Pastor Scott Andrews | June 26, 2022
I started reading the text for this week. Revelation 2:12, “And to the angel of the church of Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this:”
I stopped right there. Why would Jesus reference the two-edged sword coming out of His mouth? Let’s think about it. We have studied two of the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor – this is the third. We’re going to see this letter to Pergamum perfectly follows the sevenfold pattern of most of these letters. We’ve noted that sevenfold pattern, while not true of every letter, every letter has some or all of these elements, in this order:
- To the Angel of the Church in a particular city, write
- Followed by The Self-Description of Christ from chapter 1
- The Commendation of the Church, if indeed there was commendation.
- The Correction of the Church, if correction was needed. Smyrna, for example, didn’t need it.
- The Call to Repentance, again, if needed.
- And all of them have The Call to Hear the Spirit – he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches, and finally,
- The Promise to the Overcomers – to eat of the tree of life, to gain the victor’s crown of life, to not be hurt by the second death.
But look at that second point, the self-description of Christ. We noted Jesus doesn’t give the full description, but rather, part of the description that is specific to the church addressed – what that church needed to hear. And so, for example, to the church of Ephesus write, The One who holds the seven stars in right hand, and the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands. We know, of course, the stars are the seven angels, and the lampstands are the seven churches. We surmised this would be an encouragement to the church at Ephesus – He holds them, He walks among them. He knows what’s going on. But there was a strong element of confrontation – start loving, or you’ve ceased being a church, and I’ll remove it.
To the church at Smyrna – a great church – one we want to be like – to the church of Smyrna write, The first and the last, who was dead and has come to life, says this. And He goes on to address a church that was suffering severe persecution, and in fact, the persecution was going to get much worse. The call is to be faithful, until death, and you will receive a crown of life. So consider that self-description. The first and the last signifies He is sovereignly in control of this suffering church. Not only that, He was the One who was dead and now is alive forevermore. So yes, you might suffer persecution, even martyrdom. You might die for Christ. But that’s okay, the One who was dead and is now alive knows, and will grant you life – the crown of life. He will raise you from the dead, just as He has been raised, and grant eternal life. This was incredibly good news.
But now, to the angel of the church of Pergamum write, The One who has the sharp two-edged sword – you know, the one coming out of His mouth – says this. Why would He say that? Well, it seems obvious. When we saw that sword in chapter 1 – it helped complete the powerful picture of Jesus’ sovereign authority. Remember, this was not the short Roman sword used in battle, but the broadsword used like a scythe for harvest and judgment. And we see that sword again in Revelation 19. We know and love this passage:
11 And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. [don’t miss it – righteousness eventually stands against, judges and wages war against all evil]
12 His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself.
13 He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.
14 And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses.
15 From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.
There it is – the sword is clearly for judgment. He will use it to strike down the nations, those who opposed Him, right? He will tread the wine press of the fierce wrath of God against all His enemies, who happen to be our enemies. That’s what the book it about – stay faithful, even though persecuted. Stay faithful, even until death. He who is faithful and true and righteous is coming. The King is coming.
Now, don’t miss the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth that brings judgment is a reference to the Word of God. Consider Ephesians 6 where we read about the armor of God.
13 Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
14 Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace;
16 in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
We do battle against the forces of evil with the armor of God. Much of it is defensive, but that last one – the sword of the Spirit – is a weapon of offense, by which we wage war. And the sword is the very Word of God. How did Jesus defeat Satan at the Temptation? With the Word of God. Jesus will destroy every evil arrayed against Him with the very Word of God, which will lay them out. God spoke this world into existence, and He can destroy those who seek to damage His world and His people with the same powerful spoken word.
That’s the sharp two-edged sword coming out of His mouth. So let’s read the rest of the letter. Revelation 2:12-17.
The sword is not, in this case, to be used against those outside, persecuting the church, but against those inside, subverting the church. Does it matter if false teaching or idolatry and immorality abound in the church? Apparently so.
This is an incredibly intriguing and important passage. I can think of no more important message to the church of Jesus Christ in our culture than this one. We’ll follow that sevenfold outline, starting with, the church in Pergamum.
