The Piercing Word (Revelation 2:12-17)

Ellen and I began our teaching career in New York City. New York is truly the city that never sleeps. There seems to never be a moment without noise. Although Ellen and I both went to school in bigger cities, Philadelphia and Atlanta, respectively, New York is even more jarring on one’s senses. One evening Ellen went into a restaurant for dinner and someone thought it would be funny to light a string of black cat fireworks. When the fireworks went off, “pop, pop pop,” everyone from New York in the restaurant hit the ground thinking it was gunshots. My wife, on the other hand, lifted her head and moved toward the sound. My wife soon realized that in New York City there are certain sounds that one must react with speed and precision. Certain sounds demand a reaction.

The scream of one of your children. The security alarm in your home. The train whistle over the railroad tracks. The middle of the night phone call. There are certain sounds that penetrate our ears like no others. Our world is full of beeps, buzzes, and bangs. When you live in a city, police and fire sirens become background noises, but their certain sounds that pierce through the cacophony and stop us in our tracks. They pierce through the noise and demand a reaction.

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 marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. God’s Word must pierce through the cacophony of worldly clamor to open our eyes to the One whom we must give an account. My prayer for you is that you will allow the penetrating power of the Word of God to pierce your heart, to break your love of the world, and encourage you to hold fast to Christ.

The Piercing Word Brings Judgment

In each of Jesus’ letters to the seven churches of Asia, he begins with a particular description of the vision of chapter one (Revelation 1:9-20). The vision of Jesus is, therefore, applied to the churches in a specific situation. Although Jesus addresses each of these churches individually, we know that he intends for the message to be applied to all churches throughout history. Jesus beings his letter to Pergamum, “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.” Pergamum was the center of the Roman government and the Roman pagan religion in Asia Minor. The city boasted of being the “throne warden” to the worship of Caesar. It only defended the worship of Caesar, but the freedom to worship all sorts of deities. It was a polytheistic city.

Jesus confronts this “many ways” city by proclaiming that he is the one who holds the sharp two-edged sword. The sword was meant to invoke the image of judgment. Jesus was going to judge the pagan city with the sword. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the state was given the sword to execute judgment against lawlessness. Christians were not called to repay evil with evil but to overcome evil with good leaving judgment in the hands of the State and thus, ultimately, in the hands of God. Here, Jesus is reminding the church that he is the one who wields the sword of judgment. He will judge the kingdom of Satan. He will judge the apostate or the one who abandons the faith handed down from the apostles. Jesus is sovereign over all for he has the sharp two-edged sword that will cut through any worldly philosophy and pagan religion.

The sword imagery is meant to comfort and convicts the saints in Pergamum. The letter is dominated by Jesus’ rebuke of the churches permissive spirit of false teaching and false teachers. Jesus spends much of the letter rebuking the church from drifting from the truth and calling for their repentance to return to the church. Jesus also wants to encourage the faithful in the church. Even in the most dysfunctional churches, there is a remnant. There are always true believers in the true church. Jesus says to this mixture of true and drifting saints, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.” There are many possible options of what Jesus means by “Satan’s throne” but the most probable option is that he is referring to Pergamum’s prominence in emperor worship.  The main reason for Christian persecution in John’s day was Christians unwillingness to bow to Caesar.

How comforting would it have been for Christians to hear Jesus say, “I know where you dwell, I know how challenging it to stand for me in the midst of intense, violent and aggressive emperor worship. I know the depth of the sin of the city.” There is a great comfort to rest in the fact that God knows what we are dealing with. Regardless of your trial today, God knows what you are going through. He knows your battle. Take comfort in God’s knowledge.

The Piercing Word Brings Joy

God does not only have knowledge of the saints of Pergamum, but he also has joy because many have remained steadfast in the truth even amid trial. Revelation 2:13b,

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.

The church continued to trust in the name of Jesus Christ. They were tempted to deny Christ when one of their numbers was killed for his faith. There is no scholarly agreement who Antipas was, but only that he was given the name ‘faithful witness’ the same name given to Jesus in Revelation 1:5. Jesus was pleased that the church held fast to his name amid intense persecution. There have been many faithful witnesses to the Lord Jesus throughout history. As we move closer to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we are reminded of all the faithful witnesses that held fast to the name of Christ.

