Living In Hostile Territory; Revelation 2:12-14
The church in Pergamum is living in hostile territory. It is a church that has compromised severely in order to live and get by in hostile territory, a threat that is very real in the life of many believers. In fact, if we were to be harsh about it we would say that is one of the major problems we have in our own culture. Almost every culture is inherently hostile to biblical truth because every culture is a product of human viewpoint, and even though there may be many positive things in a culture—as in the US where we have a rich heritage of Judeo-Christian values because the Bible has been taught in the past and there is a residue of blessing on the basis of the faith of our forefathers—we live in a world that is becoming increasingly hostile to biblical Christianity. As believers today we ought to recognize that we are not living in friendly territory. Even though in the microcosm of your experience you are living in friendly territory, overall we are not. So there is a relevance to this epistle that is more than superficial.
Revelation 2:12, ""To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword." These epistles are not epistles in the same way that the other New Testament epistles are written for the exhortation, instruction and doctrinal exposition to various churches throughout the Roman world at that time. Therefore there is a difference. What is it? The difference is that these are written either to praise or to condemn each of these congregations. They are not written as doctrinal expositions, to explain principles of the Christian life; they are written as a challenge to each of these congregations—their successes and their failures—and a challenge to the fact that eventually we will all be standing before the judgment seat of Christ and there will be special rewards to those who persevere to the end in their Christian life and overcome and demonstrate that victory in the spiritual life. So these angels serve as heavenly witnesses to the outworking of the justice and righteousness of God in every congregation.
Pergamum was situated about 55 miles north of Smyrna and about 25 miles inland from the Aegean Sea. The word "pergamum" means parchment. It was where parchment was first manufactured. Pergamum traces its history to the fifth century BC, the time of the glorious era of Greece. Sometimes t was very small and at other times it was quite large. Under Antiochus the Great the Seleucids defeated the kingdom of Pergamum, reduced it in size and significance. In 133 BC the province was turned over to Rome and Rome renamed it the province of Asia. Pergamum was the official provincial capital for 250 years and it was still significant in AD 95, the time of the writing of the book of Revelation, though Ephesus was rising in its influence. Pergamum, though, had a rich religious heritage and a heritage of idolatry. Everywhere one looked in Pergamum there were statues of the gods, there were altars to the various gods and goddesses, and sacred groves and temples filled the city. Outside the city was a 1300-foot high hill that was covered with temples and altars to the various gods and goddesses of the Greek and Anatolian pantheons. Pergamum was the first city in Asia to establish a temple devoted to the worship of the Roman emperor, therefore it was favored by Rome over Ephesus and Smyrna for various blessings and protection, business deals and commerce. Emperor worship was the primary religious system of the time and it threatened the very existence of the congregation in Pergamum. Pergamum was known for one other thing in the ancient world, and that was its library. It had a library which was second only to the famous library that existed in Alexandria in Egypt and which was destroyed in the first century BC.
So the Lord addresses the church in Pergamum: "These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword." This takes us back to the original vision that John had of the Lord Jesus Christ on the island of Patmos. The sharp two-edged sword is the Rhomphaia, and large broadsword which was initially developed by the Thracians. The word RHOMPHAIA [r(omfaia] occurs several times in the book of Revelation, and the first time we see it is in 1:16 when John sees that vision of the Lord Jesus Christ: "and out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword." The fact that is came out of His mouth is an image that goes back to the Old Testament—Isaiah 11:4. The Rhomphaia is a sword that in the book of Revelation is a picture of the judgment from the mouth of the Lord Jesus Christ. The image of the Rhomphaia is that of the judicial condemnation of God's Word. As the Lord Jesus Christ returns He will judge mankind. Cf. Revelation 19:15. In our verse in Revelation 2:12 the noun in the Greek as a definite article with it which means it is referring back to its previous use in 1:16.
