What’s Up With the Nicolaitans?

This is going to be a difficult post. Why? Because I know it could become somewhat controversial. So, please be patient with my exegesis. I am a learner. We are all learners. We must treat one another as such. With that in mind, I believe fully that Jesus wants and expects us to know His Truth. So, here I go…

But this is in your favor: You hate the evil deeds of the Nicolaitans, just as I do.

Revelation 2:6, NLT

But I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. In a similar way, you have some Nicolaitans among you who follow the same teaching. Repent of your sin, or I will come to you suddenly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

Revelation 2:14-16, NLT

I have recently heard and read several different individuals concerning their view of the Nicolaitans, so I decided to start a discussion here.

The above passages are the only place we find this term in the New Testament. Jesus makes some very powerful assertions regarding the Nicolaitans which leave no question to how He feels about them. HE HATES THEIR DEEDS!! He commands urgent and immediate repentance from those who have succumbed to their deeds. Jesus is fully prepared and ready to defend His honor with His Truth (the sword of His mouth). I think we need to pay attention here!

So, what are the deeds? What is Jesus talking about here that demands such serious action? Who are the Nicolaitans? What is their teaching? From where did they come? Why is Jesus so ticked at them?

In His pointed address to the church at Pergamus, Jesus uses the teaching of Balaam as an illustration of the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Balaam was a “prophet-for-hire” who was being paid by Balak the King of the Moabites to call a cursing upon the invading army of Israel. Yahweh would not allow this cursing, but rather turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing on three separate occasions. Finally, Balaam gives up trying to speak a cursing over Israel and instead instructs Balak in how to trick the Israelites into calling a curse upon themselves. He does this by using the pagan temple prostitutes to go into the war camp at Mt. Peor and seduce the battle-weary soldiers into worshiping false gods by having sex with them. As a result, 24,000 Israelites died. It wasn’t a good time for Israel. (Check out these other passages concerning Balaam: Numbers 22-24; 31:8, 16; Deuteronomy 23:4-5; Joshua 13:22; 14:9-10; Nehemiah 13:2; Micah 6:5; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11.)

Now, I will share two interpretations:

  1. The first thought identifies “Nicolas of Antioch (an earlier convert to the Jewish faith)” (Acts 6:5) as the culprit, as in the “Nicolaitans” were following “Nicolas”. He was one of seven men chosen to run a food distribution program in the church at Jerusalem many years before. These men are regularly referred to as the first “deacons” within the church. (I don’t actually agree that sentiment within the context it is often used, but that is for another discussion.) The theory here is that Nicolas began holding to a teaching that would ultimately be referred to as “Gnosticism”. This teaching adopts a very twisted “hyper-grace” view of life. It basically says that once you are saved by grace, you can do whatever you like in your physical body. It doesn’t matter, just live it up. Give no heed to personal holiness, because that is just a legalistic illusion. Have fun! This, of course, is identified as the teaching of Balaam who caused the seduction of Israelite men away from Yahweh and into idol worhsip through sexual sin. This teaching did cause concern in early churches and Paul addressed these pagan teachings in several of his letters. Also, Jesus certainly would hate this type of teaching, because it truly runs contrary to His teachings. So, we can see the origin of this interpretation. But was that the intention of Jesus in this particular passage?
  2. The second line of thinking has more to do with the actual word “Nicolaitans”. It is derived from two Greek words: “nikao”, meaning to conquer or rule (where the word “Nike” comes from), and “laos”, meaning people (where the word “laity” comes from). When joined, the two words mean people conquerors or rulers. Also, it is interesting to note the actual meaning of Balaam’s name. His name is derived from two separate Hebrew terms: “bal”, meaning not, nothing, to wear out, consume, and “am”, which means people. Literally, the translation would be “not people”, and is usually thought to mean “not (of the) people”, or “foreigner”. An etymological study will reveal that the Hebrew name Balaam and the Greek word Nicolaitans can mean the same thing. The idea is that the “deeds of the Nicolaitans” didn’t necessarily have anything to do with moral corruption or “Gnosticism”, but rather was the emergence of the clergy/laity divide which has permeated nearly all of Christendom from “higher” forms of church (i.e. Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Orthodox, etc.) to “lower” forms of church (i.e. Baptist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, Church of Christ, etc.). “Lower” and “higher” church being a reference more to church polity, governance, traditions, and structure, not necessarily doctrinal issues. Not only is the issue of the clergy/laity divide called into question in this view, but the fact that Balaam was a “prophet-for-hire” is poignantly pointed out by those who question the Scriptural veracity of the CEO pastoral role assumed by so many “professional” ministers today. No matter which tribe (denomination) is being considered, one thing is true, Christianity has been decisively divided between those with a “special” calling and those who are…well…just people (laity). It is as though the impetus of the Reformation has been forgotten, yet again: the literal priesthood of all believers. Whether these “offices” of leadership are referred to as ministers, bishops, cardinals, deacons, pastors, reverends, popes, or whatever, the divide is quite evident. Therefore, if this was what Jesus was pointing out, He is clearly stating that He hates this divide and the monetary gain in which it is encumbered.

