OVERVIEW - The “Nicolaitans” taught believers to compromise with the idolatrous rites of the surrounding society, including the Roman imperial cult

Augustus - Photo by Nemanja Peric on Unsplash
The second and third chapters of Revelation present seven messages from the Risen Christ to the seven churches of Asia. Faithfulness is commended, failures are exposed and corrected, warnings are given to the unfaithful, and promises are made to all who persevere and “
overcome.” Several groups of deceivers active within the congregations are named - 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). - [Augustus - Photo by Nemanja Peric on Unsplash].

In each case, only minimal information is provided on the aberrant teaching. Moreover, the names provided are not the actual names used by each respective group; instead, they are symbolic designations given by Jesus. ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Balaam’ are drawn from Old Testament stories and reapplied typologically to deceivers in the churches of Asia.

It is difficult to identify these groups with any known sects 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. The seven “letters” are not separate documents but integral parts of the whole book intended for all of the congregations.

There is a literary arrangement in the sequencing of the “letters.” The seven churches divide into three groups based on their spiritual condition.  The first and last congregations are in the poorest condition (Ephesus, Laodicea).  The central three are in better condition but include encroachments by deceivers (Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis). The second and sixth “letters” contain no corrections - Smyrna and Philadelphia are in the best condition.

The “letter” to Thyatira is at the literary center of the entire group. 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).

Most likely, John received his visions during the reign of Emperor Domitian. At that time, Christians were being pressured to conform to the surrounding pagan culture, and possibly, to participate in the imperial cult by offering divine honors to the image of the emperor.

The term “Nicolaitan” was first used in 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.

Most likely, the name was not used by the adherents of the movement. It was a derogatory label assigned by Jesus. “Nicolaitan” is a compound the Greek nouns niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”).  Niké is related to the verb nikaō – The same term rendered “overcome” that figures so prominently in the book. Thus, the name includes the ideas of “conquest” and “people,” and it may have the sense of “victory over people,” or, “he who overcomes people.”

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

However, these early claims were based on the references from Revelation 2:6 and 2:15, 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.

At Ephesus. Jesus warned the “angel” over the church that he knew his deeds, labor and patience, and his success at weeding out false apostles. And he commended the “angel” for hating “the deeds of the Nicolaitans.” Based on this commendation, quite possibly, the “Nicolaitans” were either outsiders that failed to make inroads into the congregation, or were former members ejected for engaging in the “deeds of the Nicolaitans.”

At Pergamos. Jesus commended 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 to impose capital punishment, the mention of the execution of Antipas indicates the reference to the “throne of Satan” referred to the Roman authorities in the city.

Christ corrected this “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 equated the teaching of Balaam with that of the Nicolaitans - (“In like manner, thus, you have such as hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”).

The “teaching of Balaam” refers to the Old Testament story when the prophet Balaam attempted to profit by cursing Israel. God thwarted Balaam, and instead, he blessed the Hebrew nation - (Numbers 25:1-331:16).

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

Church Ruins - Photo by Elisabeth Arnold on Unsplash
Photo by Elisabeth Arnold on Unsplash

The Bible frequently uses “fornication” metaphorically for unfaithfulness to the true God. In 
Revelation, it refers to idolatry, especially the sins perpetrated against the saints by “Babylon, the Great Whore.” Most likely, the clause “teachings of Balaam” refers to the same doctrines taught by the “Nicolaitans” - (Revelation 2:20, 14:8, 17:2-4, 18:3, 18:9, 19:22).

Satan was attempting to overcome Christians by encouraging them to engage in local pagan practices. This would have included the offering of incense to images of the emperor, as well as participating in communal meals at local trade guilds, which would have included offerings to the 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 “letter” to Ephesus, the Nicolaitans were “known by their works.” Though dangerous, the Ephesians recognized the deception and rejected it. The Nicolaitans remained outside the congregation.

In Pergamos, the Nicolaitans were known by “their teaching,” and some members of the congregation tolerated it. The emphasis in this teaching was accommodation with the pagan culture and its idolatrous practices. This is the sense behind eating “things sacrificed to idols and committing fornication.”

Though we lack many details, the heart of the “Nicolaitan” deception was compromise with the idolatrous rites of the surrounding culture, including it demands for Christians to participate in the Roman imperial cult.


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