“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write …” (Revelation 2:12 NASB).
by Daniel Szarkowicz
Interesting Facts About Pergamum
When the Apostle John wrote his letter, Pergamum was very prosperous and one of the most influential cities in the Roman Empire. It was well known as a major center of culture and art. Today, impressive monuments echo the splendor of this city atop a windswept mountain along the Turkish coastline, looking boldly over the azure Aegean Sea. The city’s theater, seating over 10,000 spectators, is an acoustic marvel. A tourist speaking in a normal voice on the stage can be heard at the very top seats. The city’s library was remarkable, second only to the Great Library at Alexandria. It is estimated that up to 200,000 documents of both papyrus and parchment volumes were catalogued. It was so famous throughout the Mediterranean, that the Roman general Mark Antony presented it as a wedding gift to Cleopatra.
The people of Pergamum were inventors and innovators, e.g. they perfected parchment made of calfskin. Ancient records show that they built the world’s first psychiatric hospital and set up a healing center called Asklepion, in honour of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. Asclepius carried a staff wrapped with a serpent, the well-known symbol of medicine today. Asklepion was a combination hospital and health spa. Patients could get everything from baths and other purging, to major surgery. To protect their reputation, the priests who ran it did not admit any with a terminal illness. Hence a sign at the entrance, “Death is Forbidden to Enter.”
The people of Pergamum worshipped numerous Greek and Roman gods. When Christianity arrived with the belief in one God, and Jesus Christ as the son of God, efforts to silence the Christian message were intense.
From one standpoint, Pergamum was a very upscale and advanced city. On the other hand, it was one of the darkest, most superstitious, and chilling cities in the whole Roman Empire.
Church in Pergamum
The church in Pergamum (“earthly elevation”) is the third and longest period of the seven stages of the development of the Christian Church, from 313 until 1157. It could be considered the midnight of the Dark Ages, when the church had come out of enormous and severe persecution, first by Jews, and later by pagan Rome. Pergamum went down into the deep darkness of nominal orthodoxy, and the Gospel light was nearly snuffed out. The nominal church gained social acceptance, popularity, and was immensely exalted in earthly status. Jesus foretold this condition in Matthew 13:31-32, describing the growth of a mustard seed, smaller than other seeds, into a tree where the birds of the air would come and lodge. This depicts the growth of the nominal church.
Papacy rose in popularity, leading to the first ecumenical council, which dealt primarily with the issue of “Trinity” and forming a creed of beliefs. At that time Arius, an Alexandrian priest, stepped forward, defending and proving that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, distinct from the Father. The messenger to the church in Pergamum had to be on the scene at the beginning of that period because his message set the stage for what the church would be confronted with. It is reasonable to suggest that Arius was that messenger. By taking his stand for the truth, his “great controversy” affected not only the entire course of the true church, the nominal church, and the Roman Empire, but also had a profound influence on how we believe in God, the Father, and Jesus, His son.
Constantine the Great was the first Roman emperor to convert from paganism to nominal Christianity. In 313 he granted religious freedom for all, decriminalized Christianity, and assumed the position of Christian emperor within the Church. This created the perfect environment for an exponential growth of the nominal church. In 325 he summoned the first ecumenical debate held by early church leaders in Nicaea (present-day Iznik, Turkey). His purpose was to resolve theological disputes that divided opinions within the empire.
It concluded with the establishment of the Nicene Creed, which explicitly affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Christ as co-eternal with God. The great controversy began when Arius questioned the full divinity of Christ because, unlike God, Christ was born and had a beginning. What began as an academic theological debate spread throughout the empire, threatening division in early Christianity.
Information about the life and teachings of Arius is limited because most of his writings were condemned by the Council of Nicaea and subsequently destroyed. The only record of his teachings is found in the writings of his opposers. Arius was of Libyan and Berber (Northwest African) descent. His father’s name was Ammonius, a student of Lucian of Antioch. Lucian was an esteemed Christian teacher who became a martyr for his faith. Arius derived many of his beliefs from Lucian.
