The Message to the Church in Pergamum

Revelation 2:12-17

Pergamum
Figure 1 Pergamum. Pictorial Pictures of the Bible, BiblePlaces.com. Used by Permission

The city of Pergamum was the capital of the Asian province for a short period before the capital was moved to Ephesus. Estimated population about 200,000. It was here that parchment was invented. Being the capital, it was the center of Caesar worship for the province. It also hosted a large altar for Zesus, the chief Greek god. But what it was most noted for was its temple to Ascielepius, the god of healing. Many people traveled to Pergamum in search of cures.

The Letter

Jesus introduces himself as the one with the sharp two-edged sword. As noted in the comments on Revelation 1:16, the sword referred to the Scriptures, in particular, the Bible’s ability to discern between good and evil (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12). Thus, Jesus is approaching this church in judgment.

The church in Pergamum had a difficult situation. The city was full of idolatry. Jesus described it as the place where Satan had his throne – that is, Satan ruled from here and lived here. Despite this, the Christians in Pergamum have held fast to the authority of Jesus and had not denied the faith. They held on even though one of their members, Antipas, was martyred for the sake of Christ.

Despite the strength of the church’s faith, there were some of their number who followed after the teachings of Balaam. Balaam was a prophet in the Old Testament, whom the king of Moab hired to curse the Israelites. Even though Balaam wanted the money, he was unable to curse the Israelites because God would not allow it. After several tries, Balaam gives up but not before he suggested that king of Moab could get God to destroy Israel by leading Israel into sin (Numbers 31:16; 25:1-3). The two sins used against Israel were fornication and idolatry. Therefore, the implication is that some in Pergamum had forsaken the truth for idolatry and sexual sins and that the love of money was the motivation behind these sins (II Peter 2:12-15; Jude 11). These false teachers encouraged Christians to engage in sexual sins and to worship at idol temples.

If this wasn’t bad enough, others in Pergamum followed after the teachings of the Nicolaitans. Unlike Ephesus, who resisted these false teachers, some Christians in Pergamum had fallen under their influence. As noted in the commentary on Revelation 2:6, “Nicolaitans” comes from the Greek word nikolaites which literally means "a follower of Nicolaus." Nicholas was a name used by several people. For instance, one of the early deacons mentioned in Acts 6:5 was called Nicholas ("nicolaus" in the Greek). Whether this is the same Nicholas mentioned in Revelation or that there was another is pure speculation. The name Nicholas means "conqueror of the people" and there is a subtle play on words being done in Revelation because the followers of Nicholas are being compared to the followers of Balaam. "Balaam" in Hebrew means "destroyer of the people." While the teachings of Balaam destroyed the people of Israel, the teachings of Nicholas has destroyed Christians. The implication is that it was based on similar teachings - idolatry and sexual immorality

Irenaeus, who lived about 180 AD, had this to say about the group. "The Nicolaitans are the followers of that Nicholas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconatee by the apostles. the Nicolaitans lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these persons is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John. It shows that they teach that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery and to eat things sacrificed to idols."

Clement of Alexander, who lived about 195 AD, wrote, "Those who say that they follow Nicholas quote the adage of that man -- "The flesh must be abused" -- which they pervert. but that worthy man [Nicholas] actually meant that it was necessary to curtail pleasures and lusts."

Tertullian, who wrote about 207 AD, stated, "I do not aim at destroying the happiness of sanctity, as do certain Nicolaitans in their maintenance of lust and luxury."

Whether Nicholas founded the group or whether later men twisted Nicholas' teachings to create their own beliefs, it is a group that sought after sensuality and thereby left the truth of the Bible.

Jesus warned that they must repent or he would fight against them with the sword of his mouth. We should never forget that the Bible is both a guide and a weapon. Being two-edged, it can be used against us when we stray from the truth. Jesus’ statement is similar to Paul’s in II Corinthians 10:3-6 and II Thessalonians 2:8. Jesus is proclaiming that he would destroy these destroyers of his people with the truth. Interestingly, Balaam died by the sword in a battle (Numbers 31:8).

To those who do overcome the sins spreading in the church at Pergamum, Jesus offers hidden manna. Manna were the small wafers God gave to the Israelites to feed them while they wandered in the wilderness. A jar of manna was placed before the Lord, hidden in the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 16:31-33; Hebrews 9:4). But the hidden manna for Christians was Jesus himself and the salvation he bought for us with his own body (John 6:31-35, 49-58). Recall how Paul said that our lives are hidden with Christ (Colossians 3:3-4). That Jesus is the Christian’s manna is also hinted at by the Hebrew writer when he talked of those who have tasted the heavenly gift (Hebrews 6:4-5). Salvation is known to those who receive it, but it is hidden from the rest of the world (Luke 19:42; Colossians 2:1-3).

Jesus also offers a white stone with a new name written on it. Reading through various commentators, you will find the meaning of this hotly contested, but the clearest is to note that there is only one other mention of a stone (Greek: psephos) and it is found in Acts 26:10. Most of your translations use “casting a vote” in place of the literal word “stone.” In this era, to accomplish anonymous voting, the voter was given two stones: one white and one black. The voter would drop one of the stones into a container. A white stone indicated agreement with the proposal and a black stone indicated disagreement. Thus, Jesus was stating that he would judge in favor of those who overcome the problems in Pergamum.

The new name is not referring to the person who receives the stone. Jesus is casting a stone that has a new name written on it. It is referring to caster’s new name (Revelation 3:12; Isaiah 62:2). In other words, while casting a vote is normally done anonymously, Jesus is going to openly declare his vote. But it is a name that only the faithful, the ones who overcome and receive Jesus’ vote, will know. This hidden name is mentioned and declared later in Revelation 19:12-13.

Another way to look at this is that knowing someone’s personal name is a sign of being close to that person. Jesus is offering these faithful Christians a personal relationship with him. “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14-15).

Finally, take notice that Jesus is not offering salvation to the entire church, but only to the individuals who do his will. Being a member of a good church or a bad church will not determine how God judges you (Romans 2:6). Being a part of a bad church will make it harder to remain faithful than being a part of a good church, but in the end what matters is what the individual does.