Pergamum: The Morally Compromising
In The Empire Strikes Back, our hero Luke Skywalker is honing his fledgling Jedi skills, so he goes to train with master Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah. Part of his training involves testing, and he feels pulled into this cave where he will be tempted by the dark side. In the cave, he encounters Darth Vader, or a mirage of Darth Vader, and they have a confrontation. Luke ends up winning; he lops off Darth Vader ‘s head. His head goes rolling, and when Luke looks down into the mask of Darth Vader, he sees his own face. There is an interesting philosophical point being made in this imagery: in order for Luke to become a full Jedi knight, he must acknowledge his dark side. These movies with stories of good and evil or darkness and light resonate with us because that’s what we experience.
Think about ways that we all try to subvert other people in order to make ourselves better. We are all guilty of this, and it happens digitally often. We tell lies to make ourselves sound a little less at fault such as “Sorry I’m late responding to your e-mail. It must have gotten lost in my spam folder” or “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was nuts.” What if we dig a little deeper the dark side in us? What about the secret obsessions and compulsions that have a tendency to control us? What about our unprocessed grief over pain or loss that causes us to act out irrationally towards others? What about ways we might shortcut the processes and principles in our companies to get ahead, or using our position in our families, workplaces, or communities to manipulate others into getting what we want? We feel that call to embrace the dark side. When we slow down, we can pay attention to it and acknowledge it in ourselves.
This is true on an individual level and on a corporate level. This can happen nationally, regionally, in communities, and it can happen in our church. That is what John has been writing about to these churches in Revelation. He is exploring the light and dark sides of these churches in every letter. We see commendations and critiques. We have explored the letters to Ephesus and Smyrna over the past two weeks, and today we turn our sights to Pergamum. To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. Revelation 2:12. The imagery of the sharp double edged sword would have been familiar to the hearers because they were under the thumb of the Roman Empire, and Roman soldiers carried these swords that symbolized the power that Rome held of life and death. Pergamum was one of the rare cities that Rome had given the power of capital punishment. This is a symbol of power, authority, life and death; yet, Jesus says “No, I am the one who has authority.”
I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. Revelation 2:13
The city is 55 miles north of Smyrna and just a few miles inland from the coast. Because of their mountaintop position, it was an easily defendable fortress with a view of the water so they could see enemies coming from miles away. Pergamum was a bustling A booming center of intellectual, academic, commercial, and medical development. It was a place that shaped the culture of the people in that region. Their library had over 200,000 items, and it is said that it was comparable to the library of Alexandria or Athens. The city itself is a monument to human wisdom. Along with that, it was one of the leading religious centers in all of Asia minor; they had temples to the Greek gods and goddesses. At the top of the mountain, they had a 40 foot high altar to Zeus where priests would make human sacrifices to their gods. In AD 29, Roman emperor Augustus chose to erect a monument to himself in the city of Pergamum for the cult of emperor worship. This was a place where Pagan deity worship and the cult of emperor worship came together. This is the defining cultural and religious atmosphere of the region, so considering all these factors, we have more insight to why Jesus says this is the place for Satan.
Likely the Antipas referenced was the bishop of the church at Pergamum who was put to death because he refused to submit to the cult of emperor worship and to proclaim the divinity of Caesar. He was basically the first martyr in this city, and Jesus says, “Even when they put him to death, you remained faithful, despite persecution. Well done, you have remained true to my name.” He commends the people of the church for being a good and faithful, and this will hearken to the theme that John is drawing out through the entire Book of Revelation. It is clear that John is trying to communicate this truth: followers of Jesus are to be faithful to God in the midst of a culture that is anything but. Remember these are churches under the authority of the Roman Empire, but John never uses the term Rome to describe the governing authorities over them. Instead he uses the term Babylon. Jewish readers would have been familiar with this term. Babylon was an empire that ruled over the Jewish people, but the Babylonian empire ended 600 years before the writing of these letters. So why does John keep referencing Babylon? If you look at Old Testament and New Testament literature, you will see that Babylon actually becomes a motif to represent powers of evil, an empire characterized by domination, submission, control, and coercion. This is a way of living and ruling that is in total opposition to the way of Jesus. He says they are doing well and have been faithful in persecution; however, the letter does not end there.
He begins to explore a way that the people in the Church of Pergamum have begun to give themselves over to the rule and reign of the empire. The reality is that John is writing to followers of Jesus, not only in Babylon, but to us today. This is us staring at our own face in the helmet of Darth Vader. This is the dark side in us. We exist in a world that is characterized by Babylon, but we also bring Babylon into the world. The advantages of empire can be so tempting that it becomes hard to resist power when we have the opportunity to seize it. It wants to dominate every part of us including our souls, and it invites us to dominate others.
Take a few minutes to take inventory of your own heart and to examine where you might need to turn from sin and turn toward Christ. This is not a call to some kind of fundamentalist exclusionism where we cast out everything from our lives and hide in our Christian bubbles. That is not the call of Jesus at all; it is to be in the world but not of it. It is acknowledging that faithfulness to Jesus is more than just a belief that rattles between our ears. Faithfulness to Jesus is following him, his way, and his vision for life. So we lovingly and faithfully push back the darkness knowing that our citizenship is to a Kingdom with a far better than anyone in the Babylon we are living in today.