Chapter 6: Her Place in the Wilderness
About 300 years after the Council of Nicaea, we find the Church in the eastern bounds of the Roman Empire, in the area now known as Armenia. These true Christians became known as “Paulicians” in secular history. Secular scholars cannot agree on the origin of that name. In Armenian, the word for Paulician is literally translated as “the followers of wretched, little Paul.” Some authorities believe this name is based on their reaction to the western churches putting an inordinate emphasis on Peter. Anyone who rejected the followers of Simon Magus’s emphasis on Peter was accused of following Paul, who was considered to have an inferior theology. Other scholars think the name Paulician may have come from a third-century Church leader.
A. H. Newman described where the Paulicians resided: “It was the ‘huge recess or circular dam’ formed by the Taurus mountain range that furnished a comparatively secure abiding place for this ancient form of Christianity” (A Manual of Church History). Although these Christians were organized while hiding in the early fourth century, they did not become known again to the world until the seventh century.
This group in Armenia perfectly fits the description of the third era of God’s Church: Pergamos.
‘Satan’s Seat’ in the East
Note that Jesus Christ’s message to this era begins: “And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth” (Revelation 2:12-13).
Remember, there is duality in these messages to the seven churches. There are often types and antitypes between the literal cities in which the original first-century churches were found and their prophetic counterparts. The descriptions of the first-century churches also applied to their greater prophetic fulfillment as Church eras to come much later (in the case of Laodicea, over 1,900 years later). This is true of Pergamos.
Verse 13 tells us that the brethren during this era dwelled right where Satan dwelled. The first-century city of Pergamos was the seat of the Roman government in the province of Turkey. It was also the home of a large college for the Chaldean mystery religion. Cappadocia, Mesopotamia and Armenia had long been right at the heart of Nimrod’s religion. This area had been a stronghold of Satan’s for millennia. The city of Pergamos was the literal seat of Satan’s government and religion!
The Bible Knowledge Commentary says this about this ancient city: “Like Ephesus and Smyrna it was a wealthy city, but it was wicked. People in its pagan cults worshiped Athena, Asclepius, Dionysus and Zeus. Pergamum [or Pergamos] was famous for its university with a library of about 200,000 volumes and for manufacturing parchment resulting in a paper called pergamena. The atmosphere of this city was adverse to any effective Christian life and testimony” (emphasis mine throughout).
It was in this adverse atmosphere that God’s people dwelled during the middle of the seventh century. Indeed, the entire era was adverse to an effective Christian life. During the Pergamos era, Satan’s government and religion took firm hold over the known world—especially in the east, where many of God’s people resided. Several examples from secular history prove this point.
This brings us to one of the most important aspects of the Church’s history—and one of the most stunning prophecies of the Bible.
Look again at the prophecy of Revelation 12 regarding God’s true Church and the great false church. Satan himself is described in this passage as “a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads” (verse 3; he is also described as a dragon in verses 9, 13; Revelation 20:2). The Bible itself explains this symbolism. As Mr. Armstrong showed in his booklet Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast? (which we will send you a free copy of upon request), the “seven heads and ten horns” is prophetic language for four world-ruling Gentile empires. Daniel described four beasts, representing four world-ruling empires (Daniel 7:1-7). One of the beasts had four heads (making a total of seven heads). Revelation 12:3 shows that Satan has ruled over all these empires. The devil has tremendous power in this world.
The fourth beast of Daniel 7 represents the Roman Empire. The head of this beast has 10 horns, representing 10 kings (verses 7, 24). The 10 horns represent the 10 resurrections of the Roman Empire. The last seven of those horns represent the Holy Roman Empire, when the empire is guided by Satan’s great false church!
Revelation 12:6 shows that Satan persecuted God’s Church, forcing it to flee: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.” Again, in the Bible, prophecies that mention “days” often mean years (Numbers 14:34; Ezekiel 4:6). Because of intense persecution from Satan’s agents on Earth, God’s true Church was forced to flee into the wilderness for 1,260 years.
This is a reality of Church history. It shows what a fierce trial it can be for God’s people in Satan’s world!
When did this period occur? History tells.
‘Deadly Wound’ Healed
Revelation 13 talks about a beast. This corresponds with the fourth beast of Daniel 7. “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads [these are the seven heads of the four beasts in Daniel 7, which the Roman Empire absorbed; Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast? explains this] and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy” (Revelation 13:1). This beast, representing the Roman Empire, is characterized by blasphemy against God! It is empowered by “the dragon,” Satan the devil (verse 2).
