The End? The end of Evil

This 22nd post in our series through Revelation studies the message of chapter 18. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

We make use of metaphors in our daily conversations to bring across rich ideas.  We refer to “Wall Street” collectively as the market economy system.  “Hollywood” is synonymous for the movie industry.  “Newspapers” rarely refer to printed media, but rather journalism as a whole.  The “Cayman Islands” are synonymous with tax haven.   In the same way we use words like “The East” or “The West” or “9-11” to bring across collective ideas, and with it the powerful sentiments.

Revelation is full of metaphors which are meant to move its readers emotively.  We read about Christ being the Alpha and Omega, the Bright Morning Star, the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, etc.  Judgments are depicted as seals, trumpets and bowls.  The Church is called golden lamp stands, the 144’000, the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, etc.  In contrast, Rome is depicted as the Beast, the Great Harlot, Babylon, etc.  Just as the 144’000 refer to God’s saints through the ages (7:4-8) so too Babylon refers to more than Rome.  It refers to the all who “want to make a name for themselves” (Babel, Genesis 11:4), any and all empires or ideologies that resist God and his reign.

Revelation 18 paints the scene of the destruction of Babylon, with a funeral scene. In it the Author alludes to the judgments of the pagan cities Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), ancient Babylon (Is 13:19-21) and Edom (Is 34:11-17).  John’s vision reveals three reasons for the destruction of Babylon – a warning to all.

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Al Samara, Iraq.

Self-glorification (18:7-8). “Because she glorified herself” God poured out on her the seals and trumpets and bowls.  Six times in this chapter Babylon is called “great” (18:2, 10, 16, 18, 19, 21); like ancient Babel, this city has succeeded to make a name for herself (Genesis 11:4).  Her boasting alludes to the arrogance of King Nebuchadnezzar who said “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (4:30).  That very moment God brought the proud king down.  Indeed, “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18).

The self-glorification and destruction of Babylon is in stark contrast to the thankful humility and exaltation of the New Jerusalem who “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:23)  Indeed, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

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Emperor Crassus, the richest man in his time (www.nationalgeographic.com)

Power, prosperity and perversion (18:3).  The Caesars of Rome promised peace and prosperity to all who submit to their rule through the Pax Romana.  The life they offered was one of sensuality, wealth and security through its military might.  To the first recipients of Revelation, “Babylon” pointed to Rome.  In this chapter we see three groups of people mourning its destruction: “Kings” representing the pursuit of power, “merchants” representing the pursuit of prosperity, “ship masters and sailors” representing the pursuit of immoral pleasures (18:9,11,17).  The Author shows that Babylon is destroyed because it seduces and ensnares people with the lure of power, wealth and immoral living. 

The bulk of the chapter is directed at Babylon’s failed promise of prosperity, its lure of “luxury” (repeated three times 18:3,7,9).  Riches are said to be “deceitful” (Matthew 13:22) because it promises joy and peace – fullness of life – but Jesus warns that life does not consist in the accumulation of wealth and possessions (Luke 12:15).  The same can be said about Babylon’s lies promising power and sensuality: it’s offers of security and pleasure is a mere mirage to the thirsty, forever visible on the horizon but failing to satisfy.  These John writes elsewhere “are of the world: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life… And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:16-17).  

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Injustice and violence (18:11-13, 24). Verses 11 to 13 list 31 trade goods into ancient Rome – the most comprehensive list of its kind preserved for us.  This thoroughness invites us to question the intent of such an extensive trade catalog in our text; it begs a closer look.  The harsh reality of Babylonian culture highlighted in this text is revealed by the long list of luxury trade items, such as gold, ivory, perfume, etc. ending abruptly with “slaves and human lives.”  Yes, Babylon also views human lives as tradable commodities and consumable resources.  This empire renown for its “luxury” (18:3,7,9) shamelessly gains its wealth through slavery and oppression. A second list comprising city noises affirms this atrocity: the pleasant sounds of music and rejoicing, milling and production, etc. are contrasted with the scenes (or screams?) of martyred saints (18:22-24).  

