Revelation (Part 40): Churches—Smyrna and Pergamum
The letter to the church in Smyrna is next. The letter begins in form as did the one to Ephesus—providing one of the descriptions of Jesus. Here he is spoken of as “the First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life.” Theses terms speak of control. Of course, the First and Last was one of the OT names of God (Is 41:4; 44:6; 48:12). The description implies control but in two ways. Not only is God first and last in that he was at the beginning and will be at the end, but he is also first and last in the sense that he is the only God. For example, if a nation were founded with Donald Trump as king, and he was the only king ever of that nation, he could say he was the first and last king, meaning that the entire series of kings included only one—him. While that still gives the sense that he was king at the beginning and was king at the end, it adds to the understanding that there was no one in between—he was the only one. And that is how the phrase is used in Isaiah. God was there at the beginning, he will be there at the end, and that is because he is the one and only true God. That phrase gives confidence that God has all in control.
Adding to that phrase is Jesus’s claim to have been dead and come back to life. The point here is also to assert control. Benjamin Franklin said that there were only two things certain in life: death and taxes. But Jesus says not even the certainty of death can stop him. He has conquered that most unconquerable opposition to human life there is. And because of that we may have utmost confidence, resting securely in him.
This message is exactly what the church in Smyrna needed. The letter to Smyrna is of slightly different format than the others. After its opening description of the author, Jesus does not directly highlight a specific good and bad of the Smyrnaean Christians. Rather he goes right into discussion of their current struggle and, in no uncertain terms, tells them that their struggle will continue for a time. While at first thought, this message may seem harsh, it is not because Jesus infuses it with hope.
The Smyrnaean Christians were being persecuted. Actually all Christians in the Greek world of that time had trouble. Greek society was very much entwined with religious practice. We will see that more specifically with guild requirements of the Thyatirans, but the same generally held true everywhere. Just as unions today require dues payment, so did guilds of that day have demands. When Christians failed to meet the socio-religious demands of the guilds, they were ostracized. It was not so much that people hated Christianity and so persecuted Christians, after all hardly anyone even knew what Christianity was. Rather, it was that Christians didn’t fit in with society. And when you’re not helping, you’re a hindrance. For a people who believed their society needed to show favor to the gods and to Caesar in worship, failing to do so meant you were a serious threat to society. And the Christians felt that persecution.
These Christians were also persecuted from the other end of society. Judaism was a recognized religion of the state. Jews, therefore, thoroughly not Greek in practice, were allowed to set up their own subculture, sub-society, depending on each other without being attacked by the non-Jewish majority. And remember that the beginning of most Christian churches in Greek cities started with converted Jews. This conversion process irritated strict Jews who did not want Christians benefitting from their status as Jews. Thus, Christians were ostracized by the Jewish community as well. Without friend on either side of society—Greek or Hebrew—the Christian was left to struggle under the persecution of both factions.
Jesus calls the Jews “a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). The Jews met in synagogues (a Greek word meaning assembly). And their meetings were to worship God. But from God’s point of view, this group meeting to worship and denying his very provision of redemption so that they could truly approach him, was at counter purposes to his redemption plan—his Zion purpose. Because Satan is the being leading the promotion of counter purpose to God, Jesus applies Satan’s name to these people. The Jews were an assembly of deniers of God’s purpose—a synagogue of Satan.
Jesus had told the Smyrnaeans in his description that he was in control. With that in mind, he tells them not to be afraid (2:10). Is his point that they should not fear because he will swoop in to rescue them from suffering? Not exactly. In fact, his statement is not about removing them from suffering: “Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer.” They would continue to suffer persecution. But his comfort and encouragement is in the hope he offers. Jesus said during his life on earth, “Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Mt 10:28). Jesus emphasizes the eternal nature of relationship with God.
Jesus’s description reminded the Smyrnaeans that even Jesus went to his death in persecution. But he overcame death coming back to life—a life of eternal relationship with God. Jesus offers this hope to them. The affliction would come, but it would be short (which is the purpose for using the symbolic 10 days—a short time compared with the forever of life with God).
