Revelation – The letter to the compromising church in Pergamum – (1) Intro

We move on to the third of the seven letters in Revelation.  This time the letter to the compromising church in Pergamum – also called Pergamos in some translations.  Jesus has good things to say about the church in Pergamum.  And some things that aren’t good.  Given the warnings though, it seems like more bad news than good.  We’ll see if that’s the case.  Just how bad is the compromising?

Revelation – The letter to the compromising church in Pergamum - (1) Intro is article #13 in the series: Seven Letters to Seven Churches. Click button to view titles for entire series
Revelation – The letter to the compromising church in Pergamum

Once again, the title comes from the section title in the NKJV.  But this time, the title refers to what was happening in the church, rather than how Jesus referred to Himself as the author of this letter.  Therefore, how they compromised will be high on our list of things to look at.

As I’ll do in each of the letters, let’s start with something David wrote.  An excerpt from Psalm 139.  Something we should do often.  Something that will help us learn what the message in these letters might be for each of us – even as individuals.

Psalm 139

For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

Ps 139:1 O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.

Ps 139:2 You know when I sit and when I rise; [1]
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

Ps 139:3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Ps 139:4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.

Ps 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

Ps 139:24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Now, with that in mind and with open hearts, let’s invite the Holy Spirit to be with us as we examine the letter to the compromising church in Pergamum.

The letter to the church in Pergamum

To the Church in Pergamum

Rev 2:12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:

These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
Rev 2:14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. 15 Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Rev 2:17 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. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.

What’s your initial impression here?  Good news or bad news for this church?  

As usual, before we get into any details, let’s take a look at the graph we built in parts 1 and 2 of the series.  Based on what we just read, where would you put the church of Pergamum on the graph?  Why there?  Don’t worry if you don’t know anything beyond the verses we just read.  Part of the study will be to see how your placement might change as we go through more about the church in Pergamum.  Context and culture are usually important.  So is what it might mean to us today, in our context and our culture.

psychology of the church in Pergamum - blank

Some Pergamum history

Pergamum was a hub of the Imperial Cult in Asia Minor.  You may remember, the Roman Emperors were considered to be gods.  Of course, they all died, but they had enough power to make the cult continue for some time.   You may remember there was competition between Ephesus and Smyrna, including in this area.  The greatest competition was actually between Ephesus and Pergamum.  Pergamum was the first to achieve notable milestones in the competition for the best of the Roman Cult cities – building temples and such.  Ephesus was up to the competition.  But Pergamum never let Ephesus forget that each achievement was first accomplished in Pergamum.

With that kind of emperor worship going on in the city, it was certainly a tough place to be a Christian.  Those who worshipped the emperor didn’t like being told their god was merely a false idol.

There was also a great deal of Greek history in the city.  They had both an altar to Zeus and a Temple to Athena.  Yet another source of antagonism towards the Christian church here.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was also a small Jewish community to add a bit more persecution to the people in this church.

And it wasn’t just persecution.  You may have noticed the title for this one includes the word “compromising” – as in the compromising church in Pergamum. 

Today, it would maybe be called the worldly church in Pergamum.  Sometimes, to avoid persecution, or to just “get along”, we take the easy route and coexist.  To that end, you might be familiar with the coexist bumper sticker that was popular some years ago.

Each of the letters represents a different religion” or school of thought about how to live, since peace isn’t really a religion.  The problem with the coexist idea is that, in the process, people tend to water down each of the basic beliefs of the various religions that they no longer resemble what that religion is supposed to represent.  When the basic tenets are diametrically opposed – there’s really no other choice.  That’s compromising.  For more on that, please see The problem of Coexist – and – Love your enemy.

Worldly, on the other hand, isn’t going so much with a religious belief as it is just doing what most other people do.  Like – if it feels good – do it.  Or something like whatever’s right for me – I can do it.  That’s a problem when we’re called to be different from the world because we’re following Jesus – and yet it’s difficult or impossible to tell the difference between us and the rest of the world.

That’s probably why Jesus identified Himself the way He did in this letter.

Breakdown of the letter to the church in Pergamum

Tothe angel of the church in Pergamum
Fromhim who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
Divine KnowledgeI know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
But -Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
So -Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
HearHe who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
To those who overcomeTo him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.

The traditional To and From headings are present. 