Rome, like every “great” empire before and after it, was known for its opulent splendor at the expense of human lives.  Babylon seeks pleasure and prosperity at any cost – even human lives and the cruel execution of whoever disagrees with the injustice of the regime.

For these reasons God is judging and will ultimately destroy Babylon.  How should the Church respond? There are two calls to the Church in this section.

Come out!  (18:4) The first call is to “Come out!” a warning to not partake in the sins of Babylon, and thereby escape its judgments.  This call to separate find its root in Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), Israel’s distancing from the sinners during the Korah rebellion (Numbers 16:20-35), and the destruction of Babylon (Jeremiah 51:6).  This phrase is repeated by Paul to abstain from Rome’s sexual immorality (2 Corinthians 6:17),  but here in this chapter the focus is on moral business and financial practices.   In particular it calls to abstain from the unjust practices which makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.  It warns of God’s impending judgment on those who enjoy luxuries while oppressing the poor.  This is indeed good news to the oppressed!

Rejoice! (18:20) The church is called to joyfully celebrate God’s victory over this vile, oppressive city.  And his judgment was given… for you against her.”  No longer will there be the reign of injustice which leads to oppression of the weak and poor, nor the persecution of the saints.  God’s judgment has ended the reign of evil on earth.

Bringing it home

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A golf course next to an informal settlement: inequality in our day.

We can see our world in Babylon’s description above: the pursuit of greatness, driven by greed and lusts, with the rich and powerful oppressing the weak and poor to gain greater wealth and power. Therefore this promise of the fall of Babylon brings joyful relief, but also calls for sober assessment of our attitudes and actions towards power, pleasure and prosperity.

The call to come out is a call not to isolation from the world, but separation from its evil practices (John 17:15-18).  This urges us to evaluate how we value self and others. Do we truly see every person as precious, bearing the image of God?  It challenges us to not only measure our social justice in how much we give, but also how we earn our money (and what we buy into when we shop). This separation (or sanctification) requires a work of transformation in our minds and hearts through diligent study of God’s Word and prayer (Revelation 12:1-2; John 17:16-17).  

We must also soberly acknowledge that although God’s faithful ones will escape the Final Judgment of Babylon, we may (continue to) experience the judgments over Babylon (depicted in the seals and trumpets and bowls).  This requires joyful endurance while we wait for God to make all things new.  Come Lord Jesus!

 

The End? The Beast and his Mark

The Beast and his mark is the focus of this study as our 18th stop in our journey through Revelation brings us to the 13th chapter and its infamous images. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

Political satires like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Orwell’s Animal Farm, or even cartoonists like Zapiro, comment in their own generation on the need for renewal of human  society and government in particular.  Using creative and often comical images it portrays the politics and people of its day to show the flaws in ideology and society at large. Apocalyptic literature like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation had this same purpose and pattern in its call for reform of God’s people and government in its day.

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Four beasts described in Daniel 7.

Revelation 13 opens with John standing on the sand by the sea where he saw Christ standing as Sovereign over land as sea (10:2).  In this way he reminds the readers that whatever happens in the land or sea is within Christ’s control.

The First Beast: Political Power. Then he sees a beast like a lion, leopard and bear combined rising our of the sea having seven heads, ten horns and  crowns (like the Great Red Dragon in the previous chapter who gives him strength) – having a blasphemous name on his head (13:1-2). This image is an allusion to Daniel 7 – a reference to the four successive empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. The Beast in Revelation 13, looking like a combination of these four beasts, hints to the Roman Empire in its day, but also represents every other human government that opposes Christ.

 

The Beast is an image of anti-Christ government.  Although the word anti-Christ does not appear in Revelation, John writes about it in his epistles.  “The world is passing away… it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (2:17-18)   Fifty years earlier Paul also write about anti-Christ government already at work in the world (2 Thesalonians 2:7, 8-10).  Examples of these range from Pharaoh to Alexander the Great, Nero to Domitian, from Ganges Khan to Napoleon, Stalin to Hitler, Mao to Castro, Mugabe to Kim Jong Un.  The pages of history is filled the blood from the oppressive regimes of the Beast.

