Revelation Commentary 2:12-17, to Pergamum
The culture and spiritual climate of Pergamum.
Pergamum was situated some fifty miles from Smyrna and had a population of 130-200,000. It is thought that the city had originally grown in numbers through the arrival of exiles after the Babylonian defeat by the Medo-Persians circa 536 BC. Because of their influence the city was known, amongst many other things, as a centre for sun-worshippers. The city also had a very prominent position in the Roman Empire having taken the lead in joining Rome to defeat other kingdoms across the eastern Mediterranean area.
The city of Pergamum was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and the centre of Imperial worship for the region. Those seeking judgement in legal cases would come before the Roman proconsul based in the city.
The city was built around a citadel hill which rose one thousand feet above the plains and therefore appeared to dominate the local area. Many of the city’s public buildings were terraced and built into the side of the hill.
Overlooking Pergamum was a temple (built circa 29BC) dedicated to the Emperor Augustus and visible by all whom approached the city. It was during Augustus’ reign that the empire experienced a time of peace (Pax Romana) and the continuing expansion of the empire. Augustus was instrumental in reforming the Roman taxation system and building mile upon mile of road networks. He also developed the army and set up the Praetorian Guard during his reign.
In the Roman Empire Pergamum was a city which referred to itself as the ‘Temple Warden,’ this possibly being one of the reasons it is referred to as the ‘seat of Satan.’
Another reason why Pergamum may have been referred to as the seat of Satan was because of the huge throne-like altar to Zeus, shaped like a horseshoe with 100ft sides, on a hill overlooking the city. And yet there is more to the picture than this.
Pergamum was also the centre of pagan cults like that of Asclepius, the so-called god of healing and patron god of Pergamum. The coinage of Pergamum had his likeness on it with the rod of Asclepius being snake-entwined staffs which remain the symbol of modern medicine today. The physicians and attendants who served Asclepius were known as the ‘Therapeutae of Asclepius’ and this is probably where our word ‘therapy’ stems from. A very well-known temple dedicated to Asclepius was also known to dominate the plains in front of Pergamum.
As already mentioned, Asclepius was said to represent the healing aspect of the medical arts and said to have three daughters. The first was Hygieia (from where our word ‘hygiene’ comes), the so-called goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation. The other two daughters were Laso (the goddess of recuperation from illness) and Acesco (the goddess of the healing process).
In looking at the caring nature of this particular religious system we can begin to get an idea as to why some nominal Christians in Pergamum (possibly second-generation Christians) were becoming attracted to it.
However whilst the person made in the image of God (as are all people) may be a caring person, the religious system they are involved in is not. Anything that draws man away from God imprisons the mind and is ultimately destructive in nature when it comes to kingdom living, as is testified by many religious people who later turned to Christ.
In the sophisticated world of healing and community dominated by temple structures and diverse beliefs, the Christian community was going to stand out like a sore thumb. It was also going to seem somewhat judgemental in its refusal to be involved in the so-called healing religious practices and needed to engage with the community in the unction and power of the Holy Spirit. As Christians we stand for people which will, at times, involve standing against anything that seeks to lead people astray.
As has been said previously, the church has not been called to be a protest movement, yet neither are we called to remain silent. In all things we are to seek God and be open to the leading of the Spirit. It is then, after prayer and through immersing ourselves in His word that we are able to challenge with the purpose of uplifting others, call to account in order to help free.
Another problem for the early church: Rome deified and worshipped victory.
As we have already seen, emperor worship was prevalent in the Roman Empire and increased during the reign of Domitian who was Titus’ younger brother, Titus being the one who sacked Jerusalem in AD70. Yet Rome also worshipped something else apart from her emperors: She worshipped the goddess of victory who was known as Victoria (Latin) or Nike (‘winged goddess’). The cultic practice of worshipping the goddess of victory was so deeply imbedded in Roman beliefs that senators would burn incense to her as they entered the senate. John refers to Rome as being like Babylon: a whore, mother of prostitutes and the abomination of the earth that killed saints (Rev 17:5-6).
Rome would often re-enact her greatest victories as a means of celebrating their prowess and a reminder concerning who was in charge. Members of conquered peoples were represented by thieves, political insurgents and generally anyone who had upset the empire or broken Roman law. They would be paraded through the streets before being killed in mock battles.
