Revelation: The Culmination of Scripture – 05 (“The Letters to the Seven Churches – Pergamum”)
1. SCRIPTURE READING:
Rev.2:12-17 (ESV) ~ “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’”
2. THE CHURCH IN PERGAMUM (2:12-17):
The third church to receive a letter from Christ was in Pergamum. Pergamum was another great city, and Rome’s capital of the province of Asia. It is said to have been the seat of much learning, boasting of a vast library, consisting of nearly 200,000 books (second only to the library of Alexandria). It was also a hub of trade. Sadly, this was a seat of pagan worship. As in Smyrna, the god of healing, imagining a serpent, was worshipped here. Emperor worship also had its stronghold here. There is no clear indication as to how the church was planted.
The Receiver of the Letter (vs.12a): “…to the angel of the church in Pergamum.” Again, we see that this letter was addressed to the pastor of the church who on his turn had to read the letter to the rest of the church.
Christ’s Image (vs12b): Christ identifies himself in a rather strange manner ~ “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. Christ is the bearer of a lethal (deadly) sword! This does not at all sound like good news. One can just wonder whether judgement is hot on Christ’s agenda? Well the answer lies in the strangeness (Afrikaans: “eienaardigheid”) of this sword. In 1:16 we saw that it is out of Christ’s mouth that this sword proceeds. It must therefore have an oral connotation. The sword here is Christ’s powerful word ~ “…and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph.6:17) and Hebr.4:12 ~ “…for the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (also see, 2 Cor.10:4,5). Sure, it is sharp, very sharp indeed. But more importantly, it is double-edged in design. This speaks of its devastating invincibility (Afrikaans: “onoorwinlik”). Never does it fail in its mission ~ “…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is.55:11).
This word brought both judgement and justification, condemnation and commendation (Afrikaans: “aanprysing”). M. Cheyne and R. Murray in their book, “The Seven Churches of Asia” describe this two edged sword as follows: “The one edge convinces of sin, the other gives peace…; the one edge wounds the soul, the other shows the Physician, and lets the healing balm flow over the wounded soul.” The fact that the definite article is used (“having the two-edged sword”), indicates that the only authorised sword, is the Word of God. All others are not divinely inspired.
In dealing with the Pergamum congregation, the risen Lord will use this sword to fight against the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans (vs.16). It is interesting that Rome had given Pergamum the power of capital punishment (Afrikaans: “doodstraf”), which was symbolised by the sword. The Christians in Pergamum were thus reminded that though they lived under the harsh rule of the Romans, they were citizens of another kingdom – the Kingdom of Christ.
Christ’s Praise (vs.13): “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” The speaker knows that they live in a hostile and difficult place ~ “…where Satan his throne” (vs.13). This certainly refers to the fact that Pergamum was a centre of the worship of pagan gods and especially of the emperor cult. Pergamum was an idolatrous city where declaring oneself to be a Christian would certainly have provoked hostility.
Furthermore, the risen Lord knew the Christian’s loyalty to Him and we see that in the death of Antipas ~ “Antipas, my faithful witness… …who was killed among you.” Nothing further is known about “Antipas,” than the meaning of his name, “against all” and that he was one of Pergamum’s first martyrs.
Christ knows the steadfastness of the church notwithstanding her brutal persecution and some members who were lovers of idols rather than lovers of God.
Christ’s Rebuke (vss.14-15): “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Although praised, Pergamum was guilty of a few basic wrongs, that were damning errors. They experienced a lack of doctrinal discernment and discipline. These two failures led to a situation where some members accommodated the Balaamite sin.
The grammatical construction of vss.14-15 makes it clear that the doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans must be treated as one. If we paraphrase this verse, it reads as follows: “Because you have shown tolerance for Balaam’s doctrine, you have tolerated that of the Nicolaitans.” The two belong to the same doctrinal error.
What exactly is Balaamite doctrine? We find a summary of the ministry of this strange group in Num.22-25:3. Balaam exercised some kind of dubious (Afrikaans: “twyfelagtige”) prophetic ministry.
The king of Moab asked Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam could not do this, because God restrained him (Afrikaans: “weerhou”). On the contrary, he blessed Israel on all the occasions he was expected to curse her. Although it looked as though he stopped, he desired Balak’s daughter. He therefore urged the Moabite women to allure (Afrikaans: “verlei”) the people of God (Num.31:15,16; 25:1-3). Balaam went on to lead the Israelites into sin (apostasy – Afrikaans: “misleiding”). In principle, Balaamite doctrine means that believers are led to sin in a manner that removes fear and guilt for sin and punishment. This is what brought God’s curse on His people.
