The church at Pergamos received correction for tolerating the teachings of “Balaam” – Revelation 2:12-17.
Pergamos lay sixty kilometers to the north of Smyrna and twenty kilometers from the sea. Though not a major commercial center, occasionally, it served as the seat of the Roman provincial government and the provincial center for the imperial cult. The first temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar in Asia was built at Pergamos in 29 B.C.
The city’s patron deities included Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asclepios. Its most prominent feature was a large altar dedicated to Zeus Sotér – “Zeus the Savior,” which may be alluded to in the letter to the church at Pergamos, the “throne of Satan.”
- (Revelation 2:12-17) – And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write: These things says he that has the sharp, two-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 faith, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was killed near you where Satan dwells. Nevertheless, 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 to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He that has an ear, let 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, a new name written, which no one knows, except he that receives it.”
Jesus declares that holds the “sharp, two-edged sword,” an appropriate symbol for his absolute authority, including over the awesome power of Rome. Imperial soldiers were armed with the short double-edged sword for hand-to-hand combat, the rhomphaia, which is the same Greek noun found on Christ’s lips. The sword symbolized the power of life and death. The Roman proconsul had almost 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” – (Psalm 2:1-9, Revelation 1:16, 19:11-16). The “two-edged sword” is derived from a passage in Isaiah, which 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 Roman magistrates, Jesus wields ultimate power over life and death. Whatever authority is possessed by governing authorities is derivative. Here, he 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.” Jesus is aware of the difficult situation of this church, and he commends the “angel” for “holding fast my name and not denying my faith.”
“Satan’s throne” may refer to the altar to Zeus, to the city’s 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 under threat from 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, the one who is the “faithful witness and the firstborn of the dead.” By his death, he bore faithful witness, and thus, also, did Antipas. Only the Roman proconsul was authorized to execute a local resident – (Revelation 1:4-6).
The “teaching of Balaam” alludes to the prophet Balaam, who attempted to serve God and money by cursing Israel for the Moabite king. But God caused him to bless Israel instead. However, he found another way to earn his reward by teaching the Moabites to corrupt Israel through fornication and idolatry. Here, “fornication” is metaphorical for idolatry. In Pergamos, the problem was accommodating the idolatrous practices of the surrounding society (Numbers 25:1-3,31:16,17:1-2).
The proponents of this false teaching are probably identical to 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 by accommodating themselves to pagan society. 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, it refers to visitations in judgment to purge his churches.
The “hidden manna” alludes to the “manna” that was kept in the Ark of the Covenant. It represented how Yahweh sustained Israel in the wilderness. Here, it is contrasted with the “meat offered to idols.” The former yields everlasting life, the latter, the “second death.” 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. Jesus reveals its true significance to faithful saints. The clause alludes to the promise to Ancient Israel in Isaiah that is now applied to faithful saints in Pergamos:
- (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 your righteousness, and all kings your glory; And you shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of Yahweh will name” – (Compare, Revelation 14:1, 22:3-4).
“He that has an ear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!” Once again, “churches” is in the plural number, for the summons by is for all saints to heed the words of the “Spirit,” not just the church at Pergamos.
This repeated clause universalizes the seven letters. Every believer is to “hear what the Spirit is saying,” whether in Pergamos, Smyrna, or Ephesus (“he who hears”). The same promise of the “new name” will be realized in “New Jerusalem” by every faithful believer who “overcomes.”