Persevere in the Truth

Revelation 2:12-17

February 18, 2024

Lead Pastor Dr. Timothy Melton

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It was the Super Bowl. The biggest game of the year. The quarterback barked out the snap count, pivoted to his right, handed off the ball and the tailback ran with all his might through the line, 5 yards, 10 yards, 15 yards. He was hit by one defensive back, and then another, and as they held on, he fought for every extra yard he could get. It was then that he fumbled the ball, the other team recovered and all was for naught. It had been a great run and a great effort but without the ball it meant nothing. 

In this sermon we will see how the church in Pergamum was guilty of something similar. They had persevered through intense persecution, kept the faith and held Christ’s name high but somehow, in the midst of the struggle they had lost their focus on the gospel. Now they continued but with heresy growing in their midst. They had not denied the name of Christ but they were in the process of defiling it.

Let us now turn to Revelation 2:12-17 and see what Christ is saying to the church of Pergamum.

These verses are being spoken by Jesus Christ to John the Apostle who had been exiled to the Isle of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor. John was about 90 years old and was one of the few still living who had actually known Christ. Christ had returned to heaven 60 years earlier. Revelation 1 tells us that John was worshipping on the Lord’s Day when he saw the vision of Christ who came to him. 

Historically Pergamum was the greatest city of Asia. At this time in history, Pergamum had been a capital city for over 400 years. After Alexander the Great’s death his great empire was divided into smaller kingdoms. The kingdom which included Asia Minor came to be called the Seleucid kingdom. In 282 BC Pergamum was named as its capital city. It remained a capital city until 133 BC. At that time, Attalus the Third, the ruler of the Seleucid kingdom died, but before he died he agreed that his kingdom would become part of the Roman Empire. From this, Rome formed the province of Asia and Pergamum still was allowed to continue as its capital.

Pergamum was a beautiful city in the province of Asia. It stood above the tributaries of the Caicus River. It looked like a capital city. It stood high on a hill above the surrounding valleys. From its height the Mediterranean Sea could be seen, fifteen miles away.

Sir William Ramsay described it in this way: "Beyond all other cities in Asia Minor, it gives the traveller the impression of a royal city, the home of authority; the rocky hill on which it stands is so huge, and dominates the broad plain of the Caicus so proudly and so boldly." 

Pergamum was a city of culture that had a library that possessed over 200,000 parchments and scrolls. This library was second only to the library in Alexandria. Because of its history Pergamum saw itself as the custodian of Greek worship and the Greek way of life. Pergamum was the administrative center for Asia Minor and also as an administrative center for Caesar worship pagan gods such as Athena, Dionysus, and Zeus. 

This would be a source of persecution and at times, even death, for Christians who claimed only Christ as Lord.

With this in mind we now look to the words in Revelation 2:12-17, spoken by Christ for 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. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.

Once again Christ is reminding His listeners who He is before He speaks His words. The words will be helpful, but it will be by the power of the one who speaks that Christ’s instructions will become possible. William Barclay explains the reference to Christ carrying a double-edged sword in this way,

“Roman governors were divided into two classes--those who had the ius gladii, the right of the sword, and those who had not. Those who had the right of the sword had the power of life and death; on their word a man could be executed on the spot. Humanly speaking the proconsul, who had his headquarters at Pergamum, had the ius gladii, the right of the sword, and at any moment he might use it against any Christian; but the letter bids the Christian not to forget that the last word is still with the Risen Christ, who has the sharp two-edged sword. The power of Rome might be satanically powerful; the power of the Risen Lord is greater yet.” 

This fear of the ius gladii constantly hung over the Christians’ heads because of their refusal to worship Caesar, but the sword and authority of Christ was even stronger. 

Jesus then let’s them know that He “knows where they live.” He knows their situation. He knows their struggle. In the midst of their trials and tribulations Christ has not turned His back or turned away. 

It reminds us of Psalm 139 in the words of the psalmist, 

You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you. . . when I awake, I am still with you.

Christ knows. And it is more than just knowing about, Christ has experienced the pain, humiliation and abuse Himself. He knows. He empathizes. He is with them in the midst of it all. He is Immanuel, God with us. 

Jesus then continues, “I know where you live- where Satan has his throne.”

This reference to the Throne of Satan could refer to the colossal pagan temples that were located in Pergamum, but it most likely refers to the fact that Pergamum was the administrative center to all the pagan worship in Asia Minor. The city was steeped in pagan worship, Caesar worship, materialism and all the dangerous persecution that was coming against the Christians. Satan appeared to be on the throne in Pergamum.

Jesus then affirmed the church. In the midst of the persecution, they had remained true to His name. They did not renounce their faith, even when Antipas, one of their own, was put to death. 

In verse 13 Jesus referred to Antipas as “my faithful witness.” This word “witness” in Greek was the word “martus” In the beginning “martus” merely meant one who is a witness, but eventually so many who gave witness ended up giving their lives that this word “martus” became our English word, martyr. 

