To view the letters of Jesus in the book of Revelation as seven church ages is to gain deep spiritual insight into bible prophecy. In this article we will look at the church at Pergamum. Of course the primary purpose of these letters speaks to churches of all ages, however the letters can also be compared with church history and viewed as seven church ages.
We have looked at two of those church ages. We have looked at the Apostolic church age represented by the letter to the church in Ephesus. The word Ephesus means desired one. The Apostolic church age of Ephesus was desired because of their evangelistic fervency. This age lasted from A.D. 30 to A.D. 100
The letter to the church of Smyrna reveals the Persecuted church age. Smyrna has the same root word as does the word Myrrh. Myrrh is a tree resin that was used in burial. This church age is from the year 100 A.D. to 312 A.D. and was marked by persecution.
The church at Pergamum and the letter Christ wrote to them best signify the Indulged church age. The word Pergamum means Marriage or Elevation. Those words accurately describe how the church became married to the government and elevated by government. This church age covers the time period between A.D. 312- A.D. 606. Satan discovered that persecution only purified the church and spread the gospel, so he took the opposite tactic to indulge the church. Ten Roman emperors persecuted the church.
The next Roman emperor to have a major impact on the church was Constantine. Both Roman history and church tradition indicate that Constantine already had an attraction to Christianity. Allegedly he saw a vision of a fiery cross in the sky and heard a voice saying, “in this sign, Conquer.” Constantine saw this as a message that was from God and that if he would embrace the Christian religion he would be able to conquer his enemies. He supposedly accepted the Christian faith and declared himself to be its defender and protector.
There is a lot of speculation whether this was a real bona fide conversion. He had his wife killed and tried to erase her name from history. He killed one of his sons as well. So many speculate that he really wasn’t a sincere follower of Christ. He however did some good things. He told Eusibius, the bishop of Rome, to supervise the production of 50 copies of scripture. Some of these copies are our oldest manuscripts.
When he became emperor of Rome, he became the virtual emperor of the western world. What he did was that he elevated the church and married the church to government by declaring an edict of toleration for the church and showering it with many gifts. Now think of this. Rather than the church being persecuted, the church literally got money from the government including pagan temples that became churches.
To please the emperor, those people who were in the kingdom who were pagans adopted some parts of Christianity, and Christianity adopted many pagan practices. These pagan practices robbed the church of its fire and its evangelistic fervor and compromised many of the practices.
During this church age, Satan introduced a false doctrine to the church. Because the church had ascended to such prominence, people began to think that they were in that 1000 year reign of Christ. The doctrine of Postmillennialism was introduced as people began to say– Christ is now reigning –the world will get better and better. Postmillennialism expects that eventually the vast majority of men living will be saved. Increasing popularity of the church will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ’s return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of men and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions Jesus Christ will return visibly, bodily, and gloriously, to end history with the general resurrection and the final judgment after which the eternal order follows. What people believe is so important. Many thought that if Christ is reigning on earth then we no longer need to be fervent in evangelism. Unfortunately, the church lost its evangelistic fervor for 1400 years! It wasn’t until the doctrine of the Second Coming was taught that evangelistic fervor returned to the church.
The church became indulged, rich, and lax in its commitment to faithfully follow the word of God. This caused morality to slide.
THE CITY OF PERGAMUM
The City of Pergamum must have been an evil place as it is referred to in Revelation 2:13 as “where Satan’s throne is.” Pergamum was a city given over to the worship of many Greek Idols. It was the capital city of Asia until the close of the first century. There was so much idolatry and different religions that in order for Rome to successfully rule they demanded the cooperation of all groups.
The worship of Bacchus (the God of revelry- the Roman God of wine) must have been cause for much drunkenness and debauchery. The worship of Asclepius (the Roman God of healing and medicine) was popular as well. Pergamum was also given over to the Worship of the Emperor. In previous times to not worship the emperor was to be put to death.