We don’t have a record in Acts of the church being planted. But remember, Acts 19 tells us Paul spent over two years in Ephesus, and all those in Asia Minor heard the word of the Lord – that is, the gospel. This church was likely planted then.
Pergamum was located about 40 miles north of Smyrna, but unlike Ephesus and Smyrna, it was not a port city. It was located about 15 miles inland of the Aegean Sea. But it’s antiquity and strategic location as a military post made it important. Its name in Greek means citadel. The Roman writer Pliny called it “by far the most distinguished city in Asia.” You see, it was on the slopes of a thousand-foot mountain, which dominated the plain of the Caicus River valley. It had a well-known library of some 200,000 handwritten volumes, second only to Alexandria in Egypt, which made it an important center of culture and learning. By the time John wrote this letter to Pergamum, it had been the capital of Asia for 150 years.
This will come as no surprise, but Pergamum was an important center of worship for the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods – to include temples on top of that mountain dedicated to Athena, Asklepios, Dionysus, Roma and Zeus. Asklepios was the son of Apollo and the god of healing, and people came from all over to worship at his temple, to receive healing. By the way, the symbol of this god of healing was the serpent. Further, the temple to Zeus was enormous, and had a huge relief on an altar, visible to all, which is now located in a British museum.
But all that was overshadowed by their devotion to and worship of the Roman emperor. The first temple devoted to a living emperor was built in Pergamum in 29 BC in honor of Augustus, who approved the temple. They would later build temples honoring Trajan and Severus. It was without doubt the center of emperor worship in Asia Minor. Throughout Asia Minor, it was expected that you offer sacrifices or burn incense to the emperor at least once per year. Emperor worship was most popular and pronounced in Pergamum. Christians therefore faced extreme pressure in Pergamum.
And so, Jesus self-description is, the One who has the sharp two-edged sword. Again, that sword is coming from His mouth representing the Word of God. It is rightly suggested that, since the Christians were suffering greatly in Pergamum, Jesus reminds them, He has the power of the sword. You see, as the capital of the Roman province of Asia Minor, the proconsul had ius gladii, the right of the sword, to carry out Roman law and justice. We even read in Romans 13 that civil authorities carry the sword to execute justice. But what happens when it is misguided justice against Christ’s church because of their exclusive worship of the true and living God, and refusal to worship false gods – like the emperor. Jesus reminds them – He ultimately carries the power and authority of the sword to execute righteous judgment.
Which brings us to the commendation of this church in verse 13. Again, we read the words, I know. Jesus knows where they are, and all they are facing. He says to this church, I know where you live – and I know it’s not easy. Why? Because it’s where Satan’s throne is. He ends the verse with, it’s where Satan dwells. I don’t know if this is just figurative or literal – that is, I don’t know if this is where Satan actually hung out. You see, one of the things you should know about Satan is he is not omnipresent – nor is he omniscient or omnipotent. Only God is those. Which means, Satan is likely not here in Boone; he doesn’t know what you’re thinking; and he doesn’t have power over you. Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world. Which means, when you say, the devil made me do it, he probably didn’t.
But whether Satan, God’s unworthy adversary – it’s not even a fair fight – whether His adversary Satan literally had a throne and lived in Pergamum, or it was just a figurative way to say that Satan held sway over the city, I don’t know. But why would Jesus mention that – in what way, that is, what was unique about Pergamum that He would say, Satan dwells there on his throne? Lots of discussion, but most agree it had to do with the predominance of emperor worship. Other cities had temples to false gods, and even worshiped the emperor. But Pergamum led them all in emperor worship – which put Christians in great peril. You see, to refuse to worship the emperor was not just a religious failure in their estimation, but it was a civic failure – subversive. It was to stand against your city and your culture. Does that sound familiar when we hold onto biblical truth, even if it flies in the face of culture?
Well, here’s the commendation, Jesus said to this church, even though you live in an extremely hostile environment, you hold fast to My name. Wow – would that be said of us. That in the midst of hostility and anger and opposition and persecution, we would hold fast to the name of Christ. Nothing could make us deny nor demean His name – or His church.
