Sermon Manuscript: Pergamum – A Faithful Witness, But Compromised Internally: Revelation 2:12-17


You’ll need to stick with me this morning. The sermon will not be longer than usual, but we are going to take the scenic route to get where are we are going.

There is a very intriguing (and important) story told in chapters 22 through 24 of the book of Numbers. The story is too long to read here, but I’d like to summarize it before reading a brief passage from Numbers 25.  The reason is that it is hard to understand our sermon text for today (which is the letter to the church in Pergamum found in Revelation 2:12-17) without first knowing something about this story found in Numbers.

The book of Numbers, among other things, tells the story of Israel’s forty year period of wilderness wandering. The people of Israel had been rescued from Egypt – the book of Exodus tells us all about that. Laws were given to them at Sinai – the book of Leviticus is concerned mainly with that. And the book of Numbers begins by telling of Israel’s preparations for leaving Mt. Sinai to move towards the Promised Land. It records for us of the failures of Israel in the wilderness, including their refusal to take possession of the Promised Land under Moses’ leadership. The book then concludes with Israel forty years later again on the boarder of the Promised Land, this time being lead by a new generation of leaders with Joshua at the head. The conquest would soon follow.

What is made clear in the book of Numbers is that the people of God under the Old Covenant were constantly assaulted both from without and from within as they sojourned in that desert place.

Does that theme sound familiar to you? It should! The book of Revelation tells the same story but in a different way, using a different genre. And in Revelation is not Israel, but the church, that is being assaulted from without and within. the books are very different, but it is important to see the commonality that exists between the two books.

Remember that in the days that the book of Numbers describes the people of God had just been redeemed from bondage in Egypt, they had their sights set on the Promised Land, but they had not yet laid ahold of it. It was as good as theirs – it had been promised to them by the God who had accomplished their redemption – but the full and actual attainment of that Promised Land was future to them. They were sojourners wandering in the wilderness and without a home.

I hope that you can see how Israel’s earthly and physical experience of redemption followed by sojourning and their eventual attainment of the Promised Land function as a type – a foreshadowing, or earthly picture – of the spiritual experience that the people of God have through faith in Jesus the Christ.

The New Testament makes much of this connection. It makes explicit the connection between the redemption of Israel from Egypt under Moses and our redemption from the dominion of sin, Satan, and death under Jesus the Christ, who is the one greater than Moses.

The New Testament also makes explicit the connection between Israel’s attainment of the Promised Land under the conquest of Joshua and our attainment of the true, perfect, and eternal “Promised Land” (the new heavens and new earth) under Jesus the Christ, who is the greater Joshua.

So do you see how the historical events experienced by Israel long ago – though they were real and significant events in their own right, and though God was indeed at work amongst his people then – also functioned typologically. They were real events (not just stories with metaphorical meaning). But they were events that managed to also point forward to greater things yet to come. God used Moses to save his people from Egypt – but through Christ he would save his people from sin, Satan, and death itself. Also, God used Joshua to lead his people into the Promised Land – but through Jesus the Christ the people of God will be brought safely into the eternal kingdom, the new heavens and new earth, the archetypal, quintessential, land of promise.

This is how we are to read the Old Testament, friends. Real history, yes! But also redemptive history. It is “redemptive” in that real acts of redemption were accomplished by God then, but in such a way that those acts also pointed forward to greater acts of redemption yet to come. This is why Jesus could speak to those men that he met on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection showing them how everything written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms found their fulfillment in him.

I’ve already mentioned how Israel’s deliverance from Egypt mirrors our deliverance from the dominion of sin, Satan, and death. And I’ve already highlighted how Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua corresponds to the greater victory that Jesus has won for us, securing our entrance into that quintessential land of promise – the new heavens and the new earth. But understand that the wilderness wanderings of Israel also correspond to something. That forty year period of desert wandering – that time of sojourning, where the people of Israel were fed with hidden manna and drank water from the rock – corresponds to the age in which we now live. Their experience mirrors ours. Our redemption has been accomplished by Christ, we look forward to the land of promise, but we are not there yet. We, like Israel in the wilderness, are sojourners.