There is also a sort of subtext in this reference. If you were looking at this and you were a citizen of Pergamum and you read of the Lord coming with a sharp two-edged sword coming out of His mouth you would think of something else. In Pergamum the proconsul was granted the right of the sword by the Roman empire. The right of the sword was the right to take life, the right to capital punishment. The proconsul had the right to take the life of anyone who was deemed a threat to the Roman empire, so if you read this as a citizen of Pergamum what you would think of was that the proconsul had the right of the sword but it is the Lord Jesus Christ who ultimately rules and judges everyone. So that even if I am threatened by the impressive power of Rome I know that ultimately that government will come under the government of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Revelation 2:13, "I know your works (Majority text)—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives." Works here refers to production. The verb is what is important. Jesus Christ says to each of these churches, "I know your production." That word for knowledge is the Greek word OIDA [o)ida], indicating intuitive knowledge, and is a perfect active indicative here, indicating completed action. OIDA often indicates the omniscience of God, especially with reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. What this tells us is that the Lord is saying He has a complete and intricate knowledge of everything that is going on in the congregation. Then He goes on to focus on the circumstances. He knows everything about their existence. The next verb is KATOIKEO [katoikew] which means to dwell, to inhabit, or to reside. It indicates a settled residence. It is used frequently in Revelation with a moral significance in that often it is used for referring to earth dwellers versus the heaven dwellers. The earth dwellers are those who are time bound and oriented to the earth. It focuses on what is happening in earth history, earth values, in opposition to those who are oriented to God's plan and purposes. In Revelation you don't want to be classified as an earth dweller, it has negative consequences. But here the word is used simply to indicate someone who resides and has permanent residence in a particular location. What this is saying is that Jesus Christ knows their circumstances. He knows what their external pressures are and how difficult it is to live in the hostile environment that was in Pergamum. God is fully aware of all the external pressure and adversity. He knows how hard it is, but it is no excuse. Whatever the circumstances are it is not an excuse. Too many people want to justify their failures to get involved in the local church, to go to Bible class, to make doctrine the number one priority in their life because of their circumstances. The Lord knows what the issues are. You can't justify failure in the spiritual life. There is evaluation.
He says, "You dwell where Satan's throne is." There are a number of suggestive interpretations to try to identify Satan's throne. The first question we should ask is whether this is a literal throne or a figurative expression. A literal throne would mean that there was some sort of a dark satanic temple in Pergamum where Satan personally took up residence. That is probably not the case. Remember, Satan is not omnipresent. He is a finite creature. His primary location today is in heaven accusing believers. However, Satan also is the head of a vast network of demons who are involved in influencing human history. He is also at the head of a system of thinking which the Bible describes as cosmic thinking, which is what energizes all human cultures in one way or another. We think what is being said here is that at Pergamum there was something going on that represented one of the strongest forces of antagonism to Christianity and biblical truth in their world at that time. This is a focal point of opposition. That is what Satan means: one who is an accuser, one who is in opposition. We frequently refer to a whole group of people with reference to their leader. The leader is the one who influences them, the one who guides and directs them, and so we speak of the leader of the group as the representative of the whole. It doesn't necessarily mean that that individual is present. That is how it is used here.
There are five suggested interpretations
1) The throne of Satan refers to the worship of a religious system that used the serpent as a symbol. Everywhere in the city of Pergamum there were serpent images. However, the worship of this system wasn't limited to Pergamum.
2) Furthermore, the serpent was also a symbol Zeus. The altar of Zeus was also a site for pilgrimages to Pergamum in the ancient world.
3) Another suggested interpretation was that Pergamum was the centrepiece for Christian persecution at that time. This is indicated in the verse because it mentions the martyrdom of Antipas, called "my faithful servant." That doesn't fit the scenario either because there are numerous persecutions throughout the next couple of centuries.
4) Another is that it was because Pergamum was just more pagan and more hostile to Christianity than other cities. But again, that really doesn't hold water historically.
5) What does seem to be true is that emperor worship was intense in Pergamum, more so than anywhere else. In fact, this was the headquarters for emperor worship. If you were a Roman citizen and you did not sware allegiance to the government, to the state, over any other god, then you put your life at risk. This is always the problem in pagan cultures and in non-biblically based societies: someone always wants to fill the vacuum when God is removed from public discourse. When God is taken out of the public arena then something else always moves in. If God isn't the ultimate source of values for a culture then who is going to replace Him? When the government replaces God as the source of values you are in tyranny. That is what has been going on in the US and Europe for the past 100 years. Government is now the final arbiter of everything; government becomes a messianic figure. And this is just a precursor to what takes place during the Tribulation. The government of the revived Roman empire will be embodied in the person of the Antichrist who is setting himself up as an alternative god. This is why these culture wars that we are involved in today are so crucial because what is a stake is who will ultimately determine the meaning of truth in a society. Once the state becomes the final authority, then the state defines freedom, the state defines what is right and what is wrong, the state defines all of the issues that matter in life; and once that happens freedom will rapidly erode.