A SCRIPTURE THAT REQUIRES EXPLANATION
Revelation 2:13 says, “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” In order to understand the reference to Satan’s throne we need th following understanding. Satan has a kingdom. Every kingdom has a place from which its rule emanates. If you were to go back in biblical history you would discover that Babylon from the earliest times was considered to be the capitol of his kingdom. Idolatry gained its start in Babylon through Nimrod and his mother. When Babylon began to lose its glory, Satan must have looked for another location. He selected Pergamum because of its strong idol affiliations.
The original site was in Pergamum. There was an altar there during Christ time that was filled with many idols. Interestingly, it was moved to Berlin.
In the above photo you can see that there are a lot of pagan images on this altar. This is an ancient relic that may have been what Christ referred to as the throne of Satan. Missionaries have been in areas so pagan in their religions that it just seemed the entire atmosphere was charged with the presence of Satan. I personally recall being in Cartagena Colombia and reading about the worship that had preceded Catholicism in the area, it had to do with goats inhabited by an evil spirit. I could only imagine the evil that must have prevailed in that culture as well. Satan’s kingdom is real and he is the prince of the power of the air, and at times his kingdom can be felt if one is spiritually sensitive. That must have been what Pergamum was like.
PAGAN PRACTICES INTRODUCED INTO THE CHURCH DURING THIS AGE
During this church age the church began to shroud itself in mystery and ritualism like Babylonian Mysticism. Let me give you some examples.
The Chaldean tau (elevation of a large T) changed to the sign of the Cross. They would carry the Chaldean tau through the streets. They simply just changed it to a cross and began to carry a cross through the streets.
The Rosary was introduced and people began to chant prayers using these beads Nowhere in God’s word do we have an admonition to use beads as an aid to prayer. In fact, prayer beads had their origin in paganism. The rosary has roots in several early Christian prayer traditions. They share similar formats to the rosary with repetitive structures and prayers. Third-century Christian hermits and monks in Egypt (known as Desert Fathers) used stones and later prayer ropes to keep track when praying the 150 Psalms.
- The Celibacy of priests and nuns
During this time, the celibacy of priests and nuns came into practice. This practice imitated the Vestal Virgins of Rome. Vesta is the goddess of the hearth and this was a very powerful god in ancient Rome. The church sought to imitate this practice. The Vestal Virgins were initiated into their 30 year term of service by a vow to chastity. Many practices were instituted that were not scriptural. The first written mandate requiring priests to be chaste came in AD 304. Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira stated that all “bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics” were to “abstain completely from their wives and not to have children.” A short time later, in 325, the Council of Nicea, convened by Constantine, rejected a ban on priests marrying requested by Spanish clerics.
It was in this church age when many left the word of God and the belief became popular that one could pray for the dead and God would rescue them from eternal fire. This bible says, “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgement.” This practice has led many astray.
- Making the sign of the cross
To cross oneself of bless oneself by making the sign of the cross gained acceptance during this age as well. While this seems like something that is harmless, there is no scriptural mandate for these things.
- Worship of saints and angels
Around 375 A.D many began to worship saints and angels. Some of these individuals were martyrs. The belief was that they could take ones prayers to God because of the excellent life they had lived. The scripture is plain. 1 Timothy 2:5 “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,” We should follow God’s word not the traditions of men.
The earliest form of the celebration of the mass was the domestic Eucharist. Archaeological evidence shows that from the 3rd to the 4th century, Christian communities celebrated mass in large homes. While many see this as just another form of Communion or the Lord’s Supper, the belief of transubstantiation says otherwise. The elements are meant to be symbolic but the idea that they actually turn into the blood and body of Jesus is a false teaching.
In the early part of the 3rd century, Hippolytus of Rome recorded the first liturgical reference to the Virgin Mary, as part of the ordination rite of a bishop. Marian feasts appeared in the 4th century and the feast of the “Memory of Mary, Mother of God” was celebrated on August 15 in Jerusalem by the year 350. Mary should not be worshipped or prayed to because we have no scriptural admonition to do so.
- Priests begin dressing different than lay people
The liturgical vestments of the Catholic church grew out of normal civil clothing, but the dress of church leaders began to be differentiated as early as the 4th century. As we will see later in this article, this had to do with the teaching of the Nicolaitans that separated the clergy from the common man.
