And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.
But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
The city of Pergamos: Satan’s seat
The third of the seven churches of Asia Minor was the church at Pergamos. The fact that a church existed in such a godless city is a testimony to God’s sovereign grace. Pergamos was a large and very prosperous city in the days of the apostles. It was located in western Asia Minor, about sixty miles north of Smyrna and ninetyfive miles north of Ephesus. Previously, Pergamos had been the capital of Asia Minor. Gradually it had lost its status because it had been unable to compete with the seaport cities of Ephesus and Smyrna, which had deep harbors that could accommodate larger ships.
The outstanding feature of the city of Pergamos was that it was wholly given over to idolatry. One of the wonders of the ancient world was a forty-foot-high altar dedicated to Zeus, the chief god of the Greeks. Historians also inform us of Pergamos’ worship of the god Aesculapius (Ae-scul-á-pius). Aesculapius was the god of healing. Sick folk from all over the Roman Empire came to the temple of Aesculapius in search of healing. But to the city of Pergamos belongs especially the distinction of being one of the main cities in the empire dedicated to the worship of the Roman emperors. As has been the case down through history, and as will be the case in the kingdom of antichrist, rulers proclaimed themselves gods. In Pergamos temples were built in their honor and worship was paid to them.
Along with its gross idolatry, Pergamos was also characterized by gross immorality. In large measure that was due to the fact that fornication is generally an important ingredient of idolatry. That was not only because of God’s judgment on those who were guilty of spiritual adultery, which is what idolatry is. But it was also the case that committing fornication with the priests and priestesses of the gods was part of their worship. The various feasts and festivals dedicated to the gods always involved debauchery of the worst sort.
It is undoubtedly due to the depths of Pergamos’ depravity that it is referred to as “Satan’s seat,” and “where Satan dwelleth” (v. 13). In the Greek, we do not read of Satan’s “seat,” but of his “throne.” In a unique sense of the word, Pergamos was the place where Satan had his throne. And it was the city where he dwelt. Clearly, it was a city where Satan held absolute and uncontested sway over the citizens. Whereas in other cities Satan exercised his influence, in Pergamos he dwelt.
It was in these circumstances that God had called and gathered a church. As was the case with other of the seven churches, very likely the church in Pergamos had been established by Paul during his third missionary journey when he labored with Ephesus as his home base, “so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). In principle, of course, this is always the situation of Christ’s church in the world. One small congregation, one ray of light midst the darkness of sin.
Infected with antinomianism
In the early days of its existence, the congregation at Pergamos had remained steadfast in the face of persecution. They had “[held] fast my name, and hast not denied my faith” (v. 13). Though the persecution had been severe, the saints held fast to Christ’s name. Christ’s name is all the truth that reveals Jesus Christ. And they had not denied “my faith,” that is, the faith that trusts in and confesses Jesus Christ as the only Savior.
They had remained faithful even though they faced the threat of death, and in spite of the fact that one of their own members, Antipas, had died as a martyr. The passage refers to Antipas as “my faithful martyr” (v. 13). In the end, Christians are not persecuted and do not die for a belief system or for a lifestyle. They die for a person—the Lord Jesus Christ.
Despite their early faithfulness to Christ, the congregation at Pergamos was at present influenced by serious error. That serious error threatened the judgment of God: “I will come against thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (v. 16).
What was that serious error? It was the error of antinomianism. It was an antinomianism that set aside the demands of God’s law for Christians. It was an antinomianism that taught that since we are saved apart from works, good works are not necessary (demanded) in the life of the Christian. It was an antinomianism that rejected works—all works—on the ground that we are not saved by works. It was an antinomianism that insisted that since our works are not part of our justification, they have no place at all in the life of those who are justified.
Verse 14 describes these errorists: “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.” You will recall Balak’s desperate attempt to defeat the children of Israel as recorded in Numbers 22-24. He had hired the false prophet Balaam against them in order to curse them. Every time he attempted to curse Israel, God caused him to bless them. Nevertheless, Balaam had secretly given counsel to Balak of a sure way to bring about Israel’s ruin. Infiltrate them, was Balaam’s counsel. Invite them to a huge feast to Moab’s idol god, Baal-peor. Invite them to sing, dance, and dine. Then seduce them to fornication. Convince them that because they are the people of God, nothing can change that. A little bit of sin will not change their favored status. Grace excuses ungodliness.
