Winning the White Stone

Revelation 2:12-17  (Series on the Seven Churches)
Dr. David R. Denny

The Theatre of Pergamon ( Bergama ) is one of the steepest theatres in the world. Capable of holding a 10,000 people audience it was constructed in the 3rd century BC and underwent changes in the Roman period of Emperor Caracalla ( 2111-217 AD). Pergamon

10,000 seat theater in ancient Pergamos.

As we continue to travel the circuit of the 7 ancient churches of Revelation, we remember where we have been so far. We began at Ephesus one of the jewels of the ancient world, a city known for beauty and prestige. The church, under the influence of the John the Apostle who made his home there, began with a small congregation of 12 and grew to a stable and honorable Christian group. Their only fault was they had lost their first love. The initial zeal and enthusiasm for the Lord were cooling a little.

Then we moved northward about 35 miles and came into Smyrna built high on a mountain line looking over the Aegean Sea. Here the believers witnessed the horrible but courageous death of Polycarp who at the age of 86 died with bravery and conviction inspiring thousands to live boldly for the Lord. No word of criticism was ever issued to this loyal church.

Now we approach an amazing ancient city, Pergamos, called by Pliny an ancient historian, by far the most illustrious of Asia. It is 15 miles inland from the Aegean Sea and rests on a cone shaped hill that overlooks the Caicus plain. If you were a military commander, this is the place you would want to be. From atop Pergamum, you can see for miles and miles in every direction. This entire city was given to the Romans on the death of the king a century before the Bible times. So the Romans were heavily invested in this city.

Pergamum had a library with over 200,000 books. This was the second largest collection after Alexandria. When Egypt went on strike and refused to send them any more paper for printing, they simply invented parchment and kept on writing and storing books.

Pergamum had the most fabulous assortment of buildings that stretched across the top of this small mountain. I have an artist’s rendition of the acropolis and I stare at the picture in awe as gleaming marble temples and huge altars spill across the ridge. There is a 10,000 seat stone terraced theater that plunges down the mountainside to the theater floor below. It is the steepest theater ever built in the ancient world and probably the modern world too. You can see this theater today if you go to the site. It is still there.


Altar of Zeus from ancient Pergamos–Berlin Museum


photo at this site:

There is an ancient altar dedicated to Zeus that is mentioned in verse 13. You can travel to the Berlin Museum not far from where I used to live when I was little and see a complete restoration of this monumental pagan altar.   The altar is bigger than this church building and can be seen from travelers approaching the city from miles away. A temple was built up around this altar dedicated to the pagan god when the city defeated the invading Celts. In the text before us, this is called Satan’s throne for it seems to embody the spirit of this city, a place saturated with evil religions that made living the Christian life so dangerous and difficult.

It was tough living for Christ in Pergamum. How could you ever resist the culture of the day?   How could you keep from being absorbed into the pagan rituals, the pagan influence? Every day as you left your home the idols would scream to get your attention, the temples would tempt you to enter and make compromises. Every day as you came and went past the Zeus altar, it would dominate your thoughts challenging your faith and your belief in Jesus.   And yet somehow the faithful to Christ remained steadfast. They did not deny the faith.

Today we live in a modern Pergamum. The culture of America presents endless distractions from a life of purity and simplicity. In some ways, I feel sorry for the youth of today. The kids I see and teach each day are deluged with dangerous influences. Drugs, alcohol, sex, loneliness, anxiety. They live every day in a maelstrom of hurt and worry. The culture is potent and peer pressure is powerful.

*When I was a kid life was simpler. I had a hero that doesn’t even exist today. I remember living on the Yokohama Air Force base in Japan and waiting all week for Saturday so I could get up and walk with my friends to the base movie theater. I clutched my 15 cents for the ticket tightly in my hand.  That was a lot of money. The line to get into the theater seemed a mile long but I didn’t care. I was going in to see Roy Rogers and Trigger. Roy was everything I aspired to be. Rugged, tough, handsome (well, forget that part), beautiful wife, I got that one–. He was always doing the right thing, winning the day, rescuing the downtrodden and he had a great horse. If I mention Roy Rogers to my students they look at me strangely. They don’t even know what I’m talking about.

