This post last updated on August 29th, 2022
Jesus has quite a lot to say in his letter to the church in Pergamum. He commends them for certain aspects of their faith, yet condemns and warns them for their tolerance of sin. In this post, I’ll help you discover and learn what Jesus is saying to this ancient church about tolerating sin, what this letter means to the church today, and what you can apply to your life right now from the letter to the church in Pergamum.
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “This is what the one who has the sharp double-edged sword says: ‘I know where you live, where the throne of Satan is. And you hold fast to my name and did not deny your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.Revelation 2:12-13
Pergamum, Pergamon, or Pergamos in Greek was the capital of the Roman Asian province. It was also the seat of the proconsul and possessed the authority to dispense Roman justice. A city that numbered in pagan temples, Pergamum received permission by Augustus in 29 B.C. to build yet another temple. This one to “the divine Augustus and the goddess Roma.”
A “More Roman” City
Some say perhaps Pergamum was more “fully Roman” than any of the other 6 cities in the letters to the churches of Revelation.
Pergamum was one of the wealthier cities in the Roman Empire in Asia. This city’s beginning as a “center of kings” happened long before being ruled by Rome. It was the Attalid kings who formed an alliance with Rome in 240 B.C. The Kingdom of Pergamum was handed over to Rome upon the death of it’s last king.
The city of Pergamum was located 55 miles northeast of Smyrna, and being 10-15 miles inland from the Aegean Sea, it lacked the ports, trades, and merchants of Ephesus or Smyrna. Today, the modern Turkish city of Bergama sits in the valley below the ruins of Pergamum.
Revelation Letter to the Church in Pergamum
The Sharp Double-Edged Sword
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: This is what the one who has the sharp double-edged sword says.Revelation 2:12
Did you see in the introduction where I mention Pergamum had the authority to administer Roman justice? It’s ius gladii in the Roman Empire, that is “the law of the sword,” or “the right of the sword.”
That Jesus uses this sword reference to this city reinforces what he says in Revelation 1:16 as the risen Christ. It also illustrates to the reader that while an empire may wield a sword, it is God’s word that judges all.
The mention of the sword of Christ, which is the word of God, appears to be important to the letter to the church in Pergamum because it’s at the beginning (verse 12) and at the end (verse 16).
While Rome ruled by the sword through force and by inflicting violence, the highest authority of Jesus is through sacrifice, by which you can repent and escape the judgement he mentions in verse 16.
Where the Throne of Satan Is
‘I know where you live, where the throne of Satan is. And you hold fast to my name and did not deny your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.Revelation 2:13
There is debate among scholars and teachers as to what the “throne of Satan” means. This is a complicated verse framed by the reference to Satan at the beginning and the end!
First, look at what’s in the center of this verse.
The Martyr of the Church in Pergamum
As in Smyrna, Jesus acknowledges their situation. He also commends the believers in Pergamum who stood faithfully even when someone among them was martyred.
…you hold fast to my name and did not deny your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you…
History or Scripture doesn’t tell us anything more about this Antipas, but you see that Jesus knows his name. Antipas was killed for his faith in Christ and he may have been a first martyr of Asia Minor. His death at the hands of his persecutors is important enough for Jesus to recognize. Consequently, it’s also there for you to learn from the letter to the church in Pergamum.
Now, what about Satan’s throne?
When you look into it, you’ll see that the commentators are not on the same page. Some say that this refers to the altars of Augustus and Rome. Others say it’s the temple of Zeus, or the pagan worship of Asklepios, the god of healing.
Pergamum was a center of religious cults and Satanic, pagan worship. There were at least 7 massive and imposing temples there. Athena, Augustus, Roma, Hadrian, Zeus, Dionysius the goat-god, and Asklepios.
And you could travel to this ancient city and see the ruins of every one of them.
I don’t think you can point to any one of these and say, “That’s the throne of Satan!” It seems likely that Jesus says Satan lives there because the place was steeped in the practice of many evil cults.
And his letter to the church in Pergamum says the believers there are tolerant of it.
The Teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans
But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold fast to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. So likewise you also have those who hold fast to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.Revelation 2:14-15
Jesus says he has “a few things” against them. But these few things are tremendously serious! They hold to the teaching of Balaam and they flirt with apostasy by allowing the worship of other gods.
I won’t sidetrack into Balaam too much because I have an extensive article about him. Do note here though that he was full of greed, compromise, betrayal, and corruption.
Combine that with bringing pagan worship practices into the church. That’s what Jesus gets at by pointing out that they eat food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality.
To understand the context, trades in the Roman civilization had guilds that nearly every working person belonged to. The guild would provide help and support for it’s members and their family, and a person typically couldn’t work without being a member of a guild. Each guild had a pagan deity that a person would have to sacrifice to and participate with in other guild-required pagan practices. If you refused, you would lose your livelihood.
That’s why the believers in Smyrna suffered financially and couldn’t earn a living.