Then the Lord goes on to say in a positive commendation, "and you hold fast to my name, and did not deny my faith, even in the days of Antipas my faithful servant." The word for holding fast is the verb KRATEO [kratew], present active indicative, and present tense is a durative present, something that you continue to do. But the significance here is the verb. It was used in 2:1 where it pictures the Lord Jesus Christ holding the lamp of the church. It is a holding firmly. It means to adhere strongly to something. The verb means to hold on or to take control of someone or something, to seize control, to take hold of something forcibly. The idea here is to adhere strongly to something. This isn't just affirming biblical truth, of accepting the fact that you are a Christian and that you believe in the Bible. The idea here is to firmly adhere to biblical truth to the point that you are willing to give your life for it. That was the case in this one instance mentioned later in the verse. They are praised because of their willingness to have a firm grasp on "my name," not just biblical truth in general but specifically in terms of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Bible when we hear reference to "name," for example in Acts 4:12, "no other name," it is not talking about just nomenclature, a tag that is attached to an individual. It is talking about everything that person is, the totality of their character, that Jesus Christ isn't just another man. This claim from the Scripture is the claim that really irritates the fire out of all unbelievers and people operating on a non-biblical, relativistic scale of values. The Bible claims there is only one way to God. This is pictured from the garden of Eden all the way through to Revelation chapter twenty-two. Jesus made that exclusive claim: "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except by me." There are only two options. Either Jesus Christ was telling the truth or He was lying. So at Pergamum they were holding fast to His name, to His character, to an exclusive Christianity.
The verse goes on to say, "and you hold fast to my name, and did not deny my faith," i.e. doctrine, the noun PISTIS [pistij], which means faith but faith cam be used in two ways. Subjectively it means firm persuasion, conviction, belief or trust in the truth. It refers to veracity, reality or faithfulness. The idea is how we normally use faith, that is, I have faith alone in Christ alone; I am trusting in Christ, believing that He is the only way to salvation. Objectively, the word refers to what is believed, the content of faith. What is your faith, your doctrine? Are you Episcopal, Jewish, Romans Catholic? "…even in the days of Antipas my faithful martyr." Antipas is someone we don't know. His specific identity has been lost in church history, but he stood fast and was willing to take whatever would come and not compromise his values in terms of his orientation to the Lord Jesus Christ. The word "martyr" is from the Greek word MARTUS [martuj] which refers to someone who testifies in legal matters. In some cases it refers to someone who witnesses at the cost of their own life, which is the case here. He was willing to continue his steadfast testimony of his life and his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, even to the point where it cost him his life. So the Lord says, "You did not deny my faith, even when you had all this external pressure against you, in the days when Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells"—this residence of satanic opposition.
That brings us to the opening question: How do you live in the midst of a hostile spiritual environment? The first question we ought to ask is: Are we living in a hostile spiritual environment? Some have jobs where we work with small companies or corporations and everyone there is a believer, so there is no opposition. Others are in circumstances where there is a little opposition and if they really let it be known what they believe they know that their job might be on the line, but because there are some believers who are in the periphery that doesn't happen, so they don't really have to put it all on the line. Others are in circumstances where if they let it be known what they really believed about the policies and procedures of the company they worked for they would be walking the bread line tomorrow. That is where our beliefs really come down hard and those are difficult decisions every believer has to face. Whether you are working in a comfortable environment or whether you are operating in an overtly hostile environment you have to recognize that in some sense, because you are living in the cosmic system, we are all living in a spiritually hostile environment. It is just that at the moment your immediate environment may not be as hostile as others. We live in a situation where in terms of our government there is an increasing opposition to biblical Christianity.
In our personal life we have other areas of threat. We have threats from materialism. We live in a consumer society where everywhere we turn there is advertising, this thing to buy, that thing to buy, all kinds of things exude that materialism lust. On top of that there are financial pressures, the financial pressures that come from living in a consumer society where there is also pressure from rising prices and different things of that nature that put pressure on us, so therefore people work more. There is less time today. There is a cultural pressure now that makes it more and more difficult to make doctrine a priority. All of this happens because we live in a hostile environment.
What is the key to living in a hostile environment? Personal priorities. What is your real priority in life? Is it doctrine or is it all the other details of life that easily squeeze out doctrine? Think about that. Think about how Ezra lived in the midst of a hostile environment coming out of Babylon. Think about how Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego lived in the midst of a hostile Babylonian pagan education system. In contrast to all of the other Jews who were brought to Babylon they hung in there. They would not succumb to the dietetic changes, they weren't going to compromise, they figured out ways to handle that pressure. As a believer the most important decision we make after we are saved is, is doctrine really a priority in my life or not? If it is it is going to change how I structure my time, my job and many other things. The spiritual life has to become that number one priority.
The bottom line: Doctrine is not a priority in your life until you recognize that Bible doctrine is your life. When you recognize that doctrine is your life, that is when you are on the road to spiritual advance and spiritual growth. And you have to be re-educated in everything from a biblical viewpoint, and that is why you don't just come to Bible class once a week, once in a while, or listen to a tape once a week or once in a while. The education process that is called "the renovation of your thinking" (Romans 12:2) is central to everything.