Jesus told John to write the pastor in Pergamum: the third of the “Revelation Seven.” In the beginning of John’s vision he saw a sharp, double-edged sword coming from the mouth of Jesus. Swords are offensive weapons and that Jesus shows himself at the beginning of this letter with a sword means he is one who was aiming to arrive and remove ungodliness, sin from this church.
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. (Revelation 2:12-13–ESV)
I know where you live
Usually when I hear that phrase I think of threats. “You better do what I say or I’m gonna get you!” A threat would eventually be levied against Pergamum, but threats were not Christ’s first intent. When Jesus said that he knew where they lived he meant that he understood the history, the situation, the events of the church in Pergamum. That expression was one of empathy. Empathy was the first intent of Christ.
How do swords and empathy fit together? Remember that salvation is a transfer of people from the kingdom of darkness (Satan’s kingdom) to the kingdom of light (God’s kingdom). All people are born into the kingdom of darkness and God, using his sword, so to speak, offers a rescue to our lost souls and upon accepting the invitation they become Christ followers: Christians. The sword of the Lord had been the source of the church in Pergamum.
Where was Pergamum? It was in the heart of Satan’s kingdom where Satan’s throne was. That is where this church was dwelling. It was in a hotbed of Satanic activity. In Psalm 23 we read, “You have prepared a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” Sometimes Christians live with enemies all around. God has been doing this since the mankind fell way back in the Garden of Eden.
Remember that the grace of our God seeks to put the best spin on things that he can. Jesus starts with empathy when he comes to the church of Pergamum.
What about us?
Are you a Christian? Are you facing a barrage of thoughts tempting you with things that you know are ungodly? Some of the temptations we face come from Satan and his influences. Our own evil desires tempt as well, but Satan is not idle; he quite craftily places stumbling blocks and enticements before the saints of God. The sword of the Lord rescued you from Satan’s kingdom and his sword can keep you from falling to the enticements of that kingdom.
Consider where John saw the sword of Christ. It was in Jesus’ mouth. The word of the Lord is powerful. It is sharper than any two edged sword. By relying upon God’s word and prayer in the midst of struggles we can be successful in the kingdom work of Christ.
“The Devil made me do it” is a bad excuse
Look at what Jesus said next: “Yet you hold fast to my name.“1 Here are people who had been in the heart of the Devil’s kingdom and had remained faithful despite all of his influence. These men and women had not denied the name of Jesus often at great personal expense. A man named Antipas was martyred at the hands of those who tried to force a denial of Christ. In a manner his name became a rallying point for faithfulness. Persecution peaked in his time and the people remained faithful.
Let no one try to take refuge in a claim of Satan’s overwhelming power. His power is not overwhelming; it just seems so. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses such as those from Pergamum. The full energies of Satan failed in the days of Antipas. Attempts could not make them recant. Examples like these can be called by God against those who make light of or try to diminish their own responsibility to personal godliness. No one is tempted beyond what they can bear as God always makes a way out. Antipas bore death.
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. (Revelation 2:14-17–ESV)
From the reference of Jesus walking among the candlesticks we know that Jesus walked among his churches observing, watching, knowing the things they were doing. The church at Pergamum was found to have a cancer. It seems that some years had passed since the “days of Antipas” and Satan having failed to ruin the church with persecution moved to another tactic. It was a tactic of corruption and centered upon the people’s natural natures: both sexual and interpersonal.
At the beginning of Satan’s work in Pergamum he brought people from outside the church against the church. That failed so he moved on to corrupting members in the church to work against Christ’s principles.
Jesus draws two examples for this pastor of Pergamum.
…an “Oops” for the Moabites
The first man was the Gentile diviner Balaam. The things we know of him are recorded in Numbers 22-24, and I will summarize them. Balaam lived during the days of Moses and his story comes in when the Israelites were conquering many kings east of the Jordan river2. At one point the Amorites had been destroyed and having finished that Israel came against Moab. This terrified those people for the Amorites had been a mighty, dominating nation.
