MORAL AND THEOLOGICAL COMPROMISE UNDERMINE SPIRITUAL LOYALTY
Buist Fanning: Jesus commends the church in Pergamum for their faithfulness despite deadly persecution, but they will face his judgment unless they turn away from idolatrous influences in their midst.
John MacArthur: Worldliness is any preoccupation with or interest in the temporal system of life that places anything perishable before that which is eternal. Since believers are not part of the world system (John 15:19), they must not act as though they were. “Do not be conformed to this world,” wrote the apostle Paul,” but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Because they have been redeemed by God’s grace, believers are called to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12). “Pure and undefiled religion,” notes James, consists in keeping “oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27), because “friendship with the world is hostility toward God [.] Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). First John 2:15–17 makes the believer’s duty to avoid worldliness unmistakably clear:
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.
The church at Pergamum, like much of today’s church, had failed to heed the biblical warnings against worldliness. Consequently, it had drifted into compromise and was in danger of becoming intertwined with the world.
Warren Wiersbe: Believers today also face the temptation to achieve personal advancement by ungodly compromise. The name Pergamos means “married,” reminding us that each local church is “engaged to Christ” and must be kept pure (2 Cor. 11:1–4). We shall see later in Revelation that this present world system is pictured as a defiled harlot, while the church is presented as a pure bride. The congregation or the individual Christian that compromises with the world just to avoid suffering or achieve success is committing “spiritual adultery” and being unfaithful to the Lord.
Daniel Akin: Though believers and churches are constantly tempted to compromise both theologically and ethically, true followers of Christ will remain faithful and receive from the Lord the reward of eternal life.
(:12) PROLOGUE – FEAR THE JUDGMENT OF JESUS
A. Command to Write to the Church at Pergamum
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:”
David Thompson: Pergamum was a city of culture, sophistication, politics and religion. It was considered to be the center of artistic and scientific learning. There were theaters and gymnasiums and an impressive library.
If we analyze Pergamum, we get to see the kind of place [Satan] makes his headquarters:
1) It was a city of great culture.
2) It was a city of great education.
3) It was a city of a variety of religions.
4) It was a city that had a great library.
5) It was a city that had a lot of money.
6) It was a city of great political leadership.
7) It was a city of great medicine and medical achievement.
8) It was a city of art with many different artistic structures.
9) It was a city of great location.
Buist Fanning: Pergamum was not on the coast like Ephesus and Smyrna, but inland about 16 miles (25 km) and 65–70 miles (110 km) north of Smyrna (the northernmost of all the seven cities). Its location featured an acropolis rising about a thousand feet (300 m) above a plain through which the Caicus River ran, a perfect site for a strategic military outpost. The Hellenistic kingdom of the Attalids ruled there between Alexander’s successor Lysimachus and a peaceful transfer to Roman power around 130 BC. The Attalids in the interim had turned a fortress town into an impressive and beautiful Greco-Roman city and growing cultural center. The city’s loyalty to Rome was rewarded when the province’s first temple dedicated to the emperor cult was built in Pergamum soon after Augustus consolidated his power in 31 BC. Arrayed near it on the acropolis was a temple to Athena, an altar to Zeus, and temples to Dionysus and to Demeter. On the edge of town was a large complex for the worship of Asclepius where the sick could go to seek healing. As in other cities of Asia Minor at this time, wealthy citizens vied for the distinction (and expense) of serving as priests and priestesses and of hosting banquets in honor of these deities. Various trade associations and community groups would participate in such festivities, and Christians would face questions about what level of involvement was acceptable.
Grant Osborne: The city also became the leading religious center of Asia. Temples, altars, and shrines were dedicated to Zeus (king of the gods and known there as “savior-god” from the primary titles taken by the Attalid kings), Athena (goddess of victory and patron of the city), Dionysus (patron god of the dynasty, symbolized by a bull), and Asklepios (god of healing, symbolized by a serpent). A huge area of the city and a temple were dedicated to Asklepios and the healing arts. As a result Pergamum became a medical center as well as the Lourdes of its day. The great altar to Zeus, forty feet high, depicting the victory of Attalus I over the Galatians and with a frieze around the base depicting the victory of the Hellenistic gods over the giants of the earth (civilization over paganism), stood on a high terrace at the top of the mountain. In addition, Pergamum was the center of the imperial cult in Asia. It was the first city to be allowed a temple to a living ruler when in A.D. 29 Augustus allowed a temple to be erected to him. There was a great deal of precedent for this. Attalus I called himself “savior,” and Eumenes II labeled himself “savior” and “god.” A temple with royal priests and priestesses was erected near the palace, and Pergamum three times was named neōkoros (temple sweeper or warden of the imperial worship). This honor more than anything else made it the leading city in the province.
