This week, Peter Leithart and I are joined by Jerry Bowyer, with whom we discuss the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and Jesus’ teaching against the backdrop of the economic realities of the Israel of his day.
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What is the meaning of the white stone in Revelation 2:17?
The passage in question is in the letters to the seven churches, specifically the letter to the third church, the church in Pergamum:
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immortality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 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.’”
Tackling a biblical question can be like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle. Even if we don’t know exactly where a piece fits, we can get a sense of the general area in which it belongs. Often our task is to narrow down the possibilities, to recognize other pieces that our piece is similar to in terms of its image or colour. We think about the shape of the piece and what other shapes might fit with it. We pay attention to the edge pieces and the corner pieces and then to particularly shaped pieces that we know will fit with other particularly shaped pieces. We consider both the structure and the image in order to associate pieces.
Making associations between pieces—both in their structure and in their content—is also one of the ways that we approach Scripture. When you think about a question in Scripture relating to a particular passage, approach it like a jigsaw puzzle. Think about the shape of the piece that you’re dealing with and the shape of the surrounding area and what might fit there. Think about the image upon the piece. What does it remind you of? What other pieces is it similar to? Where might it find its associations?
It takes a bit of patience and you’re probably not going to find the exact place that the piece fits a lot of the time. Much of the time, what you’ll do is break the problem down to a far more manageable size. You may not know exactly where it fits, but you’ll have a very good sense of more or less where it fits. Even if you don’t place the piece exactly, you know it belongs in that general area and ought to be associated with these other pieces. It becomes a lot less threatening, then, and it also yields insight in various ways.
The following are some of the characteristics that will help us find the shape that the piece has to fit in and will also make the piece more manageable. When we’re thinking about the white stone, let’s not go directly to the question of what the white stone is, but instead let’s think about where it needs to fit and what some of the features of where it fits are. And that will help us understand what that particular piece is doing.
First of all, when you look through the letters to the seven churches, you find that the letters are similar in structure. They follow a fairly predictable pattern. Ian Paul’s recent commentary on Revelation outlines this pattern as follows: First, you have “To the angel of the church in So-and-so write.” Next, “Thus says he who…” and then there’s some characteristic from Revelation 1. Then, “I know you are…” and there’s a list of the characteristics or actions of the church in the past or present. “But this I have against you…,” in a number of the letters. What happens next is that there is some challenge to their behaviour and then a command to repent and amend their ways. Then “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” And finally, “To whom who conquers or those who conquer…” and there’s a promise of gift and reward.
That is the general pattern that most of the letters follow fairly closely. This fairly formulaic structure associates the letters with one another. They belong together as seven letters; they’re not just random missives.
As you look at them even more closely, you see that they belong together in a richer sense. They’re not just associated letters; they’re also placed in a sequence. They move through periods of history.
To the first church, the church in Ephesus, the letter says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God” (2:7). What does that remind you of? It reminds you of Genesis 2 and 3, the very beginning of the story of Genesis. So you have an allusion back to the situation in Eden.
In the next letter, to Smyrna, we read, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:10). What does that remind you of? It should probably remind you of the story of Joseph, the one who was persecuted, put in prison, and then brought out prison and raised up to rule. So we have an allusion to Eden—the beginning of Genesis—in the first letter and now an allusion to Joseph—near the end of Genesis—in the second letter.
In the third letter, the letter to Pergamum, we have a reminder of other stories: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (2:14). Then, a bit later, “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” (2:17).
So we have had Eden. Then we’ve had Joseph. And now we have reference to the “hidden manna.” This is not just manna as it came from heaven in Exodus 16, given to all of Israel. Rather, this is the manna that is hidden away from view, the manna that was placed in God’s special presence in the ark of the covenant inside the Holy of Holies. The reference to Balak and Balaam also fits with this time period, the wilderness period, recorded in the book of Numbers.
