I was privileged to write an article on Pergamum for a series on the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2–3) for Lent. Due to the length of these posts, I have extended the series to four parts. Parts one through three can be found here, here, and here. The following is the fourth and final installment of this series.
Jesus first commends Pergamum for remaining faithful in an unfaithful city (v. 13). He rebukes them for embracing of false teaching (vv. 14–15), however he calls them to return to him (v. 16a). Next comes a somber warning of the consequences of those who don’t repent and a promise for those who conquer (vv. 16b–17).
“I will soon come to you and fight them with the sword of my mouth” (v. 16b TNIV)
This Jesus, who has these things against people, is not beyond coming to judge. He comes to fight for his own. That he comes with “the sword of his mouth” is identical to John’s first vision of Jesus in chapter 1: “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev 1:16 ESV). This picture also fits the opening description of Christ in verse 12: “he has a sharp two-edged sword.”
It is interesting that this is the image Jesus uses. The false teaching at Pergamum is equated with Balaam, who was confronted by the angel of the LORD “with a sword in his hand” (Num 22:23, 31). Jesus may be drawing on that description here. Like God’s people in the wilderness of Numbers, both the perpetrators of false teaching that leads people away from the teaching of Christ, and those who fall victim to that teaching are forced to encounter that mighty warrior with his sword drawn.
This is clearly a warning of judgment. This image is also associated with the judgment of Christ on his return. Near the end of John’s Revelation, Jesus is depicted as coming on a “white horse” called “faithful and true” (Rev 19:11). He comes to judge and make war, but this he does in righteousness. He is wearing a blood dipped robe and “the name by which he is called is The Word of God” (Rev 19:13). And from the mouth of this majestic rider “comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev 19:15; cf. Isa 1:20; 49:2). That this rider is Jesus is unmistakably clear in the following verse: “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16). Jesus is not just a lamb that was slain (cf. Rev 5:6, 12; 13:8); Jesus is a warrior. This is Jesus’ own strong warning to Pergamum.
“To the one who conquers I will give…” (v. 17)
However, there is hope for those who conquer. For those who reassess their blind tolerance and return to single-minded faithfulness to Jesus, there is a reward: “To those who are victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give each of them a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Rev 2:17 TNIV). These two items that Jesus describes have confounded scholars as to what they actually mean. Manna (the Hebrew literally means, “what is it?”) was the bread that God provided to his people during their wandering in the wilderness. Is this bread what Jesus has in mind when he responded to Satan’s temptation by saying that “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4, cited from Deut. 8:3)? Does it represent the eternal life that Jesus provides (cf. John 6)? What about the stone with the new name? We just cannot be sure.
Regardless of what these items might represent, the point is that they are “gifts.” In John’s other writings, the giving of gifts is one of the defining characteristics of God and his Son. God out of love for the world gives his Son (John 3:16). The Son gives to his followers the Spirit (John 3:34; 14:16–17; 1 John 3:24; 4:13), his peace (John 14:27), and his word (John 17:14). He gives to those who believe the authority to come into his family (John 1:12). But most significantly is that through the Son, God gives eternal life (John 3:16; 6:33, 51; 10:28–29; 17:2; 1 John 5:11), to those who believe. What a reward indeed for those who “conquer”!
Pergamum was loyal to Jesus, even in the face of extreme adversity. But they were more than willing to put up with and even embrace false teachings that ran counter to Jesus, or worse, were considered compatible with him when they weren’t. Pergamum is a picture of an interesting paradox that is still present today: Christians who like Jesus but mix his teachings up with those that don’t belong to him. It is not like they reject Jesus in favor of other religions. Its that they mix a passion for Jesus with untruth, syncretizing him with culturally acceptable teachings that run counter to Jesus’ ethical demands. Jesus calls us to examine carefully the teaching we receive to verify that it is indeed from him. We must diligently avoid any instruction that leads our minds away from our “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3 TNIV). May we have eyes to see and ears to hear and turn around with wholehearted faithfulness to Christ and receive the gifts of his acceptance and victory:
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (v. 17)