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04 September 2019

The Nicolaitans

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The second and third chapters of Revelation present seven messages from the Risen Christ to the seven churches of Asia.
Each message communicates Christ’s 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 wayward groups and deceivers active within the congregations are named, specifically the “Nicolaitans” (2:62:15), those who “have the teaching of Balaam” (2:14), and the “teachings of Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess” (2:20).
In each case, only minimal information is provided on the group’s teachings. Moreover, the names provided are not the actual names used by each group but symbolic ones given to them by Jesus. ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Balaam’ are drawn from Old Testament events in the history of Israel, now applied typologically to the church.
These and related factors make it difficult to identify each group with any known ones from church history, as well as ascertaining the tenets of each, at least with any certainty.  Since the book of Revelation describes the practices of all three groups in similar terms, the same movement may be intended in the three churches named.
Context
The book of Revelation is a disclosure to God’s “servants” about “things that must soon come to pass” (Revelation 1:11:194:122:6). It is addressed in its entirety to seven churches located in key cities of the ancient Roman province of Asia (modern Turkey) in the late first century (Revelation 1:11:41:11).  The book is applicable to the real-life situations of these congregations. 
The opening vision is found in Revelation 1:10-3:22. It begins with John in exile on the Isle of Patmos located off the west coast of Asia Minor, “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” He finds himself “in spirit” and “hears behind him a great voice like a trumpet” that commands him to “write in a scroll what things he sees and to send it to the seven churches.”
When John turns to look toward the voice, he sees a vision of “one like a Son of Man,” language from Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” (Daniel 7:13-14). This figure walks among “seven golden lampstands” in a temple setting. He holds “seven stars” in his right hand. He describes himself as the “Living one; and I was dead and, behold, I am alive for evermore.”
In the vision, Jesus commands John to “write the things you saw, what they are, and what things will come to pass after these” (1:19). The heavenly voice states that the “seven golden lampstands” represent the seven churches of Asia and the “seven stars” their seven “angels” (1:20). Seven messages to the seven congregations then issue from the Risen Christ in chapters 2-3.
John is not commanded to send the individual messages as “letters” to their respective congregations but, instead, copies of the entire book.  The seven messages or “letters” are not separate documents constituent parts of the whole book. 
The visions, exhortations and messages are 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 the exhortation to hear what the Spirit is “saying,” a Greek verb in the present tense is used, which signifies ongoing action.  That is, this is something the Spirit continually “says” to the churches. 
The seven messages are sequenced according to geography. A messenger arriving by sea from Patmos would make 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. A courier could then return to Ephesus easily from Laodicea. Each city was located on the main Roman road at average intervals of fifty to sixty kilometers.
There is also a literary arrangement in the sequencing of the seven messages. The seven churches comprise three different groups based on spiritual condition.  The first and last congregations, Ephesus and Laodicea, are in the poorest shape.  The central three messages to Pergamos, Thyatira, and Sardis describe congregations in better condition but with encroachments by deceivers.
The second and sixth messages to Smyrna and Philadelphia contain neither correction nor rebuke.  They are in the best spiritual condition of the seven; Jesus finds nothing in them necessitating his reprimand. Both remain faithful in witness despite tribulations and persecution.
The message to Thyatira sits at the literary center of this first vision. Not coincidentally, it contains the only declaration expressly addressed to all seven congregations (2:23): “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.”
The setting is the Roman proconsular province of Asia, one of the richest and most important provinces of the Empire in the late first century. 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, possibly, 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 Revelation 2:6, 15. The name occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and nothing is known of this group from first-century sources, other than Revelation. 
The name was probably not used by adherents of this movement; it was a derogatory label assigned to it by 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 Revelation (e.g., 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 3:21, 12:11). “People” or laos also occurs frequently as part of the fourfold formula “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation,” which is derived from Daniel 7:14 (e.g., Revelation 5:97:910:1111:921:3).
The negative connotation of “Nicolaitan” echoes attacks against the “saints” by the Beast from the Abyss/Sea with its authorization to “overcome and kill” them (Revelation 11:713:7-10. Compare. Daniel 7:21).
Thus, the name contains the two ideas of “conquest” and “people.” The name may have the sense “victory over people” or “he overcomes people.”
Church Tradition
