15) Satan's City (Revelation 2:12-13)
By God’s providential design, my wife and I live in Kansas City, Missouri, known as “The City of Fountains.” Before this, we lived in Chicago, “The Windy City” (well, to be more accurate, we lived in Winfield, a suburb of Chicago). Paris, France, is called “The City of Lights” and New York is often described as “The City that Never Sleeps”. We have friends who live in Las Vegas, infamously (but justifiably) referred to as “Sin City”, and the list could go on.
So what’s the point? Simply this: from what Jesus says in his letter to the church in Pergamum, the Christians there may well be described as living in “Satan’s City”! “I know where you dwell,” said Jesus, “where Satan’s throne is” (Rev. 2:13a). Later in the same verse he refers to Pergamum as the place “where Satan dwells” (Rev. 2:13b).
Let’s get to know the city of Pergamum, after which we’ll return to our Lord’s reassuring words: “I know where you dwell.”
Pergamum was one of the largest cities in the ancient world, with a population of @ 190,000. It was situated about 65 miles due north of Smyrna and exceeded its southern neighbor both in love for and loyalty to the emperor. Pergamum was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia and retained this honor well into the 2nd century. But it wasn’t primarily for either political or economic achievements that Pergamum was famous, but for religion. Pergamum was the center of worship for at least four of the most important pagan cults of the day.
Upon entering the city one couldn’t help but notice the gigantic altar of Zeus erected on a huge platform some 800 ft. above the city, looking down on its inhabitants like a great vulture hovering over its prey. Many have sought to identify “Satan’s seat” or “throne” (v. 13) with this altar. Amazingly, a reconstructed form of this altar is on display in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin (which I had the privilege [?] of visiting in 1994)!
Pergamum was also the center for the worship of Athene and Dionysus. However, the most distinctive and celebrated cult of all was dedicated to the worship of Asclepios (or Aesculapius). Often referred to as “Savior” (soter) in Greek mythology, Asclepios was the son of Apollo and was thought to have been the very first physician. The symbol of Asclepios was the serpent, which has led some to identify the “throne of Satan” with the shrine erected to his worship. [You might also recall that the symbol adopted by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (renamed The Department of Health and Human Services in 1979) is the staff of Asclepios . . . with a serpent coiled around it!]
But above and beyond the worship directed at these pagan deities was the fact that Pergamum was the acknowledged center in Asia Minor for the imperial cult of Caesar. In 29 b.c. this city received permission to build and dedicate a temple to Augustus, three years before Smyrna was granted a similar privilege. Perhaps more than any of the other six cities, the people of Pergamum were devoted to the worship of Caesar.
Were it not for the fact that “greater” is he who is in us “than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4b), it would be frightening to hear that Pergamum is “where Satan dwells” (Rev. 2:13b). Although this may simply be synonymous with “Satan’s throne” (v. 13a), it’s possible that this is another way of saying that evil was present in Pergamum in a particularly powerful and concentrated way. Could it be that Satan had in some sense made Pergamum the focus of his earthly base of operation?
Needless to say, Jesus knew this. On second thought, it does need to be said. To those believers immersed in an explicitly Satanic atmosphere of idolatry and wickedness, Jesus says: “I know where you dwell!” To a people struggling by grace to remain faithful when those around them revel in faithlessness, Jesus says: “I know where you dwell!” To a church that must, at times, have felt abandoned and alone and given over to the enemy, Jesus says: “I know where you dwell!”
We have already seen that our Lord “knows” the churches, for he walks among them (Rev. 2:1). In this letter, however, “He makes it clear that His intimate knowledge extends not only to the works His people do (as in Ephesus) and to the tribulation they endure (as in Smyrna) but to the environment in which they live. ‘I know where you dwell,’ He says. He is not ignorant of the fact that the Christian Church is set in the non-Christian world, and that it feels on all sides the continuous pressure of heathen influence” (John Stott, 51-52; italics mine).
Jesus was fully aware that Pergamum, of all the cities in Asia Minor, would be most severely threatened by pagan influence. Thus the place “where Satan’s throne is” (v. 13) most likely refers to the primary role of Pergamum as the center of the imperial cult, and as such the center of Satan’s kingdom in the east (if not beyond as well).
The fact that “throne” has the definite article (“the”) “suggests that the author is alluding to a specific throne (either literally or figuratively), which he expects the readers to recognize” (David Aune, 1:182). In Revelation 13:2 it says that Satan gave the “beast” “his throne and great authority” (cf. 16:10). If nothing else, this suggests that Satan works through the ungodly, earthly political power in Pergamum to persecute and oppress God’s people.
The most prominent visible feature of Pergamum was the acropolis, a heavily fortified fortress that rose nearly 1,300 ft. above the plain. Some have argued that it actually looks like a great throne when seen by a traveler approaching from Smyrna. However, as Colin Hemer points out, this is “only a picturesque association which might appeal to a modern visitor without necessarily relating to an ancient reality” (85). In any case, the Christians at Pergamum went to bed each night and awakened each morning to a relentless and pervasive idolatry, in a city that had willfully “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:23).
Here’s what I want you to understand: Jesus also knows where you dwell! Don’t dismiss it as a theological truism. I can assure you, the oppressed believers in Pergamum didn’t. They laid hold of that glorious revelation and drew from it the refreshing waters of reassurance and hope and confidence. They would often, no doubt, remind themselves that no matter how hard it was to be a Christian there, no matter how intense the temptation to abandon Christ and serve another “god”, Jesus knew where they lived, he knew what they faced on a daily basis, he knew every intimate detail of a life pursued in a city that hated God.
Jesus knows where you dwell! Meditate on it. Rejoice in it! Whether you live in an isolated mid-western town of 5,000 or feel lost in a metropolis of 5,000,000, Jesus knows where you live! Whether you attend (or perhaps serve as pastor of) a congregation of 50 or a mega-church of 5,000, Jesus knows where you dwell! He knows the temptations you face, the pressures you feel, the fear that perhaps you’ve been misplaced or marginalized or lost in the shuffle of life and the countless concerns that our Lord must deal with on a daily basis. Fear not! Jesus knows where you dwell!
You haven’t been abandoned, far less ignored. Your life and ministry are as important to Jesus as that of any Christian in any church in any city in any country. You may feel as if your community is a modern Pergamum, devoted to idolatry and immorality and the public ridicule of our glorious savior. But of this you can rest assured: Jesus has sovereignly and strategically placed you there as his witness, to hold forth his name and to display his glory. That is why, contrary to the title of this meditation, every city is Christ’s City! Jesus knows where you dwell!
Resting confident in his knowledge of where I am,