Rome also reminded the general populace of her power through minting coins after a victory with defeated peoples being depicted as captives going into slavery. Both Egyptian and Babylonian reliefs depicted a similar imagery in the past. In Pergamum, as in any other Roman town or city, Rome was in control, Rome wielded the sword and you’d better behave and fall into line because Rome believed she owned you. Yet God defined Rome as a prostituting life-sucking power that would ultimately be destroyed. God also shows us what we could call a counter theology when compared to the theology of Rome: Evil is overcome by suffering love and not so-called superior power, with the one true legitimate eternal power being that of God’s sacrificial love.
Having seen something of the culture of Rome and spiritual climate of Pergamum we now note how the words of Jesus are introduced to the church: “These are the words of him who has a sharp double-edged sword” (Rev 2:12).
A sharp double-edged sword and getting to the heart of the matter.
In the Empire the sword spoke of judicial power, with Roman governors having the ultimate ‘Ius Gladii’, the right to execute capital punishment. In light of this the imagery of a sword would not be lost on those under the military might of Rome. Yet what sort of imagery is there surrounding a sword in scripture?
In scripture a sword is sometimes used as a symbol of divine judgement (Deut 32:36-41) and of power and authority, with the words of God being called the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17). In contrast to the power and judicial might of Rome it is actually Jesus who has all power and authority and will one day restore harmony to His world (2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1).
Jesus is the true ‘heavenly man’ in contrast to the emperors of the day the legitimate ruler pictured as having a two-edged sword.
"In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Jesus always sees all things as they really are and gets right to the heart of the matter when it comes to His people (Heb 4:16). For example, note how Jesus puts His finger on the pulse of the rich young ruler’s problem.
A rich young ruler ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees wanting to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-22). Eternal life is a quality of life before it is quantity and the man had obviously seen something in Jesus and his disciples that revealed a power and dynamic to life that he had not encountered before. He sought to keep the commandments as best he could; revealing a good attitude to God’s law. Yet his ‘Achilles heel,’ which may have been invisible to him, was that he relied too much upon his finance and not God. Jesus cut right to the heart of the matter and revealed this to him. God always cuts right to the heart of a matter; there is no beating about the bush and no middle ground.
“Think of his words to the Pharisees when they questioned him about whether to stone the adulteress (John 8:7). They were arguing about religious and civic law, but when Jesus said that he who had no sin should cast the first stone, this cut right to the heart. In an instant their arguments were slashed, and they were faced squarely with their own relationship with God. When Jesus’ words cut to the heart, it is in order to have mercy, for it is only from the depth of the heart that a real relationship with Jesus can arise.”
Fr R. Veras, Wisdom for everyday life from the book of Revelation, p3
Jesus is the One who has the power to forgive sin (Mark 2:10), is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28) and the One who will one day return in power and glory (Mark 21:27). Through Jesus and Jesus alone we can approach the One who lives in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16).
As already mentioned, the church at Pergamum was in a city that deified victory and had the appearance of power through the healing arts. Yet in the letter the church receives believers are encouraged to see that that Jesus is the legitimate ruler (Col 2:9; Rev 1:5) and healer (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24).
Like all churches the fellowship at Pergamum needed to understand again and again that God was with them (Mat 28:20; 2 Thess 3:16). Like all church gatherings they needed to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:17-18) the One who is with His people.
A recent article in a Christian magazine tells the story of a man called to distribute bibles in a remote part of Vietnam. He took a box of Bibles knowing that if he was caught he could be imprisoned and even tortured. The only way he could transport the Bibles was by public bus and he bought a ticket for a twelve-mile trip. He knew that there were regular checkpoints to go through and that police or soldiers would search the bus.
As he prayed and waited for the bus depart, he was surprised, and more than a bit worried, to see a uniformed police captain board the bus. The captain walked toward the Bible smuggler, and selected the seat next to him. The captain placed his hat on top of the box of Bibles and then settled into the seat and fell into a deep sleep.
When the bus reached the first checkpoint the captain was still sleeping. Soldiers boarded the bus and began checking the identification papers of all the passengers. They then asked the passengers to open their bags and then inspected the contents. When the guards reached the Christian’s row on the bus, they glanced at the box, at the captain’s hat resting on top, and at the slumbering captain. Then, without a word, they quietly moved on to the next row. This happened at every checkpoint on the journey.
The glory of Immanuel.
