Strong Church/Weak Church 13
Pergamos, although located in western Turkey, had its roots in Greece. Like
many Greek city states it was essentially
its own kingdom at one point several hundred years before Christ. It was known
in its own day as the headquarters for the worship of Aesculapius, the Roman
god of medicine, whose symbol was the familiar-to-us staff and snake of modern
medicine. In the temple, which was also a hospital, snakes crawled
freely along the floors. Pergamos is known in academic circles for containing
what was perhaps the second-best library in the ancient world after Alexandria,
Egypt. About a century before Christ, it transferred suzerainty to the Roman
Empire, along with the rest of the petty kingdoms in the area. It still exists
today, now known as Bergama, and has a population of about 55,000, give or
|The remains of a Roman theater on a hillside|
overlooking modern Bergama, Turkey
The Scripture passage that describes this church is found, as with many others in this series, in Revelation.
12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;
13 I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.
14 But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
16 Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
I see three things here: one strength and two weaknesses. Because this diagnosis is shorter than some, I will put the entirety of it within one blog post.
On the strength side, this church handled persecution without denying Christ. Thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you. I have already discussed this in some detail in reference to both Ephesus and Smyrna, so I shall simply note it and move on. I will say that history tells us that like Polycarp in Smyrna, Antipas was the pastor of the church at Pergamos. He, too, was ordained by John but his martyrdom came much earlier than Polycarp’s by some sixty years. Regardless, this church stood strong through it all, and John unhesitatingly commended them for it.
On the weakness side of the discussion I find two, one already discussed in some detail in reference to Ephesus, namely this: they had begun attempting to lord it over other local churches. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate (Revelation 2.15). I dealt with this extensively a couple of weeks ago and I am not going to repeat it all here. Suffice it to say, Pergamos was on the other side of the equation from Ephesus, and God was highly aggravated with them about it. He uses very strong language here.
The second weakness was a bit more obscure. I will follow my statement with an explanation, but here is the statement first: they were a sensual church.
One of the two things God specifically says He has against this church relates somehow to the Old Testament prophet, Balaam. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication (Revelation 2.14). So, what is the doctrine of Balaam?
|Coastal Landscape with Balaam and the Ass|
by Bartholomeus Breenburgh, 1636
Balaam was one of the non-Jewish prophets of the Old Testament. He was asked by the local Midian king, Balak, to call down God’s disfavor on the Israelites, to curse them. Balak had heard of what happened in Egypt, and was fearful of Israel. Motivated by greed, Balaam determined to accept Balak’s offer even though God specifically forbad it. When Balaam went to Balak anyway, God got angry with Balaam, and sent an angel to punish him. Balaam did not see the angel but his donkey did, causing Balaam and his donkey to engage in their famous argument. Balaam repents, but God informs him he is free to meet Balak at this point provided he is careful to only prophesy that which God tells him to say. Three times Balak takes Balaam to a high place in an effort to get Balaam to pronounce a curse on Israel. Three times Balaam opens his mouth to comply, only to have a blessing come out. Unpaid, and apparently unable to curse Israel, Balaam comes up with a new plan. Since he cannot prophetically curse God’s people, he advises Balak on how to ensnare them instead. Essentially, this plan involved sending Midian’s prettiest young women into Israel’s camp to seduce Israel’s young men to join them in the sexual excesses of their pagan religious rites. God’s response was to send a plague that killed 24,000 Jews (Numbers 25). Later, after Israel had won a war against Midian, Moses demanded that these women be killed.
15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
Back then to the question, what was the doctrine of Balaam? It was Balaam’s teaching to Balak to seduce God’s people via a sex cult away from Jehovah toward Baal. In some sense, then, the church at Pergamos had become similar to many of the pagan Roman cults of its day, one that intertwined sexuality with worship of the divine. That is a harsh conclusion, but a justified one, if I understand the Word of God.
Such an unholy thing in a church rightly draws God’s harsh condemnation. A church is to be different than the world around it, holy where they are unholy. We are specifically called to be a morally pure institution. Any sexual activity outside the bonds of matrimony is not to be tolerated amongst God’s people; especially in some twisted concept of pleasing God by so doing. And a church, any church, that goes easy on such loose living, on such open immorality is heading down an appalling road.
He is pure.
We are His people.
Let us be pure.