Last week I wrote about the Montanists and probably caused many of you to scratch your heads wondering, “Who in the world are the Montanists?” Today we turn our attention to another odd group known as the Nicolaitans. There is at least one profound difference between the two: the Montanists were most likely genuine believers in Jesus; the Nicolaitans were most assuredly not.
(1) The Nicolaitans are mentioned by name twice in the NT, both in the book of Revelation. According to Revelation 2:6, Jesus commends the Christians at Ephesus for “hating” the “works of the Nicolaitans.” Yes, Jesus does “hate” certain things, and so should we. They are mentioned again in Revelation 2:15 in the letter to the church in Pergamum.
(2) Early tradition among the church fathers (most notably Irenaeus) identifies them with Nicolas, the proselyte of Antioch who was appointed one of the first seven deacons (servants) in Acts 6:5. This, however, is highly unlikely.
(3) The name itself may be derived from two words which mean “victory” (nikos) and “people” (laos), thus the idea of their consumption or overpowering of the people. They were evidently licentious and antinomian and advocated an unhealthy compromise with pagan society and the idolatrous culture of Ephesus.
(4) The “teaching” of the Nicolaitans should probably be identified with the “teaching” of Balaam (2:14-15). The similarity of language also suggests that Jezebel and her followers (2:20-24) constituted a group of Nicolaitans in Thyatira. They are all said to be guilty of enticing God’s people “to eat things sacrificed to idols” and “to commit acts of immorality” (2:14-15,20). In Revelation, to “fornicate” (porneuo) and its cognates usually are metaphorical for spiritual apostasy and idol worship (14:8; 17:1,2,4,5,15,16; 18:3,9; 19:2). When these words are used literally, they are part of vice lists (9:21; 21:8; 22:15).
(5) The Ephesian believers, however, were not duped. Nor were they so naïve as to believe that Christian charity can tolerate such false teaching. Note also the contrast: they “bear” trials and tribulations for Christ’s sake (v. 3) but they cannot “bear” the company of these evil men (vv. 2,6). They endure persecution, but not perversion.
(6) There are many lessons here, but one in particular stands out: Jesus hates moral and theological compromise. Any appeal to grace to justify sin is repugnant to our Lord. Any attempt to rationalize immorality by citing the “liberty” we have in Christ is abhorrent to him and must be to us. True Christian love is never expressed by the tolerance of wickedness, whether it be a matter of what one believes or how one behaves.
(7) The presence and influence of the Nicolaitans in Pergamum should be noted in detail. Here is what Jesus said to them:
“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:14-16).
There was a difference in the response to the Nicolaitans in these two congregations. The Ephesians “hated” the work of the Nicolaitans and refused to tolerate their pernicious behavior (Rev. 2:6). The church in Pergamum, on the other hand, had welcomed them into the fellowship of the church and given them freedom to propagate their destructive ways.
(8) There’s no indication these false teachers had openly denied the “name” to which the others at Pergamum held fast (v. 13). In other words, I doubt if the error of the Nicolaitans was a denial of the Incarnation of Christ, his propitiatory work on the cross, or his bodily resurrection. Rather, as noted above, they were guilty of turning the grace of God into licentiousness.
How serious was their presence in the church at Pergamum? Serious enough to provoke Jesus to say: “I have a few things against you” (Rev. 2:14a)! That ought to alert us to the depths of this problem. He describes them as holding to “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Rev. 2:14-15).
We read of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. What he was to the children of Israel in the OT, the Nicolaitans were to the church of Jesus Christ in the New. Balaam is a prototype of those who promote compromise with the world in idolatry and immorality (see also Jude 11 and 2 Peter 2:15). The Nicolaitans had dared to insinuate that freedom in Christ granted them a blank check to sin. The fault of believers in Pergamum was not so much that they had followed this pernicious teaching but that they had allowed it to be vocalized in the congregation. This matter of indifference to the licentiousness of the Nicolaitans was of grave concern to the risen Lord.
(9) What is the precise nature of their sin? They put a stumbling block in the way of God’s people “so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (v. 14). The former probably refers to eating food sacrificed to idols in the context of idolatrous worship. Perhaps, then, the Nicolaitans were advocating, in the name of Christian freedom, participation in the worship service both of the local church and the local pagan temple (a similar problem existed at Corinth; see 1 Corinthians 10:14-22). They evidently weren’t in the least bothered by such compromise.
As noted above, often in the OT spiritual idolatry was described metaphorically in terms of prostitution and sexual immorality (see Jeremiah 3:2; 13:27; Ezekiel 16:15-58; 23:1-49; 43:7; Hosea 5:4; 6:10). In Revelation, to “fornicate” (porneuo) and its cognates usually are metaphorical for spiritual apostasy and idol worship (14:8; 17:1,2,4,5,15,16; 18:3,9; 19:2).
However, we can’t dismiss the possibility that the Nicolaitans were teaching that forgiveness of sin and their new-found freedom in Christ have now released them from what they regarded as “slavish obedience” to rules and regulations concerning sexual conduct. How tragic that today we still hear such arguments in the defense of both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.
(10) Here is how serious Jesus regards the sin of the Nicolaitans and anyone’s tolerance of their presence in the church: “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:16).
“Recognize and confess,” says Jesus, “that you are doing no one a favor by overlooking and allowing such sin in your midst! Confronting the Nicolaitans may be uncomfortable for you, even painful, but not nearly as painful as the judgment they will suffer if they remain in their sin!” This call to repentance may also include the ultimate expulsion from the church of the Nicolaitans should they choose not to respond favorably.
Notice also that Jesus says, “I will come to you” soon, but will “war against them”. The faithful at Pergamum aren’t off the hook. If they don’t repent Jesus will bring discipline against them (in precisely what form, we aren’t told). But the Nicolaitans will be the focus of judgment. It is against “them” that Jesus will make “war”. Such language suggests that their lack of repentance would be evidence of a lack of saving faith. Their persistent licentiousness and morally compromising behavior undermine their claim to know Jesus in a saving way.
The Christians in Pergamum had sacrificed the ethical purity of their congregation on the altar of “love” and for the sake of some nebulous “peace” they feared to lose. Purity often comes at an extremely high price. But we must be prepared to pay it. Confrontation is never pleasant, but it often reaps a bountiful harvest. By all means, pursue love, but not at the expense of truth or in such a way that overt sin is left to fester and spread in the body of Christ.