Pergamos—the popular church

Visiting the churches of Revelation——3

Orley M. Berg is an executive editor of MINISTRY.

 

Forty miles northeast of Smyrna is Pergamos, site of the church to which the third of the seven letters of the apostle John was addressed. The present city of Bergama lies at the foot of the mountain upon which stood the ancient city. Visiting there today, we pause first at the excavated remains of the Asclepieion—the famous center of healing and religion, with its two temples, a theater, and a medical library. Here some of the world's most renowned physicians practiced their art, with emphasis upon diet, hot and cold baths, and exercise. Among the patients were emperors Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla. The god of healing, Asclepius, was symbolized by a serpent.

After visiting a sacred spring, those seeking healing would run through a sacred tunnel, eighty-five yards long, to the round temple of Telesphorus, god of cure-revealing dreams. The priests would encourage patients with the assurance that, by the time they reached the temple, they would be well.

One fixture of the ancient city, the theater, is still usable. Seating 3,500, it is at the base of the hill where the sacred boulevard terminates. It is still used in May, during the annual festival of Bergama.

The elevated city

Pergamos means "elevation." Appropriately, the religious and cultural center of the city was on the top of a conspicuous elevation a short distance from the healing complex. The acropolis is entered by the path leading to the gateway, or royal door, of the town's first wall. Up the hill came pilgrims of distant lands to worship at one of the sacred shrines, or study in one of the libraries. A threefold defensive wall of tremendous size, some of which remains, rendered the fortress town seemingly impregnable to enemy assaults.

Having passed through the huge stone gateways, we see the site where stood the Temple of Athena. Erected in the fourth century B.C., it was converted into a church by Justinian in the sixth century A.D. Today only the lower portions of courtyard columns and a few broken porticoes remain.

Near the temple stood the 200,000-volume Pergamon library. To the magistrates of the metropolis and keepers of the library, book collecting became a mania. The library of Alexandria was the only rival. Becoming jealous, Ptolemy of Egypt forbade the shipment of papyrus, of which books were made. The Pergamese were thus forced to turn to the use of skins. And so "Pergamene paper" came into being. From its name the word parchment is derived. Pages were made into codex-type books, marking a great advance in the publishing business. Unfortunately, none of the books have survived.

A short distance from the library, against the steep hillside, is a spectacular Greek-style theater. Its seventy-eight rows of seats accommodated 15,000 spectators.

Where Satan's seat is

Equally impressive is the site of the famous altar of Zeus. Marked today by a cluster of trees, it stood on an 1,800-foot-square terrace on the eastern side of the mountain. Only the foundation remains, for the German excavators sent every unearthed stone to Berlin, where the huge altar was reassembled. It may be seen in the Pergamon Museum in the eastern sector of the city. A special building was needed to house it, for it measures 127 feet long, 120 feet wide, and 40 feet high. A monumental stairway leads to a large portico, with additional porticoes on either side. Both the inner and outer walls were embellished with a 375-foot-long frieze depicting the gods of the Greek Olympiad battling giants with snakelike tails, the worship of Zeus being associated with snake-handling. Following World War II the altar was dismantled and taken to the Soviet Union. In 1958 it was returned and rebuilt in the museum. The altar represents one of the most fantastic remains of pagan worship to survive the ages.

In John's letter to the church of Pergamos the denunciation is made that its members dwelt "even where Satan's seat is" (Rev. 2:13). In 1871 an altar was found bearing the inscription "Zeus, the Saviour." Pergamos was indeed the city of the Imperial Cult.

Period of amalgamation

The historical period represented by the letter to the church of Pergamos began in A.D. 313, with the decree of Constantine bringing persecution to an end. It continued until A.D. 538, when the decree of Em peror Justinian made Christianity the official religion of the empire. During this period the persecuted church of the Smyrna period became the "elevated," or popular, church. "Constantine became revered as the equal of the apostles and the viceregent of God on earth. Blending temporal powers of Caesar with the spiritual authority of the church, he ruled supreme over both church and state." —Hagia Sophia, p. 17.

