1. The History of Pergamum
2. The Letter to Pergamum
b. I know...
i. Where they dwell
ii. What they do and did
c. The problem and the solution
i. The problem
ii. The solution
d. The promise
i. The hidden manna
ii. The white stone
1. The History of Pergamum
Pergamum is located around 15 miles inland from the Aegean sea (the sea on which both Ephesus and Smyrna are located) on a humped or cone-shaped hill that dominates the Caicus plain. The city is some three miles from the Caicus river which flows on the floor of the plain.
Strategically, it was an important city as, from it’s heights, the sea and distant mountain ranges can be seen. Like Philippi, therefore, it would have been an important military town and fortified settlement.
It was the centre of great administration, being the official capital of the entire Roman province of Asia. Its great library is said to have contained more than 200,000 parchment scrolls which were removed by the centurion Anthony and presented to Cleopatra in Egypt.
It was in Pergamum that the discovery was first made of how to produce parchment and the resulting product was called ‘pergamena’ hence the city’s name. It is from this that the English word for ‘parchment’ is also obtained. Pergamum’s name, however, is pre-Greek and probably means something like ‘citadel’ or ‘fortress’ which indeed it was.
The foundation of the city was around the time of the beginnings of urban life in Asia but very little is known about the first centuries of its beginning and development. It only came to prominence with the advent of the third century when the rule of the kings of the Attalids began (282-133BC).
It was in 282BC that Philetaerus threw off allegiance to Lysimachus who ruled over the area after the break-up of Alexander the Great’s Empire and established his own kingdom. Although his own dynasty only lasted around 20 years, the kingdom, nevertheless, survived until 133BC. Throughout this period, Pergamum allied herself with Rome - like Smyrna - because they recognised the rising Roman Empire and shrewdly dealt with them.
The threat of the Syrian kingdom to the east, necessitated Rome intervening in the affairs of Asia Minor c.190BC against Antiochus, and Pergamum’s assistance and, subsequently, its use as a ‘buffer’ city against any Syrian advance forged ties with Rome that were not quickly broken. Indeed, it was in Pergamum’s interest to do so for they could rely upon foreign powers for their protection and defence rather than look solely to their own resources.
So, from 133BC when king Attalus III bequeathed his kingdom into the hands of Rome, and for two and a half centuries, Pergamum became the official centre in Rome’s province of Asia. It was a seat of sovereign government, therefore, for around four centuries (from 282BC to 120AD).
Pergamum was an important religious centre and people from all over the world came to be healed by Asclepios , the pagan god of healing. Snakes were a symbol of this cult and Asclepios’ temple was infested with them. NIDBA notes
‘Pausanias of Lydia, the Greek traveller who wrote many descriptions of ancient cities, spoke of Asclepios as “sitting on a throne with...his...hand upon the head of a serpent”. The serpent was, in fact, a totem of the god, and harmless varieties of snakes had free run of such shrines’
The worship of Dionysus, the god of vegetation, was also popular and the handling of reptiles in connection with this cult was also practised - snakes were also associated with it.
A Pergamene coin found in archaeological excavations also depicts the Emperor Caracalla standing before a snake coiled around a tree. Wherever the christian went, therefore, he found himself confronted not just with cultic practices but by the symbol of the evil one, the snake.
The first temple dedicated to the Imperial cult (the worship of a living Emperor) in Asia was built here in 29BC, Augustus granting that a temple be erected to ‘the divine Augustus and the goddess Roma [that is, Rome]’ and it would have necessitated the burning of incense at the foot of Caesar’s statue and a confession of Caesar as lord. In all, there were three temples built here but it was only the first of these that was in existence and use at the time of John’s writing of Revelation.
Indeed, it appears as if Pergamum was plagued with idolatry, and statues and idols were widespread, Morris noting that one author has labelled the city as ‘the Lourdes of the ancient world’ (Ungers notes that the city ‘...was a sort of union of a pagan cathedral city, a university town and a royal residence...’).
When Pergamum defeated the wandering Celtic tribes and drove them away from Asia Minor, they celebrated the victory by building an altar to Zeus and, subsequently, a temple. It stood high up on the crag of the Acropolis and so would have been visible to most in the city and for miles around. The actual altar has been given the dimensions of 36m square with a height of 15m and is currently reconstructed in one of the Berlin Museums (my source says ‘East Berlin’ but, as that doesn’t exist, it may have been moved following German unification or the Museum renamed).
The altar was engraved with gods of Olympus battling with muscular giants who possessed snake-like tails. This Zeus was also called ‘Zeus the saviour’ because of the city’s victory which must have been extremely obnoxious to the christians.
It is possible that this temple was actually what is being referred to in Revelation when it talks of Pergamum being the place ‘where satan’s throne is’ but the allusion is by no means certain.
Zondervans notes that, in Pergamum, ‘paganism lay in three strata’. These would be the ‘pre-Greek’ gods such as Dionysus and Asclepios (referred to by Zondervans as ‘Anatolian’), the Hellinistic (that is, Greek) gods such as the Zeus of the victory celebrations to which a temple was built after the defeat of the Celtic tribes and Athene, and, thirdly, the Roman gods such as the Imperial cult of worshipping Caesar.
The city had not abandoned past gods for more modern forms but had simply incorporated new gods which were worshipped alongside the old ones. It must have been a city very like Athens about which it is noted that it was ‘full of idols’ (Acts 17:16). About the city Paul is recorded as saying that ‘I perceive that in every way you are very religious’ (Acts 17:22) because of the multiplicity of gods that were being served.
When Christianity turned up here in Pergamum, it would have been natural for the inhabitants to have thought that it was just one more religion that could be syncretised and absorbed into the general idolatrous practices of their city - but the demands of the Gospel were such that it would not have been long before conflict was generated between the followers of ‘the Way’ and the other worshippers in the city. Indeed, it would appear from the letter to this church that there were some were among the christians who had already endeavoured to have part of the Gospel in their lives along with part of their old way of idolatry.
