The name Pergamos means height or elevation and was a fitting name for the city which was built at an elevation of 1000 feet. Pergamos is believed to have been founded by the Aeolian Greeks around 1150 B.C. and was considered to be an almost impregnable city due to its height and the fortifications surrounding it.
Pergamos was famous for its temples the most prominent of which was the Temple of Zeus dedicated to Aesculapius, the serpent god of healing. The cultic worship of Aesculapius incorporated snakes and healing rituals. A living serpent was kept within the precincts of the temple as an object of worship
Jesus tells the church at Pergamos that he knows their condition. He begins by telling them that he knows “you hold fast my name and have not denied my faith.” Even in the midst of the most malignant pagan worship, the Christians at Pergamos had managed to keep their faith unsullied by the prevailing idolatry.
They had held fast the name of Jesus and not denied their faith. This would not have been an easy task. Like most Greco-Roman cities Pergamos was known for its wealth, literacy, and pagan philosophy. Retaining biblical purity in a world teeming with every kind of sophisticated error would have been nigh impossible. But Jesus says that there were those in the church at Pergamos who had managed it and managed it well.
It’s not as impossible as we might believe to retain spiritual purity in the midst of spurious error. It might be hard but it is certainly not impossible. All it takes is a conscious choice on our part. We always have options. We always have a choice. Spiritual growth is a choice. We are never without an option to do what is right. There may be an associated cost but there is always an option. We just need God to give us the wisdom and discernment to recognize those options.
The message to the church at Pergamos is thought to refer to the period of church history spanning 313-538AD. This was the time when the church began to compromise its beliefs and allow paganism to sneak into its ranks. The subtle shifts began under the authority of Emperor Constantine.
During this time the church chose to turn away from simple faith and to substitute bible truth with pagan traditions and rituals, undergoing a seismic shift in thinking. The very fabric of the church changed from poverty-stricken persecution and ragtag slaves to opulence, wealth, and influence. It was the death knell to spirituality and a profound fellowship with Jesus.
But even though there were those who had managed to cling to their faith in the midst of pagan philosophy there were those who were walking perilously close to the edge. Those who were using the line between truth and error as a skipping rope.
One of the errors that had crept into the church at Pergamos was the doctrine of the Nicolaitans which the Ephesian church had so readily rejected. The Nicolaitans essentially taught that compromise between Christianity and Greco-Roman culture was possible.
In other words, you could engage in pagan rituals and embrace parts of pagan philosophy while still embracing Christianity.
Commenting on the doctrine of the Nicolaitans in his book The Letters to the Seven Churches W.M. Ramsay writes “This school of thought and conduct played an important part in the church of the first century...it affected most of all the well-to-do classes in the church, those who had most temptation to retain all that they could of the established social order and customs of the Greco-Roman world and who by their more elaborate education had been trained to take an artificial view of life…”
Jesus compares this philosophy to the doctrine of Baalam who led the Children of Israel into sin and idolatry through compromise in the wilderness.
Jesus urges the church at Pergamos to distance themselves from this heresy and embrace simple and pure biblical truth.
The words of counsel that Jesus has for the church of Pergamos are cutting and concise; “repent or else I will come to you quickly and fight against your with the sword of my mouth”
The issues at stake are biblical. The sword of the spirit is the word of God and if the church at Pergamos refused to repent Jesus himself would engage in hand-to-hand combat with them through the medium of his word.
The core issue at Pergamos was that they were drifting away from the Scriptures and mingling biblical truth with human tradition and philosophy. Jesus tells them not to do that. Culture and tradition have their place but not when they are at cross purposes with the word of God.
The word of God trumps every other consideration. It is the foundation of Christian faith and doctrine. The only rule that a Christian should live by and Pergamos was drifting away from this anchor. Jesus words were simple
Repentance means doing a U-turn and changing direction. Sometimes in life, we might find ourselves stumbling along the wrong path. When Jesus calls to us, as he did to the church at Pergamos, and urges us to turn back we would do well to listen to his warning.
Direction determines destiny and if Jesus is telling you you’re going in the wrong direction then turn around.
Repent. Change direction. Turn around.
If the Church at Pergamos is willing to repent Jesus promises them three things. Hidden manna, a white stone,s, and a new name. Each is significant.
Manna was bread from heaven rained down on the children of Israel during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. It provided for their physical needs and sustained them through the long journey. Jesus says “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35) If we are willing to overcome the temptation to compromise, the first reward we receive is the opportunity to feed on Jesus. To enter into deep and meaningful communion with him that will sustain us on every level; physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
The second promise to the overcomers of Pergamos is a white stone. This is an interesting allusion. Judges in Pergamos used white and black stones when passing down their judgments. White symbolized acquittal and black condemnation. A white stone to the overcomer is the promise of a clean slate but the Judge of all the earth. The promise of second chances and new beginnings.
The third promise to the overcomers was the promise of a new name. A new identity in Jesus. In the Bible, names are symbolic of character. When God speaks of His name he speaks of it synonymously to his character. To those who overcome Jesus promises a new identity, a new character.
The thing is, while compromise can look shiny, for a moment, in the long run, standing for nothing means that you are open to fall for anything.
Compromise never works. By its nature, it is indecisive and shifty.
Jesus offers us something much more substantial. He offers us fellowship, a new beginning, and a shot at a clean slate. He offers us hope. If we are willing to hold fast if we are willing to repent. If we are willing to change the direction of our lives to suit His will then everything he has to offer the overcomer is ours for the taking.
Remember; Direction determines destiny. Which way are you headed?