16) Wonderful Words of Life (and Death) - (Revelation 2:12)
The letter to the church at Pergamum consists of “the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 2:12; more literally, “these things says the one who has the sharp two-edged sword”).
When we hear or read of someone who has a “sharp two-edged sword” we typically envision it in his hand, to be wielded either in defense against an on-coming attack or used offensively to slay his enemies. But in the case of Jesus, the sword proceeds from his mouth! Although the “mouth” of our Lord isn’t explicitly mentioned in Revelation 2:12, the description of him here is taken from the vision given to John in Revelation 1:16 where we read, “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (1:16).
Similar language is used again in Revelation 19:15 and 19:21. There we read of Jesus coming at the end of history to bring judgment on his enemies: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:15). And again, “the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (19:21; cf. Isa. 11:4).
This is clearly figurative language, for not even the crassest literalist would argue that there is a literal sword proceeding out of the literal mouth of Jesus. But to say it is figurative is not in any way to diminish the very real point that the “words” of Jesus are an infinitely powerful force not only in the defense and building up of his people but also in the judgment and destruction of his enemies.
The reference to a “sword” in this passage (Rev. 2:12) carried special significance for the Christians in Pergamum, given the fact that the sword was the symbol of the Roman proconsul’s total sovereignty “over every area of life, especially to execute enemies of the state (called ius gladii), . . . This tells the church that it is the exalted Christ, not Roman officials, who is the true judge. The ultimate power belongs to God, and nothing the pagans can do will change that” (Osborne, 140).
But the words of Jesus are also designed to strengthen and encourage and edify his people. This is clear from the seven-fold refrain, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22). The voice of Jesus and of the Spirit, to the seven churches, is one, a singular witness designed to commend, rebuke, instruct, and induce repentance.
And of course we mustn’t forget Hebrews 4:12, where the word of God is described as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
The Christians in Pergamum (and we) should take courage from this truth. The Lord Jesus who knows where they dwell, who knows the struggles they face and the seductive appeal of a pagan environment, has words of life and hope for them, words that when heard and heeded bring wisdom and endurance and the power to resist the enemy who dwelt so powerfully in their midst.
But the sword that proceeds from his mouth is not only “sharp”, it is “two-edged” (v. 13). In other words, it cuts both ways! It is not only an instrument of life, but of judgment and death as well.
On the one hand, this sword has the power to perform the most delicate of spiritual surgery, to excise the cancer of sin and restore hope to the wounded soul. Its razor’s edge cuts away the disease of error in those who long for truth. But to those who deny its authority, or acknowledge its presence but mock its power and purity, it is the means by which they will be called to account. The other side of the two-edged sword cuts away all excuses, identifies all sin, exposes the secrets of the soul, pronounces a just verdict, and issues and enforces an eternal sentence.
The apostle Paul spoke of this dual function of the word of Christ as made known in the gospel itself. When we faithfully preach and embody the truth of the cross, one of two things will happen: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).
Those who hear this message are divided into two, and only two, groups: "those who are being saved" and "those who are perishing" (see 1 Cor. 1:18). The message of Christ that Paul proclaims is itself responsible for dividing the hearers in this way. Neutrality is not an option. To the one, Paul's message is a pleasing perfume. Like spiritual oxygen, it infuses life into their hearts. To the other, it is a vile stench in their spiritual nostrils, a suffocating and toxic fume that leads only to death.
Charles Spurgeon reminds us:
"The gospel is preached in the ears of all; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher; otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher's learning; otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as to preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the Word, to give it power to convert the soul."
The church in Pergamum was in desperate need of the power of Christ’s words. On the one hand, they were sorely tempted to abandon the faith. Death had already come to one of their number (see 2:13) and others no doubt faced a similar fate. Christ’s words were designed to strengthen their resolve and satisfy their souls lest they be drawn to another lover.
For the faint, his words are perfect, reviving the soul (Ps. 19:7a). For the confused, they are sure, bringing wisdom and enlightenment (Ps. 19: 7b; 8b). For the saddened, his words are right, rejoicing the heart (Ps. 19:8a). His words are to be desired more than gold, even much fine gold (Ps. 19:10a). They are sweeter than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb (Ps. 19:10b). By his words we are warned and in keeping them there is great reward (Ps. 19:11). Only in hearing, cherishing, and faithfully keeping Christ’s utterances will our own words, together with the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in the sight of our great God, our rock and our redeemer (Ps. 19:14).
Trembling at the word that brings both life and death,