The Doctrine of Balaam

Revelation 2:12-17

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2022

We are studying the letters of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation.  Today, we come to the third letter of Jesus.  We looked at Jesus’ letter to the Church of Ephesus (the cold church).

We looked at his letter to the Church of Smyrna (the persecuted church).  Today, we look at the letter to the Church at Pergamum (the doctrinally unsound church).  They had people in it who believed all kinds of strange things.

Pergamum was a city in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  The city was sixty miles north of Smyrna.

This church is very similar to the American Church.  Most churches are not really good or really bad.  They are somewhere in the middle.  Most churches have a combination of good and bad.

They have some really good people in them.  They are faithful.  They are godly.  They are sincere but it also has some people who are not so good in it.

The Church of Pergamum was like that.  It had some godly people in it.  It had some people who took a stand for Jesus.  Jesus said that this church remained true to him.

He said that this church did NOT renounce their faith, even in the midst of intense persecution (Revelation 2:13).  One member of the church, named Antipas, was put to death.

His faith in Christ got him killed.  He did not deny Jesus and he was martyred.  There were other people in the church who were not so good.  Today, I want to look at four lessons from this church.

Modern Lessons from This Church

1) Don’t confuse education and culture with morality

Pergamum was an intellectual center.  It was a center of learning in the ancient world.  It had a huge library there, one of the most famous libraries in the ancient world. The second largest library in the Roman Empire was in Pergamum.

The first largest was in Alexandria in Egypt which contained 500,000. The library at Pergamum had over 200,000 books in it.

These books looked a little different than books today.  These were scrolls, not books. Books did not exist yet. Books were not invented until the fourth century.  This library had 200,000 scrolls all copied by hand because the printing press had not been invented yet.

Pergamum was a center of healing and medicine.  One of the greatest surgeons in the ancient world live there.  Galen was the greatest physician of ancient Rome. He lived a few years after John (c.129-200 AD).

He was also a writer.  He wrote twenty-one books.  Each one was a thousand pages long.  Pergamum was Galen’s hometown.  He was born in Pergamum.

A city may be a great intellectual center.  It may be a great cultural center but never confuse culture with morality.  Never confuse education with spirituality.

This city was a great cultural and intellectual center, but it was also an extremely wicked city.  It was a very dark place for a Christian to live.

Some Christians were martyred in this church.  Antipas was martyred there.  According to tradition, he was the Bishop of Pergamum and was martyred.

2) Don’t confuse your environment with your identity

Jesus said that we are to be in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-18).  He sends us into the world, but we are not of the world.  We are in the world.

All Christians live in enemy territory.  We live in the world.  We are surrounded by unbelievers.  In some cases, we live in a place that is a hostile environment for Christians.  Notice what Jesus said to this church.

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. (Revelation 2:12-13 NIV)

This church was not located in the Bible belt.  It was located in a center of demonic and satanic activity.  That sounds a little scary.  This church was surrounded by really bad influences.

Satan’s throne was in Pergamum.  Satan is called the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).  He is a ruler.  All rulers have a throne where they rule from.  They all have a seat of government.

In John’s day, Satan’s throne was located in Pergamum.  No one could see his throne.  It was invisible and yet Pergamum was where Satan’s base of operations was located.

Jesus knew all about it.  He said, “I know where you live.”  He knew where members of this church where they lived, and he knows where we live as well. He knew where the Jews lived in Egypt.

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. 7 The Lord said, “I have indeed SEEN the misery of my people in Egypt. I have HEARD them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am CONCERNED about their suffering. (Exodus 3:5-7 NIV).

“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. 4 The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ 5 And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and YOU LIVE AMONG SCORPIONS. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. (Ezekiel 2:3-6 NIV).

The Church of Pergamum was located near Satan’s headquarters.  Satan has his operations all over the world but apparently his throne, in John’s day, was located in Pergamum.  It was where Satan’s headquarters were located.

This city was a stronghold. It was a satanic stronghold. Satan had special power in that city.  Satan is more active in certain geographic locations.  He manifests his power and authority more in certain places than others.

