Interpretation of Letter to Pergamon
Christ introduced himself to the church in Pergamum as one who has the sharp, double-edged sword (2:12). This was another reference taken from the "One Like a Son of Man" image in chapter one (1:16). The sword is symbolic of the penetrating word of God (Hebrews 4:12-13). More precisely, it is the discerning aspect of the word that "judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart," and from which nothing in creation is hidden.
This would have had great meaning in reference to where the members of the Pergamum church lived – in a city filled with the splendor and power of false religion.The church was reminded that Pergamum’s power structure had wrongly judged or condemned Antipas, a faithful witness, and executed him as a martyr (1:5). But God will judge the world system itself in opposition to God, of which Pergamum’s power center partakes. Revelation describes God’s judgment on "the world" in great symbolic detail. It is represented by the City of Babylon while God’s people are symbolized by the New Jerusalem. This struggle between the world and the saints, pictured in Revelation, led one commentator to label the book as a "Tale of Two Cities."
The religious climate at Pergamum was not conducive to the Christian life. That’s because "Satan’s throne" was in the city (2:12). While the phrase has received differing interpretations, it almost surely refers to Pergamum as a major center of pagan religion, especially the imperial cult. The city symbolized secular power and civil religion working in concert as Satan’s proxies.
Problems at Pergamum (2:14-16)
While the church in Pergamum was assaulted from the outside, it also faced grave internal religious deception. This is described as the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans (2:14-15). Revelation’s use of the Balaam typology underscores the book’s reliance on Old Testament symbols. Balaam’s story is found in Numbers 22-24. He was a prophet who manipulated Israel into falling under God’s curse. Balaam’s motive was personal gain (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 6). He had been offered riches and power by Balak, a gentile king, to destroy God’s people, Israel.The prophet found a way to accomplish the king’s nefarious desire. Balaam devised a plan whereby he caused the men of Israel to commit sexual immorality with Moabite women and to sacrifice to their gods in a community meal during a festival (Numbers 25:1-2). Thus he led Israel into sin by causing the nation to accommodate itself to idolatrous pagan religion and its immortality. Balaam came to stand for an evil individual who seduces God’s people into sin.
But in what sense were members of the church committing sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols (2:14)? It is generally thought that this phrase refers to food eaten at festivals in which pagan gods were honored, as well as the sexual activities that may have gone on as part of such feasts. Both expressions could also be understood metaphorically. That is, they would refer to general religious infidelity engaged in by Christians who participated in pagan rites and festivities.
Both a literal and figurative meaning may be in view here in Revelation. Since sexual immorality was sometimes associated with worship in pagan religion, the Christian would be taking both sexual license as well as committing religious infidelity if he participated in the religious practices of the city.
The Balaamites may have been teaching the converts that participating in temple feasts or other activities in which the gods were invoked was not wrong because it served a good end. The unknown prophets or self-appointed teachers, metaphorically called "Balaam," were probably counseling accommodation with the pagan culture. Balaam and the Nicolaitans as well as another heretical group we encounter later – the followers of a prophetess named "Jezebel" – probably all taught generally the same thing. G.R. Beasley-Murray, in speaking of the Nicolaitans, wrote:
"They will have maintained that idols are nothing...Therefore Christians need not hesitate to take part in pagan feasts, whether among trade guilds or in temples.... Nor need they be over-scrupulous about acknowledging the divinity of Caesar, for they can do it in the same spirit as many pagans did – as a gesture of loyalty to Rome, without religious significance." (The New Century Bible Commentary, "Revelation," p. 86)
Of course, Revelation does not reveal the specific identity of the Nicolaitans nor does it rigorously define their beliefs. Irenaeus and other early church fathers claimed that the Nicolaitans practiced unrestrained indulgence (Against Heresies, 1.26.3). If they have not falsely defined their enemies – the Nicolaitans would have taught a life of loose morals, but no doubt under the guise of a deceptive theological rationale.
Following the teaching of the Balaamites and Nicolaitans, some church members in Pergamum had violated the freedom and grace they enjoyed in Christ. They had lapsed into a sinful accommodation with idolatry and immorality. The seriousness of the poor spiritual condition of some at Pergamum was underscored by Christ’s warning. He would fight against the heretics with the sword of his mouth (2:16). The mistakes of the Pergamum church are important lessons to all Christians who must struggle to keep their spiritual balance in a darkened world.
Promise to Pergamum (2:17)
Those who conquered in the Pergamum church – who didn’t fall prey to this heresy – were promised salvation under the metaphor of the "hidden manna" and "white stone with a new name" (2:17). Manna is another Old Testament symbol. It was the food God supernaturally supplied to the Israelites during their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness (Exodus 16:11-15). In Revelation the manna would refer to the spiritual food by which God gives life to his people. It is, like the fruit of the tree of life, a symbol of salvation and eternal life.
The meaning of the white stone is less clear. Several interpretations are possible. That’s because stones were used in a variety of situations in ancient times. A white stone given to a person at the close of a trial meant he was acquitted of his crime. This symbolic meaning for the Christian is clear. The child of God has been exonerated of his or her sins through Christ’s cleansing sacrifice. It is through Jesus’ atoning blood that we freely receive our acquittal. The ideal of judicial judgment would also link the white stone to the "great white throne judgment" (20:11). This is a symbol of God’s final, just and merciful judgment on humanity.
Stones also served as admission tickets to public festivals and assemblies. Metaphorically, this would mean the Christian had been granted admittance to the messianic feast at the Savior’s return (19:18-19). A white stone may also have represented a happy and momentous day for the Christian – the receiving of the ultimate reward of salvation. The English equivalent would be a "red letter day." An interesting custom in Thrace was the marking of good days by a white stone (Pliny Natural History, 7.40.131; Plutarch: Life of Pericles 64; Pliny, Letters 6:11). Certainly, God’s intervention in human affairs and the salvation of the church in the resurrection of the dead will be a wonderful and momentous time (Revelation 19:1-6).
We should also note that the color white is characteristic of Revelation. It speaks of white garments (3:5), white robes (7:9), white linen (19:8, 14), and the aforementioned great white throne judgment (20:11). White, in these cases, represents a kind of spiritual purity.
The meaning of the "new name" written on the white stone appears to have Old Testament roots as well (2:17). When speaking of Zion – a type of the church perfected – Isaiah repeated the promise of God to his people: "You will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow" (Isaiah 62:2).
The new name represents a new status given to the individual by God. We see the custom in the Old Testament. Jacob becomes Israel (Genesis 32:28); Abram becomes Abraham (Genesis 17:5); Sarai becomes Sarah (Genesis 17:15). In the New Testament, Saul becomes Paul (Acts 13:9). The custom of giving a person a new name to go along with a new status was also found in the Roman world. Octavius became Augustus when he was crowned Roman emperor.
For the Christian, the "new name" would have great spiritual significance. Christ will give the member a new status. He will be resurrected into the kingdom of God – with a new existence and unparalleled glory (Romans 8:18-21). The idea of newness in the "new name" is another theme in Revelation. We have a new Jerusalem (3:12; 21:2); a new heaven and earth (21:1); a new song (5:9; 14:3). And God says at the book’s end, "I am making everything new!" (21:5).