Summary: The church must hold to the right doctrine. In Pergamos, they held to the name of Christ, but it had no content or real meaning to them.
As the messenger who was carrying this letter from the island of Patmos where John wrote it, he would have come to Ephesus first. He would have stayed there while it was read and then left them a copy. Then he would have headed north to Smyrna and done the same thing. The third stop on his journey would have taken him inland off the coast to the city of Pergamos. It wasn’t a port city like Smyrna and it wasn’t on any important trade routes. But it was a culturally important city. It was built on a hill that towered 1000 feet over the plain, so you could see it for miles around. It was an educated, high-society city. It was known for its mix of Greek religion, immoral lifestyle and education. For example, they had one of the largest libraries in the world just down the road from one of the largest temples to Zeus in the empire. This was the city that the church of Pergamum was supposed to impact. But it worked the other way around. Instead of the church impacting the culture around it, the culture impacted the church. The great evangelist DL Moody once said, “The place for the ship is in the sea. But God help the ship if the sea gets into the ship.” Well, the sea of Pergamum had definitely gotten into the ship of the Pergamum church. In this letter, Jesus describes Pergamos as the seat of Satan and the place where Satan dwells. That ought to tell you something. That ought to be a pretty good indicator that that was a sea that had no business getting into the church ship. But they let it in. Not all at once. Sin never happens all at once. But over time, they began to look just like the culture around them.
It started when they lost their pastor. We don’t know a whole lot about Antipas, but the wording of the passage and church history tells us that he was the pastor of the Pergamos church. And as their pastor, he must have been doing something right. Because Jesus called him faithful. As a matter of fact, he was faithful even unto death. Tradition tells us that when he refused to burn incense to the Roman emperor Domitian, he was burned in the bull-shaped brass altar in the incense’s place. And now, here the people were, without a pastor in that godless culture of Pergamum. Picture it this way. They were sheep without a shepherd and they didn’t know how to eat for themselves. So because they didn’t know how to eat for themselves, they allowed themselves to be fed by false teachers. If you look closely at verse 14, you will see that the false teachers were not from within the congregation. They were allowing themselves to be fed from outside the congregation. In other words, they were taking on the teachings of the world around them. They were falling for the lies of the culture instead of holding fast to solid doctrine. They weren’t holding to solid doctrine, but what were they holding to? Look back in verse 13. They were holding fast to Jesus’ name. That’s a good thing, right? They weren’t denying the faith. That’s a good thing too, right? It would be—except those words held no meaning to them. There are people all over this land this morning that are calling on the name of Jesus. There are people who call on Him and at the same time deny that He is God. There are people who call on His name like some sort of magic formula. There are people who call on His name as some sort of get out of jail free card without recognizing Him as King of kings and Lord of lords. There are people all over this land today who are lifting their hands in praise to a Jesus they don’t have a clue who He is. If they did, they would fall down on their knees in repentance right now. The worst I’ve seen is on a t-shirt that was popular a while back. It said, “Jesus is my Homeboy.” Guess what. Jesus is not your homeboy. He’s not a magic lamp you rub like a genie bottle. He’s not a warm and tingly feeling. He is creator and sustainer and savior and Lord and righteous judge. In each of those situations, those people might be holding fast to Jesus name—but they don’t have a clue as to who Jesus really is. And if you don’t know who Jesus is or make Him into something He isn’t, then He will have the same thing against you that He had against the church at Pergamum. Here’s the problem. The church at Pergamum held to the name of Jesus. But their idea of the name of Jesus had nothing to do with who He really is. To them, the name of Jesus had no content. He was a sweet sounding name. He was a kindly picture on a wall. He was a warm fuzzy feeling. He was whatever they wanted to make Him. So they made Him like Balaam did in the Old Testament. They made Him like the Nicolaitans did in their day. You can read the account of Balaam on your own in Numbers 22-25. But here’s what you need to know about the teaching of Balaam. Balaam called upon God. He consistently called God’s name even though he didn’t have a relationship with Him. He called God’s name to get what he wanted out of Him. And then when he didn’t get what he wanted out of Him, he went ahead and did it on his own. He led Israel astray by teaching them that they could live like they wanted to and still call on God’s name. What God wanted didn’t really matter. It was all about what they wanted. They could engage in immorality and idolatry and still worship God. The Nicolaitans taught pretty much the same thing. History tells us that they were a group of false teachers that came from a man the Bible calls Nicholas the proselyte of Antioch. He was one of the first deacons mentioned in Acts 6. Whether he actually started the false teaching or not isn’t clear. Either he did or for some reason, this group took on his name to gain credibility. But either way, the Nicolaitans taught that church things were spiritual. And spiritual things were separate from the real world. The real world is physical. So things that you do with your body don’t have anything to do with your spiritual self. In other words—live like you want to live. Jesus loves you anyway. You can do whatever you want to on Saturday night. That doesn’t have anything to do with Sunday morning. Drink and party and do whatever you want on Saturday night. Come and praise Jesus on Sunday morning. Both these teachings taught that you could live like you wanted to live and still call yourself a Christian. And we see the exact same thing today. How did Paul put it in Romans 6:1? “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” And then he answered his own question in verse 2: “God forbid. How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?” Paul said that it is an impossibility to willfully continue in sin and claim the name of Jesus as your own. In other words, if you’re holding fast to the name of Jesus like the church at Pergamum and living like the people in the seat of Satan, you have a problem. And one of the ten commandments addresses your problem. It says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. For the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.” Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” The people of the Pergamum church were blatantly not keeping Jesus’ commandments. As a matter of fact, they weren’t even trying. They were living like they wanted to and still calling themselves Christians. They were holding fast to the name of Christ, but the name of Christ had no meaning to them.