Summary: Either you are for Jesus, or you are against Him
Unto the Church in Pergamum, Write
Pergamum was the third of the seven churches to which John was directed to write. Pergamum was the political capital of the Roman province of Asia. The governor of the province, which included the territory where the seven churches were located, resided there. He alone had the authority to inflict capital punishment. Lower courts in the cities could inflict lesser punishments such as exile, confiscation, fines, and flogging, When it was determined that the crime deserved the death penalty, the case was forwarded to the governor in Pergamum who had the power of the sword.
Pergamum had numerous shrines to pagan deities. There was a massive temple dedicated to Asclepius the god of healing, whose symbol was a pair of twisted snakes and the wings of the god Hermes, which is today the symbol of the medical profession. People came from over the world to seek healing there. Numerous large testimony stones have been unearthed with people’s names on it, what they were healed of, and a praise to Asclepius for providing healing.
Pergamum also had a huge temple built to Zeus, the “King of the Gods” with a large throne like altar. There also was a temple to the goddess Athena, and Demeter, the goddess who provided for food, and Dionysius, the god of wine and debauchery, whose worship was so depraved that the even the Romans for a time forbid his worship in Rome as a danger to public morality.
The city of Pergamum was an early adopter of Emperor Worship as well as the worship of Rome herself. It was the first city in Asia to erect a temple to an emperor who was still alive as a god. Offering incense to Caesar was considered to be the duty of a good citizen. Those who refused to do so were looked upon with great suspicion. If this refusal also advocated a rival loyalty to an alternate culture such as the Christian’s worship of Jesus, then it was considered as an act of treason punishable by death.
Although Pergamum was not the economic power that Ephesus had, it surpassed it in culture. It boasted of the second largest library in the world to Alexandria. Parchment was invented there as an alternative to Egyptian papyrus. Parchment was much more durable, and this was the material which preserved the New Testament.
There were Jews who had lived in Pergamum, and they would have been exempted by Roman privilege from worshiping the Emperor. However, they had been the victims of confiscation of their funds which were supposed to go to the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus does not directly allude to their opposition to the church in Pergamum as he does with Smyrna and Philadelphia. Rather, the pressure here seems to have come from the Romans and the citizens of Pergamum proper.
Exposition of the Text
The oracle to the church at Pergamum is introduced in the same manner as the previous chapters. As each church’s message refers back to a part of the description of the vision John had of the exalted Jesus, the part that Jesus directs the church at Pergamum’s attention to is the sharp two-edged sword coming from Jesus’ mouth. This would tell the believers there that the ultimate power of life and death did not reside in the Roman Governor who could speak the word of a death sentence, but in Jesus Himself. This would serve as a warning to the church that it would be far better for them to offend the governor if need be rather than to offend Jesus. The governor had power only over the first death, but Jesus has power over the far more terrible second death. The believer was encouraged by this to remain faithful to Jesus at all costs and not compromise. We do read elsewhere in Scripture to do our best to be law abiding citizens and to obey our leaders as well as strive to live at peace with all people. Peter says we should never suffer at the hand of the government for doing evil. However, there is a time that the Christian must suffer, if need be, for doing good. This desire to live peaceably cannot be at the expense of faithfulness to Christ. The believer is also reminded that this Jesus also speaks the word of eternal life, a sentence that more than nullifies the sentence of death spoken by the governor.
In verse 13, Jesus reminds the church that He is aware of how evil the city they dwell in is. In fact, Satan has his throne there. But just what about Pergamum makes it the throne of Satan? The problem is that there are so many good candidates. The temple dedicated to Asclepius would be a good choice. Their god was a snake. One can only think of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. Another would be Demeter whose devotees would soak themselves in the blood of a slain bull. Dionysius with its drunken orgies would fit the bill. Cases could be made for Zeus and Athena as well. Or is it a reference to Emperor Worship? To fail to observe the worship of the Emperor could get you sent to the Proconsul’ s seat who represented the Emperor and who could sentence one to death. If one had to be picked from this group, the last one would be my choice. Otherwise, as many commentators have concluded, it was all of these as a whole.