Below are my notes on the letter to the church at Pergamum. I will also note that I’ve included and excursus into the Binding of Satan below which may prove helpful for future reference.
To the Church in Pergamum
Pergamum was the capital of Asia. It has been so for some 250 years before this time (per MacArthur), and had been its own kingdom until about 133 B.C. when its final king died, and he bequeathed his kingdom to the Romans.
Hendricksen gives us some scope to the city of Pergamum:
The city was located upon a huge rocky hill which, as it were, plants its foot upon the great surrounding valley. The Romans made it the capital of the province of Asia…Here were to be seen the many pagan altars and the great altar to Zeus. All these things may have been I the mind of Christ when He called Pergamum the place ‘where Satan dwells.’ Yet, it seems to us that the obvious purpose of the Author is to direct our attention to the fact that Pergamum was the capital of the province and, as such, also the center of emperor-worship.[i]
The city was about 100 miles north of Ephesus and lay 15 miles inland from the Aegean – so it wasn’t a port city like Smyrna and Ephesus. Pliny wrote about how magnificent it was, and MacArthur notes that famous archeologist William Ramsay declared it to be a majestic city sitting atop the gigantic rock formation.
The city boasted a library only second to the famous library of Alexandria, with over 200,000 handwritten volumes. A third century B.C. king of Pergamum even tried to lure the librarian from Alexandria away to run their collection, but the Egyptian king caught wind of it and retaliated by cutting off the export of papyrus to the Asian city!
“Out of necessity, the Pergamenes developed parchment, made of treated animal skins, for use as writing material. Though parchment was actually known from a thousand years earlier in Egypt, the Pergamenes were responsible for its widespread use in the ancient world. In fact, the word parchment may derive from a form of the word Pergamum.”[ii]
2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.
In chapter one (vs. 16) we see that Jesus is described as the one who had a sword protruding from his mouth. When we discussed this in the class setting, we came to the conclusion that the sword was the word of God. The fact that it emanated from the mouth of Jesus made a great deal of sense in that the inspired Word is that which came from Jesus.
The author of Hebrews, himself inspired by the Spirit, said this:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
Matthew Henry sees the connection here as well and says this:
(1.) The word of God is a sword; it is a weapon both offensive and defensive, it is, in the hand of God, able to slay both sin and sinners. (2.) It is a sharp sword. No heart is so hard but it is able to cut it; it can divide asunder between the soul and the spirit, that is, between the soul and those sinful habits that by custom have become another soul, or seem to be essential to it. (3.) It is a sword with two edges; it turns and cuts every way. There is the edge of the law against the transgressors of that dispensation, and the edge of the gospel against the despisers of that dispensation; there is an edge to make a wound, and an edge to open a festered wound in order to its healing. There is no escaping the edge of this sword: if you turn aside to the right hand, it has an edge on that side; if on the left hand, you fall upon the edge of the sword on that side; it turns every way.
Of course the sharp two-edged sword is familiar to us now. But perhaps equally interesting is how Hebrews describes the all-knowing nature of the Lord. He says, “…no creature is hidden from his sight.” In a similar way we read earlier that Jesus was described as having eyes, “like a flame of fire” (1:14). Those eyes are all-seeing, and, as the writer of Hebrews says, all will be “exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Jesus himself said, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).
I’m pointing this out because, while this is apocalyptic literature, the way in which Jesus is described – his attributes, his authority, and his actions are consistent across the canon of scripture.
2:13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
Here is the commendation of the church at Pergamum. They have held fast the name of Jesus and didn’t deny the faith even in the midst of execution.
Note how Jesus describes their location as “where Satan’s throne is.” And that the result is that Christians – notably this man Antipas – have died on behalf of the name of Jesus. There are two points I want us to understand about this:
Satan’s Driving Motivation
- Satan has always sought to kill those people who are the offspring of Eve. He delights in killing the Lord’s elect. For as God said to the devil in Genesis:
The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15)
Now Jesus has been bruised for us, but He has leveled the fatal blow – the headshot – to Satan. Therefore Satan’s destiny has been set – his power already diminished, and he will soon be permanently cast into outer darkness.
Satan’s Throne and His Power
- Satan’s “throne” may be here on earth, but it is not a throne of sovereignty. He “rules” in a subordinate sense, not an ultimate sense. He is roaming the earth seeking those whom he can devour (1 Peter 5:8), but his freedom is subordinate to God’s sovereign power and control. Many people get tripped up on the traditional Amillennial idea that of Satan being bound “bound” from deceiving the nations right now (Revelation 20:3). This is perhaps because they cast their own ideas about what it means to be “bound” onto the Biblical text. They point to all the terrible things going on in the world and to other texts like this where Satan is characterized as ruling in some sense, and they say, “Hey, there’s simply no way he is “bound” right now.”
