To the Church at Pergamum

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:‘The words of him who has the sharp two- edged sword.

13 “‘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. 14 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. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 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)

To a church situated in the midst of Satan’s stronghold — where else would “Satan’s throne” be? — Jesus speaks some strange and hard words.

This is a faithful church, one that holds fast to the name of Christ, even in the face of death. But it is a church where some strange things are believed and taught.

I honestly do not understand the Balaam/Balak reference here. I know the story, from Numbers 22–24. Balak is the king of Moab, and he sees what Israel has done. He calls upon Balaam

“Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. 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 22:5–6 ESV)

God, however, tells Balaam, “You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (Num 22:12) And three times Balaam blesses Israel when Balak demands he sacrifice (each time seven bulls and seven rams upon seven altars!) and curse Israel. Balaam concludes by cursing Moab, and Amelek, and a handful of other peoples Israel has found troublesome and inhospitable. After which, “Balaam rose and went back to his place. Also Balak went his way.”

Balaam is again mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:4–5, as part of the reason neither Ammonites not Moabites are allowed to “enter the assembly of the Lord.” And again in Joshua 24, where the account echoes Deuteronomy — Balaam was hired to curse Israel, but would listen to Balaam. “Indeed, he blessed you. So I delivered you out of his hand,” God tells Israel in Joshua 24:10.

And there is a mysterious reference in 2 Peter to Balaam as Peter describes a group of believers who have “gone astray” to follow “the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing.” (2 Peter 2:15) I find the Numbers account reasonably sympathetic to Balaam — he is not a bad guy, just some kind of priest for hire who God uses to bless Israel when he has been hired to curse the people of God. He ends badly, according to Joshua.

But clearly there is a “way of Balaam,” and it is not a good way. It is one that leads the followers of Jesus astray.

Repent, Jesus tells this church — as he tells nearly all the churches to which he dictates these letters to — or else Christ himself will come and deal with those who trust in the wrong things and work the wrong works within the church.

And to “the one who conquers” — a promise also made to each church, and again in Revelation 21 to all the followers of Jesus with the presentation of the New Heaven and New Earth — something secret will be given: hidden manna and a new name. Sustenance in the seemingly never-ending wilderness and a blessing after a long and brutal struggle with God.

These are the promises of our Lord to a church that lives where the very throne of Satan sits, that struggles with false and misleading teachings in its midst, that struggles with works that bear bad fruit.

Be faithful. Trust God. Even if no one else ever knows.

5 thoughts on “To the Church at Pergamum

  1. Isn’tit that Balaam knew Israel was God’s nation but he was still willing to bargain against God’s will ? So he loved money more than God ?

    As to the hidden manna and white stone, aren’t these pictures of present salvation to those who overcome the temptations ? The manna could be Christ in the Eucharist, (offsetting the food offered to idols). The white stone could be a setting in Christ’s church (offsetting the throne of Satan).

    This could be relevant to those churches promoting a prosperity Gospel.

    • I was thinking other biblical story references — manna in the wilderness, Jacob’s new name after he wrestles with God.

  2. Numbers 31:16 refers to Balaam as one who (after his involuntary blessings on Israel) advised that the blessings could be undone by tempting Israel to immoral practices. I think this was elaborated in traditional lore so that Balaam was viewed as an especially treacherous figure. I know I read something about this years ago, but I can’t find any fuller Biblical references to the matter offhand.

    • “Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord.” (Numbers 31:16 ESV)

      So, Balaam got his vengeance on Israel by inciting “cavorting” between Israel and Moabites, this being the association of sex and idolatry. That makes some sense now of what Peter writes and Jesus says.

      • With the extra irony of course that King David’s family came from ‘cavorting’ with a Moabite woman. And she got her own book in the canon.

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