Who are you? It’s a more complicated question than what you may think. So much goes into who we are. Our name, our likes and dislikes, what we look like or think we look like, how we interact with people, what sports we enjoy, what church or even what religion we gravitate towards, what brings us joy in our life, and what creates satisfaction in our jobs are all part of who we are. Who we are is mixed and blended from a variety of factors such as where we live, what heritage we come from, the culture that surrounds us, our family influences, and the friends that we hang around with all have an effect on who we are. That soup of influences creates an identity, a way of looking at ourselves. It can also create a great deal of confusion and mixed-up feelings. The third church that Jesus wrote a letter to was also in a state of confusion and had an identity issue.
Jesus wrote, “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.’” (Revelation 2:12–17, NASB95) Pergamum shared many similarities with Smyrna. It was a prosperous city that was also the center of idol and emperor worship. In addition, Pergamum relished knowledge with a library second only to the famous one in Alexandria. And, while there was some similarity between the churches in the two cities there was also a large difference.
Jesus commends the Pergamum believers for hanging on during dark days of persecution. Jesus specifically mentions the martyrdom of Antipas, it is interesting that his name means “against all”. Pergamum had a multitude of temples, idols, and false gods. One commentary lists the various temples and gods of Pergamum, there were “temples to Dionysus, Athena, Asclepius, and Demeter and the three temples to the emperor cult; its great altar to Soter Zeus; and its many palaces. The two main religions seem to have been the worship of Dionysus, the god of the royal kings, symbolized by the bull, and Asclepius, the savior god of healing, represented by the snake.”* Perhaps the rallying cry of Pergamum was “pick one” to which Antipas responded – “Only Jesus!” Jesus also mentions that Satan had a throne in Pergamum and dwelt there. We don’t know if Jesus was meaning one of the temples in particular or the spirit of the place. In any event, the Christ followers at Pergamum stood firm while facing the multitude outside forces pushing and pulling against their faith..
Jesus, however, condemns the Pergamum believers for what was happening inside the church. He specifically points out that some were going the way of Balaam and following the Nicolaitans. By putting these two names side by side we get a little insight into who the Nicolaitans were and why Jesus opposed them. It is interesting that their names mean approximately the same thing – “conquer the people.” The story of Balaam and Balak is told in Numbers 22-24. Essentially Balaam was a kind of prophet for hire. Balaak, worried about his kingdom since the children of Israel were heading his way, hired Balaam to curse them. Several times Balaam tries to curse the Israelites but blessings are prophesied instead. It would seem that is the end of the story but there is an allusion to some counsel Balaam gave to Balak in Numbers 31:16. That counsel is also alluded to in Jesus’ letter to the church. Balaam’s advice is not recorded in scripture but is recorded in other ancient Hebrew sources including Josephus. Balaam’s counsel was to put beautiful and attractive women near the Israelite camp to entice the young men into worshiping other gods which will incite the wrath of the Hebrew God. Balaak followed that advice and it worked for a time. It appears that what could not be conquered at Pergamum from the outside was being eroded from the inside which prompted Jesus’ call to repent.
To the overcomers, Jesus promises to give them some of the hidden manna and a white stone engraved with a new name. As in several of the letters, I believe that the promise to the overcomers unlocks some of the mystery of Jesus’ letter. It’s almost like Jesus is saying “remember who you are.”. The hidden manna could refer to the bit of manna stored by Moses in the Ark of the Covenant. But, I wonder if Jesus wasn’t meaning himself and His declaration that He is the Bread of Life. John writes, (some Jewish folks said) “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’ ” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” (John 6:31–35, NASB95) Knowing Jesus and soaking in His presence satisfies us, gives us life, in ways that nothing else can.
The white stone and the new name are somewhat of a mystery. What was the purpose of the stone? What is the significance of the color? Why is the new name revealed like it is? We could speculate all day long and not arrive at a solid answer. Let’s instead pull on the one thread that is obvious, the granting of a new name, a new identity. Recall what Paul writes about being new creations, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NASB95) There are several instances in scripture where someone’s name is changed after their encounter with God such as Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, and Saul to Paul. When we encounter God, when we choose to lay aside our old life and trust in Jesus, we are given a new identity. We may look the same on the outside, we may even have the same name, but who we really are has been and is being radically transformed.
The lesson we can apply to ourselves from Jesus’ letter to Pergamum can be summarized like this, remember who you are and walk in it. Satan couldn’t successfully attack the Pergamum church from the outside, his persecutions caused them to draw closer to Jesus instead of hiding in fear. So he went the other route, the way of enticement, to draw some away from their faith. The subtleness of those attacks are often difficult to discern. It is easy to see the trap others have fallen prey to while being blind to the one that we are about to step in. So, here’s my encouragement, ask Jesus where He’d like to apply the sword in your life. What things, ideas, attitudes, and sins, need to be cut away so that you may walk and live and breathe more fully in the identity Jesus has created for you in Him.
*Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 440.