2. The Letter to Pergamum
Jesus introduces Himself to the church at Pergamum as the One who possesses the ‘sharp two-edged sword’ paralleling John’s description of Him in Rev 1:16. There, however, the sword is mentioned as issuing from His mouth whereas here there is no indication - the text simply says that He is the One who ‘has’ it - but it seems best to transfer the context from there to the verse in question.
The word used for sword here is only used seven times in the entire NT (Strongs Gk Number 4501 - transliterated rhomphaia) and, apart from only one occurrence in Luke (2:35), all the other six occurrences are in the Book of Revelation (1:16, 2:12, 2:16, 6:8, 19:15 and 19:21).
It is difficult to be precise in describing the sword here meant as the variety of meaning and usage of the word could demand a rendering of ‘a large javelin, lance, or sword’ (as Kittels) even though it is normally taken to be indicating the latter of these three options.
Most commentators label the sword as ‘Thracian’ (a region located to the north of Asia Minor where Pergamum was situated) but, because Morris describes it as a ‘short Roman sword’ (which appears to be obviously wrong - the following Greek word below is the one that is normally used for the Roman sword) and Mounce as ‘a large...weapon’, it would appear that no final satisfactory description will be forthcoming as to its precise form!
The English word for ‘sword’ is used elsewhere in Revelation (Rev 6:4, 13:10 and 13:14) with a different Greek word employed in the text (Strongs Gk number 3162 - transliterated machaira) but here it indicates, Vines notes, ‘a short sword or dagger’ while Kittels writes that
‘[it] means the “knife” used in sacrifice, cooking, gardening...then the “small sword” eg the saber or dagger. In the LXX it is the knife in Gen 22:6, Josh 5:2-3, but mostly the dagger or small sword’
Rhomphaia, however, is used of warfare specifically in 2:16 and 19:15 (context verse 14), the subject being Jesus.
Therefore, it seems to be that John uses these two different words to distinguish two very different actions and uses associated with them. Though it is far from clear-cut and universal in application, machaira is taken to indicate a smaller weapon than rhompaia and the latter is understood as used to denote warfare rather than general combat - but, having said that, Rev 6:4 (machaira), for instance, could equally be taken to refer to warfare though John is not describing the action of peace being taken from the earth but of the weapon that is in the rider’s hand.
Loosely defined above, therefore, we go on to look at it’s use here in Rev 2:12 - and our definition doesn’t throw any light on its meaning at all!!
The Gk word for ‘sword’ always employed to speak of the Word of God and of its effects is unswervingly machaira not rhomphaia, but there are many similarities between its use in these contexts with that in Revelation. The only place, however, other than Rev 1:16 and 2:12 where the Gk word translated ‘two-edged’ is used (Strongs Gk number 136) is in Heb 4:12 (with machaira) where the Word of God is likened to being sharper than any sword in existence.
The Word likened to a two-edged sword may be indicative of a dual purpose. Firstly, in Rev 19:15 and 19:21, Jesus is spoken of as having a sharp sword issuing from His mouth with which he smites the nations and the passage there deals with judgment being inflicted upon the earth and, in John 12:48, Jesus speaks out and says that His word will be everyone’s judge on the final day. Even in Heb 4:12 (previously cited), the thought may be one that is primarily negative but there are positive aspects to the ‘Word’ with which God speaks - it can be a useful weapon in the believer’s hand (Eph 6:17) and is also the reason why men and women can be saved (Acts 2:41, 4:4, I Cor 1:18, Phil 1:14 and various other Scriptures throughout the NT).
Therefore, Hughes is correct when He says
‘That the sword which is the Lord’s word has two edges means that it never fails to cut. If it does not cut with the edge of salvation, it cuts with the edge of condemnation; for the word of redemption to all who believe is at the same time the word of destruction to those who refuse to believe’
This twin concept of ‘blessing and curse’ is evidently applicable when we come to Jesus’ words to Pergamum. He begins with the reminder of that Word (2:12) but goes on to show His listeners that, to those who accept it, there will be victory and reward (2:17) but, to those who reject it and fail to heed its warnings, the same word will bring destruction and judgment (2:16).
Therefore, it is true that the sword which symbolised the Word of God (that is, the word being spoken by God) may be taken both positively and negatively (in blessing or in judgment, in peace or in war) depending upon the context of the word (and the response it receives in its hearers), even though the use of rhomphaia does not lend itself easily to this interpretation - rather, the Gk word translated ‘two-edged’ is what prompts us to see this.
Finally, Mounce notes that
‘In the context of life in a provincial capital where the proconsul was granted the “right of the sword” (ius gladii), the power to execute at will, the sovereign Christ with the two-edged sword would remind the threatened congregation that ultimate power over life and death belongs to God’
Even though the christian church here faced execution for following Christ wholeheartedly (Rev 2:13), the real power of life belongs to Him who has the two-edged sword and it is He who should be obeyed rather than the head of the city in which they live.
b. I know...
There are two things that Jesus chooses to know here. Firstly, He knows the place where they dwell and, secondly, that not only do they hold fast the name of Jesus but that they stood strong in Him even in the days of the persecution that fell upon the church when Antipas was martyred.
i. Where they dwell
‘I know where you dwell, where satan’s throne is...where satan dwells’
‘Satan’s throne’ has been variously interpreted by commentators largely because there are numerous known facts about the city that could inspire such viewpoints.
The worship of Asclepios (noted under ‘History’) was accompanied by living snakes which were present in the temple to a great degree - the serpent symbol was also scattered throughout the city on stones and in inscriptions and it even appeared on the coins struck here.
This symbol, though accepted by the Pergamenes as a picture of healing, was quite obviously a cause of offence to the christian church who would have seen in it a picture of satan, the serpent (for instance, Gen 3:1ff).
