The Letter to the Church in Pergamos
What was the message Yeshua delivered in the letter to the church in Pergamos? He commended them for having held fast to His Name and not having denied the faith in Him, but what did He criticize them for?
And to the messenger of the assembly in Pergamos write, ‘He who has the sharp two-edged sword, says this: (Rev 2:12)
The warning in the letter to the church in Pergamos
I know your works, and where you dwell, where the throne of Satan is. And you hold fast to My Name, and did not deny the faith in Me, even in the days in which Antipas was My trustworthy witness, who was killed near you, where Satan dwells. (Rev 2:13)
We should note Yeshua’s approval in the letter to the church in Pergamos, namely that they have held fast to His Name and had not denied the faith in Him.
But what is to have faith in someone? In the article “What is faith?” we studied that faith is not a thought we have in our minds. Faith is not a mental exercise, but concrete actions in doing the will of Elohim. And His will for us is to walk in righteousness, and we walk in righteousness when we do His commands.
However, many today in Christianity “believe” that their faith cannot be questioned and they are right, since their faith is a thought and thoughts cannot be questioned. However, from Hebraic perspectives emunah, firmness, (commonly translated as “faith”) can be questioned and even tested as the Messiah will test us to see whether we stand firmly before Him.
And as we go further in our study of the letter to the church in Pergamos, we will see that the Messiah not only can question our faith, but He warns us we may have denied the faith in Him, that is we do not stand firmly before Him.
And when He asks us to hold fast to His name, what does he ask us to do? The Greek word onoma used in the letter to the church in Pergamos means name, or figuratively: character, reputation, authority. This is also the same word used in the Greek translation of Tanak, the Septuagint, to render the Hebrew word shem.
But, the Hebrew word shem, as the Greek onoma, means much more than just a “name.” It is not a mere label of identification, but an expression of the essential nature of the bearer of that name. In the Hebrew Scripture, shem speaks foremost of reputation and character rather than being a sound identifier. Related to shem is another Hebrew word shema meaning to listen up and act accordingly, or figuratively but not with the same exact meaning: to obey.
So, when Yeshua said in the letter to the church in Pergamos “you hold fast to My Name, and did not deny the faith in Me”, not to deny His faith is to hold fast to His teachings which let us not forget are not His own teachings, but His father’s, that is the Torah.
In the letter to the church in Pergamos He recognizes their peculiar dangers and their difficulties they face every day in a place not other than where Satan’s seat is. It was not an easy thing to do to have held fast to Yeshua’s name under such circumstances.
According to Christian tradition, Yochanan (John) the Apostle ordained Antipas as bishop of Pergamos. The traditional account goes on to say that Antipas was martyred during the reign of the emperor Nero, by burning in a brazen bull-shaped altar. But who was Antipas (Gr. Ἀντίπας)?
The only Antipas known outside Revelation 2:13 is Herod Antipatris first century ruler of Galilee, the son of Herod the Great as found in Act 23:31. Antipas (short for Antipatris) comes from two words: anti, against, and pater, father.
What is the connection between Antipas and the church in Pergamos is unclear from the short letter we have. There is no significant record of any specific person during that time by the name of Antipas, except the Christian tradition. Antipas could be a symbolic name representing all those who did not deny the Messiah and were martyred for the Messiah’s sake.
Then they shall deliver you up to affliction and kill you, and you shall be hated by all nations for My Name’s sake. (Mat 24:9)
But “Antipas” in the letter to the church in Pergamos may not be a name at all, but a noun. And the reason for this notion is that the Aramaic text of the letter to the church in Pergamos renders the verse thus,
I know your works and where you dwell even where Satan’s seat is: And you uphold my name, and you did not deny my faith, even in those days when that witness of mine appeared, that faithful one of mine who was slain among you, where Satan dwells. (Rev 2:13 LBP)
Compare LBP to the very different reading in the Greek text of the letter to the church in Pergamos. The LBP translation simply renders the word in question as witness of mine.
