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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Message to Pergamum (2:12-17)
The Message to Pergamum (2:12-17)

The name calling continues in the next message. The city itself, Pergamum, once the center of a small kingdom, is here labeled a place where Satan has his throne, or where Satan lives (v. 13). One reason often suggested for this statement is that Pergamum housed a famous temple to Asklepius, the Greek god of healing, symbolized by the figure of a snake (Finegan 1981:173). An evil dragon in one of John's later visions is labeled "that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray" (12:9; compare 20:2). Another possible reason for placing Satan in Pergamum is that Antipas, possibly the first Christian martyr in Asia, was killed there (v. 13), and "Satan" is simply the label attached to his persecutors (like "Satan" or "the devil" at Smyrna).

Other "bad names" are drawn from the Old Testament: Balaam in this message (v. 14) and "Jezebel" in the message to Thyatira (2:20). Both were foreigners linked to false prophecy in Israel. In these messages both are linked to certain prophetic groups in the congregations. Balaam in Numbers 22—24 appeared to be a true prophet who refused to utter a curse against Israel, but in Numbers 31:16, and consequently in later Jewish and Christian tradition, he was blamed for Israel's idolatry and immorality as described in Numbers 25 (see Philo, Life of Moses 1.48-55; Josephus, Antiquities 4.126; 2 Pet 2:15-16; Jude 11). The "Balaamites" and the "Nicolaitans" at Pergamum are almost certainly not two groups but one, "Nicolaitans" being a coined nickname based on what some believed to be the Greek equivalent of "Balaam." The latter, in Hebrew, could be read as "master of the people" (ba`al `am), while "Nicolaitan" in Greek could be read as "conqueror of the people."

The point at issue was not so much the conduct of the Nicolaitans as their teaching. Like Balaam of old, they were urging believers to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality (v. 14). This was a problem that had plagued the Christian movement almost from the beginning. In the book of Acts, the Jerusalem Council decided not to force circumcision on Gentile converts, provided they agreed to "abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood" (Acts 15:20; also v. 29). In 1 Corinthians Paul struggled with the issue of sexual immorality (chaps. 5-7) and food offered to idols (chaps. 8-10). His letter, like Revelation, cites as examples Israel's conduct in the desert: "Do not be idolaters, as some of them were . . . We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did" (1 Cor 10:7, 8). Paul's argument in Romans traces all human sin back to idolatry (Rom 1:20-23, 25) and sexual immorality (1:24, 26-27). Yet Paul seems to have distinguished idolatry, in the sense of actual participation in pagan feasts (1 Cor 10:19-22), from the mere eating of food that had been consecrated for such feasts (1 Cor 8:1-6; 10:25-30).

No such distinction is evident in the decree of the Jerusalem Council in the book of Acts, nor in the seven messages of the book of Revelation. Probably the "Nicolaitans" were prophet-teachers who were urging compromise with Roman values and Roman religion in order to gain social acceptance (and avert economic disaster) in the Asian cities. Probably their arguments were similar to arguments Paul encountered at Corinth: "everything is permissible" (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23); "food for the stomach and the stomach for food" (1 Cor 6:13); "we know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one" (1 Cor 8:4). Paul accepted such arguments in principle, but then qualified them in such a way as to negate the conclusions his opponents had drawn from them, for example, "but not everything is beneficial" (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23); "but God will destroy them both" (1 Cor 6:13); "but not everyone knows this" (1 Cor 8:7).

The book of Revelation, by contrast, does not even give such arguments the time of day. The Nicolaitans are idolaters and immoral. It is as simple as that. The message could have stated that they would have their part in the lake of fire (both "the sexually immoral" and "idolaters" are mentioned in 21:8 and 22:15), but contents itself with Christ's threat that I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth (v. 16; compare v. 12; 1:16). Notice that the threat is against them, not "against you." The angel, and presumably therefore the congregation as a whole, is not implicated in the sins of the Nicolaitans—yet! There is still time to repent. But as for the Nicolaitans, they will find themselves allied not with Christ but with his enemies in the great battle at the end of the book, and they will perish at the hand of the one with the sharp sword coming out of this mouth (19:15).

Not everything is bad in Pergamum, and not all the labels are negative. The message acknowledges that you remain true to my name and did not renounce your faith in me (literally "my faith"), even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city (v. 13). Antipas is otherwise unknown, but the fact that one martyr can be singled out indicates that martyrdom was not yet a common experience in the cities of Asia. The first identifiable martyr in Pergamum, possibly in all the Asian provinces, is labeled here with a term ("faithful witness") reserved elsewhere for Jesus (1:5; 3:14)— because he followed in Jesus' footsteps. If there is one value that emerges from the message to Pergamum, it is this "faithfulness," or firm commitment to what is right, coupled with a stubborn refusal to compromise in order to achieve respectability and status in Roman society or any other society.

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