Why would Satan’s throne be in Pergamum?  Why would he choose this city?

Pergamum was a center of demonic activity.  It was a center false religion.  It was a center of idolatry.  It was a center of immorality.  It was a center of persecution.  One member of this died for his faith in Christ.

Pergamum was full of idolatry.  It was a center of idol worship.  Pergamum is a city on a hill and at the top of the hill is a bunch of pagan temples.

Zeus was worshiped there.  There is a massive fifty-foot statute to Zeus there.  There are temples to other gods there as well.

Asclepius was the Greek god of healing.  Aesculapius was the Roman god of medicine.  Asclepius was worshiped in Pergamum.  There was a large temple built for this god.

Diseased people from all over the Roman Empire flocked to Pergamum.  Sick people would come to the Temple of Asclepius, worship Asclepius and hope to be healed.

The symbol of Asclepius was the serpent.  This picture of a snake on a stick is still the symbol of the medical profession to this day.

Pergamum was also a center of Caesar worship.  The Romans considered their emperors as gods.  They built temples for them.  They worshiped them.

Pergamum was also the first place that worshiped the Roman emperors as God. “It was the first city in Asia Minor to build a temple to a Roman ruler (Augustus)”[1]

What is the lesson for today?  No matter where we live, we can shine the light of Christ.  The darker the location is, the more the light shines, the more it needs the gospel witness.  This church was called a lampstand.  It held up the light in a dark place.

This church ministered in Satan’s territory and remained faithful.  This church stayed faithful in Satan’s city and we can too.  While others said that “Caesar is Lord,” they said, “Jesus is Lord” and remained faithful.

3) Don’t confuse opinion with truth

We all have opinions about things.  You have opinions and I have opinions, but all ideas are not equal.  All opinions are not biblical.  All ideas should not be accepted.

This church had people in the church who believed false doctrine.  There were more than one of them.  There were some in the church who held to the doctrine of Balaam.  They had others in the church called Nicolaitans.

It is also possible that there were only one group in this church that held false doctrine.  They were called the Nicolaitans.  What did they believe?  They taught the Doctrine of Balaam.  Some say that “The teaching of Balaam” is the same as “the teaching of the Nicolaitans” [2]

They are not teaching in the church yet.  In the next church, we see people in leadership position with false doctrine.   They were in the church spreading false doctrine and it was like cancer.  It was destroying the church.  No one was correcting it.

This was a leadership problem in the church.  We have people in the church who believe all kinds of things, some biblical and some unbiblical.  If the church does not do a lot of teaching, it is a big problem.

The Church of Ephesus, the hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6).  The Church of Pergamum had people who taught the doctrine of the Nicolaitans in their church (Revelation 2:15).  They had people who taught the doctrine of Balaam.

The Doctrine of Balaam

Who was Balaam?  He is a mysterious Bible character.  You do not hear too many sermons on Balaam in church.  Some of the things that people have said about him are not true.

Let’s get some of the facts.  You can read about Balaam in Numbers 22-25. After forty years in the wilderness, Israel was on its way to the Promise Land.  Different nations were being conquered.

The King of Moab was worried that they might attack his country, so he hired a man named Balaam, who lived far away, to curse Israel.  Moab is located in the modern state of Jordan today.

Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:6 NIV)

Balaam had great reputation. He had a special gift. He could curse and what he said came to pass.  He was a sorcerer.  It seemed to work.  What do we know about him?  His brother was a king.[3]

Balaam was not Jewish.  He was not saved.  He was a pagan soothsayer.  He practiced divination (Numbers 24:1; Joshua 13:22). Even though he was a pagan soothsayer, God spoke to him.

God can speak to anyone.  He put His Word in his mouth (Numbers 23:5, 16).

Many call Balaam a false prophet.  Some have called him “the prototype false prophet,”[4] and yet strangely he never utters on false prophecy. Balaam delivered seven prophecies or seven oracles, including one of the coming Messiah (Numbers 24:17).

