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Previous: Revelation 2:13 d-f


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. 15 Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. - Revelation 2:14-15

In a firm and loving way, like a good coach, Jesus told the believers at Pergamum, "But, I have a few things against you." To the church at Ephesus there was just one problem. To those at Smyrna, there was nothing they were doing wrong. But to this church He has a "few" issues. "Few" is the normal word in Greek for a small amount, and the Lord actually only names two things.

Here is the first problem: "You have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam." This refers to a fascinating story from the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapters 22 through 24, where a prophet named Balaam was hired by Balak, king of the Moabites, to curse Israel. He tried repeatedly, but God would not allow him to utter a curse against His people.

If you have time to read these chapters in Numbers, do it now. You won't know whether to laugh or cry!

"Who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel." Balaam evidently advised Balak to involve the Israelites in worldliness and immorality (Numbers, chapter 25). Thus Israel could be corrupted from within.

Just reading through Numbers chapters 22 through 24, you would not discover that Balaam suggested that the Moabites use their women to lure Israelite men into immoral relationships. But in chapter 25 you see that that is exactly what happened, and it led to the death of thousands of the men of Israel. That chapter does not mention Balaam at all, but, since it comes right after his failed attempts to curse them, it makes you wonder.

Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. 2 They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel. - Numbers 25:1-3

The Bible answers this question in the book of Numbers. Moses said,

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. - Numbers 31:16

The result of Balaam's strategy was devastating. Jesus reminded the believers at Pergamum that some of the Israelites were persuaded "To eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality." Jesus didn't say that the people of Pergamum had actually committed the same kinds of sin, but they had plenty of opportunity to do so in their city. In any case, they were allowing false teachers to indoctrinate them with the idea that they could indulge in sinful activities and still be good Christians (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:11).

Truthfully, there are many in our generation who are affected by this same error. A misunderstanding of God's great grace is often taught, especially to young people. It is true that we are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5), but it is also true that those who are saved by grace are "created for good works" (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 3:8)

Here is the second issue: "Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate." Some commentators see this statement as another way of expressing what has already been said about the teaching of Balaam. However, the word "also" would not be necessary if it were just a continuation of the previous warning. The Greek word is the preposition kai, which is the normal word for "and." But even if it were translated "and" here, it would still signal a separate problem.

In our earlier study about the Church at Ephesus (see the notes on Revelation 2:6), we learned that Nicolaitans were officious people who wanted to impose control over others. We saw that Nicolaitan comes from two Greek words nikao - "to conquer" and laos - "people,"

At Pergamum this would-be hierarchy had entrenched their position by developing a "doctrine." They were now systematically "teaching" their concepts. We can be pretty sure that their lessons didn't include Jesus' explanation that whoever would be greatest in the kingdom should be servant to all (Matthew 20:25-28), or Peter' warning that we mentioned earlier against "lording it over the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-4). N

Now, since the Book of Revelation is about prophecy, we will turn our thoughts to how these issues relate to the third period of Church History. We mentioned above, in the notes on verse 12 that this message foreshadowed the events that would take place between AD 312 (Emperor Constantine) and AD 476 (the fall of the Western Roman Empire).

Because the Roman Emperor Constantine had been converted, he issued an edict to allow freedom of worship to all, including Christians. Christianity began to be the favored religion of the Empire. Great numbers of people joined the Church.

It was wonderful that the persecutions ended, and there were some good things, like the churches being built in the Holy Land by the emperor's mother, Helena. These churches have preserved some of the sites of great importance. One of these is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Unfortunately, this phase of church history had some negative consequences as well. Many of the people claiming to become Christians did not understand the Gospel and what it really meant to follow Jesus. They just added what little they did know about Him to the other religions they had before. They did not necessarily leave their old pagan religions behind. In that way the Church became corrupted. It began to be "married" with Satan's evil world system.

We mentioned in the previous verse when we were considering Satan's throne at Pergamum, that when Attalus III, the last king of Pergamum, died in 133 BC he bequeathed all of Pergamum to the Roman government. The priesthood of the old Babylonian religion was transmitted at that time to the head of the Roman religions, the "Pontifex Maximus." In 63 BC Julius Caesar was given this title. Then, in 49 BC he also became the ruler of the Roman Republic. After his death the Roman Emperors also assumed the title "Pontifex Maximus."

More than 400 years later, Emperor Gratian (AD 375-383), who was a Christian, decided it was no longer appropriate for the Emperor to serve as pagan religious leader, so he divested himself of the title Pontifex Maximus ( However, soon after he rejected the position it was assumed by Damascus I, the Bishop of Rome (AD 366-384) (Hislop, pp. 191, 204). At that point Satan was able to start introducing seeds of compromise into the Church. Over time these false ideas would grow to become major problems, like monasticism, salvation by works, prayers to saints, undue emphasis on Mary, non-biblical sacraments, confession to a priest, papal infallibility, and other beliefs and practices that were later rejected by Protestants.

Theodosius I (379-395), the last Emperor over both the eastern and western halves Of the Roman Empire abolished pagan worship, and established Catholic Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

A few decades later, in AD 445 Emperor Valentinian III issued a decree establishing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. This decree was first applied to Leo I, so he became the first "Pope" ("Papa") of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics consider all the Bishops of Rome to have been Popes, but this decree marked the beginning of the papacy as we now know it.

At this point I need to explain that I am not "anti-Catholic." Catholic means "universal," and up to this historical juncture there had just been one main "trunk" for the family tree of Christianity. It was just "the Church." From that point of view, all of our denominations had our origins in this same universal church.

However, starting with Constantine, there were lots of corruptions of the belief and practices in the Church. These eventually led to a series of "branches" from the main trunk. We will have to take notice of these corruptions since many of them began during this period of history.

We are also not anti-Catholic because of our personal experience with Catholic people. In my first pastorate in East Los Angeles, most of the people I met in the community were Catholics. I was eager to share the Gospel with them, and they were surprisingly open to listening! We used the "Four Spiritual Laws" in those days, and because we were quoting God's Word, there was almost always a willingness to hear and trust the Bible. Many of them had never heard the simple Gospel message, but they were open to it. They might not have known what was in the Bible, but they had a reverence for it. Over the years I have become close friends with numerous Catholics, including some priests, who are dedicated followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. In our church home in Alta Loma the highest percentage of converts from other faiths has come from the Catholic Church.

It is right, however, to oppose teaching that can be shown to be unbiblical, whether it is in the Catholic Church or any other denomination. From that point of view there are many serious problems in Catholic history, theology, and current directions. Historically, the longer a denomination has been in existence, the more it has drifted away from simple faith in the Word of God. The same can be said about most Christian colleges and seminaries.

Let's summarize how the Church at Pergamum is a prophetic example of the third period of church history. Their two big problems were allowing the encroachment of the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans. The teaching of Balaam was designed to cause God's people to experiment with the immoral practices of the world. This was done on a grand scale after Emperor Constantine legitimized Christianity and encouraged others to join the church without understanding the true meaning of the Gospel. All kinds of false beliefs and practices were brought into the Church, and the moral sensitivity of the people declined.

Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. - James 4:4

The teaching of the Nicolaitans, which began in the Early Church, was put into practice by establishing one of the several bishops ("overseers" See notes on chapter 2, verse 1) as the head of the entire Church. From this first Pope, the leadership of the Church grew extensively until it looked, and acted, like a worldly government.

Next: Revelation 2:16


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