“And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast” (verse 3). What is this mortal wound? In Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast?, Mr. Armstrong explained how this wound was dealt to the seventh head—“the head out of which 10 horns grew. The 10 horns, as Daniel interprets, represent 10 successive governments out of the Roman Empire, which were to continue until the setting up of the Kingdom of God at the Second Coming of Christ.
“The deadly wound, then, was the one administered to the Roman Empire, when, in its last decaying stages, the barbarians overran it, ending its government in a.d. 476.” That wound was inflicted over a century after Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. At that point, the Roman Empire was about to die. But it was revived. How?
Mr. Armstrong showed that the first three of those 10 successive governments did not heal that wound. They were the foreign barbarian reigns of the Vandals, the Heruli and the Ostrogoths—peoples who reigned in Rome but were not actually Roman. But then something changed. As Daniel 7:8 records, those first three horns were “plucked up by the roots” before a “little horn” that came up among them. “That leaves seven horns to come,” Mr. Armstrong explained. “And of the little horn, Daniel 7 says his look was ‘more stout than his fellows’ (verse 20). The papacy dominated completely all the horns to follow.”
The wound dealt to the Roman Empire was healed because of the Roman Catholic Church!
In a.d. 527, Justinian assumed the eastern throne in Constantinople (now Istanbul). It was his personal dream to restore the Roman Empire to its full former glory—under his rule, of course. Justinian saw himself as the rightful ruler of the Roman world. He successfully smashed the barbarian hold on the western empire. He then quickly reunited the empire: Both east and west came under his control. History immortalized Justinian’s achievement, calling it the “Imperial Restoration.” Just as God prophesied in Revelation 13:3, the Roman Empire was revived! The deadly wound was healed!
Justinian fully understood that you cannot have a united empire without a united religion. He worked to unify Christianity into the Roman Catholic version throughout the empire. In 554, Justinian issued a Pragmatic Sanction, a document that increased the pope’s power and laid down specific guidelines for affairs of both church and state in Rome and Italy.
Through Justinian’s Imperial Restoration in a.d. 554, the Catholic Church revived the empire! That church then guided all the resurrections of that empire that followed.
This was one of the most crucial phases of world history! Satan’s seat of government and religion was thoroughly and completely established. (You can read more about this period in secular history in our free book The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy.)
Notice what God says about it: “And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast …” (verse 4). The beast has power and destroys—but that power comes from a dragon that is being worshiped! There is a great false church behind it! That church guides this power. It dominates the Holy Roman Empire. Verse 5 says it has “a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies.” Where do you see that? Only one church is led by a “vicar of Christ”—a man in place of Christ, who issues “infallible” pronouncements.
Verse 4 concludes, “[A]nd they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?” People are worshiping a war machine!
The Holy Roman Empire, beginning with Justinian, especially reveals the mind of the devil. This is how Satan actually thinks. He wants people to worship him! He will do anything to make them worship him—even killing anybody who doesn’t! As Christ prophesied in John 16:2, “[T]he time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.”
Constantine laid the groundwork for the fusion of the great false church and the Roman Empire. But Scripture points to Justinian beginning the 1,260 years. Constantine came well before the deadly wound. And only after the deadly wound was inflicted did the Roman Empire form this unholy union with the Catholic Church. Beginning with Justinian, the so-called Holy Roman Empire really started persecuting and pursuing God’s people!
It is important to understand the distinction the Bible makes between the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. In Daniel 2 and 7, as well as in Revelation 13, the two are portrayed in symbol as one. And the Holy Roman Empire, which began in 554 with Justinian, was definitely a continuation of the Roman Empire. It grew out of that empire. However, it had the added dimension of Roman Catholic influence that surpassed even what occurred during the time of Constantine. In Revelation 17, the Holy Roman Empire is depicted as a woman riding a beast—a symbol of the Catholic Church controlling the political beast of this European empire! In verse 11 it is described as being so different from all the kingdoms before (pictured in this passage as “seven heads”) that it is called “the eighth.” It is different from all of those other heads—and far deadlier! There has never been a system like it among these other world-ruling empires.
