The third letter in Revelation 2-3 was written to the church in Pergamum:
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ (Revelation 2:12-17 ESV)
This is a very interesting letter. Apparently Pergamum was a very difficult location – the throne of Satan. Perhaps this refers to a certain temple or cult, but it definitely affected the believers in Pergamum.
What does Jesus say about the church in Pergamum? 1) He knows that they live in a difficult place – probably a spiritually difficult place. 2) He knows that they held fact to his name in spite of past persecutions. 3) He knows that they did not deny his faith in spite of past persecutions.
It seems that the church in Pergamum had been through persecution, and at least one person, Antipas, was killed during this time. While they were being persecuted, the believers in Pergamum did not forsake the name of Jesus nor did they deny his faith. Thus, they did not reject Jesus in spite of their situations and circumstances.
What does Jesus have against the church in Pergamum? 1) Some hold to the teachings of Balaam. 2) Some hold to the teachings of the Nicolaitans.
According to this letter, Balaam taught Barak how to tempt the children Israel into idolatry and sexual immorality. This may indicate that there are some who are enticing others into idolatry and immorality. Some within the church in Pergamum were accepting these kinds of teachings. Similarly, some were accepting the teaching of the Nicolaitans. We already know from the letter to the church in Ephesus that Jesus hates the works of the Nicolaitans, which would include their teachings. We do not know what this teaching is, but we know that it was not good for the church in Pergamum to accept this teaching. If this is similar to the “teaching of Balaam”, then we can assume that the teaching of the Nicolaitans was leading believers into unrighteous living.
What is Jesus’ remedy? Jesus gives only one remedy in this letter: repent. He expects the believers in Pergamum to change their minds and their ways. He expects them to stop holding to the “teaching of Balaam” and the “teaching of the Nicolaitans”. In general, they are to stop holding to teaching that does not encourage people to live a life that honors God.
It is interesting that this letter follows the letter to Smyrna. The church in Smyrna was going through persecution and was about to face more persecution. The church in Pergamum had been through persecution, but it seems to have ended. The church in Smyrna was being faithful through the persecution. The church in Pergamum was faithful during the persecution, but had now begun to follow false teaching.
It is also interesting that this letter describes false teaching in a similar fashion to the false teaching and false teachers described in the “pastoral epistles”. In other words, false teaching is any teaching that leads people to live their lives contrary to the gospel. As Paul encouraged the Ephesians, we are to “walk worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called”. (Eph 4:1 ESV) We have been called into the family of God and into the righteousness of Christ, and we are to live in a manner that demonstrates that calling.
Similarly, we are to hold to teachings that lead to this type of life. Teachings that lead to idolatry and sexual immorality are to be avoided, but so are teachings that lead to pride, independence, arrogance, covetousness, greed, hypocrisy, lying, stealing, murder, etc.
Some people within the church today may find themselves living in very difficult spiritual circumstances. However, regardless of our circumstances, we cannot hold to teachings that live to ungodly living. Instead, we must follow teachings that exhort us toward maturity in Christ and encourage us to walk in the Spirit, demonstrating the righteousness of Christ in our lives.
[UPDATE: It is an unplanned but happy coincidence – if you believe in coincidences – that this post was published on Halloween – the eve of All Saints Day. All Saints Day is the day when Christians traditionally celebrate the faithfulness and example of those who died for their faith, and this passage in the Revelation mentions the faith of believers and the martyrdom of Antipas. As far as I can tell, the first celebration of the faithfulness of martyrs occurred sometime around 270 AD. Now that’s a tradition!]