There are many local churches that defend sound doctrine without love. There are also many local churches and other groups that promote love without sound doctrine. Their priority is acceptance and unity; Their teaching is shallow and agreeable. That sounds kind of nice. I wonder how Jesus feels about that sort of focus—acceptance and unity at the expense of truth.
In his address to the church at Ephesus, Jesus commended the local church for defending sound doctrine but criticized them because they left their first love. In this address to the local church at Pergamum, Jesus encourages the church because the church has not denied His faith and criticizes her because she is so accepting of others that she neglects sound doctrine.
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this: “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.”
The commendation (v. 12-13)
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this:
John addresses the messenger, pastor-teacher, of the local church in Pergamum. Jesus, whose word is like a sword (Cf. 1:16), speaks. As we saw in Chapter 1, the two-edged sword coming from Jesus’s mouth represents His word. All of Jesus’s work is done by His declaration and the continuing proclamation of His perfect word. His word is the central component of all His work.
“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”
Jesus knows where the believers in the church at Pergamum dwell—where Satan’s throne is. Last week, we saw that the synagogue of Satan was given over to legalism while the church of Jesus Christ is His by grace, having the Law written on their hearts. What does it mean for one to have the Law written on his or her heart? Paul clarified in Romans 2:29, circumcision of the heart is by the Spirit and not the letter. The Spirit writes the Law of God upon the hearts of Christ’s people such that, by His sanctifying work, the bondservant of Christ is brought to willingly keep God’s Law. Whereas the synagogue of Satan strives by the letter and by human works to adhere to the Law and so become righteous. Put simply, the Spirit works the Law in believers’ hearts, but unbelievers try to work themselves according to the Law. Jesus feels so strongly about works-based righteousness, legalism, that He condemned the whole system, calling it the synagogue of Satan in verse 9. The church at Pergamum, dwelling where Satan’s throne is, is in a context where the culture is one of self-righteousness rather than repentance and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness—of self-justification and works rather than of trust that Christ, by His grace, covers His people with His own righteousness.
Pergamum is faithful to Christ’s name in the midst of the tribulation even after seeing Antipas martyred publicly and horrifically. Antipas served as an elder in the church at Pergamum under Nero and, according to the Greek Orthodox tradition, was roasted alive in a brazen copper bull at the Temple of Artemis because of his testimony about Christ in about AD 92, well after Nero’s reign—another supporting evidence in favor of the late dating of Revelation (C. AD 98). Antipas was killed because of the self-righteous cultural teaching that was so prominent in Pergamum. Standing against formal legalistic teaching, Pergamum remained faithful to Christ’s name.
The indictment (v. 14-16)
“But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.”
Pendulums swing. They swing fiercely and broadly. Such was Pergamum’s stand against formal legalism. In trying to be faithful to Christ, they swung in response to a legalistic culture all the way to what we call free grace today—God loves you, be blessed, do what you desire and believe what you want to believe; God’s grace is absolutely free. That sounds great! It’s precisely the way that the pendulum has swung in our own day for much of the world.
Even though the Pergamum believers keep Christ’s faith, Christ has some things against them; some of them hold to the teaching of Balaam, who put a stumbling block before Christ’s people by turning people toward self-centered, secular, and sensual entertainment and calling it worship. We see the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. Balaam, who was not an Israelite, blessed Israel and cursed Moab. He did so at the high places of worship that belonged to the Moabites. After Balaam departed, many in Israel began to worship at the high places dedicated to Baal like Balaam did each time he indulged Balak’s request. Numbers 25:1-3 reveals that Israel began playing the harlot with the daughters of Moab as they practiced the sensual religion at the high places of Baal.
It was a religion of self-indulgence and self-justification, and there were those in the local church at Pergamum who held to this antinomian teaching.
“So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
Because the local church at Pergamum reacted against legalism by apparently forsaking doctrinal discussion altogether, some held to the Nicolaitan heresy. Like we saw when we read John’s address to the church at Ephesus, Irenaeus will still be battling the Nicolaitan heresy about 90 years after John writes Revelation. He will describe the Nicolaitan teaching as a renewed form of Gnosticism. About 100 years after John writes Revelation, Clement of Alexandria will describe the Nicolaitans as ascetic self-mutilators. The Nicolaitan heresy is a works-centered, legalistic teaching.
