The Serpent and the Saint (Revelation 2:12-17)

Have you ever wondered why the universal medical symbol is a staff with a snake wrapped around it? I thought it was rooted in the story of the bronze snake in Numbers 21:1-9. In that story, the Israelites, became impatient in their wilderness journey and complained, saying to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21:5) Sounds like your children in the middle of a long road trip, doesn’t it? In response to their complaining, God sent poisonous snakes into their camp, killing many people. As a result, the people repented. God then, instructed Moses to “Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8). Thus, the snake on the pole symbolizes healing, and that is why it has been used as a symbol for healing.

But that’s not the history of the medical symbol. Its history is rooted in Greek mythology and is older then the story in Numbers. According to Greek mythology, the god Apollo and the princess Coronis had a son. They named him, Asclepius (es-clay-pius). He became the god of medicine. According to Greek mythology, Asclepius was able to heal the sick and raise the dead. Because of his powers, he become known as, Asclepius the Savior of the World. The story goes that Zeus, the king of the gods, killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt because he started charging money for his healing powers. After he died, Zeus placed Asclepius in the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus (oph-ee-u-chus), or “the serpent bearer.” The Greeks regarded snakes as sacred, and used them in healing rituals in honor of Asclepius. Snake venom was thought to have healing powers, and snakes shedding their skin was thought to symbolize death, renewal, and new life.[1] In the middle of Pergamum was a beautiful temple to Asclepius.

That’s the serpent.

According to the apocryphal[2] book, The Acts of Antipas, Antipas was the pastor of the church in Pergmum. John the Elder (the author of Revelation) ordained him. While John was exiled to the prison island of Patmos, Antipas was martyred. According to church history, Antipas was a dentist and a healer who cured people through medicines and through prayers in the name of Jesus. Antipas never charged people for his services, he only accepted freewill offerings. Other dentists and doctors and healers in Pergamum, who charged for their services, where threatened by Antipas. So they riled the people up, gathered a mob, and dragged Antipas to the Temple of Asclepius, enclosed him in a bronze bull, and burned him alive as an act of worship to Asclepius.[3]

That’s the saint.

The serpent and the saint.

Today’s question is as follows: Are you going to worship the serpent, or are you going to follow the example of the saint?

 The Church in Pergamum

As we continue our journey through the seven churches in Revelation, we read, “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write…” (Revelation 2:12a). Pergamum was a major city in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). If Ephesus was the New York of Asia Minor, Pergamum was Washington, D.C. Pergamum, at the time of John’s Revelation, was the home to a major medical university (thus, the Temple of Asclepius), a large library of over 200,000 books, the capital of Caesar worship, and the home to a small group of believers who felt threatened every day.

Next, John paints a picture of Christ. He writes, “These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne” (Revelation 2:12b-13a). Jesus is pictured as holding a “double-edged sword.” This could be interpreted two ways: First, the scalpel a surgeon used was double-edged. Jesus can do precise surgery on your soul, healing you of your sin sickness. He can remove the cancerous tumor of sin without destroying your life. Second, the Roman Soldier’s sword was double-edged and caused fear to the believers in Pergamum. Jesus is saying He is the ultimate authority. Ultimately, He is the one who is in control and has the power of life and death.

There are three reasons Jesus said Satan’s throne is in Pergamum. First, because of the Temple of Asclepius. Sick people from all over Asia Minor would come to Pergamum to spend the night in the dark temple. In the temple were hundreds of tamed, non-poisonous snakes. As a sick person laid in the dark, if a snake slithered over them, it was believed they had been touched by god and would be healed. Also, connected to the temple was a health resort. People came from all over for water baths, music, prayers, and dream interpretations. A man named Galen, the father of Pharmacy, was from Pergamum and was one of the healers in the Temple of Asclepius.[4]

Second, Pergamum sat on a large granite rock, one thousand feet above the plain. The city could be seen for miles around, and some believed the rock looked like a throne.

The third, and main reason, Jesus said Satan’s throne was in this city was because she was the center of Caesar worship. In fact, in 29 B.C., Pergamum erected the very first temple for worshiping a Roman Emperor in honor of Caesar Augustus. In Pergamum, like in Smyrna, every citizen was required to offer incense to the image of the emperors and to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Not doing so, could result in loss of employment, loss of business, loss of home, loss of family, hunger, poverty, imprisonment, and death. Being a Christian in Pergamum was just as dangerous as being a Christian in Smyrna.[5]

And so again the question is asked: Are you going to worship the serpent, or are you going to follow the example of the saint?

Jesus, through John, compliments the church by saying, “Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives” (Revelation 2:13b). In spite of the dangers and difficulties of following Jesus, most of the believers in Pergamum had remained true and faithful. Most of them were radical disciples in the middle of a wicked city. That is, most of them, but not all of them.

Next comes the critique: “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitians” (Revelation 2:14-15).

This is a loaded two verses! Let’s talk about the Nicolaitians first. The “teaching of the Nicolatians” came up with the church in Ephesus. In Ephesus, the believers rejected this teaching. Not so in Pergamum! The Nicolatians, named after Nicholas, a deacon appointed in Acts 6 that went astray, taught that as long as you confessed faith in Jesus, you could live life anyway you pleased. This heresy was best illustrated by the example of Balaam and Balak in the Old Testament.