Balaam was the one who said, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19 ESV)

How many people have quoted that passage and not realized that the one who uttered those words were Balaam.  What he said was true.  Balaam spoke some genuine prophetic words and he was not even saved.

He got to see a real angel.  An angel appeared to Balaam and talked to Balaam. Balaam even says the words, “I have sinned” (Numbers 22:34).  What did Balaam do that was wrong?

He was hired to curse Israel.  He tried to but he couldn’t do it.  He said, “I cannot go beyond the Word of the Lord” (Numbers 22:18).  God would not let him curse them, so he figured out a way around that.

If he could not curse them, he would corrupt them, and God would curse them himself.  Balaam got Israel to sin.  He did it for greed.  He wanted the money.

He used Moabite women, who were probably temple prostitutes, to seduce them into sexual immorality and idolatry (Numbers 31:15-16).  That led to their death.  The Bible says that God got angry, and He judged them.

Twenty-four thousand people died.  How did they die?  They died from a plague (Numbers 25:9).  How did the plague stop?  This is the story in the Bible that many do not like.

Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

10 The Lord said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. (Numbers 25:6-11 NIV)

Phinehas was the grandson of Aaron, Moses’ brother.  He was not a judge but when he saw this, he grabbed a spear, went into the tent and killed these two love birds in the act and the plague stopped.[5]

What is the doctrine of Balaam?  Are there any modern-day doctrines of Balaam?  The good news is that we do not have to guess what the doctrine is.  Jesus tells us.

There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality

1) The doctrine of Balaam involves enticement to sin.

Balaam put a stumbling block before the Israelites.  He seduced a whole nation into sin.

The doctrine of Balaam is tempting people to disobey God, especially in the matters of sex.  It is telling them to do what God has told them not to do.

Balaam tempted the Israelites to disobey God and to do what God told them not to do.  He taught that the people of God could sin with impunity.

There are plenty of people and some religious leaders who teach us not to follow what the Bible teaches, especially in the matter of sexuality.

Homosexuality, and even gay marriage, is encouraged, even though it goes against the clear teaching of Scripture.

2) The doctrine of Balaam involves compromise with the world

The doctrine of Balaam brought idolatry into ancient Judaism.  It brings bringing pagan ideas, philosophies, and ethics into the church today.  It is bringing the world into the church.  Do we have that today?  Is the modern church worldly?

Can there ever be false teaching in church?  Yes.  You can hear all kinds of crazy things in some churches.  Preachers say all kinds of goofy stuff.  How would you know if there are any?

You have to know the Word.  You have to know the difference between true and false doctrine.  Many think that the word “doctrine” is a dirty word.  It is simply saying what the Bible says on a particular topic.

We live in a day when many Christians do not know the Word.  Some leaders do not know it.  Some elders do not know it.  Some deacons do not know it.

They do not know what it teaches on a particular topic.  They do not know any verses on the topic.  They would not know how to answer some cultists who comes to their door with false doctrine.

If that describes you, it is very easy to fix.  Spend time in the Word.  Read some books.  Listen to good preachers.  Ask questions.  Most preachers get nervous when you ask questions but if they are honest questions, you should try to get an answer.

2 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure SOUND DOCTRINE, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (II Timothy 4:2-4 NKJV)

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you— 6 if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. 7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, 8 but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by SOUND DOCTRINE, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. (Titus 1:5-9 NKJV)

But as for you, speak the things which are proper for SOUND DOCTRINE: 2 that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; 3 the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things— (Titus 2:1-3 NKJV)

4) Don’t confuse feeling sorry with repentance

Now, we come to the difficult part of the letter.  Jesus has some difficult things to say to this church.  He confronted this church with sin.

Note how He described Himself to this church.  He came to this church with a sword, a sharp sword, a double-edged sword (Revelation 2:12).  I thought Jesus was always for us.  He did not come to this church all warm and fuzzy.

Here, He brings a sword of judgment against the church if it does not repent.  He stands over this church as a threatening judge.  It is better to face the sword of the Romans than the sword of Jesus.

