This video continues the messages to the Seven Churches of Revelation. If you have not done so already, please watch the videos that focus on the messages to Ephesus and Smyrna in order to get the context of this video which covers the message to the church in Pergamos.
The messages to the seven churches were letters to real but obscure 1st century churches in seven cities in Asia minor. Although these letters were meaningful to them, the messages were primarily progressive prophecies predicting the experience of the Christian Church throughout history from the first century to the time of the end.
The Pergamos period extended through the fourth and fifth century when Christianity was transformed from being a persecuted illegal cult into the official religion of the Roman Empire.
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, ‘These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is” (Revelation 2:12,13).
In the Smyrna church we saw the appearance of the “synagogue of Satan”. In the second and third centuries the simple, spirit-filled apostolic church began to take on legalistic rituals, ceremonies, dietary restrictions, detailed rules and laws, and a rigid hierarchy of priests and bishops.
These developments were kept in check to a certain extent by poverty and persecution. But in the fourth century the “synagogue of Satan” became the “throne of Satan” when the Christian church united with the Roman Empire.
How could such a thing happen? During the Smyrna period the Church was persecuted as it was a convenient scapegoat for the problems of the Empire. Persecution, however, tended to strengthen rather than weaken the church.
When Constantine became emperor, he recognized the need for a new policy. While on the battlefield Constantine claimed to have a vision in which he saw a cross with the inscription, “in this sign conquer”. Taking this to mean that he should embrace Christianity, he “baptized” his troops by marching them through the river, and then went on to win a great victory that helped to strengthen his hold on the empire.
He soon began to pass laws favoring Christianity over other religions. Heathen sacrifices were outlawed, as well as work on Sunday. Huge churches were built, and the wealth of the empire supported the church leaders and their projects.
Constantine organized great church councils to deal with heresy. He banished and persecuted those who were declared enemies of the church. Representatives of the church were involved in the affairs of the state, and the state was involved in the affairs of the church.
For the official church, it seemed like a dream come true. They were finally not only legal but favored, so they could get on with the mission Christ had given them to preach the gospel in all the world.
New “believers” were pouring into the church, and the wealth and power of the empire were at their disposal to create the kingdom of God on earth. They never dreamed of what a corrupting effect the union of church and state would have, or what kinds of heresies and idolatry the half-converted pagans would bring with them into the church now that everyone was considered a Christian.
The message to Pergamos shined a light on developing idolatry. “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication” (Revelation 2:14).
The story of Balaam and his attempts to curse the children of Israel is found in the book of Numbers.
As a prophet, Balaam knew the voice of God, and God had shown him that he was not to respond to the offer of money from Balak, the king of Moab, who wanted Israel to be cursed. But “Balaam…loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2Peter 2:15) and he went to Balak, hoping that he could somehow obey God and get the money too. But the Spirit of God restrained Balaam; he was not able to curse Israel, and instead pronounced a series of blessings.
However, Balaam still wanted that money, and he came up with a new idea: If the children of Israel could be enticed into sin, they would forfeit their divine protection and the Moabites could defeat them. Why not exploit the Moabite women by using them to seduce the Israelite men?
Numbers chapter 31 tells us, “[Moabite] women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord, and there was a plague among the congregation…They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods…and those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand” (Numbers 31:16, 25:2,3,9).
Balaam exploited the spiritual weakness and love of sin of the people of Israel and enticed them into idolatry for his own personal profit.
This kind of crass exploitation of idolatry came into the Christian church during the Pergamos era when priests and monks took advantage of the reverence the common people had for the heroes of the church.
The martyrs, such as James, Stephen, and those persecuted during the Smyrna era had always been honored, and their stories were passed down from generation to generation. But during the fourth and fifth centuries, these Christian heroes began to be seen as supernatural beings. Beings, who were alive in heaven, watching over and helping those who sought their intervention. “Special days were dedicated to the saints, and on these days their icons and relics were displayed. The superstitious multitudes were taught to believe that offerings given on these days could secure God’s favor for themselves or their departed loved ones” (Williston Walker, “The History of the Christian Church”).
Mary the mother of Jesus, and the saints became the friends and advocates of the people, while God the Father and even Jesus were seen as distant and severe. Stories of miracles performed by the saints made the common people even more anxious to buy access to them.
Pieces of the cross, articles, and bones of the saints, and icons that were supposed to have miraculous powers were displayed at lavish shrines, and the priests and monks who presided over these sites shared in the wealth that flowed into them.
Like Balaam, the church leaders encouraged idolatry because it increased their power, influence, and wealth.