So, these are the two basic interpretations as I understand them. Either way we go, we are given much to reflect upon and consider. I think that we must wrestle with this passage.

Please share your thoughts. I have many more passages of Scripture I could share along with my own ideas, but I invite the conversation. Please share Scripture, and play nice. I am not making any accusations here. I just simply want to pursue Truth. I am looking for well-thought-out, considerate conversation, not accusatory, reactionary, diatribe.

Thanx!

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17 Responses

  1. What was really wicked about Baalam was his determination to attain selfish gain. It drove him to do bald-faced despite unto the spirit of God. The Lord repeatedly resisted him, but his response was to look for another way. It is written that he loved the wages of unrighteousness, but was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet.

    It is implied that Baalam got his way even after he was rebuked — he couldn’t curse Israel, but he showed Balak another way to cause them to stumble.

    I believe Christ, in Revelation 2, is addressing the kind of problems Peter describes in 2 Peter 2. Whether the false prophets have one bad doctrine (like the first you described) or another (like the second), their motive is the same — lust-driven personal gain.

    I recommend a tract “Getting What you Want from God” subtitled “The Error of Baalam” :

    http://www.lastdaysministries.com/Articles/1000008542/Last_Days_Ministries/LDM/Discipleship_Teachings/Getting_What_You.aspx

    This stuff is very, very relevant to modern Word of Faith doctrine, prosperity preachers, health and wealth gospels, TBN, and so on, but we shouldn’t think that anyone is exempt from the flesh that tempts such thinking.

    The lasciviousness of those in your first example is certainly detestable, but I think Christ is really taking offense at the heart of people like Baalam, and recounting the stinging memory of what resulted from it. The pernicious and covetous ways of the false prophets could result in lewdness, fornication, adultery, or it could just as easily result in demagoguery, oppression, abuse of authority, ungodly rulership and exploitative governance.

    With that said, your second interpretation describes a divide between “clergy” and “laity.” While there are strong arguments against such a divide in statements like “But so shall it not be among you,” and “ye are all brethren,” there is also an apparently inevitable distinction even in the parts of the church with the least hierarchical orders, between those who “live of the gospel” and those whose income comes from without. Unless a man is forbade to receive his living from ministry, there will be a distinction between the one who does and the one who doesn’t.

    Sometimes the distinction is apparent in words like “full time ministry,” and sometimes it is apparent in the names of occupations like “pastor,” or “missionary.”

    The scriptures support a minister being paid for his work – even double. It is acceptable for him to make a living at it. It is nothing for a minister who sows spiritual things to reap material things voluntarily offered him.

    When the distinction begins to manifest in personal titles (Pastor so and so, Reverend So and So), special clothing (robes or collars and such), then we get into dangerous territory where there are men who love preeminence, and greetings, and the best seats and so on.

    Another indicator of danger is when a minister will only minister when there is money involved. If he will only preach when there is an expectation of money being received for himself or the church enterprise, he is an entrepreneurial or for-hire professional like Baalam. Usually this type also has a lot of books, cd’s, dvd’s, and other merchandise for sale.

    I advocate public ministry: street preaching, preaching on the campus, preaching at the courthouse, the prison, the homeless shelter, outside the bar, preaching in the park, at the carnival, at the parade, preaching at the bus stop, preaching even to the wind (Eze. 37:9). If a man will preach from a pulpit where he receives only praise and money, but will not preach here, he is in danger.

  2. Jeff,
    Interesting discussion topic. I think #2 stretches the text and is actually reading a certain theology back into the text. Option #1 (minus the actual “deacon” Nicolas as the culprit– no way to be sure) makes the most sense textually.
    Noah

  3. Ben, interesting stuff to chew on. Thanx for sharing!

  4. Noah, thanx for sharing your thought. I agree with the “stretch”. That is why I posted it the way I did, without taking a side.

    Actually, I remember several years ago with the ABA literature covered the book of Revelation, that the writer pointed out that he beleived this text pointed to the beginning of the hierarchy within the Catholic church.

    Needless, to say I think these viewpoints give us something to ponder. I think it is interesting that the only other two times Balaam in mentioned in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11), his thirst for payment was what was mentioned. Also, in Revelation 2:6, Jesus said He hated the “deeds” of the Nicolaitans, not the teaching. Also, the word “didaken” (translated “doctrine” in the King Jimmy and translated teaching in the NLT) seems to have more to do with the actual instruction or “type” of instruction rather than the actual doctrine or content being taught. So, it seems Jesus may have been pointing out what they were actually doing rather than what they were teaching the people.

    The thought here is that if the people begin to follow after other people rather than following Jesus, they will be easily led into the lascivious behavior mentioned in the text. Of course, I don’t think this could EVER be used to “blanket cover” all those in positional leadership situations within the church. That would be absurd.

    Again, not trying to prove anything, just adding to the conversation.

    I hope others weigh in. Noah, again, I say thanx!