And “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:1–11, ESV)

The history of Israel in the wilderness – though real and significant in and of itself – was recorded as an example for you and me and for all “on whom the end of the ages has come”, for our sojourning corresponds to theirs. Theirs was prototypical. Ours is archetypical.

I speak of these relatively complex things because I know that some of you are interested in them. I also believe that there is something substantial here to be considered. Understanding the relationship between what happened under the Old Covenant and what is happening under the New is important. I encourage you to ponder these things further. But perhaps a simpler way to put all of this would be to say that the Old Testament rocks! The stories contained there are awesome! And they are useful to the people of God today. They certainly apply to us.

In Numbers 22 we come to an especially intriguing story. Israel was on the move in the wilderness. They had grown strong and they had began to conquer kings and kingdoms. As they approached the plains of Moab, the people of Moab began to tremble, for they had heard of what Israel had done to the Amorites. Balak, the king of Moab, came out to see the encampment of Israel, and when it he saw it, he trembled. The people of God we many in number and they were strong. Balak knew that he could not stand before them in battle and so he began to conspire to defeat Israel by other means.

He called upon Balaam the son of Beor, who was a highly regarded prophet (from our perspective he was a false prophet), and he asked him to come and to curse Israel. He promised him great treasures should he come out to curse the encampment of Israel. He spoke to Balaam, saying, “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6, ESV). By the way, we should be reminded here of the promise that God spoke to Abram long before this time, saying,

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1–3, ESV).

Balak the king of Moab was dead wrong. He thought that Balaam had the power to bless and to curse the nation. In fact, only God has that authority. That night the Lord God appeared to the false prophet, Balaam, in a dream, saying , “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12, ESV).

This got Balaam’s attention. At first he refused to go, saying, “Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you” (Numbers 22:13, ESV), but Balak persisted, sending more honorable men to him and bribing him with more money until Balaam agreed to go.

The story that follows is fascinating. The short of it is that, though Balaam set out to curse Israel, being motivated by the promise of fame and fortune, the Lord restrained him all along the way. Balaam was restrained from cursing Israel and instead he was moved to bless Israel three times over.

Ironically the three oracles uttered by Balaam contain some of the most beautiful prophesies in all of scripture concerning the coming of the Christ. God used this godless man – this false prophet who was bent on speaking evil for personal gain – to pronounce blessings upon the people he had blessed (Israel), and to curse those whom he had cursed (Moab). Incredible.  

By the way, do you remember the story of Balaam’s donkey speaking to him along the way as the Angel of the Lord appeared to hinder Balaam’s purposes? What do you think the point of that story is? Is it not that God has the power to make his creatures say what he wants them to say? It was true of Balaam’s donkey, and it was also true of Balaam himself. Both were used as God’s mouthpiece, as unlikely as it was.

While it is true that Balaam ended up pronouncing three blessing upon Israel, and though it is true that he was used by God to prophesy concerning the blessed future of Israel and the eventual arrival of the Christ, it would be wrong to assume that Balaam’s heart was turned to the Lord. He was still “a donkey of a man”. He was still a false prophet – a godless heathen man – and no friend of Israel.

This becomes exceedingly clear when we read in Numbers 31:16. There we learn that, though Balaam was restrained from cursing Israel, pronouncing blessings instead, he did advice Balak the king of Moab concerning how to do harm to Israel. And what was his advice? How could Moab defeat Israel if not through direct warfare? How could Moab win the victory over Israel if not by the sword?

Balaam was as cunning as a serpent. He advised Balak the king of Moab to take a different approach. He advised him to send attractive Moabite women into the midst of Israel’s camp to tempt the men to commit sexual immorality in order to draw them away from the worship of the one true God and into idolatry – the worship of the gods of Moab.

It worked.

Let us give ourselves now to the reading of God’s holy word.

Old Testament Reading: Numbers 25:1-5

“While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These [the daughters of Moab] invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people [of Israel] ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.’ And Moses said to the judges of Israel, ‘Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor’” (Numbers 25:1–5, ESV).

New Testament Reading: Revelation 2:12-17

“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith 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 hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 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’” (Revelation 2:12–17, ESV).


