Any of you ever watched the show Hoarders? I was surprised the first time I saw an episode b/c the home in view looked nice and put together from the outside, but as soon as they opened the door you saw the trash, stuff, and junk piling high to the ceiling. It was such a contrast seeing this for the first time for me, what seemed so nice from the outside was anything but on the inside. In our text today, we’ll encounter Jesus’ letter to the church in Pergamum. They should have their own episode of Hoarders b/c they too look externally faithful, while they are internally disgusting. Our text in Revelation 2:12-17, let’s dig in.
In v12 two things come into view that serve as introductions to this letter:
a) First, the church being addressed is located within the city of Pergamum. Last week we looked at Jesus’ letter to Smyrna and the week before Jesus’ letter to Ephesus. When we come to Pergamum it is important to note that these three cities: Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum were often found in competition as to which one was the greatest and most significant city in Asia Minor. Ephesus was the center of all trade in the region, Smyrna was the most faithful to Rome, and Pergamum was by far the most religious city in the empire. Thus it was Pergamum, which became the center of religious life for entire region and earned the nickname the ‘temple-warden.’ You see Pergamum, which sat about 15 miles away from the coast, didn’t have that high of an altitude, but within it there was one mountain that rose 1,000 ft. high. And on this mountain were hundreds of temples to hundreds of different gods, goddesses, and emperor’s. But on the top of this mountain there was a superior temple that crowned all others. This temple housed within it a great altar, which had over it the figure of Zeus sitting on a throne. Anyone notice when the text was read that the phrase ‘Satan’s throne’ was repeated twice? Satan’s throne is a reference to this monumental throne of Zeus, which by location/position, stood over all the pagan worship of the city.
b) Second, Jesus begins this letter by describing Himself in a manner appropriate for the current situation of this church. v12 says, “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: the words of Him who has the sharp two-edged sword.” This gives the unnerving picture of Jesus standing over the city as a threatening judge because of the church’s sin. This sword imagery returns in our letter in v16 when Jesus says He will war against them with the sword of His mouth if they don’t repent. Recall 1:16 also, where in revealing Himself to the Apostle John Jesus has a sharp two-edged sword coming out of His mouth. That Jesus uses this sword imagery with this letter to Pergamum meant three things at least:
i) The sword is the Word of God: Hebrews 4:12, “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper then any two-edged sword…” God uses this sword offensively and defensively, able to slay all sin and all sinners.
ii) The sword is a sharp sword: no heart is hard enough to withstand its blade. Sin may be latched upon the human heart deeply, but no sin cannot resist or endure the blade of the Word. Hebrews 4:12 continues, “…piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
iii) The sword is has two edges: it turns and cuts every way. On one edge it wounds to give a fatal blow, cutting away sin to kill it once and for all. The other edge wounds to give a healing blow, cutting away the old nature within us so we be pruned and grow stronger in grace.
This sharp two-edged sword would’ve had a dual function representing God wielding His authority within the Church (both in Pergamum and today) as well as representing God wielding His judgment outside of the Church (both in Pergamum and today).
Now we come to the bulk of the letter, v13-16, where we find Jesus commending them and confronting them
v13 says, “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.”
Jesus commends them because they have held fast to His name, not denying His faith. That they held fast and didn’t deny the name of Christ is worth commendation due to where they are located (where Satan’s throne is) and what they experienced (the death of their friend Antipas). Recall what Pergamum would’ve looked like from a distance. Flat coastal plains stretching from the Aegean Sea for 15 miles then a massive mountain stands tall and alone in the city of Pergamum, where pagan temples and the throne of Zeus found their home. John refers to this prominent mountain as Satan’s throne not only because pagan worship was happening on it, but because pagan worship was promoted, endorsed, and supported from this location into the known world. What the unbelieving eye saw as the throne of Zeus in reality was the throne of Satan where his deception had an unusual sway over men’s hearts. Jesus knows where they dwell. He knows the uncommonly difficult circumstances that come to His people when they do life on the doorstep of Satan’s throne, and yet even in that setting they remain faithful to Him. Thus, He rightly commends them for standing fast in such a hostile environment
Not much is known about Antipas here, except that he was a faithful witness to Christ. The church in Pergamum knew him very well, and probably saw his execution. Early Church tradition says he was burned alive inside a large brass bull, but we can’t be sure. They only thing we can be sure of is that in spite of the martyrdom of Antipas the other believers held fast didn’t give up. They knew that even though Rome had a strong sword, Christ had a stronger sword still. Even though the heathen mountain loomed before them daily, they knew it was barely an anthill before Mt. Zion.
We can sympathize with these Pergamum brothers and sisters in their plight. In our own persecution we must remember what they knew – though the world may wield a strong sword, Christ’s wields a stronger one. Though the mountain of unbelief may loom large before our eyes, Jesus is building His Church, and nothing can stop it.
