Church in Pergamum
So, there’s a common assumption you’ll hear in many forms.
Typically, if you’re in academic circles you’ll hear this, that Christians are weak people who need crutches to lean on, to hold onto in order to face the difficulties and painful miseries of life. In contrast, there are the educated, the rational, the objective, the brave, who face life squarely and don’t depend or hold on to crutches, or they don’t need other things beyond themselves to lean on. Sigmund Freud was one of the ones who came up with a version of this during the early 1900s. In his book The Future of an Illusion, he argued that religion is infantile, an immature defense against the force and pain of life. However in his book he wrote about ten years before he died, Civilization and Its Discontents (originally he titled it Unhappiness and Civilization), Freud acknowledges this:
“Life as we find it is too hard for us. It brings us too many pains, disappointments, and impossible tasks. In order to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures.”
Now what are palliative measures? These are measures that provide relief, not remedy. They don’t fix anything or heal anything but they help make us more comfortable. Another word could be sedatives or opioids. Things in life that tend to make us more comfortable, take away the edge of misery. And after Freud mentioned that, he went on to list three common sedatives. Let me mention these three.
Number 1, powerful deflections which cause us to make light of our misery. Some of the examples he gives in this are things like cultivating a garden or pursuing scientific activity, things that help to make our misery a little less miserable.
Second is substitutive satisfactions that help diminish our misery. He gave the example of art or music. I would add things like sports can be illusions that contrast reality and can be effective for this reason, (these are his words) “because of the fantasy of our mental life.” And I think what he’s getting at here is, because of our capacity for imagination, we can through art, through music, even through athletics, our imagination can create a world that is purposeful, has meaning. Like in an athletic game you have a ref, you have a winner, you have a loser. Through art you can create a world or music that gives the illusion that there is purpose or meaning. Freud didn’t believe there is any intrinsic purpose or meaning in life, but it gives us this illusion.
Third obvious one, intoxicating substances can make us insensitive to our misery. And here he is talking about what? Drugs, alcohol can tend to make us forget or be insensitive to our misery at least for a moment. He then goes on to give a lot of examples of how to pursue these common sedatives, but then he concludes this. This is very interesting. He says,
“There is no golden rule which applies to everyone. Everyone must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved.”
And when he’s talking about being saved it’s not saved eternally or spiritually, but he can be saved from the misery. But do you see the irony in his statement, “There is no golden rule which applies to everyone”? What is that statement? That’s a golden rule that applies to everyone. Every man must find out for himself what particular fashion he can be saved. So that’s another golden rule that applies to everyone, even though they don’t exist. So what Freud is arguing at the conclusion of this discussion of common sedatives is that we all will pursue different things to make life less miserable, but there is no way that works for everybody and nothing that ultimately will solve the problem in a truly meaningful way.
So everybody just needs to go out and find something that takes the edge off their misery, whether it’s music or brandy or whatever. Now I feel like as Americans because of blessings, curses of materialism, we have the opportunity to diversify our sedatives. Some Americans will plunge into one and be consumed with that or become addicted. But many of us learn, no that’s not where real satisfaction is, so you diversify your sedatives. If you can find enough things to distract you from the misery, then it will take the edge off without being bound by one thing.
So it’s not so much the quality of the sedative but quantity of the sedative. And as I was thinking what Freud is arguing for and what we tend to do as Americans, it seems like Jesus is writing to address and call us to the exact opposite in this letter to the church at Pergamum. Let me just tell you what it’s about up front.
Hold on to Jesus alone. Hold on to Jesus.
This is Jesus saying, “You need to hold on to me alone,” to Jesus alone. Yes I will give you gifts, pleasures, gardens, science, beauty, music, friendship, marriage, coffee, popcorn. I will give you many, many blessings. But there is only one person who can give you life through the words he speaks and the sacrifice he made. There’s only one person who has given his life in death, burial, resurrection for you. There is only one person who has a sword coming out of his mouth (two-edged sword) implying that he alone can speak life or judgment on both the living and the dead.
