Today within the body of Christ there is much conversation about the grace of God and the many freedoms that we have in our relationship with Jesus, through the Cross. Though I do not claim to be a scholar on the subject of the grace of God nor do I assume that my knowledge of His grace is adequate in light of what the Bible offers me, it seems to me there is also much confusion about what the grace of God really is. In this chapter about the third Church in the seven Churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3, the Church of Pergamos, we will look at what was happening with this ministry that was abusing and distorting the true grace message of Jesus Christ.
I will not be covering the subject of the grace of God in a comprehensive way throughout this chapter. I will only be sharing a few scriptures and mainly looking at this ministry (the Church of Pergamos) that Jesus sternly corrects for their poor handling of something that is precious to Him, His grace. Moving back to my opening statement, what’s powerful about Revelation 2:12-17 is that the distorted grace message we have in the Church among the Western World today, is not a new issue, but an age old one. It seems that the biggest issue Jesus takes up with the Church of Pergamos is that they were misusing the grace that was given to them.
Solomon rightly said in Ecclesiastes 1:9 …there is nothing new under the sun…Solomon wasn’t saying that God is confined to moving only one way throughout history, but rather the many things that surface today in the arena of sin, compromise and rebellion aren’t new sins but newly packaged old sins. The devil is a one man band; meaning, he has to reinvent himself with every generation. Fortunately his workshop has only a couple of benches and a few different tools; but unfortunately those tools are effective at both distracting non-believers and moving believers away from Jesus. As those who are looking to press into the more of Jesus, we must be aware of the many pitfalls along the way. One of which is the distorted teaching on the Grace of God.
The History of Pergamos
Pergamum, also known as Pergamos, is the third Church on the Circular Circuit of seven total Churches located in the ancient world of Asia Minor, now known as Western Turkey. History tells us that Pergamum was a city many traveled to in hopes of being healed by pagan spiritualists. Pergamum was home to several prominent temples dedicated to various gods such as Zeus, Athena and Dionysus. Here in Pergamum there was said to be a library that held as many as 200,000 books which made this city very literate and cultured. This was a remarkable number of books in a time where reading wasn’t available to all, but only the rich and upper-class.
Parchments (Pergamene-charta, after which the city was named) were used for writing. Some parchments containing books of the Bible were actually discovered in Pergamum. Historically, the Church in Pergamum was faithful to Jesus while also being tolerant of false teaching, like much of the Church in the western world today. This Church had what Pastor Mark Driscoll calls Bleeding Heart Syndrome also known as syncretism. Syncretism is where Christians love, sympathize with, and even wrongly accommodate non-believers to the point that they are no longer distinct as disciples of Jesus.
History declares that Pergamum had the least amount of Jewish presence among the other 6 churches mentioned throughout Revelation 2-3. Though there are many reasons for this, it seems that the main reason was because of the city’s location, away from the majority of major trade routes. This led more opportunistic Jewish folks to shy away from settling within Pergamum.
Within this letter (Revelation 2:12-17) Jesus mentions that they were dwelling where Satan’s throne is. As best as I can research it seems that this statement was made because of the many pagan gods that were worshipped in Pergamos. But among that plethora of pagan gods, the one among them that was most damaging was the Emperor Worship that was taking place. Emperor worship something that was taking place all throughout the region and it required the local citizens to address the emperor as lord and savior.
But unlike the Church of Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) the Church of Pergamum actually rolled out the red carpet for both the doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans (both of which I will explain in detail later), which doctrines Jesus hates (Rev. 2:6). It’s clear that though they were standing faithfully against the external pressures, these internal errors were killing their devotion to Jesus, quickly. This mixture of pagan deities, emperor worship and occult lifestyle within Pergamum made it very difficult for the early Church to live within the city. This difficulty eventually gave way to the first martyr Jesus mentions within the seven Churches of Revelation 2-3 as He says to them in Revelation 2:13 …in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr… Jesus, who understood the grace of God more than any other human, doesn’t just approve them for their external faithfulness, He rebukes them and threatens them with judgment for their tolerance of internal, destructive doctrines. Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ specific words to this ministry.
