22nd April 2024

Satan’s throne? Christianity and politics

Satan’s throne? Christianity and politics

A sermon by Kenneth Padley based on Revelation 2.12-17
Sunday 21 April, 2024



Tonight’s second lesson was an extract from the long preamble to the book Revelation, one of seven covering letters addressed to churches in the Roman Province of Asia Minor in what is now western Turkey. It was written for Christians in Pergamum, a city which had once been the leading authority in the region. This history is reflected in the commentary offered by the letter about issues of power and politics.


Pergamum had been developed by a dynasty called the Attalids. The Attalids had exploited the natural topography of the area to create a mountaintop powerbase, an acropolis overlooking the confluence of two rivers. Pergamum thus dominates the surrounding countryside and can be seen from miles around. Nowadays, the visitor glides up to the ruins by cable car; two thousand years ago, the fortress must have been utterly imposing.


Like all good monarchs, the Attalids amassed a series of grand titles as their power grew. Eumenes I cut Pergamum out of the Seleucid Empire in the mid third century BC. He did not claim to be a king – but his successor, Attalus I did. Attalus who reigned from 241-197BC also styled himself ‘Saviour’. This was a title he had pinched from Zeus, one of his favourite deities. Not to be outdone, the next Attalid ruler, Eumenes II, went so far as to claim to be a god.


Now the Attalids were long gone by the Christian era. But they left an enduring legacy in Pergamum – and their Roman successors were no less pretentious. At the time Revelation was being written, the Roman Emperor Domitian egotistically styled himself Dominus et Deus – ‘Lord and God’.


At this point we need to sidestep to another document written at the same time as Revelation by the same community. Because within the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John, the apostle Thomas declares Jesus to be Dominus et Deus, Lord and God. In this affirmation, we see a faith community on a collision course with the propaganda machine of the ruling authorities.


Into this context it is Jesus himself who speaks the letter to the Pergamenes. He introduces himself as the one ‘who has the sharp two-edged sword’, a symbol of military might and judicial authority. And he proceeds to condemn the merger which has taken place within the Empire between political power and spiritual evil. ‘I know where you dwell’, he says, ‘where Satan’s throne is’.


Academics debate what this reference to ‘Satan’s throne’ might mean. Some think it is a critique of the imperial cult, the worship of Domitian as a demi-god. Invitation to participate in Emperor-worship was a real litmus test for Christians because those who held firm to their claims that Jesus was King and Saviour could not participate in rituals which deified a mere human.


There are others who think that Satan’s throne might have been a particular edifice in Pergamum itself. Some suggest Revelation is talking about the Temple of Zeus, an amazing three-sided building which once dominated the hilltop. This temple is no longer in situ, having been carted off to Germany in the nineteenth century. However, the reconstruction of that Temple in Berlin shows what an imposing structure it must once have been.


Others regard a complex in the valley beneath Pergamum as the most likely candidate for Satan’s throne. This complex is the Asklepion, a healing centre. Advocates of this identification point out that the pagan god Asklepios was viewed as a Saviour, because of his connection with healing. And the symbol of Asklepios was a serpent, which Jews and Christians traditionally associate with the devil.


Whatever you plump for, it seems that the church in Pergamum had already clashed with the city authorities. Among the Christian resistance was a man called Antipas (v.13), a man described as a witness, literally ‘martus’. That is what the martyrs are – those whose lives (and especially their deaths) bear witness to Christian truth.


Other followers of Jesus in Pergamum were more liberal than Antipas. Known as the Nicolaitans (v. 15), they took an accommodating approach towards the civic authorities. The Nicolaitans seems to have compromised on what is known as idol food (v.14), that is, they didn’t have scruples about purchasing meat from the butchers that might once have been sacrificed in rituals at pagan Temples.


The author of Revelation adopts a conservative stance: idol meat, he says, is part of satanic imperial culture. He encourages his readers to reject it with a promise of something greater, what the final verse of the letter calls ‘hidden manna’. This hidden manna might be a reference to the Christian Eucharist or to some sort of angelic bread in heaven.


The letter to the Pergamene church throws up all sorts of questions about Christian relations with political authority. How and why does power become idolistic? We know from history the ways in which government can become self-serving: sometimes new people rise to influence, promise the earth, make a few reforms, but then feather their own nests. ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ wrote the Roman Catholic Lord Acton as part of a debate within nineteenth century Roman Catholicism about whether the Pope might be infallible.


If power is idolistic, to what extent can God’s kingdom come on earth? We are told to pray for that kingdom and to work for that kingdom, but we know how human corruption will impair the fullness of that kingdom until the end time. The author of Revelation knew this too: in his text, the perfect city, new Jerusalem, only descends near the end of his book as part of a description of God’s new creation which will come after the age of this earth.


If power is idolistic, how and when should we put Christ above human laws and loyalties in the way that Antipas the martyr did in Pergamum? What are the issues on which Christ speaks truth to power today? And how do we know when you and I are being asked to make a stand?


The Letter to Pergamum castigates the pseudo-religion of the Roman state and the way in which it turned the Emperor into an object of worship. It is a theme which resonates across the book Revelation. Read through this highly political document to appreciate how it contrasts Babylon the fallen, a metaphor for the greedy city of Rome, with the true glory of the heavenly Jerusalem which is to come. That was the message to the church of Pergamum. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.