B. Characterization of Christ as the Judge
“The One who has the sharp two-edged sword”
Grant Osborne: This letter has the simplest description of Christ of any of the seven, containing just one element. The “sharp double-edged sword” was a symbol of Roman justice. As mentioned in 1:16, this symbol is drawn from Isa. 11:4 and the picture of divine justice there. It is linked with Rev. 2:16 here and thus not only to 1:16 but also to 19:15, 21, with the imagery of the sword of justice “coming out of Christ’s mouth,” referring to his word of judgment. The ῥομϕαίᾳ (rhomphaia, sword) was a Thracian broadsword used in cavalry charges; in Roman times it became a symbol of their might. Here it is probably used because the Roman proconsul in charge of the province resided in Pergamum, and the symbol of his total sovereignty over every area of life, especially to execute enemies of the state (called ius gladii), was the sword. This tells the church that it is the exalted Christ, not Roman officials, who is the true judge. The ultimate power belongs to God, and nothing the pagans can do will change that.
Daniel Akin: The Judgment of Jesus is True
The sword is the Word of God. Because it is God’s Word, it is true and trustworthy, inerrant and infallible. And here it is coming from the mouth of Christ! His Word is authoritative and sure. This idea is rooted in the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:4, where Messiah will judge “with discipline from His mouth.” This is a verbal announcement from the exalted Christ. “Anyone who has an ear should listen” (2:17).
The Judgment of Jesus is Thorough
The sword is sharp and double-edged. It is not dull; it cuts quickly and cleanly. Being double-edged, it hurts and heals. It cuts and cures. This statement recalls Hebrews 4:12, which says,
For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart.
This sword of Christ conveys absolute authority, decisive discernment. The Word of God is at once an instrument of life and an instrument of death. Rome had given Pergamum the rare power to exercise capital punishment on its own. The symbol of this authority was the sword (Johnson, Revelation, 1983, 47). Rome might wield the sword on earth, but the glorified Christ wielded a mightier sword from heaven. This is the sword the church should fear. This is the sword we should revere.
David Thompson: In the other references, the sharp two-edged sword is connected to a judgment that comes out of His mouth. Now the point of this is that Jesus Christ is the One who is able to carry out fatal capital punishment judgments by what He says. Gerhard Kittel says this is a sword so large that it actually could touch the ground (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 6, pp. 993-998). This was a powerful, deadly sword capable of wounding and destroying anyone. Jesus wants this church to understand that He has all authority and power to wound, hurt and destroy any one or any church with one swipe or one spoken word. He can punish and with razor sharp precision cut one to shreds.
C. Communication from the Sovereign Head of the Church
I. (:13) COMMENDATION FOR LOYALTY
A. Difficulties of Living in Pagan Society
“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is;”
Grant Osborne: This frames the verse with the satanic presence at Pergamum. The first part says the city is “where Satan has his throne,” and the second part says it is “where he dwells.” In other words, they live in Satan’s hometown, and this is proven by Antipas’s martyrdom and by the total opposition of the pagan populace and Roman officials to the saints in Pergamum. Satan is the true origin of this hatred.
Kendell Easley: Twice Christ notes the presence of Satan in the city where these believers lived. The original significance of the throne of Satan is not clear. It may refer to one of several temples to the Roman emperors in the city, or it may refer to the huge altar to Zeus that overlooked the city. (In Smyrna, the “synagogue of Satan” was Jewish; in Pergamum, the “throne of Satan” was pagan.) The devil had used his stronghold in the city to make life miserable for the Christians.