It is interesting to note that in Revelation 1:5 and Revelation 3:14 it was Jesus who first wore the title “faithful witness” and now He is granting this title to Antipas. 

Those Christians in Pergamum could have denied Christ. They could have left Pergamum in search of a less threatening place, but they did not. In Pergamum and throughout the Roman Empire the Christians stood for the name of Christ, and because of it the kingdom of God came in a powerful way. 

Jesus now continued in Revelation 2:14-15.

14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 

Jesus had affirmed the courage of their faith in the first paragraph, but now He voiced His concerns.

There were some in the church in Pergamum who were holding to the “teachings of Balaam,” from the Old Testament, which had drawn people into the eating of food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Others were holding to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Both of these groups were abusing the grace of God and giving people permission to live immoral, sinful lives that were not holy and were not set apart for God. It might have been that the false teachers were sincerely wrong, or it could be that they were giving into the temptation to be like the sinful culture that surrounded them. Either way, Jesus was not going to tolerate His church to walk in this way and He was not going to allow the gospel to be twisted and redefined.

We might be thinking to ourselves that we are innocent because we never eat food that was sacrificed to a pagan god, but let me explain it this way. 

Several years ago I went on a mission trip to northwestern India. We were part of a retreat for several churches that came together. I remember listening to their stories of having to decide whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god. 

In their culture it was common for your neighbors to sacrifice an animal to a pagan god. They then would spend hours preparing the meat which was considered the next part of worship. It would all culminate in the gathering at the table and eating an incredible meal. The meat would be the main dish and would be the final expression of worship as they took it in as they ate.

For those Indian Christians it was quite a decision that they had to make. From one perspective it was just like going over to a neighbor’s house to eat the barbecue that they had prepared. From the other perspective, every person at the table would view the meal as an act of worship to their god. To be seated at the table, enjoying the meal was at least an act of agreement and could be seen as your act of worship.

We might say that we are not like the Nicolaitans or like those in India. We do not eat meat sacrificed to idols, but are there times that we live in such a way that the watching world sees that we are worshipping something other than Christ? What do they suppose we worship when they hear the words coming out of our mouths, or the deeds coming out of our lives. The way we spend our money or the way we spend our time. The way we entertain ourselves or the way that we treat others. The goal is to live lives that show that our utter allegiance is to Christ and Christ alone. That was the dilemma that the church in Pergamum was facing. 

They had stood in the midst of intense, even deathly persecution. Jesus was commending them for that. They had not denied the name of Christ but they were in the process of defiling it. They still claimed the name of Christ but somehow they were losing their set apart-ness, their holiness. Scripture does not give us the details. They were persevering, but not in the truth. They had lowered their theological standard and let in many who were not gospel people. Maybe they were living in a scarcity mindset where they felt they needed all the help they could get. Because of this they were congregating with whoever claimed the name of Christ even though these others were bringing in heresy.

You see a similar idea in our world today. I know of a national Baptist organization in Europe who are surrounded by an incredibly secular culture and are vastly outnumbered. In the past decades they began to lower their theological standards and let various groups into their organization who did not share their biblical beliefs. They wanted to grow, so they took a shortcut. They probably were trying to do what seemed best in the moment, but now they spend much of their time dealing with disagreements and problems that have now surfaced with churches who don’t hold to their theology. 

You see it in the U.S. today. Christian denominations who are setting aside biblical values and teachings, wanting to be more aligned with and acceptable to the non-Christian culture around them. 

There is a fine line to walk. In 2 Corinthians 6:17 we are called to “Come out from among them (the world).”  A little later Paul then writes, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” There was a time and a way to be separate from the world and at other times we are to be living life alongside the world while so they might here our witness of Christ. 

When we look at these verses talking about the false teachers, Jesus is saying you can either associate with them or you can associate with me, but you cannot have both. 

1 John 2:15-17 tells us something very similar. 

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

One can either love God or love the world, but you cannot have both. Jesus was just making it clear. If you want my hand upon you, if you want my blessing, if you want my presence, then you will be set apart for me, but if you want to walk in immorality, if you want to be mastered by your fleshly desires,  if you want to bow to the pressure of the culture and what is politically correct and what the crowd is saying, then you must realize that you will be forfeiting the presence of God. Those were the options.

Jesus now concluded with these words in Revelation 2:16

16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

Jesus commands them to stop where they are going, do an about face, and go the other way. No longer tolerate and condone the sin in the church. Turn around and walk in holiness. 

Jesus does not say He will fight against you, but against “them”. Who were “you”? In verse 17 we will see that Jesus is speaking to those who have “ears to hear” and a heart to obey. “You” were those who were still listening to the Spirit, submitting to God’s Word, and defending the true gospel. 

In contrast “they” were the ones who had distorted the gospel and were now leading others into sin. 