Jesus’ Address to the Church of Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17)
The consistency of Jesus’ address to these seven Churches really helps us understand His systematic process in addressing the ministries of which Paul says He is the Head (Colossians 1:18). His seven addresses also allow us to see that He is concerned with the leadership that’s overseeing His Church in a very personal way. It’s not that He has observed His Church from a distance, but rather from an up close and personal vantage point.
He opens His letter to the Church of Pergamum in Revelation 2:12-13 by saying, 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. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where satan dwells. Through this passage we will look at three parts of Jesus’ seven point address to this ministry; His Address, His Attribute and His Approval. We will start with His Address. Jesus speaks to this ministry in the same way that He has Addressed the previous two Churches, Ephesus and Smyrna. As usual, He speaks directly to the human leadership that is presiding over this ministry who are the primary ones responsible for the health and condition of the ministry.
After He concludes His Address to them, He then moves into sharing an Attribute of Himself that is specific to the Church and the various issues they were currently facing. The prophetic nature of Jesus is that He is able to apply Attributes of Himself that are exactly what each ministry would need to hear from Him. He has whatever is needed in whatever situation that we face. He is the Great I AM! The Attribute that He chooses to share with them is that …He…has the sharp two-edged sword… After looking at all seven Churches including this one, Pergamos is the only Church that Jesus shares just one Attribute.
The Attribute Jesus shares with them comes in the form of a strong rebuke for the ministry’s tolerance of immorality and demonic activity within their midst. What Jesus means by saying …I am He who has the sharp two-edged sword… is that He Himself is the convicting power of the Word of God. He is coming to them as the God who speaks truth and commands those that oversee His body to also speak with the same amount of truth as He speaks. Jesus requires that if we are going to speak on His behalf that we also share the same common value for truth. It’s called loving what He loves and hating what He hates. This Attribute rings true with a couple of other passages through the New Testament. In Hebrews 4:12 it says For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And speaking of the Word of God it’s said of Jesus in Revelation 19:13 He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.
It’s clear through this Attribute that Jesus is coming to them with a strong threat of judgment if they don’t turn a corner, repent and take a stand for truth. This Attribute makes crystal clear Jesus’ commitment that His Shepherds stand for what He stands for, loving what He loves and hating what He hates. Though many today think that Jesus co-exists alongside other pagan religions and cults, it is simply not true. Jesus will never co-exist (co-exist meaning agree with and endorse as right ways to God) with pagan deities and occult practices. Many today, even in the body of Christ participate with various popular movies celebrating witchcraft, spells, demonic activity and dark spiritualism. Beloved, this is never something that Jesus will be found in the midst of. It’s a subtle distraction, moving us away from vibrancy in Christ.
Now that Jesus has revealed His Attribute to them, He now shares with them His Approval of them for some of the positive things that were going on within the ministry. He Approves their faithfulness to Him in the midst of great external pressures which actually led to the death of Antipas, who as a faithful martyr (witness). For the Christian converts living in Pergamos, life was very difficult because most of them had come out of the various pagan religions which were so prevalent in their city. Leaving such faiths, to turn to the true and living God created great social pressures for those who made the switch.
Within this passage we also hear that Jesus makes reference to …the place where Satan’s throne is and where Satan dwells. In researching the answer to what this meant, I have been most satisfied with the explanation that Jesus was referring to the many temples, pagan deities and emperor worship that was taking place within the city. Emperor worship might have been the specific reference because it was then and always has been the precursor to the antichrist, who is yet coming. The antichrist will be the last great opponent of the human race, not something that will move Jesus, but the antichrist will move many humans dwelling on the earth during his short, temporal reign.
What happens next is something that only Jesus can do as well as He does it. Though He just got finished Approving them for the positives within the ministry, He now moves into His Accusation of them for the things that were lacking among them. He starts in Revelation 2:14-15 by saying …I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the Children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. In these two verses lies the crux of our discussion about the grace of God.
