Commentary on Revelation 2:12-17

Notes (NET Translation)

2:12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has the sharp double-edged sword:

Christ identifies himself using the description from 1:16. The Roman proconsul in charge of the province resided in Pergamum. Its symbol of sovereignty over all aspects of life, including the right to execute enemies of the state, was the sword. The use of the sword imagery in the letter to Pergamum tells the readers that it is ultimately Christ, not the Romans, who is the true judge.

2:13 ‘I know where you live – where Satan’s throne is. Yet you continue to cling to my name and you have not denied your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was killed in your city where Satan lives.

A throne signified authority and royal governance so in some way Pergamum was seen as the seat of Satan’s power. Pergamum was identified as the place of Satan’s throne because the city was the center of the imperial cult in the province of Asia. The refusal of Christians to worship the emperor was the primary cause of persecution, a major focus of Revelation. There were a number of other famous pagan religious landmarks in the city (e.g., to Zeus, Athene, Asklepios, Dionysos) so this verse may be referring to those as well.

Some time in the past a man named Antipas was executed. We know nothing about Antipas or the period of persecution in which he suffered (later tradition says he was roasted to death in a brazen bull during the reign of Domitian). Since his is the only death mentioned here we may assume he was the only Christian to die at Pergamum at that time. We know of the martyrdoms of Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonike in later times (Eusebius, HE 4.15). He was a “faithful witness” (the same title used of Christ in 1:5) because he persevered in trusting Christ despite the persecution. The reiteration that the city is where Satan lives suggests Satan is ultimately behind the death of Antipas.

2:14 But I have a few things against you: You have some people there who follow the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality.

The Israelites’ sexual immorality with Moabite women and idolatry with Baal (25:1-9) was attributed to Balaam (Num 31:16). The present situation is a kind of replay of what happened to the Israelites. The image of a “stumbling block” symbolizes apostasy (cf. Mt 18:7; Rom 9:33; 1 Cor 1:23) so the Balaamites are portrayed as apostates. The strong condemnation and the use of the name Balaam imply that this verse focuses on those who partake in temple feasts to pagan gods, not merely those who in private eat meat that was sacrificed to idols (cf. 1 Cor 8-10; Rom 14). The “sexual immorality” in this verse may be literal or it may be a euphemism for idolatry.

2:15 In the same way, there are also some among you who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

The Greek word houtos (in the same way, likewise) connects v 15 to v 14 and indicates that a comparison is being made between the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans are leading people astray just as the Balaamites are doing. Scholars differ on whether the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans are one movement or two separate movements (from my reading most believe they are one movement).

2:16 Therefore, repent! If not, I will come against you quickly and make war against those people with the sword of my mouth.

Repentance would involve taking a strong stance against the Nicolaitans like the Ephesians did (2:6). Christ would come against the whole church at Pergamum (“you”) but wage war especially on the apostates (“those people”). The sword imagery symbolizes judgment. “All of this is imagery, of course, but it is difficult to escape its very strong implications, that Christ intends to purify his church and will personally do battle against those who would pervert his pure gospel into something else” (Fee 35-36).

2:17 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give him some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and on that stone will be written a new name that no one can understand except the one who receives it.’

The first gift to the conqueror is hidden manna.

There are five interpretations of this phrase: (1) The most frequently mentioned (e.g., Beckwith, Caird, Mounce, Beasley-Murray, Johnson) is the connection with the Jewish legend regarding the “hidden manna.” A jar of the manna that fell in the wilderness was placed in the ark (Exod. 16:32–34; cf. Heb. 9:4). Tradition said that at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s temple, Jeremiah (others said an angel) was told by God to take the ark and hide it underground at Mount Sinai (2 Macc. 2:4–7; 2 Bar. 6.7–10; 29.8; Sib. Or. 7.148–49), there to await the eschaton, when the Messiah would place the ark in the new temple. Therefore it is connected to the messianic feast of the end times and refers to the eternal bliss of heaven (Beale, Aune). (2) Connected with this, some (Sweet, Prigent, Krodel, Roloff) also posit a Eucharist motif, since Paul in 1 Cor. 10:3–4 equated the manna with the eucharistic celebration. Both of these are seen as anticipations of the final messianic feast. (3) Others (Walvoord, Morris) interpret this as “celestial” or spiritual food made available to the overcomers (like the “manna” given to Israel in the wilderness) but “hidden” or kept from the rest of the world. (4) Wong (1998b: 348–49) takes the hidden manna to be Christ, stemming from Christ as “the bread of life” (John 6:35) that provides eternal sustenance (John 6:37). This then is hidden from the unsaved and not fully revealed to the saved. (5) R. Charles (1920: 1.65–66) follows a Jewish tradition built on Ps. 78:25, which calls manna “the bread of the angels,” stating that in the messianic kingdom this would become the food of God’s people (2 Bar. 29.8). The Christians of Pergamum are to avoid meat offered to idols in order to get the heavenly manna. (6) Krodel (1989: 120–21) notes that “manna” in a Hellenistic setting could refer to the granules of frankincense used on pagan altars in the imperial cult. In this sense those who refused to participate in emperor worship (Satan’s throne) would be given “heavenly frankincense” when they reigned with Christ in the messianic kingdom.

These options are not mutually exclusive, and several (especially 1, 3, 4) could be part of the meaning. The emphasis on “hidden” definitely favors the first as the primary thrust, but the idea of spiritual food and heavenly manna could well be part of that. A eucharistic connection is not so definite in 1 Cor. 10, let alone here, and the Hellenistic use of “manna” for frankincense seems possible but not as likely as the other three, since it fails to explain the emphasis on “hidden.” Also, the promise is not purely future but probably partakes of the same inaugurated eschatology as much of the rest of the book. As they “overcome” both the pressure of the imperial cult and the false teachers in their midst, the believers will be given spiritual food now as a foretaste of the heavenly manna at the eschaton. (Osborne 147–148)

The identity of the second gift, the white stone, is even more elusive than the first. Stones were sometimes used as a ticket for entrance to a feast. On this interpretation v 17 is saying that the victor in Christ will be given a ticket for entrance to the messianic feast (cf. 19:8-9). A second interpretation is that the white stone symbolizes a vote of acquittal from one’s sins (a black stone was used for a vote of condemnation, Ovid, Met. 15.41-42). The “new name” is the ineffable name of Christ that symbolizes the recipient’s entrance into the New Jerusalem (3:12; 14:1; 19:12-16; 22:3-4). The knowledge of this name involves experiential knowledge of Christ not merely cognitive knowledge of the name.

Bibliography

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.

Brown, Raymond Edward, ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Pearson P T R, 1991.

Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

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