A Study of the Seven Churches of Asia
by Al Maxey

(Revelation 2:12-17)

"The One who has the sharp two-edged (literally: "two-mouthed") sword" (Rev. 2:12b) speaks to His saints in Pergamum. The fact that the sword has two edges ("mouths") to it suggests that there are two different things our Lord has to share with the church there --- things to commend and things to condemn.

"This may have a twofold symbolism. It may picture His ability to protect them even in the midst of persecution and where martyrs are falling. It may also symbolize the power of discerning judgment .... keen and accurate judgment on the deeds of men, to deal with the false teachers .... and this church which was harboring error" (Ray Summers, Worthy Is The Lamb, p. 114).

"This great sword is, of course, ready to smite the archfiend and his cohorts, but it will make war also against the unfaithful. This sword is to inspire courage in the hearts of the faithful confessors and to dispel all fear, while at the same time it is to inspire fear and bring to repentance all who are unfaithful and have begun to deny Him when they should confess Him" (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Revelation, p. 103).


ONE --- "I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is ..... where Satan dwells" (Rev. 2:13). This is a reference to the city of Pergamum. Jesus says that He is aware of the Satanic environment in which these Christians must live. Satan was "alive and well .... living and ruling" in this wicked city. This would have made it extremely difficult and dangerous to maintain a Christian lifestyle.

Pergamum "exceeded all other cities at that time in wickedness. Its pagan inhabitants lived in luxury, accompanied by great vice. It probably had in it more idols than any other place in Asia" (James M. Tolle, The Seven Churches of Asia, p. 44). "All seven of the cities of Asia were thoroughly pagan, but this one was the worst" (R.C.H. Lenski, p. 104).

Pergamum was a stronghold of emperor worship. In 29 B.C. a temple had been built to "the divine Augustus Caesar and the goddess Roma," and it was served by a powerful priesthood. This city was the political capital of the province and the center of the state religion. Aesculapius, "the god of Pergamus," was also worshipped here. This was the god of healing and was worshipped under the emblem of a serpent. The great, throne-like altar of Zeus was here too. This was built under Eumenes II around 180 B.C. (it is now housed in a museum in Berlin). "Pergamum was a place where Satan wielded a very special authority; a place where the anti-God forces of the universe were at their most authoritative and most powerful" (William Barclay, Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 47).

Jesus tells them "I know where you dwell" (NASB, NWT, KJV, NKJV, ASV, RSV) ..... "where you live" (NEB, LB, NIV, NAB, TEV, SEB, Phillips, Amplified). This is the Greek word katoikeo which means "to inhabit, indwell, to take up residence; to settle down; to dwell fixedly, permanently in a place" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words).

"What the risen Christ is saying to the Christians in Pergamum is this: 'You are living in a city where the influence and the power of Satan are rampant --- and you have got to go on living there. You cannot escape. You cannot pack your baggage and move off to some place where it is easier to be a Christian. In Pergamum you are, and in Pergamum you must stay. Life has set you where Satan's seat is. It is there you must live, and it is there you must show that you are a Christian.' The word 'katoikeo' tells us that it is no part of the Christian duty to run away from a difficult and a dangerous situation. The Christian aim is not escape from a situation, but conquest of a situation" (William Barclay, Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 48).

"Here is something very important. The principle of the Christian life is not escape, but conquest. We may feel it would be very much easier to be a Christian in some other place and in some other circumstances, but the duty of the Christian is to witness for Christ where life has set him. The more difficult it is to be a Christian in any set of circumstances, the greater the obligation to remain within these circumstances. If in the early days Christians had run away every time they were confronted with a difficult situation, there would have been no chance of a world won for Christ" (William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. 1, p. 91-92). Christ commends these saints for making their home, and maintaining their faith, in a Satanic environment. It is the area of greatest darkness in which the LIGHT is most needed!

TWO --- ".....and you hold fast My name" (NASB, NWT, KJV, NKJV, ASV, RSV, NAB, Phillips) ..... "holding onto My name" (SEB) ..... "clinging to and holding fast My name" (Amplified) ..... "remained loyal to Me" (LB) ..... "you are true to Me" (TEV) ..... "you remain true to My name" (NIV) ..... "you are holding fast to My cause" (NEB). This is the Greek word krateo which means "to grasp powerfully; to lay hold of and retain with strength; to hold closely and prevent from getting away."

To whom do you bow down? To whom do you render service? To whom are you loyal and true? Do you confess "Lord Caesar" or "Lord Christ"? These were the vital questions of the day! "'My name' stands for all that Jesus is: His deity, authority, and Lordship over God's entire universe" (Homer Hailey, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 130). "Christ's name is the symbol of His person, and these words of praise affirm that the saints in Pergamum had not denied the person of Christ, but continued to acknowledge Him as their Savior, Lord, and Master" (James M. Tolle, p. 44).