Robert Thomas: This throne is the seat of worship of Asklepios whose traditional image portrayed the god holding a serpent, an image that would remind Christians of Satan (cf. Rev. 12:9; 20:2). The idolatry at Pergamum was well known. The image of Asklepios rivaled the fame of Diana at Ephesus and of Apollo at Delphi. The popularity of this god in Pergamum caused the city to be viewed as the center for this kind of worship throughout the province of Asia. On every hand, the serpent was visible because of the prominence of this cult. The statement does not exclude the presence of the serpent’s throne from other cities, but it associates the visible supremacy of the serpent with the invisible supremacy of the power of the evil one (Hort).
[Another possible interpretation]: The throne of Satan connects somehow with Rev. 13:2 and the impartation of power, a throne, and great authority to the beast out of the sea by the dragon of Revelation 12. The throne of the beast mentioned in Rev. 16:10 will be at Pergamum. This is none other than the place where Satan’s throne will be set up on earth during that future day (Bullinger). The martyrdom prominent in this message will characterize that future time (cf. Rev. 6:9-10; 13:10; 20:4) (Bullinger). . .
A last suggestion about the throne of Satan is the most impressive: emperor worship was prominent in Pergamum. The city was a leader in this form of worship, which was relatively new to the province of Asia (Beckwith). This form of heathenism best explains the strong terminology regarding the presence of the evil one here, where the imperial cult had its headquarters (Charles). A temple erected to the divine Augustus and the goddess Roma had stood in the city since 29 B.C. (Moffatt). Later a temple was erected in honor of Trajan, giving the city the title “twice neokoros (i.e., temple warden [or sweeper])” (Mounce). A special priesthood was also devoted to this kind of worship. Throughout the Apocalypse the specter of Caesar-adoration is in the background. Emperor worship is constantly viewed as an agency of Satan’s power (Moffatt; Beckwith). Probably Antipas, the city’s Christian martyr (2:13), was the victim of Rome, because only the imperial cultus had the power of capital punishment. John’s personal circumstances probably made him believe that Rome was the most recent and strongest agent of Satan because of its totalitarian demands for absolute allegiance to the state and because in her was embodied the epitome of all paganism and worldliness (Caird). The sword (cf. Rev. 2:12) was emblematic of the almost unlimited imperial power wielded by the senatorial governor of Asia stationed in Pergamum (Caird).
Van Parunak: Like the sword, the reference to a throne reflects the city’s close relation with Rome. A recurring theme throughout the Revelation is the role of Rome in opposing the church, and it would be natural to identify the emperor as the personification of Satan, and the imperial temple as his throne.
B. Determination to Remain Faithful Despite Persecution
- Faithful to the Name of Christ
“and you hold fast My name,”
John MacArthur: Despite the persecution and suffering they endured, the believers at Pergamum continued to hold fast the name of Christ, and did not deny the faith. They did not deviate from fidelity to Christ or to the central truths of the Christian faith.
- Faithful to the Confession of Christ
“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.”
Buist Fanning: Despite the peril they faced, at the time of this message the church was characterized by strong loyalty to Christ: they “hold firmly to [his] name” (v. 13b). The backdrop and unmistakable proof of their current commitment was courageous fidelity during a notable ordeal they had previously endured. “You did not renounce your faith in me,” Christ says as he reflects on those past events. What follows is a terse recounting of a set of circumstances in Pergamum so hostile to the Christians that tragically one of their number was killed: “Antipas . . . who was killed among you.” No further details of this episode or this person “Antipas” are preserved for us, and the wording “was killed” does not indicate whether his death was due to mob action (e.g., Stephen’s stoning in Acts 8) or official execution (e.g., James’s death in Acts 12; cf. death sentences under Pliny in Bithynia two decades later [Ep. 10.96–97] or Polycarp’s martyrdom in Smyrna in the mid-second century [Mart. Pol. 10–18]). Antipas’s costly allegiance to Christ is commended (“my faithful witness”) in terms that mirror Christ’s own faithfulness to God even until death (1:5; 3:14) as well as the ultimate witness that many Christians would give in the terrible times to come (1:2, 9; 6:9; 12:11, 17; 17:6; 19:10; 20:4). Mention of one specific death likely means that others had not occurred, but Christians in Pergamum would nevertheless have lived under the fearful prospect that deadly hostility could flare up again at any time.