Early tradition identified the “Nicolaitans” as followers of the false teacher Nicolaus, one of the first seven “deacons” appointed in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:5). This view is first attested by Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.), bishop of Lyon, in his Against Heresies (1.26.3). Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 – 340 A.D.) also describes the Nicolaitans as followers of this same Nicolaus (Ecclesiastical History. iii.29.1).
However, these early ascriptions to Nicolaus 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 Nicolaitans is the book of Revelation; specifically, the messages to the churches in Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) and Pergamos (2:12-17).
At Ephesus (2:1-7)
Ephesus was the largest city in the province and a key seaport on the Aegean Sea; a major commercial center well-connected to the cities in the interior by a network of roads.
The city’s most prominent feature was the Temple of Artemis or Diana, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Besides religious rites, the Temple served as a bank or treasure storehouse. 
Ephesus was a center of 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.” The “worship of Artemis was closely associated with the imperial cult.” About the time Revelation was composed, a temple was dedicated to Emperor Domitian, who appointed Ephesus the “guardian” of the imperial cult.
Thus, Ephesus was a city dedicated to pagan worship and the cult of the Emperor. Residents were expected to participate in religious practices, including the imperial cult, as part of being good citizens.
Jesus, pictured as the one who “holds the seven stars and walks among the seven golden lampstands,” tells the “angel” of Ephesus that he knows his deeds, labor and patience; his success at weeding out false apostles, and how he faithfully endured for the name of Jesus. 
But the “angel” has left his first love, therefore, he must repent and once more perform the “first deeds,” otherwise Christ will remove the lampstand from Ephesus. But Jesus does commend this “angel” for hating “the deeds of the Nicolaitans.” 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 is that the Nicolaitan movement is either outside of this congregation, having failed to make inroads, or is comprised of former members ejected for engaging in the “deeds of the Nicolaitans.”
At Pergamos (2:12-17)
Pergamos was a key city of Asia, politically, but was not a major center of commerce. It was the seat of the Roman government and its administrative center for the Province. It was the provincial center of the imperial cult.
Pergamos was the first city of Asia honored with the title, ‘Temple Warden’ or neōkoros (νεωκορος), the first temple in the province erected to honor Augustus Caesar (completed in 29 B.C.). At the center of the city was a great altar dedicated to Zeus Sotér or ‘Zeus the Savior.’ (see W.M. Ramsay, The Seven Letters to the Seven Churches (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Pub., 1994), p. 207).
In the message to this church, its “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 (note the verbal link between 2:13 and 13:2):
1.     The great Altar of Zeus.
2.    The Temple of Augustus.
3.   The acropolis at the center of the city that contained both.
The Risen Christ commends 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 of capital punishment, the reference to the martyrdom of Antipas confirms the connection of the “throne of Satan” to Roman rule.
However, Jesus also corrects 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 equates the teaching of Balaam with that of the Nicolaitans (“in like manner thus you have such as hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”).
The “angel” must repent, otherwise, Jesus will “make war against them with the sword of my mouth”; “them” refers to the ones who have the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Every believer who “overcomes” is promised the “hidden manna” and a “white stone” upon which is written a “new name.”
The “teaching of Balaam” refers to the Old Testament story in which the prophet Balaam attempted to serve God while also profiting by cursing Israel in order to please Balak, the king of Moab (Numbers 25:1-331:16). God did not allow Balaam to curse Israel and, instead, caused him to bless the Hebrew nation.
However, Balaam found another way by teaching Balak 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 to refer to 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” (2:20, 14:8, 17:2-4, 18:3, 18:9, 19:22). The “teachings of Balaam” probably refers to the same doctrines as those of the Nicolaitans.”
In one theory, the etymology of ‘Nicolaitan’ is linked to that of ‘Balaam.’ Just as ‘Nicolaitan’ means “conquest of people,” so ‘Balaam’ means “master of people.” This 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 than Ba’al, which means “master.” 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 Pergamos by encouraging them to engage in local pagan practices. This could include the offering of incense to images of the emperor or participating in communal meals at local trade guilds. The latter would have included offerings to a 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 message to Ephesus, the Nicolaitans are “known by their works.” Though dangerous, the Ephesians recognize the deception and reject it. The Nicolaitans remain on the outside of this congregation.
In Pergamos, however, the Nicolaitans are known by “their teaching” and at least some members tolerate if not accept it. The emphasis of the teaching is one accommodation with the surrounding pagan culture and its idolatrous practices. This is the sense of eating “things sacrificed to idols and committing fornication.”
Though we lack many details, the heart of the “Nicolaitan” deception was the accommodation to idolatrous rites of the local society and, very probably, its demands for Christians to participate in the Roman imperial cult.

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