Revelation 2:14-17; Numbers chapters 24-25 and 31; Hebrews 4:12
The third message of the risen Jesus to the churches, and specifically to the church in Pergamum, shows the complexity of human nature, and even the ambiguous character of a worshipping community. The Lord begins by reminding the angel of that church that He is the one who possesses the sharp, two-edged sword. Hebrews 4:12 speaks about a similar sword, sharp on both sides, as symbolizing the Word of God: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” If the written Word can have this kind of liveliness, and can disclose our inner contradictions, how much more powerful is the ONE who is the Word, the only-begotten Son of the Father? John has seen this One in the vision that preceded these seven messages. Strangely, but appropriately, he saw the risen Jesus with a sword going out of his mouth. We live from every word that proceeds out of that divine mouth, and we are judged by that same Word. Already, then, before we even hear a word of the message that the angel is to relate to the Christians in Pergamum, we know that it will be a word both of judgement and of life. Here is the whole passage:
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
‘The words of the Possessor of the sharp two-edged sword.
I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you adhere to my name, and you did not deny my faithfulness even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who adhere to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. And thus you have some who adhere to the teaching of the Nicolaitans in the same way. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and 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 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.’” (Rev 2:12-17)
Jesus begins, despite the ominous introduction of the sword, with the strong qualities of this church. The Christians there have been through the wringer. After all, they live in occupied territory, “where Satan dwells.” And the danger is not only hypothetical, but clearly illustrated by the martyrdom of St. Antipas, who was put to death either in the time of Nero or Domitian. We do not possess the book of his martyrdom any longer, but it is mentioned by an ancient commentator, St. Andrew of Caesarea, who says, “Antipas was a most courageous martyr in Pergamum, whose martyrdom I have read. Here the Evangelist recalls his memory as a demonstration of their endurance, as well as of the cruelty of those who were deceived.” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 2.13. MTS 1 Sup 1:29).
Even during this time of terror, in which they lost a wonderful bishop, the Christians in Pergamum followed the example of Job, and never questioned the goodness and faithfulness of the LORD. Some translators render this phrase as “not denying my faith,” which is a possible reading, but “not denying my faithfulness” makes more sense, since that is precisely what we are tempted to do in such trying circumstances. Of course, if one does not despair, and continues to trust in the Lord’s goodness, one also will not deny the faith! In all this, the Pergamite Christians were largely faithful.
But, says Jesus, they have a few fatal flaws! Among them are those who have given in to heresy, to accommodation with the world. Here Jesus uses the sad story of the seer Balaam, who is mostly known for listening to the LORD of all truth, and refusing to curse the Israelites as ordered by his King Balak, the ruler of the Moabites. In Numbers 24, we hear how he listens instead to the Spirit, and gives a truthful oracle, much to the ire of the king. However, in the very next chapter of that book, we hear that the Israelites are seduced by the Moabite women, give in to combined sexual immorality and idolatry, and then are punished by God. It isn’t clear at this part of the narrative, but later, in Numbers 31:16, Moses tells his warriors that the Moabite women, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD at Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.
Filling in the gaps, we can discern what happened with Balaam. He responded to the power of God with regards to not cursing Israel, because it was apparent to him that the LORD was more fearful than King Balak. However, he could see a chink in the armor of the Israelites. They had to remain faithful to God, or God himself would curse them. Thus, he passed on to Balak the inside information that the Israelites were only contingently strong, and that if they displeased God, He would not protect them. Balaam had seen the power of God, but used it maliciously against God’s own people!
This message from Revelation, then, uses Balaam as an Old Testament type, a code-name, for a leader who has been affiliated with Christ, but who uses his authority to tempt God’s people, and so bring them to condemnation. Balaam’s behavior, and also the particular temptations of idolatry and sexual immorality match well the m.o. of the Nicolaitans, whom some ancient theologians tell us were associated with, or who claimed to be associated with the Gentile deacon Nicolaus (Acts 6:5). Surrounded by their own dangers and the immoral pagan society, they duplicated the sins of the Israelites by accommodating themselves to the culture round about, both in sexual behavior, and in accepting the worship of pagan gods, with the meals that accompanied this. These are not simply pagan tempters, but heretics who wield authority in the Church, and so dismantle the firm endurance of the church at Pergamum.