It would be foolish to disagree that Jesus was, is and always will be the greatest grace Teacher of all time. And as we read these verses it’s important that we keep this in mind. What is also clear through these passages is that Jesus is totally against a message of grace that diminishes wholeheartedness towards Him, His Father and the Holy Spirit. Though many today are sharing a message that does just that, God never approves such a message. As Jesus Accuses this ministry that was faithful to Him under external pressures, He is not going to pat them on the back for their gross internal errors.
And as I have looked at the New Testament it also seems true that most of the false teaching we are warned to stay away from is actually taking place within the Church, not outside of it. Jude says in verse 4, For certain men have crept in (into the Church) unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ. And Peter says in 2nd Peter 2:1, …There will be false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.
These two warnings listed above, are just two of hundreds of warnings throughout the New Testament, not to mention the Old Testament about false teachers among the family of God and our need to be on guard against them and the destructive doctrines they bring.
Within the Church of Pergamos, the doctrines that were being tolerated were the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. What’s so wild about this is that these believers were giving their physical lives externally for the sake of Christ while eroding the very foundation internally by tolerating these destructive doctrines. I think that it’s easier to defend truth externally against those that don’t know Jesus, than it is to defend truth internally among those that know Christ. The call to leadership within the body of Christ is a call to take courage.
The Jesus of Western Culture is a Jesus that doesn’t have enough backbone to address the various issues within His own ministry. But through both the New Testament and Jesus’ words to the Church of Pergamos, we get clarity about the Jesus of the Bible who doesn’t mind taking up issues among Church leaders. The God of Truth requires truth within His shepherds.
The doctrine of Balaam, which is clearly seen in Numbers 22:1-5; 25:1-9; 31:16, is a set of teachings that promote paganism, idolatry and immorality. It’s a teaching that approves eating meals in fellowship inside pagan temples, offering worship to strange deities. Paul addressed people who were taking his gospel and perverting it as well in Romans 6:1-2 when he said What shall I say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who have died to sin live any longer in it? This doctrine that was being kept within the ministry was causing the people of God to stumble into various sins under the banner that God was okay with it.
The doctrine of the Nicolatians on the other hand is a doctrine that is referred to as Antinomianism which basically reduces the grace of God to lawless freedom in Christ. It’s a perverted message of grace, or a distorted message of grace which reduces Jesus’ call of wholeheartedness to passivity. When Jesus speaks to the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:6 He says …the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate… It’s this modern teaching of grace that is often distorted, and it empowers people in a life of sin, all under the banner of Jesus’ blessing.
Titus tells us in Titus 2:11-12 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age… According to Titus and the overall testimony of the New Testament, the grace of God should be empowering us to become free from sin, not empowering to continue dwelling in it, as the doctrine of Balaam was teaching. It seems today that much of the conversation about the grace of God is teaching which diminishes wholeheartedness which is totally against what the Apostolic writings say to us. And for those of you that might scream: Our culture is different today, than it was then! we must remember that though life in this age changes, God never does. He is holy, and He calls us to live our lives just like He lived His. And we are able to do this through the Power of the Holy Spirit, Who was given to us at Salvation. We must make sure that the grace of God we are hearing about, and sharing with others doesn’t diminish their wholehearted pursuit of God, but rather empowers them to be further abandoned to God.
The Good Shepherd of our souls and the overseer over the body of Christ doesn’t leave this ministry without practical Advice on how to return to Him and vibrant relationship in Him. He says to them in Revelation 2:16 Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against you with the sword of My mouth. It’s clear that the sword of verse 12 is now taken up in the sword of His mouth with a commitment to fight against them with it, if they refuse to take seriously their sinful situation. Jesus would love for them to fight against their sin with the help of the Holy Spirit, but if they refuse, He Himself will get involved and through judgment, He will fight against them.
