12 “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.’
Letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation 2-3
|Addressed to the angel of the church
|Some aspect of vision of Christ in ch. 1 related to the church
|Commendation and/or encouragement of the church
|Correction of the church
|Call to repent and threat of judgment
|Call to listen to the message of the Spirit
|Promise to "conqueror" (one who perseveres)
(Table adapted from Thomas R. Schreiner, ESV Expository Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews-Revelation, 569)
I said last week that Jesus had nothing good to say about the churches in Sardis and Laodicea. I was wrong, and I’ve corrected the table on the back of your bulletin to include this detail: Revelation 3:4 says that in the church in Sardis there are still a few who are still worthy of the name of Jesus.
It has been suggested that there is a progression in the downward slide into error and sin in the five churches rebuked by Jesus in Revelation 2 and 3, that what began in the loveless church in Ephesus snowballed into the worldly mess that was the church in Laodicea.
The abandoning of the Christians’ first love in Ephesus leads to compromise with the world in Pergamum. Compromise with the world leads to tolerance of the world in Thyatira. Tolerance of the world and its ways leads to a dead and dying church in Sardis. Last of all is the church in Laodicea, which looks and acts so much like the world that it can hardly be called a church any longer, and Jesus is prepared to spit them out of his mouth in disgust.
Balaam and Balak
Why does Jesus refer to the Old Testament account of Balaam and Balak here in this letter to the church in Pergamum?
The church in Pergamum had begun to compromise with the world and its wicked ways. God’s people in Pergamum were compromising with a worldly system that included idolatry and sexual immorality, a compromise that began 1,500 years before Jesus appeared to John on the island of Patmos and instructed him to write this letter.
The people of Israel
The people of Israel had been in the land of Egypt for 400 years, most of that time serving as slaves of the Egyptians. God, who described himself in Revelation 1:8 as “‘the Alpha and the Omega . . . who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty,” delivered the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt in what is known in the Bible as the Exodus. Through his servant Moses, God led the people of Israel to Mt. Sinai where he covenanted with them and formed them into a nation, his nation and his people.
From there he directed them to enter the promised land of Canaan, but based on the testimony of ten of the twelve spies who were sent in to scout out the land, the vast majority of the people refused, claiming they would be killed by the people who lived in Canaan, and showing by their disobedience that they did not believe that God could do what he said he would do.
God punished their disobedience by making them wander in the desert for forty years until that faithless generation died.
The conquest of Canaan begins
Now, forty years later, they were beginning the conquest of the promised land, and you can read about Balak and Balaam in Numbers 22-24. Balak, one of the kings of Moab, was scared, and rightfully so. He was desperate, so he sent a message to Balaam, trying to hire Balaam to come to Moab and curse the Israelites.
Here is his message as recorded in Numbers 22:5-6:
Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.
Balaam was a seer, a prophet of sorts, and strangely enough he acknowledged that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, was the true God. God told Balaam initially that he could not go, but then Balak the king of Moab sent another, more desperate message to Balaam, with promises of honor and reward. We know from 2 Peter 2:15 that this promise of financial gain spoke loudly to Balaam’s heart, and God allowed him then to go to Balak in Moab.
Conversation with a donkey
Along the way Balaam had a conversation with his donkey, who saved his life three times by steering Balaam away from the angel of the LORD who was prepared to strike Balaam dead with his sword. When God opened Balaam’s eyes so he could see the angel, the angel reminded Balaam to only say what God would tell Balaam to say.
Balaam finally arrived in Moab and met with Balak, king of Moab. Over the next few days Balak brought Balaam to the top of three different mountains so Balaam could see some of the Israelites who were camped in the plains of Moab. Balaam and Balak built altars and offered sacrifices on each mountain top, and Balaam, under God’s direction, ended up blessing Israel rather than cursing them. Numbers 24:10-11 tells us what happened next:
And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. And Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them these three times. Therefore now flee to your own place. I said, ‘I will certainly honor you,’ but the LORD has held you back from honor.”
Balaam ended up blessing Israel one more time, but he was desperate for the financial reward Balak had promised him, and so he had one more trick up his sleeve.
