And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These things says the one having the sharp two-edged sword, “I know where you dwell. Where the throne of Satan is. And you have fast to my name, and you have not denied the faith in me even in the days of Antipas my martyr my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you, because you have some there holding to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a snare before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. So have you also some likewise holding to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore. If moreover not, I am coming to you quickly and will make war against them with the sword of my mouth. The one having and ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one overcoming I will give him the hidden manna, and I will give to him a white stone, and on the stone a new name having been written, which no one has known if not the one receiving it.”
As interested as we are to understand the symbolism of things like the hidden manna, the white stone, or the even the Nicolaitans, the first question to be addressed is the overall meaning of the epistle. We see the reference to the sharp two-edged sword, and then later Jesus saying that He will come and fight “with the sword of my mouth”. There seems to be a line that goes from the throne of Satan to the teaching of Balaam to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Whatever it is that these things have in common, Jesus specifically mentions them in contrast to the faithful martyr Antipas and the reward for overcoming.
In Pergamum was a temple to Zeus, however it is more likely that the “throne of Satan” refers to emperor worship, as established in 29 B.C. Pergamum was declared the epicenter of Asia Minor for Caesar worship, and a temple was built to Augustus. Likewise, we see in Revelation 13:2 the marriage of religion and State. This could be compared to such countries as Nazi Germany or Japan’s emperor worship. This correlation between the marriage of religion and State in Revelation 13:2 would help us to see the tremendous significance to the end times. Pergumum is somehow smack dab in the middle of this antichrist worship of Satan, and yet still is active as a Church. You see the contrast in Pergumum that will be continued through the rest of the book of Revelations: the martyred Church opposing the overcoming Beast.
The reference to the teaching of Balaam is found in Numbers 31:16 (also see 25:1-2). 2 Peter 2:13-16 is also significant, because Peter speaks quite sharply with similar language regarding false teachers of them he wrote to. In both cases, the sin is not merely false teaching. The sin is explicitly eating food sacrificed to idols, carousing, and sexual immorality. We see in Revelations 2:14 that the order given here is ‘backward’ in comparison to Numbers 25:1-2. We will see to the church in Thyatira that Jesus orders sexual immorality before eating food sacrificed to idols.
We spoke with great length with the church in Smyrna about the “synagogue of Satan”. In that, we ventured to understand the two tables: the table of the Lord and the table of demons. We saw that to eat of the table of demons is to feast upon the very people of God. Here, with it being paralleled with sexual immorality, I would imagine that the focus is upon idolatry as adultery to God. One would only need to briefly read the prophets before finding many examples of God’s charge to Israel as adultery when they practice idolatry. Ezekiel 16 is one example.
Thus, the charge that Jesus has against the church in Pergamum isn’t about denying the faith, but rather about setting up idols in their hearts and lives. While the city is given over to Caesar worship, I wonder if there is something happening in the hearts of the saints in Pergumum. I wonder if they are seeing the idolatrous practices of the world and finding some sort of covetousness enter. We find in the story of Balaam that the king of Moab (meaning ‘of father’) is Balak (meaning ‘destroyer’). Balaam can mean ‘destroyer of the people’ or ‘lord of the people’. Does this seem bizarre to you?
There are false teachers who are claiming to be of the Father, and yet are sent by the destroyer to destroy the people.
Jesus then condemns the Nicolaitans. Who are the Nicolaitans? The word comes from two words: niko and laos. Niko means “victory”, where “laos” means people, or more specifically, “laity”. Thus, these were they who practiced victory over the laity. What does that mean? I think we have a good example in 3 John 9: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us.” This Diotrephes, who loves to be first, seems to be the modern day pastor. What do I mean by that? This is the only place you will find in the New Testament that describes a pastor or elder being the “head” or “above” or “first” or any such notion over the rest of the community of believers. It is simply an unbiblical practice to have one man, or even a staff, “over” a body. That’s what the Nicolaitans were.
I wouldn’t doubt it if the church in Pergamum had been established like the government that they saw around them. There is Caesar, who is ruler over all, and then below him are only a select few, and it branches out from there until you find the common people at the very bottom with no authority. They most likely had a man or “pastoral staff” – maybe even a church board! – who were in charge, and under them were elders, under them were deacons, and under them were maybe some other form of leadership, and finally you come down to the average laity who has no power or authority. This is idolatry. It is setting up one man in the place of Christ. Even a “plurality of elders” is wrong if the set up is still about them being “victorious” – or, more plainly, in charge of – the people.
Instead, we are to submit one to another. We are all to come together, and when we do come, everyone has a song, a word, a hymn, a prayer, a tongue, an interpretation of that tongue, etc. 1 Corinthians 14 might be the most ignored passage regarding the way that church is to run. It has very little to do with elders and pastors speaking and everything to do with the Body tending to itself. By the Spirit the people commune with one another. There isn’t a pattern or formula. It just simply happens because the saints have gathered. In this we have both freedom and the unknown. There is freedom for the Spirit to move and have possession of the time we’ve gathered, but there is the unknown in regards to not knowing what people might do or say. God is not the God of chaos, and thus there are pastors, elders, prophets, apostles, etc in order to know the Spirit and the heart of God and to bring correction if there shall be need.
In setting up the one-man show, we have caused for the absolute lack of church discipline. While the words of Jesus tell us quite plainly that we are to go to our brother when they have offended, we have negated that by saying it is the job of the pastor to watch over the flock. Submission to one another in love, speaking the truth in love, confessing our sins one to another, and the everyday manners of church life simply doesn’t happen when we come together once a week to listen to a sermon and sing a few songs. While life groups have been established to try to fill the void, they don’t go far enough. The first century saints met daily in houses, breaking bread, giving to the poor, selling their homes or inviting the needy into their house, and devoting themselves to fellowship, prayer, and to the apostle’s teaching. That is church.
Why would Jesus give such a harsh rebuke to those who do not repent? I have to imagine that this goes back to Ezekiel 34. We read about God’s heart and how there are leaders who simply aren’t taking care of the flock. In one sense, these in Ezekiel are greedy and desire the best for self. In another sense, even if they have the right heart, how can they take care of the flock? The way they’ve set the system up is destined for failure. I would imagine that who Jesus will come to fight against – make war against is the literal translation – are the people in leadership teaching the people to eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality.
The hidden manna and the white stone are rewarded to they who overcome. What exactly these are, we cannot be entirely certain. They are the reward for overcoming the false understanding of church government. My best guess would be that the hidden manna is in relation to an understanding of Christ that we have up to this point not seen. In Exodus 16:4, manna is called the “bread of heaven.” In Psalm 78:24, it is called “the corn of heaven.” In the next verse of Psalm 78, it is called “bread of angels”. This is most likely the “food that you know nothing about” (John 4:32). Because we have the reference to Balaam, we have the point pressed all the more: Christ is the food from heaven (John 6:51). They who stop feasting upon the teaching of Balaam will begin to find the true spiritual meat, the true spiritual drink. Just like we saw the table of devils with the synagogue of Satan, we here see the Eucharist in “hidden manna”.
This white stone might be an allusion back to Zechariah 3:9, where the stone set before Joshua is the Messiah, and God says, “I will engrave an inscription on it, and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.” Compare that with Isaiah 49:16, “I have engraved you upon the palm of my hands”. Here the promise seems to be the allowance of ruling with Christ (Zechariah 3:8 – “men symbolic… Joshua and associates…”) at his return and inheritance with Israel in her salvation.
Let he who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying…