“Sin’s Flirtations” – Revelation 2:12-17

by Roger McCay
9 May 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 2:12-17
Link to Audio Version

Sin can disguise itself as seductive appeal, and temptation can be an attractive temptress. Flirting with sin can lead to disaster, as it can lead to a relationship, and that relationship to an unholy union, bringing devastation not only to the individual, but to whole families, and even within the body of Christ.

This was the threat worming its way into the church of Pergamum. A number of their members were flirting with false teachings, thinking about them, toying with them, being enticed by them, some even dancing with them in an intimate embrace. Thus corruption was in their midst, with various members seduced by evil. Yet, the Lord, walking among his lampstands, was aware and ready to bring down judgment. But, before he did, Jesus, “who has the sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 1:16; 2:12 &17) dictated to John this letter for the church, in order to shine a light on the threat and provide directions on how to crush it, setting the church straight before it was too late.

Pergamum was the historic capital of Asia. It was an intellectual center, in the vein of Athens and Alexandria. It was also a religious center, with temples, shrines and altars dedicated to Zeus (known as “savior” who had a massive “throne-like” altar raised up above the city), also Dionysius, Athena, and Asklepios (the latter being the god of healing, also called “savior,” symbolized by a serpent—an image replicated all over the city and even on coins). And due to the nature of Asklepios and his followers practices, Pergamum had become a medical center, with people travelling there from all over for healing. Further, the city was the primary center in Asia of the imperial cult and deified statism, first building a temple to Caesar Augustus and Rome in AD 29, subsequently leading the region in the worship of the Roman emperor.[1]

Pergamum was a difficult place for a Christian church to exist and remain faithful. Jesus described it as “where Satan’s throne is” and “where Satan dwells.” The signs of this reality were plain to see: the prominent emphasis on idolatry all around them, not only architecture, but woven into the culture, business, politics, and the very money they used; the images of a serpent used as a dominant motif around the city (and you might recall how Satan is called a serpent in Rev. 12:9 & 20:2, hearkening to Gen. 3); Satan’s presence and influence was seen especially in the predominance of the imperial cult in a time when Emperor Nero was targeting Christians for persecution and demanding worship. The evil one’s influence and residence was not subtle. It was overt. Thus the church existed in the middle of a satanic stronghold, shining the light of Christ—a threat to the enemy (2 Cor. 2:4), but also a juicy target.

Indeed, the church had come under heavy persecution (v. 13), with the martyrdom of Antipas (whom the Lord calls his “faithful witness”). And, rising up against this attack from without (of whatever it consisted), the church stood strong in the face of the threat of death. They held fast to the name of Jesus (as the true Savior and Lord), and held tight to their faith in the Lord, not denying it under pressure to do so.

Yet, the enemy was devious. Where the direct assault had not broken the church’s defenses, a change of tactics ensued. Thus the enemy infiltrated and attacked the church from within, seeding the church with lies through false teachers, in order to corrupt the church. This attack from within was having successful results. Where the attack from without had failed, corruption had taken hold of some in the church, and, if not nipped in the bud, it would be the church’s downfall.

This was an old trick of the enemy. So, as a reminder, Jesus mentions the teachings of Balaam in v. 14. Balaam was the devious prophet from the book of Numbers, whom the King of Moab had hired against Israel, back when Israel was still wandering in the desert (Num. 22-24). Jesus also mentions the teachings of the Nicolaitans, in v. 15, and these two enemies of true Israel, the church, correspond in a couple of ways. First, their very names correspond, as Balaam means “conqueror of the people” in Hebrew and Νικολαος means “conqueror of the people” in Greek. They were also theological equivalents in how they seduced the church into whoredom, with alluring ideas that included antinomianism and syncretism.

In Rev. 2:14-15, Jesus hearkens to and highlights the correspondence of what Balaam did and what the Nicolaitans were doing. Balaam gave King Balak, of Moab, advice on how to conquer the Israelites (Num. 31:16). Moab could not win with direct assault and the prophet was inhibited by the Lord to even be able to bring down curses on the people (bringing down blessings instead). So, Balaam pointed out that the only way to defeat Israel was by seeding corruption within. Internal corruption was the only way. Balak then, following Balaam’s advice, deviously went about accomplishing this with women and seduction. Num. 25:1 tells of the incident: “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab.” These women interacted with the men of Israel, flirting, enticing, and wooing. And many of the Israelites succumbed to their charms and embraced them, fornicated with them, and were brought under their sway. Under their spell, numerous Israelites, members of God’s covenant people, were then seduced into sacrificing to the Moabite gods, and eating and bowing down to them.

This very old trick was now being brought against the church in Pergamum by the Nicolaitans. Satan’s minions were hard at work. And like their master, they were a devious opposition.