Tolerance and Intolerance
In Pergamum, the church was home primarily to 2 groups. One who allowed these pagan practices and the rest who tolerated them. Rather than rejecting false teachers as Ephesus did, they accepted them and even “held fast” to their teaching!
That is to say, the church at Pergamum were guilty of spiritual adultery. This apostasy is illustrated by Jesus as sexual immorality.
To clarify that, the church at Pergamum, like our own culture, tolerated sin within the church. And they celebrated it. And as you know, to be accused of being intolerant is to be cast as unloving, uncaring, unkind, and hateful. You could even suffer at the hands of cancel culture.
But Jesus casts a strong warning against being tolerant of sin in his church.
“I will make war with them…”
Therefore repent! But if you do not, I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war with them with the sword from my mouth.Revelation 2:16
This is troublesome to say the least.
As in his previous letters, Jesus is calling his followers of the church in Pergamum to repent. More specifically, he is instructing his people to discipline and deal with the false teachers in their midst. That is, those who “hold fast” to Balaam’s and Nicolaitan teaching.
What’s clear here is that Jesus warns that he will “make war with them.” And if his church doesn’t repent, the consequences will be severe. It’s interesting that he uses both you and them in this verse, and that’s an important contrast.
That is, the false teachers that infiltrated this church were not a part of God’s people. And certainly, not everyone in this congregation compromised. However, the church as a whole was guilty of tolerating those who had undermined the Gospel of Christ and the teaching of God’s word.
And there are always repercussions for tolerating unrepentant sin. However, his promise in the next verse is for those who do overcome.
“To the one who conquers…”
The one who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give to him some of the hidden manna, and I will give to him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, that no one knows except the one who receives it.’Revelation 2:17
If there were a verse in the letter to the church in Pergamum that was difficult to draw out, it’s definitely verse 17. This is another where scholars, commentators, teachers, and probably other handfuls of folks just can’t agree.
So we’re not likely going to break any ground on discovery with this verse, but that won’t keep us from trying!
First, since Jesus begins by addressing “the one that conquers” immediately following his reference to making war, it’s safe to conclude that this portion of the verse speaks to you about spiritual warfare.
The life of a Christian isn’t without trouble. Scripture makes that clear and perhaps most abundantly in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.Ephesians 6:12
What’s more, the mention of “conquering” following the instructions “to he who has an ear, let him hear” really signifies that conquering comes through hearing and obedience to the word of God.
And that is most likely the best takeaway from this that you could apply to your life today.
I found several different explanations of what this hidden manna could be. To summarize, we simply don’t know, but there are some sound observations to make. Here’s what you can know for sure about manna.
- The Hebrew nation was supported by manna in the desert (Exodus 16:16-35)
- Manna was set aside and preserved as a memorial (Exodus 6:32-34)
- It’s referred to as the “grain of heaven” and as the “bread of angels” (Psalm 78:24-25)
Here’s what I think. Manna is absolutely important in the history of God’s people because it illustrates how God provided for his people. Remember, in Exodus 16, Israel was between captivity having left Egypt and not yet having arrived to the promised land. God supplied manna to show that he sustains his people, especially when they’re found in the hard places.
The Bread of Life
Right now, you’re looking at and interpreting manna from this side of the cross. The same manna that gave life and showed God’s sustenance to Israel symbolizes Jesus as the bread of eternal life in Revelation 2:17.
You can see Jesus teach about that in John’s Gospel as well.
Do not work for the food that perishes, but the food that remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has set his seal on this one.”John 6:27
Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Then Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, Moses did not give you bread from heaven, but my Father is giving you the true bread from heaven!John 6:31-32
This would actually be a really good place to read all of John 6:22-58!
One of the biggest things you can learn from the manna in Revelation chapter 2 is that for you who have put your faith in Jesus, eternal life with him in his Kingdom is your future.
The White Stone
While the manna reference has more than a few possible interpretations, the white stone has really given the interpreters a number of options! In fact, I counted at least 7 of them.
A possibility that I read about was that the white stones that were used in ancient Rome as admission tickets to festivals are mentioned here to show that a believer has an admission to heaven.
Another suggested that a white stone would represent innocence. At a Roman trial, a black stone was given in a guilty verdict, and a white one given in an acquittal.
One other possibility is that it’s much like the white stones given to those forced to be gladiators. The white stone with a name on it would show that an athlete has become exempt from being forced back into the gladiator’s arena.
What You Can Apply Today from the Letter to the Church in Pergamum
Maybe you have an idea as to which of these is most likely. Or perhaps some combination of them. I can see the value and potential of each possible explanation.
However, without Christ, there is no admission to his Kingdom, and no one is declared innocent apart from him. Therefore, I believe this final verse in the letter to the church in Pergamum can be best applied in your life right now as an encouragement.
That is, encouragement against the spiritual battles in your life and against the sin and corruption in this world. And even more than that, an eternal promise of victory to those who trust in Jesus Christ through all of it.