12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.
Pergamum was a city that prided itself on several temples dedicated to the Roman Imperial cult. In the Roman period, the city of Pergamum, a former administrative capital of Asia Minor that later was moved to Ephesus, became a flag ship for Roman patriotism expressed in religious devotion. As with most major Greek cities, Pergamum boasted a theater, stadium, library and a healing center of Asclepius among the other buildings that were part of normal life in the Greco-Roman world.
The healing center (Asclepion) in Pergamum, considered to be the headquarters, was a part of a very large network of healing centers throughout the Roman Empire. For many years Galen, the most well-known physician in the Roman Empire and personal physician of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, worked in this Asclepion. The Pergamum library was considered second only to the world-famous library in Alexandra. The Pergamum library boasted, according to Plutarch, more than 200,000 volumes. Another account states that Marc Anthony, a Roman military commander, bequeathed the collection to Cleopatra as a reimbursement for the total destruction of the library of Alexandria’s by Julius Caesar.
Other than temples to emperors and even to the goddess Roma, the city held the high honor of hosting and maintaining a temple to Zeus – Father of all gods and man and the ruler of Olympians on Mt. Olympia in accordance with ancient Greek beliefs. Zeus was closely associated with the Roman deity Jupiter whose name means the sky or literally the “heavenly father” god. The altar to Zeus was one of the most impressive structures in Pergamum. The altar’s stairs, columns, and sculptured sides once stood forty feet (12 meters) high. Today, only the steps around the altar’s base can be seen in the Pergamum museum in Berlin. The sides of the altar were ornamented with marble panels depicting a mythical battle between Greek gods and rebellious giants who were the sons of Mother Earth.
Many have suggested that this altar to Zeus is what is meant by the throne of Satan in vs. 13. But there exist a number of other possibilities – such as the Asclepius cult headquarters or a concentration of the Imperial and Roman cult in that city. As was mentioned earlier, in Roman antiquity, the image of a sword and especially a double-edged sword was highly symbolic. So, in this city, it can truly be said that it hosted the throne of Satan, the symbol of Roman Imperial authority and rule. Christ introduced himself to the assembly of the follows of Israel’s God in Christ as “the one who has the sharp two-edged sword.” If the above identification of the throne of Satan as Roman imperial cult is correct than it would make a perfect sense for Christ here to be presented as someone with the authority of the double-edged sword.
Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
Not much is known about the person Antipas in this passage. Later Christian tradition holds that he was ordained as the bishop of Pergamum by the Apostle John, just as was Polycarp in the city of Smyrna. The tradition also holds that he was boiled alive in a bronze kettle that resembled a bull. This first century account comes from much later Christian martyrology accounts of questionable reliability. What can safely be assumed is that by the end of the first century, when the letter of Revelation was being written, the martyrdom of Antipas already took place. It was still a fresh memory in the minds of the Christ-followers of Pergamum. No doubt, Antipas met his destiny, embracing death because he was not willing to honor and sacrifice to pagan gods. Only one God can be worshiped and adored.
14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.
In the section about the congregation in the city of Ephesus, we discussed the evil deeds and teachings of Nicolaitans. The most probable explanation is that the Nicolaitans were followers of the movement, dubbed Nokhal among early Christ-followers. Nokhal in Hebrew means “We will eat,” in this case referring to meat that was sacrificed to Greco-Roman Gods.
Nicolaitans of vs. 15 are connected with the evil Balaam and Balak. Their strategy to undermine Israel was the same. They wanted Israelites to worship Baal Peor. The main attraction was the sexual orgies that accompanied such worship. We read in Num. 25:1-5:
“While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel. 4 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.’ 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, ‘Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.’”
Christ called the assembly in Pergamum that tolerated in its mix those who both professed Christ and ate meat sacrificed to Roman gods, to repent. Christ the King threatened them with his soon-approaching judgment, calling them to finally make a choice between the God of Israel and the gods of the Roman Empire.