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What do we learn about this Beast of human government?  It is said to have full strength and great authority given to him.  It speaks blasphemies (13:1,5), implying it defames God and exalts itself to god-like status.  It gets its power from Satan himself (13:2).  It’s rule is characterised by intimidation, conquest and carnivorous violence (13:2, 10).  It has the power to revive itself after defeat (13:3).  Christ permits this beast to yield his authority for “42 months” during which it will wage war against the Lord’s servants (13:8) –  implying the redemptive period from Christ’s resurrection to his return (as discussed in a previous post).

The way this beast wages war against the church is through intimidation, leading to suffering and death (as the church in Smyrna, 2:8-14) or seduction, leading to cultural compromise (as in Laodicea, 3:14-22).

The Second Beast: Seductive Ideology. A second beast coming out of the land is introduced, likened to the Lamb in that it looks like a lamb but roars like a dragon (compare 13:11 with 5:5-6).  Here the relationship between the first Beast and the second Beast alludes to the relationship between Him who sits on the throne and the Lamb in that he yields the authority of the first Beast and causes all to worship him (13:12).  This second beast performs great signs and deceives many, telling people to worship the Beast and condemning all who do not worship the Beast (13:13-15; compare 2 Thessalonians 2:8-9). 

In the same way that Christ propagates submission to the rule of God, this beast subverts nations and people groups to submit to oppressive human government.  This beast represents false teachings wrapped up in counter-Christian ideologies embedded in human culture. Adherence to the Imperial cult empowered the reign of the emperor during the writing of Revelation.  This is evident today in the way that Marxist ideology empowers Communist governments, Islamic ideologies empower middle-eastern governments, Hindu cast-ideologies empower eastern governments, or secular humanist ideologies empower governments in the Liberal Europe.  The power of human government is strengthened to the degree that the population believe and buy into the philosophy it propagates.  The Beast from the Earth breeds allegiance to the Beast from the Sea.

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Altar at Pergamun, believed to be “Satan’s Throne” preserved in Berlin Museum.

In his epistle John therefore urged the churches to “test every spirit” because “the spirit of the antichrist… is now already at work in the world” (1 John 4:1-3).  The spirit of the antichrist seduces and intimidates people into submission of the anti-christian government. This is most clearly seen in how the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious leaders, swayed all of Jerusalem to hand Jesus over to be crucified by the Romans, shouting “We have no king but the emperor!” (John 19:15)

The warnings to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 show the seductive power of ideology to enslave even believers to earthly powers.  For instance, Pergamun, Rome’s Asian capital “where Satan’s throne is” (2:13) boasted a temple dedicated for Imperial worship.  Here the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolatians served the Sate Religion by swaying believers to participate in perverse pagan feasts and adherence to abusive power structure (2:1-17). (This is described in a precious post). In both Smyrna and Philadelphia we see how the teachings in the compromised Jewish synagogues serve the State, being called “the Synagogue of Satan” (2:9 and 3:9). 

The Mark of the Beast. This second beast enforces allegiance to the Beast by impressing the Mark of the Beast on their forehead or hand – “no one may buy or sell” without this mark (13:16-17).  The Mark is “the number of man: 666” (13:18). This verse is the cause of much conspiracy today, ironically taking figurative the “number of the Beast” but literal the application to the right hand or forehead.

 

Applying the guiding principles for apocalyptic genre, i.e. its 1st Century context, allusions to the Old Testament, and the highly symbolic use of images and numbers,  the “mark of the beast” is quickly demystified.  Firstly, we know that Imperial worship demanded that buying and selling in the markets were regulated and permitted once homage is paid to Emperor Domitian at the time John wrote Revelation.  The worshiper would receive a mark on his arm to show that honour was paid, permitting trade.

Secondly, worshipers of Yahweh was daily reminded by the Shema-prayer to be devoted to God with their head, hearts and hands:

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Orthodox Jews make us of “Teffilin” as embodiment of Deuteronomy 6:4-8.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. ” (Deuteronomy 6:4-8)

Jews have used this prayer with physical reminders through the centuries. Devout Orthodox Jews even today use “tefillin”, small boxes containing parts of the Torah on the foreheads and hands as symbolic reminder to have God’s Law in their head, heart and hands.  These “marks” or “symbols” speak of a life of allegiance to God.