The way of enticement was by bringing in appealing ideas that seemed wise and seemed to harmonize with what they knew of the faith. These teachings evidently consisted of a type of antinomianism (teaching a freedom in Christ that included a laxity in morals, saying such was excused by the power of grace—an idea Paul rails against in Romans 6:1-2). Syncretism was also clearly in play (a teaching, in this case, that participation in idolatrous practices had no meaning, if the gods were false, in light of the true God; “no harm; no foul”—something Paul speaks against in 1 Cor. 8 and 10). Such appealing ideas put immorality and idolatrous practices into an acceptable framework by twisting the doctrines of grace and truth.

And this played out in a practical way. Why resist the culture, with its rank immorality, if you really don’t have to? Why not enjoy the pleasures of the flesh? Why refuse to participate in guild meals, where food was served that had been offered to idols, and thus facing economic consequences, when you don’t have to? Why resist the government when it forces worship of the emperor and state, and face judicial punishment—even death—when such is just meaningless words? Why suffer, when one can participate in sin with a clear conscience?

Perhaps you can see the appeal of such teaching. It’s a best of both worlds approach, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled, “cheap grace.”[2]

The corrupting of the truth with the devious and seductive twisting of theology was, in fact, a replacing of the truth of Christ with lies from Satan. It was a corruption of the purity of doctrine, hence a corruption of the purity of the church in both ideas and practice, as embraced ideas lead to harmonic action. Thus sexual immorality and eating food dedicated to idols became (at least in their minds), an acceptable practice among some members of the congregation—exactly like what happened among the Israelites at Shittim. Members of the church were whoring with Satan’s minions.

So, do you think such a thing is going on in the church in America, today? Even across the world? Of course it is. How do we know? Barna surveys are a helpful tool, for one. You ought to look those up online. You would be dismayed at the percentages of self-identified Christians who testify that they’ve been taken in by the lies of the Nicolaitans (although they wouldn’t call it that, as they don’t see themselves in the wrong). But a cursory look at the actions of many such Christians provides plenty of evidence of their delusion. We can see their whoredom by their actions. I had a seminary professor (who has seminarians entering the ministry write papers on their biggest struggle going into ministry) tell me that I’d be shocked at how many of them had a pornography addiction. Then we have whole denominations that are breaking up by the push for acceptance and normalization of sexual sins. And then there is this article Joe Carter recently published on The Gospel Coalition website, titled, “Survey: Half of U.S. ‘Christians’ Say Casual Sex Is Acceptable.”[3] The title says it all, really. Half of self-identified “Christians” have no qualms with casual sex—sex outside of marriage. How is this? It’s because they’ve swallowed lies from Satan, like those of the Nicolaitans.

Friends, any sex outside the marriage relationship between a man and a woman is a sin in any form. I state that clearly because so many people seem confused about the issue. I mean, it’s number seven of the Big Ten – “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” This is absolutely clear in the scriptures. Any sex outside of marriage (sexual immorality) is adultery.

Consider this admonition from Paul:

15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

Adultery for a Christian, is joining Christ to a sinful act—whether a prostitute or anyone else outside of marriage. Joe Carter explains: “Paul’s point is that a believer belongs body, soul, and spirit to Jesus, and any unholy union with anyone else other than our spouse is a betrayal of our union with Christ.”[4] Does that seem like a good idea? No! It’s a corruption—an abomination. It is love of self over love of Christ. Don’t be fooled by the wooing enticements of the world. Can you see why Jesus was quite angry with this behavior in Pergamum and was quickly coming in judgment with the sword of his mouth upon those caught up in this mess (v. 16)?

Flee even a hint of sexual immorality, my friends (1 Cor. 6:18). Flee from it, whether it’s pornography, hetero or homo casual sex, or adultery of any kind. Sexual relations between a man and woman within marriage is a gift from God, created and blessed by him, something to be enjoyed and in which to rejoice (Gen. 2). Don’t spoil this wondrous gift. Outside of the God designed marriage, sexual relations are an offense to Christ; it violates your very soul and the soul of the one with whom you copulate.

As for eating of the food of idols, today, that parallels a casual acceptance and integration of the idolatrous tendencies of the world into our own lives. Tim Keller describes an idol this way:

An idol’s anything in your life that is so central to your life that you can’t have a meaningful life if you lose it. Idolatry is anything you look at, and in your heart of hearts you say, If I have that, then my life has value, then my life has meaning. If I would lose that, I don’t know how I would live.[5]

Eating of the food of idols is a form of accepting and participating in the idolatry of others. For a Christian it’s a syncretic blending of truth (Jesus) and falsehood (idols). This can unfold in the acceptance and encouragement of selfish sinful desires, confirming them in their sinful identity or practices. It can be compromises in business, pressured by the boss, with mammon as the bottom line. Or it could be simply taking part in activities that elevate an idol of the culture (perhaps a celebrity or some other thing), enhancing their status, and fueling their worship. Such things can play out in so many ways. Such participation in the eating of the food of idols is idolatry itself, as it is not following and glorifying Christ, but following and glorifying whatever the idol might be. Again, however a person might spin it with clever enticing words, such is a clear violation of number one of the Big Ten – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

