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Today's Study

Revelation 2:15: Who Were the Nicolaitans?

Revelation has many strange symbols and images, but there are also unusual names. In Revelation 2:6, 15, the unfamiliar name blocks understanding. Here in two verses in letters written to two different churches (Ephesus and Pergamum) we discover the Nicolaitans. Presumably the author believed that the readers of the letters would know who they were, but we are not in their position. What were their practices, and why would God hate them?

The earliest identification of the Nicolaitans, found in the church fathers, was as followers of Nicolas of Antioch, a proselyte to Judaism, who was one of the Seven (Acts 6:5). Unfortunately, none of the writers seems to know much about the heresy, and one, in fact, argues that Nicolas himself was orthodox but had been misunderstood. While it is possible that some of this information is accurate (there have been Spirit-filled church leaders who have lapsed into heresy), this looks like an attempt to find some name in Scripture to use to identify this sect. Nicolas may have simply had the misfortune of bearing the wrong name. Still, even if the Nicolas of Acts had nothing to do with the movement, it is probable that some Nicolas was the leader of the group (after all, Nicolas was a reasonably common name).

A second identification common in some theological circles is to look at the Greek etymology of "Nicolaitan" (nikan and laos meaning respectively "conquer" and "people") and argue that this was a group that suppressed the laity in favor of the developing clergy. However, this explanation is determined more by modern concepts of clergy and laity than by any first-century information, for such terminology (such as the use of laos for only a section of the church) was unknown this early. Etymology is a notoriously dangerous way to discover the meaning of a term. Furthermore, there is nothing in the text to support this meaning.

The clue to the real meaning of this term is found in the identification of the Nicolaitans with "the teaching of Balaam" in Revelation 2:14-15. Not only is it possible that "Nikolaitan" is a Greek form of "Balaam" (as understood by the rabbis), but, more important, this interpretation fits both the text and the first-century situation.

John identifies the teaching of Balaam with two problems: "eating food sacrificed to idols" and "sexual immorality." The early church constantly struggled with compromises with paganism, as we see in Paul's long discussion in 1 Corinthians 8--10, as well as in the conclusions reached in Acts 15:20, 29. Both of these center on food offered to idols, Paul's conclusion being that one could eat such food if purchased in the marketplace, but one should not go to a meal in a pagan temple. Following this Pauline rule, however, would cut one off from membership in trade guilds, patriotic celebrations (including ceremonies honoring the emperor, considered essential to good citizenship, although not taken seriously by the upper classes as religious events) and many family celebrations. We can easily see the pressure to rationalize and thereby develop a compromise.

The issue of sexual immorality is more difficult, for it is also mentioned in Revelation 2:20, 22, in the case of Jezebel (an Old Testament code word for a New Testament woman leader of the church in Thyatira, indicating her spirit and God's evaluation, rather than the woman's actual name). On the one hand, sexual immorality was a problem in the early church, as Paul's discussions show (1 Cor 5:1; 6:12-20; compare Heb 13:4). In the middle of a pagan society that accepted the use of prostitutes (although wives were expected to remain faithful), it was difficult to remain obedient on this point and relatively easy to compromise. On the other hand, "sexual immorality" was used in the Old Testament for involvement with pagan deities. For example, the Old Testament Jezebel was not to our knowledge physically immoral--she was likely faithful to Ahab all her life--but she did lead Israel into Baal worship. Since Israel was God's "bride," such involvement with other gods was called "adultery" or "sexual immorality."

Furthermore, the line between the two meanings of "immorality" was difficult to draw. Sexual immorality was involved in the Peor incident (connected to Balaam, Num 25:1-18), but the biggest issue was that the women were Moabites or Midianites, pagan women, and they led the men to eat feasts associated with their gods and then to worship the gods themselves. In other words, the sexual immorality was wrong because it was associated with the worship of other gods, a commonplace in the pagan world in which many temples had prostitutes in them through whom a man could become "joined" to the god.

If, then, John is taking the Old Testament examples as the basis for his discussion, the sexual immorality is figurative, standing for their worship of other deities, which was implied in their attending feasts in idol temples. If, on the other hand, he is using the Old Testament examples loosely, he may be indicating two related problems, attending feasts in idol temples and engaging in extramarital sexual intercourse, probably with prostitutes. The difference between the two explanations is narrow. Both types of problems are condemned elsewhere in the New Testament, however one may interpret this particular passage.

The Nicolaitans, then, appear to be a group that corrupted God's people by suggesting compromise with the culture of the day. Rather than worship God and him alone, they suggested that it was appropriate to engage in patriotic ceremonies (such as feasts associated with the worship of the emperor) and other cultural institutions (for example, trade guilds, something like our modern unions or professional associations, and their worship). It is possible that either as part of these ceremonies or as a separate area of compromise they also permitted the use of prostitutes (perhaps as an accepted part of the "business ethic" of their day). Jesus (who is speaking through John) was not impressed. In fact, he threatened judgment on the church.

While the exact issues are different, similar compromises face the church today. Each society has its own "idols" that it expects all its citizens to worship, whether those idols be the government itself or some values or practices of the society. These "idols" are the places at which the values of the society conflict with total allegiance to Christ. Furthermore, the Nicolaitans are still with us under a variety of names, for there are always people who in the name of being "realistic" or under any number of other theological justifications counsel compromise with the dominant culture. This passage warns us that Jesus will not "buy" these justifications. He demands nothing less than total loyalty to his own person and directions. Anything less than this will put those who compromise in danger of his judgment.