In this verse Jesus is giving all of them in the church an option. Repent or otherwise. It is a warning of redemption. It is giving a second chance. It is an opportunity for those who do “have ears to hear” to minister to and redirect those who “do not have ears to hear.” The conclusion of the story is not yet written. Scripture tells of how the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth. Those in the church, who are in Christ, will have the opportunity to hear His voice and turn back to Christ. Those who do not will be judged by Christ and He will come to fight against them. It was against these that Christ would fight against with the sword of His mouth. Once again we look to scripture for greater understanding of scripture.

Ephesians 6:17 refers to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Hebrews 4:12 talks of the word of God like a double-edged sword.

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Jesus was going to fight against them with the “sword of His mouth” but as we look back to Hebrews 4:12 it is likely that it will include times of exposing, uncovering, conviction, clear teaching of the Word that will reveal the error of their teaching or the impure motive of their hearts. The Word of God will likely bring repentance or such discomfort that those clinging to false teaching will leave.

Revelation 2:17 then concludes Christ’s words to the church of Pergamum.

17 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

“Those who have ears” listen to the Spirit. They are pre-committed to obedience. They are available for the Holy Spirit to work in their lives. It starts with submission. It is like the clay in the Potter´s hands. As the clay submits to the potter´s workings the clay is made into a vessel of purpose. It is not always an easy process, but in time the clay becomes a masterpiece.

The more we say “yes” to the Spirit, the more familiar we become with the character traits of the things He says. We become more convinced of His leadings.  As listening, submitting and obeying become our way of life our heart grows accustomed to an automatic “yes.” This is the type of person that Jesus is referring to. 

“Those who have ears” will receive and submit to the conviction of sin from the Holy Spirit. They will we be teachable as the Holy Spirit leads them into all truth. They will turn to the Holy Spirit to be their strength when they are weak. They will listen for the Spirit´s voice as they seek wisdom. They will be a person of prayer because they have put their hope completely in God.

“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” These were the Christians in the church in Pergamum to whom Jesus was talking. 

Jesus then goes on to say, “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna.” This is an interesting phrase.

Jesus is continuing with the theme of overcoming and the only hope for overcoming will be for those who are in Him. 

When the children of Israel had no food God provided them manna to eat (Exodus 16:11-15). Once they arrived in the Promised Land the manna stopped but the memory did not. A pot of manna was put in the Ark of the Covenant as a reminder of all that God had provided. The ark was kept in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem. In the 6th century BC the temple was destroyed. 

William Barlcay shares that, “the rabbis had a legend that, when that happened, Jeremiah hid away the pot of manna in a cleft in Mount Sinai and that, when the Messiah came, he would return and the pot of manna would be discovered again.”

For Jesus to promise the “hidden manna” He was promising His provision, His presence and His long-awaited coming. It must have been such a precious phrase to hear from Christ Himself.

Jesus then promised a “white stone” and a new name. In those ancient days, in the court of law, white and black stones would indicate the verdict of the juries. Black would mean guilty and condemnation. A white stone meant acquitted and innocent. To receive a white stone from Christ was a declaration of innocence found only through Christ. All sin was put away. Christ had taken on the sin of man so we could take on the righteousness of God. For all who turned from their sin and put their complete hope in Christ, they were forgiven and counted righteous in the eyes of God.

They would also be given a new name. In scripture the idea of one’s name was more than just how you addressed someone. One’s name was one’s character and identity. That is why God changed people’s names in scripture. Abram to Abraham. Jacob to Israel. Simon to Peter. Every time God was promising to make them into someone new.

The word used for new was not the opposite of old. It was not referring to time or age, it was referring to something becoming what it had never been before. Christ would give them a new name, a new position in Christ, a new nature, a new identity as He dwelt in them. All that would be demanded in the midst of the persecution and false teachers would be provided in Christ.

Those who had ears to hear would be given the hidden manna, a white stone and a new name. This was both a present and a future promise to each of them. In the midst of a difficult present their confidence was a glorious future that awaited all who were in Christ. 

These verses offer much to us as well. 

  • Christ knows where we live. He has never taken His eyes off of us, as individuals and as a church. He knows us, our lives, our struggles and everything He desires to do in and through us. 
  • For us to overcome the world and be faithful witnesses it can only be done through Christ and our dependence on Him.
  • Be encouraged what God has done in this church in the past, but don’t let it be undone by a drifting from the gospel and God’s Word in the future. Persevere while at the same time clinging to the truth. Don’t be like the football player who is so focused on fighting for that extra yard that he loses the ball in the process. 
  • A sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit is essential if we are going to be the people and the church that Christ desires us to be. 
  • If we wonder from the truth Christ has the power and the right to remove His hand from us and fight against us. 
  • For those who have ears to hear, we will be found innocent in Christ, made new like Christ and be ushered into the presence of Christ, both now and forever more.

That is our hope. That regardless what the years bring our way. Whether it be freedom or persecution, revival or rejection, safety or insecurity Christ will be everything that we need if we will seek His voice and cling to His hand. In Him we will overcome.