You didn’t even deny My faith – that is, faith in Me, in the days of Antipas. We don’t know anything about Antipas except this verse, but what is said is enough. Think of it as his epitaph – find where he’s buried and his gravestone would read, “My witness, My faithful one, who was killed for following Jesus alone.” What would yours read? Have you ever walked through a cemetery, reading the headstones? We usually look at the dates – 1937-2020. Do the math quickly – he lived for 83 years. But how did he live? It’s quality of life, not quantity of life that matters. It’s that little hyphen between the two dates that matters, and the epitaph tries to capture in a brief statement, that life. Antipas – My witness, My faithful one. Jesus wrote His epitaph. What would yours read? Lots of good ones – beloved father, loving mother. But what better could be said than, faithful to Christ. True, part of that faithfulness is seen in being a beloved father, and loving mother. But when all is said and done, what will your life say about Jesus?
Antipas is not a name you hear anymore, but perhaps it would make a good middle name if you’re looking for one. While we don’t know anything beyond this verse, some probably rightly surmise he was the first martyr in Pergamum – probably for refusing to worship the emperor. His faith in Jesus was more important than life itself. I’ve told you this before, but the word witness is the one from which we get our word martyr. While it didn’t technically mean that then, it came to mean that because of people like Antipas.
But that brings us to our fourth point – a challenging point – in verse 14. Jesus told the church in Ephesus, I have this against you – that you’ve lost your first love. But to this church, He says, I have a few things against you. That seems ominous, and indeed it is. What were those things?
Verse 14 – you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. We just talked about Balaam in our study of Jude. Let me review.
Balaam’s story is found in Numbers 22-24. At first glance, it’s an intriguing, confusing story. We won’t take the time to read it, but let me recount the main points. Balak, king of the Moabites, was about to go to battle against the Israelites during their forty years of wilderness wandering. By the way, Moab is to the east of Israel. But, King Balak was rightly scared to death to go against them – he had heard what the God of Israel had done in Egypt and to Sihon, king of the Amorites. So, he summoned Balaam, a prophet in the area, to come and pronounce a curse on Israel.
Balak promised to reward Balaam handsomely for the curse. But, Balaam told Balak, I can only say what God tells me. Instead of pronouncing a curse, he blessed Israel. This story goes round and round for awhile – three times, he doesn’t curse Israel – he only prophecies in their favor. King Balak was dismayed, Balaam went his own way. And the story kind of ends there.
At this point, it seems Balaam is a good guy – a good prophet on the right team. How is it that Jesus speaks so poorly of Balaam? The fact is, several times Balaam said to Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.”
Well, the answer is found in Numbers 25. Balaam wasn’t a good as you might think. In Numbers 25, we find the Israelite men began to indulge in sexual immorality with the Moabite women – does that sound familiar? And these Moabite women in turn invited the Israelite men to bow down and sacrifice to their gods. They turned them away from God to idolatry through sexual immorality. Consequently, God sent a plague through the people that killed 24,000 Israelites. The story continues, look at Numbers 31. Here, we find Moses and the people destroying the Midianites – another people who opposed Israel. Verses 7 and 8 say this:
7 So they made war against Midian, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male.
8 They killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.
What is that about? Why did they kill Balaam – I thought he was a good guy. Not exactly. Verses 14-16 after this battle says this:
14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war.
15 And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women?
16 “Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord.
Later Jewish literature tells us, after Balaam was unable to pronounce a curse on Israel for pay, he decided to help the Moabites another way. It was his idea to lead the men of Israel into idolatry and sexual immorality. He knew the only way to defeat Israel was by their God – to incite His anger against them.
So somehow, in Pergamum, there was a group in the church following the teaching of Balaam. How did they do that? Most agree, influenced by the culture and their desire to get along with the culture, they compromised. They taught a syncretistic approach to religion. They probably said something like, it’s fine to worship Jesus and the emperor. It’s fine to be involved with the community in sacred worship festivals, eating food sacrificed to idols – idolatry. It’s fine to be involved in sexual immorality, which was rampant in their society and religious observances. Make no mistake about it – these were non-Christians promoting sexual immorality and idolatry in the church of Jesus Christ. And Jesus did not like that.
