The third letter of chapters 2-3 is addressed to the believers in Pergamum (Grk. Pe/rgamo$, modern Bergama). The name (i.e. a fortified site, or citadel) seems to refer to the ancient (pre-Roman) acropolis, which was renowned for its impressive walls and buildings. It was the center of a kingdom which was absorbed into the Roman Empire (in the mid-2nd century B.C.) and became a leading imperial city, even after the center of the provincial government had shifted to Ephesus.
The distinctive details in the letter are discussed here in turn (for the letter-format itself, cf. the earlier note).
“These (things are) said (by) the (one) holding the sharp two-mouthed [i.e. double-edged] sword…”
Here, following the format in all the letters, the phrase introducing the risen Jesus is taken from the vision in 1:11-16ff—in this case, from the description in v. 16. The motif of the sword, emphasizes both the danger for believers of being put to death for their faith, as well as the judgment which is about to come upon evil-doers (utilizing the military aspect of the eschatological/Messianic image, Isa 11:4, etc [cf. 2 Thess 2:8]).
As in the previous letter (to Smyrna, cf. the most recent note), the praise given to the congregations is related to their faithfulness and endurance in the midst of (religious) persecution:
“I have seen where you (have) put down house—(in) the (place) where the ruling-seat of the Satan (resides)—and (yet) you (have) held firm(ly) to my name, and did not deny the trust of [i.e. in] me, even in the days of Antipas my trust(worthy) witness, who was killed off (from) alongside you, (in) the (place) where the Satan puts down house [i.e. dwells/resides].”
The emphasis here has to do with the location (i.e. Pergamum) where the believers currently reside. It is marked by a two-fold (parallel) expression:
- “the (place) where [o%pou] the ruling-seat [qro/no$, i.e. throne] of the Satan (resides)”
- “the (place) where [o%pou] the Satan resides [katoikei=, lit. puts down house]”
This is a remarkable declaration that “the Satan” (o( satana=$) both resides in Pergamum and has his “seat of rule” (qro/no$) there. The title “Satan”, of course, derives from ancient Israelite and Jewish tradition, by which the (heavenly/angelic) opponent of God’s people, so understood, came to be described with the title /f*c* (“[the] adversary”)—cf. Job 1:6ff; Zech 3:1-2; 1 Chron 21:1. The Greek transliteration of this title ([o(] satana=$), generally treated as synonymous with [o(] dia/bolo$ (“[the] one casting [slander/evil] throughout”, i.e. ‘Devil’), occurs 36 times in the New Testament, including 8 times in the book of Revelation (5 in chaps. 2-3).
How should we understand the specific use of the term here, with the idea that Satan lives (and rules) in Pergamum? There are several possibilities:
- It refers to Pergamum’s legacy as a leading center of Roman rule/government in Asia Minor. [#1]
- It is an allusion to Pergamum as the first city in which the imperial cult (i.e. venerating the Emperor) was established in Asia Minor (c. 29 B.C., in honor of Augustus and Roma, the goddess personifying Rome). [#2]
- It is a colorful reference to the influence of Greco-Roman (pagan) religion and culture (in Asia Minor) generally; the specific application to Pergamum is circumstantial. [#3]
- It relates primarily to the persecution of Christians, which, in Pergamum, has led to at least one believer being put to death. [#4]
- It refers back to the Jewish opposition to Christians (verse 9; also 3:9), which may have involved the denouncing of believers to the provincial authorities; there, such Jewish opponents were called “a gathering together [i.e. synagogue] of Satan”. [#5]
- More generally, it refers to false teaching and religious belief/practice [#6]
All of these relate to definite themes and points of emphasis (and conflict) both in the letters and the book as a whole:
- The influence of Greco-Roman culture and religion.
- The images and practices surrounding the imperial cult, in particular.
- The persecution of believers.
- Religious identity of believers, both in relation to Judaism and the surrounding Greco-Roman culture.
- False teachings and beliefs which are gaining influence in the congregations.
Here, in this letter specifically, the twin motifs of persecution and false teaching appear to frame the issue, though it is certainly also related to the influence of Greco-Roman (pagan) religion. Central to the message in verse 13 is the idea of faithfulness and endurance in the midst of persecution, even to the point of death—as in the case of one Antipas, about whom we otherwise have no reliable information. This is the first clear instance in the New Testament where the term “witness” (ma/rtu$) is tied directly to the idea of being put to death for being a Christian. This, of course, would come to be the primary denotation of the term, in its special Christian sense, transliterated in English as “martyr”.
