“And to the angel of the Church in Pergamos write …” (Rev. 2:12).
The historic church of Pergamos “was planted in the midst of a city extremely corrupted by paganism … In it there was a temple to the pagan god Aesculapius, the patron of physicians. Its sorcerers occupied themselves with medicine and offered great opposition to the preachers of Christianity,” notes Archbp. Averky.
“These things says the One Who has the sharp two-edged sword …” (Ibid).
The first words of the Lord to all seven of the churches refer back to the first vision of St. John the Theologian recorded in chapter one of Revelation. Chapter 1:16 records the first manifestation of the two-edged sword. Later in Revelation, the Lord Jesus is revealed with the armies of heaven, and it is recorded, “Out of His mouth goes forth a sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 19:15, 21).
Christ Jesus clearly appears in the Old Testament imagery of the LORD God, “He will judge the cause of the humble of the earth. He shall strike the earth with the word of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips” (Is. 11:4). Such imagery confirms that from the very beginning the Christian Church understood that Christ Jesus is God. I note this to counter popular modern ideas and heresies. The first may promote the idea that the Church made the man Jesus “divine” over the course of a few hundred years. The other, such as “Jehovah witnesses,” is rooted in the ancient Arian heresy which denies the divinity of Christ.
The sword images both instruction and judgment. “For the Logos of God is living and effective, and sharper than every two-edged sword, even going through as far as the dividing of both soul and spirit, and of both joints and marrows, and it a discerner of the ponderings and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
“I know your works and where you dwell, where the throne of Satan is. And you keep on holding fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My martyr, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (Rev. 2:13).
The church in Pergamos is surrounded by a very debauch pagan society, thus the figurative title “the throne of Satan.” Revelation, the Apocalypse, is concerned with true underlying reality. Both Pergamos and Smyrna have suffered heavy persecution. One was instigated by unbelieving Jews, Smyrna, and the other by pagans, Pergamos. Yet, the Lord traces both manifestations back to one source, “Satan.” The reader should recall the words of the Lord to the church in Smyrna which told them they were suffering from the “Synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9). The enemy will use a multiplicity of means to attack the Church of God; ultimately this is simply to cause confusion and distraction. There is but one source of the various persecutions from seemingly very different sources, Satan. Archimandrite Athanasios points out that Satan is always at the root of hatred towards true Christianity.
In spite of being in an extremely anti-Christian environment, the bishop of Pergamos has held fast the faith. He is praised by the Lord for “holding fast My name” and “not denying My faith.” The only source of Christian faith is the Lord Jesus Christ. In our times there is a myriad of “faiths” that claim the name of Jesus. Yet most of them are simply the innovations of various men who have only lived at some point in the past five hundred years in Western Europe or America. As Christians, we must examine well the source. If the source is a man in 16th century Western Europe, chances are you are not holding to the Faith of Jesus Christ but rather the ideas of various European men.
The Scriptures are full of injunctions to “hold fast the faith we have received.” Contrast this with various Protestant Charismatic groups that are always looking for the next “new” thing from the “Spirit.” On the contrary, the Word of God commands, “Keep holding fast an outline of sound words which you heard from me” (2 Tim. 2:13); “Let us be holding fast the confession of our hope unswerving” (Heb. 10:23); “Be standing firm and holding fast the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15). It is worth noting that the Scriptures themselves indicate two sources of authority, the written word, the Scriptures, and the spoken, which St. John Chrysostom identifies as the Apostolic Tradition of the Church. No “Sola Scriptura” here.
Archimandrite Athanasios comments, “What does this ‘I hold fast the name’ mean? I hold the name of Christ, a name of tremendous importance and value. It means, ‘I do not spurn it. I do not drop it to be disgraced and trampled upon.’ I hold the name of Christ means, ‘I keep the faith in Christ and the lifestyle taught by Christ.’ In other words, ‘I keep orthodoxia and orthopraxia. Today, especially today, where just about everything is disregarded and downtrodden, nothing much is sacred, not even faith or the Christian lifestyle. It is a great accomplishment today for one to hold the name of Christ aloft.”
Pergamos is overall faithful in its holding to the Faith which it has received.
