Special series: The Revelation of Jesus Christ
Part 4: Pergamos
The church in compromise of apostolic doctrine
By James K. Bridges
From the beginning, Satan’s tactic has been to destroy God’s ministers wherever possible. We see this tactic in the Book of Acts when James, the pastor of the Jerusalem church, was beheaded and Peter was imprisoned awaiting the same end (12:1,2). The Lord memorializes one of the dedicated pastors of the church in Pergamos — Antipas by name — who had been a victim of the persecution. So highly does Christ think of Antipas that He assigns His servant a title belonging to Christ himself — “My faithful martyr” (Revelation 2:13; cf. 1:5, NKJV). The Greek word for “witness” is martus, from which the word “martyr” also comes. In the early church, to be a faithful witness to Christ, often carried the price tag of martyrdom.
The leaders of the churches were especially targeted, for the devil assumed this was the best way to destroy the church. History records others in Pergamos who were martyred for their faith: Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonike. Through the ages and even in the 20th and 21st centuries, pastors, missionaries and denominational leaders have been martyred for the cause of Christ. But the church has stood courageously and Christ has brought forth new leaders to take the place of the fallen. The Head of the church will see to it that His people will have faithful shepherds who lead in the face of opposition and keep the church faithful to the truth.
The Roman writer Pliny referred to Pergamos as “the most distinguished city in Asia.” It boasted a library of 200,000 volumes, second only to Alexandria. Pergamos was also a center of worship for pagan cults and it was the center of emperor worship in Asia. Because it was the capital of the province, the Roman proconsul was given “the right of the sword” which granted him the power to execute at will any who failed to acknowledge the godhead of the emperor.
The identification of the Author
“He who has the sharp two-edged sword” (2:12).
Christ presents himself as the One who has the final authority over life and death. Rome’s sword is limited only to the body, but Christ’s sword wields power over body, soul and spirit. Christ draws the church’s attention to His two-edged sword, which in John’s vision went out of His mouth (1:16), in order for them to realize that the unscriptural teachings they were tolerating in the assembly were going to be judged by the true, unadulterated Word of God. Their doctrine must measure up to the apostolic doctrine which was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus can speak the Word of God because He is the Word of God (John 1:1,14) and “the word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). John described the final victory of the truth over error when he revealed Christ seated on a white horse “clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God” (Revelation 19:13). This is a great encouragement to the church in all generations to know that all false doctrines and heresies, error and deception will be judged by the One who is the Truth!
The evaluation of the church
“I know your works, and where you dwell” (2:13).
It is comforting to know that our Lord is aware of the details of our lives and can intervene. He even knows us by name and how faithfully we have served Him.
“Where Satan’s throne is” (2:13).
The province of Asia had become a stronghold of the powers of darkness, and the capital city with its rampant idolatry was clearly a hotbed of satanic activity. John identified the archenemy of Christ and His church: “The great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the devil and satan, who deceives the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Cast out of heaven, Satan is now the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), blinding minds and keeping the lost enslaved. World religions of today with idolatrous worship are the same satanic strongholds as in the first century.
“Those who hold the doctrine of Balaam” (2:14).
Another tactic of Satan is to destroy the church through doctrinal error and deception. The church in Pergamos had a number of its members who were holding to dangerous teachings. The rest of the church was guilty of tolerating these teachings. No one was challenging the error and standing for apostolic truth.
The doctrine of Balaam removed the distinction between the people of God and the people of the world. Balaam was a prophet who was greedy for money, but God would not allow him to gain his reward at the expense of Israel. Balaam came to realize that Israel’s favor with God rested upon her special calling and separate status from the nations. He found another way of getting the money offered to him by putting “a stumbling block before the children of Israel” (2:14) by advising King Balak to corrupt Israel through idolatry and immorality.
“Those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans” (2:15).
Twice the Lord states that He hates the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (2:6,15). He commends the Ephesian church for hating this doctrine and challenges the church in Pergamos for tolerating it. If the church does not correct the error immediately, Christ is prepared to take drastic action. William Barclay in his commentary The Revelation of John defined the Nicolaitans as “those who wished to compromise with the world; they were not prepared to be different; they were not prepared to make the great decision; they wished to have the best of both worlds. They were the most dangerous of all heretics from a practical point of view, for, if their teaching had been successful, the result would have been that the world would have changed Christianity and not Christianity the world.”
The solution to the existing condition
“Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth” (2:16).
Repentance requires a complete change of mind, a total break with the past, an about-face. There can be no toleration of error. There must be an absolute break with false teaching. If it is not rooted out, error will spring up again in a worse heresy. The Nicolaitans of the 21st century are equally as dangerous as those of the first century. They have no commitment to the teachings of the apostles as the early church had (Acts 2:42), but rather take the great doctrines of the Scriptures and the great Pentecostal truths and pervert them to suit their own purposes.
The church is dependent on the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth, to guide us into truth and to keep us from straying from the truth. When a church begins to change its doctrines, the reason most often given is that it has received more light on the Scripture. The truth is that the church has begun to compromise its teachings because it has accepted the standards of its culture and is accommodating the society in which it lives.
This is what happened to the church in Pergamos, and this is what is happening to the church in the 21st century. Christ says He will fight against this false teaching and its evil conduct with the sword of His mouth (2:16). The Word of God is always the best weapon against error and heresy. With the help of the Holy Spirit the church must stand faithfully on the inspired, inerrant, infallible Holy Scriptures which are authoritative for doctrine and practice.
The consolation promised to overcomers
“To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name” (2:17).
Israel received manna from heaven as they journeyed through the wilderness to their home in Canaan. It was a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ who says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51).
The promise to overcomers is that we will be sustained throughout eternity by our Lord Jesus Christ who is the hidden manna. Just as the Romans used the white stone for access and privilege, so the overcomers in Christ will enjoy the favor of their Lord with access to the glories of heaven. The new name speaks of the special new eternal relationship which we will have with our Lord for the ages to come. To feed on false doctrine is to feed on ashes, but to feed on the Word of God is to feed on the bread come down from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ.
James K. Bridges is general treasurer of the Assemblies of God.
This material will be found in expanded form in an upcoming book to be published by Gospel Publishing House.
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