This is the third week in which we have discussed the letters to the churches which Christ dictated to St John whilst the latter was living in exile on the Greek island of Patmos in 95 AD.

If you have missed the preceding entries, take a few minutes to read Christ’s letters to the churches of Ephesus and Smyrna.  Today’s letter is addressed to the church in Pergamos, or Pergamum.

You won’t find Revelation 2 in the standard three-year Lectionary, which qualifies it as part of the ongoing series, Forbidden Bible Verses.  Although you might not have heard or read them they are, nonetheless, Essential Bible Verses.

Today’s reading is from the New International Version (NIV).

Revelation 2:12-17

To the Church in Pergamum

12“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. 14Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. 15Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. 17He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.


As in the preceding two letters, the word ‘angel’ (verse 12) refers to the head of the church — the bishop or pastor.  At that time, the bishop was the equivalent of our modern-day pastor.

Christ identifies himself as He who has a double-edged sword, a reference he makes in Rev. 1:16.  St Paul used similar imagery in Hebrews 4:12.  The double-edged sword is the Word of God.  This Word is powerful and sharp.  It cuts us loose from the bonds of sin and it also judges unbelievers without mercy.  Think of how a sword is used in battle, yet how a monarch uses it to confer an honour on a distinguished person who has served his country (e.g. Queen Elizabeth II dubbing a knight).

But why does Christ use that expression with the church of Pergamos when He did not use it with Smyrna?  Pergamos was a different church. Instead of remaining faithful to Christ as His followers in Smyrna did despite persecution, Pergamos was becoming too worldly and was in danger of deserting Christ.  So, the reason for using the sword imagery was to remind them that He had cut them loose from the bondage of sin but He was prepared to use the sword in judgment against them.  It was a warning to pull themselves together before they embraced apostasy.

Christ acknowledges the temptations they face and the fact that there are faithful Christians amongst their number (verse 13).  He can see that they live in a hotbed of sin and temptation — ‘where Satan has his throne’.  Before we proceed, let us examine Pergamos as a city.

Pergamos, unlike Ephesus, still exists today, although it is now part of Turkey and is a village called Bergama.  Bergama’s church also continues to this day.  Yet, when Christ dictated His letter in 95 AD, it had been the capital of Asia Minor for 300 years.  Legend has it that a son of Hercules founded the city.  It is located on a hill overlooking an agriculturally desirable area — one of the fertile plains of which we read so much in classical literature.  Its four temples to the gods were at the top of the hill.

Pergamos also boasted the largest university library of its day with 2,000 volumes.  (British readers may recall that the late Robert Maxwell named his publishing company Pergamon Press — this was his inspiration.)  You will not be surprised to discover that the city’s main output and trade was in parchment and papyrus!

One of the temples in Pergamos was dedicated to the god Asclepius, the Greco-Roman god of medicine. A school of medicine was adjacent. Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a physician; he was represented by a snake, of which there were many in the temple.  In order to be healed, the pagans lay on the floor.  Each time a snake slithered by and touched them, they believed it to be the healing touch of Asclepius.  If you have ever wondered why certain medical institutions have as their symbol a snake wrapped around a staff, these represent Asclepius’s staff of healing and himself as a serpent.

Hence, Christ’s mention of Satan in verse 13.  In Scripture, the snake is synonymous with Satan: Gen. 3:1, Rev.12:9.  The faithful Christians of Pergamos were torn between Christ and Satan.  They were living surrounded by sophisticated, intelligent people no doubt posing various arguments against Christianity and in support of their pagan lifestyles.  Not much different to today, then, where popular culture and thought — even amongst intellectuals — come in constant conflict with Christian beliefs.

The pagans were not altogether friendly towards the Christians.  In noting that His faithful have not denied His name, Christ acknowledges the courage of Antipas (about whom we know nothing, unfortunately) in being a martyr for the faith.  Therefore, we know that hostility existed.