Arius’ opponents described him as a tall and lean man, of distinguished appearance and articulate. Many were impressed by his mannerism, self-discipline, and intellect. At the Council of Nicaea, Arius argued and appealed to Scripture for about two months, quoting verses such as John 14:28 “the Father is greater than I,” and Colossians 1:15 “the firstborn of all creation.” Arius insisted that the Father was greater than the Son, and that the Son was under God the Father, not coequal or co-eternal with Him. He argued that there was a time when Jesus did not exist. That Jesus, the Son of God, was created and therefore inferior in nature and substance to the Eternal God the Father.
However, this was a minority view at the Council. Following his defeat and refusal to sign the formula of faith stating that Christ was of the same divine nature as God, the Council of Nicaea declared Arius a heretic. Arius and two strong supporters who stood by him until the end, were removed from their offices and exiled. However, the great controversy of “Arianism” did not end there. It continued for 60 more years. Arius died suddenly in Constantinople of mysterious circumstances. Modern scholars consider that his death may have been from poisoning by his opponents.
Message to the Church
● “The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this: I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold firmly to my name, and did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:12-13 NASB).
In the opening phrase of the message, Christ equips the faithful saints of that period with “the sharp two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), the word of God, the Old and New Testaments. They are to use it skillfully both to defend the truth and to abolish the error. He commissions them to use Scripture to combat worldly reasoning and agendas. The faithful saints of that period were very zealous, “holding firm to my name.” But the true church was systematically engulfed by the nominal church, like the “good seed” of the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30). The good seed of the field is overrun by the tares, which became more prolific, until the time of harvest.
The fidelity of the saints is even more admirable as they “dwell where Satan’s throne is,” which could refer to Rome. Rome, the home and stronghold of Paganism, later became the center of papacy in the Vatican. “Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you” testifies to the intensity of prosecution of the fateful saints. Antipas (anti, against, papas, father, pope), speaks of those who protested, being obedient to the command of Jesus, “Call no man Father” (Matthew 23:9).
● “But I have a few things against you, because you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. So you too, have some who in the same way hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will wage war against them with the sword of My mouth” (Revelation 2:14-16 NASB).
Balaam was a Gentile prophet of God, who for personal gain advised King Balak how to tempt and lead Israel astray, worshiping a foreign god, and fornicated with foreign women. Because of this God plagued the nation and a large number of men died (Numbers 22-25).
With the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea, Constantine the Great began the illicit union of church and state — spiritual fornication. Constantine assembled the council, presided over it, and declared the outcome. His beliefs and even his comprehension of Christianity can be debated, as he was not even baptized until right before his death.
The outcome of the first council and its canons of doctrinal orthodoxy became a “stumbling block” to the true church. The propensity of the nominal church to blend non-religious practices with Christian concepts, and unite religious ceremonies with pagan rituals, for materialistic gain and religious authority, was a form
of spiritual fornication.
The struggle for domination spilled out to all ranks of the church. This thought is captured in the expression “teaching of the Nicolaitans.” This name derived from the Greek name Nicolaos: nikos and laos; “victorious over the people” (Strong’s G3532). It signifies lording over believers so that only a few had authority to access and study the Scriptures and then teach them to others. This relieved believers from having to study to prove things for themselves. Instead, they accepted that a select few were better informed, and were meant to be their spiritual leaders. This was extremely harmful to believers, as it removed personal responsibility for study and growth, contrary to admonitions given by Paul (2 Timothy 2:15).
● “The one who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17 NASB).
The blessing to the true church of that period is as astonishing as the warnings. The “hidden manna,” from the golden bowl hidden in the Ark of the Covenant, speaks of life-giving spiritual food and immortality for faithful saints who are hidden with Christ. The “white stone” reassures us that God knows those who are His. He sees the purity of their hearts. With the holy Spirit God seals them, and gives them the name of their beloved, the name of Christ.
In our complex and perilous days, we are called to understand the times and our role in them according to God’s perspective. We witness in the present culture, pressure to accommodate and be politically correct, as Arius was pressured to bend to political authority then.
The example of Arius, messenger of the church of Pergamum, serves as a pattern and inspiration of faith and perseverance. It takes conviction and courage to stand for our beliefs. Arius and his “great controversy” is pivotal in how we believe in God, the Father, and Jesus, His son. It lays the groundwork for understanding the beautiful and crucial truth of Scripture, the ransom sacrifice, the corresponding price paid by one perfect man, Jesus.