The altar of Zeus has also been cited as the ‘throne’, seeing as the temple was founded high up on the city’s main hill, it’s citadel, and so overlooked the surrounding plain - the idea being of a great king overlooking his territory from this vantage point. It is also suggested that the actual altar even looked like a throne thus strengthening the identification.
Objections are made to both these as the worship of each of these gods was by no means unique in Pergamum and they did not acquire the status of pre-eminent places of worship in the surrounding region.
Most popular is the fact that Pergamum was the centre of the worship of the Emperor (the Caesar-cult). Morris notes a citation from Mytilene which indicates that Pergamum was the centre of the emperor cult for the whole province of Asia, and Mounce states that
‘It was here that Satan had established his official seat or chair of state. As Rome had become the centre of Satan’s activity in the West...so Pergamum had become his “throne” in the East’
But the objections that both Morris and Mounce put forward to undermine the identification of the ‘throne’ with the worship of Asclepios or Zeus are equally applicable here. Smyrna had been the city chosen ahead of ten other cities in 26AD to build a temple to the Emperor and it was this temple that seems to have become the centre of the most important sacrifices to Caesar. Even though Pergamum was an important centre, it was by no means the sole place where sacrifice and honour could be offered to the Emperor and it was not, therefore, unique or would have been considered as such.
Finally, Mounce notes Wood (from the Expository Times) as stating that
‘...as the traveller approached Pergamum by the ancient road from the south, the actual shape of the city-hill would appear as a giant throne towering above the plain’
Though this may indicate why the title ‘throne’ was a good choice of words for the city, it does little to explain to us why the title ‘satan’s throne’ was applied to Pergamum. Besides, if this was the case, the altar to Zeus would almost certainly be referred to in the letter in Revelation as it ‘sat’ on this hill and the god would, therefore, have seemed to have been enthroned over the surrounding area.
All these identifications suffer from the problem of being too selective. That Pergamum was a religious centre is not in doubt and neither is it uncertain that a multiplicity of gods were worshipped here. From the pre-Greek era, both Asclepios and Dionysus were being offered sacrifice; from the Greek era, Zeus’ altar high up on the citadel attracted much sacrifice and attention; and from the new Roman Empire, the worship of the Emperor as god had been established and continued to flourish.
Ungers, quite significantly, includes a drawing of ‘The Altar to Unknown Gods at Pergamos [Pergamum]’ in his entry on the city so it seems reasonable to assume that Pergamum was similar to Athens in this sense where Luke noted that ‘the city was full of idols’ (Acts 17:16).
This could be the reason why the persecution here in Pergamum was predominantly pagan/Gentile in origin as opposed to that in Smyrna where the opposition is primarily Jewish - religiously devout Jews are unlikely to have stayed in an area where there was so much idolatry as they would have been concerned to keep themselves ceremonially pure. Even so, Chilton states that
‘Satan has already been identified in these messages as united to the synagogue, the unbelieving Jewish community that has abandoned the covenant in favor of a mythical religion. The foremost enemy of the Church, throughout the New Testament, is apostate Judaism, whose representatives were continually hauling Christians before the Roman magistrate...The close relationship in Pergamum between organised Judaism and the imperial officials, combined with Christianity’s opposition to statism and the worship of the creature, made it only natural that persecution and martyrdom would begin here, if anywhere in Asia’
This is without justification, however, from a fuller understanding of Pergamum as being a predominantly Gentile or, perhaps even, an exclusively Gentile city.
Therefore, the title ‘satan’s throne’ seems best applied to the city because of the multiplicity of gods worshipped and respected here. This worship, as Paul says, is being offered to demons rather than to any true representation of the one true God (I Cor 10:20) and therefore it could rightfully be labelled as the place where satan was put on the throne, the place where he was elevated into a position of dominance and worship throughout the city.
Such pluralistic societies must be similarly regarded by Christ even in today’s present age but a Pergamum ‘where satan’s throne is’ is not going to be common for there are very few areas that worship ‘all the gods under heaven’, so to speak. Having said that, the pluralistic West has adopted more gods in this past two decades than would ever have been thought possible at the start of the great move of humanism which sought to undermine spiritual values within society.
The resurgence of the desire for spiritual experiences is a good demonstration that no society can be truly godless because it is part of man’s innate nature to offer worship to a creature that is greater than himself. However mankind may struggle to remove spirituality from his experience, it will always manifest itself in some other form (even in dictator worship similar to the Caesar cult present throughout the ancient Roman Empire) and there will be a resurgence of interest once the emptiness of pure humanism is felt and experienced.
Having given an explanation of why Pergamum is regarded as being the place where satan’s throne is, we need to think briefly about the concluding statement of the verse which labels the city as the place ‘where satan dwells’. It is one thing to say that satan has his throne here but quite something else to say that he’s actually resident!
Concerning Jesus’ words that He knows where they dwell, Morris comments that
‘The verb live (katoikeis) means that the Christians were not simply passing through Pergamum. It was their home and they had to face their difficulties to the end’
Mounce also notes that
‘the Greek word suggests permanent residence’
but it is only the latter who goes on to note concerning the phrase ‘where satan dwells’ that
‘A contrast is intended with the first clause - both believers and their ultimate adversary live in the same locality’
even though he goes no further than mentioning the ‘facts’ of the matter. It is the same Gk word employed in these two phrases that present most commentators with difficulties that they seem to want to ignore!!! If we take the word as applied to the Pergamenes as denoting ‘permanent residence’ there is no reason, as far as I can see, for taking the phrase ‘where satan dwells’ as denoting anything other than the actual permanent residency of satan over or in the city.
Though this may seem incongruous with our belief-system (and, believe me, it’s difficult!!) the letter to the Pergamenes really can’t be taken anyway else unless we want to use a hatchet on the text. It may be of use if we look back to a couple of OT passages to try and see why this statement is not all that ‘unusual’.
