Revelation 2:12–17. Pergamum and the Problem of Balaam.
Key Notes: Miracle clusters. Asclepias and Greek healings. Balaam, the church and morality.
Pergamum was an important city, with a huge library second only to the great library at Alexandria. Parchment takes its name from this city (Pergamum -> pergamene charta -> pargament -> parchment) because sheep skin as a writing surface was popularized here after sources of papyrus for paper dried up.
2:13 "I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is." There are three possible explanations of Satan's throne:
•A great temple to Zeus stood on the highest hill.
•The city was a center for Caesar-worship.
•The city also was a center for healing through the god-man Asclepias.
Asclepias was a mythic being who was the Greek patron healer of the poor, and after being slain by a thunderbolt from Zeus, was taken up to heaven. Pergamum was called the "Lourdes of Asia". His cult competed strongly with Christianity at a time when miracles were fading at the end of the Apostolic Age. Also some similarities between Jesus and Asclepias were noted.
The question of who was the real healer was debated in the third century A.D. by Celsus, a learned pagan, and Origen, a Christian apologist. Origen admitted the healing power of Asclepias, but pointed out that evil men can heal as well as good ones. (Early Christianity as a religion of healing. G.B.Ferngren. Bull. Hist. Med.1992, Vol.66: p.1–15).
Jesus' healing power was and is still taught and experienced today, but primarily as a spiritual cleansing, and emotional recovery, sometimes as physical healing.
Many Bible scholars point to three ages of miracles, not restricted to healing:
*Moses leading Israel out of Egypt, and surviving 40 years in the wilderness.
*Elijah and Elisha fighting against Baal worship in Israel.
*Christ and the apostles doing dramatic physical healing and spiritual warfare.
The reports of miracles since the beginning of the missionary period a hundred years ago, and reports of miracles today in Third World countries raise the possibility that a fourth miracle period is underway.
Suffice it to say that in the time of Revelation, Asclepias was a serious threat to Christianity. His tradition continues today: the caduceus of the American Medical Association is derived from Asclepias' staff. There are American physicians who advocate turning away from Christianity and returning to Asclepian ideas.
We are reminded that all healing comes from God. "I am the Lord, your healer." (Ex.15:26). That is true regardless of the times, the method used, or the expert persons involved.
2:13 Pergamum Christians were doctrinally sound: "you hold fast my Name"; and courageous: "you did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you." But some held to the teaching of Balaam.
The original Balaam was a prophet in the employ of Balak, King of Moab about 1400BC. Israel was about to enter the Promised Land, and was going to pass through the Jordan River from the East. Balak was frightened by Israel's conquest of Og, King of Bashan, and Sihon, King of the Amorites. These east-of-Jordan kings had opposed Israel's approach to the Promised Land, and were soundly defeated. Moab was too small to oppose Israel in war and Balak decided that cursing Israel was a safer approach. Balak hired Balaam to curse Israel. Num.22–24 describes Balaam's four prophecies--each one blessing Israel in spite of Balaam's intentions, and to Balak's utter frustration.
Failing to curse Israel, Balaam offered Balak an indirect method of attack: seduce Israel with music and dance, idols and beautiful women. (Num.31:16). "...the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods." (Num.25:1–2). Before order was restored, 24,000 died of plague. It was a serious setback for Israel.
There is a modern equivalent of the Balaam-induced crisis in Israel, the teaching of sexual liberation. There are no significant voices within evangelical circles for sexual liberation. However, the church has not actively opposed the sexual revolution, and is therefore complicit in it. And it is at first difficult to understand why.
The root of the problem probably goes back to the demise of fundamentalism, 1940–1950. Fundamentalism was born in the '20's to combat liberalism. Liberalism discredited the authority of Scripture, denied supernatural acts of God, and made generous accommodations to science. Preaching the fundamentals of the faith was the rebuttal of conservative Christians (then called fundamentalists). The Christians rallied to form Bible Schools, camping programs, and missionary agencies. However, the leaders became increasingly angry and legalistic. In the '50's and '60's the Church basically turned its back on fundamentalism, and legalism. (Legalism is poor theology anyway, in fact heresy.) The rallying cry became "New Life in Christ", and evangelicalism arose to displace fundamentalism.
A revival began which is intellectual, and spiritual, but not notably moral. In turning its back on legalism, the Church also turned its back to the Law. It became antinomian. It did not deny the Law, but chose not to emphasize it. When the sexual revolution sprang up in the '60's, the Church did not respond. It has not stood in the gap against serious moral attack. Twenty-five to fifty percent of Christian teenagers are said to be sexually active and until recently, the Church has had nothing to say about it. In fact Christian leaders have been defeated by it--Jimmy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were among the conspicuous.
Similarly, the Church has not led the way in the fight against pornography, divorce and child abuse either. Commendably, it rather quickly came to oppose abortion after’73 and more recently, euthanasia.
I believe the solution to moral problems is in sound expositional preaching. Scripture is the "two-edged sword."(Rev.2:12) and the "hidden manna".(Rev.2:17). Preaching must be faithful to Scripture, uncensored, and consistently taught. We must not turn our back to it. It is our white stone--our ticket to the Kingdom.