But, what Jesus had against the church was they were allowing it. They were turning a blind eye to sexual sin and false teaching in the church. It’s no wonder Jesus had a few things against them. To allow sin to go unchecked in the church in the supposed name of love is to allow a stumbling block – causing believers to be confused and stumble into sin.
Think about it – the church of Ephesus was commended for doing right, but corrected for not loving. This church was commended for holding faithfully to Jesus, but allowing immorality and false teaching in the church. I can’t help but wonder if it was in the name of love. They allowed you to live how you want – who am I to judge – believe what you want, live how you want, love who you want – I just choose to love. You can’t do that. We must love and believe rightly.
By the way, verse 15 mentions the Nicolaitans again – we saw them mentioned in the letter to Ephesus. We don’t know much about their teaching – but depending on how you read this verse, it seems to say either they were also following the teaching of the Nicolaitans, which we don’t know, or the Nicolaitans were teaching the same kind of sinful freedom – antinomianism as the teaching of Balaam. I’m not sure, but most agree on the latter.
Listen, this is what I mean when I say this letter is as appropriate to the church in America as it was in Pergamum. Over 50 percent of evangelicals believe that other religions are okay – just believe something. That people can make it to heaven without explicit faith in Jesus. Which is nothing less than pluralism. Any religion will do. Which makes Jesus a liar, His death totally unnecessary, and missions a farce.
Further, the church in America is filled with sexual immorality. I’m not just talking about the acceptance in many mainline denominations of the LGBTQ movement, but I’m talking about sexual sin in the evangelical church, which is ignored and even permitted. Balaam is alive and well in the church today.
Which brings us to our fifth point – the call to repentance. Jesus says basically the same thing to this church as He said to Ephesus – repent. Repent of what? Of allowing immorality and idolatry/false teaching in the church. You see, we are supposed to be concerned about purity of doctrine and purity of lifestyle in the church. The call to repentance is to the church – not to the idolators and false teachers in the church. Yes – the call for them is repent – turn from their sin and believe the gospel. But the call here is to turn from the sin of accepting false teaching called idolatry and immorality. Of allowing sin to go unchecked in the church.
And notice, Jesus says, repent or else I am coming to you quickly. He is coming in judgment. Which brings us back to the sword. I am coming to you – that is, the church – quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth. The truth of God’s word. Thank God for the change in pronouns. Did you notice? I will come to the church and do what you were supposed to have done. Don’t think it will all be fine with us – no – we are supposed to hold each other accountable and discipline where necessary. And if we don’t – if we don’t repent and deal with this problem, Jesus says, I will come quickly and I will deal out retribution to them – to those seeking to destroy My church. He loves His church, and so should we.
My brothers and sisters, it is a false love that allows people to flippantly name the of Christ on Sundays, and believe falsehoods and live in sin the rest of the week. We must not allow sin to go unchecked in the church, that is, the people Jesus died for. He wants a pure and faithful bride.
In closing then – the sixth and seventh points in verse 17. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches – to this church. I don’t think this message is preached in most churches today. It sounds so intolerant, so unloving, so…holy and God-focused.
To him who overcomes – how do we overcome? By repenting. By changing – recognizing Christ wants a pure church. We lovingly and graciously not allow sin to go unchecked in the church. To those who overcome, Christ promises two things:
First is the hidden manna. There was a legend that when Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, Jeremiah took the ark of the covenant from the Temple and buried it somewhere on Mt. Sinai. You’ll remember that in the ark was a jar of manna, reminding the Israelites of God’s provision for them in the wilderness. The legend goes on to say the ark will be recovered with the coming of the Messiah, and His manna would be made available to all.
I don’t know about the legend, but the truth is, God will provide for all His people at the second coming of the Messiah. His provision, symbolized by the hidden manna, will be realized.
His people will also receive a white stone with a new name written on the stone that no one knows but the one who receives it. Lots of discussion and guesses about that. I think the most plausible is white stones were given as sort of a ticket for entrance into certain events. Believers will be given a ticket, with their new name engraved, that allows them entrance into the messianic kingdom. The new name that only they know speaks of the intimacy they share with Christ at His return. We have a new name – a new family name – because we belong to Christ. The call to overcome is to act like we belong to Jesus – that we bear the family resemblance.