Nicolaitans

SYNOPSIS:  The “Nicolaitan” deception taught believers to compromise with the idolatrous rites of the surrounding society and to participate in the Roman imperial cult.

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Augustus - Unsplash.com
The second and third chapters of Revelation present seven messages from the Risen Christ to the seven churches of Asia. Each message communicates his knowledge of its respective congregation’s situation.  Faithfulness is commended, failures are laid bare and corrected, warnings are given to the unfaithful, and promises are made to all who faithfully persevere and thereby “overcome.”

Several wayward groups and deceivers active within the congregations are named, specifically the “Nicolaitans, those who “have the teaching of Balaam,” and the “teachings of Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess” (Revelation 2:6, 2:14-15, 20).

In each case, only minimal information is provided on the aberrant teachings. Moreover, the names provided for the movements are not the actual names of the three groups; instead, they are symbolic designations given by Jesus. ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Balaam’ are drawn from Old Testament events in the history of Israel and applied typologically to deceivers the church.

These and related factors make it difficult to identify each group with any known sect from church history.  Since the book of Revelation describes the practices of all three groups in similar terms, the same movement may be intended in each case.

Context

In the vision, Jesus commands John to “write the things you saw, what they are, and what things will come to pass after these.” Seven messages to the seven congregations then issue from the Risen Christ in chapters 2-3. John is not commanded to send the individual messages as separate “letters” to each congregation but, instead, copies of the entire book. The seven messages or “letters” are not separate documents but constituent parts of the whole book.

The visions, exhortations, and messages are intended for all seven congregations. Each message includes the exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying to the “churches,” plural and each concludes with promises to everyone who “overcomes.” Moreover, in the exhortation to hear what the Spirit is “saying,” a Greek verb in the present tense is used, which signifies ongoing action.  That is, this is something the Spirit continually “says” to the churches.

The seven messages are sequenced according to geography. A messenger arriving by sea from the island of Patmos would make the first landfall at the port of Ephesus, then by road travel north to Smyrna and Pergamos, next southeast to Thyatira, then south to Sardis and east-southeast to Philadelphia, and, finally, he would arrive at Laodicea. Each city was located on the main Roman road at average intervals of fifty to sixty kilometers.

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There is also a literary arrangement in the sequencing of the seven messages. The seven churches comprise three different groups based on spiritual condition.  The first and last congregations, Ephesus and Laodiceaare in the poorest spiritual condition.  The central three messages to Pergamos, Thyatira, and Sardis describe congregations in better condition but with encroachments by deceivers. The second and sixth messages to Smyrna and Philadelphia contain no correction or rebuke.  These two churches are in the best condition of the seven. Jesus finds nothing in them that necessitates his reprimand; both remain faithful despite tribulations and persecution.

The message to the church at Thyatira sits at the literary center of this vision. Not coincidentally, it contains the only declaration expressly addressed to all seven congregations: “All the churches shall get to know that I am he that searches reins and hearts and will give to each one according to your works” (Revelation 2:23).

The setting is the Roman proconsular province of Asia, one of the richest and most important provinces of the Empire. Most likely, John received his vision during the reign of the emperor Domitian. At this time, Christians were being pressured to conform to the surrounding pagan culture and, possibly, to participate in the Roman imperial cult by honoring images of the Emperor.

The Name ‘Nicolaitan’

The term “Nicolaitan” was first used in the book of Revelation. Subsequent comments about this group by later church authorities were based on the relevant passages from Revelation. The name occurs nowhere else in the Bible.

The name was probably not used by adherents of this movement; it was a derogatory label assigned by Jesus. “Nicolaitan” transliterates the Greek noun Nikolaitōn, a compound of niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”).  Niké is related to the verb nikaō or “overcome” that figures prominently in Revelation. “People” or laos also occurs frequently as part of the fourfold formula “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” derived from Daniel 7:14 (Revelation  2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 3:21, 5:97:910:1111:912:11).

The negative connotation of the term “Nicolaitan” reflects attacks against the “saints” by the Beast from the Abyss/Sea with its authorization to “overcome and kill” the saints (Revelation 11:713:7-10).

Thus, the name contains the two ideas of “conquest” and “people.” It may have the sense, “victory over people” or “he who overcomes people.”

Church Tradition

Early tradition identified the “Nicolaitans” as followers of the false teacher Nicolaus, one of the first seven “deacons” appointed in the church at Jerusalem. This view is first attested by Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202), bishop of Lyon, in his Against Heresies (1.26.3). Eusebius of Caesarea also describes the Nicolaitans as followers of this same Nicolaus (Ecclesiastical History. iii.29.1 - Acts 6:5).

However, these early ascriptions to Nicolaus were based on the references from the book of Revelation, and on the similarity of spelling between 'Nicolaitan' and 'Nicolas.' In the end, the only reliable source of information about the group is the book of Revelation itself; specifically, the messages to the churches in Ephesus and Pergamos.

