by Roger McCay
9 May 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 2:12-17
Link to Audio Version
Sin can disguise itself as seductive appeal, and temptation can be an attractive temptress. Flirting with sin can lead to disaster, as it can lead to a relationship, and that relationship to an unholy union, bringing devastation not only to the individual, but to whole families, and even within the body of Christ.
This was the threat worming its way into the church of Pergamum. A number of their members were flirting with false teachings, thinking about them, toying with them, being enticed by them, some even dancing with them in an intimate embrace. Thus corruption was in their midst, with various members seduced by evil. Yet, the Lord, walking among his lampstands, was aware and ready to bring down judgment. But, before he did, Jesus, “who has the sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 1:16; 2:12 &17) dictated to John this letter for the church, in order to shine a light on the threat and provide directions on how to crush it, setting the church straight before it was too late.
Pergamum was the historic capital of Asia. It was an intellectual center, in the vein of Athens and Alexandria. It was also a religious center, with temples, shrines and altars dedicated to Zeus (known as “savior” who had a massive “throne-like” altar raised up above the city), also Dionysius, Athena, and Asklepios (the latter being the god of healing, also called “savior,” symbolized by a serpent—an image replicated all over the city and even on coins). And due to the nature of Asklepios and his followers practices, Pergamum had become a medical center, with people travelling there from all over for healing. Further, the city was the primary center in Asia of the imperial cult and deified statism, first building a temple to Caesar Augustus and Rome in AD 29, subsequently leading the region in the worship of the Roman emperor.
Pergamum was a difficult place for a Christian church to exist and remain faithful. Jesus described it as “where Satan’s throne is” and “where Satan dwells.” The signs of this reality were plain to see: the prominent emphasis on idolatry all around them, not only architecture, but woven into the culture, business, politics, and the very money they used; the images of a serpent used as a dominant motif around the city (and you might recall how Satan is called a serpent in Rev. 12:9 & 20:2, hearkening to Gen. 3); Satan’s presence and influence was seen especially in the predominance of the imperial cult in a time when Emperor Nero was targeting Christians for persecution and demanding worship. The evil one’s influence and residence was not subtle. It was overt. Thus the church existed in the middle of a satanic stronghold, shining the light of Christ—a threat to the enemy (2 Cor. 2:4), but also a juicy target.
Indeed, the church had come under heavy persecution (v. 13), with the martyrdom of Antipas (whom the Lord calls his “faithful witness”). And, rising up against this attack from without (of whatever it consisted), the church stood strong in the face of the threat of death. They held fast to the name of Jesus (as the true Savior and Lord), and held tight to their faith in the Lord, not denying it under pressure to do so.
Yet, the enemy was devious. Where the direct assault had not broken the church’s defenses, a change of tactics ensued. Thus the enemy infiltrated and attacked the church from within, seeding the church with lies through false teachers, in order to corrupt the church. This attack from within was having successful results. Where the attack from without had failed, corruption had taken hold of some in the church, and, if not nipped in the bud, it would be the church’s downfall.
This was an old trick of the enemy. So, as a reminder, Jesus mentions the teachings of Balaam in v. 14. Balaam was the devious prophet from the book of Numbers, whom the King of Moab had hired against Israel, back when Israel was still wandering in the desert (Num. 22-24). Jesus also mentions the teachings of the Nicolaitans, in v. 15, and these two enemies of true Israel, the church, correspond in a couple of ways. First, their very names correspond, as Balaam means “conqueror of the people” in Hebrew and Νικολαος means “conqueror of the people” in Greek. They were also theological equivalents in how they seduced the church into whoredom, with alluring ideas that included antinomianism and syncretism.