, experience shows that those who have been affected by error can find it difficult to leave it aside and make a clean break. Established patterns of thought are often tenacious. Shepherds need wisdom, grace, and plenty of patience as they seek to recover the erring.
The church that compromises and moves away from what Paul denoted as “the same [things]” (2Ti 2:2), and what Jude denoted as “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (1:3), is risking the judgment of an offended God.