Midianites and Moabites
The Midianites were a nomadic people who were allies of Moab. In Numbers 25 we read that the women of Moab and Midian enticed the Israelite men to worship their gods, especially Baal of Peor, to eat food sacrifed to their gods, and to engage in sexual immorality with the Moabite and Midianite women. Then, a few chapters later in Numbers 31:16 we read that it was these women who, “on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor.”
This account of Balaam and Balak and the incident of Peor is a recurring theme in the Bible, and is referred to in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah, the Psalms, Micah, and 2 Peter. Why?
Because Israel’s participation in the worship of Baal of Peor was the very beginning of the compromise, the apostasy, the treason that would plague Israel for the rest of their days.
And I ask again, why does Jesus refer to the account of Balaam and Balak here in this letter to the church in Pergamum?
Because Balaam, who could not curse Israel but could only bless them, came up with another, more subversive tactic, and taught Balak how to make Israel stumble, and stumble tragically. In doing that, Balaam is the prototype, the paradigm, the pattern of false teachers in the Christian church who, according to 2 Peter 2:15 do what they do for financial gain, and according to Revelation 2:14 teach the church to compromise with the world and call it “Christian liberty.”
In Revelation 2:13 Jesus describes Pergamum as the city “where Satan’s throne is,” and “where Satan dwells.” What is he talking about? Does he mean this literally?
Pergamum was about 70 miles north of Smyrna and 100 miles north of Ephesus on the road that was the circular “postal route” that connected the seven cities in Revelation 2 and 3.
A cultural center
Pergamum was a center of artistic and literary culture, and at one time the library in Pergamum boasted 200,000 scrolls. [Compare this with the Spearfish library.] The use of parchment (animal skins) for a more durable writing material than Egyptian papyrus was so popular in Pergamum, that they claimed, true or not, that they had invented parchment.
The first century Greco-Roman world was a world of many religions, and syncretism, or the blending of religions, was accepted by all but a few, and those few included both Jews, who had an exemption granted them by Roman law, and Christians, who had no such exemption.
Pergamum was built on a large cone-shaped hill that was 1,000 feet tall, crowned at the top with the temple and altar of Zeus. Nearby were the temples of Athena, Dionysos, and Asklepios, the god of healing.
More importantly, and relating directly to the church in Pergamum, the city in the first century was the official Asian center of the imperial cult, the worship of the Roman Emperor as Lord. This is probably what Jesus was referring to when he said in verse 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.
By requiring the simple declaration of “Caesar is Lord,” and along with that the burning of incense in sacrifice to Caesar, Satan had effectively established his throne and dominion in the Roman world, and especially in Pergamum, the Asian center of the imperial cult.
In the 2003 movie Master and Commander, the story is told of a British ship engaged in the early nineteenth-century Napoleonic wars with France. The ship was called H. M. S. Surprise, commanded by Captain Jack Aubrey. The oldest sailor on that ship, and I forget his name, had the words “Hold Fast” tattooed on his fingers, a constant reminder to hold fast to the ship’s rigging as he climbed up and down, day after day, setting sails and reefing sails.
The church in Pergamum, Jesus says, was still holding fast to his name, which means they were holding fast to him, and they did not and would not deny his faith even when faced with persecution. Persecution that culminated in the death of Antipas, who Jesus describes as “my faithful witness.”
Antipas my faithful witness
We don’t know any more about Antipas than this statement, but we can determine from this that he would not and did not compromise his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord by uttering the simple but deadly statement “Caesar is Lord,” and making the simple gesture of throwing a handful of incense into a sacrificial altar dedicated to Caesar.
His earthly reward for holding fast was death, but his heavenly and eternal reward was great, wonderful, and would never diminish or fade away, as he appeared before Jesus himself and heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Compromise with the world
Still, all was not well in the Pergamum church. Revelation 2:14-15 says:
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. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Balaam “taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel.” Have you ever encountered a stumbling block? Something that caused you to trip, stumble, and maybe even fall?
At the corner of Jackson and Main here in Spearfish, in the sidewalk outside Redwater Kitchen, there’s a section of sidewalk that has dropped a couple of inches, so that the section next to it is tall enough to trip you if you’re not watching for it. Someone sprayed yellow paint on that section, but it is still a potential stumbling block, and a visible one.
