To the church at Pergamum

Read an introduction to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3

This is the third in a series of commentaries on Christ’s letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Read about Ephesus and Smyrna.

Revelation 2:12-17 (HCSB)

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The One who has the sharp, two-edged sword  says:  I know  where you live—where Satan’s throne is! And you are holding on to My name and did not deny your faith in Me,  even in the days of Antipas, My faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.  But I have a few things against you. You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling block  in front of the sons of Israel: to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality.  In the same way, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.   Therefore repent! Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and fight against them with the sword of My mouth.
Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name  is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

The city of Pergamum

Also known as Pergamos, this city lies 20 miles inland from Smyrna. It is known for its wealth, like Ephesus and Smyrna, but stands alone for its wickedness. Adherents to the city’s pagan cults worship Athena (goddess of war, civilization, wisdom, strength, strategy, crafts, justice and skill); Asclepius (the god of medicine and healing); Dionysus (god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy); and Zeus (the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus and of the pantheon of gods who reside there). The worship of the Roman emperor as a god permeates Asia and is evident in Pergamum. All of this evidently prompts Jesus to refer to the city as the place of Satan’s throne. Pergamum also is famous for its university with a library of 200,000 volumes, and for manufacturing parchment resulting in a paper called pergamena.

Christ’s self-description

Jesus refers to Himself as “The One who has the sharp, two-edged sword” (v. 12), confirming John’s vision, in which he states that “from His [Jesus’] mouth came a sharp two-edged sword” (1:16). In Isa. 49:2, the Servant, which many commentators take to be the Messiah, declares that “He (God the Father) made my words like a sharp sword.” In Heb. 4:12 we are told that “the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as to divide soul, spirit, joints, and marrow; it is a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart.” And in Rev. 19:15, John sees the returning Christ and observes, “From His mouth came a sharp sword, so that with it He might strike the nations.” No doubt the sharp, two-edge sword describes the very words of Jesus. Just as He spoke the universe into existence, He brings judgment and deliverance with His voice.

Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition

Jesus says, “I know where you live – where Satan’s throne is!” (v. 12). Asclepius is worshipped in Pergamum under the sign of the serpent, and Satan, that ancient serpent (Rev. 20:2), raises up opposition against God and His people through rampant paganism, even persecuting Christ’s “faithful witness,” Antipas, to the point of death. (Little is known of this person; some commentators say his name is symbolic, meaning one standing “against all” for the sake of Christ.) Satan always seeks to deny God His rightful worship on His throne (see Rev. 4:2) and therefore erects opposing thrones on mountain peaks in pagan lands and in human hearts everywhere. Despite tribulation, believers in Pergamum are commended for “holding on” to Christ’s name and not denying their faith.

Even so, Jesus says, “I have a few things against you” (v. 14). Some in Pergamum are holding to “the teaching of Balaam,” an Israelite prophet who advised Moab’s king to seduce the Jews into intermarrying with heathens and worshiping idols (Num. 22-25; 31:15-16). In a similar fashion, the Nicolaitans, though rebuffed in Ephesus, are leading some in Pergamum to engage in sexual and spiritual infidelity. Intermarriage between Christians and pagans is a problem in Pergamum, where any social contact with the world necessarily involves idol worship. The practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols is a contentious one in the early church, and Paul deals with it deftly in 1 Cor. 8:1-13 and 10:25-33.

Christ’s comfort and/or commands

Jesus commands the wayward in Pergamum to repent. “Otherwise,” He warns, “I will come to you quickly and fight against them with the sword of My mouth” (v. 16). His threat to come quickly is a reference to temporal judgment of His church, as in 1 Cor. 11. 30-32, not the second coming. The “them” in this verse like refers to the Nicolaitans but also could be extended to the entire church for failing to more strongly oppose these false teachers. There is interesting imagery in Christ’s words “the sword of My mouth.” While they clearly point to the spoken words of Jesus the Messiah, they also remind Jewish readers of the Angel of the Lord (the preincarnate Meessiah) who opposes Balaam with a drawn sword (Num. 22:31).

Christ’s urge to listen

Jesus says in verse 17, “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” The false teachings opposed at Ephesus and embraced at Pergamum are the same “doctrines of demons” that have set back the church for nearly 2,000 years (1 Tim. 4:1). When human leaders usurp the authority of Christ, teach Christian freedom as license to sin, and make matters of conscience – like eating meat offered to idols or deciding which day of the week to worship – central points of doctrine, the church should hear, and heed, Christ’s call to repent.

Christ’s promises to the victor

Jesus says, “I will give the victor some of the hidden manna” (v. 17). As God supplied manna to the Israelites in the desert, Christ sustains His followers with Himself – His promises and His presence. “I am the bread of life,” He tells His disciples. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry” (John 6:35). When Jesus’ disciples urged Him to eat after He revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman, He told them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about” (John 4:32). As the Creator of all, Christ also sustains all things “by the power of His word” (Heb. 1:3). R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and D. Brown add this insight: “As the manna hidden in the sanctuary was by divine power preserved from corruption, so Christ in His incorruptible body has passed into the heavens, and is hidden there until the time of His appearing” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.).

Jesus goes on to say, “I will also give him [the victor] a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it” (v. 17). The ESV Study Bible provides these observations: “Historically, a white stone was given to victors at games for entrance to banquets (cf. the messianic banquet); such a stone was also used by jurors at trials to vote for acquittal. The new name, given to the one who holds fast to Jesus’ name (2:13), may refer to the Holy Spirit’s work of conforming believers to the holiness of Christ (Rom. 8:29). The manna and the white stone suggest differing types of eternal blessings and rewards, as appropriate in each situation.” The white stone also may correspond to the Urim, or diamond worn by the high priest on the breastplate. No one but he knew the name inscribed on the stone – probably the unspeakable name of God: Yahweh. And only the high priest had access to the manna, which resided in the ark in the Holy of Holies. Perhaps the message here is that believers, as priests unto God, will in heaven enjoy rewards that were reserved on earth for only a few.

Next: Christ’s letter to the church at Thyatira