In the history of mankind there have been a small number of significant revolutions based around the way we communicate. From writing and drawing on stone, we discovered that a form of writing material could be developed from the papyrus plant. From there we discovered that animal skins, or parchment, was a valuable writing material and that created a significant change in society at the time. Paper was invented in China but the invention of the printing press in the 15th century represented another revolution in our society. Then, in our own lifetime, we have experienced the technological revolution.
This is the third in a series of posts based on the first couple of chapters of the book of Revelation that are focussed on a letter sent by the Apostle John to seven churches in western Turkey. This letter was sent to the church in Pergamum.
Pergamum is famous because it is from the name of that city that we gained the word for parchment. Pergamum was home to a library that, according to the writings of Plutarch, housed about 200,000 volumes. The Library of Pergamum became one of the most important libraries in the ancient world.
Prior to the creation of parchment, manuscripts were transcribed on papyrus, which was produced only in Alexandria. When the Ptolemies of Africa refused to export any more papyrus to Pergamum, King Eumenes II commanded that an alternative source be found. Parchment reduced the Roman Empire’s dependency on Egyptian papyrus, allowed for the increased dissemination of knowledge throughout Europe and Asia, and greatly expanded the holdings of the Library of Pergamum.
So, to the church in this great city of the book, John’s letter says: “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. What a strange picture. But perhaps this wasn’t so strange because the readers of this letter may well have had the opportunity to read the letter to the Hebrews where you can find these words:
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
When Jesus is described as having a sharp double-edged sword coming out of his mouth, it tells us something about character. It tells us that Jesus is the eternal word which John had already confirmed in a previous writing like this: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Jesus is the eternal word. What a great message that was for the Christians in Pergamum, that great city of words, the centre for the production of parchment and the dissemination of knowledge. The Jesus who they worshipped was far greater than the quest for knowledge that was so central to their city.
But John knew how bad things were in that city; it was so bad that he described it as the city where Satan had his throne. Tradition has it that John ordained Antipas as bishop of Pergamon during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian and that he was martyred in ca. 92 AD by burning in a brazen altar in the shape of a bull.
Yet despite the opposition they received and the evil that existed all around them, the church had remained faithful to Jesus. But there were a few people who were causing trouble and enticing people into idolatory and immorality. The word that is translated as entice, or in some cases, stumbling block, is the Greek word, skandalon from which we get our word scandal. It was specifically used at that time to refer to the bait stick on a bird trap. When I was a kid I remember setting up bird traps in my yard. The idea was that the bird would be enticed into the trap by some seed on the ground, and I could then pull a piece of string, the stick would be removed and the box would fall down, and the bird was caught – it’s OK, I let it go afterwards.
That was exactly the idea that was referred to in this passage. Christians were being enticed into a trap that included idolatory and immorality and while it seemed very innocent at first, it ended up being a disaster for them. While it was only a small group of people within the church who were causing trouble, the whole church was called to repentance.
The letter then went on to explain how the problem would be overcome. Jesus said he would come and fight against them with the sword of his mouth.Remember the sharp double edged sowrd coming out his mouth? It is the Word of God that will maintain the standards within the life of the Church. Not the blunt instrument of our self-righteous judgement, but the sharp sword of God’s Word. When we allow Jesus the eternal word, to be the focus of our church, and allow his written word to be our guide, the Holy Spirit is given the freedom to penetrate people’s hearts and minds and change occurs.
So then we come now to the final part of this letter to the church at Pergamum. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
We learn more in another part of the Bible where Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
To this great city where the written word was so important through its parchment industry, and its library, Jesus came as the Eternal Word. And as the Eternal Word he offered three things:
- He knows us intimately and can look deep into our hearts to prompt us to follow him in full obedience (that’s the sharp double-edged sword)
- He came as spiritual food to sustain us in every situation. Jesus feeds our souls and generously ministers to our every needs. We need to be willing to be fed from the Word of God that we may grow to be more like Jesus (that’s the hidden manna)
- The eternal word came to prepare us for eternity and to promise that our name would be written in the Lamb’s book of Life. (That’s the white stone with the new name). Jesus welcomes us eternally as we accept his great gift of salvation. We need to be willing to receive Jesus and allow him to change us inside out.
This is the second in a series I have been preaching through at Maida Vale Baptist Church entitled, Listen Up, Church”, based on Revelation 1-3. You can also read the Introduction, Listen Up Church #1, and Listen Up Church #2. Read on at Listen Up, Church #4.