Further exposition on Revelation 2:12-17.
Pergamum! Oh, Pergamum! Behold the glory of Pergamum! It was not at this time the greatest provincial power, nor was it the most favored in the Roman Empire. But… but, Pergamum was huge. Think New York. Think Las Vegas. Think of London. If the other cities had their attractions, Pergamum was the place to be just because, well… it was the place to be. They may not have been the greatest at any one thing, but they had it all.
It was also the center of power in Asia Minor for the cults of Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asclepius. There was really no other place quite like it. You had your pick of four of the most prominent and popular gods of the Greek Pantheon. Whether you were into wine and partying, or you were there to study or be cured of what ails you, Pergamum had it all. And why pick? You could worship all four gods if you wanted to.
But let’s just focus on one of these gods, Asclepius, and one of his followers who later left the cult of Asclepius and became a Christian. His name was Antipas. We know precious little about this early Christian brother. He is only mentioned once, here in the Letter to the Church in Pergamum, in Revelation 2:13. All we know is Jesus calls Antipas his faithful witness who was killed in Pergamum. Early historical sources outside Scripture tell us a bit more. Whether it is all entirely accurate is somewhat debated, so take it with a grain of salt and enjoy the rest of the story for what it is.
Antipas was a Greek immigrant to Pergamum. He traveled to Pergamum to attend the renowned medical school run by the cult of Asclepius. He majored in dentistry. Yes, even in the first century, people had toothaches and needed a dentist from time to time. Naturally, Antipas was a devotee to the god of healing, Asclepius. However, sometime during his tenure as a student or later in his practice, he heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and was brought to penitent faith and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of his sins.
As one might expect, this didn’t go unnoticed, nor was it necessarily approved of by the cult of Asclepius. But being peace-loving Greeks as they were, this would not have caused much of a problem except that Antipas is said to have been found guilty of disturbing the Roman peace. In other words, he was bearing witness to Jesus Christ, and Christ alone to the exclusion of all the other gods of the pantheon. This upset the Greeks and Romans. It was especially upsetting that an ex-disciple of Asclepius was claiming Jesus Christ was the Great Physician, not Asclepius.
Now, to the Greeks and Romans, Asclepius was the god of serpents and healing. His priests wore a necklace with medallion shaped like a serpent on a pole. Does that remind you of something? Perhaps a story of the brazen serpent on a pole which Moses was told to lift up in the wilderness after snakes had bitten many in the camp of Israel so that they would not die? Yeah, that’s the connection. Asclepius, the serpent-savior, god of salvation from disease and death. What a distortion of the truth.
Antipas’ pagan associates could not understand how one who profited and benefited from Asclepius’ blessings of the divine knowledge of the science of dentistry could be so flippant and blasphemous. The priests of Asclepius confronted Antipas and told him he had to stop teaching people of Jesus. This was not appropriate for a dentist of Asclepius, they said. Antipas replied that he would not turn from the living God to serve demons.
Then priests pointed out that Asclepius was claiming to follow a man who claimed to be a god, but had died. Antipas did not miss a beat as he replied, “Your gods are statues, made with your own hands, and not gods at all. They never were living. Jesus is not dead, but rose from the dead and is alive forevermore.” Seeing that Antipas was beyond their ability to reason with, they drug him into the Temple of Zeus in a rage.
The punishment for “disturbing the peace” was severe: death. And in this case, the authorities deemed it especially symbolic to execute punishment in the great bull furnace of Zeus. This bull was used for sacrifice, usually animals and sometimes criminals. The bull was hollow, and a fire would be lit underneath. As the flames grew, the bull grew warm, then hot, then a blazing oven. The nostrils of the bull were drilled out allowing for the sounds of those who were roasted alive to be heard. It is said that the holes were shaped in such a way that the cries and screams of the victims would sound like an angry bull in pain as they thrashed around, trying to get off the hot surface. But there was no place for them to go. There was no escape.
When confronted with the horror of such a death, they gave Antipas one last chance to deny Christ. He boldly said, “Bring on the bull. I have long trod this path with my own two feet. How I long to see Him face-to-face. This beast shall serve me well in these last steps on my journey to be with Jesus.” Per his request, Antipas was bound and thrown into the bull. The door to the chamber was shut. The fire lit. The pagans began to drink and feast, waiting for the blasphemer of Asclepius to start screaming. The flames grew as they licked the fuel, devouring the wood, and they soon engulfed the bull’s belly. And then the room went silent.
Instead of cries and screams, the witnesses to Antipas’ martyrdom reported something even more disturbing. They didn’t hear the screams of an angry bull, nor the thrashing of a victim in agony. Fear and wonder struck them as they heard, until his dying breath, words; prayers. Antipas prayed for his fellow Christians that they would hold fast Christ’s name and would not deny it in the face of his persecution. And he prayed for those who were sending him to his death; those who were sending him to his Jesus.
Antipas was a faithful witness of Jesus Christ till his dying breath. When the priests of Asclepius promised him wealth and safety if he would only stop speaking a particular word, the Word of God in Christ, he refused. He rejected other words and clung to God’s promises which are all yes and amen in Christ. He held fast to these words above all others even to the point of death.
Antipas knew his God had made peace with him through the bloody death of Christ. He had tasted of the hidden manna and seen that the Lord is good in, with, and under the bread and wine. He knew that the white stone, a declaration of innocence and righteousness with the name of the Triune God upon it, had been stamped upon his forehead and his heart in Baptism. Antipas would not, as Balaam had, be discontent with the Word of God, but cling to it and its promises. He would hold fast to the name of Jesus. And he knew that Christ held fast to him in these: the Word, the water, and the bread and wine.
You have these same promises. Let none convince you otherwise. You are baptized. You are fed and have supped on the flesh and blood of Christ, the antidote of immortality. Though the flames of life lick and eat you, the sword, the Word, Jesus, does not come to kill you, but instead intends to raise you to life and immortality incorruptible. You are in Christ. Nothing can separate you from His love. Your hope is not in the temporary safety of other words, but the sure and certain security of the Word which speaks forgiveness to you now, and life with Christ forever.
And so, like Antipas, you are Jesus’ faithful witness. Whether burning or beheading, cancer or a stroke, Alzheimers or overdose, hit-and-run or food poisoning—in whatever form martyrdom comes for you—, you have these promises. The Resurrection and the Life has made them yours, and so you will hold fast His name as He is holding you.
There is nothing to fear. Go boldly about your vocation. Speak freely of Jesus. And bring on the bull.