A man name Balak was king of the Moabites at that time and his advisers urged him to seek spiritual means against Israel. The Moabite leaders in their terror and desperation thought a curse from a respected diviner, e.g. Balaam, might be of use to them. They sent for the Gentile Balaam and asked him to pronounce a curse on Israel. Well, Balaam gave his disclaimer saying that he could only do what God would have him do. The Moabites agreed to this, but to their dismay Balaam blessed Israel.
Balak was furious with Balaam over this, but Balaam in Numbers 24:10-13 gave Balak a reminder. The fine print in Balaam’s contract clearly stated that Balaam’s services did not go beyond God’s will. Balak paid Balaam for his services, but Moab’s worries were not diminished; they were increased.
Balaam makes an end run around God
At first blush the story of Balaam may seem encouraging. A Gentile prophet is in communication with God. He does God’s bidding (sort of willingly) and that might seem to be that. From 2 Peter 2, and Jude and the passage in this section of Revelation, though, it is clear that there was more to the story. The more is that Balaam devised a way to help Moab derail Israel.
Balaam understood the covenant that the people of Israel had with God. There was an injunction against marriage outside of Israel, and there was to be sexual purity inside the families of Israel. At some point Balaam told Moab to send their beautiful women among the Israelite men. The beauty of the Moabite women would be a snare for the Israelites. Balaam indicted that the Israelite men would fall for these women and eventually could be led to worship Baal. God would then punish Israel and Moab would get a pseudo-curse on Israel. That is what happened.
Not many men can handle that type of temptation. If a man from our era walks up to a table finding open upon it both a Playboy magazine and a Bible turned to 2 Samuel 11 3 what will happen? Temptation. No sin is there in finding oneself faced with these two things. Sin happens when one sits down and picks up the Playboy. Victory happens when one averts the eyes and tosses the Playboy into the fireplace. Men cannot scoop fire into their laps without being burned. Neither could Israel scoop the fire of Moabite women into their laps without being burned. Balaam got that and Balaam advised Moab in that direction.
Pergamum and Balaam
With that understanding come back to the passage here in Revelation 2. Jesus said that this type of temptation was happening in Pergamum. Among the people of that church were those who were teaching the men to do evil. Do not forget that the men and women of Pergamum were drawn from a Pagan culture. Pagan religious practices were marked with promiscuity. Christians were called out and set apart from those practices. Being called out did not mean that one’s temptations were removed.
So Satan, having failed in his attempts at a frontal assault of the faith of the Christians in Pergamum was not failing in this other approach. Satan, in the Garden of Eden, introduced doubt and temptation with the following phrase: “Did God really say…?” Now that type of thing was happening again in Pergamum and Jesus raised the issue with the pastor. Pergamum had stumbling blocks placed in their church.
Weak Christians were being enticed to sin by ungodly people in the church.
Jesus also raised the Nicolaitans as a sinning snare among the Pergamites. This group practiced moral laxity, but with a different twist than the influence of Balaam. Balaam’s guidance was to tempt with the expectation that many will fall. The Nicolaitans, however, went differently.
Moral laxity was still their practice, but the Nicolaitans seemed to be preaching that it was God-sanctioned behavior. For those who would throw the Playboy in the furnace this was the next onslaught. This tradition said, “Hey, you have grace, right? All the sins are paid for so it will not be a risk to you or a problem for you to look at that magazine.”
Some people in Pergamum would have been staunch enough in their beliefs to see that the ways of sin were just that: sinful. They would not fall for a beautiful woman or fall to eat food sacrificed to idols. These were two of the things that were handed down from the Apostles meeting for Gentile to follow. The Nicolaitans preached and enticed that these rules were not relevant. One could still be aligned with Jesus Christ and yet follow the desires of one’s heart, even the sinful ones.
Where were these teachers?