One big reason it is so different from the seven heads is that it is guided by a false church that had more people killed than any other church ever on Earth! And the worst is yet to come!
As bad as the earlier resurrections of the Roman Empire were, they paled in comparison to the distinctive power of the empire once it was guided by a religion. For example, Lesson 50 of the Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course says, “Eusebius, always a supporter of Constantine, explicitly states that Constantine put every other church out of the Roman Empire or exterminated them …. Constantine forced everyone, pagan or Christian, either into conformity—or exile!”
Constantine definitely persecuted those who disagreed with the Catholic Church—some people were even killed. But he was not nearly as brutal as those who followed him in what later became the Holy Roman Empire. He was not even baptized by the bishops until a hasty ceremony just before his death.
In describing the threat against God’s people, the Bible puts far more emphasis on the Holy Roman Empire than it does the Roman Empire. Verse 6 says this woman is “drunken with the blood of the saints”! And as we will see, it is a resurrected Holy Roman Empire that is prophesied once again to come after the Church in this end time!
Constantine and the Roman Empire exiled people. But try to find one scripture or historical example in which the Holy Roman Empire punished someone by merely exiling him. History shows that it killed the saints of God! That “holy” empire doesn’t exile people—it kills them! That is what it has done throughout its history. For centuries and throughout the Dark Ages, wherever the Holy Roman Empire had great control, it killed God’s people!
We have to recognize the full impact of the Holy Roman Empire. Many historians have tried to estimate the number of people killed by Roman Catholics over the centuries. Conservative calculations put the figure at 50 million! For example, in his 1871 book The History of Romanism, author John Dowling wrote, “From the birth of popery in 606 to the present time, it is estimated by careful and credible historians, that more than 50 millions of the human family have been slaughtered for the crime of heresy by popish persecutors, an average of more than 40,000 religious murders for every year of the existence of popery.” Halley’s Bible Handbook agrees: “Historians estimate that, in the Middle Ages and Early Reformation Era, more than 50 million martyrs perished.”
Fifty million victims! This is not something to be ignorant of, but most people are ignorant of it. Many are going to pay for their ignorance by becoming victims of that empire! This is deadly dangerous for every human being, especially those in the sights of this organization: God’s people and the descendants of Israel, especially Britain, the United States and the Jewish state in the Middle East.
God is emphasizing the profound evil of this work. He has to—because Satan has deceived the world into believing this beast is pious and holy, even though it is rather easy to prove otherwise. It looks so good and appears so righteous! Watch it operate—what a spectacle, what a show! The world loves it, even though this same beast killed 50 million people. Even though it has never repented of centuries of bloodshed in its past—and is quite capable of more bloodshed.
This final resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire is going to kill exceedingly more than 50 million people overall!
Notice Revelation 13:5: “And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.” Once again we see this time period: 42 months. Forty-two 30-day months equals 1,260 days, which means 1,260 years in prophetic fulfillment. And what is the context? The Holy Roman Empire.
Mr. Armstrong always taught that the 1,260 years of Revelation 13:5 apply solely to the Holy Roman Empire. In Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast?, for example, he wrote, “Following the healing [of the deadly wound discussed in verse 3], in 554, came the Frankish kingdom (French), the Holy Roman Empire (German, then the Austrian Habsburgs) and Napoleon’s kingdom (French). But when Napoleon was crushed in 1814, the healed beast continued no longer. ‘So closed,’ says West’s Modern History, ‘a government that dated from Augustus Caesar’ (from 31 b.c.). It went into an abyss!
“And from 554 to 1814, the duration of the ‘healed beast,’ was exactly 1,260 years!”
The 1,260 years of Revelation 12:6 are the same as the 1,260 years of Revelation 13:5. That period began with the Imperial Restoration of 554. It is the Holy Roman Empire that made God’s people flee, and with far more hatred and destructive power than Constantine ever had. This connection between the 1,260 years and the Holy Roman Empire is consistent through both Revelation 12 and 13.
The Holy Roman Empire persecuted God’s Church from 554 to 1814. The Church had to flee for 1,260 years. Through John, Jesus Christ and God the Father specifically tie this 1,260-day period of persecution to the great false church. Even Lange’s Commentary tells you it is referring to the Roman Catholic Church.
In Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong wrote about the people of God during this period: “These had been called to carry the truth through one of history’s most difficult periods—the Dark Ages.
