Pergamum: The Church Elevated

And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.

Against the church of Smyrna, which has just been considered, there was no word of condemnation uttered. Persecution is ever calculated to keep the church pure, and incite its members to piety and godliness. But we now reach a period when influences began to work through which errors and evils were likely to creep into the church. The word Pergamos signifies height, elevation. The period covered by this church may be located from the days of Constantine, or perhaps, rather, from his professed conversion to Christianity, A.D.323, to the establishment of the papacy, A.D.538. It was a period in which the true servants of God had to struggle against a spirit of worldly policy, pride, and popularity among the professed followers of Christ, and against the virulent workings of the mystery of iniquity, which finally resulted in the full development of the papal man of sin. –Uriah Smith, Daniel and the Revelation

Reconstruction of the Pergamon altar

Pergamos (also called Pergamon or Pergamum) was situated 60 kilometres past Smyrna along the ancient Roman postal road. The name means “elevation” or “exalted.” Appropriately, the religious and cultural center of the city was on top of a conspicuous mount.

Pergamos inherited the ancient system of sun worship from Babylon. According to Revelation 2:13, Pergamos was Satan’s seat. It was a center of ancient sun worship, and the place where the famous altar of Zeus stood on a terrace on the slopes of the mount.

The leader of Pergamos used the same ancient title and vestments as Babylonian priests. The last pontiff king of Pergamos was Attalus III, who bequeathed his title to Rome in 133 BC, which “ended the history of Pergamum as an independent political entity.”

Today, the city of Bergama lies at the base of the mountain on which Pergamos once sat. Excavations nearby have uncovered a vast complex which included two temples, a theater, and a medical library. Some of the most famous physicians practiced here. The medical symbol was a serpent wrapped around a pole—very similar to the symbol representing medicine today. Nearby stood the world’s second largest library (after Alexandria), with a collection of some 200,000 volumes.

When persecution could not rid the earth of Christianity, the great adversary turned to deception and compromise to rid the world of its influence.

The letter rebuked the church of Pergamos for fraternizing with those who held the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. It was Balaam who led Israel to moral corruption, just before they were due to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. The Nicolaitans, a heretical sect who compromised with the pagan cults, had been rejected by the Ephesian church but were courted by the church of Pergamos.

The Pergamos period began in 313 AD and continued until 538 AD.

This was a period of deteriorating moral standards and doctrinal corruption. Satan had failed to destroy the Church through persecution so instead he endeavoured to destroy her through compromise. Christian standards were lowered, and a union was formed between Christianity and paganism.

It was during the Pergamos period that the Church adopted many pagan practices. The seeds of paganism had already been sown into Rome when King Attalus III had bequeathed his title Pontifex Maximus to the pagan Roman emperors in 133 BC.

In 322 Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, but kept the pagan title Pontifex Maximus. In his efforts to unite his empire in the early 300s, Emperor Constantine blended the interests of pagans and Christians. Concerning Constantine’s aims, Church historian F.J. Foakes-Jackson declares, “In dealing with the Church, his object was gradually to transfer from heathenism to Christianity all that had hitherto made it attractive in the eyes of the people.”

However, in 378 AD, Emperor Gratian refused the title Pontifex Maximusas unbefitting for a Christian. The Roman Catholic bishop then took the title upon himself, as the Catholic Church has done with many pagan sun worship symbols. The church in Pergamos represents this historical period of compromise. In exchange for religious tolerance and acceptance, the true principles of Christianity were sacrificed to accommodate pagan beliefs.

By the end of the period, in 538 AD, Emperor Justinian decreed Christianity the official religion of the empire, joining church and state.

In spite of this drift from the true faith of the early apostles, there were those who sought to maintain the true faith. Foremost among them was Patrick, who, in the early years of the fifth century, established scores of churches out of which grew the Celtic Church. This church held onto much of the true faith through the centuries of spiritual darkness that followed.

The promise to the faithful of the Pergamos period was, “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it” (Revelation 2:17). –Walter Veith, Walking Through Revelation

The Promise. – To the overcomer it is promised that he shall eat of the hidden manna, and receive from his approving Lord a white stone, with a new and precious name engraved thereon. Concerning manna that is “hidden,” and a new name that no one is to know but he that receives it, not much in the way of exposition should be required. But there has been much conjecture upon these points, and an allusion to them may be expected. Most commentators apply the manna, white stone, and new name, to spiritual blessings to be enjoyed in this life; but like all the other promises to the overcomer, this one doubtless refers wholly to the future, and is to be given when the time comes that the saints are to be rewarded. Perhaps the following from the late H. Blunt is as satisfactory as anything that has ever been written upon these several particulars:

It is generally thought by commentators that this refers to an ancient judicial custom of dropping a black stone into an urn when it is intended to condemn, and a white stone when the prisoner is to be acquitted; but this is an act so distinct from that described, ‘I will give thee a white stone,’ that we are disposed to agree with those who think it refers rather to a custom of a very different kind, and not unknown to the classical reader, according with beautiful propriety to the case before us. In primitive times, when traveling was rendered difficult from want of places of public entertainment, hospitality was exercised by private individuals to a very great extent of which, indeed, we find frequent traces in all history, and in none more than the Old Testament. Persons who partook of this hospitality, and those who practiced it, frequently contracted habits of friendship and regard for each other, and it became a well- established custom among the Greeks and Romans to provide their guests with some particular mark, which was handed down from father to son, and insured hospitality and kind treatment whenever it was presented. This mark was usually a small stone or pebble, cut in half, upon the halves of which the host and guest mutually inscribed their names, and then interchanged with each other. The production of this tessera was quite sufficient to insure friendship for themselves or descendants whenever they traveled again in the same direction, while it is evident that these stones required to be privately kept, and the names written upon them carefully concealed, lest others should obtain the privileges instead of the persons for whom they were intended.

“How natural, then, the allusion to this custom in the words of the text, ‘I will give him to eat of the hidden manna!’ and having done this, having made him partake of my hospitality, having recognized him as my guest and friend, I will present him with the white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth save he who receiveth it. I will give him a pledge of my friendship, sacred and inviolable, known only to himself.”

On the new name, Wesley very appropriately says:- “Jacob, after his victory, gained the new name of Israel. Wouldst thou know what thy new name will be? The way to this is plain – overcome. Till then, all thy inquiries are vain. Thou wilt then read it on the white stone.” –Uriah Smith, Daniel and the Revelation

Continue to: Thyatira: The Middle Ages