The Nicolaitans

Deceivers within the seven congregations are encouraging disciples of Jesus to compromise with the idolatrous rites of pagan society

One of the chief concerns in the seven letters is with deceivers working in the congregations. While several groups and one individual are named, the net effect of their efforts is to cause believers to “commit fornication and eat food offered to idols.” In short, to induce idolatry and accommodation to the surrounding pagan society.

While persecution by outsiders is a problem, strikingly, the criticism of these deceivers is far harsher than Christ’s comments about persecutors. Thus, internal threats pose a far greater danger to the churches than hostility from outsiders.

Three groups are active in the Asian congregations - “false apostles,” “Nicolaitans, and those who “teach the doctrines of Balaam.” Additionally, the church at Thyatira tolerates the “prophetess Jezebel.”

Only minimal information is provided on these aberrant teachings, primarily through allusions to characters in the Hebrew Bible. The names of the deceivers are not their actual names. They are symbolic designations assigned by Jesus.

Jezebel” and “Balaam,” for example, are derived from Old Testament stories, and in the seven letters, are applied typologically to contemporary deceptions. Since Revelation describes the practices of all three groups in similar terms, the same movement may be intended.

In church history, the term “Nicolaitan” is first used in the book of Revelation, and subsequent comments about the group by later commentators are based on the passages in it. The name occurs nowhere else in the Bible.

AT EPHESUS


Jesus commends the “messenger” in Ephesus for weeding out the “false apostles.” Unfortunately, no information is provided about this group other than the fact they are not true apostles (“You tried them that call themselves apostles and they are not”). Possibly, they are associated with if not identical to the “Nicolaitans.”

The “messenger” is also commended for hating “the deeds of the Nicolaitans.” But again, no additional information is included. Apparently, this group is comprised of members of the congregation who were ejected for engaging in certain “deeds.”

Most likely, the term “Nicolaitans” is a derogatory label. It is a compound of the Greek nouns niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”). Niké is related to the verb nikaō used elsewhere in the letters for “overcome” (“he who OVERCOMES”).

Thus, it includes the ideas of “conquest” and “people,” and it may have the sense of “victory over people,” or “he who overcomes people.” The use of the name is ironic since rather than “overcoming” deception and idolatry, the members of this group have been “overcome” by false teaching.

AT PERGAMOS


The “Son of Man” chides the “messenger” of the Pergamene assembly 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,” and he equates this teaching with the “Nicolaitans” (“In like manner, thus, you have such as hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”). This demonstrates that the same deception is at work in the seven assemblies regardless of which group is named.

The reference to “Balaam” alludes to the Old Testament story when the prophet Balaam attempted to profit by cursing Israel. God thwarted his efforts, and instead, caused him to bless the Hebrew nation.

But Balaam found another way by teaching the Moabite king to corrupt Israel through fornication and idolatry. In the original story, the Israelites committed “fornication” with the pagan women of Moab, and most probably with temple prostitutes employed in pagan rites. That they “ate meat offered to idols” confirms that their chief sin was idolatry - (Numbers 25:1-3, 31:16).

The Bible often employs “fornication” metaphorically for unfaithfulness to the true God, and in Revelation, it refers to idolatry, especially sins being perpetrated against the saints by “Babylon,” ones that include rendering homage to the “image of the Beast” - (Revelation 2:20, 14:8, 17:2-4, 18:3, 18:9, 19:22).

AT THYATIRA


The messenger in Thyatira is chastised for tolerating the false prophetess, “Jezebel.” Her teachings parallel those of the ‘Nicolaitans’ (“to eat idol-sacrifices and to commit fornication”) since she also promotes accommodation to the idolatrous culture of the city.

The “prophetess” is modeled on the pagan queen Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab who promoted the worship of Ba’al and persecuted the prophets of Yahweh - (1 Kings 16:31, 18:4-19, 19:1-2).

In the letter, “fornication” is metaphorical for idolatry, and this is demonstrated by the explanatory “eating meat offered to idols.” And the “lovers” and “children” of Jezebel are the adherents of her doctrine within the congregation.

This “Jezebel” is portrayed as a harlot-like figure because of her seductive powers. This also links her to the “Great Harlot, Babylon” who causes the earth’s inhabitants to drink the “wine of her fornication.” Thus, the great end-times seductress already is active in the church - (Revelation 17:1-6, 18:3, 18:8-9).

Jesus allows her time to repent, but if she refuses, he will “cast her into a couch along with them who fornicate with her.” The “couch” refers to a sickbed, not to one where sexual sin takes place. This is indicated by her pending punishment with “great tribulation” and “plagues.”

Moreover, the threatened judgment on her and her “children” anticipates God’s final judgment on the “Great Whore, Babylon.” Anyone who partakes of her sins will also reap “her plagues” - (Revelation 18:1-6).

The prophetess claims it is permissible to “know the deep things of Satan.” Possibly, this is the slogan propagated by her supporters (“as they say”). More likely, in her mind, she is teaching the “deep things of God” - deeper spiritual insight that supposedly protects initiates from harm during idolatrous rites.

Jesus exposes this doctrine for what it is - the “DEEP THINGS OF SATAN.” And this is a link to the “Abyss,” the deep pit from which the “Beast,” demons, and Satan ascend to deceive men and “wage war against the saints”- (Revelation 9:1-2, 11:7, 13:1, 17:8, 20:1-3).

IN ASIA


Thus, Satan is attempting to overcome Christians by encouraging them to engage in pagan rites, including participation in the Roman imperial cult. This would include offering incense to the image of the emperor.

Any refusal to venerate the emperor will incur serious penalties, including economic sanctions, and in Pergamos, this may be what leads to the martyrdom of “Antipas, my faithful witness.”

Though we lack many details, at the heart of these deceptions is compromising with and accommodation to the larger pagan culture, including its idolatrous beliefs and practices.

The motivation for doing so is to avoid economic deprivation and impoverishment and escape persecution by governing authorities.

But choosing to engage in idolatry is far riskier. Doing so may result in the offending believer’s name being removed from the “Lamb’s book of life.” And that means the apostate will experience the “second death” in the “Lake of Fire,” a fate far worse than poverty or martyrdom.


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