Jesus is fair.  He praised the church for the good things they were doing.  Most churches have some good points.  After giving the church the good news, He said these words:

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you.  None of us want Jesus to have anything against our church.  Does He have anything against us?  Then He says two words. Repent therefore!  This church needed to repent.

It is interesting to me that five out of the seven churches were told by Jesus to repent.

Consider how far you have fallen! REPENT and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Revelation 2:5 NIV)

REPENT therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (Revelation 2:16 NIV)

1 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they REPENT of her ways. (Revelation 2:21-23 NIV)

Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and REPENT. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. (Revelation 3:3 NIV)

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent (Revelation 3:19 NIV)

Jesus is talking to Christians.  He is not talking to pagans.  He is telling Christians to repent.  He tells five out of seven churches to repent.  That is a high number.  It is 71%.

Would He tell 71 percent of American churches to repent?  Would the number be higher or lower?  Would he tell us to repent?

What does repentance involve?  It starts with guilt.  You feel bad about something.  It involves a confession of sin (“I am sorry” or “I have sinned”).  It leads to a change of actions.

In this case, the leaders needed to remove the Nicolaitans from the church.  They needed to do some church discipline.  Few churches do that today.  It is not very popular.

One of the things that is lacking in the modern church is any teaching on repentance.  Preachers rarely talk about repentance in the pulpit. It is almost nonexistent in some churches, even though immorality is rampant in some churches.

Preachers today want to be positive and uplifting.  They want to be inspirational.  They rarely preach about sin.  They rarely preach about judgment.  We can’t be judged.  We are Christians.

That is the lie that we sometimes hear in church.  Notice what Jesus says.  Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.  That is a strange picture.  Jesus is fighting with professing Christians.

God judged Balaam.  He was killed with the sword (Numbers 31:8).  He also judged the Israelites who sinned.  Twenty-four thousand dropped dead.

Paul uses that as a warning to God’s people today.  Paul said that is a warning to us today.  It could happen to us.  When have you ever heard that message in church?

We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. (I Corinthians 10:8 NIV)

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (I Corinthians 10:12 ESV)

Three Promises

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.’ (Revelation 2:17 NIV)

The letter ends with a promise to the overcomer.  Each church has different sins to overcome.  If this church is successful, they are promised three things: hidden manna, a white stone and a new name.

1) They will be given hidden manna

Instead of partaking of heathen feasts in pagan temples, they will get to eat of the hidden manna.  The manna is the bread that God supernaturally provided for the Israelites in the wilderness. They would not have survived without it.

Manna kept the Israelites alive for forty years in the wilderness and ceased to appear when they first harvested their crops near their new homeland (Joshua 5:12). This manna was hidden in the Ark of the Covenant in a golden jar (Hebrews 9:3-4).

It was later put in Solomon’s Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, no one knew what happened to the manna but there is Jewish legend which says the jar of manna that mysteriously disappeared will be revealed by the Messiah. All who overcome will one day receive some of the hidden manna from Jesus.

2) They will be given a white stone

White stones were used for several things in the ancient world. In ancient courts, the accused were acquitted or condemned by vote of a jury. The voting member would cast a white pebble for “acquittal” or a black pebble for “guilty”.

White stones were also used for invitations to certain functions (party) and festivals. You needed a white stone to get in. It was your ticket to get in. That is another possible meaning of the white stone.

3) They will be given a new name

We will not just get a new name.  God will give it to us.   It will not only be a new name; it will be a secret name.  We will get a new name that “no one knows except the one who receives it.” You will not know my new name and I will not know yours.  It does not necessarily mean that we will get rid of our old names.

[1] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 246.

[2] David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, vol. 52A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1997), 188; G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 251; David L. Mathewson, Revelation: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament, (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 30.

[3] Balaam was a son of Beor (Numbers 22:5).  King Bela was another son of Beor (Genesis 36:31-32).  Bela lived and ruled in Edom.

[4] Avila, Charlie, Detecting & Dealing With False Teachings: How to Maintain Sound Doctrine in the Local Church (p. 110). Kindle Edition.


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