Thirdly, the number six is the symbol for man in apocalyptic genre (created on the sixth day), also representing imperfection, failure, and sin in general – just short of 7, the sign for God, perfection, holiness.  A repetition of three indicates fullness, completeness or mass, as seen in repetitions such as “Holy! Holy! Holy!”  Grouped together, the number “666” speaks of the fullness of all man can do or accomplish, the power of mankind combined – being wholly lacking, insufficient and flawed in nature.  In the words of William Hendriksen “[666] demonstrates failure upon failure upon failure” (More than Conquerors, Commentary on Revelation, Baker Books: 1967).

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The meaning of the Mark.  Drawing conclusion from our findings above we find that in his revelation Jesus likened the allegiance people paid to Domitian witnessed by the mark on their arms, to worship and trust in him and his government – being inherently flawed and wholly insufficient to bring peace to earth.  This is in contrast to those who live devoted to God, aligning their attitudes, affections and actions to the Law of God

To us today, as to every other generation, the mark of the Beast speaks of trust in human government, opposing God’s reign.  It warns that compromise in fear of persecution amounts to betrayal of Christ and submission to the Beast and the Dragon.

Note the next verse (14:1) speaks of the Lamb’s Army of 144’000 – marked by the Father’s name on their forehead.  Neither the mark of the Beast of the mark of the Father is physical.  It speaks to the person’s devotion and trust in man’s government of God’s reign – with the actions that back it up.  The Lamb and his army is the focus of the next post.

 

Bringing it home

Revelation 13 continues to unveil what are the forces at work in the world today.  The image of the two beasts, one of Political Power and the other of Seductive Ideology, are said to hold sway over all the nations, except those faithful to the Lamb.  These beasts control the minds and actions of all peoples in the world – even as it did in the time of Daniel’s writing and John’s writing.

As Christians we ought to witness the Reign of God to our world – which at times will bring us at odds with the government of the day.

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Resistance to these beasts may result in economic poverty, social exclusion and violent persecution.  We see this today in where more than 2.6 million Christians are highly persecuted by both state and culture; that is 1 in every 8 believers (Open Doors).  But we also see the power of these beasts in the numeric decline and spiritual apathy of the church in the prosperous West.  The Beast of the Sea wages war in intimidation, while the Beast of the Earth in ideological deception. Both enslave the earth and pose a threat to the witness of the church.

How do we conquer these to beasts?  Read the Word to know God’s kingdom from teh world’s kingdom.  Recognize the beast at work in government and culture – do not be ignorant, because he is prowling around! (1 Peter 1:7-8). Render appropriately: to earthly government prayer and tax and appropriate obedience; to God complete devotion and obedience. Reveal the Gospel by walking in the way of the Lamb – in humility and meekness.

 

The End?A Throne set in Heaven.

In this 10th session in our series of Revelation, John is invited to “come up here” and see God’s throne room, and view life from his perspective (Revelation 4).   A recording of this will be made available at Shofar Durbanville’s Youtube channel.

Revelation 4 starts with the phrase “after this” – after the first part of the vision of Christ among the seven churches, addressing each of them with a specific word of comfort and correction (chapters 1 – 3).  Then John looks up – shifts his perspective from down here on earth to what is going on in heaven.  He sees “a door open in heaven” and is invited to “come up here” – to gain Godly perspective on the chaos and conflict the church endures on earth, and to identify with the Sovereign reign of God.

Imagine this! The only instruction the reader receives in this chapter is to “behold” (4:1,2) – to imagine this or picture this.  John invites the reader twice to see what he sees – because this hopeful message to the church is contained in the vision of what takes place in heaven.  John sees a throne, the Ruler, and the response of those around the throne.

A Universal Throne (4:2).  As he entered the door, John sees a magnificent throne.  the early church was familiar with a throne over many peoples and nations – and that was not good news to them. Emperor Domitian’s reign (like those before him) was egocentric and brutal.  But this throne John sees was universal over all of creation – he was the true King of kings and Lord of lords who Domitian claimed to be.  The throne was not the problem – the one who sits on the throne determines whether his subjects will weep or rejoice.  And this is what John sees next.

