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John Bradshaw - Pergamos

John Bradshaw - Pergamos
John Bradshaw - Pergamos
TOPICS: The Seven Churches of Revelation

Thousands of years ago, nestled among these mountains, was an ancient city, a rich and powerful city, filled with palaces and temples, monuments, and theaters. But while most of the city's wonder and majesty has been lost to time, we're exploring something that lasts longer, much longer. Welcome to Pergamos. Pergamos, also known as Pergamum or Pergamon, is located in western Turkey just north of the modern-day city of Bergama. Unlike the cities of Ephesus and Smyrna, Pergamon was not a seaport but was located 16 miles from the coast of the Aegean Sea. The name "Pergamon" means "elevation". The city was built on top of a mountain. Its major buildings, temples, and so forth were constructed on Pergamon's acropolis, "acropolis" being a Greek word meaning "the summit of the city".

This city became one of the greatest cultural centers of the Hellenistic world in the decades following the death of Alexander the Great. Only massive cities like Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt rivaled its cultural significance. One of the city's most famous exports was parchment made from animal skins. While the Egyptians used papyrus, 550 miles away here in Pergamon, parchment exploded in popularity. In fact, the word "parchment" is derived from the name of the city. It was the writing material often used in many Mediterranean countries during ancient times and was especially popular, owing to the major library here. Pergamon's library contained 200,000 volumes and was second only to the library at Alexandria. Pergamon was at the height of its political and cultural powers in the second century BC. City leaders planned to build a second Athens here. The idea was that the acropolis here would rival the famous acropolis in the Greek capital.

The theater in Pergamon, reminiscent of the one in Ephesus, was one of the greatest theaters of the ancient world. It's known to be the steepest theater to have been preserved since antiquity. And keep in mind, there were no microphones used in theaters like these. Whose idea was it... to build this theater so steep? One of its most famous landmarks is the altar of Pergamon, a large monument of worship decorated with depictions of ancient Greek leaders, legends, and gods. While it no longer stands in its native country, it was reconstructed at the famous Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where you can see it today. This altar was the center of much of the worship that was conducted in the city. The worship of pagan gods and emperors was a major part of life and culture in this town. In addition to its magnificent library, Pergamon was home to many other ancient Greek structures. Prominent temples were dedicated to Zeus, Dionysus, and Demeter.

Another temple in Pergamon was devoted to Asclepius, a Greek god whose symbol was a serpent. Many believe this is what Jesus was talking about when He spoke of the church at Pergamos being located where Satan's throne is. Satan took the form of a serpent when he deceived our first parents in the Garden of Eden. In the midst of all this, we find a group of people who chose to adopt a different, less popular faith. It was here that the early Christian church set down one of its roots, a root that became known as the church at Pergamos. It's the third of the seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation. And it's given a personal message from God. Now, if Jesus spoke to you and said, "I have a few things against you," that might make you feel a little uncomfortable. So why did He say that to the church that existed right here 2,000 years ago? We'll take a look at that in just a moment.

Pergamos, the third of the seven churches of Revelation, described by Jesus as the location of Satan's throne. In addition to their renowned library and multiple temples, ancient Pergamon was home to a hospital. Known as the Asclepion, it apparently majored in alternative treatments. In mythology, Asclepius was the son of Apollo. And he was the Greek god of healing, depicted as having a staff with a snake wrapped around it. That symbol is still prominently associated with medicine, especially as representing the World Health Organization. The Asclepion in Pergamon utilized treatments such as mud baths, water, herbs, and exercise, along with other healing modalities that weren't quite as sound. This was a healing tunnel. Patients would be brought here to rest, or they might have dreams, or they might be visited by a pagan god, and healing may or may not come as a result.