But perhaps the Amillenial view is closer to the correct view than they might realize, and that we live right now in the millennium. If this is true, then Satan is bound. But how is he bound? He is “bound” from “deceiving the nations.” The Bible never says he is bound from doing evil and working to kill the offspring of Eve! It simply asserts that he no longer has the ability to withstand the unbridled power of the Holy Spirit. Before the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus, the entire world save a few was characterized by darkness and idol worship. Now the gospel is saving souls and Satan, though powerful and devouring those whom he can, is ultimately unable to tamp out the gospel or keep the world in darkness.
Now – a note on this front – I understand the difficulties here with what I’ve said about the nature of Satan being “bound.” Not the least of these difficulties comes from the passage in Revelation 20 itself, namely that Satan is characterized as being thrown in a “pit” which is “shut” so that “he might not deceive the nations” until the millennial period is over. That certainly sounds like a complete cutting off of his freedom!
But here I will lean on greater exegetical minds than my own to explain in much more detail what is going on in this passage. Namely, I want to lean on G.K. Beale’s mind, who has what I consider to be the most clear understanding of the passage, and for the sake of reference in the future I will cite several of his remarks here on the passage in question, Revelation 20:1-6. This may seem to be getting ahead of ourselves a bit, but I believe that the book is a uniform whole. There are concepts throughout the book that I will continually bring up, and I want to explain where my “assumptions” are coming from. I think that putting some of these thoughts to rest early in our study could help us understand the book more clearly as we go along. Here are some of Beale’s exegetical notes:
The “key of the abyss” in 20:1 is similar to the keys in chs. 1, 3, 6 and 9, especially chs. 6 and 9, which all pertain to realities during the church age. The “abyss” in 9:1-2 and 20:1 is probably a synonym for “death and Hades” in 1:18 and 6:8…
As in 6:8 and 9:1-2, so in 20:1-3 the Satanic realm comes under Christ’s authority, which is executed by a mediating angel…
If we have been correct in generally identifying 20:1 with the preceding “key” passages, which concern inter-advent realities, then the binding and the millennium are best understood as Christ’s authority restraining the devil in some manner during the church age.
This means tat the restraint of Satan is a direct result of Christ’s resurrection. If so, the binding, expulsion, and fall of Stan can be seen in other NT passages that affirm with the same terms (“bind”, “cast” etc.) that the decisive defeat of the devil occurred at Christ’s death and resurrection (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 10:17-10; John 12:31-33; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). More precisely, the binding was probably inaugurated during Christ’s ministry, which is more the focus of texts such as Matthew 12:29, Mark 3:27, and Luke 10:17-19. Satan’s binding was climatically put in motion immediately after Christ’s resurrection, and it lasts throughout most of the age between Christ’s first and second comings.
But now what about the nature of the binding? How is this defined etc.?
Many commentators conclude that the metaphors of verses 1-3 (in ch. 20) refer to al complete cessation of the devil’s influence on earth, sometimes basing this on such texts as 2 Cor. 4:3-4, 11:14; Eph. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:26; and 1 Peter 5:8. But the “binding of Satan in Mark 3:27 (= Matt. 12:29) does not restrict all his activities but highlights the fact that Jesus is sovereign over him and his demonic forces. Therefore, context, and not the metaphor by itself, must determine what degree of restriction is intended. That Stan is “cast out” by Christ’s death does not restrict Satan in every way. Rather, it keeps him from preventing “all people” throughout the earth being drawn to Jesus (John 12:31-32). “Sealing” may connote an absolute incarceration, but it could just as well connote the general idea of “authority over,” which is its primary meaning also in Daniel 6:17 and Matthew 27:66 (though the context of the latter pertains to absolute confinement). God’s “seal” on Christians does not protect them in every sense but only in a spiritual, salvific manner, since they suffer from persecution in various physical ways (see on 7:3; 9:4). Conversely, God’s seal on Satan prevents him from harming the salvific security of the true church, though he can harm it physically.
Now Beale continues, and gives several pages of the nature of the binding and more depth is added to his argument. But I will finish with one last excerpt that I think makes a very strong case, so long as you agree with the recapitulation view of the book of Revelation (which I do).
If our understanding of the disjunctive temporal relation of 20:1-6 to 19:11-21 (that 20:1-6 actually comes chronologically before 19:11-21) and our view of the “keys” are correct, then Christ’s work of restraining the devil’s ability to “deceive” is not a complete curtailment of all the devil’s activities but only a restraint on his deceiving activities. 9:1-10 especially suggests this. The opening of the “abyss” with a key there results in demonic deception and oppression of unbelievers “who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Therefore, the locking up of the “abyss” in 20:1-3 may convey the idea that Satan and his hordes cannot be on the loose to deceive those “who did not receive the mark (of the beast) on their foreheads.” 9:1-10 and 20:1-3 are synchronous and portray those whom Satan is permitted to deceive and those whom he is not permitted to deceive.
