Jesus Wins! – Part 6: What Are You Holding?

 

Rev. 2:12-17

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.’ [1]

 

Throughout the letter of Revelation, Satan is shown to be a defeated but-still-powerful enemy desperately trying to maintain some foothold against the inevitably-advancing Kingdom of Christ. Sometimes, he uses the beast of government oppression and coercion to persecute the Church with the sword. At other times he uses the harlot of false doctrine to seduce God’s earthly people. Like the Smyrnaen church, the congregation of Pergamum faces governmental persecution from the beast of Rome. Indeed, they have already experienced martyrdom. But they also face seduction from some of their own members promoting the adulterous teaching of Christ’s benefits without Christ himself.

Remember that every aspect of Christ’s image John sees in 1:12-16 becomes the basis for what the Lord prophesies to the seven churches. To Ephesus, Jesus holds his Church’s elders in his hands and is sovereignly present in all his congregations. To Smyrna, Christ is the one eternally-existent, sovereign God who swallowed up death and lives in resurrected glory ordaining all things – even persecution. To Pergamum, the Lord is the One who speaks with complete power and authority so that his tongue is the true Roman Gladius (two-edged sword). His decrees bring peace and war; they protect life and deal death as he pleases for the glory of his Kingdom.

 

One pastor sums up Revelation:

Throughout this series of visions, John describes how Jesus is even now ordering the affairs of men and nations to bring all things to that end for which God has appointed them. In what is, perhaps, the greatest display of his kingly power, Jesus holds in his hands the keys of death and Hades. Therefore, Jesus has the power to do as he has promised. He will undo the curse of sin and death and one day he will make all things new. Although Revelation is a mysterious and often misunderstood book, it is one of the most practical books in the whole of the New Testament. There is much here for us to contemplate as we eagerly await the second coming of our Lord.[2]

 

These seven prophecies are organized in an X-like pattern (chiasm, after the Greek letter “Chi”). The first and last prophecies are linked; the second and the next-to-last are linked, etc. The first church (Ephesus) and the last church (Laodicea) have both lost their first love (2:4; 3:16). The second and sixth prophecies address churches for whom Jesus has no criticism. A chiasm doesn’t merely link pairs but also focuses attention toward the center of the literary unit. That means there is a concentration of dangers in prophecies three through five. False teaching leads to immorality which leads to death (3:1).[3] The more benefits of Christ a congregation pursues without clinging to Christ himself, the greater is the danger and damage. That appears to be the point of the chiasm of chapters two and three.

 

 

IN THE CITY

 

The city of Pergamum (modern-day Bergama, Turkey), 65 miles northeast of Ephesus, lay 16 miles inland from the Aegean coastline on the northern plateau above a river. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon during the Hellenistic period (281-133 B.C.). The last king of the Attalid dynasty willed his kingdom to Rome upon his death. So, the city became the center of Roman government for all Roman Asia until the beginning of the 2nd century when the capital moved to Ephesus.[4] Like Ephesus and Smyrna, it had about 200,000 residents and numerous temples, including a temple/healing center dedicated to Asclepius the Savior, god of healing. Asclepius’ symbol was a serpent coiled along a staff – to this day the sign of the medical profession. The great 2nd-century Roman physician and surgeon Galen, physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, trained there. The reference to the two-edged sword in Jesus’ mouth (2:12) might be an allusion to the forked tongue of the serpent-god Asclepius.

 

Pergamum, as the capital of an ancient kingdom, had a grand palace (and throne room) on its acropolis, along with several temples and the Great Altar of Pergamon, a recreation of which (with the original altar’s friezes) is on display in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.[5] The city boasted a library second in size only to Alexandria with over 200,000 parchment (animal skin) scrolls. The name “Pergamum” means parchment.[6] The city was a great center for learning and teaching as well as a “throne” to various demon gods, human kings, and regional Roman rule – all openly opposed to the reign of Messiah Jesus and his people. 13:2 says that Satan gave the “beast” “his throne and great authority” (cf. 16:10); so, Satan works through the ungodly, earthly political power in Pergamum to persecute God’s people (see on 13:1ff.).[7]

 

NOT “WITH” THE CITY

 

The prophecy begins 12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.” [8]  To Pergamum, Jesus emphasizes the power of his words, his decrees. This sword image dominates the whole prophecy to contradict the people’s observation that Rome, Satan’s beast, has the ultimate power of the sword. While the Satanically-inspired beast of Rome wields the sword against Jesus’ people because they refuse to worship emperors and the imperial demon gods, Jesus reminds his people he wields the sword of ultimate justice and power. His message is clear: all who raise the sword against his people in this earthly life will face Christ’s justice and judgment in the next life. Those who live by the sword will die (eternally) by the sword.

