12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘Thus saith the one who has the sharp, double-edged broadsword. 13 I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan [is], but you hold to my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your presence, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold to the teaching of Balaam who taught Balak to throw a stumbling stone before the sons of Israel, to eat meat offered to idols and to practice sexual immorality. 15 In this way you yourselves also have those who similarly hold to the teaching of the Nikolaitans. 16 Repent, therefore, and if not, I am coming to you quickly and I shall do battle with them with the broadsword of my mouth. 17 The one who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who overcomes I will give to him of the hidden manna, and I shall give to him a white stone, and written upon the stone a new name which no-one knows except the one who receives [it].
Pergamum, 68 miles north of Smyrna, was the home of one of the great libraries of the world–a rival to the renown library at Alexandria. Its surrounding hilly landscape was also favorable for the construction of pagan altars, making it a center of worship, particularly for the Imperial cult. Indeed, the first temple to the emperor Augustus was built at Pergamum. It was also an important seat of government since there was a bêma, or judgment seat there. This was where magistrates would pass judgment on cases brought to them. So this was a city steeped in local and Imperial religion, that would have taken great offense at Christian non-participation in the city cults, and Christian attempts to evangelize. Indeed, the judgment seat in Pergamum may well have condemned many Christians there to a martyr’s death. The struggle between church and state over Christian faith and practice seems to be common, with some variation in manifestation. We have already seen the different responses elicited by such a situation, usually somewhere between steadfast loyalty to the gospel at the risk of one’s livelihood and/or life, and complete compromise and capitulation to the state in an attempt to preserve one’s life and livelihood, perhaps for what appear to be the best of reasons. It seems, as with the Ephesian church, the church at Pergamum has factions in its midst that want to compromise while the rest of the church stand strong. So the church’s failing is not in its stand for Christ, but in its unwillingness to deal with the compromisers.
For the church at Pergamum, Christ is the one “who has the sharp, double-edged broadsword”–a description we saw back in 1:16, where John described the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth. When we studied this passage, we noted that this sword was a battle sword, so Christ presented himself as the defender of the church, and also the judge of both those inside and outside the church. The fact the sword came from his mouth indicates that his primary means of defense and judgment is verbal. Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that the Word of the Lord is sharper than any two-edged sword. For an oppressed church, the picture of Christ as their champion is intended to bring comfort. For the compromisers within the church, the picture of Christ as judge should evoke fear and, hopefully, repentance.
This time, it’s not their works or their tribulation that Christ says he knows, but their location: “I know where you dwell.” Pergamum was clearly a very difficult place for Christians to live and work. Perhaps the fact that there was a judgment seat in the city added to the pressure to conform. Jesus mentions one notable person, Antipas, who clearly suffered a public martyr’s death, possibly after facing the magistrates. This judgment seat might be what the Lord refers to as “Satan’s throne”–bearing in mind the dual meaning of “Satan”: the spiritual entity who is the enemy of our souls, and the “accuser.” It is at this judgment seat that God’s people are judged by the world and found guilty. A theme of these letters, and indeed of Revelation, is the fact that on the last day the tables will be turned. The faith that the world condemns is the faith that will save God’s people; and those that accuse the saints will, on that day, be accused and found guilty.
[An interesting thought brought up by one of the group: how much do you suppose you can tell the priorities of a culture by it's judicial rulings? If you compare the punishments meted out for certain offenses over others, does this give an indication of what that culture considers important versus what it deems inconsequential?]
Despite the social and legal pressure to conform, the Christians in Pergamum are holding on to Christ–at least for the most part. The reference to “my name” suggest more than simply calling themselves Christian. It also implies that they are maintaining a Christian witness. They aren’t cowering away in a corner, but standing firm, willing to be known as Christians, and sharing their faith as they have the opportunity, both in word and in life. We have already seen in previous letters how important this is to Christ, even above doctrinal purity. Not that we shouldn’t have solid doctrine; indeed, it’s incumbent upon every Christian to avail him or herself of whatever means God provides to learn more about Scripture, theology, and correct doctrine. But being a faithful witness is far more important than having all your doctrinal ducks in a line. You must have some doctrinal ducks to be a Christian (what is Christianity without the central doctrines that make it distinctively Christian, e.g., the Trinity, justification by grace through faith alone, the resurrection, etc.?) The message we’re seeing in this letter, though, is that if you have the right doctrine, but you aren’t prepared to stand up and be counted as one of Christ’s, then you have missed the point. Indeed, as Jesus says in Matthew 10:33, “Whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” Even if they know their theology.
This should give us pause as we consider Christians suffering persecution in various parts of the world today (at the moment, particularly Iraq, Syria, and China). These Christians may not have access to good literature, or good teachers, and may be getting by with whatever they can find in terms of theological resources. They may know enough doctrine to identify as Christian, but little else. And yet they are prepared to sacrifice all that they have to be known as Christians and testify of the grace of God. Before we judge them over their lack of knowledge, we need to be humbled, and even shamed, by the boldness of their faith.
