Read Revelation 2:12-17

This next section reverts to the themes of commendation, complaint and correction. The church in Pergamum was also living in the midst of adversity but, instead of portraying Himself as the one holding the seven stars in His right hand and walking among the churches, or even as the first and the last, the one who died and came to life again, Jesus portrays Himself as having a sharp, double-edged sword in His hand.

Earlier, in John's opening vision of Jesus, he describes Him as have "a sharp, double-edged sword" coming out of His mouth. (Revelation 1:16) We saw there that this was a description of the word of God, referred to by the apostle, Paul, as "the sword of the Spirit". (Ephesians 6:17) Now the sword is in Jesus' hand. Again, John uses the word that describes a Thracian sword, longer than the Roman "gladius", but essentially used for defence in close combat. Here it can again be seen as "the sword of the Spirit" but, this time, symbolising divine judgment. (Hebrews 4:12) The whole point of using a sword as a picture of the word of God is to underline that it is alive and powerful, forcing us to examine our motives and attitudes. As Christ wields the two-edged sword in our life, it penetrates to our very soul (mind, will and emotions) and divides it from our spirit (our Christ-life). This means it reaches into the very deepest parts of our nature, exposing, sifting, analysing and judging the very thoughts and purposes of our hearts. The Holy Spirit constantly encourages us to allow the word to work in our hearts like this so that He can change us and draw us closer to the Father. Reading the Bible shouldn't just be about acquiring more knowledge. We need to pray about what we're reading, asking Him to show us what we should be dealing with in our lives and praying for the strength of the Holy Spirit to obey His word.

A distinction between clean and unclean

The book of Leviticus in the Old Testament deals in considerable detail with the law of Moses and is sometimes seen as no longer relevant for believers today. However, its original purpose was to help the people of Israel to be able to distinguish between things and behaviours that were "clean" and those that were "unclean". (Leviticus 10:10) Jesus Himself taught that, when He returned in glory to the earth, there would be a day of judgment to separate the "clean" from the "unclean", the believer from the unbeliever. (Matthew 25:31-32) Jesus carries a sword to remind us that a day is coming when our behaviour and use of our gifts and talents will be judged. (1 Corinthians 3:13) This encourages us to keep focused on our purpose in life, maintaining our cutting edge when it comes to sharing the good news about Jesus. Our behaviour should make it very clear that we are different to the people who are pretenders and imposters.

An enemy stronghold

Pergamum was sited at the place where the modern city of Bergama is located, on the top of a high, conical hill in north-west Turkey. It was then the official capital of the Roman province of "Asia" and the centre of emperor worship in that part of the Roman Empire. It was a cultured city - the place where parchment had been invented - but there were temples to several Greek gods, including Dionysus (the god of wine), Asklepios (the god of healing) and to Zeus (the "king of the gods"). No wonder that Jesus describes this as the place "where Satan has his throne". (Revelation 2:13)

This was a very dangerous place to be witnesses for Jesus. It was here that Antipas, the first "martyr" (witness) in Asia, was put to death. According to tradition, he was locked in a bronze kettle and slowly roasted to death. Jesus describes Antipas as a faithful witness. We may wonder how we would stand up to that sort of persecution. Perhaps Antipas, just like Stephen who was stoned to death and saw Jesus in his final moments (Acts 7:54-60), was also received into heaven with Jesus standing there to welcome him. We don't know for sure, but it was clear that, even under this sort of pressure, the believers at Pergamum did not succumb to Satan but stood firm.

Jesus says that they remained "true to His Name". (Revelation 2:13) The name of Jesus was the strongest weapon they had in their battle. Satan may have ruled from his earthly stronghold in Pergamum and tried to exert his authority over the believers, but they remained true to the name of Jesus. Satan loathes and detests the name of Jesus. It torments him and highlights his weakness and powerlessness when faced with the purity and power of Jesus' name. Let's remember this ourselves!

So, these believers were commended for their faithfulness and perseverance under extreme persecution but, despite this, Jesus has a few things against them. What were these things in such an apparently faithful church? Some people in the church there followed the teaching of Balaam and some followed the teaching of the Nicolaitans (which Jesus had already stated - in his letter to the church at Ephesus - that He hated). Let's note in passing, though, that whilst Jesus may hate the sin, He does not hate (or reject) the sinner. He hated the doctrines, the false teaching which they were spreading among others in the church, because it was divisive and weakened believers in the very place where Satan’s power was at its strongest, making resistance more difficult for them. It is the same for us today. God hates our sin, but He loves us and longs for us to repent so that we can be restored to fellowship with Him.

The teachings of Balaam (Revelation 2:14-15)

Balaam was a Midianite, a pagan "diviner" with an international reputation. At the same time, he had a remarkable knowledge of the character of God and deep insight into the future of Israel. He had two fatal passions: women and wealth. He was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to defeat the Israelites as they progressed towards the "promised land" following their exodus from Egypt. (The full story is told in Numbers, chapters 22-25.) Balaam was paid to curse the Israelites, but God prevented Balaam from doing so, even going to the extent of causing Balaam’s donkey to speak to him! Balak insisted that he try again but, each time he was taken up into a mountain overlooking their camp, God gave him different messages to speak over the Israelites. One was of blessing, the other was prophetic of the victory that they would achieve over the Moabites.