I hope this extended series of excerpts serves as a thought provoking adventure into the text. I don’t want to confuse anyone, but rather to offer some more depth to the arguments and viewpoints I’m offering on a Sunday morning.
2:14-15 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.  So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Now comes the accusation. The church has followed the way of Balak and in a similar way there’s also a group of them who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Balaam was a character from the OT and we learn about him and his betrayal of the Israelites in the book of Numbers. He was asked by a foreign King – Balak, king of Moab – to curse the Israelites so that they could be overcome in battle. The Lord intervened and stopped Balaam on in his tracks on his way to meet with the king:
But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him.  And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. (Numbers 22:22-23)
God had actually given him permission to go only if the men sent from Balak asked him again to come with them. But apparently Balaam couldn’t control his eagerness for the journey and set off on his own accord.[iii]
Balaam ended up being allowed to go to the king, but when he opened his mouth to curse the Israelites at the request of Balak, he could not curse them. Instead he spoke only what God had told him to speak. But later on, Balaam, “encouraged Israel to sin through engaging in idolatry and immorality.”[iv]
As Greg Beale describes, “Balaam’s name became a biblical catch-word for false teachers who for financial gain sought to influence God’s people to engage in ungodly practices (Deuteronomy 23:4; Nehemiah 13:2; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11).”[v]
Peter mentions this in his second epistle when describing false teachers:
Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing,  but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:15-16)
So there were parts of the church who had been following false teachers motivated out of a desire for wealth and power.
Jesus also mentions that this church has, “some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Who are these people? John MacArthur explains well and is worth quoting at length:
The phrase “in the same way” indicates that the teaching of the Nicolaitans led to the same wicked behavior as that of the followers of Balaam…the Nicolaitans derived their name from Nicholas, one of the seven men chosen to oversee the distribution of the food in Acts 6. Where he became an apostate (as some of the early church fathers believed) or the Nicolaitans, his followers, perverted his teachings is not known. Abusing biblical teaching on Christian liberty, the Nicolaitans also taught that Christians could participate in pagan orgies. They seduced the church with immorality and idolatry.
The majority of the believers at Pergamum did not participate in the errors of either heretical group. They remained steadfastly loyal to Christ and the Christian faith. But by tolerating the groups and refusing to exercise church discipline, they shared in their guild, which brought the Lord’s judgment.[vi]
This kind of thing scares me to death because as a church in the modern era, we often refuse to exercise church discipline. The church is seen as a club, but not as an authoritative body of believers. If someone commits a sin and wrongs others in the church, or is in grave error from a teaching standpoint and refuses to repent of that error, that person generally just leaves and goes to another church. We are such a mobile society now that the idea of being tied down to a local body of believers who have authority to admonish individuals, is something that is far from the mindset of many in the modern Christian church.
Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry says, “Though the church, as such, has no power to punish the persons of men, either for heresy or immorality, with corporal penalties, yet it has power to exclude them from its communion; and, if it do not so, Christ, the head and lawgiver of the church, will be displeased with it.”
One only need look at the fall of Mark Driscoll in Seattle to see how effective a local body can be when functioning correctly. Mark had been off the reservation for a while, and finally the local elder board at his church confronted him about his attitude and his speech and he stepped down. Now this is a nationally known figure. He had a giant ministry that spanned over a network of churches and reached tens of thousands of people. Yet, he was subject to the local body of believers.
Today we need to have local churches that function in this way.
2:16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’
Here is the call to repent followed by the description of the consequences to follow if they do not repent – namely that the Son of God will “war against them with the sword of (his) mouth.”
What does it meant to have God “war against” you? If the sword is the word of God, it is evident they will be judged by the truth that is in that word. As I mentioned before, these churches no longer stand – only the church at Smyrna exists in a city that still stands.
What came to my mind as best showcasing the truth of this is what Jesus says in John 5:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
Note the close connection between hearing and believing (obeying the word – obeying the gospel) and judgment.
Now secondly note how the when he calls on them to hear what he’s saying – using the familiar phrase, “he who has an ear to hear let him here” – he says that it is the “Spirit” who is speaking. What can He mean by this? Isn’t it Jesus who is speaking?
The answer to this question is that Jesus and the Spirit are of the same mind. Before Jesus left this earth He promised that the Spirit would come to lead (them – the disciples of Jesus) into all truth:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 16:13).
The famous Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos once spoke of the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit in the following way:
…the union effected between him and the Spirit and through the Spirit and believers, acquires the character of an organic mystical union, so that to be in the Spirit is to be in Christ.[vii]
So they are always on the same page. Jesus’ words are the Spirit’s words.