In glory veiled, Jesus came and spoke into the lives of struggling, marginalised and burdened people and brought healing to many who were blind, deaf, crippled or possessed by demons. In glory veiled, He also spoke through death and Lazarus (John 11:43), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:49-55) and the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-15) were brought back to life. He is the one who fed over five thousand people (John 6:4-13), walked on water and stilled a storm (Jn 6:18-20) told the crowds that He was the bread of life (Jn 6:35) and then said, “The Spirit gives life…”
In the weakness of the flesh Jesus disarmed all powers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Col 2:13-15). In this both we and the church at Pergamum can find great hope.
Life is about Jesus who shows us what a relationship with a heavenly Father can be like and the way of sacrificial love. Through a deep abiding relationship with His Father, Jesus was the master of every situation He faced. Today, because of His grace, mercy and power we find His victory being taken into, what to us, often seems like the most unlikely of places and unusual circumstances.
Jesus is the ‘God-has-stooped-low’ One and across history and the world there are millions who testify to His love. Whether His people are caught up in the might of the Roman Empire, in Auschwitz, the horrors of the Rwandan genocide or North Korean prison camps, He still brings light and hope to those who would otherwise be hopeless. God is love (John 3:16-17; 1 Cor 13:4-7, 1 John 4:8) and there is nothing except self that can prevent us from experiencing the grace, mercy and love of God.
“Revelation comes to life not in a predetermined script of violent disasters but rather in experiences of God’s river flowing through your life, flooding you with a vision for God’s healing of the whole world. God is not a script, God is love. It is in love – in the day-to-day miracles of our lives – that we meet God and that we see the Bible coming to life in our world.”
B. Rossing, ‘The Rapture Exposed’, p100
The victory of our covenant-keeping God.
In Greek mythology there is the story about an ancient serpent-like water monster called Hyrda which lived in the Lake of Lerna. The serpent was reptilian and multi-headed and if you cut off one head, two more would appear in its’ place. Physical strength was no match for this so-called supernatural being and attempts to kill with the sword simply increased its strength. Although this is only a story from the realms of mythology, I am sure we get the point. We do not overcome the enemy in our own strength.
We are kingdom people and do not overcome the power of the sword with our own strength or resources. To use our own strength is to wander from God and if we do so we increase the ‘strength’ of the enemy by making ourselves weaker. In all ways we are called to commit our lives to God and walk in the salvation and victory that is His alone (Ps 37:4-6).
“Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
The word ‘overcomes’ that John uses in the above verse is literally ‘subdue,’ this being done by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit (Zech 4:6, Gal 3:5).
We cannot use fishing nets to catch sunlight nor can you use a physical sword to cut fog into blocks with which to then build a house. Neither does the anger of man work the ways of God or the power of man defeat the power of darkness. The only way darkness is defeated is through the blood of the Lamb (Heb 2:14-15) and testimony of believers (2 Cor 5:21) who stand (Eph 6:13), with and in the presence of the Holy Spirit whether in prison for their faith or standing on a mountaintop. In Him alone we have abundant life (John 10:10; 21:31) and the God-given ability to overcome evil in His strength.
“The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.”
“The book of Revelation offers an unflinching portrayal of God’s wrath and judgement, but bloodshed is consistently attributed not to God, but to Babylon and the Beast and the dragon. The “sword” of God is not an instrument of bloodshed. In his vision of “one like the Son of Man“(Rev 1:13), John observes that “from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword” (Rev 1:16). The sword that comes from the mouth is the word of God (Heb 4:12), and it is the truth of God’s word and the blood of the victims that are the sole weapons in the arsenal of the Lamb. John’s references to the divine sword are persistently accompanied by qualifiers indicating that it is the sword of the mouth or the sword of truth (e.g. Rev 1:16; 2:16:19:15).”
L. Griffith in, ‘The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God’ page 213
Because of Jesus’ presence with His people through the power of the Holy Spirit there are millions of amazing stories of ordinary people working in extraordinary ways for God. One such story is of a woman called Evelyn Brand.
In 1909 Evelyn Brand, a single woman, felt God’s call to go to India. She married a man called Jesse and began ministering in rural India through medical supplies, education and road building. For seven years they worked hard without seeing one person come to Christ.
