SYNOPSIS – The “Nicolaitan” deception taught believers to compromise with the idolatrous rites of the surrounding society, including the Roman imperial cult.
The second and third chapters of Revelation present seven messages from the Risen Christ to the churches of Asia. Each one 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 groups of false teachers 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 of the group. Moreover, the names provided for the movements are not the actual names of the three groups or their leaders – Instead, the text applies symbolic designations to each one. ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Balaam’ are drawn from events in the history of Israel recorded in the Old Testament and applied typologically to the deceivers operating in the churches of Asia.
These 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.
In the opening vision of the book, Jesus commanded 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 issued from the Risen Christ recorded in chapters 2-3.
John was not commanded to send the individual messages as separate “letters” to each congregation but copies of the entire book. The seven messages or “letters” are not separate documents but integral parts of the whole book.
All of the visions, exhortations, and messages contained in the seven letters were 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 this exhortation, the Greek verb rendered “saying” is in the present tense, meaning, ongoing action. That is, this is something the Spirit “says” continually to the churches.
The seven messages are sequenced according to geography. A messenger arriving by sea from the isle 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.
Furthermore, there is a literary arrangement in the sequencing of the seven messages. The seven churches comprise three different groups based on their spiritual condition. The first and last congregations, Ephesus and Laodicea, are in the poorest spiritual condition. The central three messages to Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis describe congregations in better condition but with growing encroachments by deceivers. The second and sixth messages to Smyrna and Philadelphia contain no corrections or any rebuke. These two assemblies are in the best condition out of the seven.
The message to the church at Thyatira is at the literary center of the seven messages. 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 historical 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 very probably, 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. Most probably, the name was not used by adherents of this movement – It was a derogatory label assigned by the Risen 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 the book. “People” or laos is also found in the fourfold formula “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” – (Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 3:21, 5:9, 7:9).
The negative connotation of the term, “Nicolaitan,” reflects attacks against the “saints” by the Beast from the Abyss/Sea. It is authorized to wage war against the churches – To “overcome and kill the saints” – (Revelation 11:7, 13:7-10).
Thus, the name contains the two ideas of “conquest” and “people.” It may denote the idea of “victory over people” or “he who overcomes people.”
Early tradition identified the “Nicolaitans” as followers of the false teacher Nicolaus, supposedly, 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 described the Nicolaitans as followers of this same Nicolaus (Ecclesiastical History. iii.29.1 – Acts 6:5).
However, these early associations of the group with 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 for this 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 antiquity.
The city of Ephesus was a center for 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 for the province of Asia. Thus, it was a city dedicated to pagan worship and the cult of the Emperor. Residents were expected to participate in religious practices, especially in the honors paid to the emperor.
Jesus, pictured as the one who “holds the seven stars and walks among the seven golden lampstands,” informed the “angel” of the church at Ephesus that he knows his deeds, labor and patience, and his success at weeding out false apostles. However, the “angel” had left his first love, therefore he needed to repent. Jesus did commend the “angel” for hating “the deeds of the Nicolaitans.” The message concluded with the exhortation – 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 was active either outside this congregation, having failed to make inroads into it, or was comprised of former members of it ejected for engaging in the “deeds of the Nicolaitans.”
At Pergamum – (2:12-17)
The city of Pergamum 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 the church at Pergamum, the “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:
- The great Altar of Zeus at Pergamos.
- The Temple of Augustus in the city.
- The acropolis at the center of the city that contained both of the preceding.
The Risen Christ 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 reference to the martyrdom of Antipas confirms the connection of the “throne of Satan” to Roman rule.
However, despite his initial praise, Jesus corrected 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 equated this teaching with that of the Nicolaitans – (“In like manner, thus, you have such as hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”).
The “angel” was summoned to repent, otherwise, Jesus was about “to make war against them with the sword of my mouth” – “Them” refers to the ones who held the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Every believer who “overcame” was promised the “hidden manna” and a “white stone” upon which was written a “new name.”
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. The latter was done to please Balak, the king of Moab. God did not allow Balaam to curse Israel; instead, He caused him to bless the Hebrew nation – (Numbers 25:1-3, 31:16).
However, Balaam found another way to achieve his ends by teaching Balak how 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 for 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 proposed interpretation, the etymology of ‘Nicolaitan’ is linked to that of ‘Balaam.’ Just as ‘Nicolaitan’ means “conquest of people,” so ‘Balaam’ means the “master of people.” The latter understanding 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 not related to the name Ba’al, which means “master,” not “devourer.” 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 Pergamum by encouraging them to engage in local pagan practices. This would have included offering incense to images of the emperor, and possibly, participation in the communal meals at local trade guilds.
Participating in the ceremonies of trade guilds would have included offerings to a patron deity (“meat offered to idols”). Well to do Christians would be more susceptible to this temptation because of their involvement in the economic life of the city.
In the message to Ephesus, the “Nicolaitans” were “known by their deeds.” Though dangerous, the Ephesians recognized the deception and rejected it. The deceivers and “false apostles” remained on the outside of this congregation.
At Pergamum, however, the “Nicolaitans” were known by “their teaching” – Some members of the congregation tolerated if not accepted this false doctrine. The emphasis of their teaching was on accommodation to the surrounding pagan culture and its idolatrous practices. This is the sense behind the clause – “Eating things sacrificed to idols and committing fornication.”
Although we lack many details, at the heart of this deception was the teaching to compromise with the idolatrous rites of the surrounding society, and very probably, with its demands for Christians to participate in the imperial cult.