So hold on to Jesus alone.
See if you see this in this letter. Verse 12, “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: the words of him [This is Jesus saying] the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. [and here he’s referring back to the vision of Jesus in chapter 1:16 where he is envisioned as having a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. These are the kinds of words he speaks. They pierce deep within us.] I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” Key verb in this letter is that verb in verse 13, “you hold fast my name.”
To hold fast is to strongly lay hold of, to forcefully lay hold of. This verb is related to the noun kratos, which is a word that simply means strength or power. And the verb form means to hold something strongly. This word appears three times in this letter to the church at Pergamum – one positive, two negative. The positive is verse 13, “you hold fast my name,” the negative verse 14, “some who hold the teaching of Balaam,” verse 15, “some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Now each one, the same Greek word. You hold fast my name, or you hold fast the teaching of Balaam, you hold fast the teaching of the Nicolaitans. What is he getting at? Everybody’s holding on to something. There’s no such thing as a crutchless person. There’s no such thing as a person – no matter how educated, empirical, brilliant, how many degrees are behind their name – they’re hanging on to something. And Jesus is saying, hold on to me alone. And the way he phrases it in the positive.
Let’s look at the positive one first. You hold fast, verse 13, my name, which represents who he is. You hold fast to me and you do not deny my faith, probably objective not subjective, which means faith in me. You hold fast faith in me even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness who was killed among you where Satan dwells. Now we don’t know much Antipas other than he was an early martyr in Pergamum. Some traditions say that he was martyred by being boiled alive inside this big brass bull, but we don’t have good historical evidence for that, so it may not be true.
We do know, based on what Jesus is saying here, is the church in Pergamum while under intense persecution, so much so that there were martyrs. And it’s interesting that word in the second part of verse 13, my faithful witness is where we get the English word “martyr” from that.
But at this point it only meant “witness.” But it was used so commonly for Christians who witnessed of Christ and ultimately were killed, that by the 3rd century it was synonymous with being a martyr. If you’re going to be a witness, you’re going to be a martyr. And that’s why the word actually means that today. So this word krateo, to hold fast, is common in these letters.
If you look over at Revelation 2:25 “only hold fast what you have until I come.” Revelation 3:11, “I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have so that no one may seize your crown.” Implied in that is a gripping, a clinging in a sense with the implication that Satan and temptations are seeking to loosen your grip on Jesus, and Jesus is saying hold fast, which means we are letting go of other things, holding them like this, and we are holding on to Jesus.
Hebrews 4:14 tells us how.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God. Let us [krateo, the same verb], let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
So Jesus is not pointing to us and saying, you’d better hold fast. He is saying, “I am pouring out grace, my empowering favor on you, enabling you to hold on, because I am holding on to you. Now why was it so hard to hold fast in Pergamum, of all places? E.M. Blaiklock, the former classics professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand concluded this. He said “Nowhere was it more difficult to stand thus lonely and execrated [which means reviled or denounced] than in Pergamum, where Christianity and Caesarism both confronted each other face to face.”
Verse 13, Jesus described. You’ll notice at the beginning of verse 13 in the end a verse 13 he describes the place as Satan’s throne or where Satan dwells.
Now imagine your hometown being described as Satan’s house, this where Satan lives. And imagine also the fact that Jesus calls some of his children to live there. Let me tell you where I’m going to send you. I’m going to send you to a place to Satan’s throne or his dwelling. I hope we understand our view of Jesus is a big view where he has a high call for his children to go to really hard places. And why might Pergamum be described as one of those places?
