As I see it, the letters sent to the seven churches contain a rundown of conditions then present, which will be more fully developed as the end of the age draws near. Proceeding on this principle of interpretation, we come to Pergamum, a wealthy city famed for its humanistic refinements of arts and letters, science and medicine. At Pergamum was a massive library of 200,000 volumes (i.e., scrolls), and a celebrated temple to Aesculapius, the heathen god of medicine.
According to classical mythology, Aesculapius became so proficient in his art that he even raised the dead. But Pluto, god of the underworld, complained to Zeus that he was losing business. So Zeus smote the healer with a thunderbolt; and from that time he received divine honors. Aesculapius was worshipped as a serpent which was fed in the temple, and considered its divinity. On ancient coins struck by the town, the god appears with a rod encircled by a serpent (the emblem of the medical profession). The original form of the Hippocratic Oath contains an invocation of his name.
Look closely at the conditions described in this letter, and you’ll get a perfect picture of what the world will be like during the dispensation of judgment. Medical science will have reached such a level as to almost raise the dead. And yet for all that, the moral state of mankind will be such as to call for a sword. The sword cuts two ways–to life or to death. They who refuse Jesus Christ’s saving words have one who standeth at the door (James 5: 9); the Judge whose sword will plead with all flesh (Isaiah 66: 16).
(2: 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.”
Again, we see in this epistle that the saints are under great trials. They are not living in ease, but are enduring much suffering for Christ’s name. Their faithfulness during these times of tribulation is commended. This makes us wonder, what will things be like during the 70th week of Daniel? Will we have a recurrence of these very conditions? How many will defect from the faith in that day? Let’s think about these things; for you and I may have to go through these very trials. Will we receive the same words of commendation? Or will be found “salt without savor“:–utterly worthless, and fit to be cast out, and trodden under foot? (Matt. 5: 13).
As to the identity of Antipas, we have no sure information. Tradition assigns him as a bishop of Pergamos, martyred during the reign of Domitian. The facts are so uncertain, however, that we can only speculate. But this let us grasp this one truth: that during the times depicted in this epistle, martyrdom will be resorted to by the enemies of God. Hence, the city is justly called “the seat of Satan.” Is this synonymous with the “seat of the beast” mentioned in ch. 16: 10? If so, we have an indication that the antitypical city of Pergamos is none other than Mystery Babylon. Famed for its humanistic achievements, it is the epitome of man’s boasted “progress.” As such, it is noted for its hatred of the Christian religion. Let us take a spiritual lesson to heart, and remember that secular humanism has always been, in essence, opposed to the spirit of Christ. It was during an age of “progress” that the flood came upon the old world (Gen. 4: 19-22).
(2: 14) “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.”
Although the church in Pergamos has remained steadfast during these ordeals, there are some among them who take after the ways of Balaam. We’ll recall that Balaam the son of Beor was a prophet hired by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness (Numbers 22: 1-6). God prevented him from cursing Israel. In fact, Balaam, divinely inspired, thrice blessed Israel, to the consternation of Balak, who angrily sent him away (Num. 24: 10-11). But later Balaam, eager for a reward, gave Balak counsel to corrupt the Israelites by sending into their midst the prostitutes of Baal-Peor. With these Israel committed whoredoms, and the wrath of God was kindled (see Numbers 25).
The Divine warning to the church of Pergamos must be read in light of Jude 11 and 2 Peter 2: 1-22, in which it is revealed that during the “last days” (i.e. close of the Gospel dispensation), false teachers will sneak into the church to corrupt the saints of God. Not allowed to curse God’s people, they will attempt to foster in their midst that secret idolatry which will then prevail in the world. The nature of this idolatry is disclosed in 2 Peter 2: 18-19. Under the pretense of Christian liberty, they will “allure through the lusts of flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escpaed from them that live in error.”
This points to a rabid and unprecedented antinomianism; but that is only half the story. During the times of Antichrist, the world will have relapsed to the ancient religions of heathendom, in which fornication was a part of worship. Our minds stagger when we think of the possibility of these conditions occurring in our own age. But anyone who regards the “signs of the times” will acknowledge that the moral fabric of the world has been long deteriorating. If the present trend continues, a revival of ancient heathenistic forms of worship may be the only outcome. Only forty years ago, pornography was illegal. Now it is one of the most popular vices in America. Interest in occultism is spreading wildly, too; and other signs prevalent in our society assure us that the conditions mentioned in the letter to Pergamos are not so improbable as some may think.
The exact methods these disciples of Balaam will use to lure away Christ’s people, is difficult to ascertain. It is doubtful whether they’ll preach their doctrines openly. It is more likely that they’ll target weak disciples and, professing a higher knowledge of divine things, use the doctrines of grace to excuse their unclean and blasphemous practices. It is even possible that they’ll inculcate the doctrine that one can adhere to the heathen religion of the last days, and still be a Christian.
(2: 15) “So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.”
This second reference to the Nicolaitanes (see v. 2: 6) makes the above theory almost certain. Concerning the clause, “which thing I hate,” let us note that all of the critical texts read homoios (in like manner), and not ho miso (which I hate). If this translation be followed, then the Nicolaitane heresy is revealed as being the same as that of the Balaamites.
Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History (III. xxix. 1), states that Nicolaus, accused of jealousy, brought forth his beautiful wife in the midst of the apostles, and gave permission for any who chose to consort with her. This was in accordance with his own convictions that one “ought to abuse the flesh.” His disciples were those who “committed fornication without shame.” The early Gnostic sects taught that the soul alone is saved, and not the body–in other words, that Christ only saves half of the individual. This, of course, renders the deeds of the body inconsequential. How far this heresy is followed by modern adherents of the “Hyper-Preterist” school of thought, let them see to it.
(2: 16) “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
That is to say, the transgressors will be slain when the Lord is revealed from heaven (see ch. 19: 15). The church here addressed is assumed to be alive and on earth at the time of Christ’s second advent. This shuts us up to a futurist interpretation of these inspired predictions. The timing factor “quickly,” tells us that the dispensation of grace has now run out, and that the prophetical clock is ticking once more. As stated previously, the clock stopped ticking in the first century, when the Gospel prevailed among the Gentiles (see Colossians 1: 6). At that time, the judgments, which were to befall the habitable world, and which are inseparably connected with Christ’s coming in glory (Parousia), were postponed, and the city of Jerusalem destroyed instead. Why? Because the Gentiles accepted the “sign of Jonas,” but the Jews didn’t (see Jonah 3: 10).
(2: 17) “He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to 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.”
To these overcomers who prevail against the errors of false doctrine and the allurements of the flesh, a promise is given that they shall partake of the “hidden manna,” and receive a “white stone” with their names written in it.
What these promises signify is uncertain. The hidden manna probably points us to the antitype of the manna commanded by Moses to be laid up in the Ark of the Testament (Exodus 16: 32-34). Perhaps it involves a more complete communion with Christ than anything we know of here on earth. The white stone may be taken in a literal, as well as in a figurative, sense. But the promise hints that Christians have a heavenly name known only to God. Those who approve themselves as Christ’s disciples will be confessed by Him before the angels of God. And then “we shall know, even as we are known” (1 Cor. 13: 12).