Isaiah chapters 13 and 14 present to us an ‘oracle concerning Babylon’ before specifically addressing some words to ‘the king of Babylon’ in 14:4-21. While verses 4-11 may be taken to be referring to an earthly king, what follows from verse 12 has always been taken as indicative of satan himself and of the situation that he found himself in during the early days of the earth when he rebelled against the rule of God and was cast down to the earth where he tempted mankind (and continues to do so) to pull away from the rule of God.
It’s difficult to be entirely certain whether this passage does refer to satan as it could be read both ways but, should it be so, then satan is seen here as the power and influence behind the throne of Babylon.
Another OT passage in Ezek 28:1-19 is addressed to Tyre. To the prince of Tyre, Ezekiel prophecies from v.2-10 and then begins a discourse which runs from v.11-19 which is directed at Tyre’s king. Again, the language is often taken as referring directly to satan himself and verse 13 is probably the clearest indication that the person meant here is not the human sovereign over the city but a spiritual influence who was none other than satan.
The identification is far from certain, however, but it does appear as if satan did ally himself with certain leaders throughout earth history and was, in effect, ruling through them in much the same way as God rules through His people - that is, attempting to get his will done in opposition to that of God’s.
There is much controversy over NT passages which speak of ‘principalities and powers’ and the application of warfare terminology in prayer to attempting to overcome the existence of these, but what is fairly certain is that, in passages such as Eph 6:12, Col 2:15 and Mtw 24:29, we are looking at more than ‘world rulers’ or human kingdoms that range throughout the earth, but that we are seeing the statement that demonic forces do control areas of influence in different areas.
Even in Dan 10:12-14, we read of ‘powers’ over areas that withstood God’s angels from delivering the message intended for His people (and the power is referred to there as ‘the prince of the kingdom of Persia’ which is a significant title when compared with the passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel previously cited) and there seems to be little way of alternatively interpreting it.
Therefore, it would appear that, at the time of John’s writing of Revelation, satan was resident as the spiritual power who was enthroned over the region of Pergamum. As we have suggested, if satan’s throne was one time over Babylon, then Tyre, it does not follow that he is still resident over modern day Pergamum but the ‘type’ that Pergamum was then may give us a good indication of where he may be resident as enthroned over today - that is, a heavily pluralistic society that probably has a strong element of human worship involved within it.
ii. What they do and did
‘...you hold fast My name and did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you...’
Pergamum was a place where satan dwelt and, in such a situation as this, it could not have been easy to hold on to the faith and to the name of Christ even from the viewpoint of having temptation at close around you wherever you went.
Having said that, it is noticeable, according to Morris, that only one specific incident of persecution is being referred to and not, as in Smyrna, a continuing outpouring of tribulation upon the church. He notes
‘The reference to one martyrdom, that of Antipas, and the aorist tense in the verb renounce point to one definite crisis rather than a continuing persecution’
(notice also, in support of this, that the letter doesn’t speak of Antipas as ‘one of My witnesses’ or ‘one of My faithful ones’ but as ‘My witness, My faithful one’ denoting just the one believer who, up to that time, had died a martyr’s death)
It would appear that, because of the pluralistic nature of the society, there was more tolerance toward the christian church than there would have been in, for instance, Smyrna, where there was a strong Jewish presence who strongly opposed the Gospel.
This may, at first, seem difficult to comprehend seeing as satan dwelt here - surely there would have been more opposition to the Gospel here than there would have been in any city where satan didn’t dwell? But the main opposition here against the church and against its growth would have been the pluralistic society itself which undermined the claims of the christians that there was just one way to God - and that through Christ - and it appears from the following verses in the letter (v.14-15) that this pluralism had crept into the church and had undermined their witness.
Confusion through pluralism is a more effective weapon than direct physical persecution and satan knows full well that a martyr undermines his authority over an area (see Rev 12:11).
When there are a multitude of voices, each pointing in different directions, man is less likely to follow a selective and seemingly restrictive ‘religion’ when there are others that permit him to do, to a fair measure, whatever he likes. If there is tolerance of all ‘ways to god’ then there is unlikely to be those among a society who stand upon one belief system and hold fast to it to the exclusion of all others.
Direct opposition to the Gospel is more likely in a society where many follow one god exclusively than it is where there are many accepted gods - because the claims of the Gospel undermine the entire society in one moment rather than the many ideas that abound through pluralism.
Strangely enough, the pluralism that exists in western society has had just such an effect on both the christian church and its preaching of the Gospel. Many christians today have so much of the ‘other religions’ in their lives that it is difficult to discover a Biblically based christianity in a lot of fellowships throughout the West.
Hughes regards Antipas, the martyr, as ‘their bishop or leader’ going on to speak of his martyrdom as being
‘a lethal blow to the church by depriving it of its spiritual leader and terrifying its members’
but his identification of Antipas as the church leader is purely fanciful and speculative and warrants little consideration. Stephen, the first christian martyr, was only a waiter on tables (Acts 6:1-6) and it is a fallacy to think that church leaders should be singled out for martyrdom and the commendation of the Lord. The point is that Antipas was faithful until death (Antipas is given the same title in the Gk - ‘the faithful’ as Jesus is in Rev 1:5 - an indication of Jesus’ high regard for him) and that his martyrdom had not pulled the fellowship away from serving Christ.
