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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, November 04 2021

Lessons from Pergamos and Thyatira: Don't compromise!

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.

by David Treybig

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.

Herod the Great

Herod had ruled the province of Judea, which encompassed most of the geographical areas of the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah, for almost 40 years at the time Jesus Christ was born, with secular history and archaeology confirming his reign (Matthew 2:1-3, 7-8).

He was a great builder, initiating construction projects in at least 20 cities or towns in Israel and more than 10 in foreign cities: "Archaeological excavations have uncovered a surprisingly large amount of evidence pertaining to Herod the Great Idumean who, in 41 B.C., was granted provisional rule of Galilee by Mark Antony [the friend of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra´s last lover] .... In 30 B.C. Octavian (Caesar Augustus) affirmed Herod's rule over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee .... Herod remained in power until his death in 4 B.C…." (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 91).

But Herod was not just known for his great building, political and military skills, but also for his great cruelty. The Bible records his utter disregard for human life by describing his reaction to the birth of Jesus. When his scheme to identify the newborn Messiah failed (verses 7-8, 12), Herod lashed out with great violence: "Then Herod … sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under [the approximate age of Jesus], according to the time which he had determined from the wise men" (verse 16).

This massacre in Bethlehem was not out of character for Herod, who also had many members of his family put to death: “Herod in his rage over his family rivalries and jealousies put to death the two sons of Mariamne [his wife] (Aristobulus and Alexander), Mariamne herself, and Antipater, another son and once his heir, besides the brother and mother of Mariamne (Aristobulus, Alexandra) and her grandfather John Hyrcanus." (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Bible Explorer Software, 1997).

The New Testament description of Herod the Great is thus confirmed by what historians and archaeologists have found concerning his rulership, building projects, political strength and uncontrollable wrath toward anyone threatening his kingship.

The Census of Caesar Augustus

Luke, a meticulous historian, introduces other famous personages in his account of the birth of Christ. "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered … So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city" (Luke 2:1-3).

Ancient papyrus census decrees have been found for the years 20, 34, 48, 62 and 104. These show a wide-ranging census normally took place every 14 years, although local counts were, at times, taken more frequently. A papyrus in the British Museum describes a census similar to Luke's account, taken in 104, in which people were ordered to return to their birthplaces: "Gaius Vibius Mazimus, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those ... to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments" (Frederick G. Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, 1907, plate 30).

Joseph's Occupation in Nazareth

Joseph was a skilled craftsman who worked not only with wood, but with stone masonry. The usual term translated as "carpenter" in the Bible (Mark 6:3) is from the Greek term ‘tekton’, which has the broader meaning of 'artisan,' referring to a skilled worker who works on hard material such as wood or stone or even horn or ivory. “In Jesus' day construction workers were not as highly specialized as in today's workforce. For example, the tasks performed by carpenters and masons could easily overlap" (Richard A. Batey, Jesus & the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus, p. 76).

Although Nazareth was a small village in Galilee of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, Joseph and Jesus likely found steady work in the city of Sepphoris four miles away, where huge construction projects were transforming the city into a large, regional centre.

Recent archaeological excavations in Sepphoris show it to have been a bustling, prosperous city during the years Jesus grew up in nearby Nazareth. Shirley Jackson Case, professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago, remarks “.... It requires no very daring flight of the imagination to picture the youthful Jesus seeking and finding employment in the neighboring city of Sepphoris. But whether or not he actually labored there, his presence in the city on various occasions can scarcely be doubted..." (Batey, pp. 70-71).

These historical records help us better understand the background of Christ's teachings, which included illustrations drawn not just from farming and animal husbandry, but also construction, rulers and nobility, the theater, government, finance and other aspects of city life.