Balaamite doctrine consists or mean that believers are led to sin in a manner that removes fear and guilt for sin and punishment. As a result of this idol worship, the fear of God and respect for God vanished.
The Pergamum believers saw that Balaam’s doctrine was wrong and therefore the question arises why they tolerated these practices? To ask this question is to touch the issue at its heart. The doctrine of Balaam was extremely subtle and confusing. So confusing, that in effect, it left the issues unattended. It is a doctrine that pushed things to a point where people agreed to leave the issues, because of its complexity.
To be more precisely, the theological approach of Balaam’s doctrine was that of stressing sovereign grace over and against human responsibility. It would be argued that being a child of the covenant is sufficient insulation against sin and every form of evil. They beautified sin and trivialised its terrible character. They said that grace protected the saint against sin. This epitomises (Afrikaans: “toonbeeld”) Balaam’s theology.
Believers, Balaam would say, are free to enjoy life with the ungodly neighbours under grace. He would further teach that, as salt and light of the earth, believers are, in any case, duty bound to be fully involved with the world. Salt never loses its saltiness by being wrapped into meat! Besides, only those that are in regular involvement with worldly activities gained the ability to help the people of the world.
It does not appear, however, that Christ was criticising this church for personally embracing Balaam’s doctrine or the evils this led to. Rather He was condemning the church for owning too gracious a spirit in its communities or even membership who were themselves personally guilty of this. The church was guilty of allowing tolerance. Probably, this the same as today’s quest for numbers, peace and unity most churches are consumed with, at the expense of truth and purity.
We see therefore, that praise for the church had much to do with not being involved in error. The condemnation of Christ was as a result of accommodation of error.
Christ’s Counsel (vs.16): “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Christ warns the church to turn around and do what is right (that is sort out her doctrine and discipline), otherwise He would personally intervene with judgement. It is noteworthy that Christ does not threaten to judge the church entirely, but the people in its membership that is guilty of compromise. There is no hideout for those in gross error, like the Balaamites and Nicolaitans. The judgement would be executed by “the sword of Christ’s mouth,” that is His Word. Prophetic sentences would be issued, followed immediately by providential acts of physical punishment. Of this experience the Corinthian church is a fitting example ~ “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor.11:29-32).
Naturally the effects of such a judgement would eventually engulf the entire church. All leaders responsible for the stated laxity would be reprimanded as well. As Christ attacks evil doers their protectors are caught up in the crossfire. This is why even they are charged to repent. That means that all churches that are protecting members guilty of wicked living, Christ rightly introduces Himself as the bearer of the “sharp two-edged sword.
Christ’s Promise (vs.17): “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” We see here in vs.17 a promise to the overcomer which includes three difficult symbols: “hidden manna,” “a white stone,” and “a new name.” The “hidden manna” resembles the manna hidden in the ark of the covenant by Moses (Ex.16:33-34; Hebr.9:4). Since this jar of manna was to remind the Israelites of God’s grace and faithfulness in the wilderness (Ps.78:24), the thought here maybe similar. To those at Pergamum who refused the banquets of the pagan gods, Christ will give the manna of His great banquet of eternal life in the Kingdom ~ “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”” (John 6:47-51).
The “white stone” strikes us as a symbol of durability or permanence, but it is not certain what the real meaning of this is.
The “new name… … known only to him wo receives it” is either the name of Christ Himself, now hidden from the world but to be revealed in the future as the most powerful of names (3:12; 14:1), or the believer’s new name or character changed through redemption ~ “The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give” (Is.62:2 – also see Is.65:15).
The white name-engraved stone would, most probably therefore, represent the permanence of Christian blessedness. The colour of the stone is the choice for purity, the purity characterising this, is eternal bliss (Afrikaans “saligheid”). The inscription of the name upon such as stone indicates divine eternal ownership. God’s chosen ones are distinguished special people. The newness of the name indicates the exalted level of Christian experience and privilege in glory, compared with that known in this life. Because the depth of this experience will strikingly vary from one individual to another, the Lord refers to this as that “which no one knows except him who receives it.”
The status of the Christian and enjoyment of Christ’s fullness will be only enjoyed by those who faithfully and finally overcome the snares of their faith, the kind undergone by the Nicolaitans.
3. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
We learn from this church in Pergamum, that being submerged in the company of godless and idolatrous relatives, neighbours, or friends, is no justification for compromising one’s Christian stance.
We also learn how important the fear of God and respect for God is.
We learn how important it is for a Christian not to sin or compromise with sin.
Something more that is also very important, is to take hold of the blessings Christ promises to the faithful:
• God’s grace and faithfulness.
• The blessedness of purity.
• The fact that Christ takes ownership of the saved.
• The promise of Christ’s fulness to those who are faithful.