Towards the end of their seven years a Hindu priest became so ill that no one would go near him, yet Evelyn and her husband nursed and supported him as he lay dying. The priest said, “This God, Jesus, must be the true God because only Jesse and Evelyn will care for me in my dying.” Before he died he gave his children to Evelyn and Jesse to care for. People saw all this going on and started to look at the life and teaching of Jesus with many then finding Him as Lord and Saviour through repentance and faith. Evelyn and her husband served God for thirteen years before her husband died.
Despite being fifty years old, Evelyn continued to serve God in India for another twenty years. When she was seventy she said to her son, “This is how to grow old. Allow everything else to fall away until those around you see only love.” Although her home mission office told her they would not give her another five-year term, Evelyn continued to serve and had a shack built to live in. She brought a pony and travelled from village to village telling everyone about Jesus and did so until she was ninety-three. She then travelled around for two years on a stretcher until her death at the age of ninety-five.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” 2 Cor 5:17
Through the work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, believers are now spoken of as being “in Christ” with “in Christ” being mentioned ninety-one times in the N.T. letters.
In classical Greek ‘en’ means ‘in,’ but in the later Greek of the N.T. ‘en’ is often used of the instrument or agent, hence “by means of” or “through the agency of.” Therefore, “in Christ” speaks of Christ as being the enabling power by which we are to live.
In Christ all are made alive (1 Cor 15:22) and are no longer under condemnation (Rom 8:1-12). There is nothing around us or over us that need separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:37-9) who is our righteousness, holiness and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:27-31).
No matter how many promises God has made they are all “yes” in Christ and through Him we have been anointed (set apart and empowered). His seal is upon us and His Spirit lives with us (2 Cor 1:20-22).
In Jesus the fullness of the fullness of the deity resides in bodily form (Col 2:9; 1 John 5:20) and we are made complete through Him - the Head over every power and authority (Col 2:9-10). Through Christ and Christ alone we have the One who covers all sin and guards our hearts and minds (Phil 4:7).
“To be in Christ was not a brief ecstasy induced by deliberately provoked psychological excitement, it was something that was obtained every day in the ordinary business and routing of everyday life…it is only the completely surrendered heart which knows what it is to be in Christ in the fullest sense of the term.”
Dr W. Barclay in, ‘The Mind of St Paul’ pages 99-100.
Jesus came to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43), seeking and saving that which was lost (Luke 19:10) and destroying the work of Satan who masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:4). In Jesus we have both the author and perfector of our faith (Heb 12:2). In Jesus, God our loving heavenly Father takes our individual lives and begins to transform them (Rom 12:1-2) into what we should have been right from the beginning: His workmanship (Eph 2:10). He takes us from being just ‘a’ man or ‘a’ woman to being ‘the’ man or ‘the’ woman whom God has made in His own image.
We live in a society where many are striving against violence, economic difficulty, injustice, irrational fears and a whole host of other unwelcome guests. In such a society we can, if we are not careful, adopt an attitude whereby Christianity is exclusively ours as a means to build and protect our own lives. Yet in living this way we quench the Spirit because we forget that, although God will help us with our lives, real freedom comes through being yielded to the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit.
“Religion is more than an aid in the development of the merely human; its goal is to raise the human to the level of the holy.”
Abraham Heschel in ‘Mans Quest for God’
Balaam’s teaching in Pergamum!
Many believers stood in the power of God as persecution sought to destroy the church at Pergamum and there was already one man who had been martyred (Antipas). Yet not everything was going the right way in the church. Although the church withstood external persecution, there was religious compromise. Some nominal Christians (Christian in name but not nature and character) were holding to what was termed the teaching of Balaam.
Although we do not know what the specific teaching was at Pergamum we do know how it operated by looking at the story of Balaam. John states that Balaam taught Israel to sin by eating food offered to idols. In light of this and because of what was going on at Pergamum we pause to look at idolatry and then the teaching of Balaam before moving on.
Scripture clearly reveals that we were not created to live autonomously and are not able to find the ability to live life, or find the answers to all our questions within self. We live in a world that belongs to someone else and have been created to transcend the physical realm and relate, in covenant relationship with our heavenly Father.
We have been ‘wired’, so to speak, for relationships and if we do not enter into a covenant with God we will enter into covenant (relationship) with other things in order to overcome vulnerability, bolster up our lives and make us feel secure. In a sense, outside of Christ, we could be likened to a four-cylinder car running on three cylinders. Yes we get around, but we do not fulfil our full potential and eventually damage the life we are trying to take so much care of.
