“What does the white stone in Revelation 2:17 mean?”
James F. Pope
Answering your question involves bridging a “culture gap” in biblical interpretation and growing in our appreciation for the grace of God in Christ.
Bridging the gap
We encounter culture gaps in the Bible whenever we read about customs and practices that differ from our experiences today. To understand what the biblical customs and practices meant then, and to derive accurate, appropriate meaning for our lives today, we need to bridge the culture gap. Revelation 2:17 contains one of those gaps.
Already going back to the days of ancient Greece, jurors in court cases indicated the verdicts they reached by depositing pebbles or stones in receptacles. That practice continued into the days of ancient Rome. A dark stone reflected a “guilty” decision, while a white stone represented a “not guilty” or “acquittal” decision. Because jurors in our judicial system forward the results of their deliberations to judges by other means of communication, the practice of the ancients has little meaning to us today unless we bridge the culture gap. With that background in mind, we are in a better position to understand the intended meaning of Revelation 2:17 for Christians then and now.
Acquitting the guilty
Revelation chapters two and three contain specific messages from the Lord to Christians in seven congregations in Asia Minor. Revelation 2:17 is part of a tailor-made message from the Lord that the apostle John relayed to Christians who were living in the city of Pergamum (present-day Bergama in Turkey). The Lord’s message to those Christians contained rebuke and encouragement. Their rebuke was appropriate because some of them were drifting away from biblical teaching and godly living. They were yielding to the influence of Satan, whom John describes as living in Pergamum and figuratively occupying a throne there (Revelation 2:13). To the Christians who resisted Satan’s temptations, the Lord made the promise that he would give them a white stone. That was a picturesque way of describing God’s declaration of those people as “not guilty” of sin; it was a symbolic means of speaking of their justification. By bridging the culture gap, we can see what message God intended for Christians then and now.
“Not guilty” or “acquittal” is the declaration of God that we Christians today also enjoy. From a worldly, judicial perspective, God’s verdict is surprising. That is because our natural sinful condition and our actual sins deserve a “guilty” verdict from the holy and just God. Yet, in the courtroom of God, the Judge declared the guilty “innocent,” and he pronounced the Innocent One “guilty” (Romans 3). Through Spirit-worked faith in Jesus, Christians personally enjoy that declaration of acquittal.
Recasting the content
The answer to your question illustrates the truth that the book of Revelation very often recasts in figurative and symbolic ways what the Bible teaches elsewhere. It is comforting, indeed, to know from the book of Romans, for example, that God declares us “not guilty” for Jesus’ sake. There is additional comfort in receiving that same message of forgiveness of sins through this vivid picture in the book of Revelation.
This repetition and reshaping of content definitely says something about God. The lesson is that God desires that we be all the more convinced and confident that he has completely removed our sins. In pursuit of that goal, God speaks and restates his message of forgiveness in the Bible. He does that with unmistakable language and unforgettable imagery. He even does that with a little object like a stone, a white stone.
That stone says, “You are not guilty. Case dismissed.”
Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 106, Number 2
Issue: February 2019
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