Pergamum was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia. This political connection was an incentive for the citizens of Pergamum to remain loyal to Rome. Emperor worship was part of this loyalty, and a large temple dedicated to emperor Augustus was located in Pergamum.
The city itself was built on a rocky hill approximately one thousand feet tall in the Caicus valley. The name of the city, Pergamum, is derived from the Greek word purgos meaning "tower." Pergamum sat like a citadel towering above the valley. On the top of the thousand foot tall acropolis was the temple of Zeus, the highest of the Greek gods. Archaeological remains of the temple of Zeus in Pergamum can be viewed in the Berlin Museum today.
The temple of Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, was also located in Pergamum. People came from all around to seek healing at this temple, crying "Aesculapius soter," i.e. "Aesculapius is our savior." This site became the "Lourdes" of ancient Asia. The idolatrous insignia of this temple was an emblem of a serpent entwined around a staff, which medical physicians still use to this day.
Pergamum was also the intellectual center of Asia. Its library was second in size and renown only to that of Alexandria in Egypt. A dispute between the two libraries led to Egypt's imposing an embargo on all papyrus, the reed sheets which were developed and manufactured in Egypt and used for writing scrolls, preventing them from being sent to Asia. The library at Pergamum had to develop a new writing material made of animal skins, which was called the "Pergamene sheet," or as it is better known, "parchment," which became the medium of choice for written documents for many centuries thereafter.
The church in Pergamum was probably established through outreach endeavors from Ephesus, as most of the churches in the region were. Luke reports that while Paul ministered in Ephesus, "all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks" (Acts 19:10).
Jesus identifies Himself to the Christians in Pergamum as "the One who has the sharp two-edged sword" (2:13). In thus identifying Himself, Jesus is exclaiming that He, as the risen Lord Jesus, has an effective power that is above any other, certainly more powerful than earthly government authorities like those of Rome. Jesus, is the "Word of God, living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing...and able to judge the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).
Those within religion often assume their own power, and fail to recognize the effectiveness of God's power and God's judgment. They fail to realize the divine ability to distinguish what is of God and what is not, and to effectively judge that which is derived from diabolic source.
"I know...," Jesus observes, "where you dwell, where Satan's throne is..." (2:13). The satanic activity of religion was indeed entrenched in Pergamum. Emperor worship was practiced at the temple of Augustus Caesar. The highest of the Greek gods, Zeus, was worshipped at the temple on top of the mound. The serpent himself was the emblem worshipped at the temple of Aesculapius. Later in the Revelation, Jesus will refer to "the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world" (12:9; 20:2), identifying him with the satanic serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-5). In some sense, Pergamum was particularly the "throne of Satan," Hell's Headquarters, the Devil's Den.
Religion incorporates the highest level of diabolic reign and activity. Within religion the devil's ways are enthroned and falsely identified as God's methods. In religion Satan parodies God and brings people so close, and yet so far, from what God wants in their lives. Satan does indeed "dwell" in religious people, "working in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2).
In continuing His observations, Jesus commends the Pergamene Christians by saying, "You hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith..." (2:13). Having confessed Christ, received Christ, and been identified as "Christ-ones," Christians, these Pergamene believers had held fast even in the midst of persecution. They had apparently fulfilled Peter's admonition, "if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God" (I Peter 4:16). They had not denied their faith in Jesus Christ, and they had done so "even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells" (2:13). We know no other details about this person named Antipas, who was probably one of the Christian believers from the church in Pergamum, and was apparently martyred for his faithful witness to Jesus Christ, at the instigation of Satan and his religious henchmen there in Pergamum.
Jesus had observed their situation and their faithfulness, but then comes that looming transitional "but..." "But I have a few things against you," He charges, "because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit immorality" (2:14). Apparently the church in Pergamum was tolerating some religionists, who like Balaam of the old covenant, were a scandal to God's righteous action. The record of Balaam's pronouncements to Balak is found in Numbers 22-24. Balaam tried to have it both ways at once, to play both sides against the middle. His was the way of pragmatic expedience and appeasement to do whatever worked to save his own skin. The "error of Balaam" (Jude 11) led to the "wages of unrighteousness" (II Peter 2:15) because "the counsel of Balaam" caused the Israelites "to trespass against the Lord" (Numbers 31:16). Balaam's accommodation caused the people "to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab" and to "bow down to their gods" (Numbers 25:1,2). Adultery and idolatry were the result, as Jesus intimates.
The religionizing tendencies of Balaam were present in Pergamum. Religion survives on pragmatic expedience, compromise, accommodation and appeasement. The "end justifies the means" in religious practice, so whatever corrupt beguilement, deceit or treachery that might be deemed necessary to the end desired is employed. They will not stand up for God's way alone in accord with God's character, but religion capitulates to the prevailing powers that be, with an attitude of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Such is not the way of God, who never compromises His character.