Not only had they stood strong in Christ then (‘you did not deny my faith’) but they were presently standing strong as well (‘you hold fast My name’). And yet, even though Jesus is able to commend them for their faithfulness, the church does contain believers who are compromising their faith through the pluralism that is strongly present in the city...
c. The problem and the solution
Even though the fellowship at Pergamum has held on to Jesus’ name (Rev 2:13) there are some who hold the name of ‘brother’ who have syncretised the pluralistic practices of the city’s occupants around them and are presenting themselves as a cause of stumbling to the believers who are remaining pure and committed to God (Rev 2:14). The ‘Balaamites’ will hold similar teaching to ‘the woman Jezebel’ (Rev 2:20 - where see my notes on Thyatira) but they are also paralleled with the Nicolaitans previously mentioned as possibly being present in the church at Ephesus (Rev 2:6). It was noted there that the definition of the ‘Nicolaitans’ was closely similar to the Balaamites and the note here in 2:15 does not necessarily infer that the former sect were present - only that, in manner, they were similar to the problem that was current within their fellowship. Both Ephesus and Pergamum (along with Thyatira), therefore, suffered from a syncretism of pagan worship with devotion to the true God which eased the life and relations of believers within their respective societies.
Even though an open satanic attack had not caused them to lose faith or deny Christ (Rev 2:13), the heretical teaching that had gained adherents within the fellowship was undermining the purity of their devotion and commitment to Christ with the effect that they stood in a position where Jesus Himself may have need to come to them and fight against them (that is, the believers who were promoting false teaching - Rev 2:16) - pretty strong words! This will be the danger for any fellowship which lives in a widely pluralistic society where opposition to pagan gods and practices would put believers into a position of conflict and the relaxing of certain commands which would make life much easier.
Having seen the verses in broad overview, we need to go on to consider some of the details.
i. The problem
Balaam was a prophet who is mentioned in the OT in connection with a couple of incidents when the children of Israel were moving through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land of Canaan (Numbers chapters 22-24 relate the main incident in his life, but chapter 25 is commented on in chapter 31 and is seen to be his responsibility - see especially verses 8 and 15-16 in this chapter).
Balaam was renowned in His day for hearing directly from God and being able to curse or bless individuals or entire nations in the name of a greater one than himself (22:1-6). Amazingly enough, it appears that God really did speak to him and through him, even though he practised augury (see, for example, 24:1) and was not wholeheartedly committed to following the ways of God in every area of his life. Perhaps he saw his relationship with God more as a way of making money by offering his services than actually something where God was to have pre-eminence and the first-call (see 22:7 and 22:15-17 - perhaps the reason for his insistence before the Lord that he go with the messengers of Balak was that there was a sizeable amount of money and honour at stake?!!).
When the Israelites came into the plains of Moab, Balak, king of Moab, sent for Balaam to curse the Israelites to secure a victory when he was to send his armies amongst them to drive them away - strangely enough, the Israelites had no intention of possessing the land of Moab and Balak would have done best to leave them alone for a short space of time, after which they would have moved on and into Canaan.
Having tried to curse Israel three times and failed to do so because God constrained him (23:1-24:14), he then proceeded to prophesy concerning the future welfare and prosperity of the Israelite nation, foreseeing the destruction of Moab at their hands (24:15-24). Finally, Balaam, having failed to secure for himself any riches through his prophecies, went back to his home (24:25).
If that were the end of the matter then we could have surmised that, perhaps, Balaam learnt his lesson - but there is more to it than that. It seems as if Balaam was devising a plan in his heart to overthrow the protection of the Lord’s people so that he could still receive the honour and riches that Balak had in store for him - a plan that relied not upon his cursing of the people but upon putting temptation in the Israelites’ way so that their God would become their adversary rather than their protector.
Numbers chapter 25 reads initially as if the Israelites were the sole reason for their sin of idolatry and immorality but 31:15-16 needs to be read in connection with this passage. When the Israelites took vengeance on the Midianites for this incident (both Moabites and Midianites were involved - see Num 25:1 and 25:6) and yet spared the Midianite women who had been the direct cause of the sin, Moses says to the nation
‘Have you let all the women live? Behold, these caused the people of Israel, by the counsel of Balaam, to act treacherously against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord’
Therefore, far from the incident of Num 25 being ‘just something that happened’, Balaam’s hand was very definitely in it and he appears to have been the brains behind the Moabite and Midianite women being sent to the outskirts of the Israelite camp to entice them to deny the covenant they had between themselves and God, remove His protection from them and so not be able to stand against the forces of Moab when they were to advance upon them.
Instead of having to curse Israel (something that God was not going to let him do), the only option was to make Israel curse itself. This, then, was Balaam’s teaching and he paid for it with his life (Num 31:8).
When we come to the letter to Pergamum, we shouldn’t think of any external force to the congregation attempting to pervert the way of the believers through the imposition of supposed believers (though satan would be the prime mover here - I am thinking of a specific body of human individuals with my comments) but, rather, see that the believers, who were probably struggling in their stand within the city’s society and amongst their friends, tried to rationalise the Gospel and to reason the implications of the work of Christ to such an extent that it opened up the way for them to be able to serve Christ ‘within the fellowship’ and yet still participate in sexual immorality and sacrifice to idols which gained them acceptance in Pergamum.
Notice that Jesus says to them ‘you have some there’ and ‘you also have some’ which directly refers to those who are within the fellowship and not those who stand as outsiders (whether visitors or non-attendees) - otherwise Jesus would not hold this against them. Paul wrote that it is not the outsiders that must be judged but those who have the name of ‘brother’ and who deny Him by their lifestyle (I Cor 5:9-12) going so far as to say that they need to be driven out from the church (I Cor 5:13). As we will see under ‘the solution’, this is not necessarily the course of action laid upon the fellowship here though that should not be excluded if His word ‘repent’ is not taken seriously by those who have syncretised the differing and conflicting teachings.
What the Balaamites were doing by their actions (the label ‘Balaamites’ is possibly one that the Lord uses - I doubt if any group within a fellowship would have called themselves such, as Balaam was a notorious individual from the OT who was indicative of a wrong and rebellious relationship with God) was to put a stumbling block, a temptation, before those believers who had kept themselves pure and devoted to Christ (I Cor chapter 8).