These things, syncretic worship (idolatry) and antinomianism (immorality) were the reasons the Lord’s wrath repeatedly came down upon the people of Israel, in the OT. Does the church think the Lord has changed his mind on this? Does the church think the Lord will overlook and not punish such faithlessness? The Lord makes it clear (Rev. 2:16): “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”

Sinful sensual attraction is a temptation that brings destruction. Flee from it! And repent if you’ve sinned. And that doesn’t just mean alligator tears and an “I’m sorry.” It means grief and hatred of the sin accompanied by a deliberate turning away from it. When you repent, the Lord forgives, as he’s already paid the penalty for your sin in his own blood.

Thus, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gave us the cup of the New Covenant in his blood (1 Cor. 11:25). What some seem to overlook, however, is that the Lord’s covenant has always had attached blessings and curses—whether old or new covenant, as they are both dispensations of the one covenant of grace. In Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, he took the curse we deserve upon himself for the sake of his elect. But judgment comes upon those who are like the seed sown on the path, rocky ground, or among thorns (Matt. 13:5-7; 19-22). As our passage today shows, too, judgment can come upon the unrepentant. And, even for the elect, there are temporal consequences for sin (Prov. 6:27; 2 Sam. 12; 1 Cor. 11:30; Gal. 6:7, and so forth).

The Lord brings judgment at any time he chooses. He always has. There are many, many examples of this in Scripture. For the Israelites, under the Old Covenant, in Num. 25, it was the judgment that came upon them at Peor for whoring with the Moabite women and their gods. There the Lord ordered the killing of not only the men who had succumbed to the Moabite women and so yoked themselves with Baal, but he also ordered the deaths of their chiefs, by impalement—men who were the Israelite leaders, elders. And, on top of that, the Lord sent a plague among the people, killing 24,000.

The Lord ordered this judgment as a means to cut the cancer out of the body. The judgment on the elders was clearly because they failed in their duty before the Lord to maintain discipline among those entrusted to them. If they had done their duty and exercised discipline against those who were whoring with the Moabite women (and consider the praised zeal of Phineas, in Num. 25:6-13), then it would have never escalated to this. The judgment upon those who whored is for obvious reasons. And the plague served to emphasize the point to the whole of Israel. God is a jealous God, and he will act in judgment for the sake of the purity of his church (Deut. 4:24; 6:15). Do you think it was any different in first century Pergamum, or even today?

Consider too, under the new covenant, Ananias and Saphira, who were members of the Christian church, in Jerusalem (Acts 5:1-11). Their idolatry concerned money, sinning in their hearts and lying to the Holy Spirit, while they lied to the apostle Peter. Jesus, the King and Judge, killed them dead in their tracks.

Thus, it was the elders of the church of Pergamum along with the people of the church under their care, especially those involved with the Nicolaitan whoring, who were to repent. The elders needed to repent not doing their duty, which was to purge the false teaching and exercise church discipline upon those caught up in sin (Ezek. 3:18; Matt. 18:15-17; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2, 5 and so forth). This was their God-given covenant responsibility, and they had neglected it. Now, the cancer was spreading, threatening the whole body. Unless it was excised by the elders, the Lord was coming and would do it in a much more dramatic and devastating way. Likewise, those following the false teachings of the Nicolaitans were to repent, rejecting the false teachers and teachings, and turning away from fornication and idolatry.

Otherwise, Christ’s judgment was coming down upon them, to war against them (Rev. 2:16). And if you think about it, if they did not repent, Christ’s judgment must come down upon them—excising the cancer, like he did at Peor. Otherwise, the corruption would destroy the church, as it would have been weakened from within, crumbling from the inside. No longer would it shine as a light for Christ, in the midst of Satan’s stronghold. The light would dim and then be swept away.

Christ doesn’t leave the church with such a grim picture however. The Holy Spirit gives a promise to those who conquer—who overcome by faithfulness and repentance. He promises, in v. 17, “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.”

So, what is this hidden manna? Well, in short, it hearkens back to the manna stored in the ark of the covenant (Heb. 9:4).[6] With that in mind, what is the bread of the covenant? What is the manna from heaven, as we know it, foreshadowed by the manna from heaven in the wilderness? Jesus, of course. Jesus said,

48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever (John 6:48-50).

The hidden manna is the food of the covenant, provided by God, with its ultimate fulfillment found in Christ—eternal nourishment and satisfaction. Consider how this compares to eating food offered to idols. Such idolatry is empty, providing only an illusion of satisfaction—temporary. It is a perversion of eating of the bread of life. Why do that when Jesus is eternally fulfilling with eternal life?