That was Balak’s plan through Balaam and, apart from the intervening grace of God, that plan would have resulted in Israel’s ruin. Israel’s sin was an Old Testament form of antinomianism. It is the same sort of evil condemned by the prophet Jeremiah: “Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods, whom ye know not; and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?” (Jer. 7:9-10).
There was another error threatening Pergamos, it would seem. Besides the error of Balaam, there was also the error of the Nicolaitans, “which thing I hate” (v. 15). The Nicolaitans are also referred to in connection with the church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:6). There the “deeds of the Nicolaitans” are singled out, whereas in connection with the church of Pergamos the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans” is mentioned. Taken together, Scripture teaches us that faith and life, doctrine and deeds always go together.
We are mistaken, however, if we conclude that there were two different errors against which the Lord warned the congregation at Pergamos. Instead, the idea is that the teaching of the Nicolaitans was just a revival of the age-old error of Balaam—antinomianism.
That is the case with every heresy. In that respect, too, there is nothing new under the sun. Every heresy in the church today is always the old errors dressed up in new garb—always promoted in a more subtle way. Error always morphs, much like a deadly virus, making it more difficult to eliminate. That has always been true of the heresy of antinomianism.
The Nicolaitans were antinomians. They derived their name from a certain Nicholas. The early church father Irenaeus identified Nicolas as a proselyte from Antioch, who was among the first seven deacons chosen to serve the congregation in Jerusalem, according to Acts 6:5. He said that Nicolas had forsaken true Christian doctrine, perverting the truth of salvation by grace in order to justify unrestrained licentiousness. Hippolytus substantiated Irenaeus, alleging that Nicolas corrupted right doctrine and the Christian life (Refutations of Heresies, 7:24). A number of early fathers associated the Nicolaitans with those referred to by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:13, who used their Christian liberty as an occasion for the flesh. Isidore of Seville wrote in AD 636, “The Nicolaites are so called from Nicolaus, deacon of the church of Jerusalem, who along with Stephen and the others, was ordained by Peter. He abandoned his wife…so that whoever wanted to might enjoy her; the practice turned into debauchery, with partners being exchanged in turn.”
The Protestant Reformed Churches must never suppose that they are immune from the error of antinomianism or that the only threat is Arminianism. The Reformed faith is the middle way between both errors.
Discipline of antinomians
Altogether too often, the error of antinomianism is minimized or excused. Some suppose that, whenever the charge of antinomianism is made, the explanation is that those against whom the charge is leveled are teaching the truths of sovereign grace. Never, or almost never, is the charge leveled against those who are indeed teaching the error of antinomianism. The seriousness of the error is dismissed. And then there ought to be no surprise that children and grandchildren are swept away by the error.
The church must take a firm stand against the error. And that, too, belongs to the fault that the Lord finds with the congregation in Pergamos. Not only did they have false teachers in their midst, but they tolerated them. The antinomians continued undisciplined in the church. They continued in their own sin and influenced others. The elders and the pastor (“the angel of the church in Pergamos”) did not rebuke those defending their unholy lives by appealing to grace. They never initiated formal discipline against them or excommunicated them from the church. They and their cancerous error were not removed.
For the church at Pergamos there was one word: “Repent.” “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (v. 16). That is a sharp word of rebuke! It could not have been sharper! Christ Himself says, “Repent! Repent, or else!”
The promise to those who do repent consists of three things according to Revelation 2:17: the hidden manna, a white stone, and a new name. The “hidden manna” brings to mind the manna God sent to the children of Israel during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The manna was one of the great Old Testament types of Jesus Christ, the true and spiritual manna. The white stone symbolizes acquittal and pardon. To indicate the verdict of a jury that the man brought before it for judgment was innocent, at the conclusion of his trial he would be given a white stone. And a new name. A new name refers to a new life, the new life of the child of God in heaven. The old name refers to the old life, the present life of sin and misery. The new name refers to the new life of sinlessness and glory. It is the life that awaits those who live in holiness out of gratitude for the grace of God in Jesus Christ.