And I would say one of one of the reasons is because sedatives were everywhere. Sedative options were ubiquitous. They were everywhere. They were wherever you looked. Whatever kind of crutch you want to pursue, whatever kind of pleasure you’re after, whatever kind of God you want to worship, it’s in Pergamum. Let me give you some background that may help us see this. Pergamum was on the west side of Asia Minor which is today, Asia Minor is now Turkey, the country of Turkey, fifteen miles in from the Aegean Sea. The last Pergaminian king Attalus III bequeathed the kingdom to Rome.
Now imagine that. A king [this is 133 B.C.], the King looked around Asia, saw all the chaos and conflict of all these micro kingdoms fighting with each other, looked over on the other side toward Rome and realized we’re all going to get gobbled up. And so he just went to Rome and said, “We’re yours.”
We want to be under Rome’s umbrella, because Rome at this time was rising in power and Attalus III figured, better join them than be consumed by them. And so Pergamum became really the Roman capitol of Asia, where emperor worship had a strong foothold. And really in a general way it was like a mall of idolatry. If you love going to the mall to see as many different ways of worship, Pergamum was the place for you.
So let me give you some examples. If you’re into political power, you want to hold on to political power, Pergamum was the place for you. Pergamum as the capitol at one time of Asia, the center of the emperor cult, the first temple was built in 29 B.C. to Augustus on top of this huge hill/mountain, and you can see some of the remains of that temple still, numbers of temples, still on top of that rock Citadel. The second temple was built to Trajan. The citizens were required to sacrifice and participate in festivals and feasts to the emperors. Now let that sink in.
This isn’t just, you have to go to a temple. This is, your whole social life is consumed with emperor worship. And if you’re a Christian, and you can’t participate in that feast or eat that food in honor of Augustus or a Caesar, then you are a bad citizen, and you need to be punished. You say, well I’m not into political power.
How about religion. Well if you want to hold on to religious power, you’ve come to the right place in Pergamum. The altar of Zeus, the savior, was in Pergamum. Zeus was the king of Mount Olympus, according to Greek mythology. It was a temple 120 x 112 feet. The altar was 18 feet high, a huge altar and was surrounded by a frieze of gods. What are frieze? Frieze are horizontal sculptures, a band of sculptures surrounding this. When this, the remains of this temple were discovered in the 1800s, it was taken apart, taken to Germany and put back together. So you can actually see it today in the Berlin Museum. The frieze shows the gods of Olympus defeating the giants, symbolizing the victory over the Gallic invasion.
Well, what if I need something more personal? I have allergies. I feel, you know, flu-ish. Well you’ve come to the right place, because the god Asclepius was there, the god of healing. By the way I think it’s interesting, according to Greek mythology, Asclepius’s daughter’s name was Hygiene. Isn’t that interesting? It’s where we get our word hygiene from.
But this temple was a little bit creepy according to Greek mythology, Asclepius was kind to a snake, and in return the snake (he was little at the time) licked his ears clean – yes, a reptile Q-tip – and taught him taught him secret knowledge. And in honor of this dubious event, nonpoisonous snakes were kept in this temple. And for a little donation, those who – you walk through a series of tunnels to get into this temple of healing. And there were rooms where the priests would put you in a trance.
You would be laying lying on the floor, and snakes would be crawling around you, hopefully leading to your healing. If not, a heart attack.
So there was a there’s a coin where Caracalla, who was an emperor of Rome, is saluting a serpent wrapped around a sapling. I don’t know if you can see that on the on the right side you’ll see Caracalla, and the salute there I believe is where Hitler got his salute.
But you’ll see the sapling just to the left that he’s saluting, and there’s a snake, a serpent wrapped around that which today represents what? The symbol of medicine. And all of that comes from this Asclepius, the worship.
We say, well I’m feeling pretty healthy (and even if I weren’t I wouldn’t go there). I’m just hungry.