The distinction is in the contrast of both eternal life with eternal death and also physical death with eternal death. The idea is to not fear physical death—a separation merely from this current life. Fear should be reserved for those whose eternal death separates them eternally from life with God.
Those faithful to death (this physical death) will receive the crown of life. Jesus plays on a phrase well known to the Smyrnaeans. Smyrna is a port city. The ancient city was built on top of the highest hill in the area called Pagos. When Alexander came through 400 years earlier, he left plans to rebuild the city down at the foot of the hill to be more accessible to the trade the port offered. So approaching the city, this new Smyrna had most of its business in the lower port, but it was built up along the slope of Pagos to the top where the acropolis—the public and governmental buildings—of the city were perched. Smyrna was known as a beautiful city, and this hilltop “old city” was called the “crown of Smyrna.” (Antigonus, the architect of much of Alexander’s plans for the city, calls it the “crown of Smyrna” in his writings.)
In his contrast of physical life and death with eternal life and death, Jesus is giving the choice: do you care only for physical life—this crown of Smyrna? Or do you want eternal life—the crown of life that “I will give you.” Those who set their hearts on faithfulness to God will “never be harmed by the second death” (i.e., everlasting spiritual death).
The third letter is to the church in Pergamum. For this church, Jesus describes himself as the one with the sharp, double-edged sword. Of course, since we have studied the rest of Revelation already, we know this picture of a sharp, double-edged sword proceeding from the mouth of Jesus has already been given in chapter 1 as Jesus is first introduced, but Jesus is also shown wielding the sword in chapter 19. That sword, as we discussed for those passages, is not merely a means to cut through to hurt the human-focused. It is rather a judgment weapon to separate, divide, and distinguish. The sword coming from his mouth means it is the very words of the Word (Logos) that will separate the human-focused from the God-focused. It reminds us of the living, effective, sharp sword penetration to the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow discussed in Hebrews 4:12. The same idea is in mind there—the separation of these bodies of sin from our redeemed spirits.
Jesus praises the church of Pergamum for not denying their faith in Christ even amid persecution—even while living in the place “where Satan’s throne is” (2:13). Why does Jesus refer to Pergamum (and not Rome or Athens or some other great city) as the place of Satan’s throne? On Pergamum’s highest hill, the people had erected a temple to Zeus, the highest of gods. But the city was known for more than the worship of the highest of gods; it was also know for its worship of the highest of humankind—the emperor, Caesar. Emperor worship is said to have really begun following Augustus’s death when he was then proclaimed a god. But technically, emperor worship began while he was still alive. The people of Pergamum had built a temple to Augustus during his reign.
We (in our day and customs) may think it odd that the people of Pergamum would worship a person as they worshipped a god. Couldn’t they tell the difference between a god and a fallible human? We must remember both the limitations of the time and the religious attitude they embraced. They had no internet or television giving constant pictures and updates concerning Caesar. No daily newspaper or magazine informed them of anything. They heard of Caesar and his ruling exploits from soldiers and traders travelling in by sea. So their idea of Caesar was of someone whom they had never seen, who held power over the entire empire, whose good will offered them benefit as a city, and whose displeasure offered them threat and harm as a city. Now think of their idea of Zeus. Zeus was a god whom they had never seen, who held power over the entire world, whose good will offered them benefit as a city, and whose displeasure offered them threat and harm as a city. There is not a whole lot of difference there. Rather than being an odd leap, it was a natural progression to worship Caesar just as they worshipped Zeus. And Pergamum—being known for both its worship of the highest of gods and the highest of humankind—is therefore called by Jesus the throne of Satan.
Christians were persecuted because anyone not worshipping Zeus or Caesar could call out the displeasure of either of those god-like beings to the destruction of their city or lifestyle. Yet, Jesus says, he found the church there faithful in not denying Christ.