“The power and influence of the great universal church spread far and wide, driving those who clung to the truth of God ever further into the wilderness. But they were never far from threat of persecution and martyrdom.” The “Holy” Roman Empire was continually waging war against God’s true Church!
Many if not most of those who remained faithful to the teachings of the Bible during this time were forced to live as other saints of God had lived in the past. They endured “trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:36-38).
Christ had prophesied that many of His followers would suffer this type of persecution—just as He had! (John 15:20). He even said true believers would have to flee from one city to another because of persecution (Matthew 10:23). The book of Revelation points out that many of God’s people were slaughtered by this evil, false church (Revelation 17:6; 20:4).
Antipas—My Faithful Martyr
The true Church during this era was continually and severely persecuted—so much so that it had to hide to survive! The Roman Empire, restored and strong, now possessed the added power of the Roman religion. The power and prestige of the papacy had grown mightily! The pope held real sway over the people and the government!
However, even in such difficult times, this era did accomplish a great work for God, at least at its beginning. Christ says, “[T]hou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith.” He specifically says this era remained faithful in the days of Antipas, His “faithful martyr” (Revelation 2:13).
The name Antipas is interesting. It is a combination of the words anti and pater. Pater in the Greek means father. Antipas is a shortened form of Antipater, or literally, Antifather. When we understand what was happening inside the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church during this Church era, it is not hard to realize that Antipas really means anti-papal.
Who was Antipas? Because of a concerted effort to conceal the truth, the biggest handicap in studying true Church history is the lack of documentation. One historical figure, however, does appear to fulfill the role or title of Antipas. History records him as Constantine of Mananali, who began preaching around a.d. 650. By the time he was on the scene, the church-state combine of the Holy Roman Empire had been fully united and cementing its power for 100 years. You can read his story in Chapter 54 of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The city of Mananali was part of a district of Anatolia, a geographically small area of Armenia.
The details about Constantine of Mananali’s conversion follow along these lines. He received a returning resident who had been held captive in Syria. This man had obtained a manuscript of the New Testament, which they studied together. Convicted by his study, Constantine taught the basic tenets of commandment observance. He taught that the Sabbath must be observed. His enemies went on record that he taught specifically against papal authority. Constantine spread the word about these biblically inspired doctrines.
The Paulician Work
Constantine and his supporters appear to have had a particular affinity for the Apostle Paul. Some scholars think this was the origin of the name Paulician. Many people in Constantine’s locality became believers. They took on biblical names from Paul’s ministers such as Timothy and Silvanus, and they nicknamed their congregations after those Paul had served. They were highly motivated to live by the teachings they had discovered. History records that their numbers grew rapidly.
The Roman emperor, then stationed at Byzantium, sent a warrior named Simeon to crush the new movement. Simeon gathered several of Constantine’s followers and ordered them, under penalty of death if they failed to collaborate, to stone Constantine to death. Constantine’s followers were shocked at the request. At least one of his followers weakened and stoned him.
It is estimated that Constantine’s ministry lasted from about a.d. 650 to 684. Constantine is considered one of the most colorful personalities of the Pergamos era.
Some positive results came about after Constantine’s death. Simeon was so moved by Constantine’s faith that he also became a convert! Similar to the Apostle Paul, Simeon embraced the faith that he was supposed to stamp out. History tells us that he renounced his former life, took the name Titus, and went on to become a leading minister of the Paulicians. Simeon preached from 684 to 687. He was martyred by Justinian ii.
We know of other Paulician leaders as well. There was a man named Paul the Armenian about whom history tells us little. Around 702, Gegnesius, his son, became a leading minister under the name Timothy. He led the Church from about 717 to 745. Gegnesius managed to convince Emperor Leo iii that the Paulician doctrine was not heresy. There is also record of a man named Joseph who evangelized the provinces of Armenia under the name Epaphroditus.
One of the most well known of the later Paulician preachers is a man named Sergius. His ministry, under the name Tychicus, lasted from about 801 to 835. He labored diligently those 34 years to set things right in a Church that was beginning to compromise with false religion. He worked tirelessly, uttering this famous quote: “I have run from east to west, from north to south, until my knees are weary, preaching the gospel of Christ.”
