May 15: Revelation 2:12-17

This week we’re turning to Jesus’ letter to Pergamum, the third of the seven churches (reminder: we aren’t doing all seven in the series). Like we saw last week, there’s a certain format to the letters, and all have some or all of these components: a description of Jesus, a commendation, a rebuke, a command, and a promise to the faithful.

This week we see all five pieces. First, Jesus describes himself as the one with the sharp, two-edged sword. Note that this is a facet of the image we saw in chapter 1 two weeks ago; in a sense, the seven letters to the churches are an elaboration of that initial vision. The image of a sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth occurs a few times in Revelation—1:16, 2:12, 2:16, 19:15, and 19:21— and is rooted elsewhere in scripture, like in Isaiah 49:2, where God makes the prophet’s mouth like a sharp sword, and in Ephesians 6:17, “and take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” and in Hebrews 4:12, “for the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” John wasn’t just seeing Jesus barfing up a sword; this phrasing is full of meaning, depicting the power, authority, and precision of God’s word.

Next comes the commendation, which we’ll talk about in the discussion questions (“what does Jesus celebrate?”). Jesus praises the church in Pergamum for holding fast to name even though they dwell “where Satan’s throne is.” But apparently the city of Pergamum got a zero-star review from Jesus. It was situated on a steep slope up to an acropolis, which was the seat of the government and Roman religious institution. Along that slope were various temples to Zeus, the Roman Emperor, and the goddess of the Empire, Roma. Jesus points to this whole complex of Roman civic and religious life not just as a pagan way of life or the worldly side of town but as the throne of Satan himself, in direct opposition to the One seated on the Heavenly throne. Imagine how subversive this message was to John’s initial readers, particularly since Christians like Antipas, mentioned in the passage, were losing their life for their belief (2:13).

But Jesus follows up the commendation with a rebuke: though the Pergamum church has held fast to Jesus’ name, many have begun to compromise their faith. Some hold to the belief of Balaam, a figure from Numbers 22-25. The story of Balaam is a fascinating one so you should go and read it, but long story short, Balaam was a prophet working for Balak, king of Moab, whom God prevented from cursing Israel. Balaam then got devious and tempted the Israelites into sin, eventually getting Israelite men to intermarry with Moabite women and worship Moabite gods (Num. 25:1-2). It seems as though Jesus uses Balaam in Revelation 2 to highlight how believers in Pergamum have followed a similar path, compromising their faith with idolatry and specifically sexual sin (Rev. 2:14). And we don’t know a ton about the early heretical movement called the Nicolaitans, but likely they were up to a similar thing.

In light of this Jesus gives Pergamum a command: repent! Notice how simple Jesus’ response to their need was; he didn’t put them on probation, he didn’t give them a chore list to do in order to earn their way back into his good graces. All they have to do is repent. We even see this simple, gracious response in the warning Jesus issues in verse 16, because if they don’t repent Jesus promises not to kill them or physically punish them but to war against them with the sword of his mouth, meaning his word. Jesus might be coming in force, but he comes with the force of his word, the power of his revelation and the winsomeness of his Good News. What we’re seeing is this: those who have made a disaster of their faith are not rejected by God but are chased down by him speaking the truth to them in love. And this happens with the primary goal of repentance, meaning God’s children are restored to him.

Many of us likely need to hear this rebuke and command. We all have something outside God’s goodness that is wooing our hearts away, and if we take a hard look at our faith, we might find serious, deep-rooted compromise. Jesus’ message to us is the same: repent! Like we saw last week, return to your first love! (Rev. 2:4)

Jesus finishes with a promise, that his children will receive “some of the hidden manna” and “a white stone with a new name written on the stone that no one knows.” This all might seem a little arcane, but the image of the manna is one of sustenance. Jesus promises that whoever repents, who flees idolatry and casts themself at his feet, will be nourished and sustained by God just like Israel was in the wilderness. A white stone was often given to those declared innocent at a trial and to the victor of a gladiator game, the latter of which was a ticket into the afterparty banquet. Jesus promises by his own power that his children will endure, that God will sustain them and that they will make it to the finish of their lives. They will walk into Jesus’ presence because of his victory, declared innocent by his vicarious death, and welcomed home at his own banquet (Isa. 25:6; Rev. 19:6-10). For more on the name written on the stone, check out this article from Sam Storms.

Questions for Discussion
Revelation Resources →

• Could someone read Revelation 2:12-17 for us?

• What stood out to you from the passage?

• What does Jesus celebrate about the church in Pergamum?

• Look at verses 14-15. What is being described here? (ref. the intro above for more on Balaam)

• Why do you think these sorts of compromises concern Jesus?

• In what ways do you personally need to hear what Jesus said to the church in Pergamum?

• How do you think Jesus is calling you to respond to his word this week?

• What are the promises in this passage and how might they encourage your response to Jesus?