Each time that Balaam looked down over the encampment of the Israelites, all he could see was the figure of a cross, for that was how the Israelites camped, with the "Ark of the Covenant" at the centre. Even though Balaam was actively prevented from pronouncing a formal curse over the Israelites, he advised the Moabites on how to attack the Israelites in a more roundabout way by targeting their spiritual lives and corrupting them. He taught them to entice God’s people by befriending them and asking them to join in some pagan festivals, where food was eaten that had been sacrificed to idols. When it appeared that nothing untoward happened as a result of this, the Israelites grew even more friendly and began to have sexual relations with Moabite women.

Today, our society thinks nothing of having sex outside of marriage. It appears to be just the way life is, yet this is not God’s plan. God’s design is for marriage, where one man and one woman give themselves to each other in a secure and God-given relationship. The two become one flesh and they are united in spirit. A unique bond is forged. Anything other than this is not God’s plan. In His mercy, He works around our disobedience, but this does not negate His best for us. It was true even in the days of Balaam, who was responsible for causing many of them to miss out on God’s best for them. Obviously, Satan himself, the master of disguise was behind Balaam and Balak. The teaching of Balaam can be summarised here as:

  • Worship of people or things other than God Himself. "Idolatry" is anything (or anyone) that comes between us and God and is an abomination to Him.
  • Wisdom that is not founded on the fear of God. All other wisdom is an abuse of the grace of God.
  • Wickedness encouraged by false worship and wisdom. For example, sexual immorality, both private and public.

The teaching of the Nicolaitans

The Nicolaitans were also false prophets who sought compromise with the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of their society. The same teaching was also causing trouble in the church at Ephesus and bore distinct similarities to the teaching of Balaam. Their understanding of "spiritual liberty" enabled them to take part in some of the practices of emperor worship, whilst still considering themselves to be Christians. They thought that they had the best of both worlds, maintaining friendships with those who cared nothing about Christianity. Perhaps they even justified their actions by saying that they were "reaching the lost", whilst at the same time going to church and encouraging their Christian friends to compromise, just as they had done.

We know relatively little about this sect today. Some have suggested that they were followers of Nicolas - one of "The Seven" chosen to serve in practical ways in Acts 6:5. Others think that the word "Nicolaitan" is derived from two roots ("nikao" meaning "to conquer" and "laos" meaning "the people" or "laity") and that this explains why some churches remain divided into clergy and laity instead of being a congregation of all believers. It is interesting, however, to note that the teaching of both groups (those following Balaam and the Nicolaitans) were were so similar. Even their names have similar meanings. Balaam's name is composed of two Hebrew words meaning "to swallow" and "the people". In practice, both encouraged believers to compromise their faith and to be lax about sexual morality.

Getting back on the right path

For those who had fallen into error, regardless of which party they followed, there was but one solution: Repent! Failure to repent would mean judgement using the sharp, double-edged sword of the word of God, wielded by Jesus. No sin can withstand that judgement; neither can any sinner. It is better to repent! If we have been tempted to compromise in those things that we support or how we behave, then the message for us today is the same: Repent! The church belongs to Jesus and He knows those who are His. Those who are defiling it He will disown. Let's take warning!

Those who listen to God’s word and places it first in their lives will be victorious. When we obey the direction of the Holy Spirit and refuse to eat the food offered to idols, God gives us His "hidden manna" instead. The "hidden manna" is heavenly food, in contrast to the food offered to idols. During the time that the people of Israel wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt, the manna was like angel-food poured down from heaven on a daily basis. It was always fresh, always just enough for each day and always provided without fail during the entire wilderness journey.

This is symbolic of the food prepared for us as we feed on Christ and overcome the temptation to pursue idols (anything that diverts us from spending time with - and getting to know - Jesus). It is better by far to be alone with our Lord and Saviour, tasting all the spiritual food He has for us. How about being on such intimate terms with Jesus that He feeds us Himself in a private place? He says these words:

"Those who have ears, let them listen to [and heed] what the Spirit says to the churches. To those who are victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will give them a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to those who receive it.” Revelation 2:17

“And He rained down upon them manna to eat and gave them heaven's grain.” (Psalm 78:24)

How much better to suffer persecution and to be supplied by God Himself, rather than to compromise with the world, whose insufficient, secular ways will never feed our spirits. The white stone would have perhaps entitled the owner access to the heavenly banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb – and the new name, known only to Jesus and the believer.

"And the nations shall see your righteousness and vindication [your rightness and justice - not your own, but His ascribed to you], and all kings shall behold your salvation and glory; and you shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the Lord shall name.” (Isaiah 62:2 - "Amplifed" version)

The white stone with a personalised new name was such a contrast to all those who were living in immorality and partaking in the loose-living cult of the day. It represented purity and was a sign that the owner had chosen the way of purity and the changeless purity of Christ Himself. If we receive the white stone, it is a sign that we have entered into such a close, personal, intimate relationship with Christ and that He has given us a new name that only He and we know. What about a "pet" name from Jesus? How precious that would be!

Let us choose, at this time in history, neither to participate in any immorality, idolatry or unfaithfulness to our precious Father and Saviour Jesus Christ, nor to join with any of the worldly practices that surge around us on a daily basis. Let us be victorious by the power of the Holy Spirit, using the power in the Name of Jesus and hating all the works of Satan as we see and discern them.

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