Well, Pergamum has Demeter, who is the god of agriculture, fertility, harvest. If you want amusement, Dionysius, god of vegetation, grape harvest, wine-making, unrestrained partying. Every kind of sexual pleasure you could imagine with porn and homosexuality and everything else was there. You say, well I just need some wisdom. Well again, we’ve got it. Athena the goddess of wisdom and military strategy. Music, Orpheus, the god of music and poetry. So what Vegas is to the gambler, what Harvard is to the educator, what Indianapolis is to the churchgoer… Believe it or not, they’re number one in the nation churches per capita. I thought Greenville won. No, we get crushed.
What a mall is to a shopaholic, what a bar is to an alcoholic, Pergamum is to those wanting to worship a god they could hold onto or an immoral practice they desire to pursue. Sedatives were limitless. And so when Jesus says to them, you live in Satan’s neighborhood, right where Satan seems to be dominating and have a foothold.
And you notice something, what’s interesting, he doesn’t say flee for your lives. He says to them, hold fast my name. As I came, I send you to the darkest places. But don’t submit to the temptation to blend in.
Hold fast my name. Do not deny my faith right in the middle of a cesspool of sedatives. That’s the positive.
He commends them for doing that. Verse 14, “But I have a few things against you.” And here’s the warning, the negative. You have some there who krateo, same verb, who hold not my name, not who I am, but who hold the teaching of Balaam. What is the teaching of Balaam? Balaam back in Numbers was a God-fearing prophet. Balak was the king of Moab. The king of Moab had heard all the stories of the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel, the way God had freed them from Egypt and how they were defeating kings, and so he desired to protect himself. So he sent a messenger to Balaam, this god-fearing prophet, and pleaded with him. He said, I will make you rich if you will curse Israel. Well Balaam said no can do, can’t directly curse them. A lot of exchanges back and forth. Eventually what the teaching of Balaam is, is the fact that if you cannot destroy the people of God directly through a curse, you can destroy them indirectly through compromise.
That’s the teaching of Balaam. Don’t try to directly assault the people of God, because they’re going to go no, we worship Jesus if you directly assault them. But if you can tempt them to participate in the activities of their culture, in immorality and idolatry, you will so water them down and water down their confidence in the power of God, and water down their confidence in the favor of God on their lives that they will just blend in with everybody, and you’ll take them out. And that’s the teaching of Balaam. The teaching of the Nicolaitans was very similar in verse 15.
We don’t know a ton about what they taught historically, but we know in Ephesus Jesus commended the people for hating the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Not for hating the people, but for hating the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Because Jesus was warning that this will suck the soul out of your lives as believers.
So what is it? Well it’s very similar to the teaching of Balaam. It’s the idea, hey God is God of grace. He’s okay with anything. You absorb the practices of your culture, you’ll be relevant. You won’t be on the wrong side of history. You blend in, you’ll be good. God is a God of grace. He’s good with anything. And Jesus here is warning with the same verb, it’s very interesting. You who are called to hold the name of Jesus. Some of you are holding on to teaching that is trying to bring together Jesus with idolatry, with immorality. You can’t hang on to both.
You can’t. So therefore, verse 16, repent. Repent from, turn from holding on to multiple saviors. Jesus plus sexual pleasure. Jesus plus money. Jesus plus fame and popularity.
And then in verse 16 notice Jesus said, I will judge this hypocrisy, trying to have it both ways. I will war against them with the sword of my mouth. And you notice the way he phrases that, he’s going after…It’s almost like the dad who hears two of his sons who have already been put to bed, fighting, and calls out, “Don’t make me come in there.” What is he saying? He’s saying, you guys had better work this out between the two of you or I will work you out, both of you. And Jesus is giving a similar warning. And it’s very interesting the way puts it. He says, the ones who are holding on to Jesus, he is calling them to assume some level of responsibility to warn those who are trying to have it both ways.
Don’t embrace some kind of enlightened tolerance thinking, oh yeah we’re good. God’s good, we’re all good. It’s fine, even though you’re sucking down all sorts of sedatives that are going to kill your soul. We never want to judge. No, we’re good. And Jesus said no. I’m pleading with you to love each other enough to speak words of love and truth graciously, humbly, compassionately so that I don’t have to come with judgment. Repent. Turn away from this false teaching. Is this not a wise word for evangelicals in America right now?