In scripture we often see those who had an intellectual knowledge of God, yet nothing by way of relationship as they conflated their ideas with a basic knowledge of God; take for example, Jacob who ended up wrestling with God and Saul on the road to Damascus.
When we live by the intellect, yet do not engage with the Spirit we end up with ‘God’ in our image. To do so is to believe a lie and a lie by its very nature cannot sustain us. An example of a lie that was perceived as the truth was the golden calf (Ex 32:4-8; Nehemiah 9:18) that Israel made on leaving Egypt. The reason they made a calf was because they were allowing the influences of Egypt (who worshipped the cow) to conflate with their own belief of God. To hedge their bets, so to speak, they said this represents the gods who brought us out with others saying, “This is the god who brought us out.”
In building a golden calf Israel was attempting to localise and control the One who cannot be controlled in order to make themselves feel secure. They were relying on something in the created order as a means of security instead of God and this is the heart of idolatry.
An idol can be described as whatever your heart (lev) holds on to and relies upon above all else for ultimate security. Although man is a covenant being, (created for a relationship with God) he is also a sinner. Yet God is a God who offers the hand of fellowship through His own suffering and sacrifice. If we are not holding the hand of our heavenly Father then the chances are we are holding onto something else in order to find security and carve a life out for ourselves. Jesus was concerned to make sure that the church at Pergamum was not lulled into living this way.
In the 21st century we generally think of idols as something made of wood, stone or precious metal, yet an idol can be anything in the created order. For example, it could be money or a position in society. Neither money nor position are wrong in themselves, but become wrong if we treat them as our primary source of security and allow them to take up most of our attention. Many families have fallen apart because of this. We are called to trust in the Lord, and in Him alone do we find our true being (Prov 3:5-6, Phil 4:6-7).
In Exodus the inability of idols to feed and support man, is underlined when Moses grinds the golden calf into powder, scatters it on water and makes the Israelites drink it (Ex 33:20). It is as if God were saying, “Go on then, let your idol feed and strengthen you. See how far it can get you. You now have gold in you, but anything that is not of God is worthless and will not be able to protect you.”
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”
In Psalm 115:8 we read that those who make idols will be like them, meaning that just as an idol is deaf and blind, so too are those who trust them.
“But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. O house of Israel, trust in the Lord — he is their help and shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord — he is their help and shield. You who fear him, trust in the Lord — he is their help and shield.”
Becoming blind, deaf and powerless through worshipping idols, whether tangible and made of wood or stone, or just plain wrong thinking, is seen throughout scripture. For example, note the subtle form of idolatry that was prevalent in Galatia at the time of Paul where the law was being emphasised at the expense of grace and mercy. Paul writes:
“I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing — if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?”
Balaam’s name comes from a root word meaning, ‘Lord of the people’ and he lived in Pethor by the Euphrates River. He was a magician and false prophet whom the Moabite King, Balak, called to curse the Israelites before they entered Canaan (Num 22:5-24; Deut 23:4-5). In a sense we could see Balaam as a double-minded man who had a mixture of both good and bad in him. He did not like the idea of going to curse the Israelites yet did so after God told him to listen to Balak but only say what God wanted him to say (Num 22:20).
Balaam is also mentioned in 2 Peter 2:15 where we read of people going astray and following the way of Balaam, and in Jude 11, which speaks of greed. Rather than go through the whole story of Balaam and the way God over-ruled what he was going to say and how God spoke to him through his own animal on one occasion, we need to know the heart of what was happening in order to see what was going on in Pergamum. What is the heart of the teaching that Jesus refers to?
Balaam realised that the only way Israel could be defeated was by persuading her to follow false gods – to adopt a different belief system as if it were normal or acceptable. In this we have something reminiscent of Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve.
When Adam and Eve accepted the alternative view as a possibility they put distance between themselves and the one true source of all life – their heavenly father, and that is when trouble really started. Yet because of God’s grace and mercy Paul can say Romans 8:37-9 that we are more than conquerors through the One who loved us (sacrificial love) and that he is convinced that neither death or life, angels or demons, the present, future or any power can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:37-39). The only one who can separate you from God is you.