Verses 14-16 make up the blame/rebuke portion of the “mixed” message of the letter, which, according to the regular formula, begins, “But I hold (this) against you…” The use of the adjective o)li/go$ reflects the primarily positive side of the message (i.e., their faithfulness in the midst of persecution): “…I hold a few (thing)s against you”. The complaint, or charge, is two-fold:
- “you have (among you)…(one)s grabbing (hold) firmly [kratou=nta$] (to) the teaching of Bil’am…” (v. 14)
- “you have (among you) (one)s grabbing (hold) firmly [kratou=nta$] (to) the teaching of the Nikolaitans…” (v. 15)
The use of the verb krate/w (“take strong/firm [hold of]”) is meant as a clear contrast to the faithful believers in v. 13, who are said to have “grabbed (hold) firmly” [kratei=$] to Jesus’ name. If the issue was persecution in verse 13, here it is the influence of false teaching among believers. Two kinds of such teaching are indicated.
The teaching of Bil’am (v. 14)—The name Bil±¹m (Heb <u*l=B!), transliterated in Greek (as Balaa/m), and in English (as “Balaam”), derives from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, and draws upon several ancient lines of tradition, including one which is positive, and another which is decidedly negative:
- Positive (Num 22:1-6ff; 23-24): The king of Moab (Balak) called on the seer/prophet Bil’am to curse Israel, which, according to the ancient (magical) worldview, meant bringing about Israel’s demise. However, Bil’am, under God’s influence, instead blessed Israel, uttering four oracles which announced what God would do for his people.
- Negative (Num 25): The Baal-Peor episode, in which Israelites joined together (intermarriage?) with Moabite women and then took part in Canaanite (pagan) religious ceremonies (vv. 1-5ff); this is combined with a (separate?) tradition involving Midianite women (vv. 6-15ff). Bil’am’s involvement is not mentioned in this narrative, but only through a separate notice in 31:16 (cf. also Josh 13:22).
The statement here in Rev 2:14 combines both traditions, though it is certainly the latter which is primarily in view, in accordance with the dominant (negative) association with the name of Balaam among Jews and Christians at the time (cf. 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11)—Jewish tradition generally depicted Balaam as a magician and false prophet. The mention of Balak (the Moabite king) here may also be a subtle way of connecting false religious teaching and practice (represented by Balaam) with the imperial Roman government (i.e. Balak), the two being closely connected.
The false teaching of “Balaam” (Bil’am) is specifically defined here, according to the language of the ancient tradition, as:
“to throw (down) in the sight of Yisrael something to trip (them) up [ska/ndalon]—to (make them) eat (offering)s slaughtered to images, and to engage in ‘prostitution’.”
The key terms are: (1) ei)dwlo/quta and (2) the verb porneu/w. The first is a plural noun which essentially means “(offering)s slaughtered [vb. qu/w] to an image [ei&dwlon]”. It is a uniquely Jewish (and Christian) way of referring to sacrificial offerings made to Greco-Roman (pagan) deities, for which the common term was i(ero/quton, i.e. a sacred offering slaughtered (more rarely, qeo/quton, offering “slaughtered to [a] god”). The Jewish/Christian term is a pejorative, reflecting the basic idea that the other (pagan) deities have no real existence, but are represented merely by lifeless images.
In the Greco-Roman cities, food sacrificed to deities could be eaten as part of a religious ceremony; but the meat (from animal sacrifices) could also be subsequently purchased in the marketplace and eaten in a wide range of ordinary (secular) settings. For Jews and early Christians, this aspect of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture was particularly problematic, and is addressed at several points in the New Testament—most notably, in the Jerusalem “decree” (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25), and by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8-10. The view among most early Christian leaders seems to have been that believers must absolutely avoid eating any food that had been sacrificed to “idols”. However, Paul, while sharing this basic outlook, takes a more careful, nuanced approach when addressing the Corinthians, devoting three whole chapters to the subject. Here, in the letter to the believers in Pergamum, no such consideration or qualification is given—those who allow/accept the eating of food sacrificed to idols, and especially, those who teach and encourage this, are characterized as “Balaam” and are condemned in no uncertain terms.
The verb porneu/w literally refers to taking part in prostitution (i.e. sexual intercourse for hire), but could also be used (together with the related noun pornei/a) as a catch-term for any sort of sexual behavior which was deemed immoral or improper. While it is possible that the message here does refer to sexual immorality (it is certainly associated with “Balaam” through the tradition[s] in Numbers 25), the overall context suggests otherwise. Frequently in the Old Testament “prostitution” (using the comparable Hebrew hnz) was used figuratively, as a way to symbolize unfaithfulness in a religious sense (i.e. to God). Any sort of false or illicit religious practice, regardless of whether a sexual component were involved, could be called “prostitution” (tWnz+[T^], pornei/a). Thus, it is perfectly appropriate to regard the improper participation of believers in Greco-Roman religious culture—i.e., through the eating of food sacrificed to “idols”—as committing pornei/a (cf. 1 Cor 6:12-20, in light of Paul’s following discussion in chaps. 8-10). Most likely, the term here is not limited strictly to the question of food sacrificed to idols, but extends to the influence of (pagan) Greco-Roman culture as a whole (cf. again, the association of ei)dolw/quta and pornei/a in Acts 15:20, 29).