II. (:14-15) CRITICISM FOR COMPROMISE
“But I have a few things against you,”
A. (:14) Compromise in the Moral Realm
“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.”
Kendell Easley: The strange incident of Balaam and Barak is told in Numbers 22–24. The false prophet and the king at first seemed to fail in their direct attempts to curse the Israelites. Later, however, they succeeded in leading the people of God astray indirectly, by idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1–2; 31:16).
Buist Fanning: The “teaching of Balaam” is not a specific set of doctrines but a pattern of deceptive, self-serving ministry that promotes false religion. . .
Christians in Pergamum were under threat from some notable feature(s) of satanic influence, perhaps focused on centers of pagan worship located there (v. 13). These Nicolaitans mirror the pattern of Balaam’s influence toward compromise with idolatrous practices long ago (v. 14). This is the main point to be drawn from Christ’s rebuke in vv. 14–15. In the cities of Asia Minor at this time, Christians would have felt constant pressure to participate in and assimilate to the pagan idolatry all around them. Political and economic life was inextricably intertwined with religious observances of various kinds, and this posed great difficulties for faithful Christians. This had produced a particularly tragic outcome among the Christians in Pergamum in the death of Antipas (v. 13).
Richard Phillips: The strange figure Balaam is a famous biblical example of an enemy who first tried to persecute believers but found greater success by seducing them. When the Israelites were advancing through the wilderness near Moab, Balak the king of Moab sought to destroy them by having Balaam declare a curse. This attack failed because when Balaam began cursing Israel, the Holy Spirit would come upon him and change his curses into blessings (Num. 23:1–12). Like Satan in Pergamum, Balaam realized that persecution was only making God’s people stronger, so he changed tactics. Jesus’ message says that Balaam “put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel” (Rev. 2:14), so that they ate prohibited foods and entered into sexual sin. Balaam did this by sending the daughters of Moab into the Israelite camp to lure the men into sexual sin and idolatry. Numbers 25 records that God judged Israel for these sins, slaying twenty-four thousand people by a plague.
John MacArthur: Despite the graphic example of Israel and the clear teaching of the apostle Paul, with which they were likely familiar, some in Pergamum persisted in following Balaam’s teaching. They believed one could attend pagan feasts, with all their debauchery and sexual immorality, and still join the church to worship Jesus Christ. But that is impossible, since “friendship with the world is hostility toward God. Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). “I urge you as aliens and strangers,” wrote Peter, “to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul”(1 Pet. 2:11). The issue of whether Christians could participate in idolatrous feasts had been settled decades earlier at the Jerusalem Council, which issued a mandate for believers to “abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:29).
Daniel Akin: Pergamum means “thoroughly married.” Here was a church thoroughly married to the world. Satan could not defeat this church with a frontal assault from without, so he revised his strategy and fostered friendly accommodation from within and with deadly success. The congregation was welcoming and affirming to the sexually immoral. On the contrary, we must not compromise our morality. It will destroy our witness and invite the judgment of God.
B. (:15) Compromise in the Theological Realm
“Thus you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
Grant Osborne: While the Ephesian church was commended for identifying and opposing the Nicolaitan heresy, the church at Pergamum tolerated it and so had to be castigated for their weakness. . .
The best solution is to take this not as a comparison between two similar movements but as a comparison between a single movement (the Nicolaitans) and the Jewish tradition about Balaam: “In the same way that Balaam subverted the Israelites, these false teachers are trying to subvert you.” This is also favored by the repetition of κρατεῖν (kratein, to grab hold of) in 2:14–15. The followers of the false teachers have “grabbed hold of the teaching of Balaam” in verse 14 and have “grabbed hold of the teaching of the Nicolaitans” in verse 15. It is likely that they are one and the same set of “teachings.”
Robert Thomas: The fault of the church as a whole was not adherence to the teaching or doctrine of Balaam, but rather indifference to those within who were in sympathy with it (Moffatt). . .