God provided a strong succession of leaders for this time period in this region. Edward Gibbon wrote this about the Paulicians: “From the blood and ashes of the first victims, a succession of teachers and congregations repeatedly arose” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Even though hidden in Armenia for several centuries, God’s people had more than occasional impact on the world. These were real soldiers for the living God!
The Key of Truth
A remarkable literary discovery was made concerning the Paulicians in the late 19th century. British scholar and theologian Fred C. Conybeare discovered seventh- or eighth-century Paulician manuscripts that had been stored in an Armenian monastery. This incredible set of documents was known as The Key of Truth. These documents give us great insight into Paulician customs and beliefs. Here is a summary of some of the Paulicians’ major beliefs. You can read about these beliefs in Conybeare’s The Key of Truth and the Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition).
- They did not baptize children—only adults. They cited Christ’s life as an example; He was 30 years old when He was baptized.
- They baptized by immersion.
- They believed that true repentance was a prerequisite for baptism.
- They believed that the Church was a body of people, not a building.
- They believed a true Christian is one who knows Christ and keeps the Ten Commandments.
- They believed that although Christ was crucified for man, He did not command adoration of the cross.
- They did not believe that Mary, Jesus’s mother, remained a virgin all of her life. They did not consider Mary to be a female mediator.
- They rejected the Catholic mass, communion and confession.
Conybeare wrote this of the Paulicians: “The Sabbath was perhaps kept, and there were no special Sunday observances …. Wednesday and Friday were not kept as fast-days. Of the modern Christmas and of the Annunciation, and of the other feasts connected with the life of Jesus prior to His 30th year, this phase of the Church knew nothing. The general impression which the study of it leaves on us is that in it we have before us a form of Church not very remote from the primitive Jewish Christianity of Palestine.”
In a radio broadcast about Church history, Herbert W. Armstrong said this about The Key of Truth: “This partially preserved record of God’s people proves that they preached the gospel of the Kingdom, the government of God. And they baptized by immersion—not by sprinkling or anything of the kind.” He noted that they followed New Testament instruction that, prior to baptism, people must “have thoroughly repented, have completely surrendered unconditionally to God and to the will of God, the government of God—surrendered their wills, [and] have come out of the world.” And after people were baptized, these believers “did as the apostles had done: They prayed over them and laid hands on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. They not only continued to keep the Passover on the 14th of God’s first month, Nisan (which comes along in the spring and not in January at all), but they also observed the Sabbath—the weekly Sabbath, believe it or not—and the festival of Unleavened Bread.”
Please look at that list of beliefs again. It totally disagrees with Catholic doctrines. And every point stated there is biblical!
That is why God’s people had to flee to Armenia in the first place—because of their beliefs.
In secular writings, the members of Pergamos in this area, known as Paulicians to the world, were viciously slandered on several issues. They were referred to as heretics because of their “Judaizing” religion. They rested on the seventh-day Sabbath and kept the Passover and other holy days as outlined in Leviticus 23. They vigorously rejected Sunday and Easter worship. Because of their association with the Apostle Paul, often they were accused of rejecting the Apostle Peter. This accusation was completely untrue. What they really rejected was the newly established papal authority.
They were violently persecuted because they obeyed the Bible. But that is not the end of this story. When Jesus Christ returns, these people of God will be rewarded for what they did—one of the greatest rewards given throughout all eternity!
At the end of this spiritual war, God’s obedient people win.
The Doctrine of Balaam
Although the Pergamos era works were exemplary at times, this Church era was not without serious spiritual problems. Christ warned, “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:14-16).
Some had allowed doctrinal errors to creep into the Church. Christ identifies these errors as the “doctrine of Balaam” and the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” Christ warned of “them” who held to these doctrines; in other words, not everyone was doing so. The Greek word for “hold” means “to take hold by strength.” Some from Pergamos embraced these errors wholeheartedly.
If Christ held such strong emotion against these two doctrines, so should all true Christians.
What is the doctrine of Balaam? In verse 14, Christ states that Balaam caused the children of Israel to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit fornication. To understand the doctrine of Balaam, remember what Balaam did to ancient Israel historically. These events are found in the book of Numbers, chapters 22 to 24.
The name Balaam comes from the Hebrew word bilam and means ruin. What Balaam caused in ancient Israel certainly was ruin. Christ warned the members in the Pergamos era that if they continued in the error of Balaam, they would also come to ruin. Balaam can also be translated “conqueror of the people.” Nicolaus is the equivalent Greek name.
