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10 June 2020

Church at Pergamos

Synopsis:  The church at Pergamos is corrected for tolerating the teachings of “Balaam”Revelation 2:12-17.  

Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash
Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash
The town of Pergamos lay sixty kilometers north of Smyrna and twenty kilometers inland from the Aegean Sea. It was not a major center of commerce. Occasionally, the city served as the seat of the Roman provincial government and the center of the imperial cult. The first Asian temple in honor of Augustus Caesar was built at Pergamos in 29 B.C. The city’s patron deities included Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asclepios. Prominent was a large altar dedicated to Zeus Sotér or “Zeus the Savior.”

(Revelation 2:12-17):
And unto the messenger of the assembly in Pergamum write:—
These things saith he that hath the sharp, two-edged sword:
I know where thou dwellest, where the throne of Satan is; and thou art holding fast my name, and didst not deny my faithˎ even in the days of Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed near you, where Satan dwelleth.
Neverthelessˎ I have against thee, a few things,—that thou hast there, 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 lewdness: thus even thou hast such as hold fast the teaching of the Nicolaitanes in like manner.
Repent, therefore, otherwise I come unto thee speedily,—and will fight against them, with the sword of my mouth.
He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit is saying unto the assemblies.
Unto him that overcometh I will give unto him of the hidden manna, and I will give unto him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which no one knoweth, save he that receiveth it.

This letter opens with Jesus as the one who has the “sharp, two-edged sword,” an appropriate symbol of his ultimate authority, even over the awesome power of Rome, whether local or universal. Imperial soldiers were armed with a short double-edged sword for stabbing in hand-to-hand combat, the rhomphaia, the same Greek noun applied here to the “sword” wielded by Jesus.

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

Photo by Ahmet Demiroğlu on Unsplash
The “sword” possessed by Jesus is the same one seen previously in the vision of one “like a son of man,” and later when John sees the sword “proceeding from the mouth” of the Rider on a White Horse. The Rider uses the “sword” to “smite the nations,” the same ones he also “shepherds with a rod of iron.” The latter alludes to the second Psalm (Psalm 2:1-9, Revelation 1:16, 19:11-16).

The image of the “two-edged sword” is based on a messianic prophecy from the book of Isaiah. The two Old Testament passages behind this image stress the messianic identity of Jesus, the one appointed by Yahweh to reign on the throne of David:

(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. – (American Standard Version).
(Psalm 2:8-9) – “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt smite them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

In contrast to any imperial magistrate, Jesus wields ultimate and absolute power over life and death. Whatever authority is wielded by governing authorities is derivative. The Risen Christ displays the sword to warn errant members of this 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 the temple of Augustus in the city, or to the Roman provincial authority based in it. More significantly, it is a verbal link to the satanic “throne” of the Beast from the sea; already, the church at Pergamos is threatened by beastly authorities (Revelation 13:2, 16:10).

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

The “teaching of Balaam” alludes to the story of Balaam who attempted to serve God and money by cursing Israel for the king of Moab. Instead, God caused him to bless Israel. However, Balaam found another way to earn his reward by teaching the Moabites to corrupt Israel through fornication and idolatry. “Fornication” is metaphorical in this passage for idolatry. The problem in this church is 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 did eat, and did bow themselves down unto their gods. Thus, Israel let himself be bound unto Baal-peor, and the anger of Yahweh kindled upon Israel.”
(Numbers 31:16) – “Lo! they became unto 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 messengers who had the seven bowls came, and spake with me, saying—Hither! I will point out to thee the judgment of the great harlot, who sitteth upon many waters,  with whom the kings of the earth committed lewdness,—and they who were dwelling upon the earth were made drunk with the wine of her lewdness.”

The proponents of this teaching are 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”]). ‘Nicolaitan’ may also signify, “he who conquers people.”
Some Christians in Pergamos tolerate this teaching to accommodate pagan society and, thus, make economic and other aspects of daily life easier. The warning that Jesus will wage war against them is conditional and, therefore, does not refer to his final “coming” at the end of the age. More likely, this is a reference to visitations by him in judgment to purge his churches. 

The “hidden manna” refers to the manna kept in the Ark of the Covenant. “Manna” symbolized Yahweh sustaining Israel in the wilderness. It is now contrasted with “meat offered to idols.” The former yields everlasting life, the latter results in the “second death.” It is not clear what the “white stone” portrays; possibly, it is related to “manna.” Elsewhere, “manna” is 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 or woman. Jesus reveals its true significance to faithful saints. Its possession means the complete identification of the believer with him. The clause alludes to a passage from the book of Isaiah, a promise originally to Israel but now applied to the faithful followers of Jesus 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 go forth as brightness, And her salvation, as a torch that is lighted. So shall nations see thy righteousness, And all kings thy glory; And thou shalt 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 any more; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be therein,—and his servants will render divine service unto him, and they shall see his face, and his name [shall be] upon their foreheads.”

He that hath an ear, Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!” This exhortation is repeated at the end of each of the first three letters. The summons for all saints to heed the Spirit universalizes each message. Each believer is to hear (“he who hears”); each message is to all the “churches.”

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