Antipas is an early Christian saint. He was the former bishop of Pergamos and a disciple of St. John the Theologian. He died a martyr’s death in the year 92 A.D. He is remembered on April 11th.
The message to Pergamos shows that it is possible to be surrounded by a debauch and godless society and yet hold fast the faith of Jesus Christ. There is hope for us who live under the “freedoms” of modern secularism.
“But I have a few things against you, because you have there those holding the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the sons of Israel and to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit fornication. So you have those holding the teaching of the Nicolaitans in like manner” (Rev. 2:14-15).
Although the bishop of Pergamos was holding fast, for the most part, he had allowed the heresy of the Nicolaitans to infiltrate his community to some degree. He himself is not the source but as a pastor, he is responsible for what is happening in the flock of God given to his protection. The Lord already made clear that He “hates the works of the Nicolaitans” (cf. Rev. l:6).
The issue that the Lord held against the bishop of Pergamos was that he failed to proactively protect his flock from severe false teaching. For whatever reason, he did not actively counter the teaching of the Nicolaitans in his community.
What would the Lord say to many of us shepherds today? How many people masquerading under the name of “Orthodox” are allowed to freely proclaim open and evident heresy and many bishops and priests are simply silent? One of the primary jobs of the bishop (and clergy) is to guard the faith. This entails openly rebuking those who clearly are promoting anti-Christian, anti-Orthodox, teachings from “within” the community of the Orthodox Church. To make dally concessions to those who actively deconstruct the faith is a terrible sin. How much scandal is brought to the faithful and to those outside by such insouciance on the part of the shepherds?
Archimandrite Athanasios offers these sobering words, “I am saddened to have to speak like this, but don’t expect us, or count on us, the shepherds to guard you. Learn to guard yourselves. If you do not learn how to protect yourselves and look out for your spiritual well-being don’t expect this to come from someone else. I am deeply sorry for saying this, but this is the sad truth … The flock must be aware that the enemies of the Church first try to paralyze and neutralize the shepherds, the generals, so that the sheep will be scattered and become easy prey. Well, my friends, as intelligent Christians, we must keep our eyes and ears open. Even if our shepherds surrender, we must not surrender. Let us stand well … it does not mean that every clergyman is not doing his job well or that he does not love and believe in God. Do not think like this.”
Balaam is a character from the Old Testament, the account of which may be read in Numbers chapters 22 – 25. In short, Balaam, who practiced a form of divination, was hired by the king of Moab, Balak, to curse the children of Israel as they were traveling to the promised land under God’s blessing. In the long run, he was unable to curse them and could only pronounce blessings. So, he advised Balak to seduce the people of Israel with idolatry and sexual immorality. When the people of Israel indulged in these things they themselves lost the blessing of the Lord which was until then upon them. Balaam is also mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament in the book of Jude, vs. 11. It is possible that Jude was also addressing in part the heresy of the Nicolaitans in his book.
Generally speaking, the work of the Nicolaitans, both ancient and new, is to seduce the people of God through idolatry and fornication. Clearly, these are both real physical sins against which Christians must guard themselves. Yet, they are also types of spiritual states. In modern times we are not faced with blatant idolatry. Yet, idolatry is anything that sets its self up as God and yet is not. Speaking of the house of Orthodoxy, there are idolaters in her midst. Those who actively desire to “update” and revise the clear teachings of the Church, most of all in the area of moral dogma. Groups (that I’ve mentioned before) such as public orthodox, orthodoxy in dialogue, orthodox studies at Fordham, and individuals such as Lazar Puhalo, are calling the people away into idolatry (they also promote the false teaching of Evolutionism). They are participating in the deeds of Balaam; they are presenting false idols to be worship while they claim to be speaking in the name of God.
The typology of fornication and adultery will be addressed in greater detail when examining the Church in Thyatira.
Archimandrite Athanasios teaches, “Those who imitate the actions of the Nicholaitans do exist (today). We need to be aware of the methods of the enemies of God’s people. Their methods are modeled after the typology of the Nicholaitans. I hope you see this. Balamatism is the typology of the deceivers and destroyers of the New Israel of Grace, Christians. We see this method of destruction throughout history.”