To:

Obviously, it’s to the church in Pergamum.  As we saw in the letter to the Ephesian church, it’s most likely not to an actual Heavenly angel.  Rather it’s probably to someone, probably of a high position, within the church.  To that end, Young’s Literal Translation says:

‘To the messenger of the Ephesian assembly write:  [1]Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 2:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

From:

This letter is from he who has the sharp, double-edged sword.  OK – that sounds bad.  Maybe.  Let’s see what I mean by that.  Hopefully you remember a reference to that double-edged sword earlier in the Bible.  The image is used six times.  Three are in the Old Testament.  It’s in Hebrews once.  And this is the second time it’s used in Revelation.

The double-edged sword in the Old Testament was always what it sounded like.  A deadly instrument of death.  However, maybe not the way we think.  Let’s just take a quick look at these three.

Double-edged sword in the book of Judges

The first is all the way back in Judges.

Ehud

Jdg 3:12 Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and because they did this evil the LORD gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel. 13 Getting the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, Eglon came and attacked Israel, and they took possession of the City of Palms. 14 The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years.

After 18 years under Eglon, the King of Moab who defeated them, the Israelites finally cry out to God.  And God, ever faithful, has someone to deliver them – Ehud.

Jdg 3:15 Again the Israelites cried out to the LORD, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab.

“Tribute” was another word for a present or offering.  Something to show respect.  Except in this case, there was a hidden motive.  BTW – the sword was not the tribute.

Another note – although the English translation is left-handed, a more proper translation of the Hebrew is that Ehud had something wrong with his right hand, and that’s why he was left-handed.  It makes the whole thing even more amazing, showing the power of God.

16 Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a foot and a half long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing.

Here’s the double-edged sword.  The first instance of such a weapon in the Bible.  A foot and a half may not be considered a sword these days, but then it’s long for the average knife too.  The point is that it’s double-edged.

17 He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, who was a very fat man. 18 After Ehud had presented the tribute, he sent on their way the men who had carried it. 19 At the idols near Gilgal he himself turned back and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.”
The king said, “Quiet!” And all his attendants left him.

The fact that it’s done near the idols is probably not a coincidence.  Even the fact that the idols are mentioned means the location is important.  As are the idols.  That’s true for the time described here in this incident that’s unfolding.  And idols also play an important part in what’s going on in Pergamum when Jesus delivers this message to their church.  Whether it’s Roman, Greek or pagan idols – we don’t know for sure.  Probably all three, to varying degrees.  But idolatry most certainly was a problem in Pergamum.

Jdg 3:20 Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his summer palace and said, “I have a message from God for you.”

So what’s going to happen with this double-edged sword is a message from God.

As the king rose from his seat, 21 Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly.

The left hand.  An unexpected attack.  Once more, something reminiscent of the beginning of the End Times.  Even though we know they’re coming, many won’t believe.  And none know when it will happen.

22 Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. 23 Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.

Jdg 3:24 After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, “He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the house.” 25 They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead.

Jdg 3:26 While they waited, Ehud got away. He passed by the idols and escaped to Seirah. 27 When he arrived there, he blew a trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went down with him from the hills, with him leading them.

The deed is done – the king is dead – and victory will be theirs.  All because of a man, sent from God, with one bad hand and a double-edged sword.

Jdg 3:28 “Follow me,” he ordered, “for the LORD has given Moab, your enemy, into your hands.” So they followed him down and, taking possession of the fords of the Jordan that led to Moab, they allowed no one to cross over. 29 At that time they struck down about ten thousand Moabites, all vigorous and strong; not a man escaped. 30 That day Moab was made subject to Israel, and the land had peace for eighty years.

So in this case, God used the double-edged sword to free His people.

But before we leave the topic of double-edged – notice what else was double-edged here.   In the very first verse, we read Jdg 3:12 Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and because they did this evil the LORD gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel.  God allowed Elgon to defeat Israel because they did evil in His eyes.  Most likely, the evil had something to do with those idols that were in the room where Eglon died.

But then, things turned around.  Eglon was killed by the double-edged sword, right by his idols, by Ehud – who was sent by God.

So when God allows something like this to happen, it’s a double-edged deal.  Eglon no doubt thought his power and success came from his idols.  All the while, it was God allowing Eglon to achieve that success.  And when the time came, God also collected what was due for what Eglon did to God’s people.  As we saw previously, it’s a terrible thing to fall into the hands of God when we have done wrong and we have to pay the price ourselves.  

Double-edged sword in Psalms
Psalm 149

Ps 149:1 Praise the LORD.

Sing to the LORD a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the saints.