If this message could have been written today to us, verse 17, “To the one who conquers I will give.” And by conquers, notice he doesn’t mean “to the one who lives perfectly, sinlessly.” That’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying repent, and the one who conquers is the one who knows how to repent.
The one who conquers is humble enough to hear the word. The one who conquers is the one who realizes that sometimes God calls us together in church to hear a hard word.
And we say yes, Lord, because “my sheep hear my voice.” When you speak, I say yes.
It doesn’t mean I have my act perfectly together. It doesn’t mean I know all the answers. It doesn’t mean I always do the right thing. But God, I hear your correction, and I’m listening, and I’m responding, and I need grace to help in time of need.
That’s a conqueror. And Jesus said, “Hey I’m going to give you hidden manna.” Hidden manna. What is he talking about here? Well I’m not sure, it’s hidden. So we don’t know exactly what he’s talking about, but we can put some pieces together. We know ultimately the fulfillment is the marriage supper of the Lamb when we feast with our Savior with a provision he only can provide. But Jesus used similar language in John 4:32, John 4:32 when he told his disciples, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”
Or John 6:30, the religious leaders
“said to him, ‘What sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, he gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly I say to you it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘[I am the bread.] I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
You see how that is a word to the Christians at Pergamum who were tempted to pursue sedatives.
That is a word to us in America who have more sedatives to choose from than any people in history. Come to me.
I will satisfy you. Not with a drug that will just require another drug that will require another sedative and you’ll have to have more and more and more, but will get to the core of your soul with a deep, deep eternal satisfaction. I think that’s what he means with this hidden manna. I’m providing you not just little miraculous morsels in the morning like Israel found in the manna. I’m giving you me. “I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus is saying. Consume me. To the one who conquers, I will give hidden manna. I will give him, verse 17, a white stone. This has so many different possible historical meanings. Let me give you three options.
This could be referring to a vote of acquittal. That is when a judge held out a white stone in that culture, it symbolized exoneration or pardon. Or it could be referring to a medal of victory. When an athlete won a competition, he received a white stone, a kind trophy, a medal. Or it could be referring (and this is related to the medal of victory) a ticket of admission because there seems to be some evidence that the white stone of victory could be used as an admission ticket to the celebration banquet.
Whichever of these, or it may be a combination thereof, the point is still clear. You live in a culture where everything is screaming, if you follow Jesus you’re a failure, you’re mindless, you’re a fool. And Jesus is saying, no. I’m going to give you a sign of victory, a sign of admission. Come into the true feast, the real banquet. And this was especially relevant for the Christians in Pergamum, who a lot of the tension was over the fact that they wouldn’t eat feasts to the emperor. They wouldn’t eat food offered to the gods in the middle of a worship context.
And Jesus is saying, “No, listen I’m going to give you hidden manna. I’m gonna give you a white stone.” And verse 17, “with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” So he is communicating a kind of intimacy that is in direct contrast to the false intimacy that immorality promises. When we pursue immorality, whether it’s through an immoral relationship or pornography, everything inside of us is screaming, this is going to satisfy. This is meaningful, this is love. And it’s a lie. And Jesus is saying, I have a name for you that I alone know. There is no other way to take that, than that is a very intimate thing he’s saying there. You are not a number. You’re not just part of the crowd.
So he’s speaking this to Christians who can feel nameless, hopeless lost.
If I stand for Jesus I’m just gonna be mowed down, forgotten. And Jesus said, no way. You will be remembered in a way that you cannot even imagine. I have a name for you.
This is the fulfillment of Isaiah 62:2, “The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.” The Lord will give. Not a fake, passing little “l” lord, a Caesar or a celebrity, but the true Lord. And that passage goes on to tell us, you shall no longer be named or labeled forsaken.
