In Revelation 2:17 Christ tells the church in Pergamos “To him that overcometh will I give… a white stone, and in the stone a new name written.” But what does that mean?
A few posts ago I talked about the power of words, and I spent a couple words talking about names in particular. The Spirit brought to me this song to tell me there was more to say on the subject. Shakespeare famously penned “What’s in a name?” So let’s answer it.
Names are just a specific type of word. And remember a word is just the name for an idea. Together that means your name is the name for the idea of you. I know, that’s a little hard to follow, so let me try to clean it up: your name is the reference by which people know you, by which people can communicate to you and about you. It’s not a thing you need, because you know when you are talking to you. It’s not a thing the Lord needs because He knows you, knows when you’re talking to Him, and how to speak to you quite directly. Your name exists solely for other people. Chew on that a second. Consider the weight of it.
Because our names exist only for other people there is a dissonance, a divorce, from the idea of you and the idea evoked by your name. That is to say that when people see you and interact with you they have one mental picture of you, but when they think on your name it is an entirely different, though hopefully related, image evoked. Other people cannot know you, they can only know the partial version of you that resides in their memory based on their collected experiences with you. The longer we know someone the deeper and richer that copy becomes for them, but it is always just a shadow of the truth, the real you. The tragedy of that is that the shadow evoked by our name, the idea summoned when we’re discussed, is a partial image of that partial image, a copy of a copy, but one that carries more weight than the idea of us ourselves. Need demonstration? Ever been or known the girl in high school with a bad reputation? It didn’t matter if that girl actually slept with a boy or not, the label attached to her name read “slut” and that’s what her name meant regardless what anyone did. The bullying that springs from that has claimed countless egos and many lives.
How about this: ever met one of your favorote celebrities in person? What do we always say after? “He/she was taller/shorter/fatter/thinner/different than I thought he/she’d be.” The idea of their name looms larger than the idea or reality of them can ever fulfill. We commoners are usually blindly unaware of the impact of our names, but ask Taylor Swift, Michael Phelps, Anthony Wiener, or Tony Romo if they have ever felt the weight of their name and you’ll find that they have a keen understanding of the topic gained largely by being forced to confront it publicly. We should all feel the impact of our names; we should all appreciate what it means for others to hold them, to trade them and use them.
In the late 1700s in Britain the word “mud” became the absolute height of slang, almost as ubiquitous as “cool” today. It referred to anything that was worthless, and in 1823 a man named John Badcock published a book called Slang in which we see the first official coining of the phrase “name is mud”, and it is defined by Mr. Badcock as “someone who is stupid and vain” (he actually said “stupid and twaddling”, but who would have known what that meant?). A few decades later one Dr. Samuel Mudd was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. From that point on “your name is mud” has instead, in popular culture, referred to Dr. Mudd. Almost 200 years later we speak his name in disgust even when most know nothing about him but his name. Names, once established, have a tendency to persist. I like that there’s two versions of “your name is mud” because it gets right to the heart of the fact that you and your reputation are intrinsically part of, but separate from, your name.
We are so free with harsh words, with gossip, with offensive colloquiolisms, with snarky memes in our rush to show everyone the error of their ways, to sharpen iron with iron, to “help” a “friend” with the speck in their eye. We never stop to think what these things are doing to the value of our names, our names which are our first ambassador and our lasting resident in the minds of those we encounter. Our names which we can’t avoid, can’t escape. Even when we are blissfully unaware of our name’s market value those who use it are not. These valuations are paid back to us, often in unpredictable or even unknown ways: the invitations you don’t get, the promotion you’re passed over for, the relationships that become increasingly distant. The fruit of our names can bloom sweet or sour, yet we take absolutely for granted the power that distinction can hold over our lives.
Consider the apostle Peter. His name was actually Simon. It was Jesus who gave him Peter, and I think we overlook that; he is all over the Bible referred to as “Simon, called Peter” or “Simon Peter”, but we forget that those words have purpose. If he went by Peter his whole life Simon would be a useless tidbit, an editorial aberration, but it’s there. No letter in the Bible is wasted, not one. He was called Simon, but by the time the epistles were written he was Peter. These letters weren’t Scripture yet, remember. They were letters of instruction and reference to a fledgling church; if they were to have weight they needed to reference people you’d know or have heard of, so they needed to often establish that this Peter guy they spoke of may have been known to you as Simon if you were old enough to remember him that way. Think about that for a minute. Like Prince was still so referenced after converting to a symbol the Scripture speaks of this man’s given name in retrospect only. Why? How did it come to be that way?
Imagine you’re on the beach with your brother, fresh off a fishing expedition. Along comes this man and he sees you and says “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” That’s going to throw you off, no question. “Um, hey guy, thanks, but as appetizing as people seem I think I’ll just stick with the fish.” But there’s something about him so you go, not even vaguely sure why. A matter of weeks later this same guy, who is now your slightly odd and amazing friend Jesus, tells you that you have a new name. How does that conversation even work? “Hi, Bob, you’re going to be known as Jeff now.” “No… no, I’m not, bro, but thanks.” Can you imagine how awkward that must have felt? This wasn’t like your buddy giving you a nickname, this was a man Simon had come to know was the living Word of God, Son of the Almighty and the Christ, and He’s telling him he has a new name in the way Sarai, Abram, and Jacob got new names. But what was that way?