Now the next thing we read is the promise of eternal reward to the one who conquers. Like the other letters, the promise to those Christians who conquer is eternal life with the Father. The neat thing about reading these letters and studying them closely is that we are given the privilege of seeing the different ways in which Jesus describes the splendor of eternity. Here he talks about “hidden manna” and a “white stone.”
Now as you might recall, manna is bread, and in the Bible you’ll see time and again how bread represents sustenance. It represents God’s provision for men. Namely in the OT God provided manna from heaven to the Israelites, and in the NT Jesus called himself the “bread of life.”
Furthermore, interestingly, Jewish tradition talks of how Jeremiah hid some manna in the ark before the temple was destroyed and “that it would be revealed again when the Messiah came” (cf. Exodus 16:32 and 2 Maccabees 2:4-7 – see Beale).
Beale remarks on the meaning here:
Here the idea of the manna may have come to mind because of the preceding meditation on Israel’s confrontation with Balaam in their wilderness journey. Israel should have relied on God’s heavenly food for their sustenance rather than partaking of idolatrous food, and the church will partake of heavenly manna if it does not compromise in the same way.[viii]
Hendricksen hints at Jesus being the hidden manna, and personally that makes the most sense to me. Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT type – He brings satisfaction of a more ultimate kind, and a rest which only comes from Him alone (Hebrews). He is also our ultimate reward.
Now with regard to the white stone, there are a number of theories. I think we don’t have to come down on one thing or another. But George Ladd says:
A white stone (in the ancient world) signified acquittal by a jury, a black stone condemnation. White stones were used as tickets of admission to public festivals. This meaning fits the context best. The white stone is a symbol of admission to the messianic feast.
Whereas Hendricksen says that there are only two possibilities in his research.
The first is that the stone represents the person himself – “just as in Israel the twelve tribes were represented by twelve precious stones in the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:15-21). Now this stone is white. This indicates holiness, beauty, glory…the stone itself symbolized durability, imperishability. The white stone, therefore, indicates a being, free form guilt and cleansed of all sin, and abiding in this state for ever and ever.
The second interpretation the pellucid, precious stone – a diamond? – is inscribed with the name of Christ. Receiving this stone with its new name means that in glory the conqueror receives a revelation of the sweetness of fellowship with Christ – in His new character, as newly crowned Mediator – a fellowship which only those who receive it can appreciate.
Interestingly Hendricksen gives pages of arguments in favor of each possibility. I’m not sure that it’s all that important to nail down an opinion about what the white stone means. But I think that it generally symbolizes the uniqueness of the individual relationship with God, and reward that each person has for following Christ. We are all one body, but it’s a body made up of individuals. And here Jesus is saying that He knows us all by name, He has called specific people to life according to His eternal hidden purposes. And the gifts of God are indeed irrevocable, and eternal.
Conclusion: Doctrine Matters
So what can we say about this church? What are we to learn from its mistakes and its commendation?
Many are quick to call this the “worldly church” because of its compromise with the world. Perhaps a better moniker would be the “compromising church” or “the timid church.”
What is so scary about this church is that, while they loved the Lord, they didn’t love him enough to guard their church from compromise. They didn’t love him – or each other – enough to reject false teaching, or admonish and discipline those who were led astray by false teaching.
Doctrine matters. If we are not firmly rooted in the truth of God’s Word we will be easily misled. The entire church in Pergamum was admonished for the actions of a few people. And if we are not firm in our convictions, we’ll tolerate the infiltration of false doctrine in our churches. I’m not just speaking about the church as a whole (The universal church), but more particularly our church – our local body of believers. Because it’s a heck of a lot easier to recognize and reject unorthodox teaching from Mark Driscoll, or Rob Bell, than it is to gently approach the Sunday school teacher here in our church for wrongly interpreting the word of God.
Yet we are called to do just that. But how are we to do that if we are not first grounded in what is right and true? This is a call for both understanding, and for courage and purity in the local body.
[i] Hendricksen, Pg. 66.
[ii] MacArthur, Pg. 84-85. He has a good bit of insight on the background of the city here, and quotes William Ramsay’s book ‘The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia’, which is an old book itself! Ramsay was one of the most renowned archeologists of the last 150 years.
[iii] Matthew Henry Notes: “God gave him leave to go if the men called him, but he was so fond of the journey that we do not find he staid for their calling him, but he himself rose up in the morning, got everything ready with all speed, and went with the princes of Moab, who were proud enough that they had carried their point. The apostle describes Balaam’s sin here to be that he ran greedily into an error for reward, Jude 1:11.”
[iv] Beale, shorter commentary on Revelation, Pg. 66.
[v] Beale, shorter commentary on Revelation, Pg. 66.
[vi] MacArthur, Volume I, Commentary on Revelation, Pg. 89.
[vii] Danny Olinger, ‘A Geerhardus Vos Anthology’, Pg. 323.
[viii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 252.