That the teaching of the two groups is identical (Charles; Beckwith) does not demand that the two groups be the same. Support for the sameness of the two groups notes that both verses speak of an antinomian group accepting the religious and social requirement of that pagan society, one church being too small for two groups of the exact same kind (Mounce). Yet the view of a single group is questionable, because it must view the homoiōs at the end of the verse as merely emphasizing the houtōs that begins the verse (Swete). Echeis (“you have”) would take up the thread of v. 14, and houtōs echeis kai would compare the situation with Israel of old. The above-stated objections to the view are stronger than its supports.
A better case exists for distinguishing the two groups. Houtōs reflects that they were like, but not identical with, those who held the Balaamite doctrine. The introduction of the Nicolaitans with kai (“also”) and homoiōs (“thus” or “in like manner”) also argues for two separate groups. The best conclusion is that there were two different but similar groups in this church, both of which had disobeyed the decision of the Jerusalem council in regard to idolatrous practices and fornication (cf. Acts 15:20, 29).
John MacArthur: The majority of the believers at Pergamum did not participate in the errors of either heretical group. They remained steadfastly loyal to Christ and the Christian faith. But by tolerating the groups and refusing to exercise church discipline, they shared in their guilt, which brought the Lord’s judgment.
J. Hampton Keathley, III: Whoever the Nicolaitans were, they were conquering the people by bringing them under Satan’s authority through influential teachers who were tolerating or even promoting evil or license. In our study of the messages to the seven churches, we have gone, then, from “murder” to “mixture.” Martyrdom tends topurifythe church, but mixture, a breakdown in biblical separation into worldliness, putrefies the church.
III. (:16) CALL FOR REPENTANCE
A. Urgency of Repentance
Richard Phillips: Pergamum reminds us, in this way, of two great strategies employed by Satan against the Christian church. The first is persecution, which the believers of Pergamum had withstood. The second was false teaching leading to unholy and worldly living, and to this Pergamum was in danger of succumbing. Jesus thus warns his people: “Therefore repent” (Rev. 2:16).
Charles Swindoll: In concrete terms, Christ demanded that the Pergamum Christians amend their attitudes regarding the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans, that they take the necessary actions to remove those false teachings from their midst. The compromise had to end. Christ’s call for repentance included a warning for those who refused. If the faithful remnant refused to change their lackadaisical policies and if the wicked minority continued their libertine practices, Christ would discipline them. He would come swiftly, waging war against them with the double-edged sword—His just discipline as the righteous Judge.
B. Ultimatum Threatening Rejection and Judgment – Divine Warfare
“or else I am coming to you quickly,
and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.”
Robert Thomas: The apparent problem of making the second coming of Christ conditioned upon the non-repentance of the Pergamene church has been discussed in connection with the similar issue regarding Ephesus. Applied to the present verse, the proposed grammatical analysis produces the following meaning: “When I come quickly, I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth, if you shall not have repented before that coming, whenever it happens.” . . .
In essence, this is a call to the church at Pergamum to demonstrate its genuineness by repenting of its lenience toward the errorists who had become part of that local fellowship. Failure to do so would mean dreadful consequences for them.
(:17) EPILOGUE – BLESSING FOR THOSE WHO OVERCOME
A. Pay Attention
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
B. Persevere to Receive the Blessing
- Condition of Overcoming
“To him who overcomes,”
- Promise of Eternal Life
a. Hidden Manna
“to him I will give some of the hidden manna,”
Buist Fanning: The first gift that is promised is “some of the hidden manna” (τοῦ μάννα τοῦ κεκρυμμένου), in clear contrast to the food of idol-meat offered by the Nicolaitans (vv. 14–15). Alluding to God’s life-sustaining provision for Israel in the wilderness (Exod 16:4, 14–36; Num 11:6–7), this image speaks of how Christ’s deliverance will provide all that his people truly need for human life as God designed it to be lived in his renewed creation (John 6:25–40; Rev 7:16–17; 21:1–7; 22:1–3). The initiation of this deliverance has already been accomplished because Jesus came from heaven and gave himself on the cross so that all who believe may have eternal life (John 6:41–59). But the full-orbed consummation awaits the time when Christ “will raise them up” (John 6:54) and God renews all things as described in Revelation 21–22. This appears to be the point of the description of this manna as “hidden.” It is concealed in the sense that it is out of human sight but preserved in heaven until it is made evident on earth in the final days (cf. Col 3:1–4). God’s provision of nourishment from heaven at the exodus (Exod 16:4) anticipates the coming of his ultimate and complete provision for his people in the last days (a feature of eschatological expectation among some Jews as seen in 2 Bar. 29:8; Sib. Or. 7:141–49; Mek. on Exod 16:25).