As it was in the Old Testament, so it is in the New. As long as the people of God stay faithful to the covenant of the Lord they will be protected and shall inherit the “promise land.” It is the willing unfaithfulness of people who are supposed to be Christians which leads to a loss of grace. Balaam understood this, as do his followers, and they strive to tempt the people of God to choose that which is not of God. Every kind of deceit, flattery, seduction, and so forth are used for such an end.
Repent therefore. But if not, I am coming quickly and will make war against them with the sword of My mouth” (Rev. 3:16).
Heartfelt repentance is always the prescribed cure. Even the Nicolaitans may repent and be healed by the Lord, this is His desire (even “public orthodoxy” could publicly repent of their Balaamite ways). But if repentance is refused then the ultimate fruit resulting from self-willed unrepentance will be reaped, which is being cut down by the Lord.
The bishop of Pergamos is called to repent for his pastoral neglect. He is called to fulfill his duty and exhort and rebuke the heretics in his church. St. Paul himself commands St. Timothy, himself a bishop, to “Preach the word, be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). The very reason that St. Paul demands this of a bishop (and priests) is because, “There will be a time when they will not uphold sound teaching, but according to their own desires, they who have an itching ear will heap up to themselves teachers; and indeed they shall turn away their ear from the truth” (2 Ti. 4:3-4). The very vocation of a shepherd is to diligently guard the faith; to “rightly divide, or cut in a straight line, the word of truth” (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15). St. John Chrysostom comments, “Many forcibly drag it to one side and detract from it in every way, and make extraneous additions. He has not said ‘making straight’ the word of truth, but ‘cutting in a straight line,’ that is, cut away what is spurious, with much vehemence make a stand against it and excise it.”
A shepherd (bishops and priests) is called to serve in the presence of Christ the Lord, that is he must strive to guard the flock as Christ the Lord would. Christ Jesus is the only head of the Church (cf. Eph. 1:22-23). If the bishop or priest fails in this duty then the Lord Himself will purify His Church. One may discern this reality throughout Church history.
Archimandrite Athanasios instructs, “When a bishop or a priest neglects or does not make an effort to finish God’s work, then God Himself take over to see to it that this work is competed. By this, the Lord wants to point out to His workers, ‘Yes, I’m giving you a job to do, but I will not abandon My Church. I will help My Church if you are neglectful.”
The sword is the depth of judgment by the Word (cf. Heb. 4:12-13). It is the standard of revealed Truth to which every Christian is called to “hold fast.”
“The one who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches. To the one overcoming I will give him the manna which has been hidden; and I will give to him a white pebble, and on the pebble a new name which hath been written which no on knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 3:17).
As indicated in previous studies, to “hear” one must be being filled with the Spirit. To Spiritually discern and understand is given to those who are seeking the Spirit of Truth (cf. Jn 14:17, 16:13).
Christ Himself said that is is the True bread that came down from heaven, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he will live forever” (Jn. 6:51). The “manna” indicates true communion and fellowship with the Living God. It is hidden because it takes great effort to acquire. Elsewhere the Scriptures use the term “hidden” for the faithful labor of seeking the Kingdom. “The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field …” (Matt. 13:44).
Archbishop Averky comments in this manner on the “white stones,” “The metaphorical expression ‘white stone,’ has its foundation in the custom of antiquity, according to which the victors at the public games and contests were given white stone tablets, which they later presented in order to receive the rewards conferred on them. Among Roman judges, it was custom to collect votes by means of white and black stones. White signified freedom; black signified condemnation. In the mouth of the seer of mysteries, John, the white stone, symbolically signified the purity and innocence of Christians, for which they received a reward in the future age.”
Archimandrite Athanasios offers a similar understanding of the white stones.
The new name is reminiscent of the ancient practice of kings and masters to give new names to new members of their kingdom. It is good to note that since the earliest times of Christianity, converts would take a new Christian name at baptism.
The new name also echos God’s promise to Zion in the Old Testament, “You shall be called by a new name” (Is. 62:2).
The very personal nature of the knowledge of the name, only the receiver knows it, indicates the very intimate and personal nature of Christ Jesus relationship with each person who has true faith in Him.
(This a continuation of a series on the Seven Churches of Revelation. Please see the category “Seven Churches of Revelation” for more articles in this series.)