The fundamental problem within Pergamum, therefore, was one of compromise. When satan is unable to influence a church by a direct frontal assault (Rev 2:13), his methods become crafty and he attempts to bring in destructive teaching that undermines the claims and power of the Gospel in believers’ lives - indeed, what he is effectively achieving is that God will fight against His own church (Rev 2:16 - though it is the Balaamites that are singled out here) or, at least, remove His protection from them, as He would have done in the wilderness at Balaam’s counsel had his intentions not been thwarted.
If any of the church letters are specifically relevant to today’s church here in the UK then this one is it without any doubt. For many years, now, the Church has been eating away at the radical truth and demands of the Gospel and have introduced pagan concepts and teachings within the church to the extent that often what is passing for christianity is no more of a christianising of pagan belief systems. The syncretism that some believers have adopted not only remove the power of God from them, but stumble and destroy the life of God in younger, more vulnerable, believers who then stumble others and so on. The problems that fellowships experience today are often of their own making and the attacks that they interpret as being ‘from satan’ may be none other than God Himself warring against His errant Church. That might sound like an overreaction - but a compromised nation (as Israel found out) turned God from being a friend into being their enemy and, in the NT, the principal is confirmed by Jesus’ declaration in the subsequent verse that, unless repentance is their experience, Jesus would come and ‘war against them with the sword of My mouth’ (Rev 2:16).
The single most dangerous cause for concern in any Church is not what might beset it from outside its ranks but what might arise from within. Therefore Paul warned the elders of Ephesus before he left them for the final time (Acts 20:29-30) that
‘...fierce wolves will come in among you...and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things...’
It is not those who are outside the church structure who will generally mislead the brethren but the sheep in wolves’ clothing that lead astray from within the Church’s ranks having been accepted by them as part of the Body that are so dangerous (Mtw 24:24, I Tim 4:1-2). Refusing to accept sound teaching and instruction, believers run after words that suit their individual tastes rather than hold fast to the simplicity and radical demands that the Gospel makes upon them (II Tim 4:3).
See also Jude 4, Jude 10-11, II Peter 2:1, II Cor 11:15, Mtw 7:15-20 and Mtw 7:21-23.
Concluding, then, compromise is the problem - a syncretism of false religions into the life of the church which promotes wrong actions and immoral behaviour. Instead of Jesus fighting for His fellowship, He turns around and prepares to fight against those who have erred from the pure Gospel.
ii. The solution
Simply, the solution is ‘repent’.
The question that seems to jump to the fore, though, is ‘Who is to repent?’ Should it be the Balaamites who have syncretised pagan practices in their walk with Jesus and who need to turn around and purify their beliefs and practices to serve only Him? Or should it be the church, corporately, who have failed to exclude these believers from their midst when they knew that they were wayward and were leading astray? Or even, should it be individuals within the church who have need of repenting of their tolerance of these brethren who have gone unopposed?
Mounce opts for the second option and comments that
‘The indifference of the church at Pergamum to the presence of Nicolaitans is a matter of considerable concern. Unless they repent Christ will come and war against them...Only a portion of the church has fallen prey to the pernicious doctrine of the Balaamites, but all are guilty of not taking action against their presence’
But the next verse indicates that it is only the former of these three options that applies, for Jesus speaks of making war upon ‘them’ if repentance is not forthcoming - therefore, the only real repentance that will avert His wrath will be the repentance of the wayward believers.
This is in contrast to the Ephesian fellowship where repentance is also commanded upon the fellowship (Rev 2:5a) but the result of a failure to respond to the message results in the removal of the fellowship from the group that Christ regards as His own (Rev 2:5b). In the Ephesian fellowship, although false teachers have been removed from their midst, the sin mentioned is ‘fellowship-wide’ which appears to be the reason why the judgment which would follow unrepentance is seemingly more severe.
The war that Jesus will wage against them is paralleled in Rev 19:15 where Jesus goes out to all nations to fight with the sharp sword which issues from His mouth.
On this imagery see my notes under ‘Introduction’ - the Word of God that brought life to the believers and who have now syncretised false teachings into their relationship with Him, is the very same Word that will fight against them.
The option to the Balaamites is clear - either face the wrath of the One they say they serve or accept the wrath of whoever may persecute them for rejecting practices that have befriended Pergamene society. But, as for the church, there are no commands to ‘repent’ - rather, they appear to be faithful and in need of no change of heart and lifestyle. Although it is only Smyrna and Philadelphia who have ‘nothing wrong’ with their fellowships according to the contents of the letters addressed to them, it must be pointed out that, although there is a problem here in Pergamum, the church is not told to put itself right.
It is quite possible, therefore, that they had already tried to sort out the problem and that the Balaamites had refused to repent, justifying their experience, perhaps, as many other believers had done at that time in Church history (Mounce’s statements are misrepresentative of the fellowship at Pergamum, therefore, as it is quite possible that the pure church had already tried to sort the false teaching out with no success) - that, if Christ has set us free, we are free to do as we please - see Paul arguing in such a doctrine’s words in I Cor 8:1-6 and turning it around at the end of the chapter to implore participants not to stumble the brethren.
It needs a direct word from Christ to call them to account and it is a word that will cause pain. Even though Jesus never used earthly weaponry to go to war and to injure people when He walked the earth, His words were by no means passive statements that soothed everyone’s troubles - for some, when Jesus spoke, that was the beginning of their tribulation!
His words hurt many people - and the analogy with a sword is fitting and apt - examples of note are the rich young ruler (Mtw 19:21-22), the Nazarenes (Mk 6:2-3), the Pharisees (Mtw 15:12) and even His own disciples (John 6:60, 66). Jesus’ word has always been His weapon - just as His word also brings healing, deliverance, cleansing and salvation. When God speaks, division results between those unwilling to follow after Him and those eager to maintain their relationship with Him.