 

But Jesus also points his sword at those who are seducing Christ’s people with false teaching. They will also face his sword of power and justice. The Lord knows his churches. He knows what assaults are coming from the beast of Rome; he knows what seductive doctrines are being peddled and practiced inside the church.  So, he says, 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.” [9]

 

The Lord of his Church knows exactly what his people are up against in the region’s capital city. It is a place dominated by emperor worship and paganism. Good Roman citizens made sacrifices to the demon gods. It was built into their daily culture. Were all of them passionate believers in Roman religion? No. But feasts to various deities and temple sacrifices were part of everyday life. Trade guilds had patron gods and goddesses whose feast days had to be honored. To do business in the city, you participated in the feasts and ate the sacrificial meat offered to gods. To be a good citizen, you made offerings to the goddess Roma to honor the imperial capital; and, you offered incense to Emperor Domitian and proclaimed, “Caesar is Lord.

 

Everyone did it. Did people really believe Domitian was a god who could miraculously provide for their needs? No. Did Zeus really exist to them? The average Roman gave theology little thought. But you go along to get along. What’s the big deal? That’s just how things are done in Pergamum. These traditions have been around for hundreds of years. It’s just religion. One scholar writes:

…in most Greek cities citizens were typically expected to sacrifice to the gods that had long been honored in the area because of local religious tradition. Such veneration was likely expected even before paying homage to Caesar. Often when Christians were coerced to sacrifice to the emperor it was because they had already refused to recognize the locally venerated gods and were consequently called to account by the Roman authorities[10]

 

If the gods don’t really exist and the religion is strictly cultural, what’s the harm in going to a festival for Athena or Dionysus? Don’t you want to make a living? Don’t you care if your neighbors despise you for being so weird? Doesn’t bother you that you could be executed as a traitor to Rome? Inevitably, a witnessing church will be a persecuted church. Some, like Antipas, my faithful witness, will be put to the sword. Remember John has first described Jesus in 1:5 as the faithful witness. So, being a faithful witness for Christ is one of the benefits those who trust into Christ receive. Antipas, whoever he may have been to the church in Pergamum, was a faithful witness because he was united by faith into Christ – THE witness who was faithful even to death on a Roman cross.

 

But the death of Antipas so far had been an isolated incident. He may have been one of the elders, the minister or bishop (as tradition claims). Or, he may have been a untitled member of the congregation who, by God’s providence, received particular attention from the demon worshippers and staunchly refused to yield his trust in Christ. Jesus commends the congregation of Pergamum for their faithful resistance to the beast of Rome in the face of the sword of death. Christ knows where they live. He knows everything about their situation and everything about every individual life. They would not bend the knee to Caesar; they would not participate in the feasts held for demon gods. Pressure from without had not destroyed the congregation. But pressure from within the church was another matter.

 

FLIRTING WITH THE CITY

 

Jesus commends their faithfulness. Then he warns about their tolerance of seduction by the harlot of false doctrine. “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.[11]

 

You must know something about scripture to understand what the Lord means. Christians in Pergamum studied and understood Scripture even though is doubtful any owned scrolls of the book of Numbers. Balaam’s story is found in Numbers 22-25. Balak was a king of the Moab into whose land the Israelites wandered, consuming the resources of his kingdom. Balak hired a non-Jewish prophet of YHWH to come curse the Israelites, offering him great wealth to do so. But Balaam, constrained by YHWH, could only speak blessings upon Israel (4 times, including a prophecy of Messiah to come in the last days!) despite Balak’s repeated efforts to obtain a curse (Num. 22-25).

 

Balaam’s story appears to end in Numbers 25 with his final oracle of blessing on Israel. The pagan king goes his way. Balaam goes back to his home. Everything seems perfectly fine. So why is Balaam a bad guy? He said what the Lord told him to say. It would seem he didn’t earn any money from the pagans and escaped death by an angry king. His story ends in chapter 25. Then, in Num. 26, Moses begins the story of how Moabite women began to seduce Israelite men sexually and religiously. Some of the Israelites begin worshipping YHWH and the pagan gods to please their new wives and girlfriends. These men don’t leave the Israelite camp; they bring into the camp their pagan women, pagan idols and pagan feasts – immorality and the demonic worship that go along with such acts enter God’s Church and God is not happy. He sends a plague that kills thousands and only stops when Aaron’s grandson kills an Israelite and his pagan paramour. Moses goes on the warpath again the Moabites. Balak is killed. AND Balaam is killed in the fighting as well. Why Balaam? What did HE do?

 

Here’s the surprise ending to Balaam’s story we didn’t read in chapter 25. In Numbers 31:16, after the battles are done, Moses commands the death of the Moabite women who seduced Israelite men: “16 Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord.[12] Balaam sought the peace and security of not ticking off Balak, the king of his land. He advised King Balak to use the “honey trap” against Israel. Balaam temporarily escaped the sword of government and he likely made some money doing it. But he deliberately harmed God’s Church. In the end, Balaam could not escape the sword of God.

