We’re on the third of seven messages which the Lord Jesus sent to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. But, as I’ve said several times, although these seven messages are addressed to seven specific churches, really they’re for every church in every age. And in these seven letters, the Lord is writing to comfort his suffering people and to re-assure them; and he’s writing to rebuke some who have gone astray; he’s writing to warn those who don’t repent; and he’s writing to encourage those who remain faithful. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and King of the church, who is walking among the lampstands, who is walking among his people, knows us and he knows what we need to hear so that we’ll remain faithful to him in these, the last days, before he comes again.
To the church in Ephesus, the Lord wrote to warn them how they had forsaken their first love, because they didn’t love him as they once did. To the church in Smyrna, the Lord wrote to re-assure them because they had suffered so much for him. And today we come to his message to the church in Pergamum.
And first of all, in verse 12, the Lord addresses himself as the one who has ‘the sharp double-edged sword’. Now remember, each of these self-descriptions at the beginning of each message are linked to John’s vision of the Lord Jesus in chapter 1. So, in chapter 1, John saw that the Lord Jesus held seven stars in his hand and walked among the lampstands. And that’s how the Lord described himself in the letter to the church in Ephesus. In chapter 1, John saw that the Lord Jesus was the First and the Last, who died, but who was alive for ever and ever. And that’s how the Lord described himself in his letter to the church in Smyrna. And in chapter 1, John saw that the Lord Jesus had a sharp double-edged sword coming out of his mouth which conveyed to us that idea that he is the judge who has the power and authority to punish those who are guilty in his sight. And sure enough, that’s how the Lord describes himself in the message to the church in Pergamum. And it’s entirely fitting that he should describe himself in this way to this church, because in the course of this letter he rebukes them for what some of them have done; and he warns them that if they don’t repent, he will come and will fight against them with the sword of his mouth. If they do not repent, the judge will come and punish them.
But before he gets to the warning, there’s a word of encouragement in verse 13. The Lord wrote to them and said:
I know where you live — where Satan has his throne.
The Lord knows all about his people, because we’ve seen that — even though he’s now in heaven, enthroned over all — he’s also walking among the lampstands, which means he’s walking among the churches and he’s familiar with all our ways. And he knows in particular the difficulties the members of the church in Pergamum faced because of the place where they lived.
It was fascinating to read a little about Pergamum when I was preparing for this message and to discover that there was so much pagan worship in this city. Up on a hill, overlooking the city, there was a temple dedicated to Athene; and outside the temple, the people had built a forty-foot high altar to Zeus. Apparently all day and every day, smoke would go up from this altar from the sacrifices that had been made to Zeus. So, can you imagine waking up every day and having to look at that and watch your neighbours make their way up the hill to bow down before this idol? Can you imagine all your neighbours treating you as an outsider, because you will not join with them in their pagan worship? But that’s not all. People flocked to Pergamum from all over the world to worship at the temple dedicated to Asclepius. Asclepius was supposed to be the god of healing. And the records show that this god was sometimes referred to as Saviour. Can you imagine how Christians must have shuddered every time they heard someone call this idol their Saviour when you know that there’s only one true Saviour. But even that was not the end of it, for Pergamum could also boast about having three temples dedicated to Roman Emperors. The Emperor was sometimes treated as a god by the Romans. And so the people would gather in these temples to burn incense to him; and every loyal citizen of the Roman Empire was expected to join in; and if you didn’t join in, you were treated as if you were being disloyal to the Empire: you weren’t being a good citizen; you weren’t someone we can trust and do business with. What must it have been like for the believers in that city? What enormous pressure they must have faced to conform and to do what everyone else was doing. What hardships did they have to endure, because they would not call anyone Lord except the Lord Jesus Christ?
We get an idea of what it must have been like for them from verse 13 where we read about this believer called Antipas. Now, we don’t know anything about this man, except what is written here about him. The Lord describes him as ‘my faithful witness’; and it seems that Antipas, the Lord’s faithful witness, was faithful unto death, because we read here that he was put to death in this city where Satan lives. And so, we can imagine how the Devil must have stirred up the people of the city to oppose and persecute the believers so that, in the end, one of them was killed because of his faith in the Saviour.
So, can you imagine a more difficult place for a Christian to live? There was the temple to Athene and the altar to Zeus. There was the temple dedicated to Asclepius. There were the temples dedicated to the Roman Emperors. Can you imagine a more difficult place for a Christian to live? And yet the believers in Pergamum show us that it’s possible to remain true to the Lord even when we live in the most difficult circumstances. Look how the Lord commends them in verse 13: he commends them for remaining true to him and for not renouncing their faith in him. So, even though they lived in the place where Satan has his throne; and even though one of them had been martyred; nevertheless they remained faithful to the Lord; and they did not give up their faith in him. And so, these believers show us that it’s possible to remain true to the Lord even when we live in the most difficult circumstances. And we need to remember that in these days. With the Lord’s help, we can remain faithful to the Lord no matter where we live and under what circumstances we find ourselves.