Ps 149:2 Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Ps 149:3 Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with tambourine and harp.
Ps 149:4 For the LORD takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with salvation.
Ps 149:5 Let the saints rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds.

Ps 149:6 May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,
Ps 149:7 to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
Ps 149:8 to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
Ps 149:9 to carry out the sentence written against them.
This is the glory of all his saints.

Praise the LORD.

If you said Psalm 149 was about the book of Revelation – you got it.  Well, part of it.  It had it’s meanings in Old Testament times, of course.  But when reading it, especially in the middle of studying Revelation, there are so many things that fit the time when the saints really can rejoice and sing for joy.  When everything is complete.  

Here’s what I mean.

The very mention of God’s salvation is enough to cause the saints to be joyful and sing aloud upon their beds. Even confined by sickness, shut in, or during the loneliness of the midnight hours, saints of God know that they are not alone and are encouraged to Let the high praises of God be in their mouth (lit., in their throat, cf. Isa 58:1).

It’s always worth remembering that, regardless of our current circumstances, we should remember to praise God.  Certainly for what’s coming, but also for His presence during the tough times.

But the saints of God are not always depicted as languishing upon their beds during the midnight hours. Praise and power go hand in hand. They also are depicted with a two-edged sword in their hand.

The double-edged sword.  We’ll see that it’s also, in a way, double-edged as far as what it represents.

For the Israelites, this was a literal weapon. In Nehemiah’s time they were used against a violent enemy (Neh 4:13, 16, 17–18). Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem were threatening the virtual destruction of the program for rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall. For Israel the two-edged sword in their hand was literal and deadly.

However, we must remember, it was really only a successful weapon in their hands when they prayed to God first, and had his approval.  Otherwise, they would lose, even with the double-edged sword.  In that regard, it was figuratively doubled-edged as well as physically.  In one sense a weapon wielded by people – in the other sense a weapon that represented the power of God when used appropriately.

It is no coincidence, however, that the book of Hebrews describes the Word of God as “… quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword …” (Heb 4:12).

Now, in the New Testament, The Word of God is a weapon in the Spiritual war.  The Word of God is also, as John points out, Jesus.

Today, converts are not made with a steel sword, but with the quickening power of the Word of God. We fight against principalities and powers; we fight in the power of God’s Spirit. Metaphorically, for those who have a new song to sing, the song of redemption by the blood of Jesus Christ, the two-edged sword is to be used against the prince of the power of the air (see also Rev 19:12–15).  [2]Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (pp. 1194–1195). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

It turns out that this double-edged sword is “double-edged” in many different ways.  But always, one of the edges has to do with God.

Double-edged sword in Proverbs

The third and final instance of a double-edged sword in the Old Testament comes in a rather long proverb on adultery.  Since it is so long, I’m only including the first portion.  However, if you’d like to read the entire Psalm, you can use one of the links below to see it.

Warning Against Adultery

Pr 5:1 My son, pay attention to my wisdom,
listen well to my words of insight,
Pr 5:2 that you may maintain discretion
and your lips may preserve knowledge.
Pr 5:3 For the lips of an adulteress drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil;
Pr 5:4 but in the end she is bitter as gall,
sharp as a double-edged sword.
Pr 5:5 Her feet go down to death;
her steps lead straight to the grave.
Pr 5:6 She gives no thought to the way of life;
her paths are crooked, but she knows it not.

This double-edged sword has nothing to do with God.  Well, not directly. One side is the allure of adultery.  The other is the price to be paid.  Part of the price has to do with relationships in this life.  Destruction of them.  Sometimes even death over them.  For instance, remember that Proverbs was written by Solomon – David’s son.  And it was David’s own adultery with Bathsheba that led to her husband’s death and so much grief in David’s family.  That grief included the son born to, as the Bible describes it – Uriah’s wife – who was Bathsheba. 

But then there’s also the issue of the spiritual justice price to be paid.  Under the New Covenant, of course, who pays that price depends on us.  On our choice to accept God’s gift of salvation – or not.

Double-edged sword in Hebrews

The first instance of the double-edged sword in the New Testament comes in the book of Hebrews.

A Sabbath-Rest for the People of God

Since this passage begins with the word “therefore” – we really need to know what came before this.  Therefore implies that what follows is for a reason.  But unless we know the reason, we cannot possibly know what this conclusion applies to.