In his encounters with the God of Israel, Balaam came to realise that God was just too powerful to defeat in any way whatsoever and so he went to ‘plan b’. If Israel was subtly led astray then they would be like sheep away from the Shepherd and no match for the enemy. Today this ‘leading people astray’ can be seen in the increasing number of cults around the world and religions that have a Jesus but not the Jesus of the scriptures (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Islam and Hinduism). The ‘teaching’ of Balaam, in a loose sense was, ‘anything goes.’
In Pergamum, Jesus challenges some in the church who were compromising their faith by eating meat sacrificed to idols, yet we need to be careful to see exactly what was happening. After all, in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that it is perfectly alright to eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:4-6). However in what he is saying there was a big difference from what was happening in Pergamum.
In Corinth there were many temples and pagan ceremonies with sacrifices being made to false gods. Due to these ceremonies there was often an abundance of meat and some would be was passed on to the markets and sold alongside other meat. There was nothing wrong with eating this meat; it was just meat! However, what was going on at Pergamum was very different.
Many of the cults in Pergamum were centred on healing and did not have the appearance of evil. Because of this some Christians were celebrating their festivals, yet there were also other reasons they may have been doing this.
The poor in the community would not be able to afford meat and would be dependent on getting it through participating in the worship festivals of foreign gods. From what is said and how Jesus was going to deal with the problem, we realise that there may also have been ambassadors for the temples seeking to conflate their beliefs with Christians.
I have seen this attempt to conflate belief at first-hand in inter-faith centres which seek to mix together the ‘good’ in all religions to suit their own means. Ultimately all they do is create confusion, another religion with false gods or teaching that cannot be trusted; there is only one way to God (John 14:6).
Balaam led Israel into sin so they would distance themselves from the only One who could truly protect them: God. Today the same thing can happen when we stop praying, compromise the faith or add our own spin to it – for example, the “god doesn’t really mind” brigade.
The way that the enemy triumphs over the church is not when it kills its members or scatters its people; it is when it persuades believers to walk in their own strength, knowing that this will make them vulnerable and an easy target.
The call to repent. (Rev 2:16).
“We have trifled with the name of God. We have taken the ideals in vain. We have called for the Lord. He came and was ignored. We have preached but eluded Him. We have praised but defied Him. Now we reap the fruits of our failure. Through centuries His voice cried in the wilderness. How skilfully it was trapped and imprisoned in the temples.” How often it was drowned or distorted!”…We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil….in our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man…the outbreak of war was no surprise.”
Abraham Heschel in ‘I Asked For A Wonder’ page 124-6
The thinking by which we build our lives can be likened to a house that we build to protect us with each thought pattern being a ‘brick.’ We are called to destroy the house of our own making and enter into the household of God through repentance and faith.
Jesus tells the nominal believers (knowing about God but not acting upon it the right way) in Pergamum to turn to Him. If they do not then He would come against what they have become with the ‘sword of His word.’ It is sobering to recognise that this is not a challenge from someone who could not care less. The words are spoken by the One who wept over rebellious Jerusalem (Luke 19:41); the One who walked through death so that man could find forgiveness and reconciliation with God. In Jesus and Jesus alone all the promises of God are fulfilled.
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
2 Corinthians 1: 20-23
Having encouraged true believers at Pergamum and challenged those who had a nominal faith, Jesus then goes on to say that those who stand in His victory will receive hidden manna. They will also be given a white stone on which is engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it. So what is this all about? We begin to answer the question by looking at ‘hidden manna’.
Hidden Manna from a God who cares.
Jewish tradition at the time of Jesus believed that the manna would be restored when the Ark of the Covenant was restored at the end of time. However, as Jeremiah 3:16 states, the original Ark will never be restored.
“There are some who prefer an awesome potentate whose countenance is too glorious to behold, and whose Holy Ark of the Covenant demolishes any who would touch it. For me, it is good news that the Great One who is “past finding out” has humbled Himself and come to us, not in power but in love (See Job 36).” C. Colson in, ‘Choose Love not Power’ page 189.
As we have previously mentioned, the Ark of the Covenant was a sign of the covenant between God and man; a covenant through which we receive mercy (Heb 4:16; 1 Pet 2:10) and come into a place of freedom (Rom 8:2; 2 Cor 3:17 Gal 5:1). The covenant is fulfilled in Christ, the second Adam (1 Cor 15:45). There is no one like Him and there never will be. He is the only King who has ever left His throne to die so that enemies (Rom 5:8; 1 Tim 1:15) can find forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
In John’s day many people who became Christians were thrown out of guilds through refusing to participate in worshipping false gods. They were ostracised and would also suffered financially. This is why Jesus says speaks of hidden mana.