But he has some things against them. They tolerated those who hold the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. As mentioned before, we don’t know anything about the Nicolaitans. They don’t appear in any histories. But the name derives from the Greek words nikos and laos meaning “conquer” and “people.” The conquering could mean, as mentioned in the study of the Ephesus letter, a hierarchical control in the church. But this letter gives us more insight because the Nicolaitans are identified with those who follow the teachings of Balaam. Balaam is a Hebrew name. Its parts divide to Bela, also meaning to conquer, and ha’am also meaning people. So these two names imply the same sinful activity. And, the OT does give us some history on Balaam.
Numbers 22 through 24 gives the story of Balaam. The children of Israel were passing through the land controlled by the Moabites and the Midianites on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Balak, Moab’s king, reasoned that their army was too large a force to oppose in battle. So he found a prophet of God named Balaam, and asked him to curse the Israelites so that the Moabites could gain an advantage.
Most of us know this story. Balaam asked God if he could go with Balak, and God said no. Balak offered Balaam more riches, and Balaam returned to God wondering if God really wanted him to give up all this money. God, apparently disgusted with Balaam, told him he could go, but he better not utter anything except what God specifically tells him. So Balaam travels heads out to meet Balak. Of course, on the way, the donkey on which Balaam rides sees the imposing Angel of the Lord on three occasions. Balaam keeps striking his donkey until the donkey says something to him about it. God opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel, which probably helped Balaam not to stray from the words God gives him in speaking of Israel. Of course, those words are blessing to Israel rather than a curse. Balak is upset. And Balaam, without the reward, is sent home.
That end to the story at the end of chapter 24 seems incomplete. Here is King Balak with all his army. Balaam defies him by giving Balak’s enemy a pronouncement of blessing. So Balak merely shrugs his shoulders and let’s Balaam leave??! Wouldn’t you think that this powerful king would have threatened Balaam with harm? Well, maybe he did. There are other hints of what went on.
At the beginning of Numbers 25, we learn that the Israelites start having sex with the Moabite women. Later on, we also find they have had sex with the Midianite women. This having sex was probably not a series of one-night stands. It appears that what happened was that the Israelite men took Moabite and Midianite women as their wives. The confusing part of this is that in chapter 24, we saw and army of Moabite warriors ready to do battle with the Israelites. But immediately in Numbers 25, the Israelites are intermarrying with the Moabites. What changed?? In Numbers 31, we find a plague has gripped the Israelites for their sin of intermarrying with the Moabites and Midianites and turning their worship away from God and to the god of these women, Ba’al. Moses orders the Israelites to attack and destroy the Midianites (who had been in consort with the Moabites). The Israelites do as Moses told them…mostly. But they let the women live. Moses was furious. He wanted the women killed as well—everyone who had engaged in the intermarrying with the Israelites and turning their hearts and minds to the worship of Ba’al. And in verse 15–16 we learn that this was all the plan of the Moabites and Midianites based on Balaam. The verse reads, “‘Have you let every female live?’ he asked them. ‘Yet they are the ones who, at Balaam’s advice, incited the Israelites to unfaithfulness against the Lord in the Peor incident, so that the plague came against the Lord’s community.’”
Apparently as Balak is about to hurt Balaam for his failure, Balaam comes up with a plan. Intermarry with the Israelites. When they do so, their God will be upset with them and may then want to curse them. So Balak follows Balaam’s advice and attempts to “conquer the people,” not through overt conflict in battle, but through subversive means.
Now we can return to Revelation with a little more knowledge of what is going on in the church of Pergamum. They have not denied faith in God, but they have allowed the infiltration of their church in subversive, doctrine-diluting acceptance of the society around them to ease their persecution. And that is what Jesus opposes.
We do this same thing even today. Although we do it with many compromising means, one good example is with homosexuality. While not denying Christ, many churches today have embraced this sin because they have given up the foundation that marks the world’s activity as wrong. It certainly makes life easier not to have to fight another battle. It certainly makes the accepting church less of an object of attack from secular society today. But this giving in to the teaching of Balaam is opposed to God’s expectation of faithful relationship.