Therefore, “Antipas” was either the martyr who was killed for the Messiah’s sake, according to the Christian tradition, or a representation of all of the faithful who were willing to stand against persecution, according to the Aramaic text.
The word שָׂטָן satan appears only twice in the Torah in Num 22:22 and Num 22:32, but total of 27 occurrences in the entire Hebrew scripture. But we should note that no where in the Tanak does the word satan denote any notion of a personal name of a fallen angel.
That is not to say that there is no fallen angel, a chief angel of all fallen angels. But, the Hebrew word satan simply means “an adversary” or someone who offers opposition, an opponent. As a verb satan means to attack, to resist, to withstand.
The dualistic understanding of good on one side, and evil on the other, was a much later Christian tradition that came into the Church as satan as a personal enemy opposed to Elohim. Tradition, some have argued, came from the Persian religion Zoroastrianism with its dualistic notion of a good god, Ahura Mazda, and an evil god, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman.
There are verses used “to support” the notion of two rulers: the Creator of the universe and satan, “the ruler of this world.”
Now is the judgment of this world, now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. (Joh 12:31) See also Luk 4:6.
However, the Torah is very specific on the issue of monotheism. There are no two rulers, but one. We read thus,
See now that I, I am He, And there is no Elohim (Heb. power) besides Me. I put to death and I make alive. I have wounded, and I heal. And from My hand no one delivers! (Deu 32:39)
We clearly see the monotheism of the Scripture in the Job story (see Job 1:6-8) when the sons of Elohim came to present themselves before YHVH, and hasatan also came among them. This word, especially when used with “the” i.e. hasatan, simply means the adversary, the opponent, not a personal name as often rendered in the Christian translation.
For more understanding on the meaning of the Hebrew word satan, the reader is encouraged to refer to the article “Peter, called the satan.“
Another example is the Bil’am story. The messenger of YHVH in Num 22:22 is described as an “adversary” or one who stand against, satan, to Bil’am (Balaam) and hardly we can refer that messenger to the chief fallen angel in Job.
The present author’s understanding is that the increased interest in satan resulted from the Church’s exposure to the dualism that came from the Persian Zoroastrianism, through Greece, to Rome.
The stumbling-block before the church in Pergamos
And since we have mentioned Bil’am, we come to the next moment in the letter to the church in Pergamos. We read,
But I hold a few matters against you, because you have there those who adhere to the teaching of Bil‛am, who taught Balak to put a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat food offered to idols, and to commit whoring. (Rev 2:14)
Yeshua the Messiah reprimanded the church in Pergamos with a few matters against them. And when the Messiah of YHVH says, But I hold a few matters against you …, we should listen very carefully. He criticized them that there some among them who adhere to the teaching of Bil‛am.
For the teaching of Bil‛am, we must turn to Numbers chapters 22, 23, and 24.
In the story we see Bil‛am was a professional prophet for profit (see 2Pe 2:15 and Jud 1:11). Although he wanted to curse Israel for the offered money, he had failed. But though he failed, he advised Balak that he could still do something against Israel, as we read.
Come, I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the latter days. (Num 24:14)
When a professional prophet said “I will advise you what action you should take,” what would that counsel be? Most likely the counsel Bil’am gave to Balak was of that nature: the Elohim of Israel hates immorality, thus, if they are enticed to sin with Moab’s women, He will severely punish them.
We are coming to this conclusion from what we read in Num 31:16.
Behold, They were the ones who caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Bil‛am, to revolt so as to break faith with Yehovah in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of Yehovah. (Num 31:16)
Thus, Bil’am offered this counsel to cause Israel to stumble through immorality, with which we return to our text in Rev 2:14 concerning the letter to the church in Pergamos.
The Greek πόρνη pornei (to which the word “pornography” is related) could simply be a metaphor for idolatry, as we see the frequent use of whoring as a metaphor of going astray after other gods. That is not to say that in the church in Pergamos there was no sexual immorality. There could have been.
