The letters to the churches typically begin with God describing Himself in a way that is specifically addressed to that church. This description is important as it relates to what He wants to say to each church – addressing the different challenges, difficulties and wrong-doings that each church faces and also giving the appropriate encouragement to each church. In this passage, God started with “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword”. Whilst the Church in Pergamum had always been faithful to Christ, they had allowed the false teaching of Balaam to flourish. In verse 16 God told them to repent: “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”
The Church in Pergamum is in the north of Smyrna, and it is often said to be the “strong centre of paganism” with its many temples for different idols. Whilst the Church lived amongst a strong presence of paganism, they were said to have remained faithful, and in verse 13 God referred to Antipas as an example of His faithful witness. From God’s perspective we understand that we ought to obey Him, otherwise we will die. But on the contrary Rome demands full submission, otherwise they will die – or submit and be free. Antipas and the Church were said to be faithful even to the point of death, therefore God praised them.
However, verse 14 tells us that God had a few things against them, that some of them held the teaching of Balaam as well as the teaching of the Nicolaitans (in verse 15). While they were faithful, they had somehow allowed these false teachings to flourish amongst them. Balaam was initially a prophet of God, but as one theologian puts it, Balaam became a prototype of all corrupt teachers who misled believers into fatal compromise with worldly ideologies.
Contrary to the church in Ephesus who rejected the false teaching of the Nicolaitans, but was criticised for having a lack of love, the church in Pergamum was the opposite. Quite possibly they showed love by accepting the false teachings amongst them, but they started to compromise the truth. Love and truth are both equally needed in the church and in the life of the people of God. In the case of the church in Pergamum, truth was compromised. Apostle John (the author of Revelation) also said in 3 John that, “There is no greater joy than to see that my children are walking in the truth”. In this age of “post-truth”, sometimes it is hard for us to seek the truth. Furthermore, since every opinion and everything that happens can be explained/rationalised, sometimes we find it hard to know who is right and who is wrong. But what we as Christians must defend and trust is the Word of God. Only when we know Him and the truth, with all our heart, only then will we truly know what is right and wrong. We will gain new wisdom, principles from the word of God, and we will automatically view things from the perspective of God, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
To the church in Pergamum, God says in verse 16 “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” While not everyone in the church followed the teachings of Balaam or Nicolaitans, the whole church tolerated and co-existed with them. The Word of God should be the standard in our life, and we shall not let our feelings guide our life.
In verse 17, God says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Manna was the bread that God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness which gave them life. God says He is the bread of life, and He is also the one that says Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Feed on my flesh and drink my blood, for my flesh is true food, and whoever feeds on this bread will live forever. A white stone with a new name in verse 17 refers to our new identity in Christ – living our lives according to His will. May we learn from the Church in Pergamum to be faithful, to let the word of God live and be the standard in our life, and may we live a life that is pleasing God.