So, people would come here to receive healing from pagan gods. And Christians lived in the midst of it all. It isn't hard to see why compromise affected this church. Being a Christian during these times required commitment, a determination to honor God and to avoid everything that wasn't consistent with the Word of God. In addition to temples honoring Zeus and hospitals named after Asclepius, shrines dedicated to emperor worship can be found here. The cult of emperor worship in Pergamon started during the reign of the very first Roman emperor, Augustus. And the emperors themselves were very serious about this. The emperor Trajan, who died here in Turkey in around 117 AD, styled himself as God's representative on earth. These were big claims, blasphemous claims. Yet judging from the number of shrines that can still be found across Pergamon, it seems the citizens of this town were very anxious to please the Romans. This background of pagan worship helps us to understand the setting in which Jesus' message to this church was received.

"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. But 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. Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. 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".'"

This is a powerful message, and like most of the messages to the churches of Revelation, it contains both praise and rebuke. From what we've seen of the popular worship here, it isn't hard to understand why Jesus would refer to this place as the location of Satan's seat. As you look at the letters to the seven churches, it's very clear that these are actual letters to actual congregations in actual locations in the time of the early church. But numerous scholars have suggested that each of the letters to the churches also corresponds with a period of history, in particular, church history. The first church, Ephesus, relates to the apostolic church. Smyrna covers the period in which the Roman emperor Diocletian commenced a 10-year period of persecution against Christianity.

The period covered by the church of Pergamos is the period in which persecution ceased when the church compromised in order to make peace with the Roman Empire, and as a result, lost the purity of the original gospel message. The church was elevated, but compromise brought dire consequences. The famous Red Basilica of Pergamon illustrates the blending of paganism with Christianity that took place during this time. This was originally a temple dedicated to the worship of Egyptian gods, such as Isis and Serapis and probably also Osiris and Horus and some lesser gods as well. But when the Roman Empire came to profess Christianity, this temple became a Christian church and was dedicated to the apostle John, the one who wrote the book of Revelation. The Christian faith became corrupted, taking on the symbols and icons of heathenism and baptizing them into Christianity.

This is what happened to Christendom during the centuries immediately following the end of persecution by pagan Rome. The emperor Constantine claimed to accept Christianity during this time, and he made the Christian religion popular in the pagan world. Heathen gods and heathen customs were incorporated into Christian worship practices. Yes, there were those who stayed true to the original Christian faith, but millions of unconverted pagans crowded the gates of the church, and the message of the gospel became corrupt. The faithful few who kept alive the genuine Christian message are represented by Antipas, the martyr mentioned by Jesus in His message to the Pergamos church.

The evidence of history indicates that Antipas was ordained by the apostle John as a bishop during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. It's believed he was martyred during the persecution of Christians under Nero. But Antipas definitely appears to have been in the minority of Christians during this time, and the message from Jesus bears this out. It seems that many more had fallen for the morally permissive teachings of the Nicolaitans, who were mentioned in the letter to the church at Ephesus. These professed Christians seemed to have developed a gospel which promised salvation without regard to how people choose to live. Jesus connects this corrupt gospel with the teachings of Balaam in the Old Testament, who successfully lured the children of Israel into sexual immorality through the worship of pagan gods just before Israel crossed Jordan into the land of Canaan.

You can read the story in Numbers 25. Balaam had been unable to curse the people of Israel as the Moabite king Balak wanted him to. What Jesus is telling us here in the message to Pergamos is that just as Balaam convinced Balak to tempt the Israelites to engage in sexual sin and worship idols in the process, similar thing happened in Constantine's time and the centuries afterwards when idolatry flooded into the church. And because of this, the history of the Christian church in the ages that followed was darkened by apostasy and by the persecution of those who stood up against it. Now, Jesus said to the church here that He had a sharp, two-edged sword in His mouth. Now, why was that? We'll find out in just a moment.