In the letter to the next church, the church in Thyatira, we read: “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (2:20). That reminds you of the kingdom period. And associated with that, we have: “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father” (2:26–27). It’s the language of Davidic kingship that we find in Psalm 2 and elsewhere.
So we have a series of associations: Eden, Joseph, the wilderness period, and then the kingdom period. From there, we come to the church of Sardis: “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (3:2–4). This reminds us of exile and the remnant. In Zechariah 3, Joshua the high priest had soiled garments that are then made pure.
In the next letter, we read: “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens’” (3:7). And then, in verse 12, “The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem.”
This is the period of restoration. Think of the language of the key of David and the opening of doors. In Isaiah 22, the key of David is given to Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah. He is clothed with a robe and sash, and authority is given into his hand. The key of the house of David is placed on his shoulder:
He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. And they will hang on him the whole honor of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way, and it will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will be cut off, for the Lord has spoken.
That’s the language we find in the letter to Philadelphia. It’s also something we find associated with Cyrus and the restoration in Isaiah 45: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed.” The previous description of Eliakim in Isaiah 22 anticipates the description of Cyrus in chapter 45 and sheds light on the promise to Philadelphia: they are going to be a pillar in the rebuilt temple of God. God is about to bring back the people and re-establish them in the land, and he is going to build this new temple.
So we have a sixth reference to something in history. We have Eden, Joseph, the wilderness period, the kingdom period, the Exile and the remnant, and the restoration. And finally, we have the Israel of Jesus’ day with the Pharisees and others who are proud but yet failed to recognize their nakedness and blindness. That’s all found in the letter to Laodicea: they’re blind, but they don’t realize it; they think they’re rich, but they’re really poor; and so on.
In addition to their fundamental structure and to the sequential pattern that runs through redemptive history, we should also notice that these letters all draw upon imagery from the first chapter of Revelation, imagery from the vision and the titles of Christ (there is a sort of broken chiasm with the description of Christ in Revelation 1, discussed by Leithart in his commentary).
Christ is walking among the lamps with the stars in his hand in the first letter. He’s the first and the last, the living one, in the second letter. In the letter to Pergamum, he’s the one with the sword in his mouth. In the next letter, he has eyes like fire and feet like bronze. The letter to Sardis mentions the seven spirits of God and seven stars. The letter to Philadelphia has the key of David and keys of death and Hades. And then finally, in the letter to Laodicea, there are the Amen and the faithful witness. These are all associated with language from the first chapter, so that the vision of Christ and the images in that vision are linked with the letters to the seven churches.
There’s a fundamental common structural pattern the letters follow. There’s a sequential, chronological pattern they follow. The letters are all associated with the images and names of the first chapter. But there is yet another feature to notice: they are also loosely arranged chiastically.
A chiasm is like a bookend structure: you have bookends, and then within that more bookends, and more bookends, and then you have a central section. This is a pattern we see often in Scripture and it gives a particular ordering to a text.
The connections in these letters are loose; it’s not a very pronounced chiasm. But you have a promise to Ephesus that they will eat of the Tree of Life. That’s the first one. And in the letter to Laodicea, the last one, there’s an invitation to eat with Christ. In the letter to Smyrna, the second letter, the Jews are described as a “synagogue of Satan,” and there’s reference to a coming tribulation. In the letter to Philadelphia, the second last letter, the Jews are again described as a “synagogue of Satan” and tribulation is coming. In the letter to Pergamum, the third letter, a white stone is received and a new name is given and Jesus is coming to them soon. In the letter to Sardis, the fifth letter, there is a white garment and a name in the book of life and Jesus is coming to them soon. And in the centre, there is Thyatira, Jezebel, and the need to hold fast. So we can see some associations here, some ways in which these letters hold together.