A Regal Ruler (4:3-5). The first thing John notes of “him who sat” on the throne, is the beauty – “the appearance of jasper and carnelian.” (4:3a)  Jasper was a clear stone like a diamond, and carnelian deep red like a ruby.   A diamond (or jasper) conveys the image of clarity, perfection, flawlessness – justice, righteousness.  A ruby (or carnelian) is deep red like blood, and conveys the image of love, sacrifice and mercy.  John sees this ruler as righteous and rich in loving mercy.  Indeed, His “kingdom is ruled by justice and fairness with love (mercy) and faithfulness leading the way.” (Psalm 89:14, CEV)

Secondly, John sees “a rainbow, appearing like an emerald.” (4:3b)  The rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant with Noah and all life, is God’s reminder to himself to never again destroy all life on earth with a flood (Genesis 9:8-17).  John sees God’s throne encapsulated in goodness and faithfullness, preserving of life.  God’s reign is “good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness endures to all generations.” (Psalm 100:5)

Thirdly John describes “around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.” (4:4)  Unlike the egomaniac Domitian, this graciously humble Ruler chooses to share his reign, to include others to rule with him over all his realm!  In this apocalyptic genre, the 24 elders imply the fullness of God’s covenant people of the Old and New Testament (12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples/ apostles of the church).  God’s renewed people reign over his creation, as the offspring of Adam and Eve were always meant to rule and reign with him (Genesis 1:26-28; Revelation 5:10).

Next John notes “flashed of lightnings, and rumblings and peals of thunders” (4:5) coming from the throne. This phrase appears three more times in Revelation when God pours out judgment on the peoples (8:5; 11:19; 16:18), and it draws from Exodus 19:16 where God gave the Law to Moses atop Mount Sinai.  Therefore, here as elsewhere in Scripture (eg Psalm 77:18 and Hebrews 12:18) the flashes of lightning and peals of thunder from heaven refers to God’s perfect justice and judgmentJudgment has a negative connection in our day; but judgment is very good news when you’re the oppressed – like the church was in the first century.  Moses sang “His work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)

God judges with complete knowledge and wisdom, as the next image that John describes reveal.  John sees “seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God” – an allusion to the 7-fold lamp stand in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-40) and 7-fold Spirit of God (Isaiah 11:2), implying that God sees all and knows all; his judgment is true and right.

Unlike the ruler Domitian who ruler the great Roman Empire at the end of the first century AD, John caught a glimpse of this Universal Ruler who is righteous and merciful, good and faithful, graciously humble, perfectly just and all-wise.  Then John notes the response of those around the throne.

A Proper Response (4:6-9).  When John looks around the throne of God he first sees that the sea are “of glass, like crystal.” (4:6)  In the ancient world, the oceans were regarded as mysterious, menacing and full of monsters; seafarers would frequently disappear into the unknown depths of the sea, never to appear again.  The sea (4:6) here represented the worst of John’s world: that which is uncertain, dangerous, and out of control.  But suddenly he sees that, from the perspective of this Regal Ruler’s throne, even the seas are at peace and crystal clear.  The higher your perspective, the calmer the seas.  From God’s perspective, nothing is our of control, nothing is mysterious, nothing is dangerous.  All is well, and there is no need to be anxious.

Next John sees, around the throne, four awesome beasts: one with the face of a ox, one with the face lion, one with the face of an eagle and one with the face of a man.  These all have wings like seraphine.  The ox is the mightiest of domestic animals; the lion is the mightiest of the wild beasts; the eagle is the mightiest of the birds; man is the mightiest of God’s earthly creatures; and seraphine are the mightiest of the angelic beings.  Yet these four awesome beings (representing the mightiest of all God’s creation) erupt in awe-filled praise at the sight God’s glory.  They relentless cry out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (4:8; compare Isaiah 6:3 and Exodus 3:14).

