There was in the church at Pergamum a strange and unacceptable paradox, an inconsistency that Jesus simply will not tolerate, then or now.
Let’s not forget where they lived. Whereas it is true that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19b), Pergamum was especially vulnerable to Satan’s influence. In some sense, as previously noted, this was his city. Pergamum was the center of his authority, the place of his throne, the focal point of his activity and interests. There must have been an almost tangible sense of his presence, a heaviness in the air, an oppressive spiritual atmosphere that was unmistakable and inescapable.
There have been times and places when I was keenly aware of an extraordinary spiritual darkness, all physical evidence to the contrary. In other words, a city, for example, can be outwardly prosperous, socially vibrant, and culturally sophisticated all the while an underlying demonic energy animates and defiles its life and ethos. We shouldn’t be surprised that our enemy might choose to concentrate his efforts in particular geographical areas or at unique and critical moments in history. It’s all part of his strategy to undermine Christian faith and promote the kingdom of darkness.
The Christians in Pergamum undoubtedly faced this phenomenon every day. The corrupt political life of their community, the pagan temples that dotted the landscape, the resistance they encountered every time they shared their faith with an unsaved neighbor, all reminded them of Satan’s intensified efforts to exert his authority in their midst.
That the church had refused to yield to such pressures or allowed their witness to fall silent is remarkable indeed. Our Lord’s commendation of them for this comes in two forms.
He first applauds them for continuing to “hold fast” his “name”, i.e., his identity as God incarnate and his redemptive work at Calvary, in spite of the presence of Satan’s throne (Rev. 2:13a; cf. the use of this verb in Heb. 4:14; 10:23). On this point there can be no compromise, not even in the name of love. His use of the present tense of the verb indicates that even then, at the time they received this letter, they continue to maintain their testimony and were refusing to silence their voice for the sake of personal safety.
How often do we today, in public, speak in a hushed whisper when the name of Jesus is mentioned? What accounts for this? Could it be shame or embarrassment, or the prospect of “losing face”? I think it more likely that silence is driven by our fear of what might happen should those around us detect that we are Christians. It’s remarkable, actually, given the fact that we face no persecution to speak of, no official resistance from our government. Yet, the Christians at Pergamum knew that a vocal public witness to the name of Jesus guaranteed precisely that, and worse.
I say worse because of what we read in the second half of verse 13. Not only were they presently holding forth a public testimony of the name of Jesus, in the past they had refused to deny their faith in spite of the martyrdom of an outspoken Christian named Antipas. Jesus commends them because they “did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (Rev. 2:13b).
Several things should be noted here. In the first place, Antipas is called a “faithful witness” (v. 13b; pointing no doubt to what led to his death). The Greek term martus, here translated “witness,” refers to someone who bears verbal testimony to the person and work of Jesus. Initially the term described someone who provided information in a court of law. In time it was applied to that person whose Christian faith in court led to his/her execution. And thus eventually the word “witness” gives way wholly to the concept of a “martyr”, someone whose persistent testimony for the sake of the kingdom, whether in or out of court, results in death.
A second important point to note is that the believers in Pergamum held fast to their faith “even in the days of Antipas”. The ESV translates it this way, rightly so in my opinion, to highlight the fact that there were life-threatening circumstances that might have made their silence a matter of prudence. Who could have blamed them, from a worldly perspective, that is, had they chosen to keep their mouths shut, or perhaps even deny Jesus altogether? But no, they didn’t let the prospect of their own martyrdom close their mouths or diminish their commitment or mollify their zeal.
Thirdly, what they are specifically said not to have denied is “the faith of me.” This odd phrase should probably be rendered “faith in me”, pointing to their unyielding and sturdy confidence in Jesus and the truth of his gospel.
However, as noted earlier, there was something askew in Pergamum. Notwithstanding their remarkable devotion to the Lord, they had become overly tolerant of others whose immorality threatened to undermine the purity of the church. If the Ephesian church was guilty of elevating truth above love, the church at Pergamum had elevated love above truth. Their commitment to peace and tolerance had apparently degenerated into a weak sentimentality that now posed both a serious ethical and theological threat.
Following our Lord’s commendation he quickly adds a word of complaint. Whereas they had maintained their own theological convictions they were, at the same time, tolerating in their fellowship certain false prophets who advocated licentious behavior, ostensibly in the name of Christian freedom (see vv. 14-15). This simply will not do.
Although they had not themselves denied the faith, they had become inexplicably lax toward falsehood in the assembly and had endured the presence and teaching of ethical error. For this, Jesus severely rebukes them (which we’ll take up in subsequent meditations).
This is a truly remarkable, indeed puzzling, situation. They were devoted to the truth of who Christ is and the essentials of the gospel message. They were even willing to die for it! But they fudged when it came to dealing with those in the church who compromised the ethical implications of that very gospel. It’s almost as if they said, “I personally will never back down, even if it means my death. On the other hand, perhaps we need to be less rigid and a bit more tolerant when it comes to those who draw different conclusions about the practical implications of the saving grace of our Lord.”
“NO!” said Jesus. This is horribly inconsistent and must be immediately and firmly addressed (v. 16). There’s nothing to indicate why they had adopted this posture. It certainly wasn’t out of fear. Perhaps they reckoned that such ethical and theological deviations were of little consequence or that they could more easily win over the dissidents by declining to rock the ecclesiological boat. Whatever the case, they were misguided in granting them such a wide berth, and must act swiftly to put things right.
The bottom line is this: sometimes peace and love come at too high a price! In the next meditation we’ll look more closely at the price the Christians at Pergamum had mistakenly paid.