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Friday, August 22, 2014

The Revelation Letters to the Seven Churches: Pergamum

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 2: 12 – 17 Pergamum

Built on a 1,300 foot hill overlooking a deep valley 45 miles north-east of Smyrna, Pergamum was the Roman capital of Asia Minor. It was a sophisticated city of high culture boasting a library of 200,000 books. It was called “the most illustrious city of Asia,” by the historian Pliny. Another historian called it, “the royal city, the city of authority.” The city was filled with temples and shrines to various gods and goddesses, including: Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asclepius, as well as being the center of the Imperial cult of Asia. It had a temple specifically devoted to the worship of Caesar Augustus.

The mountain city of Pergamum, covered with temples and shrines to false gods is described as the “throne of Satan,” and “the place where Satan dwells.” Robert H. Mounce notes several suggestions as to the meaning of this expression (none of which would necessarily exclude the others):

Frequent mention is made of the great throne-like altar to Zeus erected on a huge platform eight hundred feet above the city (Rist, 385) Others take the phrase in reference to the cult of Asclepius, who was designated Savior and whose symbol was a serpent (this would obviously remind Christians of Satan)… As the traveler approached Pergamum by the ancient road from the south, the actual shape of the city-hill would appear as a giant throne towering above the plain. (Mounce, 96)

To this city of Roman authority Christ presented himself as the “one holding the sharp two-edged sword,” the rhomphaia. This is the same kind of sword held by the cherubim in the LXX version of Genesis; the Cherubim stood guard at the entrance to the Garden of Eden with this kind of sword. It is the flaming sword of God. It is used 7 times in the New Testament, 6 of which are in Revelation, the 7th is the sword that Simeon prophesied would pierce Mary’s soul. Christ is the one who holds the sharp sword of authority and government. Though on earth human governments may hold the sword (Romans 13:4) it is ultimately Christ who is in control. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to him (Matthew 28:18). He is the ruler of the kings of the earth (Revelation 1:5).

The Christians of Pergamum had held faithfully to the name of Jesus in spite of trials and tribulation, and in spite of the fact that they were in the place where Satan, the adversary, made his dwelling. They held firm to the faith even during the most intense period of persecution when the faithful witness, Antipas, was murdered. Antipas is named a “faithful witness” (which is Jesus’ name, Revelation 1:5) for being true to the name of Christ.

Antipas, the word itself, means “against all” Though we don’t know who the historical person Antipas was, he represents the faithful community of Christians in Pergamum who had remained faithful “against all” who came against them.

But here too, there were some who followed, who “clung tenaciously (Massyngberde)” to the teaching of Balaam; who were committing adultery by eating foods offered to idols. These were the very things Gentile converts to the faith were instructed to avoid:

"For it seemed good the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. (Acts 15:28 –9)”

But even further, this sin is described as “adultery” or “fornication” because in the language of the prophets, worship of any god other than the One True God by God’s covenant people was adultery. The people of God were chosen as his “bride”(Jeremiah 2: 2, Ezekiel 16: 8-9) To worship another god was to break the bonds of that covenant marriage (Jeremiah 2: 20, 24; 3:1, 20; Ezekiel 16: 15 – 63; 23: 1 – 49; Hosea 2: 4 – 5).

The rulers of the church are told to repent for allowing this “adultery” to continue within the community. If they would not repent, then Christ warned that he would come quickly against them, to make war against them with the sword of his mouth in the same way that the angel of the Lord came against Balaam with a sword (Numbers 22: 23 – 35).

Those who proved victorious would be given a three-fold reward: a portion of the hidden manna, a white stone, and a new name known only to recipient.

Manna was the daily bread given by God to the Israelites during their 40 years of wilderness wandering. It fell from the sky and was called “manna” because the people asked, “What is it?” or manna. It was described as a fine white flake-like frost which tasted like coriander seed, or like a wafer made with honey. (Exodus 16:14, 31; Numbers 11:8). Moses commanded Aaron, the high priest, to gather up a measure of manna and to place it within the Ark of the Covenant so that future generations could be reminded of God’s goodness and provisions for his people. The Apostle Paul called it “spiritual” food (1 Corinthians 10:3). The Psalms refer to it as “angel’s food” (Psalm 78:24). The supply of manna ceased when the Israelites entered the Promised Land (Joshua 5:12)

According to Jewish legends the “hidden manna” was to be revealed when the Messiah came (Ford, 400). The hidden manna, the spiritual food of the Mighty (Psalm 78:24) is the “bread of life,” Jesus Christ. Those who are faithful will have Christ and the life that he gives as their eternal reward.

In all truth I tell you,
it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven,
it was my Father who give you the bread from heaven,
the true bread;
for the bread of God
is the bread which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world…
I am the bread of life.
No one who comes to me will ever hunger.
(John 6: 22 – 66)

The white stone was used in the ancient world as a sort of admission ticket to public function or as a voting ballot. White stones were sometimes engraved with the name of victorious gladiators. They were also used in the courts to indicate a “not guilty” verdict, black to indicate “guilty” (Ford 400, Robertson, 307). The faithful follower of Christ will be declared forever NOT GUILTY before God.

On the white stone would be engraved a secret new name. In ancient cultures a name was not just a handle for a person as it is in our culture today. To the ancient world a person’s name was a reflection of his or her character and personality, and as an extension of their authority. A new name was often given after recovery from a serious illness or after a life-changing event (as in the case of Jacob / Israel and Saul / Paul).

The nations will then see your saving justice,
And all kings your glory,
And you will be called a new name
Which Yahweh’s mouth will reveal.
Isaiah 62:2

Ford, J. Massyngberde, Revelation: Anchor Bible Vol. 38, Doubleday,Garden City NY, 1975.

Mounce, Robert H., The Book of Revelation, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1977.

Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures in the New Testament vol. 6 Broadman Press,Nashville TN, 1933

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