There are other ways in which you can see a roughly chiastic ordering. The first and last churches are promised a single gift, whereas the middle ones all receive a double gift. Ephesus, the first, is told that they will get to eat of the Tree of Life. Smyrna, the second, is told that they will receive a crown of life and be rescued from the second death. Pergamum will receive hidden manna and the white stone with a new name upon it. Thyatira will receive authority and a rod of iron and the morning star. Sardis, the fifth, will receive white garments and a name that won’t be erased from the book of life; they will be confessed by Jesus before his Father. Philadelphia will be made into a pillar in the temple and will receive the name of God and of the New Jerusalem. And then Laodicea will sit with Jesus on his throne.
A. Ephesus: granted to eat of the tree of life
B. Smyrna: crown of life, shall not be hurt by the second death
C. Pergamum: Hidden manna, a white stone with a new name upon it
D. Thyatira: authority over the nations, the morning star
C’. Sardis: white garments, name not erased from the Book of Life, but confessed before Father
B’. Philadelphia: made a pillar in the temple, receive the name of God and of the New Jerusalem
A’. Laodicea: granted to sit with Jesus on his throne
Peter Leithart suggests that the gifts can be associated with the days of creation, especially as those are fleshed out and developed in the creation pattern structure in Exodus 25–31. The description of the plan for the tabernacle is a seven-day pattern that can map onto the creation days. I am less persuaded by some of the connections that Leithart draws to the seven churches, but I think he’s right in seeing some general associations.
The first day of creation focuses upon the Tree of Life and the lampstand, as in Exodus 25. It’s the light gift. Light is at the heart of it. Christ is the Light-bearer, the one with seven stars in his hand (Rev 2:1). So there is light on the first day and light in the letter to Ephesus.
The second day has much weaker connection to the second letter. Division between death and life may perhaps be associated with the firmament, but I don’t think that’s a strong connection at all.
The third day involves land from the sea and plants from the earth. Maybe that’s associated with stones and manna. Manna is food, and stones are from the earth. Again, this is not the strongest connection. There may be a contrast between the bronze altar, which is associated with the third day in Exodus, and eating food sacrificed to idols. But again, I think that is a very weak connection.
On the fourth day, you have heavenly lights and oil for the lamp of the tabernacle. The Son of God is a ruler with fiery eyes in the fourth letter, and he promises rule and the Morning Star. That fits very well. He’s the sun, and he has the Morning Star. So there’s a sun, moon, and stars connection.
On the fifth day, you have fish and birds. In the building of the tabernacle, the fifth day section is associated with priests’ garments. Priests are thereby associated with the birds in the firmament. And there is attention in the fifth letter to the garments of the Sardis church and their priestly garments. So I think that’s a neat fit.
The sixth day is the formation of humanity, and in Exodus the sixth section is the consecration of the priest. They’re invested with garments declaring them to be holy to the Lord. They’re crowned and placed in the tabernacle. That fits quite neatly with the Philadelphia letter, particularly when you look at verses 11–12: “I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.”
The seventh day is associated with rest and Sabbath, and the promise to the church in Laodicea is that they will sit in rest with Christ on his throne, having won the victory, and will eat with Christ in a wedding feast. He stands at the door and knocks and invites them, if they will let him in, to eat with him.
So there are a series of associations here. Some of them are very strong and others are weaker. The ones for the church that we’re focusing on—the third church, Pergamum—are weak and so we won’t put too much weight upon them.
The letters also anticipate the themes of the rest of the book of Revelation. We may think of the rest of the book of Revelation as the letter to the eighth church, the church of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is about to be destroyed, and so the letters to the seven churches are examples that are also associated with the church in Jerusalem.
Recognizing the ways in which figures can be associated with each other is important in reading Revelation and other parts of Scripture—the characterization of one figure can shed light upon others. You see this theme in a number of different ways—how figures are associated together. For instance, the Beast is associated with the dragon, and the Sea Beast is associated with the Land Beast. There are all these different creatures and other features of the narrative that are associated together. Elements in the book don’t stand alone. And so, likewise, the churches are connected together with Jerusalem.