Jan Hus was a preacher in the early 15th century. After reading the writings of John Wycliffe, Hus became impassioned for the authority of Scripture. He lived during rampant immorality among the clergy of the Catholic Church. As he started preaching against them, he was labeled a heretic and sentenced to death. As he was chained to a stake like a dog, he said,

My Lord Jesus Christ was bound with a harder chain than this one for my sake, so why should I be ashamed of this rusty chain?...What I taught with my lips I will now seal with my blood.[1]

Hus held fast to the name of Christ even unto death. Hus’ faithfulness continued to fuel the true church’s passion for the Word of God. Hus knew that the two-edged sword would continue to pierce the hearts of Europe. When Hus, which means Goose in Czech, was sentenced to death he said, “You may roast the goose, but a hundred years from now a swan will arise whose singing you will not be able to silence.” About 100 years later, Martin Luther became that swan igniting the Protest Reformation which has yet to be silenced. Hus had confidence in the God of the Word and Word of his God. His joy in the Word fueled his willingness to defend with his blood.

Do you have joy in the word of God? Is reading God’s word a delight or a burden? Jesus is pleased when we delight in his Word.

The Piercing Word Brings Division

The Word of God brings division. Jesus came to bring division. He came to divide the world based on how they respond to Him. The Word of God continues to bring division. There are churches who are beginning to waver on the Word. Let us learn from the error of Pergamum so that we would not drift from the Word but hold fast to it. Revelation 2:14-15,

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.

Balaam was a prophet in Israel. He was asked by the king of Moab, Balak, to pronounce curses on Israel, but instead only pronounced blessings. In Number 25:1-3, it relates how the people of Israel fall into sexual immorality among the pagans in Moab and sacrificed to their kings. Jewish tradition relates the cause of this apostasy on the account of Balaam’s advice referenced in Numbers 31:16.

The Nicolaitans were like Balaam in that they encouraged the church to eat food sacrificed to idols and to practice sexual immorality. If the church ate the food sacrificed to idols they would have participated in the imperial cult worship of Caesar. The church still believed in Jesus Christ, but were encouraged that it was fine to participate in the cult worship of Caesar. It may have been encouraged for their own safety or to help them have influence in the culture, either way, it contradicted the letter from the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:28-29,

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

The Nicolaitans were not only encouraging participation in the imperial cult but were also loosening the sexual boundaries of marital monogamy.

The problem in the church was a permissive spirit in accepting the culture of the world. We are not to be conformed to the world but transformed by the renewal of our minds. We are not to live in the world, but not be of the world. The Nicolaitans were encouraging the church to become like the world. We do not know their motives for this advice, but we can see similar advice in our day. The spirit of the Nicolaitans is alive in the American church. Churches are loosening their requirements on what is appropriate sexual ethics. It goes beyond the acceptance of homosexuality as a viable Christian lifestyle to the wide acceptance of cohabitation as normative for the church. They divide right doctrine with right living. Heterodoxy with heteropraxy.

The rebuke was not that everyone in the church held to the teachings of the Nicolaitans, but that the church was permissive that some did. Paul similarly rebuked the Corinthians because of their unwillingness to deal with sin in the church. He warned that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Jesus also warned his disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees that can affect the whole body. The problem in the American church is not that there is widespread homosexuality or sexual immorality in its members, but a permissive compromising spirit with those who engage in such things.

The Word gives us instructions on how we are called to live and how we are called to conduct our churches. We do not want to be a church of right doctrine without right practice. We want to believe the right things and live the right way. This pleases God. What areas of sin are you most permissive? Where are you most tempted to worldly compromise? Are their areas as a church where we are tempted to drifted into compromise? The desire to be accepting and welcoming is a God-given desire, but we can never go beyond what is described in the Word of God.

The Piercing Word Brings Direction

Jesus again redirects us with his Word. He calls the church to repent. Repentance is to turn from trusting in anything other than Jesus Christ and his Word. We must turn from our own ways and trust in God’s ways. There are times we may not understand the what and the why of the Christian life, but when we become Christians we no longer have the right to disobey Jesus. He is our commanding officer. He is the one with the sharp two-edged sword that by it will judge all governments and all people.