One of the worst practices that came from this age is the idea that a priest can by anointing forgive sin. The words “Extreme Unction” mean “last anointing.” In Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders, the body is anointed with holy oil. In the Sacrament of Extreme Unction the body is anointed for the last time. The priest says, “Through this holy anointing, and by His most tender mercy, may the Lord pardon you what sins you have committed by sight (hearing, speech, and so on).”
The problem with this is that Gods word tells us that the individual is responsible to have “saving faith” and it completely denies any necessity for personal repentance.
- Doctrine of Purgatory introduced
While not fully developed during this age the idea that one could be purified after death by fire began to take root in the minds of many affiliated with the church. This is not true as there is no place called purgatory mentioned in the bible and the only hope for purification is the shed blood of Jesus. Once a person dies their eternal state is determined by the judgment.
- Worship services conducted in Latin
Around 600 A.D. the worship services in the Christian church became further shrouded in mystery as the services were conducted in Latin. What good does that do? How can people be instructed in what Gods word says if they cannot understand what is said during the worship service? This further separated the common man from the clergy as the common man did not understand Latin.
THE ANSWER TO THESE FALSE PRACTICE WAS THE WORD OF GOD
Revelation 2:12 says, “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” As we have been going through all of these false practices that the church began during this age, we discover that the answer is found in the Word of God. God’s word is to be the source of practice and teaching, not the ideas of the “church” or the “clergy”.
Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Obviously the reference back to John’s vision in chapter one refers to the written Word. John described Jesus in Revelation 1:16 by saying, “out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword”
Why this reference? Had the church heeded the Word of God, the two-edged sword, they could have avoided the problems of bringing in all of these false practices into the church. The indulged church age preferred to curry the favor of the pagan practices around them rather than to strictly rely on what the word of God teaches.
CHRIST’S COMMENDS THE CHURCH AT PERGAMUM
In spite of all of the false practices that were introduced during this church age, Jesus did have a commendation for this church and church age. Revelation 2:13 ““I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My fait…” This was a great commendation from Jesus! Living in the place where Satan’s throne was bound to be a difficult thing.
Obviously, this church remained true to the name of Jesus even though it was in a place of such Satanic influence. The same can be said of the church age at least in regard to the person of Jesus Christ.
Church history records that there was a controversy that was fought at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. A man by the name of Arius and his followers denied the personal deity of Jesus Christ. (This is much like what Jehovah’s Witness believe today…that Christ was the greatest of all created beings, but not one with the Father.) At that Council of Nicea there was a lot of debates about this. Constantine was actually a part of that council as strange as that must have been to have an emperor there. Arius and his false doctrine was defeated, the organized church didn’t teach anything other than the personal deity of Christ for 1000 years. Not until rationalism came in and produced 19th and 20th century modernism could the church be found guilty of a false doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.
A REFERENCE TO A MARTYR IN PERGAMUM
Revelation 2:13 “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.” Antipas is unknown by biblical scholars-without a doubt he was a martyr for Christ in the city of Pergamum in the first century.
THE INDULGED CHURCH AGE AND THE TEACHING OF BAALAM
In Revelation 2:14 Jesus strongly indicts not only this church but the indulged church age. “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.” In order to understand this indictment we have to go back see who Balaam was. This information is found in Numbers 22-31. Balaam was a prophet who tried to curse Israel for money’s sake. Balak, the king of Moab hired him to curse Israel- but all he could do was bless Israel. Every time that Balaam opened his mouth to curse Israel, blessing came out.
So, Balaam taught Balak and the Moabites to entice Israel to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality. The religion of the Moabites had a lot of sexual immorality involved. The Israelites intermarried with the Moabites and soon the influence was seen in moral corruption. The people became polluted socially and spiritually. Numbers 25: 1-3 “While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.”