But the Balaamites’ options are clear - either choose the course of action that the One they say they serve has just spoken or choose their own way with the consequences that that would entail.
d. The promise
We have seen that the promise in each of the seven churches (‘To him who overcomes...’) is usually a promise given to the believer for the future time in eternity but here the application is not immediately apparent. It is more uncertain because the ‘white stone’ of the second promise is difficult to understand and interpret due to our lack of knowledge of what it would have meant to the recipients of the letter.
However, I have tried to understand both promises in the context of the letter in which they appear but my interpretation is far from certain due to not being able to adequately determine what the Pergamene church would have comprehended them to mean.
i. The hidden manna
Mounce notes that
‘The idea of hidden manna reflects a Jewish tradition that the pot of manna which was placed in the ark for a memorial to future generations (Ex 16:32-34; cf Heb 9:4) was taken by Jeremiah at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s temple (sixth century BC) and hidden underground in Mt Nebo (II Macc 2:4-7). There it was to remain until the coming of the Messiah when Jeremiah would reappear and return the ark and its contents to the new messianic temple in Jerusalem’
but Morris is more reserved in his comments when he writes that
‘There may be an allusion to the Jewish idea that when the Temple was destroyed the prophet Jeremiah hid the pot with the manna that was in the Holy of Holies, and that when the Messiah came it would reappear’
and goes on to opt for a more obvious and straightforward interpretation that the phrase simply refers to the promise that
‘...the believer who overcomes will receive celestial food not available to the world...’
Concerning this ‘hidden manna’ which the commentators refer to as a Jewish allusion to an action of Jeremiah, it should be pointed out that their citing of II Macc 2:4-7 (the reference should rather run to verse 8) makes no mention at all of manna - or even of the pot within which it was contained. Rather, Jeremiah is recorded here as having taken ‘the tent and the ark and the altar of incense’ and gone up with them to Mt Nebo - the mountain on which Moses was shown the extent of the Promised Land of Canaan - and brought them in to a cave-dwelling that he found there. Having sealed up the entrance, he declared that (II Macc 2:7)
‘The place shall remain unknown until God gathers His people together again and shows His mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear...’
Therefore, this ‘hidden manna’ interpretation finds no substantiation within either the Jewish Scriptures neither the Apocrypha and, as no reference is given to any contemporary Jewish source (contemporary with the time of the writing of Revelation, that is), I can only imagine that the comparison is more fanciful than substantiated.
Besides, as noted above (and to be noted under the discussion of the white stone), Pergamum was a peculiarly Gentile and pagan city and, due to the extent of the idolatry there present, it may have been that there were little, if any, Jews. It seems unlikely, therefore, that in such a situation, Jesus would to speak to them alluding not to Scripture but to a Jewish interpretation of a Jewish writing.
Therefore, a more Scriptural and applicable interpretation needs to be found - and we need go no further than a consideration of the Biblical concept of ‘manna’ as found in both Old and New Testaments. Indeed, if the John who wrote Revelation was the same as he who wrote the Gospel, then it would be more than relevant as the main passages that deal with the NT manna are recorded for us here.
In the OT, when God led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years, He fed them with a white substance which they collected every morning from the furthest edges of the camp (Ex 16) and which they named ‘What is it?’ which, by transliteration, gives us the name ‘manna’.
In Deut 8:2-3, however, God later made it clear that it was not so much the manna that maintained them but their obedience to the Word of God that commanded them to rise up early in the morning and collect it. Even in the first passage, this is not far from the instructions for God says (Ex 16:4) that the provision is given
‘...that I may prove them, whether they will walk in My law or not’
Theoretically, if they had overslept there would have been a camp of hungry Israelites but if they rose up early and gathered it before the sun melted it (Ex 16:21), then they had provision enough for the day (and two days in their collection of the manna on the Friday). Provision, therefore, was dependant upon obeying the Word of God.
Spiritually, mankind hungers after many things (Micah 6:14, Isaiah 9:20), trying to find satisfaction without God. But nothing can satisfy the hunger of the soul except for God Himself.
It has been man’s tragedy that he has, through the ages, tried to satisfy the hunger of his soul with things that cannot fill him (Isaiah 55:1-2, Ps 42:1-3). Even though we are often more concerned to obtain our natural food than our supernatural food from God (John 6:27), if we hunger and thirst after true righteousness and look to God to complete and feed us, then we shall be satisfied (Mtw 5:6).
This ‘hidden manna’, then, is taken to refer to the supernatural food only obtainable from God in obedience to the Word of God that satisfies the hunger of a soul separated from God. The contrast in Rev 2:17 is between the manna which Jesus is willing to give to those who overcome and the food being eaten that has previously been offered to idols (Rev 2:14) that the Balaamites have been eating. If the sacrificial food is renounced, then the promise of receiving what is supernatural will be fulfilled - but if only earthly provision is regarded then the hidden manna will not become a reality in the believers’ lives.
It was Jesus who proclaimed Himself as the ‘true manna’ (John 6:35, 48-51, 53-58), the bread which came down from heaven and which all believers must now assimilate into their experience. But participation in the bread (and the celebration of ‘communion’ is not being commented on here - the participation in natural food is more than eating a few token wafers) meant more than satisfaction for the soul in this life only - it bears the promise of eternal life for the participant (John 6:51) and, therefore, the promise to the Pergamene believers has future consequences (as all the statements to those who overcome do) along with the white stone (dealt with below).
Just like natural food, spiritual food needs to be digested so that it becomes assimilated into our spiritual bodies (the new man), thus nourishing and sustaining us.
Looking at the Revelation passage, there are two ways that believers are to obtain this manna:
The false teachers of 2:14 had encouraged their followers to partake of ‘unclean’ food that indulged the flesh (as did sexual immorality) and destroyed the spirit. By forsaking this food, Jesus promises that they will participate in wholesome, spiritual food that will fill and satisfy them. Both foods have eternal consequences, the one leads to death, the other to eternal life.
