17 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.’
Once again, like the two previous calls, the one who hears is called to obey. Hebrew has no word for obedience. To hear someone means to obey him. He who obeys is described as conqueror and overcomer. To this particular overcomer, Christ is promising something very special – hidden manna and a white stone with a new secret name. First promise is easier to interpret than the second one.
Manna is a symbol of God’s sustenance and provision for the people of Israel in the wilderness as they came out of Egypt in obedience to God’s call, risking their own lives to go to a land they would only later be shown. When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan Israelite woman (John 4), his Judean Israelite disciples were returning from a nearby town with food acceptable for consumption by the Judeans (Ioudaioi). The disciples asked among themselves if perhaps someone already had brought Jesus food. He then answered them that he had something that was now, in this passage in Revelation, also being promised to the one who overcomes – the hidden manna. He said: “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” (Jn.4:32) This secret food that “the rest” did not know about is nothing less than divine energy that is able to provide sustenance in the most unimaginable and perilous circumstances. This characterized the-soon-to-be reality for believers in Pergamum. Jesus promised this energy to the one who obeys God’s words. This is why the one who obeys also is the one who overcomes.
As to the identity of the white stone things are more complicated. Among the most-likely interpretations that may fit the context is a suggestion that the white stones, with names of the recipients inscribed, were given to contest winners of the Roman sport races. The white stone inscribed with a personal name presumably served as a pass to a prestigious banquet only attended by the winners. This stone would have been received upon completion of the race. While this is not a particularly Jewish cultural reference, we do know of many biblical examples of the use of Greco-Roman cultural references as illustrations for and by the Jews. For example, the Apostle Paul used many Roman sports metaphors to make his points (Phil. 3:12-14; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; 2 Tim. 4:6-8). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews also employed Roman sport imagery of running a race and receiving a winner’s wreath (See also Hebrews 12:1). This kind of imagery was well known in Judea that housed elaborate sports arenas. This kind of analogy much more closely matches the culture of the Roman city of Pergamum. No doubt the persecuted believers, both Jewish and former pagans, were aware of this practice and the elaborate banquets of honor for the overcomers/winners of the race. Most of the believers did not take part in these games by the virtue of the fact that the games included a dedication to the Roman gods. Christ tells them that in all reality they have not missed out on anything. The real race is the race of perseverance dedicated to Israel’s God. Whoever perseveres in this race and overcomes will receive a pass into the heavenly banquet of eternal honor.
Another intriguing possibility continues with the theme of priestly attire as was already used in the letter of Revelation. The high priest’s robe had 12 stones with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. One of the stones was actually white – Yahalom (it was a stone number 6), signifying the 6th son of Leah – Zebulun. What’s important about Zebulun? We read in Is. 9:1-7, quoted in Matt. 4:15 that:
“In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
According to this interpretation, the sacred white stone is a symbol of Greco-Romans residing in Galilee who would receive light through the birth of Jesus. Could the secret here be the Messiah himself? Could the white stone point to Jesus through the yahalom stone once adorning the breast of the High Priest of Israel? Perhaps.