And the call is to repent! If there is not a true repentance, the Lord will visit that church, and will combat, presumably with the sword of his mouth, those who have been unfaithful. Notice that Jesus speaks to the faithful, telling them to be concerned for those who are unfaithful: they are to have a sense of solidarity, and not simply to adopt a “we-them” attitude, as if the faithlessness of their fellow Christians did not have an effect on the church as a whole. He says to the whole church, YOU are called to repent, or else I will come to YOU, the whole Church, and war against THEM, that is, those who have been unfaithful. A distinction is made, but there is still a corporate identity that Jesus assumes here.
For those who remain faithful, though, who are victorious over temptation and danger, great gifts are prepared. The sword is not the final word! Instead, there are two possessions, prepared especially and personally for each of them. Here Jesus moves from the corporate identity to the PERSONAL identity of each brother and sister who cleaves to the truth. Each will be given a specially designed gift—manna, and a white stone—known only to the one who receives them. The manna is hidden, not public. The white stone, a stone made clean in Christ, has a name imprinted on it that only each one of them knows.
We are used to hearing that the gospel is an “open secret,” a proclamation made known to all now, even to the Gentiles. The manna of the trek through the desert was only for the Hebrew people, but Jesus gives us his body and blood “for the life of the world.” This is for anyone who has ears to hear, not for a particular tribe or clan! And yet, the mystery remains. Jesus tells his disciples not to “throw pearls before swine.” In our eucharistic service, we retain a sense of utter mystery, when we promise the LORD that we will not speak of these things “to his enemies.” Our leaders do not give out the bread of life indiscriminately. They do not baptize those who have not expressed faith—for even the infant has a sponsor who expresses faith on his or her behalf. This principle of mystery is not simply something cooked up by church leaders, but is seen throughout the New Testament. As Hebrews 13:10 reminds us, we have a great privilege: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent [that is, the ancient Jews who were not in Christ] have no right to eat.” And 1 Cor 2:9 reminds us that the ordinary human mind cannot grasp the gifts of God: “But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” The manna is hidden, and the name on the white stone is for those who belong to Christ, and who persist in the faith: “Holy things are for the holy!”
And it seems that this manna and stone is not simply hidden from those who are not Christian. It would seem that the bread and the stone of identity have an utterly personal aspect, as something expressly given for each Christian. The gifts are customized, given to each of us according to our need. The nourishment we are given is shared, but particularly applied to us by the LORD. The name that we share is that of Christ, yet each of us is graven on His hands. Remember how in our Eucharistic prayers, the petitions are made that the gifts given will meet each particular need, for healing of soul and body. Remember how when we approach the Chalice, the priest calls each of us by our baptismal name. Remember how in our Baptism we are personally grafted into Christ, and called by name, just as Jesus called Mary Magdalene by name on that glorious Paschal morning. In a very personal way, the manna is hidden except to the one who eats it, and the baptismal name or identity is something known only to the LORD and the one whom He calls. Here the wonder of our identity in the Church comes to the fore: we are members one of the other, and Jesus calls us corporately; we are also personally known to Him, as though each of us were His own intimately beloved.
This message, then, reminds us both of the sword, which we must heed, and the stone, on which our faith is imprinted. The sword comes to divide where necessary, and the stone is given to establish our identity, firm, and white, and solid. As we enter into the depth of Holy Week and, beyond that, Pascha, week let us take to heart the complexity of God’s response to us, a complexity that matches our own “checkered” identity. Let us repent, even mourning for those among us who have compromised the faith, and let us joyfully cleave to the faithfulness of our Lord, knowing that what He has begun in and among us, He will bring to fulfillment. May the Holy Spirit give us ears to hear!