The City of Pergamum
Pergamum, at one time the capital city of the Roman province of Asia Minor, was known for its spectacular architecture and many beautiful temples dedicated to a variety of gods. The apostle John wrote a letter to the Christians who lived in Pergamum. Recorded in Revelation 2:12-17, this letter is identified as being "the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword" (verse 12). This introduction held special significance for people of Pergamum. The provincial governor in that city had what was known as "the right of the sword" Rome's authority to decide which prisoners or accused persons would live or die (including Christians who refused to honor the "divine" Caesar). So John's letter is a clear statement saying that Jesus "not the governor" has power over life and death.
John also gives the city of Pergamum an unusual designation: "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" (verse 13).
Why did John refer to Pergamum as the place where Satan lived? What would it have been like for one of those early believers to live in a city described as Satan's throne?
Dionysus, Son of Zeus
A beautiful temple dedicated to the god, Dionysus, stood prominently on the Acropolis. Believed to be the son of Zeus and a human mother, Dionysus supposedly offered his followers life after death and meaningful life on earth through indulgence in raw meat and wine. According to the teaching of the Dionysus cult, followers who drank wine to excess literally became one with Dionysus. So, worshipers would gather around the altar, gorge on raw meat that had been offered to Dionysus, and drink until they became intoxicated. During the festivals, women would drink wine and run through the hills screaming, dancing, and committing sexual immorality. Dionysus worship was so wild that it was outlawed in Rome because it was considered to be too immoral!
Jesus had prepared his disciples well for the cults they would encounter as they took the gospel throughout the world. Concerning the claims of Dionysus, for example, John could say, "Dionysus is a fake. Jesus was born of God through a woman. I watched him turn water into wine (the same miracle that Dionysus supposedly performed in secret in his temples at night). Only Jesus can provide meaning and true intimacy with God. I've seen it firsthand."
Asclepius, Snake God of Healing
When the people of Pergamum needed healing, they went to the temple shrine of Asclepius—the snake god of healing. Everyone who entered the hospital complex passed a snake symbol and thereby credited any healing they would receive to the snake god. Priests interviewed potential patients to determine whether they were acceptable for healing. Interestingly, they turned away people who were dying and women who were ready to deliver babies. They didn’t want a particular patient’s death to “taint” their god. (This is an interesting parallel to modern-day cultures that seek to terminate the lives of the senior citizens and the unborn.)
Once accepted, patients were led through an underground tunnel to a huge treatment room where they went to sleep, probably after being drugged. The patients waited to receive a vision of treatment from Asclepius, which they would reveal to the priests, who in turn would prescribe treatment(s). The main treatments related to water, so patients would take mud baths or drink sacred spring water. Exercise, dietary changes, rest, and attending the theater were also prescribed. Once healed, patients bowed down on their knees before a statue of Asclepius, thanked him for their healing, and gave him gifts. Finally, they would inscribe their name and the ailment from which they’d been cured on a large, white stone as a testimony to the god.
During his ministry on earth, Jesus had provided John and the other disciples with evidence that refuted the claims of this god. Jews and Christians already knew that the snake, the symbol of Asclepius, symbolized evil in the Garden of Eden and represented everything sinful and satanic. Furthermore, the second and third miracles recorded in John’s gospel have to do with Jesus’ power to heal. Jesus raised a dead child and healed a man who had been waiting for thirty-eight years to be healed at the Pool of Bethesda (near what scholars believe was an Asclepius temple). John actually had seen Jesus heal people, something no “snake” god could do.
Demeter, Goddess of Grain
The shrine of Demeter, the goddess of grain who supposedly provided food, was popular among the common people of Pergamum. She also was said to forgive the sins of her followers who immersed themselves in bulls’ blood. Many of the early Christians must have thought this was counterfeit too because we claim to be washed in the blood of the Messiah.
John was prepared to counter these counterfeit blessings as well. Having seen Jesus the Messiah feed five thousand people using a few loaves and a couple of fish, John knew that Jesus was the only one who could take people’s sins through the blood he shed on the cross.
Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus
Pergamum was the first city to establish an emperor cult. The people worshiped the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, at the Athena temple. They not only declared him as divine, but they claimed him as their god and king as well.
As one of the disciples who stood on the Mount of Olives and watched Jesus ascend to heaven, John knew beyond a doubt that Jesus, not Caesar, was seated at the right hand of God.
The True Source of Meaning
In Pergamum, as in our culture today, Satan wanted people to lose sight of God and his power. All the false gods who took the credit God deserves for providing life and giving it meaning and significance made Pergamum the city "where Satan lived." Satan wanted people to think that everything they needed for life, even eternal life, could be found through their own efforts or through the world around them.
With the background of Pergamum, the place where Satan lived, in mind, we can better understand John's closing words to the church of Pergamum: "I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it." God strategically placed the early believers in an evil world to stand as testimonies to his power and work in their lives. As standing stones for God, they were clearly different from the white stones on which people healed by Asclepius had written their names. The world needed to see the believers as white stones on which new names had been written, and the believers needed to speak the truth of God to a spiritually hungry world. Likewise, believers today need to praise God for all that he has done and tell people about it.