When religion engages in such permissive appeasement with the world and its ways, activated by "the god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4), the resultant perversion of the populace is predictable. They revert to their naturalistic tendencies of idolatry and immorality. Religion perpetuates and promotes idolatry. Noting the idolatry of the Athenians, Paul cited them for being very "religious" (Acts 17:22), or more literally, having "great respect for demons." Writing to the Corinthians, Paul also explained that "sacrifice to idols..." was "sacrifice to demons" (I Cor. 10:19-21). Religion inevitably pursues idolatrous false-gods, rather than submission to the One true and living God in Jesus Christ. Religion also permits immorality and adultery by failing to measure all things by the faithful character of God, and the expression thereof by the Spirit of Christ.
Jesus continues His charge against the Pergamum church by charging, "You also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans" (2:15). This type of religious perversion was previously mentioned in the letter to the Ephesians (2:6). The label "Nicolaitans" is etymologically derived from the Greek words nike, meaning "to conquer" or "to be victorious," and laos, meaning "people." Nicolaitan religion "conquers the people." It is but another variation of Balaamite religion, for the name Balaam is derived from two Hebrew words, bala, meaning "to devour" or "to consume," and am, meaning "people." Religion devours and consumes the people. It uses and abuses them. It "eats them alive," swallowing up all that they have in order to appease its insatiable appetite for personal enrichment and institutional advancement. Religion does not seek the highest good of men, but it is men seeking their own personal benefit.
In consequence of the charges against the church at Pergamum, Jesus commands them to "Repent therefore, or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth" (2:16). Repentance is what any church needs when it has tolerated religion. A change of mind about who is capable, and a change of action that is available to God's ability to enact all things in accord with His character.
There is an "or else" ultimatum that Jesus makes to the Pergamene Christians. If repentance is not forthcoming, Jesus indicates that He will "come quickly, and make war against them," apparently meaning "against the Balaamite and Nicolaitan religionists." His "coming quickly" does not seem to refer to the second physical advent of Jesus Christ to earth, but rather to His providential action in judgment whereby He will "make war" exercising His divine power and authority against all satanic activities in government, religion or elsewhere.
It is important to note that it is Jesus who "makes war." Religion often engages in the activism of what they like to call "spiritual warfare," but it is merely humanly activated assault against demons, against government policies, or against social causes such as immorality, pornography, abortion, etc. Such religious activity is usually totally ineffective, if not counter-productive, because they are trying to achieve what only divine power can accomplish. It is Jesus who "makes war" because He personifies the "sword" of divine power. Christians are to "stand firm" in their faith in Jesus Christ, rather than fighting ineffectively in activistic wars and crusades "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," and accomplishing nothing.
Christians of every age must be spiritually discerning to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (2:17). We do not want to be deceived into employing Satan's tactics and techniques which he so subtly introduces into religious activity. Rather, we want to "overcome" all tendencies to religious activity.
The promise that Jesus makes to the Christians of Pergamum who will faithfully derive all from Him, is two-fold. "I will give of the hidden manna." "I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it" (2:17).
God was faithful to provide physical sustenance to the Israelite people in the wilderness. "It was like coriander seed, white; and its taste was like wafers with honey" (Exod. 16:31), and they "ate the manna for forty years" (Exod. 16:35). The physical manna was but a pictorial representation of the spiritual sustenance that Christians have in Jesus Christ. Jesus explained the significance of the manna and related it to Himself when He said, "I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if any man eats of this bread, he shall live forever" (John 6:31-35; 48-51). Our spiritually sustaining nourishment for living as Christians is to be found in Jesus Christ alone. Religion often offers a substitute diet whereby people can get "fed" on a particular creedal doctrines and supposedly orthodox expositions of Scripture. Christians must never settle for anything less than the sustaining of the "hidden manna," the "bread of life," the dynamic provision of the life of Jesus Christ by His Spirit. The fulfillment of this promise of spiritual nourishment and sustenance is experienced only by those who partake only of Jesus Christ.
What is the white stone with a new name written on it, which Jesus promises? Whereas religion extends "stones instead of sustenance" (Matt. 7:9), and they always attempt to "make a name for themselves," Jesus promises faithful Christians godly character bearing the name of Christ. The prophet said we would "be called by a new name" (Isa. 62:2; 65:15). Indeed we are! We are called Christ-ones, Christians, and no one understands what that means unless they have received the life of Jesus Christ into their spirit. A Christian is not an individual who has "got religion," or "joined a church" or repeated a creed. Rather, a Christian is a person who has received the Spirit of Christ into their spirit (Rom. 8:9), and then lives by that indwelling Christ-life, manifesting the character of God in their behavior to the glory of God. That is what Jesus wanted to see in the Christians of Pergamum and in Christians of every location in every age.