Sometimes an illustration from ancient times is difficult for us to understand because it can have more than one usage. This is the case here with the reference to the white stone. Its meaning is open to several suggestions, but three have applications in the context.
One suggestion is that a person was given a white stone when he was healed from an illness. There were temples in Pergamum where healings were claimed by priests. Maybe a person received a stone after he had recovered and mistakenly assumed that the temple priests had brought it about. Inevitably, Christians would suffer physically from undergoing persecution, should it continue there. In addition, they would die eventually. The prospect of eternal health would be a great comfort. After all, the resurrection is the final stage in the provision of total health for believers. So the Christians in Pergamum could have thought of this aspect when they read about the white stone.
Or they could have thought about the practice of using a white stone in a courtroom when declaring a person innocent. The Christians in Pergamum may have seen a black stone of condemnation used against Antipas when he was arrested. They also knew that each of them faced that possibility from the authorities. In contrast, there was coming an event when they would be handed a white stone, as it were, and that would be at the judgement seat of Christ. As the Shorter Catechism says, on that day believers ‘will be openly acknowledged and acquitted.’ The prospect of that declaration would be an encouragement to them should they face a false earthly condemnation.
The third possibility, which seems the most likely of the three options, is connected to the practice of using a white stone with a name on it as an invitation to a meal or a festivity. The celebration that Jesus has in mind is not a temporary occasion such as would have been held in Pergamum. Instead it will be an endless festivity, attended by a number impossible to count.
Yet the heavenly festival will be a very personal event for each guest, because a new name, unique to that person, will be inscribed on it. A new name points to a change of status – instead of being the unknowns in Pergamum, they will be the well-knowns in heaven. Moreover, this new name will be a secret between Jesus and the guest, which points to the reality that heaven will involve intense individual contact with Jesus as well as communal contact. It is also a reminder of the bigness of Jesus since he will be able to engage personally with all of them simultaneously.