In Numbers 25, the Moabite king Balak offered the prophet Balaam a lot of money if he would curse the Israelites. God would not allow Balaam to do so. Balaam, undeterred and greedy, devised another plan so he could still get paid. He advised Balak to entangle Israel with sexual immorality and idol worship. That, he said, would cause Israel to bring a curse on themselves. As a result, Moabite women enticed Israelite men with sex and invited them to sacrifice to their gods and enjoy the feasts that followed the sacrifices. Apparently, there were some in the church in Pergamum who did see the issue in offering sacrifices to Caesar, saying, “Caesar is Lord,” and enjoying the feast at the temples of both Caesar and Asclepius, which included temple prostitution and other forms of sexual immorality. As long as you still worshiped God, they believed, what was wrong with enjoying the benefits of acceptable behavior in society?

Here is the application: As followers of Jesus, everyday we are tempted to compromise our faith in order to appease cultural expectations. A radical disciple remains true and refuses to compromise his or her faith. It could be a compromise so you get that promotion at work. It could be a compromise so you are popular in school. It could be a compromise so you get a seat at the table of political power. It could be a compromise of attitude that says it doesn’t matter how you live your live Monday through Saturday, as long as you show up on Sunday and worship God.

Next comes the challenge: “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:17). Carefully read that verse again. To “repent” means to turn away. It means to change direction and turn around. It means to agree with God that you were wrong and He was right. A dose of repentance is worth a pound of cure.

Now, notice God’s grace. God doesn’t say, if you don’t repent, He is going to come and fight against the entire church. Instead, He says, if you don’t repent He will come to the church and “fight against them.” In the same way a skillful surgeon removes a tumor without fatally harming the patient, God will remove sin from the church without harming the entire church. God will keep His Church pure, either with our help or without our help. God is saying to the leaders of the church in Pergamum, “Look, I’m going to give you a chance to straighten things out. But if you don’t, I’m going to come and do it for you, and you really don’t want that!”

Here is the application: As followers of Jesus, we are responsible for each other. We are to be accountable to one another and to hold each other accountable. A radical disciple repents and encourages his brothers and sisters to repent. Listen to the words of Paul, Brothers, if someone is caught in sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2).

And now the promise: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). To those who remain true, and do not compromise their faith by participating in pagan feasts, they will eat “hidden manna.” This refers to the Messianic promise of eating at the Wedding Supper, the glorious Feast of the Lamb. “Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:’ Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ And he added, ‘These are the true words of God’” (Revelation 19:6-9).

The “white stone” has many possible meanings. First, in ancient times, a jury voted by casting stones into an urn. A white stone meant acquittal and a black stone meant condemnation. Through Jesus Christ we have been acquitted of our sins and are no longer condemned. Second, in ancient times, white stones were used as counters in calculations. Through Jesus Christ we have been counted as one of His children. We have been adopted into His family. Third, in ancient times, a white stone was used as a symbol of victory. Through Jesus Christ we are victorious in this life, and in the next life. Fourth, in ancient times, white stones were used as tickets into major events, like pagan feasts inside pagan temples. Through Jesus Christ we have our tickets the Wedding feasts. Through Him, we have access into His glorious riches.

Finally, and probably the best contextual explanation, in ancient times white stones were worn around the neck as good-luck charms. On the stones would be written names of gods, or sayings, or chants, that were believed to keep people safe. Through Jesus Christ we have been given a stone, with His name on it, to protect us through whatever this life may throw our way.[6]

The promise could be summarized as follows: To him who overcomes and remains faithful and true, Jesus will throw a party like no other party. In addition, Jesus promises to give that person acquittal from condemnation, adoption into His family, victory over struggles, access to the wedding feast, and protection as you walk through life.

That is radical! That is worth committing your life to!

CONCLUSION:

 In the city of Pergamum was the throne of Satan, and the church of Antipas, the martyred pastor. The serpent and the saint. In His letter to the church in Pergamum, Jesus contrasts the two, and challenges us to repentance and to making a choice. A radical choice! Are we going to compromise our faith so we can better fit into our culture, or are we going to remain true to One who has given His life for us? Are we going to be citizens of the empire, or citizens of the kingdom? Are we going to conform to cultural expediency, or are we going to commit to radical discipleship? If Jesus were to write us a letter, He might would say, “It’s time to fish or cut bait.” Which are you going to choose?

Radical churches produce radical disciples.

If they could remain true and live out their faith in the city of Pergamum, then surely, we can remain true and live out our faith in Franklin!

_______________________________

NOTES:

[1] The information about Asclepius was taken from https://www.livescience.com/33104-why-is-the-medical-symbol-a-snake-on-a-stick.html

[2] Denotes the collection of religious writings which the Septuagint and Vulgate (with trivial differences) contain in addition to the writings constituting the Jewish and Protestant canon.

[3] The information about Antipas was taken from Dr. Jonathan Weltoon’s book, Understanding the Seven Churches of Revelation (2015. Welton Academy, Rochester, NY), p. 79.

[4] Dr. Jonathan Welton, Understanding the Seven Churches of Revelation, p. 75.

[5] As a side note: If you read the entire Revelation through the lens of emperor worship, you will have a better understanding of the entire book, as well as have powerful applications for following Jesus in our current political climate.

[6] The different meanings of the “white stone” comes from William Barclay’s book, Letters to the Seven Churches (2001. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY), pp. 41-42.

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About Pastor Kevin

I am a husband, father, pastor, teacher, scuba diver, reader, bike rider...in that order.
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