March 19, 2008

Revelation - week 3 (cont'd)

As we continue in Revelation's letters to the 7 churches, we next come to the church at Pergamum:

12 "To the angel of the church in Pergamum write the following:

"This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has the sharp double-edged sword:

13 'I know where you live– where Satan's throne is. Yet you continue to cling to my name and you have not denied your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was killed in your city where Satan lives.
14 But I have a few things against you:
You have some people there who follow the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality.
15 In the same way, there are also some among you who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
16 Therefore, repent! If not, I will come against you quickly and make war against those people with the sword of my mouth.
17 Let the ones having ears hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give him some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and on that stone will be written a new name that no one can understand except the one who receives it.'

Pergamum's church receives a mixed review from Jesus in this letter. They are first commended for their faithfulness in not denying their faith in Jesus--even to the point of death! We don't know anything about Antipas except that he was a "faithful witness" (the same title, incidentally, given to Jesus in 1:5). He stands in good company, to say the least!

However, the church is warned for compromise with their pagan surrounding culture. Pergamum was the center of the Roman Emperor cult, along with many other temples to various gods and goddesses. Idolatry was woven into the fabric of everyday life in Pergamum. And just as the prophet Balaam advised the pagan king Balak to lure the people of Israel into syncretistic sexual idolatry (see Numbers chs. 22-25) in order to compromise their purity and bring about their downfall from within, so to in Pergamum there were those advising the church to compromise with the surrounding idolatry which would totally compromise the very essence of the Gospel message. (The fact that pagan worship was often sexual in nature or involving special food and drink makes the Balaam story of sexual immorality and idolatry even more apt as a depiction of the Pergamum condition).

But what is this second reference to the "Nicolaitans" describing? As we saw with the first reference in the Ephesian letter, the precise identity or practices of the Nicolaitans is unknown. However from these two contexts we can certainly infer that it centered around idolatry and/or compromise with surrounding pagan worship. It is also worth noting that the Hebrew word "Balaam" and the Greek word "Nicolaitan" are similar in meaning. Balaam means "devours the people" and Nicolaitan means "conquers the people." Thus, both terms would be a fitting description for the threat of idolatrous compromise which would result in the church's spiritual downfall. This is possibly reinforced by the final exhortation and promise of hidden manna (what Israel lived on during their time in the wilderness--which is when they encountered Balaam) and a personalized white stone (likely associated with the temple stones of the various Pergamum) to "the one who conquers".

Next up, Thyatira...


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