At Ephesus (2:1-7)

Ephesus was the largest city in the province and a key seaport on the Aegean Sea. The most prominent feature in the city was the Temple of Artemis or Diana, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

Ephesus was a center of the imperial cult and designated the “temple warden of Asia.” A portion of the temple precinct was dedicated to the worship of Roma, patron goddess of Rome, and the “divine Julius.” About the time Revelation was composed, a temple was dedicated to Emperor Domitian, who appointed Ephesus the “guardian” of the imperial cult. Thus, it was a city dedicated to pagan worship and the cult of the Emperor. Residents were expected to participate in religious practices, including the imperial cult.

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Jesus, pictured as the one who “holds the seven stars and walks among the seven golden lampstands,” tells the “angel” of Ephesus that he knows his deeds, labor and patience, and his success at weeding out false apostles. But the “angel” has left his first love and, therefore, must repent. But Jesus does commend this “angel” for hating “the deeds of the Nicolaitans.” The Spirit is calling the churches to “overcome” and, thereby, qualify to “eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God.”

An inference from the preceding is that the Nicolaitan movement is active either outside this congregation, having failed to make inroads into it, or is comprised of former members ejected for engaging in the “deeds of the Nicolaitans.”

At Pergamos (2:12-17)

The city of Pergamos was a key town of Asia, politically speaking, but was not a major center for commerce. It was the seat of the Roman government, its administration center for the province, and the provincial center of the imperial cult.

In the message to this church, its “angel” is addressed by the one who “has the sharp, two-edged sword,” an instrument of his determinative word. The city is the place where “Satan’s throne is.” There are three candidates for “Satan’s throne,” with the third possibility being the likeliest:

1.       The great Altar of Zeus at Pergamos.
2.      The Temple of Augustus in the city.
3.      The acropolis at the center of the city that contained both of the preceding.

The Risen Christ commends the “angel” for “holding fast my name and not denying my faith, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness who was killed where Satan dwells.” Since only the Roman governor had the right of capital punishment, the reference to the martyrdom of Antipas confirms the connection of the “throne of Satan” to Roman rule.

However, Jesus corrects the “angel” for tolerating followers of the “teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the sons of Israel to eat idol-sacrifices and to commit fornication.” He then equates the teaching of Balaam with that of the Nicolaitans (“in like manner, thus, you have such as hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”).

The “angel” must repent, otherwise, Jesus will “make war against them with the sword of my mouth”; “them” refers to the ones who have the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Every believer who “overcomes” is promised the “hidden manna” and a “white stone” upon which is written a “new name.”

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The “teaching of Balaam” refers to an Old Testament story in which the prophet Balaam attempted to serve God while also profiting by cursing Israel in order to please Balak, the king of Moab. God did not allow Balaam to curse Israel and, instead, caused him to bless the Hebrew nation (Numbers 25:1-331:16).

However, Balaam found another way by teaching Balak to corrupt the people through fornication and idolatry. In the original story, Israelites committed “fornication” with the pagan women of Moab, most likely, with temple prostitutes employed in pagan worship rites. That they ate meat offered to idols confirms that Israel’s chief sin was idolatry.

The Bible frequently uses “fornication” metaphorically to refer to infidelity to the true God. In Revelation, it is so used to refer to idolatry, especially to the sins perpetrated against the saints by “Babylon.” The “teachings of Balaam” probably refers to the same doctrines as those of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:20, 14:8, 17:2-4, 18:3, 18:9, 19:22).

In one theory, the etymology of ‘Nicolaitan’ is linked to that of ‘Balaam.’ Just as ‘Nicolaitan’ means “conquest of people,” so ‘Balaam’ means “master of people.” This is accomplished by combining the name of the pagan god, Ba’al, with the Hebrew name for “people” or am. Thus, ‘Balaam’ and ‘Nicolaitan’ become equivalent Hebrew and Greek names for the same group.

As attractive as that theory is, it is a forced one. ‘Balaam’ means “devourer” and, in Hebrew, is a different word than Ba’al, which means “master.” Both names occur in Numbers 22:41 and are not equated or confused (“Balak took Balaam and brought him up into the high places of Baal”).
Satan was attempting to overcome Christians at Pergamos by encouraging them to engage in local pagan practices. This might have included the offering of incense to images of the emperor or participating in communal meals at local trade guilds. The latter would have included offerings to a guild’s patron deity (“meat offered to idols”). Well to do Christians would be more susceptible to the temptation because of their involvement in the economic life of the city.
In the message to Ephesus, the Nicolaitans are “known by their works.” Though dangerous, the Ephesians recognize the deception and reject it. The Nicolaitans remain on the outside of this congregation.

In Pergamos, however, the Nicolaitans are known by “their teaching” and some members of the congregation tolerate if not accept it. The emphasis of their teaching is accommodation with the surrounding pagan culture and its idolatrous practices. This is the sense of eating “things sacrificed to idols and committing fornication.”

Though we lack many details, at the heart of the deception was a compromise with the idolatrous rites of the surrounding society and, very probably, its demands for Christians to participate in the Roman imperial cult.

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