Verses 14 to 16
However, despite the fact that most of them remained true to the Lord, the Lord had a few things against them, because some of them were holding to the teaching of Balaam. Do you see that in verse 14? We read about Balaam in Numbers 22. The Israelites were on the way to the Promised Land and they camped on the plains of Moab, near the Jordan River. This terrified, Balak, the king of Moab. So, he sent for Balaam to come and curse the Israelites. Balaam was known for being able to practice divination; and Balak wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites so that Balak and his army could defeat the Israelites in battle. But when Balaam tried to curse the Israelites, the Lord intervened and turned his curse into a blessing. However, afterwards, in Numbers 25 and Numbers 31 we discover that Balaam devised a cunning scheme to seduce the Israelites into sexuality immorality and into idolatry so that the Lord’s anger burned against them. Balak and Balaam couldn’t defeat the Israelites in battle, but — by causing them to sin against the Lord — many of them were destroyed because of God’s wrath.
Back in Revelation 2, the Lord refers to that story and to how Balaam taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexuality immorality. And when the Lord rebukes them for holding to Balaam’s teaching, it seems he’s rebuking them because — although they haven’t renounced their faith — they have compromised their faith and some of them have joined in the pagan feasts and some of them have given in to sexual temptation.
In verse 15, the Lord refers to the teaching of the Nicolaitans, who were also mentioned in the message to the church in Ephesus. And since the Lord says that ‘likewise you have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans’, it seems that the Nicolaitans were a group within the church who taught what Balaam taught, and who were saying to the believers in Pergamum:
There’s nothing wrong with joining your neighbours in their pagan feasts and their sexual immorality. You’ve still a believer, aren’t you? You’re still a Christian, aren’t you? You haven’t renounced your faith, have you? So, go ahead and do it; it’s fine.
And so, the Lord Jesus had to write to this church to make clear that it’s not fine and it’s not okay. And unless the whole church repents and disciplines those members who have compromised their faith, he will have to come and punish them with the sword of his mouth.
Now, perhaps someone is thinking:
Hang on! Hang on! Why are you talking about the Lord Jesus punishing his people? Surely all my sins are forgiven? God doesn’t punish those who believe, does he?
I often refer to our Catechisms and Confession of Faith, because they’re so helpful in summarising the teaching of the Bible. And the Confession distinguishes between eternal punishment and temporal punishment. Through faith in Christ, our sins are pardoned so that we are delivered forever from the eternal punishment we deserve. However, when believers disobey our Heavenly Father, without confessing our sins and without repenting from them, we may have to suffer temporal punishments in this life. When our Heavenly Father is displeased with his children, he may have to discipline us in this life so that we’ll turn from our sin and seek our Father’s forgiveness. And that’s what the Lord Jesus is referring to here. Yes, these are believers; he’s commended them for remaining true to his name and for not renouncing their faith. But these believers have gone astray and are doing things which are not right. And unless the church disciplines those who have gone astray, the Lord Jesus will come and inflict on them temporal punishments in this life.
But do you see how patient the Lord is? Instead of punishing them straightaway, he warns them and he gives them time to repent. You see, the Lord is always patient with his people; and even when we go astray, he comes to us in his word and he shows us where we went wrong; and he encourages us to turn around and to come back to the right path. And if we listen to his voice, and do as he says, there’s no need for us ever to feel the edge of his sword.
And do you see as well, how he also encourages his people in Pergamum with his promise in verse 17. He says:
To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
There are several things here; let’s take them in turn, starting with the hidden manna. The sin some of them were committing was that they were taking part in the pagan feasts, eating food sacrificed to idols. And so, in a sense they were eating the Devil’s food. But now the Lord promises them manna, which is heavenly food. It’s hidden now; but one day, when they enter the glory of God’s presence, it will be revealed to them and given to them for their enjoyment.
Then the Lord refers to a white stone which will be given to them. Well, white stones were used in those days to admit a person to a banquet. It was a kind of a ticket. And so, the Lord is offering his faithful people a white stone which will give them admittance, not to a pagan feast in a pagan temple, but to a heavenly feast in God’s heavenly temple.
And then the white stone has a new name written on it. What’s the new name? Well, it’s the name of the Lord Jesus, isn’t it? After all, back in verse 13 the Lord commended them for being true to his name. So, he’s referring to his own name. But it’s a new name in the sense that, around Pergamum, it was a despised and hated name, just as it’s a despised and hated name today. But to the one who receives it, it speaks to us of the Lord’s glorious victory over Satan. And so, all who overcome, and who have received the name of the Lord Jesus, will be admitted to the heavenly feast in the Lord’s heavenly temple where we shall enjoy the presence of the Lord for ever and for ever.