Although the church was becoming an official state religion there was still a fair bit of independence of the bishops and their churches in major Christian centers such as Antioch and Alexandria, with heated debate and sometimes violent disagreement over theological issues such as the nature of God and Christ. The message to Pergamos seems to be directed to those Christians who were still resisting some of the false theology that was gaining traction within the state church—“you dwell, even where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and have not denied My faith, even in theose days wherein Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:13).

According to Orthodox tradition[1] Antipas was the Bishop of Pergamos during the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96). Pergamos was a center of Pagan worship, and Antipas had a busy ministry casting out demons from former pagans who were accepting Chist as their Lord. The pagan priests began to have dreams in which demons appeared and told them that they were so afraid of Antipas that they were fleeing the city. The priests aroused the idolaters of the city to seize Antipas and take him to the governor, who tried to force him to worship their idols. Antipas urged them to learn from the demons who fled from a simple Christian that their faith in idols was in vain. Enraged, they cast him into a red-hot copper idol of an ox, where he continued in prayer until he died.[2]

Antipas thus symbolized those who were actively resisting the inroads of idolatry during the Pergamos era (the fourth through the mid-sixth centuries). This was a time when idolaters were flocking into the new state church, seeking "Christian" idols to take the place of their old pagan idols. The custom of honoring those who had died as martyrs began to provide an outlet for the popular need for gods who were more real, and thus worship of the saints was coming into the church from the grassroots level.[3] In particular, the worship of the Virgin Mary[4] was becoming popular, and the theologians of the time were actively trying to fit the cult of Mary, with its popular title “theotokos” (Mother of God), into their speculative theologies about the nature of Christ. The theologians thought that they had such a good understanding of the nature of Christ that they could declare Mary the Mother of God.[5] In the midst of this progression into idolatry Nestorius is a flawed but prominent example of the “Antipas” spirit of resistance.

The theological issues of the time had to do with the relationship between the human and divine natures of Christ. Nestorius represented the Antioch school, which emphasized the human nature of Christ, while the Alexandrian school, represented by Cyril, emphasized the divine nature of Christ. When Nestorius was made patriarch of Constantinople in AD 428 he not only continued the dispute over the nature of Christ but also got involved in the jealousies and rivalries between Constantinople and Alexandria over power and prominence.[6]

All of this might have remained in the realm of theological and political competition except that Nestorius saw in the popular term “Mother of God” the inroads of idolatry. His bottom line was: “If Mary is called the Mother of God, she will be made into a goddess.”[7] But goddess worship can be very popular, and any criticism enrages the worshipers. “In preaching against this expression [mother of God] Nestorius seemed to be resisting the popular piety and the rising religious reverence for the Virgin. Cyril saw his opportunity to humiliate the rival see of Constantinople and the school of Antioch at one blow”.[8] A council was convened and Nestorius was condemned, banished and died in exile. The controversies over the nature of Christ continued, eventually splitting the eastern church ,[9] and the title “Mother of God” became more popular than ever, along with the developing worship of Mary, the saints and icons.

It is true that Nestorius is best known for his erroneous position on the nature of Christ.[10] But his courageous opposition to idolatry is an example of the Antipas spirit, which would grow during the next few centuries until it became a powerful force during the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries.[11] The eastern church was almost freed from idolatry, but in the end, with the support of the Roman Church, the idol worshipers prevailed and the resistance movement was stamped out (see 2:18-20 You Tolerate Jezebel).

Continue to next section: 2:14 DOCTRINE OF BALAAM

[1] Simeon Metaphrastes (900-984 AD) was a Byzantine hagiographer and statesman who compiled a 10 volume collection called the Menologion which preserved the legends and traditions about the early eastern saints. The legend of Antipas was included and April 11 is still dedicated to the memory of St. Antipas by the Orthodox Church.

[2] Summaries of the legend of Antipas can be found on a number of Orthodox websites, such as the Orthodox Church of America or

[3] See article in the Catholic Encyclopedia “Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

[4] Although Catholics claim that their tradition comes in an unbroken chain from the Apostles, they themselves admit that this is not always the case, as in the worship of the Virgin Mary. “Devotion to Our Blessed Lady is not contained, at least explicitly, in the earlier forms of the Apostle’s Creed, so there is perhaps no ground for surprise if we do not meet with any clear traces of the cultus of the Blessed Virgin in the first Christian centuries.” Catholic Encyclopedia, article “Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

[5] The basic premise was that Christ had one nature, divine and human, not two natures (one divine and one human). Since Christ’s nature was indivisible, Mary was mother of His full nature, both divine and human, and thus the mother of Divinity.

[6] Wikipedia contributors, "Nestorianism," "Monophsitism," "Nestorius" Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia Accessed June 25, 2014

[7] John Chapman, "Nestorius and Nestorianism" The Catholic Encyclopedia Accessed June 5, 2014

[8] Walker, p. 147.

[9] The eastern Church split into Nestorian Churches (emphasizing Christ’s human nature) in Persia and India, Monophysite Churches (emphasizing Christ’s divine nature) in Syria and Egypt, and Orthodox (who adopted the Roman two natures position at the council of Chalcedon) based in Constantinople.

[10] In fact, all the church leaders of the time were speculating about a theme (the nature of Christ and God) that is incomprehensible to man. The Antiochan emphasis on the human nature of Christ was extreme and imcomplete, but it was more in harmony with the Bible than the Alexandrian position that minimized the human nature: "Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the fesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist" (1John 4:3)

[11] Wikipedia contributors, "Byzantine Iconoclasm," (Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia," (accessed June 25, 2014)