The letter to the church of Pergamos rebuked the congregation for fraternizing with those who held the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitanes. Balaam corrupted the morals of the ancient Israelites just before they were to cross Jordan into the Promised Land. The Nicolaitanes were a heretical sect who sought accommodation with the pagan cults.

This period, then, was a time of deteriorating morals and doctrinal corruption for the church. Satan had failed to destroy the church through persecution. Now he sapped it of spiritual vitality through com promise. Christian standards were lowered, and a union was formed between Christianity and paganism. "The multiplication of holy days, the veneration of saints, martyrs, and relics, and the value attached to pilgrimages and holy places, often pushed truly spiritual concerns into the background."—HARRY R. BOER, A Short History of the Christian Church, p. 142.

Describing the aims of Constantine, church historian F. J. Foakes- Jackson declares, "In dealing with the church his object was gradually to transfer to Christianity from heathenism all that had hitherto made it attractive in the eyes of the people." —The History of the Christian Church, p. 286.

Historian H. G. Heggtveit describes these events in vivid terms: "Constantine labored at this time untiringly to unite the worshipers of the old and the new faith in one religion. All his laws and contrivances are aimed at promoting this amalgamation of religions. He would by all lawful and peaceable means melt together a purified heathenism and a moderated Christianity." —Illustreret Kirkehistorie (Christiania: Cammermeyers Boghandel, 1891- 1895), p. 202.

Heggtveit points to Constantine's law of 321 as a notable example of this: "His injunction that the 'Day of the Sun' should be a general rest day was characteristic of his stand point. ... Of all his blending and melting together of Christianity and heathenism, none is more easy to see through than this making of his Sunday law. 'The Christians worshiped their Christ, the heathen their sun god; according to the opinion of the Emperor, the objects for worship in both religions were essentially the same.'" —Ibid., p. 202.

Concerning the Sunday Law, Harry Boer writes, "he designated Sunday by its traditional pagan name, the Day of the Sun, not the Sabbath or the Day of the Lord. Pagans could therefore accept it. Christians gave the natural sun a new meaning by thinking of Christ the Sun of Righteousness. Both Constantine and later emperors, as well as the church councils, enacted additional Sunday legislation. It was Constantine's decree of 321, how ever, that laid the basis for the universal recognition of Sunday as a day of rest." —BOER, op. cit.,p. 143.

In the parallel prophecy of Revelation 4-6, this important period is represented by the opening of the third seal, revealing a rider on a black horse. Illustrating the corruptions that came in, the color is in striking contrast to the white horse of the first-century church. The rider of the horse holds a balance in his hand and offers grain at an exorbitant price, thus indicating the scar city of the pure Word.

But there were those who sought to maintain the true faith of the apostles. Foremost among them was Patrick. Born in A.D. 389 in Britain, he was taken captive to Ireland at 16 years of age, but managed to escape after six years. Later he converted to Christ and returned to Ireland as a missionary. There he established scores of churches and baptized, always by immersion, thousands of converts. Out of his labors grew the Celtic church, which held to much of the true faith through long centuries while apostasy flourished.

Columba, a native of Ireland, was a product of Patrick's work and the Celtic schools. In A.D. 563 he and twelve followers sailed for Scotland, where he established a missionary center on the island of lona. From this center, missionaries went to distant lands, where they heralded the faith of the Bible. But with their efforts we trespass into the period of the fourth church, Thyatira.

In every age, followers of Christ have stood for the true faith. The promise to the faithful of Pergamos was, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving him that receiveth it" (verse 17).

Note:

During the period of A.D. 313 to A.D. 538, represented by the Pergamos church, numerous alterations in religious practice and belief found their way into the church. The article on page 14 follows the process of one such transformation.


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Orley M. Berg is an executive editor of MINISTRY.

July 1978

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