In case you missed it, here is the introduction to this series, as we look into the seven letters written to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. My attempt is to harmonize the letters with Church History as well as to use it as a sort of diagnosis on today’s churches, looking at the possible pitfalls and necessary cures. Each study will begin with (1) a look at letters in chronological order, (2) we will discuss its historical or ‘end times’ significance, (3) we will look into the symptoms of modern churches and Christians in the context of the passage, and lastly (4) we will diagnose the problem and prescribe the antidote for our own lives and our churches.
– The Danger of Compromising –
The Letter to Pergamum (what does the text say?):
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write the following:
“This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has the sharp double-edged sword: ‘I know where you live—where Satan’s throne is. Yet you continue to cling to my name and you have not denied your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was killed in your city where Satan lives. But I have a few things against you: You have some people there who follow the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality. In the same way, there are also some among you who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore, repent! If not, I will come against you quickly and make war against those people with the sword of my mouth. The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give him some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and on that stone will be written a new name that no one can understand except the one who receives it.’
Historical Application (how does it fit into Church History and/or Eschatology?):
Certain elements in this letter line-up well with the Age of Heresies (313-700 A.D.), which also includes most of the so-called “Dark Ages” that lasted until the late 1st millenium. The letter speaks of a church that underwent heavy persecution previously, and is now undergoing a test of their faith because of false teachers.
The double reference Satan, referring to his “throne” and his “city”, is very intriguing. Historically this would point to ancient Babel which became Babylon, just north of modern Baghdad, Iraq. Yet Babylon slowly disappeared after it’s fall in 539 B.C. at the hands of Cyrus the Great, king of the Med0-Persian empire. Proponents of an Antichrist coming out of Rome are quick to use this passage as a defense. There are enough other passages that discount Rome as a true option for the Antichrist, so this doesn’t quite fit. Yet I will agree that this “city where Satan lives” is likely Rome in this context. Babylon was once Satan’s “city” because it represented the center of idolatry, immorality, and greed. Rome succeeded Babylon, with the whole Greco-Roman empire following suit. Therefore Satan’s “city” doesn’t seem to be tied to one city all the time. We might ask ourselves: which is the “city where Satan lives” today?
During the Era of Persecution (95-313 A.D.) and until it’s fall in 476 A.D., Rome was home to great immorality, greed, and licentiousness. Important Roman cities such as Corinth, Ephesus, and Athens also shared these traits during Paul’s time. This era extended into the dark ages as well, where there was a free-for-all anarchy in most parts of the world.
Following the text, we can see that Rome does fit the bill as having previously persecuted and martyred many Christians. In 313 A.D. everything changed, when Constantine became King over the whole Roman Empire. Constantine probably saw Christianity as a threat to his Empire’s stability, seeing how most had converted to Christianity and that the persecution had only worsened the situation. This explains why he supposedly “converted” to Christianity, making it the favored religion of the Empire, while never showed any personal signs of devotion to Christ. It was essentially a political move to keep the masses happy.
The “Edict of Milan” which Constantine signed in 313 to make Christianity the favored religion of the Empire was actually a curse dressed up as a blessing. The end of persecution meant freedom to worship in public and spread the Gospel with more freedom. Yet it also meant Christians were becoming comfortable with the world’s system, where one could lose focus of the coming world because of the attraction of the present one. The greatest threat was something even worse, because now that Christianity was the favored religion in the Empire, everyone and their dog wanted to become a “Christian”. Heathen priests, Theologians, and sellers of religious goods were out of a job overnight, and “converting” to Christianity was their best chance to remain wealthy. Whereas Constantine saw Christianity as a political tool to appease the masses, pagan priests saw it as an economic opportunity. Hence the letter makes reference to ancient false teachers in Balaam and Balak, as well as the Nicolaitans sect which existed in the Apostolic Era.
Church History rightly calls this the “Era of Heresies”, because between 313 and the early 4th century, dozens and dozens of heresies sprang-up. Gnostics attempted to strip Christ of His humanity, while Jews and pagan priests tried to strip Him of His Divinity. Other groups attacked the Trinity, Scriptures’ authority, and salvation by grace alone. Instead of using Scripture as the foundation and absolute guide of the Christian faith, they attempted to meld Christianity with their former religions. Some famous and diverse heresies of this time include Arianism, Docetism, Nestorianism, and Marcionism.
In this letter, Christ accuses the church of Pergamum of compromising with heretics, something many Christians did during this later time-period. Arianism was the most powerful heresy of the era, and it’s teaching, which rejected Christ’s full Divinity, captivated some 90% of pastors/elders worldwide. In the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. it was agreed that Arianism was a heresy, as the Nicene Creed afirms. Yet before long most of the churches began to teach Arianism again, using even political power to defend their beliefs, persecuting those who opposed it. Athanasius, the pastor/elder of the church in Alexandria stood fast against this heresy and paid for it by being exiled five different times in the Egyptian desert – he spent a total of seventeen years like this. Shortly after Athanasius’ death, the orthodoxy he fought so hard to preserve was brought before another council, this time in Constantinople (381 A.D.).