I know that I have been up in the clouds this morning, painting with large brush strokes, taking a very long time to introduce the sermon text for today by talking mainly about other passages. I pray that you can see why I have done so. And I pray that we would have the wisdom to understand and apply the letter to Pergamum found here in Revelation 2.

Notice that Christ again spoke the church saying “I know”. This is true of each of the seven letters. Christ knows. He is not ignorant concerning the condition and situation of his churches. He walks in the midst of us to inspect. He sees all. He knows all. Nothing is hidden from his sight.

To Pergamum he said, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.” Evidently Pergamum was a difficult place to be a Christian. Satan’s throne was there. This, of course, is not to be taken literally. It is symbolic language which communicates that Christians in that place were living in extremely hostile territory.

Let me tell you a few things about the city Pergamum. It was, to quote Beale,

“a center of Roman government and pagan religion in the Asia Minor. It was the first city in Asia Minor to build a temple to a Roman ruler (Augustus) and the capital of the whole area for the cult of the emperor. The city proudly referred to itself as the ‘temple warden’ (νεωκόρος) of a temple dedicated to Caesar worship. Life in such a politico-religious center put all the more pressure on the church to pay public homage to Caesar as a deity, refusal of which meant high treason to the state. Furthermore, Pergamum was also a center of pagan cults of various deities. For example, the cult of Asclepius, the serpent god of healing, was prominent in Pergamum; the serpent symbol of Asclepius also became one of the emblems of the city and may have facilitated John’s reference to ‘the throne of Satan’(cf. 12:9; 20:2!). Zeus, Athene, Demeter, and Dionysus were also gods receiving significant cultic attention. The reference to ‘Satan’s throne’ may also have been brought to mind because of the conical hill behind Pergamum which was the site of many temples, prominent among which was the throne-like altar of Zeus, which itself would have been sufficient to arouse the thought of the devil’s throne. [Revelation]13:2 says that Satan gave the ‘beast’ ‘his throne and great authority’ (cf. 16:10); thus Satan works through the ungodly, earthly political power in Pergamum to persecute God’s people…”

The church in Pergamum was certainly living in a very hostile environment. The evil was active and powerful there.

Notice that Pergamum is first of all commended. They stood strong in the face of persecution, even to the point of death. Again, persecution was not widespread and continuous at this time, but would flare up from time to time. Christ commends Pergamum for their faithfulness in the face of persecution. He specifically mentions their faithfulness in the “days of Antipas.”  He said,  “yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” We know nothing of Antipas except that he was killed for the faith. The church stood with him and would not deny the faith either. They held fast to the name of Christ.

But all was not well at Pergamum. Though they were strong to withstand the threat of the sword, they were internally compromised. Sounds to me a lot like Israel as they encamped on the plains of Moab. Strong to stand against the sword, but compromised internally.

Christ rebuked them in verse 14, saying, “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”

Some say that there were two groups threatening the church in Pergamum: the Balaam like group and the Nicolaitans. But it is better, I think, to see that there was one group threatening their integrity, that is, the Nicolaitans. These Nicolaitans were teaching something similar to that which Balaam taught to Balak as recorded in the book of Numbers. The Nicolaitans were, in one way or another, encouraging the Christians in Pergamum to compromise in regard to to sexual immorality and idolatry. The words “so also” at the beginning of verse 15 should be understood in this way, I think.

It’s as if Christ said to the Christians in Pergamum, do you remember that false prophet Balaam? Do you remember how he was restrained from cursing Israel directly as they encamped on the plains of Moab? And do you remember how Israel was strong to stand against the sword of Moab and how Balak was powerless against him? But don’t forget how Balak brought Israel low by another means. He followed Balaam’s advice to seduce God’s people to commit sexual immorality and idolatry. That is what the Nicolaitans are doing to you! Tolerate them no longer. 

It is not hard to imagine what the Nicolatians were teaching. I’m sure that they, seeing all of the trouble that their Christians friends were facing because they would not bow to Caesar, nor offer a pinch of incense on the alter, nor participate in the festivals at the pagan temples, began to reason thus: Just bend the knee. Just offer up the incense. Just go the festival and play along. It will be easier for you. You’ll advance in this society. Your reputation will improve with the trade guilds. You’ll grow prosperous. Certainly the persecution will cease if you just go with the flow! What harm is there in these things. After you’re saved by grace through faith in Christ! Go ahead. Bend knee. Run with the crowd. Go along with the culture. Be quite about the faith, and be done with all of this trouble you are now experiencing. It will be easier for you to go this way. 