Well, Pergamum was a tough place to be a Christian. But the saints were holding true to the Savior and the principles of the faith. And the Lord commends them for this.

The spirit of the church in Pergamum, the spirit of steadfastness and faithfulness, is embodied in a little-known believer by the name of Antipas. He is called My witness in verse 13 and My faithful one. Tradition says John appointed Antipas to be bishop of the church and that he was much like Polycarp. The two men probably knew each other.

        Antipas was an aged man when one day he was summoned by the governor of Pergamum and ordered to turn from his new religion of Christianity. When Antipas stood strong for his faith in Christ this angered the governor who gave him one last chance to live. He ordered Antipas to toss in a little incense into the red-hot copper bull-shaped altar of Caesar. When he refused to aid in the worship of demons and pagan deities, he was thrown into the boiling pot himself and like a lobster, he was roasted alive.

And in our text our Lord acknowledges this sacrifice. “. . . even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”

            The criticism of this faithful congregation is simple but direct. Some in the church were beginning to compromise with the world about them. Some were beginning to accept the ways of the Nicolaitans who were followers of a religious man named Nicolas who eventually tossed aside all morality and lived a life of excess and immorality. And some of you, says the Lord, are also mimicking the prophet Balaam who is described in 2 Peter 2:16 as a madman who refused to listen to the voice of God. These two men, Balaam a renegade prophet of the OT and Nicolas were slowly influencing some in the church to yield to the temptations about them.

So put in simple words, the fault of this church was compromise with the world about them. And this is not the goal of the church, not then –not today. We are to live in the world but to be apart from it at the same time. Antipas held true to the tenets of the faith, true to the Holy Spirit within, true to the heritage of the church. He refused to mimic the world about him, to compromise with the seductive influences of the culture in Pergamum.

Now let me take you to a verse that will lock this ideal of Antipas in your mind. Turn to Romans 12:1-2. Let’s read this text. Think Pergamum when you hear these verses: READ VERSES 1-2.———–Don’t be conformed to this world. This word ‘conformed’ is only used twice in the NT. It means don’t mimic the world, don’t take on the same shape, the textures, the ideals of the world about you.

I have this against you, says Christ to the church (then and today). You are beginning to look more and more like Pergamum and less and less like Christ. You haven’t been totally changed yet. I still see Christ in you. You’re holding up pretty good all in all considering you’re living where Satan’s throne is. But I can see subtle changes in you. This is the message to Pergamum and to us today.

Now. What can we do about this pull toward conformity and compromise?   We need an incentive. Something to motivate us to want to be true to the death. Okay says the Lord. Here’s what I will offer. I will give a white stone to anyone who holds faithful to the end.

In the ancient courts of justice, the accused were condemned by black pebbles and acquitted by white pebbles or stones. And so the white stone represents approval and acquittal.   When used in the message to the church it means that for those who stay true to God in a difficult place, God will express His approval of you just as he did of Antipas.

Paul said in 1 Cor 9:27, I buffet my body because I don’t want to be disqualified. I want to be approved. I want to win the white stone.

*There was an interesting Roman custom that used white stones also. When the Roman emperor would summon the city into the coliseum for an event, he would stand and toss white stones with special giveaways written upon the stone. Some would say, Frumentum (free food) or vestes—Free clothes etc. White stones would rain down upon the people, tossed by the hand of the emperor, little giveaways that motivated the people to come to the games.

Be true to me says the Lord to the saints of Pergamum. Be true to me he says to the members of Drummondtown Don’t mimic the world about you. Hold fast to your faith. And if you do, if you live like Antipas, I will give you white stones from heaven. I will brag about you, give you my approval, and toss gifts from my heart to yours.

And so as we leave Pergamum now in the past, let’s gaze up one final time at this ancient citadel of infamy from the Caicus valley below. As we stare at Satan’s throne, that huge altar of Zeus, let us determine to hold fast to our faith. As we see the smoke rising from the copper bull where Antipas is slowly burning to death, singing hymns to God in his final moments of suffering, let’s pledge to ourselves a new commitment to be true to God this year.



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