The City with a Throne
Pergamos was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia. On a hill high above the city stood the temple of Zeus and the great Altar of Pergamom. It looked just like a throne ruling over all. The city was a center of pagan and emperor worship. Near the city stood the immense shrine of Asclepios, the serpent-god of healing. This must have reminded the Christians of Satan, the ancient serpent. People came from far and near to worship Zeus and Asclepios. No wonder the Bible calls Pergamos the place “where Satan’s seat is” (Rev. 2:13). Even in this hostile city there were Christians that were standing firm for Jesus.
The Right of the Sword
The Roman governor lived in Pergamos and had great power. They said he had the “right of the sword”. That meant he could say who lived or died. At his command a person could be put to death on the spot – especially if they didn’t want to worship the emperor. But Jesus let the church in Pergamos know that He was the one with the real sharp sword (Rev. 2:12) and the real power over life and death – eternal life and death (Rev. 2:11).
While Pergamos did have some faithful Christians and even a faithful martyr named Antipas, they also had some big problems. They were tolerating teachers in the church that said it was okay to compromise with the world around them (Rev. 2:14). The doctrine of Balaam they called it.
The church was also allowing Nicolaitane doctrines. That’s a strange word. What in the world is that? It’s a very important question because Jesus said twice that he hated these teachings (Rev. 2:6, 15). We better try and uncover some clues – quick!
A doctrine is simply a set of beliefs that are taught or believed to be true. As Christians, we want to base our beliefs on the Bible, the living word of God. So let’s see what the Bible says about Balaam and then we’ll peek into history to find out more about the Nicolaitanes.
The Story of Balaam
If you haven’t heard the story, Balaam was a prophet of God but tried to go his own way. Balak, king of Moab hired Balaam to curse the Israelites. The king knew the Israelites were too mighty for him. God told Balaam not to go but he tried to go anyway. Crazy stuff happened like his donkey talking to him. He beat the poor animal for not moving ahead. The donkey saw an angel in the path and let his owner know it! You can read all about it in Numbers 22-24.
Despite his rebelliousness, God finally let Balaam go but he was only allowed to speak blessings over the Israelites. God was watching over his people. Good to remember! King Balak was not at all pleased. He was paying good money and now he had been cheated. To keep on the king’s good side, Balaam decided to get sneaky. He convinced the Moabite women to invite the Israelites to their pagan festivals and holidays. Eating and drinking and music and food! I’m sure it was a fun party! The Israelites ended up offering sacrifices to these pagan gods and bowing down to them (Num. 25:1-2, Num. 31:16).
The same thing happened in Pergamos. Some christians were participating in pagan rituals that included eating things sacrificed to idols and performing immoral acts with unbelievers. It was part of the pagan festivities. Some in the church were teaching that participating was okay. Not a big deal. However, the apostles had specifically told them not to do this (Acts 21:25). And now Jesus was reminding them, not so gently, that this was not okay.
The Bible doesn’t say much about the Nicolaitanes but Jesus mentions their teachings together with the teachings of Balaam. They likely had similarities. What we do know is that Jesus hated these teachings (Rev. 2:6, 15). Hate is a strong word. If God hates something, we should pay attention!
Notes from History
Early church writers tell us the Nicolaitans were followers of Nicolas, one of the seven deacons chosen in Acts. Nicolas was a convert from Antioch (Acts 6:5). Unlike the other deacons who had Hebrew roots, he came from a pagan background. He was very used to pagan ideas and philosophies. Nicolas brought a doctrine of compromise into the early church. He taught that it wasn’t a big deal if you mixed things up a little bit. It was very difficult to live as a Christian in the pagan world. Why not go along with the pagan rituals as long as you believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. He promoted the idea that the law of God was a good idea, but not binding on believers. Wow, I’ve heard this from some Christians nowadays.
Jesus knew this practice of compromise with the world would result in defeat. Jesus wanted them to be overcomers. That is why he hated it so. This idea that you can do whatever you like as long as you claim Jesus name is a lie. It’s been around a long time.
Jesus wants us to be overcomers. Overcomers of the sin that separates us from God. He loves us so much that he shouts it out – I hate this teaching! Don’t be defeated by the enemy of lies. Follow me! Not half-way, not part-way, but all the way and be victorious!
All About Worship
Balaam encouraged the Israelites to join the pagans in their worship festivities. Many Pergamos Christians were doing the same thing. They still called themselves “Christians” so they thought it was okay to mix things up a bit. You know – fit it. Be cool!
What does God say about this? Should we use the methods of the world to worship God? Do we decide for ourselves what we like best? If something has pagan traditions associated with it does it matter as long as I know in my heart I’m worshipping God?
Turns out God has very specific instructions on this topic. Check out what the Bible says.
- Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following after them…. and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, “How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.” (Deuteronomy 12:30)
- Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)
- But he answered and said unto them, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? (Matthew 15:3)
The answer is clear. Don’t worship God the way the world worships their gods. Traditions should never take the place of the commandments of God.
Important Lessons from Pergamos
Jesus promised to give hidden manna to the Christians in Pergamos that could overcome sin by surrendering all to Him (Rev.2:17). Manna is bread from heaven. That bread represents Jesus. Jesus said “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” (John 6:51)
Do you want to know more about Jesus and his wonderful words of life. Take Jesus into you heart everyday by reading the Bible and remember these lessons from his love letter to Pergamos.
- Compromise with the world always leads to separation from God.
- We cannot worship God anyway we please. He hates this.
- The law of God is eternal. It is holy and good.
If you hear someone say, “Yes, this comes from pagan traditions, but that’s not what it means to me. I worship Jesus.” Remember the Christians of Pergamos and you won’t fall for that line.
Do you want to surrender your life to Jesus today? Do you want to stay away from practices and traditions that are the opposite of God’s ways?
If the answer is yes, pray this prayer today. “
Dear Jesus, I surrender my life to you today. I want to follow you wherever you lead me. Please send your Holy Spirit to my heart. Help me to learn your ways and let go of the worlds ways. In Jesus name, Amen.