A Bible Lesson on Revelation 2:8-17

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This lesson concerns two of the letters to the churches of Asia, the ones to the churches at Smyrna and Pergamum.

Smyrna was a wealthy, well-situated city. It had been loyal to Rome from before the time that it was clear that Rome would turn out to be a world power. The earliest temple to the goddess “Roma” had been established at Smyrna. Smyrna had a large Jewish population that, it seems, was especially hostile to Christianity.

Revelation 2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

This letter is “to the angel/messenger of the church.” This is unusual wording, but the meaning is clearly that what follows is intended for the Christian church at Smyrna. These are the words of Him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. It is Jesus who speaks to the church. The “First” is especially appropriate for these people.   Smyrna liked to call itself the first city of Asia. It was full of local pride. To the church at such a place the First and the Last of the Universe speaks. It is an interesting point too, that in Smyrna’s history it had been destroyed and later rebuilt as one of the few planned cities in antiquity. In fact, much of its beauty derived from the orderliness coming from this rebuilding with wide and beautiful streets, etc. To believers in such a city the Savior who tasted death for all men and rose from the dead speaks.

9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

This risen Christ knows what these believers of Smyrna are suffering. “Afflictions” are crushing difficulties. And the poverty is not just lack of anything to spare, it is lack of anything at all. This is abject poverty of a kind essentially unknown in our country in our time. Remember that this is a wealthy commercial city, but in it Christian believers suffer crushing afflictions and poverty. Why? Surely it is a result of their persecution at the hands of the Jewish population (who considered them to be heretics) and their refusal to go along with the state religion of emperor worship.

They are slandered by “those who say they are Jews and are not.” The New Testament is full of instruction that one isn’t a member of God’s family by virtue of birth, but rather by faith/ reliance upon and trust in Him. So the Jews persecuting the church, who have rejected their Messiah and Savior, are not members of God’s assembly, but on the contrary are members of the assembly/synagogue of Satan.

10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Now this is an interesting statement. Suffering is going to come. There’s no promise of avoiding it.   What the church is promised, however, is that Christ sees and understands it (and that He is with the church in it), that while it will come it will be of finite duration, and after it is endured there is an eternity of reward.

“The devil” will put some in prison. Humans are the agents of persecution, but Satan is the origin. Being put in prison in Roman days was not typically a means of punishment. One was put in prison pending trial and execution on capital offenses. So the imprisonment in verse 10 leads naturally to the being faithful to the point of death. This Christianity was serious dangerous business in these days in Smyrna. It could not only bring you to poverty, but to death as a traitor to the Roman state as well. One of the most famous early Christian martyrs was Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, martyred in 155 AD for refusing to denounce Christ and acknowledge Caesar as Lord. Interestingly, Polycarp was martyred on a Saturday, but the Jews of Smyrna broke their Sabbath to bring fuel for the fire in which he was burned.

The crown of life is not a royal diadem, but rather the wreath of a victor in an athletic contest or the festive laurel worn at a banquet or celebration.

11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

“The second death” is identified later in Revelation 21:8. Physical death is the first one. Eternal condemnation and torment apart from the goodness of God is the second. Remaining faithful through life spares Christians the second death.

Pergamum was the Roman capital of Asia. As such, it was the center of emperor worship. It was also a city full of other pagan temples. In particular it was the center of worship of one Asclepios, the god of healing, usually called “Asclepios the savior.” (It has been called the “Lourdes of the ancient world.”) It was famous for its library, second only to that of Alexandria, consisting of over 200,000 volumes. It is also interesting, and probably relevant, that the Roman governor situated in Pergamum was unusual in that he was one of the few that had the right of imposing capital punishment. That is, the Roman proconsul had the so called “right of the sword” and people could be executed on the spot at his command. He could, for example, at any moment use that right of the sword against the Christian believers in Smyrna.

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

It is “him who has the sharp, double-edged sword,” Him who is the Word of God, who speaks. Christ is speaking to the church at Pergamum. It may be that the governor there has “the right of the sword,” but the One who speaks is the One from whose mouth issues the Word of God, the powerful sword of the LORD. This sword will liberate those who believe and embrace it, and will slay those who reject and ignore it.