THREE --- ".....and you did not deny My faith" (NASB, ASV, KJV, NKJV, RSV, Amplified) ..... "did not leave My faith" (SEB) ..... "did not deny your faith in Me" (NWT, NEB, NAB, Phillips) ..... "did not renounce your faith in Me" (NIV) ..... "did not abandon your faith in Me" (TEV). This is the Greek word arneomai which means "to deny, disclaim, disown, renounce; to reject, contradict." The Aorist Tense is used here which "refers to a specific incident in the past" (Dr. Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John, p. 458).

The translations are almost evenly split over the object of this denial. Some say, "My faith" ... others say, "your faith in Me." The Greek phrase is ten pistin mou which means "the faith of me." In English this would be "my faith." "It can scarcely mean 'your faith in me'" (R.C.H. Lenski, p. 105). "The Lord did not have in mind the faith of the Christian, but HIS faith" (James M. Tolle, p. 45).

This "faith" would be the sum total of our Lord's revealed teachings or doctrine. "Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). "Continue in the faith firmly established" (Col. 1:23). "The church did not deny the doctrine of Christ" (R.C.H. Lenski, p. 105). "He commends them for sticking steadfastly to the Truth, rather than watering it down or perverting it with the aberrations of the pagan religions" (Hal Lindsey, There's A New World Coming, p. 52). Jesus "commends the church in Pergamum for its loyal stand concerning His teaching. Not only had they stood fast for the person of Christ, but also for the doctrine of Christ" (James M. Tolle, p. 45).

As a result of living faithfully in an evil environment, there were those in Pergamum who were losing their lives! Jesus mentioned one of their number by name: Antipas. The word antipas means "against all." According to a 10th century legend, Antipas was Bishop of Pergamum; was brought before an image of Caesar and told to confess that Caesar was God. When he refused, the Roman official said, "Antipas, don't you know that the whole world is against you?," to which he replied, "Then Antipas is against the whole world!" (This legend may well have been built around the meaning of his name.) Antipas was then placed inside of a brass bull which was heated with fire until he was roasted to death. There are other ancient traditions which suggest that the name "Antipas" is symbolic and refers to either Timothy or Athanasius of Alexandria.

Jesus calls him "My faithful witness" --- a title also applied to Jesus Himself (Rev. 1:5). The Greek word for "witness" is martus which means "one who testifies; a witness; one who attests to something." It is from this word that we get the word "martyr." This word later came to be applied not only to those who "testified" concerning the Word, but who also died for it! ("And when the blood of Thy witness Stephen was being shed..." -- Acts 22:20). "'Martus' means both 'witness' and 'martyr,' and the very history of the word shows us that to be a witness is often to be a martyr. To witness for Christ is often to suffer for Christ" (William Barclay, Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 50).

Rev. 2:13 says that Antipas "was killed among you" (NASB, ASV, KJV, NKJV, LB, RSV) ..... "in your midst" (Amplified) ..... "by your side" (NWT) ..... "before your eyes" (Phillips) ..... "in your city" (NEB, NAB, NIV). The idea is that Antipas was put to death "in their midst," before their very eyes (see: Dr. A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 614). This may have been an attempt by the persecutors to intimidate the rest of the congregation; however, the church in Pergamum would not be intimidated, and for this Jesus praises them!


After praising them for their commendable qualities, Jesus then says, "But I have a few things against you" (Rev. 2:14a). There were a couple of false doctrines which were gaining a foothold in Pergamum; some of the members were being seduced by these teachings. Jesus condemns both false doctrines, and those who have embraced them. He also rebukes the congregation itself for its toleration of this situation.

ONE --- "You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality" (Rev. 2:14b). Balaam was "the biblical prototype of religious compromisers" (footnote in the New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition). "The doctrine of compromise is one of Satan's most lethal weapons" (Homer Hailey, p. 131). "Satan's chief method is deception .... and what Satan could not accomplish at Smyrna or Pergamum through intimidation, suffering and death from outside the church, he achieved from within" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, p. 441).

Balaam devised a plan whereby the Moabite women would seduce the Israelite men, causing them to mix in with their pagan religious rites, which not only involved worship of idols, but also eating meat sacrificed to idols and the committing of fornication with the cult prostitutes. The account of Balaam's sin is found in Numbers 22-24; 25:1ff; 31:8, 16; Deut. 23:4-5; Joshua 13:22; 24:9-10; Micah 6:5; II Peter 2:15-16; Jude 11.

These false teachers "were urging the Christians of Pergamum to conform to the accepted standards of the world and to stop being different. The early church was in constant danger of being tainted by, and relapsing into, the standards of the world" (William Barclay, Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 52).