Robert Mounce: The idea of hidden manna reflects a Jewish tradition that the pot of manna that was placed in the ark for a memorial to future generations (Exod. 16:32-34; see Heb. 9:4) was taken by Jeremiah at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s temple (sixth century B.C.) and hidden underground in Mt. Nebo (2 Macc. 2:4-7). . . . In the context of the letter to Pergamum it alludes to the proper and heavenly food of spiritual Israel in contrast to the unclean food supplied by the Balaamites. While the promise is primarily eschatological, it is not without immediate application for a persecuted people.
Richard Phillips: Let me conclude by noting four ways in which Jesus is like the manna that fell from heaven, and like the bread that gives life to our souls. First, just as manna was necessary for the life of Israel in the desert, so also Jesus is necessary for our salvation. Are you trying to live without Jesus? You may satisfy your ego with success, your material needs with money, or your desires with pleasure. But you will never satisfy the inescapable needs of your soul without Jesus Christ.
Second, Jesus, like bread, is suited for everyone. James Boice writes: “Jesus is . . . the Savior of the world, and that includes the peasant as well as the king on his throne. . . . He has what you need. What is more, he knows you and he knows how to meet that need.”
Third, just as bread must be chewed and swallowed, Christians must feed on Jesus and his Word by faith. The hearts of children are fed by the kind and loving words of their parents. An army feeds on the brave words of its leaders. A nation feeds on the inspiring speeches of its best politicians. But there is nothing compared to the Word of God to feed the soul of every man, woman, and child. If Christians or churches are weak today, easily falling prey to false teaching and foolishly seeking to accommodate worldly styles and demands, the explanation may be that we have been feeding on the world instead of on the Word. To be strong in faith and to have a strong witness to the world, we must be constantly feeding on the life-giving bread of Christ and his Word.
Finally, we are told that when Jesus fed the five thousand, he “broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples” (Matt. 14:19). Likewise, Jesus is the Bread of Life because he was broken on the cross for our sins. “This is my body,” Jesus later explained, “which is [broken] for you” (1 Cor. 11:24). Jesus gave himself to pay the penalty of our sins, restore us to the Father in love, and grant a new kind of life to those who believe. To them, Jesus gives heavenly manna of divine provision, a white stone of justification through faith alone, and a personal relationship with himself as Lord. How can we know and experience these truths for ourselves? Psalm 34:8 gives us the best advice: “Taste and see that the LORD is good!”
John MacArthur: The hidden manna represents Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life who came down from heaven (John 6:48–51). He provides spiritual sustenance for those who put their faith in Him. The hidden manna symbolizes all the blessings and benefits of knowing Christ (Eph. 1:3).
Kendell Easley: These are two different symbols for eternal life, the first Jewish; the second Gentile. The ancient Israelites had “hidden” a pot of their divinely given bread in their ark of the covenant. Jewish tradition held that this manna had been miraculously preserved and would be multiplied to feed God’s people when the Messiah came (Exod. 16:32–35; 2 Macc. 2:5–7). Later in Revelation the wedding supper of the Lamb (19:9) similarly symbolizes eternal life.
In the ancient pagan world, special white stones were often used as admission tickets for public festivals. Possessing a stone with a special name—perhaps the name engraved is “Christ” or “Jesus,” serving to certify the stone as genuine—means that admission to heaven is absolutely sure for believers in Christ.
b. White Stone
“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.”
Grant Osborne: In short, the manna and white stone are both eschatological symbols related to the messianic feast at the eschaton but also teaching the spiritual food and new name that God gives to the believer in the present as well.