John then describes the complete surrender of the 24 elders around the throne: every time the four awesome beasts praise God, the elders bow down, casting their crowns and declare “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created.” (4:11)  The elders recognize that all creatures and all powers are subject and subservient to God, created to serve his purpose.  And, rightly so, subject themselves to willingly serve him.

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Bringing it home

John was confused by the chaos and conflict that the church suffered – where was the reign promised by Christ?  After being assured that Christ is among his church and fully aware of what was happening on earth, John is invited to see God and look at creation from God’s perspective (ch 4, continuing in Ch 5-20).

John invites us to see that there is a door open to heaven where One is seated one his Sovereign seat.  John comforts us that this One can be trusted to reign over all: he is described as righteous and merciful. good and faithful, graciously humble, judging with complete wisdom and  perfect justice.   When we become aware of the power and presence of his reign, we are filled with peace and awe, prompting praise and surrender.

How do I respond?  Whenever the cares of the world and the chaos of our day overwhelm me, in prayer, I choose walk through that door to the throne room of God and imagine what John saw.  I see him for who he is, and allow peace and praise to strengthen my heart, that I may entrust myself to his sovereign plan.

The next post (on Revelation 5) will start to answer the questions that this vision begs us to ask: If God is in control, why do evil persist in the world?  And how does Christ’s reign fit in the chaos and conflict of our world today?  

The End? No more Compromise.

This post is the fifth post in a series through the book of Revelation.  Follow this link to a video recording of this post.

 

The Revelation John received was sent as a circular letter along a logical postal route through Asia Minor which started at the bustling city of Ephesus, moving north to ancient Pergamum, inland through Thyatira, and southeast to the wealthy city of Laodicea.  This letter contained a prophesy from Christ to these seven churches to comfort them during the tyrannical reign of emperor Domitian (AD 90-92), to correct  heir perspective in their their fight against evil, and to charge them to remain faithful to Christ – there is a reward for those who remain faithful to the end!

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The Seven churches in Revelation 2-3 (Asia Minor, present day Turkey)

 

Pergamum was a magnificent ancient city which exited from the springs of civilization in Asia (around 500 BC).  This city set on a hilltop overlooking the Caicus plain below.  Pergamum (modern day Bergama) lay about 55 miles north of Smyrna, inland from the Aegean coast.  The archaeological findings in this great city are rich in religious artifacts, including statutes and temples of Zeus, Athena, Dionysos (Baccus in Roman mythology), and especially Askelepios, the god of medicine, whose cult was strong and accounted for the famous school of medicine in Pergamum.  Askelepios’ serpent was a prominent brand in the city, displayed on many of the coins pressed there.

Apart from the medical school, the city was famous for its great library, university, big parchment industry and the large amphitheater overlooking the valley.  It was also a strategic Roman stronghold and inland regional administration, boasting the first Asian temple of the Imperial Cult in honor of Augustus (AD 29).  

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In this ancient citadel which worshiped Domitian as king and lord, valued entertainment, education and science, was a vulnerable church who received this letter of comfort and correction, a charge to not compromise of their devotion to Christ in word or in deed (Revelation 2:12-18).

Revelation of Jesus Christ (2:12).  Christ is revealed as the one among them with the sword – sharp and double-edged.  This description of Christ’s double character in judgment of the world, and in particular the church, occurs seven times in Revelation (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16, 35; 6:8; 19:15, 21).  Roman officials had the right to carry this sword – and with it the right to life and death.  Christ here implies that his judgment can lead either to life (salvation through repentance) or death (judgment if the accused does not repent) – the reader or hearer must choose.  This brief revelation of Christ among them sets the stern tone of the rest of this short letter.

Commendation (2:13).  Again as in the previous two letters, the church is comforted that Christ is aware of all that takes place in the city and their works.  “I know your works, and where you dwell – where Satan’s throne is.  Yet you hold fast to my name…”  Christ honors their “works” of witness, their allegiance to him (“my name”), as well as holding on to “my faith” – true Christian faith undefiled by other religions – in this city dedicated to the worship of Domitian who claims to be sovereign king and lord of all (“where Satan’s throne is”), along with all the other gods.  Their confession and faith is pure in an defiled city.

