In every chapter of John's gospel, "the disciple whom Jesus loved" has painted a striking picture of the unique character or work of the Son of God. Similarly, in the Revelation John sketches six apocalyptic portraits of Christ. The portraits serve to warn, challenge, and encourage believers of every generation who desire to "walk as Jesus did" among earth's inhabitants, people who are simply unaware of the importance of following Jesus and others who knowingly reject his Word and snub his gift of salvation.
We'll begin our short series by visiting the church located in the ancient Greek city of Pergamum (modern day city of Bergama, Turkey), one of the seven original recipients of John's Apocalypse.
Pergamum was a stronghold that dominated the region, enjoying a prominent history before it was conquered by the Romans. It was also the center of religious life, boasting temples for Zeus Sōtēr, Athena Nicephorus, Dionysos Cathegemom, and Asclepius Sōtēr. Not incidentally, Sōtēr, applied to Zeus and Asclepius, means "savior." Following in the footsteps of their Greek predecessor, Romans built their own temple, dedicating it to Augustus and Rome--in blunter language, it was in Pergamum the Romans introduced the idolatrous worship of Caesar (emperor worship). The pagan city was also the first Roman administrative center in the province of Asia. The powerful proconsul who ruled the region had the authority to grant life or take it.
Now imagine how extraordinarily hard life was for believers in Pergamum. Christians would not acknowledge Dionysos or Asclepius as Savior, that title was reserved for Jesus Christ alone, nor would they proclaim "Caesar is Lord." Followers of Jesus were mocked by the Romans and scorned by the Jews. They were labeled as traitors, persecuted and killed. Christians lost jobs and their businesses because they would not renounce their faith in their Lord.
In the Revelation, John wastes no time in getting to his task, embedding his first apocalyptic portrait in his trinitarian greeting to the seven churches that were in the province of Asia:
"Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the "seven spirits" before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth." -- Revelation 1: 4a -- 5
In this greeting we see Jesus as the faithful witness. This descriptive term must have struck a chord in the hearts of the persecuted and reviled believers in Pergamum, undoubtedly bringing to mind Antipas, one of their own, a faithful witness of Jesus who was martyred in their city.
In his commendation of the church in Pergamum, Jesus said:
"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, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city--where Satan lives." -- Revelation 3:13 -- 14
If you read my novels or articles, you may have noticed that I frequently use the term, "earth's inhabitants." In one sense, all of us are inhabitants of earth. But I attach a special meaning to the phrase when I use it. In my definition, earth's inhabitants are men and women who affectionately call earth their home--the hearts of these earthly citizens do not yearn to be with Jesus. They don't view heaven as a tangible place, a wonderful destination God has specially created for those who have placed their faith in him. For them, earth and its pleasures are all there is.
Jesus offered comfort to the church when he said, "I know where you live--where Satan has his throne." But he also acknowledged that Satan lived there, too. Jesus never sugar-coats his message, does he? Pergamum had its share of "earth's inhabitants", but Jesus called out from them a number to be his witnesses. Now both groups of followers live side-by-side in Pergamum.
One group is influenced and controlled by Satan; the other, influenced and controlled by the Holy Spirit. One group, supported by their Roman government, brutally persecutes believers, killing some. It appears that some of earth's inhabitants who lived in Pergamum may have even infiltrated the church, setting traps by encouraging some of the weaker Christians to preserve their lives by worshipping the emperor. The imposters tried to deceive others by inviting them to exercise their spiritual freedom by participating in feasts dedicated to idols, or suggesting they participate in immoral sexual activities with temple prostitutes.
But the Christians in Pergamum remained faithful. They stood their ground. They endured persecution. They resisted evil. They would not renounce their faith. Their model was Jesus, the faithful witness of Revelation 1, and Antipas, the faithful witness of Revelation 3.
Our culture bears a striking resemblance to Pergamum. In some respects, we face many of the same temptations that were present in the ancient city that lived under the boot of the Roman Empire. An increasing number of Christian business owners are being forced into bankruptcy because of their stand against evil. God-fearing pastors are pressured to gloss over certain truths of Scripture and warned that the Bible conflicts with the law. Christians are ridiculed, ostracized and some are losing their jobs because they proclaim the full truth of the Gospel.
We in America also face temptations of another sort. We're seduced by the twin gods of convenience and materialism. We enjoy "church" when it's convenient--we offer excuses for skipping service, such as "the kids need their rest on Sunday morning" or "the kids can't miss soccer practice" or "I need to reserve a Sunday or two each month for myself." We neglect our tithes, offerings, and gifts to missionaries, often because other pleasures must come first. We find it inconvenient to boldly share our faith with friends and co-workers.
Now lest I be accused of being unduly negative, let me quickly say that I'm not making a general assessment of the church-at-large--I'm singling out individuals who are not yet serious about their faith. I'm encouraged by members of Emerge, the young adults ministry of my home church, Diamond Bar Evangelical Free Church. It's a joy to see our young adults on fire for the things of God, boldly witnessing on their college campuses, generously giving their time and talents to support the local church body. Besides this, many of them have been enthusiastic participants in recent mission outreaches to Mexico, Russia, Slovenia, Portugal, Ireland, England (to Muslim communities), Japan (this summer), and India, and have been onsite for stateside relief/rebuilding efforts on behalf of families devastated by Katrina and other natural disasters. My friends are not merely spectators to God's work, but are the first-string, rarely missing a play. And this story is repeated in hundreds, if not thousands, of churches across America.
But soft believers whose lives demonstrate a casual approach to the things of God, who are merely spectators in God's kingdom, must be careful--such practices morph into lifestyles, behaviors that are not easily broken. And when Jesus calls some of these to be his faithful witness, and soon he will, it will be difficult, nearly impossible, to follow Jesus, the faithful witness, and become the Antipas' of our generation.
- Note: the source of much of the historical content for this series is Simon J. Kistemaker's New Testament Commentary on Revelation.
Author of "The god-man: seed of Satan"
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