To the Hebraic mind the mention of ‘hidden manna’ would be a reminder of God’s supernatural provision relating to Exodus (as in desert wanderings). Those in Pergamum who were ostracised and in the ‘wilderness’ so to speak, had the ‘bread of life’ with them’ (John 6:35,46) and would one day walk into heaven; they could trust in God.
In Israel’s desert wanderings, God provided food each day except the seventh. On the sixth day He provided a double portion of food so that they could rest on what then became known as the Sabbath. This resting was not just a cessation of activity; it was about taking time to engage with God and reorientate the mind around His life-giving teaching. It was during the desert wanderings that Israel was constantly taught that man does not live by bread alone but every word that came from God.
“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
As already mentioned, through the ‘I am the bread of life’ One (John 6:35, 48) believers at Pergamum became the ‘new creation’ ones (2 Cor 5:17). In Christ they were heaven bound and even in the darkest and most difficult of circumstances God would sustain His people.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
The church are Pergamum suffered, as did all churches across the Roman Empire, yet even in suffering there is great hope because God has not left us alone.
“The real question should not be: “What caused the suffering?” but rather: How can I cooperate in doing the works of God in this situation?” or in other words: “How does God want in this instance to work for good with those who love him?” Christ did not see suffering as an intellectual challenge but as a need and opportunity to show the works of God in healing. Sometimes a person may be suffering because he has sinned. More commonly, however, the causes of suffering are too complex to unravel. Our task should be to seek to cooperate with God in alleviating it. We see therefore, that our reactions to suffering are important.”
R. Forster in ‘God’s Strategy in Human History’, p 12-13
The white stone.
In the ANE, a court of law would sometimes use a white and black stone when it came to judgement. For example, if you were guilty you would be shown the black stone whilst if you were innocent you would receive the white one. Paul (as Saul) may well have cast his vote with a stone (Acts 26:10) when it was agreed that Christians should be put in prison.
White stones were also written on and sometimes used to make official decrees. In a sense they could be the ancient version of a modern-day pass and therein lay a problem for the Christian community because many were excluded from the guilds. In a real sense their ‘pass’ had been removed. Perhaps this is why Jesus tells them they will have a white stone with a name on it.
Through His work alone the ‘guilty’ verdict that stood over their lives had been removed. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1) who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (1 peter 1:18) and have heaven as an open door before them. Using the local ideas of John’s day the church at Pergamum had an invitation to take part in the marriage supper of the lamb. The church receives hidden manna (the fruit of His labour), a white stone (entrance into heaven) and a new name.
A new name.
Knowing a name is not just about having a basic knowledge of someone such as knowing what they did for a living. Knowing a name speaks of experiencing the presence and character of the person named. For example, in the Walt Disney film of Snow White, the dwarf Dopey is called ‘Dopey’ because that is exactly what he is.
In Revelation 2:17 we read of having a new name which speaks of having the fullness of our true nature and character restored to us as sons and daughters of the living God. He alone knows what we should really be like and He will bring us to what he knows to be our true self in Him – free from the damage and failure of self and the afflictions of the world.
The Christians at Pergamum lived in a world that constantly sought to change them and give then a new name, so to speak. Yet God has not left them and they would have a new name one day, speaking of the fullness of salvation. Even though the situations we go through may seem hopeless as the world tries to mould and change us, there is great hope. We see this, for example in Isaiah’s words to eunuchs Isaiah 56:4-5, who, due to emasculation would not have been able to enter the temple, or have offspring. Isaiah writes:
“For this is what the Lord says: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”
(Note also the words of Isaiah 62:1-3).
The Roman Empire relentlessly sought to rename people, in that it wanted to completely change the thinking of its population and procure allegiance and worship to Rome. Yet those at the church at Pergamum were encouraged; they would have a new name from God. They could also find great encouragement in remembering the story of Daniel and his friends in another powerful empire that has sought to rename those it had imprisoned.