Balaam was a Mesopotamian soothsayer. Numbers states that he was the son of Beor. He was a well-known magician—a pagan priest—just like Simon Magus. Some scholars believe he was a prophet of God. 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11 show he was a false prophet. In fact, Mr. Armstrong showed that Balaam was the “Pontifex Maximus of the pagan world—the chief oracle of paganism” (Good News, January 1982).
Balaam was Nimrod’s successor. The names Balaam and Nicolaus were often used to denote the office Nimrod held. Nimrod was one of the first leaders to rebel against God’s government and laws after the Flood. Nimrod established man’s political and religious systems on false principles. Balaam lived at Pethor, near the Euphrates River. This was the seat of the Babylonian mystery religion. As high priest, Balaam used divination and enchantments. Mr. Armstrong believed he may have even been possessed by Satan the devil. Balaam held a position of considerable status and influence with his people.
On their way to the Promised Land, the Israelites had set up tents in the plains of Moab. Balak, king of Moab, became concerned for his nation. He had heard the ghastly news of the destruction of their neighbors, the Amorites. God had punished the grave sins of these people by using the armies of Israel. This great destruction struck intense fear into Balak and the Moabites.
Balak devised a plan to destroy Israel. He sent men of high rank and great wealth to entice Balaam the magician to help them by cursing the Israelites. Balaam was more than willing to curse Israel—he loved money. However, God only had blessings in mind for Israel and would not allow it. Balak’s initial plan failed.
Eventually, though, Balaam did help Balak get to Israel. Greedy for material gain, he counseled Balak to entice the Israelites into idolatry and whoredom. Moses recorded Balaam’s advice to Balak: “Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord” (Numbers 31:16). (Note that Balaam lost his life for his counsel to the king of Moab—verse 8.)
The Israelites gave in to their own temptations. They descended into idolatry by worshiping Baal-peor. They committed gross sexual immorality with the Moabite women. Angered by these sins, God ordered Moses to cut off the heads of the leaders of each tribe and hang them before the people until sundown (Numbers 25:1-4). These leaders had led the people into serious national sins. Probably a thousand leaders were executed. God also caused a severe plague to fall upon the Israelites, killing 24,000 people (verse 9).
The doctrine of Balaam is simply Baal worship. Baal worshipers follow the Babylonian mystery religion (Revelation 17:1, 5). They live a life of licentiousness. A follower of the doctrine of Balaam is following Satan and his pagan religious practices.
God warned the ancient Israelites, “When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:29-31). The Israelites did not heed God in the plains of Moab. The entire nation suffered terribly as a result.
Some in the Pergamos era of God’s Church fell into this same error. They followed the doctrine of Balaam by allowing pagan practices and beliefs into their worship of Christ. Jesus warned the people of His day against such practices, saying: “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9).
God expects us to worship Him according to His laws, statutes and judgments. The true people of God worship Him on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week (Exodus 20:8-11), and keep His holy days as prescribed in Leviticus 23.
By the time of the Pergamos era, the Babylonian mystery religion had taken firm root in the false churches in the west. The church at Rome held authority over all the churches except those hidden in Armenia. Easter had been substituted for the Passover; Sunday worship for Sabbath-keeping. The celebration of Christmas was introduced into the western church in the fourth century. The church at Rome had also gained considerable political power. It skillfully used this power to enforce its religious traditions. To resist the church at Rome often brought death.
No other false Christian church even remotely compared to the power of the Catholic Church. To compare it to any other church would be like comparing a gnat to an elephant.
Many of the Pergamos saints succumbed to that power and compromised with God’s truth by admitting pagan Catholic doctrine.
Doctrine of the Nicolaitans
What is “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans”? Jesus Christ states that He hates, or detests, this doctrine (Revelation 2:15). This is no small issue to Jesus Christ! It should not be a small issue for the true people of God.
Remember, the name Nicolaitans is first mentioned in connection with the Ephesus era. The Ephesians hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (verse 6). Understanding the deeds of the Nicolaitans sheds some light on their doctrine.
This sect traced its roots to a man named Nicholas. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that the Nicolaitans claimed to have derived from Nicholas the doctrine of promiscuity. And what were their deeds? They “led lives of unrestrained indulgence.” The Nicolaitans believed that they could be both religious and promiscuous.
