Jesus’ third letter to the churches of Asia Minor is addressed to the church of Pergamum, a church that faced intense external pressure and persecution whilst also tackling internal immorality and heresy. Their moral compromise with culture is condemned by Christ and while it is shocking and disappointing, it is also not exactly foreign to the modern church and modern believers. Like the believers in Pergamum, Christians today are faced with the dangers of a society that celebrates immorality and false teachers who distort God’s Word to their own desires. Unless we tackle this spirit of compromise and cling to the truth, only judgement and condemnation will await us at Christ’s return.
At the start of his message, Jesus makes an interesting acknowledgement of the context in which the church in Pergamum lives, stating that they live “where Satan has his throne” (Rev 2:13). As a consequence of the cultural, social and political climate of the city they lived in, we read that believers were faced with trials and persecution, even to the point of execution, in the pursuit of their faith in Christ. Since they did not renounce their faith in Christ in the face of this opposition, Jesus commends them.
What does it mean, though, for a city to be where Satan has his throne? Instead of being a literal observation of Satan’s physical location, this statement instead alluded to the anti-Christian environment in the city. Pergamum was the centre of politics and religion in the province of Asia, where numerous gods and even the emperor were worshipped. Amidst these pressures to bow down to other gods and conform to the society of their city, the believers in Pergamum resisted and stayed true to Christ.
Unfortunately, not all the members of the church have been faithful, as Jesus states that “There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” (Rev 2:14-15). The issue that Jesus highlights here is a matter of moral compromise and sinful living, flowing from the root issue of destructive false teachings within the church. Rather than desiring doctrinal purity and a commitment to living in obedience to God’s ways, these people desired conformity to culture and the comfort of fitting in.
Jesus makes reference to two specific groups of false teachings: the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans distorted the doctrine of grace and Christian freedom to justify participation in the idol feasts and immorality of Roman society. Similarly, Balaam is referenced here as the archetype of corrupt and deceptive false teachers. Numbers 25 and 31 elaborate on Balaam’s villainy against God’s people, instigating the Israelite men to Baal worship by seducing them with Midianite women. Both the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans, and also those who tolerated their heresy within the church sought to justify sin under the pretext of reconciling Christ to their cultural context. However, Jesus unreservedly condemns this – no matter the context and the difficulties they are facing, nothing can justify compromising on the true gospel.
To the adherents of this false teaching and moral compromise, Jesus issues an urgent command to repent. The consequences of unrepentance are severe, as Jesus states in verse 16 that he will “soon come to you and fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” Jesus promises judgement by His Word, and for the unrepentant, only eternal condemnation can await them.
Jesus’ exhortation then broadens to include all believers to provide an encouragement for all to repent and turn away from immorality and false teaching. Those who are “victorious” over their spirit of accommodation for false teaching and immorality, and thus do genuinely repent, will be rewarded with “some of the hidden manna” and will also receive “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Rev 2:17). Jesus here alludes to the eternal life that awaits his true believers, and points his people to the wonderful future hope of his return where God’s work in them is completed and they can feast and celebrate with their Saviour.
A brief survey of the landscape of global Christianity makes it abundantly clear that the problem of false teaching and compromise with culture did not die out with the church in Pergamum. The deceptive message of false teachers has actually been amplified with the advent of social media and liberal theology continues to be proliferated within churches. In some instances, believers have become indistinguishable from the rest of the world. Like the church in Pergamum, modern day believers are facing immense pressure to conform to the pattern of this world – to embrace sexual liberty and promiscuity in the name of freedom, to worship the gods of career, wealth, and appearance, to elevate their desires and passions above all else. In the face of all this, Christ’s message to the modern believer remains the same – repent!
Jesus’ warning to the church of Pergamum is one which we cannot afford to ignore – eternity is at stake! This portion of Revelation reminds us that correct doctrine and obedience to God must be the priority of our hearts, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in. A spirit of compromise and complacency with the presence of sin in our lives and our church cannot exist in those who claim to know and follow Christ.
Before we can consider our stance towards the world and things external to us, we must first examine ourselves and our relationship with God’s Word, for we cannot hope to fight false teaching if we ourselves don’t know and obey what is true. In 1 John 1:3-4, we read that “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.” As you examine your life and your heart, some uncomfortable truths might come to light – perhaps you’ve been living in a way that contradicts the faith you profess. Perhaps you’re realising you don’t even know what ‘God’s Word’ is or what his commands are. If this is you, my prayer is that you will humbly repent before God and ask that He teaches you who He is through His Word and by His Spirit.
It’s important to note that Jesus also holds the church in Pergamum’s continued tolerance of false teaching against them as well. Those who remain silent where blatant false teaching is being spread are accessories to the deception of God’s people, and this is something that Christ condemns. This isn’t an invitation to start a witch hunt for false teachers; we know that their destruction and ultimate judgement belongs to Christ. Instead, we are to be so rooted in the message of the gospel that any teaching that contradicts it becomes unpalatable and unacceptable to us. We see this in Paul’s instructions for the establishment of elders who “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). God’s design for the church’s defence against false teachers is not a greater understanding of the heresies they proliferate, but rather an unwavering hold on the true message that He has already given to us through Jesus.
Like the believers that Jesus commended, we too must resist the pressures to conform that we face from the cultural contexts we are in. In Peter’s first letter to believers scattered by persecution, he says “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-12). Here, Peter reminds us of our identities as “foreigners and exiles” on this earth and the temporary nature of the trials we will endure, for we have a far greater eternity to look forward to. He also reminds us that our limited time on this earth is to be used for God’s glory. By being distinct from those around us and constant in doing good amidst the shifting tides of culture, we can bring others to see how good our God is so that they can enjoy the sweetness of knowing Him.
Christ’s message to the church of Pergamum is a warning to be heeded by all believers as we face the varying challenges in the contexts that God has placed us in. We cannot give in to the spirit of compromise that tempts us away from living lives that are holy and pure for the glory of God. Though this may seem overwhelming, we do not need to despair because we have already been equipped with all that we need to be ‘victorious’ against this spirit of compromise by our gracious Father who has given us His Word and His Holy Spirit.