“Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” This is old, old wisdom, a minor variation on Jesus’ rebuke to Peter in Matthew 26, and a pattern which we see over and over in history. The people of Pergamum knew this well, for theirs was a city that had lived by the sword. Its early prominence rested on its prominence—a thousand-foot-high granite mesa overlooking the Caicus River which made a formidable natural stronghold. Pergamum maintained a high degree of independence under the Persian Empire, before joining with the Greeks and Macedonians as Alexander the Great swept through; after his empire broke into four pieces, the rulers of the city broke free and established themselves as a small kingdom along the river valley. When the Gauls moved into the Anatolian peninsula, Attalus I of Pergamum was the first to defeat them. Unfortunately, his successors overreached themselves; in an effort to expand their kingdom, they allied themselves with Rome, which ultimately brought their independence to a permanent end as a part of the Roman Empire.
Even so, Pergamum maintained its prominence for some time. Ephesus may have been the richest city in Asia Minor by the time John wrote, but Pergamum was still the capital of the province; and while Ephesus had surpassed it as a center of Caesar worship, that was a recent development, and the imperial cult was far more important in the city of Pergamum. Attalus I only claimed the title of king of Pergamum after his defeat of the Gauls; at the same time, he also claimed the title “Savior,” and a great temple to Zeus Soter—Zeus the Savior—was built as a consequence. His descendants also built a temple to themselves, and one of them formally claimed the title “Theos”—“God.” Worship of the ruler was part of the life of Pergamum long before the Romans came; once the city accepted Roman rule, worship of Caesar fit right in to that tradition.
Given that, it’s easy to understand why Jesus would say to this church, “I know you live where Satan’s throne is.” The first Caesar to be worshiped as a God was Augustus, and the first temple built to him, in 29 BC, was in Pergamum. The temple of Zeus Soter, associated from the beginning with the worship of their kings, loomed large in the city with its thronelike altar. Pergamum had been well ahead of most of the empire in its adoption of Caesar worship, and it was common there very early on to refer to Caesar as “Savior” and “Lord of the world”; and because it was the capital, it was there that Caesar had his throne in Asia Minor, and there that the proconsul ruled in his stead. The symbol of his power was the gladius, the leaf-bladed two-edged sword of justice.
As such, the religious pressure on the church in Pergamum was immense. Jesus commends them for their faithfulness in the face of that pressure; they would not deny their faith in him even when persecution built to the point of the death of one of their own. They were bearing up under the weight of public hostility and refusing to break, continuing to bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ against all the hatred of Satan.
But if they would not break, they were beginning to bend. The lines between the church and the culture were sharp—as sharp as the edges of the proconsul’s sword of judgment; the differences between those who worshiped Christ and those who worshiped Caesar and Zeus were clear and unmistakable, and it was on those lines that they faced persecution. It’s no surprise that some were looking for ways to avoid persecution by blurring those lines and dulling those sharp edges, and so the Nicolaitans had arisen and gained a foothold in the church. It appears they were teaching that it was acceptable for Christians to participate in idol worship—with the worship of Caesar no doubt the primary focus—as long as they didn’t really believe in the idols, the way most Romans undoubtedly didn’t. The church has always affirmed that Christ alone is Lord and he alone is to be worshiped; the Nicolaitans were setting that aside.
Now, this doesn’t mean they were trying to destroy the church. Most likely, they believed that joining in the festivals of idol worship with their sacrificial feasts and their sexual immorality was harmless, just an empty gesture that would fulfill patriotic obligations and enable Christians to keep their jobs and their businesses. Maybe they even argued that participating in the festivals honoring Caesar or Zeus or Asklepios was a form of cultural engagement, a way to be relevant to the culture and thus make their Christian outreach more popular and effective.
Jesus rejects this, comparing the Nicolaitans to Balaam. You might not remember his story, except for something about a donkey; he was a prophet whom King Balak of Moab hired to curse Israel as they traveled through the wilderness, but who blessed them instead, because he was a true prophet. You can see that if you look at Numbers 22-24. However, he also wanted the money Balak had offered him, and so he taught Balak to use the women of Moab to lure the Israelites astray—to have sex with them and join them in their feasts worshiping their pagan gods. Balaam couldn’t curse them, but he could teach Balak to tempt them into sin so that they would curse themselves, and they did.
What the Nicolaitans are doing is anything but harmless, because we become like what we worship, and what we do shapes how we think. If you’re familiar with the story of the Facebook game Cow Clicker, it was created as a satire on social games like FarmVille, but it quickly became a serious game which thousands of people played devotedly—why? Because the action of playing the game changed how they thought about it. Going out and saying “Caesar is Lord” or affirming by their actions that Zeus deserved their worship would have the same effect on the Christians of Pergamum. You can’t keep doing something you don’t believe in for very long—either you’ll quit doing it, or your beliefs will begin to change to match your behavior. And of course, far from convincing others to worship Jesus, seeing Christians worshiping the gods of the culture would only teach the culture that it didn’t need to change.
The same is true with our own Nicolaitans today. There are a lot of voices in the church urging cultural compromise for the sake of being relevant, or non-judgmental, or loving, or enlightened; and to those who feel that temptation Jesus speaks now as then as the one who has the sharp two-edged sword. Hebrews tells us that God’s word is so sharp, it pierces even to the division of soul and spirit—which is to say, it’s so sharp it can even do the impossible, dividing the indivisible. We need to feel the sharp edge of his word, and we need to live accordingly.
We are not faithful to Jesus when accommodating ourselves to the desires and idolatries of our culture is more important than submitting ourselves to his will; nor are we faithful to him when we are willing to publicly compromise our worship of him to keep people from being mad at us. It doesn’t matter whether our idols are “conservative” or “liberal,” or what part of our culture holds our allegiance; the only thing that matters is that they are not God and do not deserve our first priority. God alone, Christ alone, is to be worshiped; everything else must come second.