PERGAMOS, WHERE SATAN’S SEAT IS
A Study in Revelation 2.12-17. (Part 2)
Now we are considering together the messages of these seven letters from the risen Lord to these Churches in Asia, originally sent to them, but through them to all Churches at all times. In particular, we are concerned with the message of this third letter, the letter to the Church at Pergamos. We noticed last time* that this letter contains the three elements that are to be found in a general way in all seven of these letters. There is the element of commendation in verses twelve and thirteen; there is the element of complaint in verses fourteen and fifteen; there is the element of counsel in verses sixteen and seventeen.
1. Balaam and the Nicolaitanes
I come now in the second place to the complaint that Christ made. Sadly, yet needfully, the complaint. “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast them there that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes which thing I hate.” (vv.14-15)
In the letter to Ephesus, we discovered there was a ‘nevertheless’. Ephesus was praised, but, “Nevertheless, I have a few things against thee.” In relation to Smyrna, we discovered that there was no complaint. Now, in the letter to Pergamos, while there is commendation, there is also a ‘but’, “But I have a few things against thee.” ‘But’. . . There was a fly in the ointment. They were loyal to Christ’s person; they were loyal to the faith once delivered to the saints. “But, I have a few things against you.”
A few things, not everything. So much was commendable. So much was praiseworthy, but there were a few things. In fact, the Lord Jesus had two things against the Church at Pergamos. One was in the realm of doctrine, the other was in the realm of discipline. The complaint was first in the realm of doctrine. There were in fact, two false doctrines, at least at first sight, two false doctrines to be found in the Church at Pergamos. There was the doctrine of Balaam, verse fourteen, and there was the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, verse fifteen. There was a similarity about these two false doctrines. They were really two forms of the same thing, so much so that on analysis, they comprise but one heresy, a heresy that is by no means dead, but which is alas, very, very active today. The Old Testament version of this heresy was that of Balaam, of whom we have the account in the Book of Numbers. The New Testament version of this same heresy was that which surrounded the name of Nicholas of Antioch whom we met when we were considering the letter to the Ephesians, whose followers were known as Nicolaitanes. Two different names, but it was one heresy. I am going to take them as one.
The question is. What then, was this false teaching? We begin with the words of our Lord Jesus Himself. He tells us that Balaam taught Balak who was the king of Moab to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel; that Balaam, who was an Israelite, taught a foreign king to do certain things that would cause evil, trouble and waywardness among his, that is, Balak’s own people. Balaam taught Balak to entice the Israelites of old to sin. That is what our Lord Jesus says here, and that identifies Balaam for us, and if you want the details, concerning Balaam and what he did, you will find it in the book of Numbers chapter 22 onwards.
The next phrase in our Lord’s teaching in verse fourteen identifies Balaam’s false teaching, and it was this, “To eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit immorality.” Balaam lived about two thousand years before the date of this letter to the Church at Pergamos. His teaching was that there was nothing wrong with pagan feasts and eating meat offered to idols; there was nothing wrong with Israelites associating with pagan women. That is the Old Testament version of this heresy of Balaamism. You could still be a good Israelite, you could still be a covenant child of God, you could still have all the benefits of the blessings of the covenant, so long as you were circumcised, so long as you observed Israel’s religious ceremonies, this other involvement did not matter. That in effect was Balaam’s teaching, and that is the Old Testament version of this heresy. As we saw when we considered the letter to the Church at Ephesus, that is precisely what the Nicolaitanes taught in the New Testament age. They taught it at Ephesus, verse six, in this second chapter. They taught it at Pergamos again, verse fifteen. Not only did they have the Balaamites, they had some that held the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing the Lord hated. What the Nicolaitanes taught was that it was permissible for Christian believers to associate with pagans in their feasts, and to associate with pagan women in immorality. Here is really one heresy, it has two names;
its Old Testament name- Balaamism, and its New Testament name- Nicolaitanism. You can put the two together and what you have is Antinomianism. Nicolaitanism still persists. It says, that so long as you profess the Christian faith, so long as you belong to the Christian Church, it does not matter how you live, because as a Christian, you are no longer under the law of God. That is Antinomianism; ‘anti’-against, and ‘nomus’-law, living against the law, living contrary to what the law of God says. Christians are free from the moral law as a way of salvation. That law has been kept for them in Christ, and they have no need to try and do anything at all to keep it; it is something they cannot do. Christians are never free from the moral law as the expression of God’s will for them. Christians are never free from the moral law as a guide or a rule or a directive as to how they can please God and do His will, and live their life in this world. We disregard the law as a rule of life at our peril. The real Christian is one who loves God’s law, who delights in God’s law, who wants to observe God’s law, and who will follow God’s law, not in the letter, as a slave, but in the spirit as a child. Christ had a standing complaint against Antinomianism. He was against the Balaamites, and He was against the Nicolaitanes, and He was against those persons at Pergamos who followed these things, and He is against any Church that follows the idea that God’s law has nothing to do with God’s redeemed people. That is the first thing, the complaint was first in the realm of doctrine.
