Understanding the Message to Pergamos
Let’s unpack this message to Pergamos so we can understand the promise to overcomers in its context. In the provincial capital, the Roman proconsul retained the “right of the sword.” In effect, this gave authorization to be able to execute anyone, at any time – life and death were held in their hands (at least, so they thought). This background is important because Christ introduces Himself as the One with a sharp, two-edged sword. He is the ultimate ruler and the power of life and death is with Him alone.
It is this Sovereign King who speaks in Revelation 2.13. Simply stated, He alerts this church that He knows their works as well as the city in which they dwell. As John records this message to this church, twice he connects this city to Satan. First, he identifies this as the place of Satan’s seat (or throne – as in “seat of power”) and secondly as the place where Satan dwells (he’s not just a guest, he resides here and calls it “home”).
Out of all the seven churches mentioned, Pergamos stands out in that Christians could be expected to burn incense and adore Caesar as Lord any day of the year. Whereas, in other cities this would be true one day annually, Pergamos was the center, the seat, of imperial cult worship. More than likely, this is the background for the identification of Satan to this city.
In verses thirteen, we meet an early martyr, Antipas. We know nothing else about him. Yet, judging from the historical context, the only “crime” a true Christian would commit that was worthy of capital punishment was refusal to worship Caesar. There is a commendation to these believers for holding fast and not denying Christ’s name.
Even though a commendation has been provided, verses 14-15 issue a strong concern for this church. They have harbored false teachers of the “doctrine of Balaam” and the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans.”
Dealing with False Doctrine
Thomas, in his commentary on Revelation, points out the irony in the etymology of these two heretical groups. “Interestingly, according to the derivative meanings of the names, the two groups troubling this church were “swallowers of the people” (Balaam) and “conquerors of the people” (Nicolaitans).  Yet, the etymology still doesn’t define the doctrine for us.
The Doctrine of Balaam
When we go back into Israel’s history in Numbers 25, we find the story of Balaam. This prophet had misused his prophetic gift in order to make money. He was a prophet for hire that only God’s sovereignty disallowed his intent to curse Israel. God turned the intended curse into multiple blessings – a feat that frustrated the king who had hired Balaam in the first place.
Yet, Balaam had a contingency plan. He was not allowed to curse King Balak’s enemies outright, but he did have a plan to allow the Israelites to be beaten. In essence, he played “the long game” and counseled Balak to intermarry with his rivals. He knew that eventually the “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy would cause the Hebrew men to follow after the pagan gods. Numbers 25 records the results: 24,000 men were killed because of their idolatry and fornication.
How does the “doctrine of Balaam” apply here in Pergamos? Contextually, it would seem to imply that there was a group within the membership (v. 14, these people are “there” with the church) who shared a similar philosophy concerning Rome. “We don’t need to separate too far from Rome – no need to make enemies or cause trouble. After all, there’s really nothing wrong with burning just a pinch of incense in Caesar’s honor…”
This spirit of “cooperation” [read compromise!] may have earned the protection of Rome, but at what cost? Antipas was not willing to take this easy way out. Instead, he was faithful to the doctrine of Christ rather than the doctrine of Balaam.
The Doctrine of the Nicolaitans
This doctrine was not located in Pergamos alone; John mentioned their deeds in Ephesus (Revelation 2.6). What was the danger, the concern caused by this false teaching? What are we to understand about this group?
We have only two references to this group – both in this chapter. Therefore, a definitive description is difficult. Early church fathers attached this group to Nicholas, one of the original seven deacons from Acts 6. As the names of Balaam and Nicolaitan roughly translate the same, the reasonable conclusion is that these groups, while not synonymous, were very similar.
Given what little we know, here are the conclusions we can make from the text. First, this heresy from within downplayed the importance of separation from evil. Secondly, this abuse of liberty actually led to a stumbling block rather than freedom. Thirdly, Jesus denounces this heresy with pointed language – He hates it.
The immediate need for the church at Pergamos was to repent. The One with the sharp-edged sword would turn that sword upon them in judgment if they continued to compromise the light of the gospel in that city.
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