Moreover, the seven letters anticipate Revelation as a whole. The enemy of the Seven Churches are the Nicolaitans (literally “people-conquerors,” Judaizers), the false apostles pictured in Ephesus (2:6). The Jews-Judaizers of Smyrna take the main focus in chapters 6–12. The Beast and False Prophet (Balak and Balaam—literally “people-eater”) are in chapter 13 and Pergamum. The Harlot Jezebel (ch. 17) is in Thyatira. The judgment on Jerusalem (ch. 18) is threatened against Sardis. The conquering army of saints (ch. 19) is pictured in Philadelphia. The choice whether or not to enter the New Jerusalem is set before Laodicea (3:20).
Leithart lists the promises and the enemies highlighted in the seven letters and shows that they anticipate the rest of the book’s themes. First of all, the promises:
The letter to Ephesus speaks about the being given to eat of the Tree of Life, and in 22:2 we read, “Also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
In Smyrna, they are told that they will escape the second death, which corresponds to the promise in 20:6: “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and they will reign with him for a thousand years.”
In the letter to Pergamum, the promise of the hidden manna and the stone with a name correspond to an invitation to supper and a name given in chapter 19:9, 12: “And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true words of God.’ … His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself.” Once again, that reminds us of the white stone that’s given to the one who conquers in Pergamum.
The promise in Thyatira is that the one who conquers will rule with a rod of iron, and in 19:15 we read “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.”
In Sardis, they are promised that they will walk with Jesus in white. Correspondingly, in 19:14, you have the church and the saints, “the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, … following him on white horses.”
The church in Philadelphia is told that they will be a pillar in the New Jerusalem, and in 21:2 we have the “New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” And then the New Jerusalem is described along with its various architectural features, including the foundations, which are associated with the apostles. So the saints in Philadelphia will be a pillar in the New Jerusalem, just as the apostles are the foundation.
To Laodicea, the promise is that they will sit on Jesus’ throne with him. In 22:5, we read: “Night will be no more. They will need no light or lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
So the promises in these letters are associated with the promises and other themes mentioned later in the book. Likewise, the enemies and the threats mentioned in the letters are associated with things we find later on in the book.
Leithart doesn’t see any threats or enemies corresponding to the first or the last churches, Ephesus and Laodicea, but we can see some of the threats that they’re facing—in the case of Ephesus the internal threats of the false apostles, the Nicolaitans and, in the case of Laodicea, their lukewarmness and potential failure to respond to Christ’s invitation.
In Smyrna, we have the synagogue of Satan. That is like the demon horde that comes from the sort of inverted temple in 9:1–11.
Then in Pergamum, you have Satan—Balak and Balaam—corresponding, later in Revelation, to the dragon, Satan, and then the two beasts that are elsewhere described as the beast and the false prophet (Revelation 12–13). The beast is the sea beast, and it has a land beast who is also the false prophet (16:13) associated with it. Balak is the sea beast, and Balaam is the false prophet associated with the sea beast.
Jezebel in the letter to Thyatira rather obviously corresponds to the harlot of Babylon (Revelation 17–18).
In Sardis, there’s the threat of lethargy, with Jesus coming as a thief. In 16:15, Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!” Again, there’s a focus on garments, Jesus coming as a thief, and being awake for his coming.
In Philadelphia, there’s the synagogue of Satan and the coming testing. That may be connected with the harvest of 14:14–20.
How does all of this help us to address the question of what the white stone is? In a number of ways. It gives us a sense of the rough shape of the place where that piece of the puzzle fits. Let’s go back over what we’ve explored so far and see what we can learn.
First of all, the letters to the churches all follow a fairly formulaic structure. There are particular gifts, and they are mentioned at the end of the letters. And there is a sequential pattern and a chiastic pattern that suggest careful literary structure and design. Each church can be loosely paralleled with another church in the chiasm, which can prove to be mutually illuminating. The different elements that are mentioned in the parallel letters can shed light on each other.