The bottom line of this age was that although they had proper doctrine about who Christ was, they did not remain separated from the world, but mixed with paganism and soon immorality won out. The idea that extreme unction could forgive a person of there sins, or that they could be prayed for and would still make heaven caused many people in that age to live lives that were unclean. The church in a sense became like Balaam and by their teachings corrupted the church.
The Israelites were brought to immorality as their idolatry increased. The indulged church age introduced a form of idolatry in the worship of Mary, the saints, and angels. You can see the duplicity in the emperor as his coins had him on one side and the sun God on the other.
Some say that some of the pagan idols had the names chiseled off of them and had saints names chiseled on.
2 Peter 2:15 speaks to the people of this church age as well. “They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness.” It shows how easy it is to compromise for money. Balak sent people with money to get Balaam to come to him. In Numbers 22:12 we read the following, “But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.” Balaam refuses to go with them, but Balak sends more notable princes and more money, and then Balaam says that he will pray about it. He should have simply not gone with them. That night God spoke to him. Numbers 22:20 NKJV “And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you—that you shall do.” The next morning he got up and went. That is when the donkey spoke as the angel of the Lord blocked his way.
The issue in Balaam’s life and the indulged church age was that they both only partially obeyed God. They began to try to please the government in order to gain more acceptance. The church compromised to allow pagan practices in the church.
The book of Jude really gets down to the bottom line of this error. Jude 11 NKJV “Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah.” The error of Balaam was that he was motivated by money. The church in this age compromised when money became important. We must take our stand for the word of God and only have practices that are found there. Money is not our goal. Obeying God completely is our goal.
Revelation 2:15 “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” The teaching of the Nicolaitans is the doctrine of a strong church (ecclesiastical) hierarchy ruling over the affairs of the church. This comes from the word “Nico’ which means to overcome and “laos” which means the people. The upper echelon of the church rules while normal people are not given any voice in the affairs of the church. Clergy graduate to an ivory tower existence and the Lay people are expected to blindly follow whatever the clergy says.
We see this happening during this indulged church age as the priest start to dress differently. I am sure that as the church began receiving money from the government, leaders became wealthy causing further separation. Then the services were spoken only in Latin. Only the educated priest could understand what was going on and the people were left behind. This caused great problems in the church and was a doctrine that Christ hated. Revelation 2:6 “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
Jesus envisioned a church where the leaders would be from among the people and living among them, not a clergy that was above them and separated from them.
Jesus’ call to the church at Pergamum and to the indulged church age was to repent! That means to return to the Word of God and to the ways of God. Revelation 2:16 “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” This is a fascinating picture of the two edged sword of the Word of God. The same word of God that could have stopped these practices would come back to them as judgment.
Paul told us not to be taken captive by the teachings of men and human tradition. Colossians 2:6-8 “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” If we are going to stay true to God’s word and not become as the indulged church age, we must elevate the word of God and stay in close intimacy with the Holy Spirit.
Revelation 2:17 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”
The reference to hidden manna is somewhat easy for those with biblical knowledge to understand. Manna was physical food provided by God to the Israelites during their wilderness journey. This hidden manna refers to the spiritual food of the Word of God. It refers to an individual feeding of the Word. It is known that each Israelite had to go collect his manna on a daily basis. The key to overcoming in any church age is for all of us to be feeding daily on God’s word. He will give us the hidden manna, those wonderful insights and directions on how to live our lives.
Jesus also promised that those who overcome would be given a white stone with a new name written on it. In ancient times a white stone meant acquittal. At the tribunal, the jury or the judge would set forth a white stone if they were innocent or a dark stone if they were guilty. The beautiful thing about Christians being given a white stone is that the truth is that we are all guilty! But thank God through Jesus Christ and his shed blood, we are declared acquitted! Not Guilty! The giving of the white stone is a reminder of what Christ has done for us.
It also says that there was a new name written on it known only to him who receives it. This could be a special name given at the Judgment Seat of Christ to those who have labored and persevered and through the Word of God have overcome.
Will you stick to the Word of God? While this study largely focused on the Indulged church age, these words are for us as the body of Christ. Let us hear what the Spirit says to the church!