But since we have been given to know that the counsel of Bil’am to Balak was a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, so was the teaching of Bil‛am for the church in Pergamos: to eat food offered to idols, and to commit whoring.
Hence, we understand that the church in Pergamos had two very serious issues: whoring and idolatry. And indeed, of all the provinces of the Roman Empire, there was none in which emperor-worship was more thoroughly organized than in Pergamos where the cult of Rome and worshiping the emperor as a god was established as a state religion. Some commentators think that Yochanan (John) had this cult in mind when he described Pergamos as the place where the throne of Satan is.
Therefore, we see that the church in Pergamos was faithful to the name of Yeshua, even to the point of martyrdom, but it was tolerant of false teachers among them who taught them to mix the faith in the Messiah with pagan practices of sexual misconduct and idolatry.
So you also have those who adhere to the teaching of the Nikolaites, which I hate. (Rev 2:15)
The word also does not relate to the Ephesians where the teaching of the Nikolaites was first mentioned, but to ‘those who adhere to the teaching of Bil‛am’ in the preceding verse. But unlike the Ephesians, the congregants in Pergamos did adhere to that false teaching.
As we talked about this issue in the letter to the church of Ephesus, the opinion of the present author is that Nikolaitans (nikolaitiyim) might not refer to a name at all, but it might be an adjective and simply nikolaitiyim seems to refer to masters of people.
And if it is so, then the word nikolaitiyim must be a reference to a submission to a professional priesthood, as we find it in the Rabbinical Judaism, in the Catholic Church, and in all Christian denominations. So, we see that the church in Pergamos had three issues, those of sexual misconduct, pagan practices, and submission to men, not to the Messiah, who is the only head of His assembly.
Having said that, now we understand as to why Yeshua has begun His letter to the church in Pergamos with, ‘He who has the sharp two-edged sword, says this: (Rev 2:12). Because, in the conclusion of His letter, He repeats the same phrase, but this time as a warning in Rev 2:16.
Repent, or else I shall come to you speedily and fight against them with the sword of My mouth. (Rev 2:16) (See also Rev 1:16)
And in Heb 4:15 we read,
For the Word of Elohim is living, and working, and sharper than any two-edged sword, cutting through even to the dividing of being and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12)
The message Yeshua delivers in the letter to the church in Pergamos is this: if the church in Pergamos does not repent from the sins exposed in His letter, His testimony before the Father will cut and divide them from the whole assembly of the Messiah, just like a two-edged sword does. This warning is a similitude of the warning to the church of the Ephesians in which we read thus.
But I hold this against you, that you have left your first love. So remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the first works, or else I shall come to you speedily and remove your lampstand (assembly) from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5)
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies. To him who overcomes I shall give the hidden manna to eat. And I shall give him a white stone, and on the stone a new Name written which no one knows except him who receives it. (Rev 2:17) (See also Rev 19:11-13)
This is a concluding promise addressed to all assemblies, not only to the church in Pergamos. We should note, however, that the promise is addressed only to those of the assemblies (see also Rev 2:7) who will overcome the persecution and stay faithful to the end.
The individual promise to the church in Pergamos is the hidden manna that will be given to the overcomers.
And I saw the heaven opened, and there was a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Trustworthy and True, and in righteousness He judges and fights. And His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns, having a Name that had been written, which no one had perceived except Himself, and having been dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and His Name is called: The Word of Elohim. (Rev 19:11-13) (see also Joh 1:1 and Joh 1:14)
The mentioning of manna brings an immediate association with the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and how they ate the heavenly bread forty years in the desert; and how they lived under the heavenly canopy of YHVH and were lacking nothing. But it should also have brought to their minds that it took seven days for YHVH to take Israel out of the idolatrous Egypt, but forty years to take the idolatrous Egypt out of Israel.
If the ancient church in Pergamos had missed this point, they had missed the whole message. And if the contemporary church in “Pergamos” has missed this point, then they have missed everything.
In this article we studied the second of the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation. In the following articles we will continue to study the rest of the seven letters to the seven churches.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.