I encountered an unseen stumbling block last week on my motorcycle when one moment I was riding up a hill in some long grass, and the next moment I was flying sideways through the air, watching my motorcycle behind me plow into the ground. I don’t know what I hit, but I’m guessing it was a rock large enough to trip up my motorcycle. There was no major damage done other than the shifter was repositioned above the foot peg instead of in front of it, and the bike wouldn’t start for twenty or thirty minutes. In the end it was more embarrassing than anything else.
As I mentioned earlier, when Balaam “taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel,” he became the prototype and forerunner of all false teachers who attempt to lead God’s people, whether Old Testament Israel or the New Testament church, into what has rightly been called a “fatal compromise” with the world’s systems of belief and practice, far more dangerous than a shifted section of sidewalk or a rock hidden in the tall grass on a hill.
What was being taught and encouraged in the Pergamum church by these false teachers? At least this: that surely God wouldn’t mind if they visited pagan temples, ate food sacrificed to idols, and engaged in sexual sin. This was what Balaam taught Balak to entice the Israelites with, and while we know virtually nothing of the Nicolaitans beyond what’s recorded here and in the letter to Ephesus in 2:6, we can surmise that they were teaching and encouraging the churches to believe similar errors and engage in similar sinful activity, actions which Jesus said in 2:6 that he hates.
What might this teaching have sounded like? Perhaps something like this: “Oh, God is a gracious and loving God who wants you to enjoy yourself and have fun. Surely he won’t mind if you dabble here and there with a little bit of sensuality, a moment or two of forbidden pleasure. After all, if we continue in sin then grace will surely abound more and more! And now that we are no longer under the law but are now under grace, well, sin is more or less a thing of the past and nothing to worry about!”
Paul’s response in Romans 6 to that kind of thinking was “By no means!”
The church in Pergamum was not the only church in danger of and susceptible to false teaching leading to compromise with the world and lives characterized by sin rather than holiness.
About forty years earlier, in Acts 20:28-32 Paul had warned the elders of the church in Ephesus to:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
In 2 Timothy 3:1-9 Paul warned Timothy of the coming days of godlessness and false teachers that would plague all true churches:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
Do you remember last week when I said, quoting H. B. Charles, that “these things were not written to us, but they were written for us?” That is true of these letters to the seven churches, but I need to amend that just a bit.
Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude are known as the General Epistles. This means that they were not written to specific people or churches, but rather to all believers.
2 Peter 1:1 says, “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Second Peter was not only written for us; according to verse 1 it was written to us, to all believers in Jesus Christ, for all time. And in 2:1-3 Peter writes this:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
What Peter said would happen was happening in the church at Pergamum!
How serious is this? It’s deadly serious. Listen to this ominous warning from Hebrews 6:4-8:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
Returning to our passage in Revelation 2, what does Jesus say needs to happen, and what is his warning to the church in Pergamum?
The sharp two-edged sword
Look at verse 12 with me: And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.”
Jesus identifies himself as “him who has the sharp two-edged sword,” referring back to the vision in chapter 1 where John described Jesus as “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” I said a few weeks ago that this vision in chapter 1 was symbolic, and that the sword symbolized the Word of God, the words that come from the mouth of God.
In Isaiah 55:10-11 God says this about his word:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
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.
In that passage God states as fact, and essentially promises, that his word accomplishes everything that he purposes it to do, and it succeeds in the very thing that he sends it out to do.
Hebrews 4:12-13 compares God’s word to a sharp two-edged sword. In fact, God’s word is sharper than any sword, and oh so precise in what it does.
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. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Our call to worship this morning was Revelation 19:11-16. When I read this passage earlier this week I literally had goose bumps, looking forward to when this will actually take place at some point soon, according to Jesus.
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
A mixture again of symbolism and realism, and I understand the “sharp sword” that comes from his mouth is his word, his mighty word that will strike down the nations, his word that pierces “to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow,” and discerns “the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” His word that will not return to him empty with failure, but it accomplishes and succeeds in everything that he intends and purposes for it to do.
And to the church in Pergamum, in verse 16, Jesus warns them:
Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.
