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The two first-century cities of Pergamos and Thyatira, mentioned in Revelation 2:12-29, were given the same basic warning, because the early Christians there compromised what they knew to be right, giving into sin.
At the time of the Roman Empire Pergamos, or Pergamum, was an important city in northwest Asia Minor (modern Turkey), situated opposite the island of Lesbos, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the Aegean Sea. "Not only was Pergamos a government center with three imperial temples, but it was also the site of the temple of Asklepios (the Greco-Roman god of medicine and healing), and ...a temple to Athena and a temple to Zeus.... " (Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers, "Pergamos").
Thyatira, by contrast, was a much smaller business centre in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) situated on the road from Pergamos to Sardis. "Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of many trade guilds and unions here. Membership in these trade guilds, necessary for financial and social success, often involved pagan customs and practices such as superstitious worship, union feasts using food sacrificed to pagan gods, and loose sexual morality...The Book of Revelation refers to a certain woman known as 'Jezebel' who taught and beguiled the Christians at Thyatira to conform to the paganism and sexual immorality of their surroundings (Revelation 2:18-29)”. (Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers, "Thyatira").
Though Pergamos and Thyatira differed in many respects the Christians in both congregations faced insidious influences to compromise their beliefs in order to fit in with the societies around them. When members gave in to these pressures, they committed the same sins: eating "things sacrificed to idols" and committing "sexual immorality" (Revelation 2:14, 20).
In order to emphasize the point that Christians must be careful not to sin through compromise, Jesus used two Old Testament examples of people who compromised God's instructions and a New Testament group that did the same. The individuals were Balaam and Jezebel; the group, the Nicolaitans.
During the time of Moses, Balak, king of Moab, observed the Israelites' wanderings and became concerned about their threat to his nation. He tried to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22), and Balaam seemed willing to do so until he was warned off by God. When Balaam was approached a second time God instructed him as follows: "...'If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you—that you shall do.'" (verses 20). Balaam was still greedy for the reward the king of Moab had promised and only submitted to obeying God and refusing to curse Israel after being confronted by an Angel of the Lord (verse 22). Although Balak took Balaam to several vantage points from which he hoped Balaam would curse Israel, Balaam refused to do so (Numbers 22:41 to Numbers 24). Instead, as God instructed, Balaam blessed Israel.
Unfortunately, Balaam's willingness to follow God's instructions soon waned and he gave Balak advice as to how he could cause the men of Israel to sin. He told Balak to encourage the women of Moab to invite the Israelite men to their sacrifices to Baal-peor and the sexual immorality associated with this pagan religion. When they sinned God would then punish them Himself (Numbers 25:1-3; 31:16).
The sin of Balaam was compromising God's instructions, and that same attitude also led some at Pergamos and Thyatira to commit similar sins to the ancient Israelites. The Expositor's Bible Commentary of the New Testament refers to their sin of compromise as follows: "The combination of 'food sacrificed to idols' with 'sexual immorality' may refer to the common practice of participating in the sacrificial meal of the pagan gods (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:19-22) and indulging in sexual intercourse with temple priestesses in cult prostitution.”
Jezebel was the Canaanite wife of Israel's King Ahab. She had not only led Ahab to worship Baal, but through her husband promulgated her teachings of idolatry and witchcraft throughout all Israel (1 Kings 16:31-33; 2 Kings 9:22).
In addressing the church at Thyatira, Jesus used this same name to refer to a contemporary woman apparently following the example of this Old Testament queen. As the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains, "Some members of the church at Thyatira under the sway of an influential woman refused to separate from the local guilds where moral interests… were often seriously compromised... Her followers 'prided themselves upon their enlightened liberalism'" (Electronic Database, 1996, Biblesoft, "Jezebel").
A number of biblical resources suggest that this first-century Jezebel's teaching was similar to that of the Balaamites and Nicolaitans.
Though little is known about the Nicolaitans, they seem to have embraced the same compromising approach as the Balaamites and followers of Jezebel. While the Ephesians recognized the Nicolaitan error (Revelation 2:6), apparently some in Pergamos and Thyatira were deceived by it.
Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary says the Nicolaitans were "an early Christian heretical sect made up of followers of Nicolas, who was possibly the deacon of Acts 6:5. The group is mentioned explicitly only in Revelation 2:6, 14-15, where it is equated with a group holding 'the doctrine of Balaam,' who taught Israel 'to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.'...Most likely, they were a group of anti-law practitioners , and it may have been the same heresy condemned in 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11." (Electronic database, 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers, "Nicolaitans").
Occasionally the people of God find themselves compromising because of fear. A couple of examples from the lives of Abraham and his son, Isaac, illustrates this problem.
When Abraham journeyed to Egypt because of a famine (Genesis 12:10) he asked Sarah to say she was his sister because he was afraid someone might kill him in order to have his wife (verses 11-13). In time, Pharaoh took Sarah into his house with the likely intent of making her his wife (verses 14-16), but God revealed to him that Sarai was Abram's wife, and the Pharaoh returned her to him (verses 18-20).
Years later, Abraham told the same story to Abimelech, king of Gerar (Genesis 20:1-10). When Abimelech asked Abraham why he had said Sarah was his sister, Abraham answered: "...Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife. But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife" (verses 11-12).
Sadly, Abraham's example also influenced Isaac. When Isaac faced a similar situation with his wife, Rebekah, he used the same explanation (Genesis 26:6-11). In Isaac's case, however, it wasn't even a half-truth. It was a lie motivated by fear.
One of the great antidotes to fear is the love of God. As the apostle John explains, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). When we deeply commit ourselves to God and love Him more than anything else, God will help us have the courage we need to serve Him without compromise.