2. The Need for Discipline
In the second place, the complaint was also in the realm of discipline. This was the real thrust of the complaint. Christ’s complaint was not that all, or most of the Church members of Pergamos had imbibed the false teaching of the Nicolaitanes, and were practising the doctrines of Balaam. That was not true. He has already said, they were loyal to His person, they were steadfast in the faith, they observed the whole counsel of God. What was the trouble then? Notice very, very carefully what exactly it is that the Lord says in verse fourteen, “I have a few things against thee, because thou (thou, that is the Church), hast there them (them, that is somebody else), that hold the doctrine of Balaam.” You have the same thing in verse fifteen, “So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes which thing I hate.”
The complaint is this. The Lord Jesus said, You as a Church are faithful unto Me, you are loyal to Me, you are loyal to My Word, but you are harbouring within your membership, those errorists who hold these false doctrines and practise these evil things and you are doing nothing about it. You are not exercising discipline; that was the complaint of Jesus with the Church at Pergamos. You are faithful, but, but. . . How often has the Lord had to say that concerning Christian Churches, You are seen to be faithful in many respects, but, behind the scenes, under the cover of respectability, out of the knowledge of the general public, you are faithful, but. . . but. . . This is what He says here to the Church at Pergamos, You are faithful, but you allow some, if they be only a few, who are Antinomians, both in doctrine and in practice, to keep their membership in the Church, when in fact they are the enemies of the Cross of Christ, because Jesus says concerning those things that they believe, and those they do, “which thing I hate”.
The problem in the Church at Pergamos was this. They were too tolerant. They were too broad-minded. They practised what today is called broad-Churchmanship. They found room under the respectability of their membership roll for some, only a few it may be, whose beliefs and practices were alien to, and actually hated by the King and the Head of the Church. “Which thing I hate.” That was a serious thing and the sin of Pergamos is undoubtedly the sin of the Church today in many ways and in many respects. It is responsible in no small way for the sickness of the Church today.
What is wrong of course, is that the authority of the keys is not being exercised. In Matthew chapter 16, we read that Jesus gave the authority of the keys to the Church. He gave the Church, acting through its officers, the right to loose or to bind, that is the right to admit or to debar, the right to include or to exclude from membership in the Church. That is what Paul was counselling the Church at Corinth to do in 1 Cor. 5, which is the reason why I read it. After dealing with the Antinomian practices within the Corinthian Church, concerning immorality, Paul comes in the end, in the last verse of that chapter, and says, “Therefore, put away from yourselves that wicked person,” discipline him, exclude him. Not to do so is to make a caricature of the Gospel and of the standards of the Gospel. One must never mention discipline without saying this. When discipline in the Church is done in love, and not in hostility, and not in bitterness, it can be a means not only of recovery, but also of blessing. The recovery of the offender, the blessing of the members, and that is the great purpose of Church discipline. Would that that had always been kept in sight. The purpose of discipline is to discipline in love and not to show one’s hostility, not to show annoyance, or anger, but in love to restore the one who has offended, who is going astray, to bring him back to the Shepherd and Bishop of his soul. It is no wonder then, that godly discipline is a mark of a true Christian Church; the recovery of the offender by the consent and by the desire of the whole Church acting through its appointed officers. That is what is lacking at Pergamos, and that is why Christ had His complaint; not because they had all gone over to Balaam and the Nicolaitanes, but because there were a few, and the Church which was commended for being loyal to Christ’s person and name and doctrine, harboured, without discipline, some who had. How many Christian churches have been ruined by that. They had an orthodox creed, orthodox articles of faith, orthodox preaching in the pulpit, but the cancer of Antinomianism has reared its head in the Church and the congregation, and they have done nothing about it for fear of this one, or for fear of that one, for fear of man. They come under the complaint and the censure of Christ as He gave it to the Church at Pergamos.
We come now to the third of the three elements in this letter and that is the counsel that was offered to the Church at Pergamos by the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Verses sixteen and seventeen, “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone, a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it”. Here then is the counsel that is offered to this Church that is both commended and censured, and it is counsel which takes two forms. There is first the form of warning, and then there is the form of promise.