So, for our purposes, Pergamum can be paralleled with Sardis. Both contain elements described as leukos, white or brilliant or dazzling. It’s a stone in Pergamum and it’s garments in Sardis. The colour white is very significant. It is associated elsewhere with purity and holiness, access to God’s presence. If your garments are white, you can come into God’s presence. In both letters, there is also the gift of a name. In Sardis, their name will not be blotted out of the book of life but will be confessed by Jesus before the Father and the angels, and there is a name given on the stone in the letter to Pergamum. So some of the themes in the letter to Sardis may illuminate what’s happening in the letter to Pergamum.
Second, the letters move through redemptive history, as we’ve seen. In that sequence, the letter to Pergamum corresponds to the wilderness period and the time of the setting up of the tabernacle, which suggests that that period may be the most promising place to find insight concerning the meaning of the white stone. It doesn’t establish that the white stone must be associated with this time period, but it does weight the likelihood of finding promising solutions in that direction.
The Balaam-Balak connection in the letter to Pergamum might suggest a connection with Phinehas, who overcame the results of Balaam’s temptation in Numbers 25 and who was given a covenant of peace and a perpetual priesthood. That would give a further priestly background to what is going on here.
Third, the letters draw heavily on the symbolism and imagery of chapter 1. So we need to think about what that symbolism and imagery conveys. Christ is the priest, so he’s in the temple context. He’s also the bridegroom. So that presentation of Christ has all kinds of allusions to the priestly garments and other things like that, but also to the description of the beloved in the Song of Songs. Bringing those things together gives us a world in which we can look again for more promising associations.
Fourth, the pairing of gifts suggests that they share a common theme. They are a formal pair, not a natural pair. They don’t just happen to go together; they have been put together because there is some connection between them. So the hidden manna and the white stone have some sort of relationship that makes them a pair. What that pairing is may be revealed by recognizing, first, that there is a pairing and then looking back through Scripture to see what sort of pairing it may be.
Manna is described as being like coriander seed, which is white, and like bdellium (Numbers 11:7). We don’t know exactly what the word bdellium means, but in the Septuagint it is described as being like rock crystal. So manna itself was like a white stone, which helps to make more sense of the pairing.
As we saw above, the phrase “hidden manna” suggests the contents of the tabernacle, and the ark of the covenant in particular. That association may make us wonder about the other contents of the ark of the covenant, namely, Aaron’s rod that blossomed and the stone tablets (Hebrews 9:4).
The connection is harder to recognize here. Leithart suggests that the white stone might connect with the white blossoms of the rod and with the stone tablets. In that way, the reference to the white stone and the hidden manna alludes to the threefold gifts of the ark of the covenant. The promise to the church in Pergamum would then be that they would enter into the enjoyment of the contents of the ark that had been hidden: the manna, the rod, and the stones.
Another thing to recognize is that the things within the ark are associated with remembrance. They are memorials. The rod, for instance, is placed before the presence as a memorial to the rebels against Aaron that his is the true priesthood. That’s Numbers 16–17, but the theme of remembrance starts earlier, at the end of chapter 15, where Israel is told to have tzitzits on their garments:
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which are you inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God.”
These tassels ought to remind us of the garments of the high priest. The robe of the ephod is all blue, and then the high priest wears a turban with “a plate of pure gold,” and engraved on it, “like the engraving of signet, ‘Holy to the Lord’” (Exodus 28:36). That plate is fastened on the turban by blue cord. It goes on: “It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall bear any guilt from the holy things that the people of Israel consecrate as their holy gifts. It shall regularly be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.” So this plate on the turban is a means by which he is accepted, and it is a statement of his holy status.
The blue cords in Israel’s tassels, then, are reminiscent of the phrase “Holy to the Lord” bound to the high priest’s turban by a blue cord. They associate Israel with their high priest and serve as a reminder that the people, too, are holy to their God. They function like a wedding ring, reminding Israel that they are a people set apart to God. They are a token of their marriage to the Lord. They are to see these blue cords and remember.