Many today see repentance as a terrible thing. It’s something that preachers and shepherds within the body of Christ shy away from, preferring other words in its place. But in all reality we only run from this word because we don’t understand the joy of being restored to Jesus. It’s not that repenting is always fun, that would be a lie. Often times it’s painful, honest and real as we bare our hearts before God. But the joy of being convicted by the Holy Spirit of something that’s separating us from Jesus is truly wondrous. The age to come will tell the story of our gratitude, of how we saw the subtle prompting of the Holy Spirit leading to restored relationship with Creator God.
It seems today that people see a disconnected Jesus, a Jesus who is removed from what’s taking place both within His Church and within the Earth. But this passage alone declares His commitment to having purity and wholeheartedness without compromise within His Church. It’s not that He would someday make His way to this ministry to straighten things out, but that He was willing to come to them quickly, if they refused to repent. Many see a reference to the second coming here, but that’s not at all what Jesus was saying. He was simply telling them that if they didn’t repent and return to Him, He would come to them quickly and fight against them.
Unlike the majority of Jesus’ Addresses to the Churches within Revelation 2-3, He switches around His Appeal and His Assurance. In Revelation 2:17 He gives them the strong exhortation through His Appeal to them by saying He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches… If this ministry had any chance to being around to further impact it’s culture and society they would need to listen earnestly to Jesus’ rebuke and make the proper changes. It’s not just that they would need a hearing ear, but also a willing heart to actually do what they have heard. Hearing is good and it’s one part of the two-part equation. The other part is doing. They must put feet to what they have heard if they are going to be restored into right relationship with Jesus.
And lastly, after His Appeal, Jesus gives them Assurance of reward, based on their turning from sin and compromise to wholeheartedness with Him. He says to them in the second half of Revelation 2:17 …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. The promise to this ministry, and the people within it, is for those who would stay clean in a dirty world, stay Christian in a pagan culture and stay straight in a crooked day. It’s not just an automatic reward because they are Christians. This reward and the Assurance of it is based on their response to Him and their faithfulness in the midst of the present pressures and hardships. The same thing is true for us today as well.
The first thing that Jesus promises them is that He would give them hidden manna to eat. It seems that this promise of hidden manna is speaking about greater revelation of Jesus and His heart for the overcomer (Exodus 16:32-34; Matthew 6:9-13; John 6). This promise is much like the promise that Jesus said would be had by those that hungered and thirsted for Him from Matthew 5:6.
The second thing Jesus Assures them would be theirs if they repented and overcame what was in front of them was that they would receive a white stone with a name written on it which nobody knew but him who received it. I believe that this stone speaks of two primary things. Firstly, stones throughout the Old Testament (Joshua 4) and the New Testament (1st Peter 2:5; Revelation 21:14, 19-20) spoke of memorials, or stories of what God had done.
My basic thought about this stone is that it might tell the story of how we have loved God throughout our time here on earth, in this age. Names throughout the Bible speak of destiny, or the story of their past, present and future! And secondly, it might be that this stone represents pet names between God and the person receiving it. Pet names are endearing names that are spoken only between God and man. I personally have endearing names that I call Jennifer (my wife) at home that no other person alive will ever hear or know. And if someone did hear it they might think it was silly or frivolous, but when she hears it, she feels my tenderness behind it. This stone might be something like this. Whatever it means exactly, it’s very personal, I know that much.
We can learn much from Jesus’ words to the Church of Pergamos in our day and time. Life is creeping into the Church in an alarming rate. And what I mean by life is sinful culture. It’s not that I think the Church should not live life among those that don’t know Jesus; I simply mean that the Church is embracing things God is clearly against. The goal of the Church and the people of God is not to see how much we can get away with in the grace of God, but to see how far He will let us go in our abandonment towards Him. Be honest with Jesus about your life and what you’re tolerating that’s separating you from Him and be restored to Him through the power of the Holy Spirit. Just repent, call it what it is, listen to the Holy Spirit, give yourself to the Word and Godly community.