Jesus mentions the martyrdom of Antipas. Being the regional seat for Roman administration, Pergamum held the court which tried rebellion against Rome.  Where the accused was found guilty, an opportunity was given the to repent, or face immediate execution by the Roman procounsel.  Antipas refused to worship Nero during his reign (AD 54-68) and was tried before the procounsel at Pergamum.  He refused to recant his oath that “Jesus is Lord” and was executed in the cruel and unusual way of being burned to death in a brazen bull-shaped altar designed to cast out demons.  The goal was to intimidate the church, but Christ commends the Pergamum believers for remaining faithful to him in spite of these horrific trials.

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Antipas was martyred in Pergamum during emperor Nero’s reign (AD 54-68).

Condemnation (2:14-15). Yet the the believers in Pergamamum started to compromise. “Some (held) to the teachings of the Balaam”, a non-Jewish prophet who had a tremendous impact on Israel during their Exodus (Numbers 22-25; 38:8,16), and his influence remained a snare even to the New Testament church (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:1, 11; Revelations 2:14).  I’ve written on “The Error of Balaam” before, but will summarise here: Balaam was an extremely gifted man of God who could hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, but he himself lead an independent, sensual lifestyle.  With his mouth Balaam worshiped the God of Israel, but he lived his life like the immoral Canaanites “who ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality” (2:14).  The “teachings of Balaam” was that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their sensual lifestyle.

Christ implies there were groups within the Pergamum church who worshipped and associated with the church, but chose to blend with the rest of the population by participating in their pagan, secular feasts to avoid social and economic isolation, and persecution.

Secondly, Christ condemns “those who hold the teachings of the Nicolatians” which the Ephesian church hated (2:6).  Not much is known about this sect, apart from what we can derive from the name: “Nico” means conqueror, “laity” refers to the common people.  It seems that in the Pergamum church there were some who asserted power in the world’s way, who claimed rights and privileges with power over others in an undue way.  As in the gospels, Christ condemns this style of leadership – “the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:24-28).

Warning (2:16).  Christ charges the church to “Repent”, or else he himself will “soon make war against (them) with the sword of his mouth”.  This is strong language, a stern warning hinting to the judgment against the 24’000 “men who were joined with Balaam” (Numbers 25:5).  The reason is that the church is Christ’s witness of his kingdom – a living community that displays what he and his coming Kingdom is like.  Therefore the compromise of Balaam (right professing but immoral living) and the compromise of the Nicolatians (abusive leadership misrepresenting Christ’s character of loving, servant leadership) is a wrong witness of who Christ is and what his kingdom is like.  This congregation, although professing right, have some who lived like the world they are in. Their witness is compromised, and Christ calls them to repent or be removed.

Promise (2:17).  To the one who conquers Christ will give of his “hidden manna” (refering to the manna preserved in the ark of the covenant Exodus 16:33-34) – a sign of God’s providential grace.  Also the promise of “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”  This white stone, tesseron, was customary given to special guests invited to partake of feasts in the pagan temple at Pergamum – consisting of the meats offered to the idols.  This tesseron would bear the secret name of the deity represented by the idol, revealed only to the recipient.  Christ’s promise of the “white stone”  implied an invitation of intimate communion with him – even now.  And this invitation is “to all who has a ear to hear.”

But what should this church overcome?  The spirit of compromise – the seduction to worldly sensuality (of Balaam) and worldly power (of the Nicolatians).  The tendency to think that mere cognitive faith (agreement to Biblical truths) results in right-standing with God.   Christ desires a renewed heart resulting in holy living as witness to his kingdom.  

Bringing it home.

Pergamum the sacred tunnel
A secret tunnel for worshipers to a temple in Pergamum.
Many writers have noted that “Pergamum” comes from the Greek word “gamos”, meaning marriage.  This church professed to faithful to Christ, but was married to the world in regard to power and pleasure, according to the culture in which they lived. 
Like the ancient Greeks in Pergamum, we too live in a world which values pleasure, power, scientific progress and independence.  The invitation to us today is clear: to recognize where we, the church, are “married to the world” in this regard, and repent.
Turn your heart, that you too may share in the intimate pleasures of Christ reserved for those who live devoted to him.