To read the first part of this series, be sure to check out Ayo’s article The 7 Churches of Revelation: Ephesus
The 3rd church in this study is the Church of Pergamos—the compromising church. Pergamos is an interesting church; although they follow Jesus and hold fast to His name, they also allow others to commit a myriad of sins in their midst without rebuke.
The Church of Pergamos is like the Church of Smyrna. They seem to have faced or are also facing their fair share of persecution, which, again, Jesus sympathizes with. They hold fast to Jesus’s name, and they don’t deny Him even to their death, which Jesus, speaking to the Church of Smyrna, says will reward them with the crown of life (Rev. 2:13, NKJV). However, when addressing Pergamos, Jesus continually references “Satan’s seat” or the place where Satan dwells.
When I first encountered the wording, the first struck me as strange. However, once we read on, we catch a glimpse as to why Jesus may be choosing this wording; the Church of Pergamos has those that participated in idolatry as well as sexual immorality. “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate” (Rev. 2:14-15, NKJV). Notice that Jesus didn’t say that the Church of Pergamos as a whole is participating in these things. The word choice here is very intricate and specific. Jesus, in verse 13, says He even knows where “Satan’s seat” is.
Later in this verse, He commends them for their good faith and talks about Antipas, a “faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (Rev. 2:13, NKJV). Christ is using specific language to point out to the Church of Pergamos that they need to be wary of who is among them. It is likely they who are worshiping other idols and committing fornication and other sexual sins and, maybe even more specifically, eating food offered to idols and partaking in ritualistic sexual intercourse. He says that these people that are among them “hold the doctrine of Balaam” (Rev. 2:13, NKJV). Jesus’s references to Balaam and Balak may be confusing at first if you’re not too familiar with the Old Testament (specifically the book of Numbers), but we’ll take a look at that a little later.
So the problem that Jesus has here with Pergamos isn’t necessarily what they are doing. It’s what they could eventually be doing or exposed to that He’s concerned about. It happened with Israel, and it could very well happen with the Church of Pergamos. Jesus also later states that these people hold the doctrine of Nicolaitanes.
If you remember, the Church of Ephesus also hates them, and this was something Jesus commends them for: for hating what He hates (Rev. 2:6, NKJV). This raises several questions that may helpfully grasp these characters Jesus alludes to and why following in their footsteps isn’t recommended: who is Balaam, and what is his doctrine? Who is Balak that he taught this doctrine to? And who are the Nicolaitanes, and what do they believe?
Balaam and Balak
Balaam was one of God’s prophets–although wicked in nature. Balak, the king of Moab sought his counsel to help him curse the Israelites that appeared in Moab (Num. 22:6-7, NKJV). He was threatened by them due to their large numbers stating, “Behold, they cover the face of the earth…” (Num. 22:5, NKJV) and was worried that, due to those numbers, they would quickly consume the land’s resources (Num. 22:1-4, NKJV). However, Balaam seeks God’s advice on the matter and is warned to not curse the Israelites because they are blessed (Num. 22:10-12, NKJV).
This game of Balak asking Balaam to curse the Israelites and Balaam blessing the Israelites due to God’s stern warning happens three times until Balak, out of anger, tells him to return to where he came from (Num. 23-24, NKJV). But this isn’t where the story ends. Immediately, in Numbers 25:1 we see that the Israelites are sinning against God. “Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel” (Num. 25:1-3, NKJV).
God punishes this act of deviance by sending a plague that kills 24,000 Israelites until those that joined in these sins were killed (Num. 25:4-9, NKJV). There seems to be a skip in time and events, however, between the end of chapter 24 when Balaam returns to his land and the beginning of chapter 25 when the Israelites begin to commit idolatry and sexual immorality.
The answer to this “sudden” deviance is given later in chapter 31 by Moses when several officers spared their women after a war with Midian. “But Moses was angry with the officers of the army, with the captains over thousands and captains over hundreds, who had come from the battle. And Moses said to them: ‘Have you kept all the women alive? Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord’” (Num. 31:14-16, NKJV).
What caused Israel to slip up was Balaam. Sometime after the events of chapter 24, he went back to Balak and offered him advice on how to have Israel essentially curse themselves since God wouldn’t allow him to do so directly.
The Nicolaitanes were a sect of the Early Church that distorted the gospel and ate things sacrificed to idols as was the case with the Israelites through the fault of Balaam. It’s not clear on who founded this sect, but some credit the founder to be Nicolas from Antioch who was chosen with six others among a multitude of disciples (Acts 6:1-6, NKJV).
These men were chosen specifically because they were told to be of good character. “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (Acts 6:3, NKJV). Being part of this group, how could Nicolas be accused of starting a fringe cult? Historical texts may shed some light to this or at least offer an explanation to why this may have happened.
Saint Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyon and France and a Christian theologian of the 2nd century, blamed Nicolas for the actions of the sect. In his book, Against Heresies (Book I, Chapter 26, section 3) he states,
The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6, KJV).
However, Eusebius of Caesarea, a historian of the 3rd century wrote about the Nicolaitanes as well in his acclaimed book Ecclesiastical History, also known as Church History (Book III, chapter 29), but didn’t attribute the sects’ beliefs and behaviors to Nicolas and even spoke a little about his life and how he was a well-doing man.
At this time the so-called sect of the Nicolaitans made its appearance and lasted for a very short time. Mention is made of it in the Apocalypse of John. They boasted that the author of their sect was Nicolaus, one of the deacons who, with Stephen, were appointed by the apostles for the purpose of ministering to the poor. Clement of Alexandria, in the third book of his Stromata, relates the following things concerning him.
Both of these historical accounts of Nicolas are interesting but should be taken with a grain of salt in light of the biblical narrative. We can’t know for certain what type of life Nicolas led outside of what is told to us in Acts or who exactly founded this sect of Christianity.
To bring it all back together, we see that Jesus references the story of Balaam and Balak and reminds the Church of Pergamos what they should be avoiding. Near the end, again, Jesus tells them to repent of their ways. But this is the interesting part: He tells them to repent, or else what? Or else they will get something taken away from them like the Church of Ephesus?
He says, “Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth” (Rev. 2:16, NKJV). He warns them that He’s coming quickly, a language we’re familiar with now, but He includes that He will fight them with the sword of His mouth. It’s not too strange to think that as an “or else” statement; Jesus is backing them up and is warning the wrongdoers instead. This part of His message seems to be speaking more to those that are participating in Balaam’s doctrine. Finally, to those that overcome will be given the “hidden manna” to eat as well as a white stone with a new name only the bearer knows (Rev. 2:17, NKJV).
If you enjoyed this study, you can find similar studies on the book of Revelation here, including the 24 Elders, the four living creatures, and the four Horsemen.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on himitsustudy.com
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