The teaching of the Nikolaitans (v. 15)—The group called “Nikolaitans” was mentioned in the first letter (v. 6). As I indicated in the earlier note, we have virtually no reliable information about the teachings or practices of this group. Many commentators assume, based on the context here, that they followed in the example of “Balaam” and taught that it was permitted for believers to eat food which had been sacrificed to other deities (cf. above). However, I am by no means convinced of this. The point of the comparison seems to be that there are two distinct groups (and sets of teachings) involved in vv. 14-15: (1) those who accept/allow the eating of the sacrificed food, and (2) the Nikolaitans. We simply cannot be certain of what the Nikolaitans taught or believed, other than: (a) they seem to have exercised considerable influence among Christians in Asia Minor, and (b) their teachings/practices were serious enough that, in the message, the risen Jesus could be said to “hate” (vb. mise/w, v. 6) them and their “works”. I find rather dubious the suggested association between the name Nikolaos (Niko/lao$, “victor[ious] over the people”) and an etymology of Bil’am as “he destroyed the people” (<u* ul^B*), though this is at least possible.
“Therefore you must change (your) mind(set) [i.e. repent]; and if not, (then) I (will) come to you quickly and will make war with them in [i.e. with] the sword of my mouth.”
It is interesting to note the way that the focus shifts here. While the call goes out to the believers in Pergamum as a whole (“you must [repent]…”), the threat of making war is narrowed to the ones who are erring/sinning (i.e. those in vv. 14-15): “…I will come to you [soi] and will make war with them [au)tw=n]…” As noted previously, the motif of the sword coming out of the mouth is an eschatological and Messianic image (coming mainly from Isa 11:4 and 49:2). However, it is not clear whether its use here refers to the end-time Judgment in the full, traditional sense, or to a local manifestation of God’s Judgment (through Jesus) which might take place at some point prior. Probably it is best to view the idea of “Jesus coming” as a generalized expression signifying here “the coming of judgment” upon evil-doers. The orientation would still be eschatological, but not in as precise and dramatic a context as the reference in 2 Thess 2:8.
The final exhortation and promise in the letters always beings “(To) the (one) being [i.e. who is] victorious…”. Here the promised (heavenly) reward is two-fold (“I will give to him…”):
- “(to eat) of the hidden manna”
- “a white pebble” upon which was written “a new name…which no one has seen [i.e. known] if not [i.e. except] the (one) receiving (it)”
According to Old Testament/Israelite tradition, after the manna had ceased to fall from heaven (Josh 5:12), it only existed through the portion stored away in the tabernacle (Exod 16:32-34), and then, it would seem, in the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, it was “hidden away” by God, to be restored to his people in the future, when it would come down again from Heaven (2 Baruch 29:8; Mekilta on Exodus 6.82; cf. also 2 Macc 2:4-8, etc; Koester, p. 289-90). In the great Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, Jesus plays on this idea of believers eating the manna (“bread”) which comes down from heaven, which he identifies with his own person (his word, his sacrificial death, the Spirit he gives). Here in the book of Revelation, the eating of the “hidden manna” is more or less synonymous with the earlier motif of “eating of the tree of life” (v. 7)—i.e., partaking of Eternal Life at the end-time. There may also be a contrast here between the errant Christians who eat food sacrificed to idols, and the faithful believers (who do not), and, as a result, are allowed to eat of the heavenly food (“manna”).
The second reward is “a white pebble”, which may also echo the motif of the manna (both are small and white in color, cf. Exod 16:31). Of course, white is also a common symbol of purity, and the believers who receive this white pebble (yh=fo$) have likewise kept themselves pure (from sin, in faith, etc). There are several possible meanings to the idea of a “name” being written on the pebble (cf. Koester, p. 290):
- It indicates a favorable judgment—white (instead of black) indicating victory or vindication, through the vote, in court, etc.
- A similar use of a white pebble was involved in determining who would be the one to receive certain honors.
- A name written on a stone could conceivably allude to a kind of (magical) protection for the person—the inscribed stone functioning like a talisman.
The second option seems most probable—that it signifies a special honor for the believer, much like the wreath/crown in verse 10. What is the significance of the “new name” written on the pebble, which is known only to the one who receives it? There would seem to be two possibilities:
- It is a special name, i.e. of honor, etc, given by Christ, to the believer (cp. Matt 16:17; John 1:42)
- It alludes to the name of Jesus and/or the name of God (cf. Phil 2:9f). The idea that the name of God is something ‘hidden’ which is made known (by Jesus) to believers is found at several points in the Gospel of John (e.g., 17:6ff).
The latter option would seem to be preferable, in light of the similar language in 3:12 (and cf. also 14:1; 19:12ff; 22:4). The believer’s new “name” is that of Jesus’ himself—not necessarily the simple name “Yeshua/Jesus”, but the name which identifies him with God (Son and exalted One of the Father). As I have discussed previously, a name, in ancient thought, typically represented and embodied the true nature and essence of the person.