The “Nicolaitans” encouraged believers to compromise with the idolatrous rites of the surrounding pagan society, including its imperial cult

The seven letters to the “churches of Asia” commend faithfulness and endurance, expose sin, correct shortcomings, and provide promises to all saints who persevere in testimony, and thereby, “overcome.” Several groups of deceivers are active within the congregations, the “Nicolaitans, those who “have the teaching of Balaam,” and the followers of the “prophetess Jezebel.”

Only minimal information is provided on the aberrant teachings, and primarily through allusions to characters from the Hebrew Bible. The names provided are not the actual ones used by the three groups, they are symbolic designations given by Jesus. ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Balaam’ are derived from Old Testament stories and applied typologically to the deceivers in the “seven churches.”

It is difficult to link the three groups to any known sect from church history.  Since Revelation describes the practices of all three 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, and intended for all seven congregations.

The seven churches can be groups by their spiritual health.  The first and last congregations are in the poorest condition (Ephesus, Laodicea).  The central three are in better condition but have been infiltrated by deceivers (Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis). The second and sixth “letters” include 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 in the reign of Emperor Domitian. At that time, Christians were being pressured to conform to the surrounding culture, and quite 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 the group by later church authorities are based on the relevant passages from Revelation. The name occurs nowhere else in the Bible.

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

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 praised the “angel” for hating “the deeds of the Nicolaitans.” Based on this, quite probably, 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.” In this context, the “false apostles” must have been associated with this group.

AT PERGAMOS. Jesus commended the “angel” for “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 this execution indicates the reference to the “throne of Satan” refers to the Roman authorities in the city.

Augustus - Photo by tommao wang on Unsplash
Augustus – Photo by tommao wang on Unsplash

Christ 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,” and he equated the teaching with that of the Nicolaitans (“In like manner, thus, you have such as hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”).

The reference to “Balaam” alludes to the Old Testament story when that prophet attempted to profit by cursing Israel. God thwarted Balaam, and instead, he blessed the Hebrew nation. But Balaam found another way 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 – (Numbers 25:1-331:16).

In places, the Bible employs “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 Harlot.” 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 pagan practices, which included offering incense to images of the emperor, as well as participating in communal meals at local trade guilds. Most likely, the latter included offerings made 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 of the congregation.

In Pergamos, the Nicolaitans were known by “their teaching,” and some members of the congregation tolerated it. They emphasized accommodating the pagan culture, especially its idolatrous practices. That is the sense behind the phrase, “eating things sacrificed to idols and committing fornication.”

Though we lack many details, at the heart of the “Nicolaitan” deception was an accommodation to the idolatrous rites of the surrounding culture, including its demands for Christians to participate in the Roman imperial cult. The chief motivation was for economic benefit, or at least, to avoid further loss and impoverishment.

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