The tassels are at the end of Numbers 15. Chapter 16 is about the rebellion of Korah against Aaron. Those with Korah want to have the higher status Aaron has. Then, after the rebellion of Korah is crushed, Aaron and the other leaders of Israel have to bring out their rods and place them in God’s presence, and Aaron’s rod buds.
But then the rod of Aaron is placed before the Lord, in the presence. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die’” (Numbers 17:10). It is placed there as a sort of memorial, so that the people remember that the true priesthood belongs to Aaron. It is also before God’s presence, which indicates that God recognizes the status of Aaron.
Put all those pieces together and what do we get? What are the buds on the rod? They’re described as flowers—the rod is said to blossom, to flower—and they are white. In the case of Israel’s garments, there are the tzitzit, the tassels on the corners; now, in the case of Aaron’s rod, we have the tzitz, the flower. These things are linguistically associated with each other, but they are also associated in their function. They are both memorials, both reminders.
But there is an even more significant connection. It isn’t a word that appears often in the Bible, but where it does it refers to flowers. But we find the word tzitz in one other place in the Pentateuch, in the description of the garments of the high priest. It is the term used for the plate on his forehead with “Holy to the Lord” written on it.
There are thus various remembrances that are given, tokens of their union with Yahweh and the status that they have before him. There are the tassels, which are reminiscent of the blue cords holding the “Holy to the Lord” plate on the high priest’s turban and which associate the average man in Israel with the status of the high priest. He represents them, but they also have priestly status. Then you also have Aaron as the high priest who has a rod that indicates God’s acceptance of him, God’s acknowledgment and validation of his priesthood. He has tzitz—buds or flowers—on his rod. And that is the word that is used for the gold plate—or flower blossom—on the forehead of the high priest.
All of these things are remembrances of the status that the high priest has before God, and then of the status of Israel more generally. And they are remembrances both for Israel and for God. Who sees the plate on the high priest’s forehead? Not the high priest himself, but God. As the high priest enters into God’s presence, God sees that and he accepts the priest. But not the priest only. It’s an acknowledgment of Israel’s status before him: “It shall regularly be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.”
So, too, the presence of the rod in the ark is, first, a token for the rebels, to say to them, “Look at this. God has accepted Aaron. He has validated his priesthood. He is the true priest, and you must acknowledge that. And this is a testimony before you and placed before God’s presence.” But it is placed before God and therefore is also a remembrance for God that this is the true priesthood. It is an acknowledgment of the priestly status of the person to whom this belongs.
Those are important things to put together. The things in the ark are remembrance tokens and they are associated with each other. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we must find some clear association with one or the other. Rather, they belong within this complex of remembrances. All of these things are remembrances that they bind to themselves or that God binds to them or that are placed in God’s presence. The important thing is not so much which specific one the white stone is associated with, because they are all associated with each other as tokens of remembrance for God and for his people.
Another possibility that has been raised is that the white stone might be associated with the Urim. The Bible talks about the Urim and the Thummim, which are placed in the breastplate of the high priest’s garments. Some have suggested that these might be a white and a black stone, associated, it seems, with drawing lots and giving Yes and No decisions.
Others have suggested that the stones might have changed colour: under blood-guilt they might turn red, in the presence of sin they might turn black, if one was pure and could enter into God’s presence they would be white; and so on. Epiphanius of Salamis and Augustine both thought of the Urim as a white stone that changed colour and was associated with purity. So maybe the white stone is a sign that they have been given a token of acceptance and innocence and purity.
All of this Scriptural material helps us understand this white stone with a name on it. We also have names upon stones elsewhere. There are onyx stones on the high priest’s shoulders, two stones, each bearing the names of six sons of Jacob in order. There are the names of the tribes on the high priest’s breastplate in precious stones and supported by the shoulder pieces, which hold the breastplate in place so that it won’t go askew. This is the breastplate of judgment, borne before the Lord. All of this has a great amount of symbolism involved with it, which I can’t get into here.