The Pergamum church may be a faithful church, but all is not entirely well. Jesus takes issue with “small things”–important, though relatively minor problems with the church. I would understand “minor” in the sense that on the whole the church is on the right track, and it’s really only these groups within the church that are causing problems. Indeed, if we were to list the “minor issues,” I think they would be: the Balaam-ists, the Nicolaitans, and the Pergamum church’s unwillingness to deal with them.
The first group Jesus mentions are those holding to “the teaching of Balaam.” I don’t think there was actually someone called Balaam in the church, but this is a codename for someone that the Pergamum church would all know. We see names used like this throughout Revelation, and its likely John (and here Jesus) does this to protect the identities of the real people should the letter fall into the hands of the authorities. The story of Balaam is told in Numbers 22:5-25:3, and 31:8, 16. While the story is interesting for background (Balaam, a pagan prophet sent to curse Israel is prevented from doing so by God, and eventually goes and proclaims a blessing instead), Jesus is referring more to the comment in Numbers 31. At some point after the story of Balaam, Israel became “yolked” with Baal, wandering off into idolatry and adultery with the Moabites, and Balaam is named as the instigator of this. The teaching of “Balaam,” therefore, is the teaching that it’s okay to go along with pagan practices and at least appear to endorse the pagan lifestyle for the sake of protecting one’s own life, liberty, and income. The Nicolaitans are identified with similar teaching, so I think it’s fair to say that the Balaam-ites and the Nicolaitans were separate but related groups in that their teaching led to the same result: cultural compromise.
It’s interesting to note that Numbers 22:7 and Deuteronomy 23:4 suggest Balaam acted from the desire for monetary gain. The concern for one’s financial welfare would certainly be a motivation to capitulate to the authorities, and this may be one of the reasons given by the Balaam-ites for their attitude and teaching.
The eating of “food sacrificed to idols” was something Paul seemed to be okay with if you didn’t know that’s where the meat in the marketplace came from, and if it didn’t burden your conscience or the conscience of your weaker brother (see 1 Corinthians 10). But “eating food sacrificed to idols” may also imply eating the food at the pagan feast, not just eating food you bought at a stall. Paul would certainly not have approved of that, and from the context I think that’s how we should understand the term here in Revelation.
Unlike the Ephesian church, the Pergamum church is putting up with these false teachers, and need to repent of this. If they don’t the Lord says that he will come and deal with them himself. Note that Jesus doesn’t say he will deal with the church; rather, he will come and deal with the false teachers–literally, he’ll “wage war” on them. This sounds like a good solution to the problem, but it’s not. If Jesus has to deal with the Balaam-ites and Nicolaitans, then the church has failed to exercise discipline within the church. They have not lived up to the mandate Christ gave to church leadership to shepherd the flock and protect them from the wolves. And though Christ’s disciplining sword will be effective against the false teachers, it’s not as if the whole church won’t be affected by it.
Why the reluctance to deal with false teachers? I think one strong motivation would be a misguided sense of church unity. The last thing a church wants when it faces persecution and pressure from the outside is in-fighting. A divided church is weak, and will struggle to maintain its integrity when hard times come. I can imagine the church leaders thinking that if they at least don’t stir up trouble within the ranks, the church will hold together and stay strong against the forces fighting against them. What they fail to see is that the Balaam-ites and the Nicolaitans were already weakening the church both physically (by their dissenting doctrine) and spiritually. The best thing for the church leaders to do would be to identify the false teachers and call on them to repent or leave. This might reduce the size of the church, but the church that remains would be stronger for it.
The promise to the overcomers here is to partake of the “hidden manna” and to receive a white stone with a new name on it that no-one knows except the recipient. Manna was the food given by God to Israel in the wilderness (see Exodus 16) when they complained about the food. Through this the Lord taught His people that He is their sustenance and they need to rely on Him to provide for their needs. Perhaps Jesus is giving a similar message to the church at Pergamum: don’t feel you need to go to pagan feasts to supply your need for food. In Jewish thought, the eating of manna was associated with the end times–this is what we’ll eat in heaven. I think this is the bigger message behind the promise: those who overcome will partake of food in heaven–in other words, this is another promise of eternal life.
The “white stone” with a “new name” written on it looks ahead to Revelation 19, speaking about the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. This is the banquet to which only the faithful are invited. Jesus is pictured riding on a white horse with the sword in his mouth and bearing a name that no-one knows. In ancient times, a white stone could be used for admission to a special event. It could also be used in a judicial setting to indicate an acquittal vote. Of course, the color white has an association with purity, as seen with the white robes of the righteous. If we pull together these strands–the manna, the white stone, and the wedding feast–we get a picture of God’s people, the victors, clothed in white and attending the Lamb’s supper in eternity. This is not a meal centered around idolatry, but a meal celebrating the Lamb and his redeeming work. And only those who have his name, those who are truly Christ’s, can enter the feast. Some other references to look up that may shed light on the meaning of this verse: Isaiah 62:1-5, and also Exodus 28:9-12.
Next time: The church at Thyatira…