It was not the pastor. These men and women were among the church members. Their small groups were not on point with the gospel of Jesus. They had gone in a different direction and it was not a suitable one.
I see in both the Ephesian church and this Pergamite churches a backsliding. The Ephesians continued in their doctrine and external godliness, but did not live this way from benevolence or charity. The people of Pergamum had been faithful to the death under persecution, but fell into ungodliness with temptation. They were even labeling their ungodly behavior as godly. So these two churches were not where they had been. They had gotten a good name for their start, but had lost it in their practice.
In Ephesus Jesus said he would come and remove them as a church. Pergamum, though, was going to find Jesus arriving as a warrior to fight against that which was being called Godly. Encouragement would be given to the faithful, but they had a task to do.
They were to repent from their sinning. The moral laxity and rebellion against God and churches edicts must be left behind. If it was not then Jesus said he would come with the sword of his mouth and handle this himself. Jesus was not going to remove their candlestick, but cut off the sinners.
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.’ (Revelation 2:14-17–ESV)
Jesus first found good and praiseworthy things to say to Pergamum: faithful despite Satan’s persecution. He then went on to say that they had slipped: wicked influence resulted in wicked behavior. Going on Jesus said he would come: to fight against these wicked influencers. Finally he comes back to encouragement. The ball was in their court. They were to conquer their evil desires and root out the wicked influences. Then a good result would come.
God would give spiritual food, a.k.a. hidden manna, to the over-comers. During Israel’s forty year desert sojourn they ate manna. They needed sustenance before they made it to the Promised Land, and God gave it. Think of the two examples of the misbehavior in Pergamum. The examples given were rebellious pleasures. They were forbidden food and forbidden sex. Food and sex are both legitimate appetites and here Jesus says, “Conquer your improper desires and I will give you a different satisfaction.”
That is the way of God as revealed in Christianity. Obedience pays hidden, but satisfying dividends. God’s ways provide sustenance. They provide what we need, but often his provisioning comes after doing things God’s way. Recall Satan’s temptation of Christ. After he successfully rebuffed the Devil God the Father sent his angels to provide the needs of Jesus’ human body.
Jesus was given a new body, a glorified one. We, too, will get a new body, one like that of Jesus. We only get little glimpses of what this means, but one of these glimpses is a new name. Names in the days of Jesus often meant something of the character of the person. While that is not part of 21st century American naming trends it will be in eternity.
Those who overcome the temptation to rebellion and sin get a new name. God chooses it, but we will understand it: very personally.
Where does a Christian wrestle through their temptations and desires? In their mind. That is where God is as his Holy Spirit to help in those struggles. God very thoroughly understands the motivations and intimacies of our private lives. He sees Satan’s temptations and many times allows them always making a way of escape.
Victory over the sinful nature results in this new name. The name will be personal, not for all to see, but a thing between oneself and God. The God who carried you and I, who stood along side watching the temptation and cheering us on (whether we could hear it or not), will give a new name. When that name is written on that stone and that stone is given to you it will be a reminder, a souvenir, a testimony to the struggles and the God given victory.
The Pergamites had started off well and persevered to the point of death despite Satan’s persecutions. That was their beginning. The church, though, was caught in sin having fallen to Satan’s temptations. God in his grace had not come and fought against the sinners, yet, but was telling them of the importance of facing down the bad tendencies. He concludes all of these by encouraging them that overcoming will bring satisfaction, struggle will be understood by God and a permanent memento of this in the form of a name will be given.
I do not know where you, reader, or you class member, are most seriously tempted. I do not know what is absolutely tempting you or to what point you already have fallen, be it doctrinally or personally. God knows. God will help, but he demands purity. Repent from ungodly things and call to him for help. He will show you the way out (it’s been there all along) and then help you run or jump or walk or limp or crawl over to and out the door. That defining moment will be accompanied in some manner by a hidden satisfaction and a new, hidden name. Trust God. It works and the alternative is but fool’s gold: sparkle but no value.