Some, but not all, within the church held to this teaching, but the church at large was called to repent. What were they to do? They were to confront those who held to the teaching and, through the process of church discipline, put them out of the church. They were do what the Ephesian church was doing well. The Ephesians, remember, “[could not] bear with those who [were] evil, but… tested those who [called] themselves apostles and [were] not, and found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2, ESV). Also the Ephesians were commended for “[hating] the works of the Nicolaitans, which [Christ] also [hated]” (Revelation 2:6, ESV).

The church at Pergamum was to repent. If not, Christ threatened to “come to [them] soon and war against them with the sword of [his] mouth” (Revelation 2:16, ESV). Notice how Christ is introduced to this church. Verse 12 says,  “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword” (Revelation 2:12, ESV), this image being drawn from the description of the “one like a son of man” who walks in the midst of the lampstands in 1:16.

Christ will judge the world at the end of time with the sword of his mouth. But do you see that he comes in judgement even now? Christ will war against those who are false within the church. This also coincides with the Israel’s experience on the plains of Moab, doesn’t it? When Israel refused to repent, and when the leadership of Israel failed to purge the evil from the midst of them, the Lord himself warred against the people sending a plague that consumed 24,000. It was the zeal of  “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, [that] turned back [God’s] wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with [God’s] jealousy among them, so that [God] did not consume the people of Israel in [his] jealousy” (Numbers 25:10–11, ESV).

Our God is a jealous God, friends. He is jealous with a perfect, holy, and righteous kind of jealousy. There is a kind of jealously that is sinful. It is sinful to be jealous for the wrong things. It is sinful to be jealous in the wrong way, or to be driven by jealously to do wrong. But there is a kind of jealously that is right. I am jealous for my wife, for example. And it is right that I am! She belongs to me, and I belong to her. We are bound together in a covenant bond. It is right for me to be jealous for her. It would be wrong for me not to, for she is mine and I am hers.

And don’t you see that we are in covenant with God? Under the Old Covenant Israel was God’s chosen people. Under the New it is all who have faith in Christ from amongst the Jews and gentiles. We, the church, are the bride, he the bridegroom. And he is jealous for us with a holy jealousy.

This is why it is such a heinous thing for us to give our worship to other things, to set up idols in the heart and to bow before them. “Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:23–24, ESV).

Some in Pergamum had compromised in this regard. They had believed the lie that they could pledge their allegiance to Christ and to the world. They believed the lie of the Nicolaitan’s that they could practice sexual immorality and bow before idols and still follow Christ. The truth is that if we are Christ’s we are to be his exclusively.

Not only does Christ threaten those who are unfaithful, but also promises rewards to those who overcome. “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” (Revelation 2:17, ESV).

The mention of manna should again take our minds back Israel’s wilderness wanderings. They were to sojourn ever trusting in God to provide their daily bread. So are we. God will provide all that we need. There is no need to compromise by selling out to the world.

White stones were used in ancient times for a number of purposes, often to grant entrance into some event. To be given a white stone by Christ suggests the right to enter into heaven. But notice that this white stone has a “new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” This speaks to the fact that Christ knows us intimately and by name.  We enjoy a covenantal relationship with him. And it is a new name. Christ transforms us. He gives us a new life in him, and a new name. Abram became Abraham; Sarai was named Sarah; Saul became Paul; Cepheus became Peter. Why? Because God had called them to himself, had renewed them, and was now using them for his purposes. This is true of all who belong to Christ.


Friend, does your heart belong solely to Christ, or are you compromised? Do you worship him alone, or have you given your love to many lovers, bending the knee to idols?

Let us be aware of the schemes of the evil one, seeing that if he cannot get us one way he will try another. Let us be particularly mindful of the seduction of Balaam who seeks to draw our hearts away from the living God by way of sexual immorality.

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’ For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?” (Hebrews 3:12–18, ESV)

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

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