1. The Warning
Consider first the warning. Repent; or else! Repent; or else! You will notice that the call to repent is addressed first to the Church at Pergamos. Jesus said to them in effect, ‘Deal with those errors, deal with the cancer, show your repentance by your action, and put away those wicked people’. First, the Church is called upon to repent. The next thing is this, that the warning is also addressed to the offenders. Repent, or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Now, notice carefully in verse sixteen, I will come unto thee, I will fight against them. He speaks to two different categories. ‘Thee’ is the Church, which should have done the disciplining. ‘Them’ is the Antinomians, the offenders within the Church. The Lord is saying to this Church, ‘If you do not deal with them, I will’. He says that He will deal with them as He described in the beginning of this letter in yerse twelve, “He which hath the sharp sword with two edges,” and He says, ‘Repent, or else I will fight against them with the sword of my name. Repent; or else I will come unto thee’, that is the Church, quickly, swiftly, suddenly, summarily in judgment, and I will discipline the whole Church’. That is the message. When a Church does not discipline major error, whether in doctrine or discipline, God judges the Church, God disciplines the Church. The failure and the demise of many Christian churches, alas, across the pages of history, is due to this. The Church has failed to discipline, so Christ has disciplined the Church, and very often by removing the candlestick.
Repent; or else I will fight against them, that is the errorists, with the sword of my mouth. What does that mean? It may mean death. It may mean, as Paul said of some at Corinth, (1 Cor. 5:5), to hand them over to Satan for his chastisement. Let there be no whittling down of the judgment that is made here. Repent; or else I will come to thee, the Church that should do the disciplining, but has not done it. I will fight against them who should be disciplined with the sword of my mouth. If the Church fails to do it, the Lord Himself will do it, and He will discipline, not only the evil doer, but the Church that fails to exercise the discipline. It is an interesting thing, if you go back to the Book of Numbers, (31:8) you will find the account of the death of Balaam. You will read that, “Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword”. That is how Balaam, the founder of Balaamism died, with the sword. Christ says concerning the Balaamites in the Christian Church, “I will fight against them with the sword of my mouth”. Balaam fell by the sword; so will the followers of Balaam. The Lord has His own way of executing His threats and His warnings. Better then surely, that the Church should exclude its errorists by discipline than the Lord should have to do it by death. Death is final, but discipline in the spirit of Christ, and in the spirit of love, can be restorative, and can be a blessing. Here is the counsel of warning to the Church and to the particular offenders. Repent; or else!
We come to the counsel of promise which is given in verse seventeen, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it”. Here is the promise and it comprises three things – manna, a stone, a name. There is hidden manna, there is a white stone, and there is a new name. These are, as so many things in the Book of Revelation, symbolical things. They are to be understood as relating to those who overcome, “To him that overcometh will I give” the manna, the stone, the name. To those who overcome their evil doctrine, to those who forsake their evil way of life, to those who have abandoned the Antinomianism of the Balaamites and the Nicolaitanes, to those who have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls, to them I will give manna, stone, name.
Now what does this mean? “To him that overcometh I will give to eat of the hidden manna”. Manna is something to eat. The Lord offers the repenting errorist something better to eat than food that was offered to idols in Pergamos. Hidden manna. The manna is the Lord Himself. He is the Bread which is sent down from heaven that a man may eat thereof and live for ever. It is also hidden manna, because it is hidden from the world. The world does not see it, the world does not know it, the world does not understand it. The world sees no attraction in Christ, and no satisfaction in Him as the bread of Life. But, says Christ, to him that overcometh I will given hidden manna, I will give myself, the bread of heaven, which the world knows nothing of. When you take it, you will never hunger again for the food that was offered to idols.
Then there is the white stone. Stone speaks of durability, of permanence, and whiteness speaks of holiness and righteousness. It speaks of those who have been cleansed from the evil of the sins which are mentioned in this letter. It speaks of those who have been set free to enjoy the holiness of God in Christ, and to them is given the white stone, to them is given the passport to heaven. For them, a new name. The person who receives the white stone of holiness receives the new nature of a child of God; a new nature deserves a new name. That name and that nature is known to no man saving he that receiveth it. No one outside, knows and feels the new nature, the experience of grace that is in my soul. No, no one experiences it, except me. If you experience it, no one else experiences what you experience. It is known to no man saving him that receiveth it. It, like Christ, is hidden from the world. Those who truly love the Lord have received from Him, hidden manna of hidden sustenance, Christ Himself. They have received the white stone of everlasting righteousness, and they have received the new name of a regenerate nature, a new creature in Christ. This is the stone, placed in our hands which will guarantee our admittance at the throne of God in glory everlasting. If we have not got it. He will have to say, I never knew you, depart. This threefold promise speaks of our belonging to Christ, of our being new creatures in Christ, of our being sincere in our religion, and of our being Spirit-regenerate believers. Inso-much and in so far as we hold that stone in our hand, when we stand at the gate of heaven, we will not be cast out, we will not be refused admittance, so let us guard it, let us treasure it, let us never let it go. It is the symbol of our hope for time, for death, for eternity; hidden manna, the world knows not of. The white stone that endures and is pure. A new name inscribed by the Spirit of God. Such is the glorious prospect of those who remain faithful and true and of those who truly repent.
K. W. H. Howard