TWO --- "You also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans" (Rev. 2:15). Simply put, the Nicolaitans were "a Christian libertine group within the churches of Asia Minor" (Fiorenaz). Misunderstanding the concept of Christian liberty (Gal. 5:1, 13; I Cor. 6:12) they believed and taught that one was "free in Christ" to engage in worldly activities. This would allow them to maintain a good standing in their community, and yet still be "good Christians." Such compromise was also a means of escaping persecution. Their "freedom in Christ," however, led them to commit numerous acts of immorality.

The "Constitutions of the Holy Apostles" (a late 4th century manuscript) states that the Nicolaitans are "impudent in uncleanness." Tertullian (160 - 230 A.D.; the son of a pagan Roman government official who was converted to Christianity about 197 A.D. after being impressed with the courage of the Christian martyrs) writes, in regard to marriage, "The Nicolaitans, in their maintenance of lust and luxury, destroy happiness of sanctity."

Irenaeus (born in 115 A.D.; educated under Polycarp) says, "they lead lives of unrestrained indulgence, and teach it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols." Ignatius (martyred in Rome in 110 A.D.; a student of the apostle John) brands them "lovers of pleasure, and given to slanderous speeches." He also says they "affirm that unlawful unions (sexual) are a good thing, and place the highest happiness in pleasure." The Nicolaitan movement was an effort on the part of some of the Christians of Asia Minor to conform to their pagan environment so as to maintain their livelihood and possessions, and to escape persecution; and they tried to justify their conformity to the world by the perversion of certain passages of Scripture dealing with their freedom in Christ.

THREE --- Not only does Jesus condemn these two groups, but He further rebukes the congregation itself for tolerating these people in their midst. "But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold...." "You, repent therefore, otherwise I am coming to you .... and will wage war against them." Both groups (those engaging in the sins of the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans, and those who tolerate them) will experience judgment from the Lord.

Our Lord's "command includes both a call to the whole congregation to repent, and a special threat to the heretical members if they do not repent. Since those who did not indulge in these things tolerated their practice by some of the church's members, they, along with the guilty, needed to repent" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, p. 441-442). "The church is warned to repent of its attitude of leniency and toleration" (Ray Summers, p. 115). The congregation as a whole "had not become guilty of believing the false teaching, but it was guilty of what we call today 'broad churchism.' This church did not hold to the false doctrine, but they were tolerating this within their ranks" (Albert J. Lindsey, The Apocalypse Unveiled, p. 13).

"Two parties were involved in this threat --- those guilty of the sins named, and the rest of the church that tolerated them. The guilty parties would have to reform, or, if not, the rest would have to cease fellowshipping them" (John T. Hinds, p. 46). The big mistake of the church at Pergamum is that they showed "concern for the individual at the expense of their Christian duty to be concerned about the welfare of the church as a whole --- they neglected discipline" (William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, p. 83).

"No doubt these (Balaamites & Nicolaitans) are a small minority of the church; but knowing the danger of even a little leaven, this condition cannot be tolerated. There is no point at which the church can tolerate compromise or wink at sin when the name and faith of the Lord Jesus are involved" (Homer Hailey, p. 131-132). "In his complaint against the church in Pergamum, the Lord not only directs His censure at those who were guilty of holding false teaching, but at those also who had fellowship with them. The Lord here is directly rebuking the church for its compromise with error, for allowing false teaching and sin to remain in its midst. Not only was the church in Pergamum threatened by paganism from without, but also by compromise within. The latter was potentially more dangerous to the cause of Christ than the former. There is a lesson from the Lord's rebuke here for churches of Christ today: When error and sin are tolerated in any congregation, the Lord is sorely displeased. We who claim to be true disciples of Christ must face up to our responsibility to labor for the purity of the church in both doctrine and practice. It is not enough that we ourselves hold fast the name of Christ and do not deny His faith; we must not tolerate within the borders of the kingdom those who persist in lowering the standard of Truth's requirements. We must have the courage and integrity to obey God's Word in denying fellowship to any member of the church who persistently engages in false teaching and ungodly living" (James M. Tolle, p. 45-46).

In the church at Pergamum we have a perfect example of a congregation which has compromised with compromisers. The letter to the Lord's people in Pergamum is a call to church discipline! Jesus is saying, "Either you remove the evil from your midst, or I will; and then I will deal with you for not dealing with them." Perhaps the key word in this letter is "toleration" --- The congregation had tolerated the persecution that had come their way, and in so doing had gained the favor of Jesus; however, they had also tolerated sin in their midst, and in so doing had gained the disfavor of Jesus.

Smyrna Thyatira

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