The Letter to the Church in Pergamum
by Chris Donato
The late, great American man of letters, John Updike, once wrote, “Sex is like money — only too much is enough.” But modern Americans aren’t the only people who obsess over sex; it has possessed the minds of men for millennia (as various cave paintings make clear).
The same held true for the third church addressed in Saint John’s Apocalypse. Pergamum was like the Washington, D.C., of Asia. It was the seat of Roman government for the province and the center of the imperial cult. It was the first to erect a temple to the caesar, Augustus (as well as to Zeus and the serpent-god Asclepius). And just like certain sectors in the church today, people in the church at Pergamum had succumbed to idolatry and were obsessed with sex (which often go hand-in-hand).
It’s not all bad, however. John prefaces the risen and reigning Messiah’s letter thus: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 2:12), which refers to Christ’s words of truth that condemn all those who deny truth. There is a war for truth going on in Revelation, and often it’s fought with words, which isn’t surprising, given that the Word leads this battle.
Christ praises the church at Pergamum for its faithfulness — even in the face of the apparently rare incident of physical violence against one Antipas, about whom nothing else is known. He receives the ultimate commendation: “my faithful witness” (v. 13). The same eulogy is used of Jesus Himself in chapter one, verse five. Perhaps Antipas also died a martyr at the hands of imperialists?
“I know where you dwell,” Christ Jesus says, “where Satan’s throne is” (v. 13). How fitting that the Lord of all would belittle the imperial majesty of Rome in this manner. The caesar, who dared to accept the accolades of the people who hailed him as sōtēr (savior), in gratitude for rescuing Rome from internal and external strife, was worshiped in this city. But there is another king, namely, Jesus, and He alone is worthy of the kind of praise that was offered at the temples of Augustus, Trajan, or Hadrian. Thus, “Satan’s throne” stands in direct opposition to the heavenly throne in the great battle for lordship over this world described throughout Revelation.
This battle continues today, though it’s a bit more subtle; or is it? Do our presidential memorials in D.C. cross the line? Do the adulations we heap upon our leaders cross that same line? Is the faith we place in them to save taking it too far? Surely we know that Jesus is Lord and that they are not. At any rate, thanks be to God that while refusing to worship caesar in the first century likely meant death, refusing to worship our leaders and their messiah-complexes, at least today, does not. We have relative freedom, even if we use it to obsess over idols and sex, which is where Christ’s third letter now turns.
In Numbers 25:1–3 and 31:16, Balaam advised King Balak to lure the Israelites into apostasy by enticing them with Moabite women to share pagan sacrificial meals. Jesus warns this church for tolerating those in their midst who have recapitulated Balaam’s foolishness — the Nicolaitans (see also 2 Peter 2:15). Balaam’s name means “he destroys the people”; Nicolaus means “he conquers the people.” That’s a pretty blatant parallel.
Apparently, some confused Christians in Pergamum thought that they could participate in the pagan cult meals, which were an important part of social and economic life in those days. The sexual immorality that also was tolerated, if not advocated, in Pergamum may have been metaphorical, as when God’s people whore themselves out to idolatry (for example, Jer. 3:7–9). But, knowing man, it was probably literal as well.
In contrast to the idolatrous meals, Jesus promises manna, the food of God’s future banquet. As in the allusion to Balaam and Balak, the new exodus is never far from view: Christ is leading His people through the wilderness and will protect His remnant along the way with the sword of His mouth (Rev. 2:16). Therefore, those who do not compromise themselves with idols and sexual immorality will receive a “white stone,” which acknowledges their being a new creation in Christ and admits them into the messianic feast of the kingdom (v. 17).
There’s no doubt today that sex itself is a god and that it’s not just “out there,” either. It’s in here — in our churches and in our hearts. If we would have Jesus as Lord over this area of our lives, we must take care not to fall off one side or the other. We must take care to not demean sexual intimacy as if it’s not one of God’s great gifts to humankind. And, more likely these days, we must also take care to not allow ourselves to become obsessed with sex, to capitulate to our culture’s obsession with it, as if everything it demands must be obeyed, which reduces sex to a matter of basic human rights or machismo. We must come to the point of confessing the irony of Updike’s words: “Too much is too much.”