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.

I know where you “dwell.” That is an interesting word. It means to have a permanent residence. We understand that most fundamentally we are sojourners on earth and that this is not our home. But these words of Christ remind us that we are in the world. As Barclay said, “the principle of the Christian life is not escape, but conquest.” As much as we might prefer to run from the hard things we encounter in the sovereign will of God, this is “where we live.” Our job is not to flee difficulties, but to face them in the power and the name of our Savior.

Christ says they dwell where Satan has his throne. Presumably this is a reference to Pergamum being the center of worship of the emperor and other false gods.

These Christians in Pergamum have remained faithful to Christ in hard times. They have continued to rely upon, to trust in, and to cleave to Jesus, apparently refusing to acknowledge Caesar as “lord” despite threat of death. Christ says “even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness.” That is quite a compliment for this person Antipas. Remember Revelation 1:5 and that it is Jesus Himself who is the faithful witness. The Spirit of Christ has apparently strengthened one Antipas to refuse to deny Jesus, even when it meant death. These are courageous Christian people who will not cave in to external pressure. But

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.

The church at Pergamum has stood resolute against the persecution from the outside, but has to some extent apparently been suckered by the deception of false teaching from the inside. From the beginning of human history, Satan’s first line of attack against man and his relationship with God has been deception. And this has been effective at Pergamum. Apparently the story put forth at Pergamum has been that there’s nothing wrong with a little compromise with the prevailing pagan idolatry, and that sexual immorality was not such a big deal either. (Balaam, after being unable to curse God’s people for Balak king of Moab, helped Balak figure out that by enticing the Israelites into idolatry and sexual immorality, he could bring God’s wrath on them).

How you get to that kind of thinking is to have a low view of the Scriptures. You play games like deciding that some of them aren’t relevant to your situation. It seems possible that the folks here had adopted the line of thinking that since one doesn’t come to God by approving oneself through being good enough and keeping the law, one can then disregard the law of God. That’s pure garbage (but stuff you can hear on any day of the week from religious “experts” these days). God’s character and righteous requirements for human behavior haven’t changed a bit in all of time. The fact we are frail and fail to keep the law perfectly doesn’t cancel it. What it does, is drive us to Jesus, our only hope.

15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Exactly what the Nicolaitans taught is not clear, but it seems to have consisted in de facto compromise with the standards of the surrounding pagan culture, possibly by taking a wrong view that the body is nothing. Then making a perverse twist, these people ended up claiming that one could do anything with the body that one pleases, moral or not, maybe including joining with the pagans in sexual immorality and/or worship at pagan temples and feasts.

It is interesting that both “Balaam” and “Nicolaitan” have the meaning “conquer the people.” This business of compromise with the prevailing culture is and always has been serious. If left to run its course, it means the conquering of the church by the world.

16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.

It is so serious that the church of Pergamum is to repent. Doctrinal purity is not something to ignore or take lightly. It wasn’t in 95 AD and it isn’t now. That is true in spite of modern insistence on “tolerance” and the impulse to be “ecumenical” and “humble.” The Lord of the church sees it as serious business, something that will bring His intervention.

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.’

Christ promises future glory for those who remain true. There have been many many suggestions made regarding the possible meanings of the hidden manna, the white stone and the new name. It is impossible to say with any authority exactly what is intended. The Jews expected the Messianic kingdom to include renewed provision of manna. Another tradition was that before the destruction of the temple, Jeremiah had saved the sample of manna in the ark and hidden it on Mt. Sinai and that Messiah would bring it with Him at the establishment of His kingdom. The white stone might refer to the practice of juries voting not guilty with white stones and guilty with black ones. Or stones were sometimes used as tickets of admission to public events like grand banquets. Or it might refer to the stones on the robes of the Jewish priests with the names of the 12 tribes on them. Or 76 other things are possible. The new name might refer to Christ, presently not known to the world, or perhaps in the tradition of Abram who became Abraham or Jacob who became Israel, the new name may refer to the believer who is in vital relationship to God and takes on a new character and a new call.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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