A very promising possible background to the white stone is also found in Zechariah 3:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel,clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold,I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.
And the angel of the Lord solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here. Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.”
Once again, this passage involves the garments of the high priest and purification: wearing clean garments, being given a new turban, being given a stone—a stone with an inscription on it and with seven eyes. Where is that stone going to go? Probably on his forehead, and so that forehead will have an inscription declaring the holiness of Joshua to the Lord. It is a statement of his priestly status. This would again connect the white stone in Revelation 2 back to the garments of the high priest. Joshua is given a new stone and is now established as someone who will rule in God’s courts, like a pillar in the courts of the temple.
Fifth, the associations with the days of creation and the different stages of the construction of the tabernacle are weaker here. They work for some days but seem weak for the third day and seem to complicate our reading here. The hidden manna is associated with the contents of the ark of the covenant, not with the showbread nor with the food of the bronze altar, which we found on the third day in the account in Exodus 25–31.
The stone has a strong connection with the garments of the high priest, but those are associated with the fifth day, not the third day. On the other hand, there is a parallel here between fifth day and third day, between the fifth church (Sardis) and the third church (Pergamum), so perhaps that gives some degree of association.
So, once again, I don’t think the connections determine our reading one way or another, but they do weight the possibilities and probabilities, and the possible connection with the days of creation either adds no weight to the position I’m presenting here or weakens the strength of it.
Sixth, we also noted that the elements of the letters to the churches anticipate the rest of the book. Does this help us further? As I mentioned, Leithart suggests that the enemies in the letter to Pergamum relate to the Satan dragon, to the beast Balak, and to the land beast or false prophet Balaam in chapters 12 and 13. Are there any clues to be found here?
First of all, the woman pursued by the dragon in Revelation 12 is nourished in the wilderness, just as Israel was nourished by the manna in the wilderness. In Revelation 13, the beast causes people to be marked on their right hands and foreheads with his mark. This is a sort of perversion and inversion of God marking his people on their foreheads, which we find in chapter 7 and elsewhere. So is there is an association here with the two gifts to the church of Pergamum? If there is, then the white stone may be designed to be worn on the forehead.
Throughout the rest of Revelation, we do find names written on the forehead—whether it’s the perverse name written on the beast (13:1) and his followers (13:16–17), whether it’s the name written on the forehead of the Whore of Babylon (17:3, 5), whether it’s the name that God writes on the forehead of his servants (14:1), or whether it’s the name written upon Christ’s forehead (19:12).
Seventh, the gifts or rewards mentioned in the letters to the churches also turn up later in the book in many ways that might shed light upon their meaning. In 19:12, Christ wears many diadems and has a name written which no one knows but himself. Again, the association with the diadem suggests that the stone is probably going to be worn on the forehead.
You can see the background to that in Isaiah 62:3–5:
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
The name on the forehead, then, is a marital token. It’s associated with the high priest, but the high priest also is associated with marital themes. He represents Israel the bride. Israel the bride has this token of its marital status borne before the Lord, is holy to the Lord, and so is accepted into God’s presence, to the wedding feast. There is an inversion here of the dragon and the harlot, who are both associated with names on foreheads.
The connection between 19:12 and 2:17 does suggest marital intimacy between Christ the bridegroom and his bride, with each person who believes in Christ, each person who overcomes, enjoying a stone with a name upon it that is known in an intimate way.
Now the name may not be an individual name for each person. It may be the name of Christ himself, placed upon each overcomer. In 19:12, the name Christ bears seems to be the divine name. Christ bears that name, but it is also given to those who overcome—and that emphasizes just how closely Christ is bound to his people. They wear similar garments and bear the same name. Of course, in a sense, Christ’s name—and the gift of it—may be known by all believers in common. But there is also an intimacy to that knowledge, such that the only person who can know it is the one who bears the name, the one to whom it has been given.