In Babylon we find the chief official giving Daniel and his friends new names (Dan 1:7) this being done as a way of saying “I own you and define who and what you shall be.” Daniel (God is my Judge) was to be called Belteshazzar (may Bel preserve my life) and Hananiah (grace of God) was to be called Shadrach (order of Aku, the Sumerian god of the moon), Mishael (who is like God) was to become Meshach (who is like Aku) and Azaria (God helps) was to be Abednego (servant of Nego, who was a form of Nabu, the god of wisdom). As already mentioned, Nebuchadnezzar’s chief official was effectively saying, “We own you and we control your minds and thinking.” God was going to show them that this was not true and Daniel and his friends were able to overcome opposition because God stood with four men who were open to His leading.
When God comes to work with His people He seeks to help us change into the person we should always have been had it not been for the fall. This is much more than becoming a morally upright person; it is much deeper and wider than this. He removes what we have become by way of the world and enables us to grow in His grace, mercy and provision into kingdom people.
When God names a person it is prophetic of the change that He is going to help bring about – a move from outside covenant to covenant living; from existence to life. Note, for example, the following words found in Genesis chapter thirty-two which speak of a change of name:
“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
At the time of his wrestling match, Jacob is a 97-year-old schemer who has not yet grasped the concept that God’s gifts are gifts of grace and that the land he is going to claim is also a gift from God that cannot be earned. His wrestling is, in a spiritual sense, the role-playing concerning what his life was like. It looks back over all his years of conniving, from the way he rushed into grab Esau’s birthright (Gen 27:5ff) and disguised himself as Esau in order to obtain blessing (Gen 23:37).
In all areas we see that Jacob was a man who worked with God – which is quite different from being a man whom God could work with. Jacob sought to bring about the way of the Lord by the way of the flesh, and this character trait was deeply imbedded within him. Eventually, after wrestling all night, Jacob is permanently injured with little more than the touch of his opponent’s finger. Jacob asks the angel for a blessing and the angel begins by asking Jacob what his name is. In doing this, he is forcing Jacob to admit what he is really like since his name spoke of his nature and character. Jacob’s name (supplanter/ heel grabber) was then changed (prophetically speaking of a change of nature and character) to Israel (Gen 32:22f), meaning “Having power with God.” God later confirms this name (Israel) at Bethel (Gen 25:10).
As believers we are called to keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25) and be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). Because God is at work in our lives there will be the day when we receive the fullness of His victory in and around our lives. Whilst the enemy seeks to control and eradicate who we really are, as those made in the image of God, God seeks to restore us to a fullness that goes beyond a return to Eden. We will have a new name and all that we should be will one day come into being because of His grace and mercy.
The total opposite of being given and knowing a new name is to forget a name. Forgetting a name speaks of deliberately turning away or being drawn away from and forgetting a person. This was a problem Israel had during the reign of Ahab and in the time of Elijah. The nation was forgetting or ignoring God was and therefore forgetting who they were called to be. In the confrontation on Carmel (1 Kings 18:22-24) we see God’s restorative justice and the heart of the shepherd as indecisiveness is removed through God’s demonstration of sovereign power over all false gods.
In this incident, as with many others, it was not the power of the enemy that was the real problem. It was the indecisiveness of a people who had lost sight of God and who they were called to be; as sons and daughters in a world that desperately needed light.
Receiving a new name speaks of Jesus’ victorious name and close fellowship with believers. It also speaks of the fullness of salvation since name speaks of nature and character; it is not that I will be called ‘John’ instead of ‘Jem’ Instead it is the promise that the fullness of my true nature will one day be present; sin will be no more and I will stand in the new creation fully healed and restored. All of this speaks of God’s kindness to His people (e.g. Numbers 6:24-26); He has stooped low and by His Spirit now stands with us.
Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, was walking along a street one day when a beggar stopped him and asked for some money. Tolstoy searched through his pockets for a coin, but could not find one. He regretfully said to the man: “Please don’t be angry with me, my brother, but I have nothing with me. If I did I would gladly give it to you.” The beggar looked at him and said: “You have given me more than I asked for. You have called me brother.”
The word ‘kindness’ carries with it the picture of bending the neck towards another as a sign of kindness, whilst love speaks of sacrificial giving, a choosing to give our very best to others for their benefit alone.
As a royal priesthood the true church at Pergamum were those who had received from God and in response could take victory over their circumstances and be encouraged in the presence of the “I will never leave you nor forsake you” One.