What can be done to prevent this? Is it inevitable that Jesus will war against them with the sword of his mouth?
No. Jesus calls them to repent. But he calls who to repent? Did you notice?
He calls the entire church in Pergamum to repent, even the believers who hold fast his name and have not denied the faith.
What? Why? Obviously those in the wrong, those who hold the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans must repent. Perhaps even the elders of the church need to repent, for allowing this error and sin to make its way into the church. But the entire church?
Listen to the words of Hebrews 10:24-25:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Sanctification is a group effort. Holiness is a group effort. Love and good works, encouraging one another are group efforts. You are responsible for your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Unlike what Cain thought, you are your brother’s keeper.
Like Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:12-13, the entire church is responsible “for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
So yes, the entire church in Pergamum, all the believers who were there, needed to repent for allowing this slide, this downgrade into compromise with the world, for allowing error and its accompanying sin to worm its way into the body of Christ.
What the Spirit says to the churches
Verse 17 says: He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
This statement is the same, it is identical, in each of the seven letters, and this is how we know that Jesus is speaking not only to each church, but he wants all of the churches to hear what he says to each church. He wants every church around the world to hear what he says to these seven churches.
Do you have an ear? Are you capable of hearing? Are you capable of receiving any form of communication? Then you need to hear, to listen, to what Jesus, through his Holy 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.
Schreiner says this “language is highly symbolic and hard to pin down.” How are we to understand the hidden manna and the white stone with a new name written on it?
Manna was a “heavenly bread” that God miraculously provided for the nation of Israel as they wandered in the desert for forty years.
The hidden manna that Jesus promises here to the one who conquers is probably referring to a heavenly reward, an eternal reward for those who remain faithful to him. Perhaps it even refers to the marriage supper of the Lamb that we read about in Revelation 19:9:
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
A white stone
The white stone is another way of describing the same eternal reward.
In the first century Roman world white stones were at times given as trophies to athletes in the games, and those stones then granted them access into banquets of celebration that were held later.
White stones were also given to those who had stood trial for some offense, and were declared “not guilty.”
A new name
Jesus doesn’t specify whose new name is on the white stone. It could be his new name, mentioned in Revelation 19:12, “and he has a name written that no one knows but himself.” Or it could be a new name for the one who conquers, a name chosen and given by God to each person.
The hidden manna, the white stone, the new name–all three are ways of describing the eternal life, the heavenly reward granted to each one who remains faithful to Jesus and conquers.
What about us?
In our part of the world, in our community, we do not have pagan temples where idol worshippers engage in sacrifices and sexual immorality. At least, I am not aware of any pagan temples in our community. But do not fall prey to the thinking that there are no idols in our culture.
The idols in our culture, the idols that we are susceptible to, are the idols that are present in any culture, whether or not there are actual, visible temples dedicated to these false gods.
These idols are idols of the heart: money, wealth, things, possessions, power, pleasure, work, sports, health, fitness, hobbies, friends, family, our kids, pride, reputation, entertainment, lust, food, drink, sexual activity in any form outside of biblical marriage. Anything, really, that, like Caesar of old takes the place of Jesus as Lord, as Master, as the central and primary object of our desire and worship.
Some of these idols can be far more demanding of our devotion than Caesar ever was, while others may not demand all of our attention and dedication. Perhaps they want just a little. Surely a little compromise won’t hurt; Jesus will understand, won’t he? After all, what about Christian liberty?
Augustine said, in a prayer, “He loves thee too little, Father, who loves anything together with thee that he loves not for thy sake.”
Not all of the idols that I listed are always idols. Some of them are necessary for life, for day to day living, and God knows that. But some of them are idols, and need to be dealt with as we would with any idolatrous god. How do we know? How do we know when something has become of more value to us than Jesus Christ?
Pray. Pray and ask God for wisdom. Ask for help from your fellow Christians, from your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all responsible and accountable to God for each other; why else would Jesus have told the entire church in Pergamum to repent of the error and sin that only some were engaged in?
Jesus promises eternal life and all the incredible blessings that come along with that life to the one who conquers, to the one who holds fast to his name, to the one who perseveres and endures to the end. And we will do this, by God’s grace, together.