The Letter to Pergamum – Part One (Rev 2:12-17)

The third letter in Revelation chapter 2 is addressed to the church at Pergamum. We’re going to look at it over two days. Today, we’ll read the text and explain some of the imagery that’s going on – particularly the Old Testament background. And tomorrow, we’ll try to enter into the mindset of the believers at Pergamum, to work out how things had gone so far off track.

2:12-17 To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

 Who’s speaking? Again, it’s Jesus, this time described as having a mouth-sword. This image first turned up back in chapter 1 (Rev 1:16) and the  background is from Isaiah:

Isa 11:4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Isa 49:2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.

In this context, it’s clearly an ominous sign, warning of judgement. It also fits Pergamum, which was allowed by Rome to carry out capital punishment, the “law of the sword.”

What’s good? Their past record, where they were faithful under persecution – some, like Antipas, even to the point of death.

What’s bad? False teaching. There seem to be two groups referred to (although they may simply be two ways of describing the same scenario).

Firstly, there are those who “hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.” This refers to a story from the Old Testament, in Numbers 25, where the men of Israel were enticed to have sex with Moabite women, and ended up being influenced by the idols of the Moabites. This is linked with the prophet Balaam a little later on in Numbers:

Num 31:16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people.

So this “teaching of Balaam” has something to do with sexual immorality and/or idolatry.

Secondly – or “likewise” – there are some who “hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Who were they? We don’t know. The first reference to them is in Jesus’ letter to the church in Ephesus, who are commended for “hating the practices of the Nicolaitans.” They may have been followers of someone called Nikolaus. Or their name (combining two Greek words, nikaō + laos  to mean “victory people) could describe their theology – the fact that they had already conquered and so didn’t need to live holy lives, etc.  Or it may be just another way of referring to the teaching of Balaam, as the name Balaam refers to one who “swallows” or “overcomes” the people. At any rate, it seems to be connected to sexual immorality and/or idolatry.

Both these descriptions are probably of the same sinful behaviour, even if there might have been more than one group advocating it. But what is the sinful behaviour? We have a reference to eating idol-food and sexual immorality. These may be two sins that result from the same group of false teachers – and they were often linked, as a lot of immoral sexual practices were linked with idol temples. More likely, I think, the sexual immorality is a metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness. (It’s used this way a lot in the Old Testament, with Israel accused of “playing the whore” with foreign powers and other gods, being unfaithful to God, her husband.) They were accused by Jesus of cheating on him with other gods.

To think about

I suppose the question that raises is… why? I mean, if you’ve found Jesus, the risen Christ, the one true God, why would you want to mess around with idols? Why would you want to go back to something inferior? Why abandon Jesus for lumps of stone or metal? What kind of person – what kind of church – needs this warning?

Have a think about that today. Tomorrow, we’ll try and climb into the mind of the members of the church at Pergamum, and work out why idolatry was still so attractive to them.

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