OVERVIEW - The church at Pergamos received correction for tolerating the teachings of “Balaam” – Revelation 2:12-17

Pergamos Columns - Photo by Ahmet Demiroğlu on Unsplash
The town of 
Pergamos lay some sixty kilometers north of Smyrna and twenty kilometers inland from the sea. It was not a major center for commerce. Occasionally, the city served as the seat of the Roman provincial government and center of the imperial cult. The first provincial temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar was built at Pergamos in 29 B.C. The city’s patron deities included ZeusAthenaDionysus, and Asclepios. Its most prominent feature a large altar dedicated to Zeus Sotér - “Zeus the Savior.” - [Pergamos - Photo by Ahmet Demiroğlu on Unsplash].
  • (Revelation 2:12-17) - And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These things saith he that hath the sharptwo-edged sword; I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan is; and you are holding fast my name and did not deny my faithˎ even in the days of Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed near you where Satan dwells. Neverthelessˎ I have against you a few things, that you have such as hold fast the teaching of Balaam, who went on to teach Balak to throw a cause of stumbling before the sons of Israel, to eat idol-sacrifices, and to commit fornication, thus even you have such as hold fast the teaching of the Nicolaitans in like manner. Repent, therefore, otherwise I come unto you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He that has an earlet him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To him that overcomes, I will give to him of the hidden manna, and I will give to him a white stone, and upon the stone new name written, which no one knows, except he that receives it.”
Jesus is the one who has the “sharp, two-edged sword,” an appropriate symbol for his ultimate authority, even over the awesome power of Rome, both local and universal. Imperial soldiers were armed with a short double-edged sword for hand-to-hand combat - the rhomphaia - the same Greek noun used here.

The sword symbolized the power of life and death. The Roman proconsul had virtually unlimited authority or imperium, including the right to execute criminals and political offenders.

The “sword” possessed by Jesus is the same one seen in the vision of one “like a son of man,” and later when John saw the sword “proceeding from the mouth” of the “Rider on a White Horse,” who used the “sword” to “smite the nations” - (Psalm 2:1-9Revelation 1:1619:11-16).

The “two-edged sword” is derived from a messianic prophecy in the book of Isaiah and serves to stress the messianic identity of Jesus:
  • (Isaiah 11:1-4) – “And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit…but with righteousness shall he judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.”
In contrast to imperial magistrates, Jesus wields ultimate and absolute power over life and death. Whatever authority possessed by governing authorities is derivative. The Risen Christ displays the sword to warn errant members of his church - If they refuse to repent, he “will come and war against them with the sword of his mouth” – But also to reassure them of his authority over the kingdoms of this age.

Jesus is aware of the difficult situation of this church (“I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan is”). He commends it for “holding fast my name and not denying my faith.” The congregation has remained steadfast despite outside pressure.

Satan’s throne” may refer to the altar of Zeus in Pergamos, to its temple to Augustus, or to the Roman provincial authority based there. More significantly, it is a verbal link to the satanic “throne” of the “beast from the sea”; already, the church is threatened by beastly authorities - (Revelation 13:2, 16:10).

At least one Christian has been executed at Pergamos - “Antipas my faithful witness.” The same term was applied to Jesus – He who is the “faithful witness and the firstborn of the dead.” By his death, he bore faithful witness. Thus, also, Antipas. Only the Roman proconsul was authorized to execute a local resident - (Revelation 1:4-6).

The “teaching of Balaam” alludes to Balaam, who attempted to serve God and money by cursing Israel for the Moabite king. But God caused him to bless Israel instead. However, Balaam found another way to earn his reward by teaching the Moabites to corrupt Israel through fornication and idolatry.

Fornication” is metaphorical here for idolatry. The problem in this church was accommodation to the idolatrous practices of the surrounding society:
  • (Numbers 25:1-3) – “And Israel remained among the acacias, and the people began to go away unchastely unto the daughters of Moab; who invited the people unto the sacrifices of their gods, so the people ate and bowed down to their gods.”
  • (Numbers 31:16) – “Behold, they became to the sons of Israel by the advice of Balaam the cause of daring acts of treachery against Yahweh, over the affair of Peor, and then came the plague against the assembly of Yahweh!
  • (Revelation 17:1-2) – “And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, Hither! I will point out to you the judgment of the great whore who sits upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and they who were dwelling upon the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.”
The proponents of this teaching were probably identical with the Nicolaitans. In popular etymology, ‘Nicolaitan’ was the Greek equivalent of ‘Balaam,’ a name in Hebrew that means (possibly) “master of the people” (i.e., Ba’al [“lord, master”] + ‘am [“people”]). Likewise, ‘Nicolaitan’ signifies “he who conquers people.”

Some Christians tolerated this teaching and, therefore, accommodated themselves to pagan society. The warning that Jesus would wage war against them was conditional, and therefore, did not refer to his final “coming” at the end of the age. More likely, this referred to visitations in judgment to purge his churches.

Pergamos Theater Photo by Ahmet Demiroğlu on Unsplash
Pergamos Theater by Ahmet Demiroğlu on Unsplash

The “
hidden manna” refers to the manna kept in the Ark of the Covenant. “Manna” symbolized Yahweh sustaining Israel in the wilderness. Here, it is contrasted with the “meat offered to idols.” The former yields everlasting life, the latter results in the “second death.” The same story of Israel being fed “manna” in the wilderness is behind the latter vision of the “woman clothed with the sun” who was nourished in the wilderness and protected from the attacks of the “Serpent” – (Revelation 12:7-17).

It is not clear what the “white stone” represents. Possibly, it is related to the “manna.” Elsewhere, “manna” was compared to “white bdellium stones” - (Exodus 16:33-36, Numbers 11:7).

The “new name” refers to the name of God or Christ inscribed on the foreheads of faithful believers, not to individual names assigned to each man and woman. Jesus revealed its true significance to faithful saints. The clause alludes to a passage from the book of Isaiah, a promise to Israel that is now applied to the faithful in Pergamos - (Revelation 7:1-4, 14:1, 22:4).
  • (Isaiah 62:1-2) – “For Zion’s sake, will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake, will I not rest, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, And her salvation, as a torch that is lighted. So shall nations see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory; And you shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of Yahweh will name.”
  • (Revelation 14:1) – “And I saw, and lo! the Lamb, standing upon the mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand, having his name and his Father’s name written upon their foreheads.”
  • (Revelation 22:3-4) – “And no curse shall there be anymore; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be therein, and his servants will render divine service to him, and they shall see his face, and his name [shall be] upon their foreheads.”
He that has an ear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!” The same exhortation found at the end of each of the seven letters. The summons is for all saints to heed the Spirit, not just the church in Pergamos. The clause universalizes each of the seven letters. Every believer is to “hear what the Spirit is saying” in Pergamos - (“he who hears”). The same promise of a “new name” will be realized in “New Jerusalem” by every faithful and “overcoming” believer.


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