If you are not a Christian, listen to the gravity of Jesus’ words and what he commands of all people, Revelation 2:16,

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

The call of Jesus is very simple. It is a call of repentance. Why do we need to repent? It is fair to question one that is utterly challenged in our day. The Bible states that God is the creator of the world and all human beings. And as the creator, we are called to obey his word. He created the world good, but man disobeyed God. Man rejected the good word of a good Creator and chose to follow their own desire to be like god. They attempted to usurp God’s authority. Instead of following God’s law, they desired to follow their own law. The world has been corrupted by this selfish pride ever since and now the human heart is corrupted and bent towards self.

The Christian worldview says that every human being has sinned and has a sinful heart. Of course, Christian acknowledge that even the worst of humanity has elements of good in them, but their core is opposed to God. The punishment for sin is eternal death. When an eternal God is offended, then that eternal wrong must be punished as an eternal crime. Now it may appear harsh that God would exercise that degree of punishment, but in only understanding the severity of that punishment can we appreciate the kindness of Jesus’ word: repent. We are sinners deserving of eternal hell and God says there is another way. Jesus came to seek and to save sinners. He lived a perfect life. He never sinned. He always perfectly trusted God. He trusted God to death. He gave himself for our sins. He paid for all the wrongs we have done in his death. But God raised him from the dead. His resurrection opened the door to salvation. We now can be saved, not because of anything good in us, but because of the goodness and mercy of God.

Friends, Jesus is a kind, merciful Savior. He willingly took hell on the cross so we could repent. The one who calls us to repent is the one who bled and died for us. And this same one who gave himself for us is the one who says that if you do not repent then he will bring war against you with the sword of his mouth. Jesus desires your peace, but that peace came at a price. He offers you peace, but if and only if, you repent. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Let God’s Word pierce your heart. I urge you to turn to Christ and live.

The Piercing Word Brings Deliverance

The surgeon’s scalpel hurts but brings healing. The call of the gospel may bring worldly pain in this life as you stand for truth, but it will bring deliverance. Revelation 2:17,

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.’

There are various interpretations on what exactly the “hidden manna” is referring to, but it is most likely connected to the manna God provided for Israel in the wilderness. God gave bread from heaven to strengthen and sustain his people as they travailed through the wilderness. The Israelites feasted on the manna as we feast on the bread of life. Jesus said,

I am the bread that came down from heaven…I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. (John 6:44;48-51)

Beloved, we feed on Christ by faith. He is the food our souls need to live.

Jewish tradition believed that white stones fell along with the manna in the wilderness. The manna itself was referred to as a heavenly stone (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:7). The white stone was also known as stone given to the innocent at their acquittal. Beloved, those of us who feed on Christ, the bread of life, will receive a white stone of acquittal. We will be fully and finally declared not guilty because the Jesus gave his body to be broken for us. The only way we get the white stone of acquittal is through the broken bread of life. And it is only when we continue in faith with Christ do we receive the new name of Christ.

The new name has several implications. It is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 62:2, “The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.  The end-time people of God fulfill this reality when we are named after God. As one scholar notes,

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. Identification with this name actually begins when Christ reveals himself to people and they confess his name by faith.[2]

Beloved, Christ has given us his name now and one day he will fully identify us with that new name and will enjoy our new status in the intimate presence of Almighty God. Revelation 22:4 says that we, “will see his face and his name will be on our foreheads.” What a gift to be bear the name of Christ.

Friends, let us never forget the name of Jesus. Let the name of Jesus be the piercing word that brings us back from wandering. Let the name of Jesus be the piercing word that causes our hearts to stir. Let the name of Jesus be the piercing word that ignites the passion in our soul to hold fast to his name. Jesus, Jesus there is something about that name.

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus

There’s just something about that name

Master, Savior, Jesus

Like the fragrance after the rain

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus

Let all Heaven and earth proclaim

Kings and kingdoms will all pass away

But there’s something about that name.

[1] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-goosefather accessed 10.8.2017

[2] Beale, G. K. (1999). The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text (pp. 254–255). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.