It would follow, then, that those who have not followed after their teaching must be considered to already have been feeding from the hidden manna and that the promise belongs to those who need to destroy their current practices and return to a pure devotion to Christ.
There may also be intended a reference to the dilemma that they would find themselves in if they purify themselves from the pagan worship - possibly losing friendship with their fellow sacrificers, they may lose the ability to carry on with their trade and so lose their ability to buy food. So Jesus offers them a food which will satisfy them in a much deeper way.
Obedience to God’s word was the reason why the Israelites of the OT found provision for themselves in the wilderness. Likewise, obedience to the words of Christ here spoken in the letter to Pergamum will be the reason why the hidden manna will be given to those who overcome.
God’s words are sweeter to us than our natural food (Job 23:12, Ps 119:103, Jer 15:16, Ezek 2:8-3:3) even though the consequences of them may prove bitter (Rev 10:8-11). Our food should be to do the will of the One who has called us to be His sons in His kingdom (John 4:32, 34, Mtw 6:31-33), it being important that we are obedient to the voice of the Spirit in our lives, each moment of each day and to walk in step with Him (the Gk meaning of Gal 5:25).
Summarised, participation in the hidden manna will only be the experience of those who overcome through their obedience to the Word of God as revealed to them. In the church at Pergamum, this means that they must forsake eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality (which was probably part of the idolatrous practices associated with the gods they worshipped) - participating in the hidden manna, Jesus Christ Himself, has the consequence of securing eternal life but it will be forfeited if a mixture of spiritual foods is allowed to continue.
Jesus Christ, as I remember A W Tozer saying in an article I read many years ago, will be everything to us or nothing. He does not agree to be part of a belief structure but the centrality and fulness of it.
ii. The white stone
As previously noted, we are at a loss to make a positive and absolute identification of the purpose of the white stone which would fit in with the Pergamene believers’ understanding - that is, it seems unlikely that Jesus would speak of a promise to individuals that they were unable to understand or, at least, to determine conclusively.
As no primary historical records or reports from archaeological excavations can attach a Pergamene interpretation to the stone, our discussion must necessarily be no more than speculation. It is worth reading Morris here, though, who outlines seven interpretations which have been presented ‘with some confidence’ (Mounce, however, writes that there are ‘...a dozen or more plausible interpretations...’)
‘One arises from legal practice, where a member of a jury who was for acquittal handed in a white stone. A second view sees a reference to reckoning, since white stones were often used in calculations. A third idea is that the white stone is the symbol of a happy day (like our “red-letter day”). Along somewhat the same lines is that which sees the stone as an amulet bringing good luck. A more prosaic suggestion is that the white stone represented a ticket to bread and circuses. A sixth suggestion arises from a Rabbinic speculation that when the manna [mentioned in the preceding clause of the verse] fell from heaven it was accompanied by precious stones...The seventh view is that the reference is to a stone in the breastplate of the high priest with the name of one of the tribes written on it. A variant sees a reference to the Urim...’
Though that is a lengthy quote, it nevertheless gives us a good overview of the ideas that have been put forward to explain the stone. Some of them suffer from not being identical to the ‘white stone with a new name written on the stone’ - the Jewish suggestion of Urim being discountable on these grounds but also because the fellowship and city of Pergamum would appear to have been predominantly Gentile and the relevance would have been lost.
Perhaps (and this has no basis whatsoever) there was some stone that was awarded worshippers in the idolatrous temples to signify position and status before the god, connected with devotion to and/or knowledge of the god in question? It would fit in very nicely but there is absolutely no grounds for believing that such a rite was ever in operation within the city! It certainly would be in keeping with the way that other promises reflect the problem or condition of the fellowship to whom they are addressed.
Wight, however, does hit on an interpretation that seems to have been missed by the commentators used and which does fit the context rather well, seeing as the custom is likely to have been known and probably practised in Pergamum at the time of John’s writing.
He notes (page 70 - his source comes from a 1910 publication that it is not possible for me to check out, unfortunately)
‘The Romans of New Testament times had a token of hospitality between two friends, which consisted of a tile of wood or stone, which was divided in half. Each person wrote his name on one of the two pieces, and then exchanged that piece with the other person. These were often kept and handed down from father to son. To produce the counterpart of one of these pieces would guarantee the hospitality of a real friend’
Against this identification, though, is the fact that Revelation does not mention stones being swapped, only that one is given. However, it does fit in well with the idea of being granted to eat of the hidden manna in the previous clause of the verse.
To eat with someone in the context of Biblical times was to enter in to a covenant relationship with them. Hence I Cor 11:20-22 - a love feast/communion meal was a time of sharing with one another and thus entering into covenant relationship with each other through Christ and because of Christ.
Similarly, that Jesus permits those in Pergamum to partake (Revelation only says ‘give’ without indicating consumption, however) of the hidden manna would indicate that they become united in covenant relationship through their participation in Him (who is the true manna - see above).
Each participant, Jesus regards as a special guest and a white stone is given upon which a name is written given to Him by God (see, for instance, Is 62:2, 65:15) to allow Him to enter freely into that great and final banquet (Rev 19:7, Mtw 22:1-14).
Both the manna and the white stone with a new name on it refer us directly back to the Balaamites teaching that ‘they might eat food sacrificed to idols’ and is therefore within the overall context of the letter. More valuable it is to be found at Jesus’ table, eating from Him and being accepted as a special friend at His table than to share in the food and drink of demons who are opposed to the will and purpose of Christ.
Though the promise had a fulfilment in the present, it necessarily looked forward to the final day when all who have faithfully followed and obeyed Christ shall be admitted to never ending communion and fellowship with Him.