“You shall no longer be named desolate, for the Lord delights in you.”
What a promise!
So this is the message to the third letter, letter to the church at Pergamum. Everybody holds onto something.
Hold on to Jesus alone. You say, well help me know more what that means. Sounds great in church, just what does that mean? A couple ideas to think about. First of all, when you’re holding on to Jesus alone, you know who you are in him, you know who you are in him. As he says in verse 13, you hold fast my name. Conquerors, resist the temptation to diversify, to depend on palliative measures or sedatives, to hold on to many saviors just to try to secure our status, because we live insecure like an orphan who’s just trying to grab anything he can get.
No. You know who you are in him.
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live.” My life is in Christ.
“It is Christ who lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” So there is no political power there is no more religious pressure that can touch my life. It’s in Jesus. And there is a stability and security that only Jesus can provide.
I know who I am in him. And secondly implied in that is, you are okay with being thought of as weird. As Americans in the past to be a good Christian was to be a good American, and to be a good American was to be a good Christian.
That is not the case. And just like in Pergamum, you can’t have it both ways.
No one can serve two masters. You will be brought to the place where you will reveal who your true master is.
So when the pressure comes on… when you hold on to Jesus means when the pressure is on, even though I’m tempted to look in many different directions, I’m going to see this pressure to see my life through the lens of who I am in Jesus, and therefore I’m locking in on him.
Even if people think I’m totally freakish. And if we don’t settle this, brothers and sisters, we aren’t going to be able to follow Jesus in this country.
I cannot hold on to Jesus and the fear of man. Hold on to Jesus, and I want to be popular and well thought of. Hold on to Jesus, and I want my life to go the way I always dreamed it would go.
I want to hold on to Jesus, and Jesus, don’t ever take me in a direction that includes suffering or difficulty or that I have to stand for you in a difficult context. No. I’m holding on to you, but I’m expecting you to make my life comfortable.
That’s not going to work in Pergamum. It’s not going to work in Greenville. So we settle that.
If you believe in a dead, buried, risen Savior, you’re a freak. And once you settle that – I heard one amen, one amen.
But once you settle it, I’m not talking about being a jerk.
I’m not talking about purposely being offensive. Be courteous, humble. Obviously we’re no better than anybody else, anything we have is all from God’s grace. But in the end, if you don’t settle that, then when the pressure comes on we’re going to hold on to our reputation.
We’re going to hold on to what gives us security. And God is preparing us for something much better. Third, you love others enough to point them to Jesus. You love others enough to point them to Jesus. In verses 14 and 15 Jesus is confronting the church at Pergamum for their enlightened tolerance. Yes, we are tolerant, but we’re talking about, they are tolerant in a sinful way. They are trying to bring together things that don’t go together, and they’re proud about the fact that even though there are people in their church gathering who are playing both sides, they’re not saying anything about it. And Jesus is saying, no you have a responsibility as brothers and sisters to warn those who are in danger.
Love them enough. And you’ll see in verse 17 the switching from singular to plural. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” So we both have an individual call from Christ, and we have a collective responsibility, which includes things like church discipline, as horrible and hard as that is. We really do need each other in order to hold on to Jesus alone.
Father thank you for speaking to us through this letter. And even as I thank you for that, I want to thank you for my brothers and sisters who are holding on to you because you are holding on to them.
Thank you that you do convict us when we try to turn to other things. Thank you that every day we have brothers and sisters here in our church who love one another enough to humbly warn, to confront in humility and brokenness, and with tears. Your body purges itself. Give us courage. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. That is our prayer.
So as we respond in praise and prayer, Father please, please let this be a sacrifice of praise, an offering of your people saying, God, we are holding on to you. We are holding on to you alone. You are the only living hope, not a dead hope, a living hope. All other hope is ultimately empty. Your hope is powerful, eternal, life-changing. So continue your work in us for your glory, in Jesus name, amen.