 

So, Jesus’ reference here to Balaam and the Nicolaitans is very likely to one and the same group of people inside the Pergamum church. Balaam (a Hebrew word) and Nicolaitans (Greek word) both mean “overcomer of the people” – a contrast to Jesus’ 7-fold encouragement to overcome by trusting into him. The contrast is between conquering through Christ and conquering though self-preservation. For those who conquer/overcome in Christ there are eternal benefits. For those who temporarily overcome persecution by joining with the pagans, there is the sword of eternal death outside the fellowship of God.[13]

 

The Lord of the Church is against some things going on in HIS Church. In Pergamum, there are some people teaching others to seek the benefits of peace, and safety, and finances. Because if they will just attend a pagan feast every now and then (like the Jews did), they could go along to get along. “You don’t have to actually believe Caesar is Lord. We all know Jesus is Lord. And if Jesus is in your heart, who cares what your body does? It’s just sex. It’s just food. Go to a temple orgy every now and then. You’ll be safe. You can buy and sell stuff. You’ll be a lot happier. You get to party. What’s the harm?”

 

When John returned to Ephesus, one of his elders was teaching the very same things. Cerinthus led away much of the Ephesian congregation to his newer, hipper church where nothing you did in your physical body had any spiritual consequences. The body was bad anyway. The spirit was the important bit. If we can blend the best of Christianity and the best ideas from other religions, think how much more successful we can be in reaching others for Christ and building something powerful and meaningful.”

 

The Nicolaitans offered peace with the city, friendship with their neighbors, and financial stability in the world while still being in Jesus’ Church. And when your neighbors hate you, your brothers and sisters in Christ are getting executed, and you’re starved out of the workplace the Nicolaitans’ teaching is very tempting – seductive, alluring like the Moabite women of Balaam’s day and the harlot of Babylon in John’s day. The Romans didn’t take their gods too seriously; why should Christians have to take our religion so seriously and become so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good?

 

The Nicolaitans were offering the benefits of Christ without Christ himself. They offered fellowship, a daily provision of income in the marketplace, and peace. But they didn’t offer the whole Christ, who bids us take up our cross and come die to ourselves and live to him. Balaam was killed by the sword. Jesus promises to bring his sword of justice against those Nicolaitans who will not repent of their teachings – sincere as they might be (2:16).  The church of Pergamum is itself seeking peace because it refuses to discipline the false teachers. They, too, want the benefits of Christ’s peace without the struggle of the cross of Christ. They’re tired of conflict with the city. You can hold fast to Christ, but you cannot do that and hold to the teachings of the Nicolaitans in your church. Why should Pergamum elders stir up conflict in their own congregation? Because Jesus commands it and offers his lasting benefits in return.

 

CITY OF GOD

 

“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.’” [14]

 

Christ offers true daily provision (manna) instead of money earned by worshipping idols in the trade guilds. He offers to take care of his people in the spiritual wilderness of a pagan land in which his people sojourn on their way to the paradise of God (2:7). The benefit of manna (daily provision) IS the benefit of Christ. Jesus cannot be separated from who he is and what he offers. That is why he said in his earthly ministry:

Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” …35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.[15]

 

To have the provision of Christ is to have his cross in this life. Jesus is no cafeteria god. You must take all of him or none of him – his daily care AND his cross are both benefits of union with Christ. The theology of the cross is that we will suffer for Christ in this passing world and we will reign with Christ when he comes to consummate all things to himself. On that day, we shall have the white stone, the diamond of our fully-consummated union with him. We will fully know his name, Immanuel, God with us. We will fully have the benefits of living face to face with Immanuel.

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God [Lit: “‘God with them’ will be their God”]. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”[16]

 

The throne of Satan promises peace now, provision now, victory now. But the sword will come to those who bow before that throne. The throne of God offers the eternal provision of Christ.

 

You who have ears to hear, choose wisely.

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:12–17.

[2] Kim Riddlebarger, Sermons on the Book of Revelation, Rev. 2:12-17, “To the Church of Pergamum.” http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/downloadable-sermons-on-the-bo/

[3] Phillips, 110-111.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pergamon

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pergamon_Altar

[6] Kistemaker and Hendriksen, 126.

[7] Beale, 246.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:12.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:13.

[10] Beale, 246–247.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:14–15.

[12] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Nu 31:16.

[13] Beale, 251: “‘Nicolaitans in the same way (ὁμοίως).’ The two teachings are identified further by the similarity of the etymology of their names: νικᾷ λαόν means ‘he overcomes the people,’ and in rabbinic literature ‘Balaam’ (bil‘ām) was etymologized to bl’ ’m or blh ’m, ‘he who consumes the people’ (e.g., b. Sanhedrin 105a), or it could be construed as ‘rule over the people’ (b’l’m). Actual participation in idolatrous situations was the problem in Pergamum, and this problem needed to be rectified immediately.”

[14] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:17.

[15] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Jn 6:32–35.

[16] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 21:3–5.