Who was this Nicholas? Some scholars have confused him with one of the original seven deacons listed in Acts 6:5 who was from Antioch. This is a gross error. Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible identifies a Nicholas of Antioch as “Bishop Nicholas of Samaria,” a heretic associate of Simon Magus.
The Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course states, “But why then was he called Nicholas ‘of Antioch’? Eusebius gives us a clue. Before Simon Magus went to Rome—probably a.d. 42—he was in Antioch for a while. Eusebius tells us that Jesus’s Apostle Peter was sent to Antioch (Galatians 2:11—a.d. 42) to counteract the poison of Simon Magus.
“From [Antioch] he [Simon Magus] went to Rome. It is possible that the two names refer to the same man, and Nicholas of Samaria was Simon himself. Or, Nicholas was Simon’s successor after Simon left for Rome. The Nicolaitans, at any rate, are identified with the counterfeit ‘Christianity’ founded by Simon Magus” (Lesson 50). The Catholic Church’s war against God’s true Church is endless!
“The doctrine of the Nicolaitans, too, was one of no law—‘unrestrained indulgence,’ ‘promiscuity.’ Their doctrine and the doctrine of Balaam sprang from the same source. In fact, as we have already noted, the name ‘Nicolaitans’ might well be translated ‘Balaamites,’ and vice versa, for both Balaam in the days of Moses and Simon Magus in the first century a.d. occupied the ‘office’ of Nimrod” (ibid).
Now it should not be hard for us to understand why Christ detests this doctrine. A true Christian cannot please God and break His laws at the same time.
Let’s not forget that the doctrines of Balaam and of the Nicolaitans are prophetic warnings for this end time!
Some may ask, what is the difference between the two doctrines? The doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans are quite similar. Why then did Jesus charge that Pergamos had members holding to both?
The doctrine of Balaam was the original and universally received religion of Asia Minor since the time of Nimrod. Pethor, where Balaam lived (Numbers 22:5), was actually in the region where the true Church existed. Some in the Church were locals who had never entirely given up the false doctrines of their ancestors. They allowed animal sacrifices to idols and at times consumed the sacrificial flesh. Revelation 2:14 is very specific!
The Nicolaitans, on the other hand, represented a more recent version of false religion. This fusion of paganism and “Christianity” labeled pagan practices and traditions with Christian-sounding names.
So inside the church of Pergamos were those who never gave up their old Babylonian mystery religion. And there were those who had begun to embrace the new Christianized form of that same religion. Sadly, both were tolerated.
The Sword of My Mouth
At its beginning, the Pergamos era was made up of the descendants of first-century Christians who had migrated into Armenia from all over the known world. Some of these had fled Greece and Asia Minor over two centuries earlier. Many had preserved the name of their original congregations and referred to themselves as the “church of Macedonia” or the “church of Ephesus.”
Constantine of Mananali’s preaching had revitalized these members of the Church of God. God used him and his successors to draw others into the Church. These were newly converted to the faith. The numbers of converted Paulicians reached into the tens of thousands.
However, there were many who were not truly converted. They were affiliated with, but not really part of, the true Church. Many had come from strong pagan backgrounds. For some, it was only a new form of religion.
Although hidden from the mainstream of society, the Paulicians were noticed and subsequently persecuted. Many were martyred. Whole families were killed.
At some point in their later history, a majority of the Paulician people succumbed to the doctrines of Balaam and of the Nicolaitans. Tired of the persecution, they reasoned that they could somehow look Catholic on the outside but be true Christians on the inside. To avoid trouble, many feigned conformity with the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. They believed they would be safe because “in their hearts they knew better.” Many had their infant children baptized. They attended Sabbath services and then went to Sunday mass. Few realized that the highway of compromise always leads to disaster.
Jesus Christ called upon Pergamos to turn back to Him. He warned, “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:16). Christ would have to punish the sinning members of this era and said He would fight with the sword of His mouth.
This was the second time Christ used the image of the sword with Pergamos: He opened the letter with the fact that He wields a two-edged sword (verse 12). He was speaking spiritually: The Word of God, which Christ embodies, is likened to a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). In essence, Christ was calling on the Pergamos people to use the Bible to judge their actions. Paul had admonished the Ephesian brethren to do the same: “And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).