Here a compromise was presented: some at the council saw Jesus as God and man, while the majority saw Him as demigod and man. The Nicene Creed stated that Jesus was of the “same nature” as God the Father, therefore a compromise was presented to alter this. They stated that if one single letter was added to the creed, the followers of Arianism would sign it. Instead of the word “homoousios”, they wanted to add the letter i and change it to “homoiousios”. Such a small and simple change would bring about peace between the Christians and the Arians – but was it worth it? This change altered the meaning of the word “same” to be “similar to”, thus making it that Jesus was similar in nature to God. This compromise meant falling into heresy and rejecting the full Divinity of Christ. Standing on the extensive works of a deceased Athanasius and on Scripture itself, this compromise was shot-down and orthodoxy prevailed. The document was amended to be even stronger against Arianism and the sect largely disappeared until today (with modern Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Thank the Lord for the perseverance and diligent study of men like Athanasius!
Modern-Church Application (what kind of churches have these pros and/or cons?):
The strengths of the church speak of one that is in a very difficult situation yet remains faithful to God. Persecution and false teaching threaten to break the church’s resolve. The church has specifically stayed true to Christ as their Savior and Lord, characteristics of true Christians. This reminds me of churches based in difficult areas where intellectual persecution is so prevalent. Those who live in big, western cities struggle with this, specifically the youth who are constantly bombarded with atheism, lies, and postmodernism. We are currently living in a new “Era of Heresies”, as most of the religions/sects seen today are relatively new, such as Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Adventists, various types of Extreme Pentecostals, and liberal (“mainstream”) Christianity.
The weaknesses abound in this church, namely because a good portion of them have left the faith, being seduced by the false teachers who entice towards idolatry and immorality. It seems that there is a large church where most have either left the faith, or have even introduced false teachers as Christians and have given them the pulpit. Surely some true Christians remain, but they are either too afraid to speak-out or have simply left the church to “start over”; they are not all under the condemnation cited by Christ. The call is for repentance to those who have been swayed by false teachers, and if they do not they will be condemned to hell. This is not implying that those who fall from the faith lose their salvation, but that those who are seduced by false teachers and remained with them were never saved to begin with, thus the call to repentance.
The type of church referenced in this letter is one that enjoys freedom of religion, and while it doesn’t have to endure physical persecution it must fight against false doctrine and heresies with but a featherweight faith. Western churches seem to suffer with the temptation of focusing on secondary things and losing sight of the centrality of Christ and His Second Coming. Sects and heretical groups prey on those who have weak faith and are easily swayed by public opinion. For example, the Church in America is being heavily attacked by false teachers who are discrediting clear Biblical teaching. Rob Bell is popularizing an attempt to “erase hell” (Universalism), Joel Olsteen is making people cling to earth instead of loving heaven (Prosperity Gospel), many groups are speaking more about the Social Gospel than the true Gospel, and yet others are encouraging Christians to be inclusive of what God calls sin in homosexuality, abortion, liberalism, feminism, etc. (Postmodernism). Pitfalls abound and only a strong determination to stand with a literal, contextual reading of Scripture and a Christ-centered Gospel can save us from them.
Church Diagnostics (how do we improve based on this evidence?):
Symptoms: Faces intense of adversity that challenges his faith, constantly deals with many who attempt to undermine Scripture and absolute truth. Often presented with compromises so as to not face shame or embarrassment, yet remains steadfast in not denying Christ or the faith. Often presented with opportunities to share his faith with those who believe something different, sometimes being able to help those who are confused or frustrated by their faulty belief system. His teachers and friends, as well as television programs and online content may publicly denounce the Christian faith as old-fashioned and exclusive.
Side-Effects: May feel alone and misunderstood by society, wanting to fit in and be “normal”. Often feels it a heavy burden to go on speaking what he believes, and may prefer to be quiet or keep more radical Biblical teaching to himself. The temptation to take a more “moderate” stance on Christian teaching is prevalent, and may do so in order to maintain friendships and make visitors feel more welcomed at Church. Preachers will purposefully ignore tough Biblical teaching that goes against the current cultural climate, believing the lie that this will promote love and unity. May end up making many concessions in his family and workplace, making compromises in order to fit-in with the world.
Cure: Christ calls to repentance, some to salvation and others to reconciliation. Many are just social Christians, who talk the talk but have never actually been transformed by Christ, thus they must repent in order to be saved from damnation. Those who are truly saved but have fallen down the “slippery slope” of compromise must repent of displacing clear Biblical teaching in order to be more comfortable. Christ reminds us that we are His followers; we are to take up our cross as the exiled, hated ones and follow in His steps. Only a true Gospel and a wholesale determination to be like Christ will attract others to follow Him. A lukewarm faith is worse than no faith at all, for lukewarm faith is simply hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is the main reason why non-believers reject Christianity.