John MacArthur: It seems best, however, to understand the white stone in light of the Roman custom of awarding white stones to the victors in athletic contests. A white stone, inscribed with the athlete’s name, served as his ticket to a special awards banquet. In this view, Christ promises the overcomers entrance to the eternal victory celebration in heaven.
Richard Phillips: In courts of law, jurors would vote for acquittal by setting forth a white stone, in contrast with a black stone for conviction. Where Satan dwelt in power, faithful Christians were accused and condemned, and some (like Antipas) were put to the sword for their conviction of fidelity to Jesus Christ. Jesus, in turn, would present a white stone to his justified people. Derek Thomas writes: “Jesus promises to give them the white stone of acquittal—an assurance of eternal life.”
Robert Thomas: The most satisfactory understanding of the white stone derives significance from the free doles of bread and free admission to entertainments that people of the Roman Empire received from time to time. These were in exchange for “tickets,” which often took the form of white stones (Alford). Such a white stone with one’s name on it was the basis for admission to special events. It was also a well-established custom to reward victors at the games with such a token enabling them to gain admission to a special feast. This practice coincides with the victor’s participation in the feast of Rev. 3:20 (cf. also 19:9) (Lee). The “hidden manna,” the other part of the reward in v. 17, suggests a reference to the Messianic feast. The white stone is, then, a personalized tessara, which would serve as his token of admission to this great future feast (Mounce). This furnishes sufficient incentive for faithfulness to Christ in the meantime. Admittedly, limited information about ancient customs makes identification of the white stone difficult, but repeated contextual reminders about the future Messianic feast make this the most probable of the proposals made to date.
Buist Fanning: The further description in v. 17e, “that no one knows except the one who receives it,” also individualizes the reference since if it were Christ’s name (19:12; 22:4) others would know it. So it seems to represent individual identity and transformation in that future day. While God’s redemptive consummation has a number of important corporate dimensions (Rev 5:9–14; 7:9–10; 21:1–7), at the level of this transformation each Christian relates to Christ intimately and personally in a way that no one else can fathom. It is likely also, along the lines of Christ’s name that only he knows (19:12), to understand that the “new name” for each Christian is not a previously unknown name or identity but the full flowering of the individual character that God has in mind for each of his children in Christ. Our ultimate conformity to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29; 1 John 3:2) will bear the family likeness but will reflect God’s design for each of its members, whom he calls by name (John 10:3).
S. Lewis Johnson: Now you know your name and you know the name that your husband or your wife uses to speak of you in the most endearing way. That’s the kind of relationship that is set forth here. Our relationship with our Lord is not the relationship of a body of people, my Christian friend. It’s the relationship of one person to another person. And every one of us is special to our Lord. And in the ages of eternity in the future we each shall have a very special place with him. After all, he’s accomplished the miracle of making us all look different. Nobody looks the same. Even twins have a mark of difference. So also in our persons and our character we each have a special name.
Van Parunak: So here I suggest that the Lord is promising, “I will cast a vote for acquittal with reference to the one who overcomes,” consistent with his role elsewhere in Scripture as the one to whom all judgment has been committed (John 5). The rest of the verse goes on to reinforce this. and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.— The unknowable name elsewhere (19:12) is the Lord Jesus. On the reading I am proposing, he is signing his ballot for acquittal of the overcomer, using a name that no one can forge. The forensic nature of the promise is particularly appropriate to a city where Roman authority was centered, including the authority of capital punishment. The authorities in Pergamos may persecute the believers. In the case of Antipas, they cast their black pebbles to condemn him to death. But the Lord holds the deciding vote in the final decision of eternal life and death.
G.K. Beale: In the ancient world and the Old Testament, to know someone’s name, especially that of God, often meant to enter into an intimate relationship with that person and to share in the person’s character or power. To be given a new name was an indication of a new status. . . . Therefore, believers’ reception of this name represents their final reward of consummate identification and unity with the intimate, end-time presence and power of Christ in his kingdom and under his sovereign authority. . . . The “new name” is a mark of genuine membership in the community of the redeemed, without which entry into the eternal “city of God” is impossible. It stands in contrast to the satanic “name” that unbelievers receive, which identifies them with the character of the devil and with the ungodly “city of man.”