So, what preceded this is a passage that talked about a lack of belief.   It referenced back to the people that Moses led, and their lack of belief and faith in God.  Since this is the New Testament, it is now referring to a lack of belief in God, and in the Holy Spirit specifically.

Heb 4:1 Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.

You may be wondering, what is “his rest”?  First, it’s God’s rest, as you probably assumed.  But the meaning of rest isn’t all that obvious.  Here’s what it meant.

2663 κατάπαυσις [katapausis /kat·ap·ow·sis/] n f. From 2664; TDNT 3:628; TDNTA 419; GK 2923; Nine occurrences; AV translates as “rest” nine times. 1 a putting to rest. 1a calming of the winds. 2 a resting place. 2a metaph. the heavenly blessedness in which God dwells, and of which he has promised to make persevering believers in Christ partakers after the toils and trials of life on earth are ended. [3]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

It’s interesting that, while we’re looking at a double-edged sword, we find a word where it has a double meaning and they both apply.  Yes. it can literally mean rest.  But it also can be a metaphor indicating the heavenly blessedness in which God dwells, and of which he has promised to make persevering believers in Christ partakers after the toils and trials of life on earth are ended.  So this has something to do with missing out on eternal life with God.

2 For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. 3 Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”

The Gospel was preached to them, but to no avail.  Keep in mind, the Gospel is the Word of God.  A double-edged sword in itself.  Although, remember that Jesus isn’t the double-edged sword.  Rather it comes from His mouth.

And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. 4 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” 5 And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”

Those who don’t believe will never enter God’s rest.

Heb 4:6 It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. 7 Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.

Once again, we get the idea that belief is more than just saying some words.  If it was merely saying the right words, then disobedience wouldn’t be an issue.  Since it is, it must be our actions after saying that we believe which indicates whether or not we really do believe.  For a much deeper look at that, please see Are we supposed to Believe God, Believe in God or Follow God?

Heb 4:12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Remember, this isn’t a physical sword, so we can’t take the dividing portions of this passage to mean anything physical.  Rather, it means that God can see everything – even things that are unseeable to us.

So in this passage, God looks behind our words.  Even behind our deeds.  He looks into our hearts and knows the reasons why we say what we say and do what we do.  Even the times we manage to convince ourselves of something other than the truth.

Double-edged swords in Revelation

In case you didn’t catch the heading, it’s swords in Revelation.  The term double-edged sword is there twice.  The second one is the one we’re looking at right now – These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.

The first one was earlier in Revelation.  It gives the final clue as to what Jesus is saying about Himself to the church in Pergamum.  Here it is.

One Like a Son of Man

Rev 1:9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

Rev 1:12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

Rev 1:17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Rev 1:19 “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”

What’s happening in that passage above?  Remember, each letter has a unique way that Jesus identifies Himself.  Every one of them is in that passage.  Now that we’re part way into the letters, it seems like a good time to point that out.  We’ve already seen that each of the identifying statements has an Old Testament history.  That only makes sense, because everything in the New Testament also has an old Testament history – a prophecy.

So what does the From part mean?

So going through six instances of the double-edged sword should, and does, tell us a lot about the message Jesus is trying to give the church in Pergamum.

  1. From Judges – with Ehud as the one to rescue the Israelites when they cry out to God.  In any time, including the End Times, God is ready, willing and able to save us when we call out to Him.  Although we often put ourselves into places from which we need to be rescued, God will not only save us, but will also avenge us.
  2. From Psalm 149 – with the double-edged sword in a foretelling of the final victory when the saints will rejoice.  The double-edged sword in this case isn’t a physical sword, but the Word of God.
  3. From Proverbs, we have the example of adultery being a double-edged sword.  Something we thought would be “good” turns out to not be good at all.  But when we cry out to God, He will deliver us to something that truly is Good.
  4. From Hebrews – we again see the double-edged sword as the Word of God, able to penetrate even to things that are, to us humans, unseeable.  
  5. From Revelation – the first instance pointing to #6, as the second instance in Revelation.  The one where Jesus is portrayed like this:  out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.

All of the first four references to double-edged sword come back together in this image of Jesus in Revelation.  It’s an image that shows two clear possibilities for the church and its people.  Call out to Jesus and be saved.  Or don’t – and pay the price.

The reality of that conclusion is seen in the Divine Knowledge section of the letter to the church in Pergamum.

We’ll pick up on the Divine Knowledge section in the next part of this article.

Footnotes

1Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 2:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
2Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (pp. 1194–1195). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
3Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

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