During the Pergamos era, another trend was destroying the purity of the Christian church. “So you have also those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which I hate” (Revelation 2:15). The Nicolaitans were one of the Gnostic sects. The basic idea of Gnosticism was that the material world is evil, but through secret knowledge, the enlightened ones could escape to a higher spiritual sphere.
The Gnostics rejected the holistic Hebrew view of man, splitting the “holy” mind and spirit from the corrupt and immoral body as if the one had no effect on the other.
The Nicolaitans took this to a shockingly immoral extreme. According to Irenaeus, a second-century theologian, the Nicolaitans considered it irrelevant if Christians committed adultery or ate foods that had been offered to idols since it was the soul and spirit that were important, not the deeds of the body.
Although the Christian Church rejected Gnosticism during the Ephesus and Smyrna periods, the idea of a split between the physical and the spiritual developed in an unexpected way during the Pergamos period with the development of monasticism.
When the church was experiencing persecution, the spiritual heroes were those who accepted martyrdom rather than renounce their faith.
But when Christianity became the official religion of the empire, persecution came to an end except for those considered heretics, and large numbers of heathen “converts” became Christians in name only.
Many more became Christians because their parents had them baptized, never making a decision themselves to follow Christ. Since virtually everyone was considered a Christian now, it was easy for the general selfishness and worldliness of society to be considered normal.
In order to distinguish themselves, a small percentage of “serious” Christians withdrew from society to live in remote, hostile environments, where they dedicated their lives to poverty, fasting, and prayer.
These monks believed that Jesus had presented an optional life of strict holiness, based on scriptures such as Matthew 19:21, “If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor” and Matthew 19:12 “He who is able to accept it, let him accept it”.
This strict, ascetic lifestyle shared with Gnosticism the idea that the material world is evil, and that only the select few can escape to a higher sphere, in the monastery. The unfortunate consequence was that this promoted a double standard of Christian morality. The ordinary “Christian” understood that immorality was evil, but since he was not taking part in the pure monastic life, he could not be expected to overcome his sinful physical nature.
The monks themselves did not expect the common people to live a moral life since they had rejected the optional advice to be holy. The result was the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans” on a church-wide scale: the church was split into a “pure and holy” elite who withdrew from the world in the monasteries, and the masses of ordinary “Christians” who lived worldly and immoral lives.
But even in the monastery and among the priests there was a Nicolaitan “split” because of the unbiblical doctrine of celibacy. On the one hand, they engaged in nearly constant prayers, liturgies and fasting, but on the other hand, they often fell into perverse and immoral behavior because of the inhumane denial of their sexual nature.
Immorality between monks and nuns, sexual exploitation by priests of those who came to them for confession, promiscuous homosexuality, and child abuse have been a tragic pattern that has been a curse in the church, not only during the Pergamos era but all through the centuries until the present day. It is no wonder that Jesus condemned “the deeds of the Nicolaitans which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6).
Not everyone accepted the Balaam and Nicolaitan descent into immorality and idolatry.
A resistance developed to the throne of Satan, symbolized by Antipas. “You dwell, even where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and have not denied My faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:13).
According to Greek Orthodox tradition, Antipas was the Bishop of Pergamos during the reign of Emperor Domitian.
Pergamos was a center of pagan worship, and Antipas had a busy ministry casting out demons from former pagans who were accepting Christ 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 pagan 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. They became enraged and cast him into a red-hot copper idol of an ox, where he continued to pray until he died.
In the message to Pergamos, Antipas symbolizes those faithful Christians who were actively resisting the inroads of idolatry during the Pergamos era.
For centuries the battles raged, coming to a head in the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries. But in the end, the image-worshipers prevailed, and the resistance was forced to go underground.
The hidden status of the faithful believers who had to go underground in the face of rejection and persecution by the official state church is emphasized by the final blessing: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 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 written which no one knows except him who receives it” (Revelation 2:17)
What can we learn from the message to the church in Pergamos?
From the Balaam rebuke we can learn that Jesus Himself, and knowing Him, is the great reward; not the wealth, fame, or power that we might grasp by exploiting religious superstition or weakness.
From the Nicolaitan rebuke, we can learn that our faith is not about what we know, but about who we know, Jesus, and He wants to invade and bless every aspect of our lives, physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.
And from the example of Antipas we can learn that Jesus is worth living for and He is even worth dying for; but if it comes to that His promise is sure, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called by your name; you are Mine. When you pass through the waters…when you walk through fire…I will be with you” (Isaiah 43:1,2).
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