Jesus states that he has found a few things to criticise in the church in Pergamum. We are not to assume, however, that the fewness indicates trivialities. Each of the things that he mentions was serious and would lead to divine judgement. A church should not assess itself by the number of its faults, but by the seriousness of them. The few things in Pergamum were going to lead to solemn consequences.
It may have been the case that the persecution caused some of the church members to look for ways to alleviate the intensity of the opposition, and it would have been quite easy for such a way to be found. All that they would have to do would be to participate in the worship activities at the pagan temples, which included eating at religious feasts and engaging in immoral activities with temple prostitutes. If they did so, they would indicate their loyalty to Caesar.
Jesus regards those that engaged in such teaching as false prophets. He likens them to Balaam who helped the Moabites attack the children of Israel by such means, and caused severe divine judgment to fall on the Israelites. Although the false teachers may have imagined that they were being clever, in reality they were being duped by the devil. After all, his tactics are not limited to physical persecution. Any call to compromise, if heeded, will lead to disaster.
No one knows who the Nicolaitans were. It may be of interest to know that the meaning of both Balaam and Nicolaitans is similar – they both can mean ‘conquer the people’, which points to the opposite kind of conquering that Jesus wants his people to have as overcomers. The names of the false prophet and of the heretical group also tell us that false doctrine and practice, even when they have slight differences between them, bring about spiritual bondage for believers.
The call that Jesus gives is for repentance. So repentance is a Christian activity. Sometimes, the call for repentance is addressed to an individual because of his or her sins. At other times, the call is made to a church, as here. Jesus calls the church as a whole to repent, which indicates that toleration of wrong doctrine and practice is a sin just as the promotion of it is. In this situation, repentance would be shown by sorrow for their tolerance and then by separation from the wrongdoers. If the church did not do this, then Jesus would come himself and remove the wrongdoers (he will ‘war against them with the sword of my mouth’).
We can apply to ourselves the necessity of separation from those who teach wrong doctrines and who advocate sinful practices. The Saviour reminds us here that if we don’t bring this about, then he will do it himself. But we should also remember that repentance marks our every move in this type of situation.