Having said that, Christ has two objections (verses 14 and 15).  He did not like that they were eating food sacrificed to idols.  Recall the first Commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me’.  The story of Balaam and Balak, to which Christ alludes is in Numbers 22 and 23.  Balak, a Moabite, hired Balaam to prophesy for him and curse Israel. The Moabites worshipped involved eating sacrificed animals as well as orgies. Balaam did try to curse God’s Chosen, but God foiled him every time.  Some Bible scholars say that the pagans in Pergamos wanted the Christians to intermarry and worship with them, thereby destroying the church. (See John MacArthur’s article at the end of the post.)

Christ’s other objection was to follow the libertinism of the Nicolaitans, which Christ loathed.  We saw this in His letter to the church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:6).  The Nicolaitans, founded by an apostle Nicholas who later became a heretic, went where some of the established churches were.  They taught perverted grace, not unlike some of our mainline and emergent churches today.  By advocating sin (e.g. fornication) which Christ condemned (Mark 7:20-23), they were denying Him.

In verse 16, Christ orders the church of Pergamos to repent — or else He would use His sword — the blade of judgment — against them to condemn them.  Some people may say, ‘What an angry Jesus’.  Don’t forget — the Church is Christ’s Bride.  Whatever we do which perverts the Truth — allowing blasphemers and sin — amongst us is akin to defiling Her.  And it’s blaspheming Christ.  Therefore, by extension, it’s ultimately denying God the Father.

In verse 17, Christ calls the church in Pergamos to attention: ‘He who has an ear, let him hear’.  He also said this to the church in Ephesus (Rev. 2:7).  Note how the two letters end with the same wake-up call.  And, in both cases, he tells them to ‘hear what the Spirit says to the churches’.  In other words, ‘I sent you the Holy Spirit — use His gifts’ — wisdom, discernment, perseverance and fortitude among them.  Christ loves His followers, that’s why He speaks the way He does to the churches.  We, too, would do well to take note.

He ends by saying that He will give to those who persevere manna — spiritual food — the abiding presence of Jesus Christ. This allusion recalls God’s provision of manna to the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land in the Book of Exodus.  However, only the recipients will know they are receiving it — it is ‘hidden’.  Matthew Henry explains (link below):

The hidden manna, the influences and comforts of the Spirit of Christ in communion with him, coming down from heaven into the soul, from time to time, for its support, to let it taste something how saints and angels live in heaven. This is hidden from the rest of the world-a stranger intermeddles not with this joy; and it is laid up in Christ, the ark of the covenant, in the holy of holies.

Yet, not only that, but also a ‘white stone’ — a forgiveness of sin and acknowledgment of faithfulness.  Interpretations differ as to the significance.  John MacArthur says that it was commonplace at the time for favoured individuals to receive a diamond from those in authority.  This may be the origin of why women receive diamond engagement rings from their fiancés.  (That is for another post!)

On the other hand, Matthew Henry explains that it could refer to ancient court proceedings for acquittal or condemnation.  (This is similar to the later custom of whiteballing and blackballing potential members of a group.  Those voting in favour of a candidate drop a white ball into a box and those who oppose the candidature drop a black ball into the box.) Henry writes:

The white stone, with a new name engraven upon it. This white stone is absolution from the guilt of sin, alluding to the ancient custom of giving a white stone to those acquitted on trial and a black stone to those condemned. The new name is the name of adoption: adopted persons took the name of the family into which they were adopted. None can read the evidence of a man’s adoption but himself; he cannot always read it, but if he persevere he shall have both the evidence of sonship and the inheritance.

Again, we see that if we ‘keep the faith’ (2 Tim. 4:7), Christ will adopt us as His own — for all eternity.

Next week: Revelation 2:18-29

Further reading:

‘The Church in Prophetic Perspective – The Church at Satan’s Throne’ – John MacArthur

Matthew Henry’s Commentary