Though the believers in Pergamum were faithful and held fast to the name of Christ, they were entertaining sin in ways they shouldn’t be. v14-16 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. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”
Jesus confronts them and rebukes for them for holding to certain sexually immoral practices. It is clear from this passage that this church was the exact opposite of Ephesus. While Ephesus had an overemphasis on internal doctrinal purity losing its love for those outside the church, Pergamum lacked an emphasis on internal doctrinal purity and therefore began to look like those outside the church. Pergamum was externally faithful to Christ by holding fast to His name, but due to their laziness in doctrine, they grew internally unhealthy. Another difference between the two churches is that the evil doctrines the church in Ephesus hated were the very ones the church in Pergamum embraced as true. The same Nicolaitans/Balaamites that were present and hated in Ephesus were welcomed in Pergamum. v14-15 describe this heresy which had its beginning all the way back in Numbers 23-24. It was there that the false prophet Balaam devised a plan and taught Balak, the King of Moab, how to get the anger of God onto God’s people. Because Balaam wasn’t allowed by God to utter a curse onto Israel he told Balak to send the cultic prostitutes into the camp of Israel. So he did, and guess who followed the prostitutes back out of the camp into Moab and Midian to engage in sexually immoral worship? The men of Israel. Jesus says this same type of sexually immoral worship is present within the Pergamum church in v14-15. It was this compromising, this combination of sexual cultic worship with Christianity which stirred up the displeasure of Jesus.
I think much of this is true in our day as well. The displeasure of Jesus is stirred up when we, His Church, compromise in similar ways. So how do you and I compromise, bargain with, or sell-out our faith today?
We could be doing the same thing: being lazy about doctrine we could grow unhealthy and worldly internally and begin to accommodate our faith in Jesus by embracing worldly sexual habits, lifestyles, and desires that are more in line with the culture around us than the Word of God. As the Pergamum church thought they could embrace the sexually appealing worship and teaching of the Nicolaitans, you and I do the exact same thing when we think we can dabble with pornography and still remain Christians. Do you do this? You may think I’m overstating my case here, but Paul said as much in Ephesians 5:3 when he said there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality among believers. Perhaps it isn’t porn for you, perhaps it’s your willingness to entertain and embrace homosexual marriage as a true view of marriage. Perhaps you reject homosexual marriage, read your Bible, come to church, but are okay with sleeping with your boyfriend or girlfriend and not waiting for marriage. Any sin you commit thinking it can linger around and co-exist with your faith is a way we do the same thing the believers in Pergamum were doing. Jesus warned the Pergamum church for doing such things, and this passage for us today is a similar warning. The anatomy of compromise is seen when we alter what we believe/practice in order to be more acceptable to the culture around us. If the Church does this long enough with the culture it will cease to have relevance within the culture.
In an age where Christians are tempted to apologize for God and His Word we must seek to become men and women who stand firm in what we believe, even if the world around us thinks we’re fools for doing so. v16 is a warning to Pergamum and to us that if we don’t repent and stand firm, we will be cut off by the sword of Christ.
Jesus ends the letter in v17 saying, “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.”
Like the Ephesians before, the believers in Pergamum have their own sin to ‘overcome.’ Here there are three things in view: hidden manna, white stones, and new names. The reference to hidden manna is meant to be a direct contrast between the food that Christ nourishes us with and the v14 meat sacrificed to idols they were eating in their sexually immoral worship. As Israel should have relied on the manna God sent them in the wilderness for their sustenance rather than partaking of idolatrous food, so too the Christians in Pergamum will only partake in the hidden or heavenly manna of Christ, who is the Bread of Life, if it stands fast and doesn’t compromise in the same way.
White stones were used in this culture as judicial voting signs. If one received a guilty verdict they would receive a black stone, and if one received an innocent verdict they would receive a white stone. That Jesus uses the same imagery here is telling. By holding fast to Christ the world would have given these Christians a black stone, but Jesus promises a white stone to the all who conquer, holding fast to Him and remaining pure from the sinful cultural influences. Images of Isaiah 1:18 would have also come to view, where God promised to make sinners white as snow, by the blood of Christ.
The new names on these white stones that are only known to those who receive them is a reference to the use of names in the 1st century, where the name was widely held to sum up what a man stood for. It represented his character, his person. His name stood for the whole man. Here then the new name Jesus will give those who conquer represents a new character, a new identity, which as Col. 3 tells us…is hidden with Christ in God.
This is gospel language, when we come to Christ we become new. The old is gone and the new has come. Newness means we must put away our old ways of life, our old loves, our old vices, our old sins. Again we see an age-old gospel lesson for Christians, Jesus invites you to come as you are, but in and by His grace He doesn’t leave you as you are. Jesus is reminding these Pergamum believers and is reminding you and me what happens when we embrace the gospel – we become new, and because of that we must live new too.