Some people in the church at Pergamum are antinomian, and others are legalists. Some teach about works-righteousness, and others teach about free grace. The local church is full of contradictory messages that are both heresy according to Jesus and John.
“Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.”
Christ makes war against such heresies with the sword of His mouth—the correct exposition of His word through His true messengers. I have often had others try to persuade me not to teach doctrine but, instead, to simply accept people and facilitate unity. Apparently they feel oppressed because we teach through Scripture even though our message is one of grace and we never mean to oppress anyone. We don’t even judge people because of their sins. If a local church is concerned primarily about the world’s message of mere acceptance and unity, it will feel oppressed by God’s word because Christ makes war against those who care not about sound doctrine with His word.
Jesus cares that we know about His person and work. Love, which John has defined as just judgment, is impossible without truth. Without sound doctrine, we are left with mere conversations about acceptance and unity masquerading as love. There is a philosophical contradiction as well. Anyone who claims that doctrine is not important is making a doctrinal claim. No matter how hard people try to escape doctrinal conversations, they cannot. One cannot have love without sound doctrine. One cannot have Christ without coming to know Him more.
The promise (v. 17)
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
John admits that those who have been given ears to hear will hear and instructs them to so hear. He indicates that this third admonition is for all of the churches in the tribulation with him.
“To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.”
The one who overcomes (Cf. 1 John 5:1-15) will receive the hidden manna, What is the hidden manna? John wrote about the hidden manna he mentions here in his Gospel as he quoted Jesus’s teaching:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:47-58).
Jesus is the hidden manna. His body was broken and blood poured out to redeem His people. Jesus gave it for the life of the world. Those who partake of Christ will live because of Christ—not because of themselves—which is the implication of both legalism and free grace; Legalism tells us to earn our righteousness, free grace tells us we are worthy, but Biblical Christianity reveals that Christ is the one saving His people by His fulfilling all righteousness and redeeming His people for Himself. This is why we use terms such as unconditional grace and unconditional election to describe Christ’s work—He does not depend on our righteousness or worth; He is the worthy, righteous, and faithful one.
The white stone with a new name is imagery John borrows from Isaiah 56:5 (Cf. Isaiah 62:2; 65:15), where we read about God’s promise to memorialize His people:
Thus says the Lord, “Preserve justice and do righteousness, For My salvation is about to come And My righteousness to be revealed. How blessed is the man who does this, And the son of man who takes hold of it; Who keeps from profaning the sabbath, And keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from His people.”
Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord, “To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, And a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:1-5).
God’s promise to Israel throughout the Old Testament was that if Israel could keep His Law, they would receive an everlasting name and plenty in the land. Israel never could keep God’s Law. The Old Testament is meant to show us that we cannot live up to God’s glory. Jesus came and fulfilled all righteousness on behalf of His people. In Christ, because of His righteousness, Israel’s name is preserved forever and God’s people among the nations are remembered. John reveals that God delivers His people despite their depravity—salvation is accomplished because of Christ alone. God’s people are given new names, namely Christ’s reputation imputed to them, because their worldly names, their self-identity, are damnable before God due to their unrighteousness and sin. It is impossible for anyone to know Christ’s name, His reputation, unless it is first imputed. We love because He first loves us (1 John 4:19).
Many people read verse 17 narcissistically instead of interpreting it in light of the Old Testament prophetic symbolism John intentionally employs. Life isn’t some olympic game we can win in order to get into the victory celebration. Christ remembers His true children and gives them His name because He is the one to be exalted.
In the world today, we hear teachings like, “We simply need to love one another and accept everyone for who they are.” Scripture seems to point us in the opposite direction. Just as a good father desires to see his children grow into maturity, so God chastens His people (Cf. Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6). If we love like God loves, we also desire to see one another become more mature in Christ. Love is not mere acceptance or unity; true love and unity depend on sound doctrine (Cf. Ephesians 4:13). Philosophical relativism is unmasked as a sham. If we stand for everything, we stand for nothing. What we learn from Ephesus and Pergamum is: We can’t rightly have sound doctrine without love, and we can’t rightly have love without sound doctrine. At least that’s Jesus’s explicit teaching through John to the local churches. This truth is reflected in the two greatest commandments—Love God, love people.