I’ve written about it at length before, but it was a job promotion. Jesus had assigned Simon, this sort of boorish but impassioned brute, to watch over His flock. But why did that require a name change? The simple answer is “freedom”. The full truth is more complex. There were three primary reasons for the change:
- Release for his new role. Simon was to take on a new mantle, one that required the utmost dedication and seriousness. He needed the freedom to define this role and his place in it, and that was just plain easier under a new banner. Much the way a Robbie decides to go to Robert in his first big boy job. The role required freedom from legacy perceptions of a junior man.
- Release for the world. Simon was known to people. He was a rather successful fisherman, and to try and assert himself as leader of this movement brought encumbrances in people’s minds because Simon was a known man. Seeking to do a new thing under the old banner would possibly hinder the spread of the Kingdom should any hold grievance against Simon. People needed freedom to follow him without the weight of what they knew of Simon.
- Release for himself. Simon had been Simon for a long time. He knew Simon, was familiar with him, his foibles, his tendencies, his baggage. Peter represented a clean slate, a clean cut from the life that came before. This was his chance to free himself from the weight of that life and to open himself to discovering and defining a new one. He needed freedom to be his best self.
Abram, Sarai, and Jacob were given new names for the same reason: it was a demonstrative symbol of rebirth into God’s purpose in their lives. The message in Revelation 2:12-17 tells a similar story to the church at Pergamos. Pergamos holds an interesting Roman distinction. The city’s name, Πέργαμος, comes from the root pyrgos, πύργος, which refers to a tall tower, so the city’s name calls out its desirable military position. For over a thousand years it reigned as a cultural center of Rome, a city from which to rule Asia. To their church Christ says in Revelation:
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith He which hath the sharp sword with two edges; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr , who was slain among you , where Satan dwelleth. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”
“Satan’s seat” is a pretty harsh nickname for a city, so why the hate? Because Pergamos homed the cult of Domitian, the first order since the Pharaohs to demand worship of a living man as a god. You can imagine the Lord’s displeasure at that, but the epithet shows that this wasn’t simple human corruption but rather active interruption by the principle power of the earth, Satan. Jesus commends the church there for their steadfast belief, but notes they have two primary errors: they hold in their ranks pagans (holders of the doctrine of Balaam), and they push that grace is a license to sin (holders of the doctrine of the Nicolaitans).
If Ephesus is a church fighting apathy, Pergamos is a church married to the world. It is a people who have tried so hard to include the lost that they have become lost themselves. As with Ephesus the message in Revelation is not just to the city of Pergamos. Rather, it is a message to the archetype of the Pergamos church, to the Christians that seek to meld our culture to the world’s culture; to those who would risk compromising God’s will to keep favor with the locals. That they are commended for their belief shows that they were likely doing it trying to gather more sheep, but Christ’s response is clear: stop it. We cannot accept the culture around us; we are called to be salt, to be the preservative that sustains our communities by shining light, by showing life-worship and Kingdom living, to all dark places. We cannot fall to false teaching that says we can violate God’s commandments freely so long as our motives are good. All roads do not lead to Heaven, all gods are not God, and grace is not a license to sin. Salvation comes from Christ alone, and following Him requires change. To those who can walk the line successfully Christ offers the ultimate gift: the hidden manna and a new name: pure, unspoiled, and unknown. Why is this gift special? Because it is the chance to become new again.
We are all made new in Christ, we are all reborn with the Salvation given us. But after rebirth we fight the fight of sanctification, we fight against the echoes of who we were in the attempt to define a new life as the body of Christ. That dichotomy can be terribly painful so Christ offers those who can hold fast, those who can uphold His rule, the chance to redefine themselves, to become wholly new and wholly free of the echoes. And this is the offer given us: be in the world and not of the world and we can claim a new identity unencumbered by our dead flesh, unhindered by the baggage that weighed us down. An identity, a name, whose market value has been wiped clean for us to define not through habit and insensitivity, but through careful attention and tending. Can you imagine the freedom of that? The freedom to cut ties with all the anger and bitterness and start over a more caring, more compassionate, more sympathetic Christian? It is ours if we can just overcome the world. High bar, isn’t it? Luckily, we don’t have to reach it! Christ overcame the world for us, all we have to do is confess Him; to repent of our sinful nature and become citizens of the Kingdom. All we have to do is come now and take up our new name. Our best lives are before us, just one step away.
Father, thank You so very much for Your inspiration, for Your correction. I am trying so hard to take up my new name. I falter and the world attacks with vitriolic rejection that I dared to live a more righteous life. But I will stand firm on Your promises, because I know You are the God of the Impossible, giver of Life eternal, extender of boundless Love. Jesus I trust You as the Way, I believe You as the Truth, and I follow You as the Life. I can do all things through Your strength, and I Love You desperately. Holy Spirit, I seek Your instruction constantly and I thank You for lighting my path. Gloria in excelsis Deo, and may all cry Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty.
I pray that this society may be mended, that the wounds we inflict daily may come to an end, that the saints of the Kingdom at Pergamos will rise up against the onslaught of compromise and homogenization we are bombarded with at every turn. Let us stand firmly on Your Word and Your Word alone. Let Your church rise to defend us from evil, let Your champions be strengthened. In the name of Your Word, and my Brother, Jesus, I pray. Amen.