As for the white stone with a new name that no-one knows but the one who receives it? As an analogy to this stone, there are quite a number of items of historical interest that have been suggested, along with a combination of OT images.[7] And while some of these analogies speak to certain truths, none of them really fit. So, we don’t know for sure the specific reference, as it is lost in time. Despite this, context gives us insight to the meaning. Whatever the original historical reference, context seems to place the white stone with the secret name in opposition to fornication. Hence, it is a case of false intimacy versus true intimacy. The white stone with the secret name, only known to God and the individual, symbolizes true intimacy with God—a “private interaction that no one else shares.”[8] It represents eternal fulness of intimacy (in truth and love with the holy God) in comparison with the momentary pleasure of the lie of fornication, which leaves one violated and empty, having sought intimacy in adultery.

So it is, for those who overcome false teaching through faithfulness and repentance (which, by the way, involves all the spiritual disciplines like worship, study of the Word, and prayer—things through which the Holy Spirit works to sanctify us and give us strength) … for those who conquer, the ultimate satisfaction will be found in Christ, a gift of intimacy in truth and perfection.

Now, if you’ve failed Christ and yourself, settling for empty shadows of idols and immorality, the marvelous, wonderous truth is that Jesus provides a simple solution—repent. In repenting, you conquer. Jesus forgives, having paid the penalty for your sins on the cross. Such is his love for you. With that said, let us each resolve to guard against the corruption that can come from within and be prepared to submit to or exercise covenant discipline for the purity of the church.

My friends, we have a devious enemy, who seeks to manipulate us through the twisting of truth, leading us to succumb to sinful sensual attractions. Let us be disciplined in our own lives (both spiritually and physically), and let us maintain discipline within the church when it comes to doctrine and practice. The Lord is zealous about the purity of his church. Let us join with him in that zealousness and let us not invoke his judgment upon us. Because only Christ Jesus can fulfil the needs of our soul, Christians must reject the wooing call of sin.


[1] Cf. Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 81-85.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), 43ff.

[3] Joe Carter, Survey: Half of U.S. ‘Christians’ Say Casual Sex Is Acceptable, The Gospel Coalition, pub. 1 May 2021, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christians-accept-casual-sex/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tim Keller, “Gospel Preaching That Radically Changes Lives: How to Discern, Expose, and Challenge the Idols,” https://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/themes/preachingwithauthority/gospelpreachingthatradically.html.

[6] While I don’t mention it in the sermon, it’s worth noting that the Jewish legend of Jeremiah and the Ark of the Covenant/Hidden Manna (which had been stored in the Ark). This legend corresponds with the Messiah and the Messianic age, and here Jesus speaks of the hidden manna in relation to himself. Concerning this, Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 147, states: “Tradition said that at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s temple, Jeremiah (others said an angel) was told by God to take the ark [[which, as Mounce adds, includes “the pot of manna placed in the ark for a memorial to future generations;” Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 82]] and hide it underground at Mount Sinai (2 Macc. 2:4–7; 2 Bar. 6.7–10; 29.8; Sib. Or. 7.148–49), there to await the eschaton, when the Messiah would place the ark in the new temple. Therefore it is connected to the messianic feast of the end times and refers to the eternal bliss of heaven.” My thought is that the hidden manna concept does seem to foreshadow the marriage supper of the lamb (Rev. 19:7-9; Matt. 8:11; cf. Luke 14:15) and the bride of Christ’s eternal life in Christ, as those are blessings of the partaking of the bread of life, Jesus (John 6:48-50).

[7] Hemer, 96ff., lists seven of the “more important suggestions” for reference: “(i) A ‘jewel’ in Old Testament or Jewish tradition. (ii) The judicial calculus Minervae, the casting vote of acquittal. (iii) A token of admission, membership or recognition. (iv) An amulet with a divine name. (v) A token of gladiatorial discharge. (vi) Allusion to a process of initiation into the service of Asklepios. (vii) Simply as a writing material whose form or colour was significant.” Numbers ii and iii are particularly appealing in the truths they imply, but each suggestion has its weakness in that they do not exactly fulfil the description in Rev. 2:17. Some have also suggested it is a combined image. Among those, David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 110, provides an OT suggestion for the answer to the image, combining the white “bdellium (cf. Exod. 16:31 with Num. 11:7)” and the onyx stones placed on the shoulders of the high priest that were engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel (Ex. 28:9-12).” Since bdellium and onyx are associated in Genesis 2:12, he concludes the image is speaking to the “restoration of Eden in the blessings of salvation.” While appealing, his convoluted argument seems a stretch, and it doesn’t really harmonize with the immediate context of the passage, so is unconvincing.

[8] James M. Hamilton Jr., Preaching the Word: Revelation—The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 91.