Jesus spoke very pointedly to the Christians at Pergamon. And those same words ring down through the centuries to these post-modern times. He said to them that He had a sharp two-edged sword and that with it He would punish those who refused to repent. You see something very similar over in Revelation, chapter 19 at the time of Jesus' return. Revelation 19, verse 15 says this: "Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God". So what is this sword that Jesus spoke about? The New Testament mentions it on two other occasions. Writing to the church in Ephesus, not far from here, Paul said that the Ephesian Christians should "take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God".

The Bible mentions it also in the book of Hebrews: "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". The sword Jesus spoke of is the Word of God, and you can see, given the context, that He is referring to the Ten Commandments, an expression of the character of God, really, promises to the believer of what the life of a believer will look like when Jesus lives in the heart. Solomon understood this when he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes: "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether [it be] good or [whether it be] evil".

Thank God, Jesus' message to the church at Pergamon doesn't end with a warning. He makes a promise to those who overcome through faith in Him, as opposed to those compromisers who try to make peace with sin. Let's take a look at that promise again: "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". So what is this "hidden manna" Jesus is speaking of? Hebrews, chapter 9 says that a golden pot was placed inside the Ark of the Covenant. It contained manna, that food with which God miraculously fed His people as they wandered through the wilderness on their way to Canaan. The Bible calls it angels' food. It's a symbol of the bread of life, the life-giving Word of God Jesus was speaking of when He said that people should live not "by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God".

Jeremiah the prophet spoke of the Word of God in the same way when he said, "Your words were found, and I ate them". Jesus is saying to those who choose to live a life of faith that they'll be nourished by God's Word. Like Israel in the wilderness, they will eat the bread of heaven itself. Now, what about this white stone Jesus refers to? Well, truth is there's very little consensus among scholars as to what is represented here, very little agreement. There's a school of thought that says this references the tessera; these were essentially tokens of admittance. Others associate it with acquittal. Well, whatever it is precisely, we know that Jesus is giving something enduring, something pure to His people, and He is letting them know that they have eternal life with Him, life with the Savior, the Redeemer forever.

At different times in biblical history, God gave people a new name to signify they'd received a new character, a new experience, or a new spiritual destiny. Like that time Jacob wrestled with an angel: "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed". The book of Revelation says that when Jesus comes, He will have a "name written" that no one knew except Himself. In His promise to His followers in Pergamon, Jesus promises them that they, too, will receive a new name, insignia of honor, tokens of triumph. Like Jacob, the victorious saints will receive a new name as a reward for their faithfulness and perseverance.

Of course, the wonderful truth is that you can have the white stone. You can have a new name. Even in this world where sin is not just tolerated but accepted and promoted, even in this world where there's a lot of doubt, there's skepticism and agnosticism and atheism and relativism and criticism and all of that, you can have everything God wants you to have in this life: peace. God can restore your dignity. You can walk with your head held high, not in a prideful sense but knowing that you are a child of God simply through faith in Jesus, the reason Jesus died on the cross, so that your sin could be taken away and so that you could receive all of the blessings that He has for you. So there's no need to wait. There's no need to doubt. There's definitely no need to fear. God is looking to you today and asking that you would simply allow Jesus to be everything that He truly is.

You know what I find so interesting about Pergamos, that once magnificent city, the ruins of which are set high on the acropolis overlooking the city? Well, it's the fact that today it's ruins. Once stately and palatial and magnificent, today, ruins. Trajan the emperor was worshiped as a god. Today? What has he become? A statue. No, no, a headless statue. Temples where people worshiped deities that were not deities had been reduced to rubble. You get the idea that nothing lasts. And I'll tell you that there's something that lasts, and John knew what that was when he was writing here on the island of Patmos. He had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. He saw Jesus after Jesus was raised from the dead. And then, in this place, John wrote the book of Revelation that speaks about a kingdom that will never pass away and about a God who wants you to be part of that kingdom. You want something that lasts? Christ lasts. Eternity lasts. Heaven lasts. There will be an earth made new that God wants you in, and your life will last as long as the life of God.
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