These thematic connections also suggest that the stone functions as a symbol of remembrance. We have already seen this with the high priest and his white garments—remember the purification of Joshua the high priest. We should recall the tokens the high priest brought before God so that God would remember his people and his marriage to them as a purified people, a bride prepared for the bridegroom. We should also consider the tokens of Israel and of Aaron’s priesthood in the Ark of the Covenant, and the tassels Israel wore on their garments and the other memorials that drew their minds to the Law and to their priestly status. The stone of Pergamum might belong alongside these. It fits into this same world of imagery, associated with memorials and with priesthood.
What other themes may we see as a background for this white stone?
Stones are used as signs of acquittal in Acts 26:10. Paul there is casting his pebble against the Christians as a persecutor. It worked like this: One pebble would be black and one would be white. If you cast the black pebble, you were voting for condemnation, but if you cast the white pebble it was for acquittal. Similarly, in 4 Maccabees 15:26, there is a woman who holds the two voting pebbles for the condemnation or acquittal of her sons. Perhaps the white stone is associated, then, with acquittal.
Stones were also used as tokens for entry to feasts in the ancient world.
These themes fit with the letters to the churches. In the letter to Sardis, there’s a reference to entrance into God’s presence: Christ will confess your name to his Father. There’s also a reference to innocence: your garments are pure, and purity is associated with whiteness. Both of these things are associated with the high priest’s garments, symbolizing purity and access to God’s presence.
But I think the primary and most prominent connections here are with the garments of the high priest, who represents Israel and can enter into God’s presence. He has been purified. He bears the sins of Israel. And those things are associated with his garment, with his turban, and particularly with the stone—the flower-blossom plate declaring his holiness to the Lord—that is borne upon it.
The one who overcomes, in this letter to Pergamum, is like the high priest, only greater. He has been given to eat of the hidden manna. He is given access to the Ark of the Covenant itself, this most intimate place, inside the Holy of Holies, where even the high priest of Israel was never able to eat. He is given this white stone, signifying purity, acquittal, forgiveness, that God has covered all his sins. He bears a new name because of his intimate union with Christ. And he is recognized and admitted into God’s presence, with his name being confessed by Christ before the Father.
As we put all of this together, it helps us to see that recognizing the puzzle pieces—recognizing their shape and the image on them—helps us to solve a lot of problems that would be difficult otherwise.
When I have been looking at the question about the white stone, I have found James B. Jordan’s The Vindication of Jesus Christ: A Brief Reader’s Guide to Revelation (Monroe: Athanasius, 2009) very helpful, and I would also highly recommend Peter Leithart’s recent commentary on Revelation (London: T & T Clark, 2018).
Ian Paul, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2018).
Leithart, Revelation 1–11, International Theological Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2018)
Leithart, Revelation 1–11, International Theological Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2018)
Leithart, Revelation 1–11, International Theological Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2018)
In Numbers, we are told that Aaron’s rod was placed before the testimony, not necessarily in the ark itself, but Hebrews describes it as being within the ark
Leithart, Revelation 1–11, International Theological Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2018)
The white stone in Revelation 2 has a name written upon it. We do not have any record of the Urim and Thummim having a name—or any inscription—written on them. So an association between the white stone and the Urim and Thummim is not as strong as the association with the name written on the high priest’s forehead.
These onyx stones happen to be white, and so one might associate them with the white stone with a name written on it in Revelation 2. I don’t think that’s primarily what is in view here, though. There are other, stronger associations.
Leithart, Revelation 1–11, International Theological Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2018)
This use of stones is not specifically religious, having to do with the cult of Israel. But with symbols, we don’t have to choose between one thing and another. Symbols may be associated with a network of imagery, both secular and religious. We don’t have to draw one connection instead of another; we can recognize both. Whiteness is associated with purity in connection with access to God and also with acquittal and innocence in a court. And all of that background—secular and religious—may inform our understanding of this stone.
I discuss the symbolism of the white stone promised to the faithful in the letter to the angel of the church of Pergamum in Revelation 2.