Out of love, Jesus Christ warned the people of Pergamos to get back to the pure doctrine of the Bible. If they would not, then He would send a physical sword after them. They had a choice. They could either faithfully follow the rule of Christ’s sword or else die by the physical sword.
History shows that in the latter years of this era, the people were continually troubled by the sword. Some even resorted to violence—taking up the literal sword and becoming warriors.
From that time forward, the Paulicians became famous as a warrior people. Even the Byzantine Empire used “Paulicians” to defend its European border. The sword never left them.
Summarizing the Pergamos era in Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong wrote of the intense persecution and martyrdom they faced during this dark period in world history. “And so very few of the Pergamos Christians remained faithful,” he concluded. “One thousand years after Jesus had founded His Church, the exhausted remnant of the Pergamos era handed over the baton.”
This “exhausted remnant” was comprised of only a “very few” who remained faithful. There are always some who hold fast. Otherwise, the Church would die!
Who were the faithful ones? They were not those in the larger group who had compromised with false religion. Nor were they the militant “Paulicians” who took up the sword and fought against the Romans.
Here is a magnificent lesson for us today. Jesus Christ has given the Philadelphia Church of God incredible truth through Mr. Armstrong, and a lot of new revelation since his death. We must appreciate and preserve this truth even in the face of intense persecution. A great sword, in the form of the Tribulation, is coming upon the nations of Israel and the Laodiceans. If we believe, preserve and live this truth, we are promised escape from that sword (Malachi 3:16-17; Revelation 3:10).
In a radio broadcast on Church history, Mr. Armstrong said that most of the Pergamos brethren took Christ’s warning in Revelation 2:16 lightly. They were “trusting in their own worldly political alliances with neighboring Arabs instead of relying on Jesus’s protection. They were betrayed. They were slaughtered—100,000 of them. According to history, that’s what happened.”
Christ promised the faithful members of the Pergamos era: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it” (Revelation 2:17). God offered them hidden manna—a type of revelation, which is our spiritual sustenance. We need revelation from God to survive!
The phrase “white stone” in Greek means “verdict of acquittal.” If we let God teach us through His government and revelation, and we are corrected by His Word, then we will be found innocent.
Groundwork for a New Era
In one sense, the story of the Church toward the end of the Pergamos era is two stories—much like the Church today. The first is about the vast majority who fell away and gave in to false doctrines. They didn’t let themselves be corrected by the sword of Christ. They lost the revelation. Unless they repented, they will not receive acquittal! The second is about the minority who held fast. They were able to get out of Armenia and escape the physical sword. They moved into Europe and were protected. What is more, they will have spiritual salvation.
History shows that faithful Paulicians migrated with their militant counterparts. We know this because they evangelized as they moved west. Many people from the Balkans became associated with the Paulician religion, but it is unknown exactly how many were converted. In the Slavic tongue, these Balkan Paulicians became known as Bogomils, meaning “friends of God.”
Encyclopedia Britannica wrote, “The Bogomils were without doubt the connecting link between the so-called heretical sects of the East and those of the West.”
Again, what we know about the Bogomils comes largely from their persecutors. According to Cosmas the priest, the movement was started by a man named Bogomil, who worked from about 927 to 969. In his “Sermon Against the Heretics,” which was especially aimed at the Bogomils, Cosmas criticized them for rejecting Catholic beliefs including the veneration of Mary; the use of icons, images of Christ and the cross for worship; infant baptism; and observing “holy” days honoring saints as instituted by the Catholic Church.
During the 10th century a.d., the Bogomils were relatively free of persecution during the reign of a Bulgarian emperor named Samuel. Samuel’s father was a Bulgarian nobleman who had married an Armenian princess. Samuel’s brothers’ names were David, Moses and Aaron. Perhaps these biblical names, and the mother’s Armenian connection, indicate a royal house that was favorable to this small group of true Christians, allowing them to survive.
Later, some time near a.d. 1000, Turkish wars in the Balkans forced the faithful Paulicians and Bogomils to migrate even further west to the valleys of northern Italy and southern France—alpine Europe. This area was a well-known stronghold of resistance to papal authority from the fourth century onward. This was likely due, at least in part, to the influence of true Christians who had fled Rome during the days of Emperor Constantine. This faithful group of believers laid the groundwork for the next era of the Church. It was in these valleys that Jesus Christ began to revitalize His Work. A new era, Thyatira, was ready to burst on the scene.