  5. I am a lay person trying understand the doctrine of the Nicolaitians. I am thankful for this discussion group.

    I have a question to ask of Jeff: Why does it matter that there be a distinction between the “deeds’ of the Nicolaitians and their “doctrine”?

    The way I see it, anyone who takes up the role of teaching the Word of God is not only consenting to “speaking” the word of God but “doing” the word of God. In 2Tim: 14-16, we are reminded not to argue about words because such arguments are useless and can ruin those who hear them. Instead an approved workman is encouraged to be diligent in works so he does not need to be ashamed WHILE ALSO correctly explaining (dividing) the Word of Truth.
    Furthermore, I would think that the deeds of these people followed their doctrine. Even if this was not the case, they were a serious destructive power to the Truth of God because they broke one part of the law and were therefore guilty of breaking all the law and did not speak or do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty (James 2: 8-12).

    I can not fault the assertion that if people begin to follow people rather than Jesus, they will certainly be mislead.

    However, teachers of God’s Word have been called for such a time as this when we do not see Him face to face but rely on the Christ portrayed through those who profess to be His disciples and the teachers of His ways. They cannot expect to be merely speakers of His word while their deeds are adversaries of, or contradictory to those same words.

    Jeff said: Also, the word “didaken” (translated “doctrine” in the King Jimmy and translated teaching in the NLT) seems to have more to do with the actual instruction or “type” of instruction rather than the actual doctrine or content being taught.

    The Holy Bible has ONE teaching and that is that we are saved through grace alone but that our lives must reflect through works that holiness imparted on us by this saving grace. I have yet to find a place in the Bible where there is a separation between doctrine and works. Instead, the Bible is pervaded with encouragement to overcome our fleshly desires (take up your cross Mat27:38) so as not to make mockery of the Gospel.

    We cannot share God’s truth by peddling lies. In talking about “actual instruction or ‘type’ of instruction” and “actual doctrine or content being taught”, I sense a dangerous stepping stone to NOT rightly dividing the word of truth.

    In summary, I do not see any gains in separating the “docotrine” of the Nicolaitians from their “works” or “deeds” because these are one and the same thing. In fact trying to do so is certainly propagating the very thing we are discussing and, I dare say, gnosticism.

    My 2 cents worth, lay as I am.

  6. I’m thinking that #1 is the correct interpretation as well, with specific regards to Gnosticism. Gnosticism has been prevalent from the early start of the church in the mid-first century all the way until now. Gnosticism, I believe, created the philosophical atmosphere in which the Constantinian adaptations of church structure could take place. I don’t think there was a problem with having “clergy” until around the end of the late 2nd century/early 3rd century (I don’t remember Barna’s book at this point). Regardless, the church started falling apart in the mid 2nd century, slowly but surely, and then catalyzed under and after Constantine. In essence, I think #1 created the condition where #2 would happen in the relatively near future.

    I think #2 falls apart on the actual verses from Revelation 2:14-16 itself.

    “But I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel.

    I see this section as discrediting the teaching and the teacher by describing the character of Balaam, “who showed Balak how to trip up the people of israel.” His teaching ran contradictory to the teaching of Jehovah. What was his teaching?

    “He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin.”

    Lascivious physical pleasure was a staple of Gnosticism, which is probably why the idea was so popular. I’m not sure Gnosticism as we know it was fully developed in the N.T. but the idea of a sacred-secular divide has always existed, though not always directly related. If we see our souls as sacred (pure) and our bodies as secular (dirty), then it really doesn’t matter what we do in our bodies. We should just live it up. Such a mindset denies the future resurrection and restoratoin of the body, of the “whole man [person] of God.” You could argue that one of Gnosticisms goals was to destroy the belief in the resurrection. Anyways, I’m starting to ramble now… and veer in differnt directions.

    “In a similar way, you have some Nicolaitans among you who follow the same teaching. Repent of your sin, or I will come to you suddenly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”

    Again, the easiest conclusion is that this situation involved Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a horrible monster, just look at the modern church. Gnosticism goes against the Shema that declares our Lord is one Lord, which implies that He is Lord over all aspects of our lives, and therefore, all parts of our lives are holy and dedicated to Him. The denying of Jesus’ Lordship, along with the destruction of missional living that comes from Gnosticism, explains why the language is so harsh here.

    To conclude, I think the main problem with #2 is not that it didn’t happen (because it obviously did), but that it was just not a big issue, at the time, yet. The N.T. does describe false prophets and teachers, but I don’t remember money being involved as much as I remember control and the propogation of pet theologies being the reasons for what the false prophets and teachers did.

    Honestly, I think the text may be too unclear to build any definitive teaching on. This should reinforce the idea that we should be careful in our exegesis and non-dogmatic in our conclusions.

  7. I really appreciate the conversation here!!

    I have learned, been encouraged, and believe I am gaining a purer understanding of this text. In short, I think it is a combination of 1 and 2, with more emphasis on 1.

    Please feel free to post more!!

    Thanx!

  8. I finally finished parsing this out. I know you aren’t a “Static / Formal / Complete Equivalence translation of the Textus Receptus kind of guy, so I’d ask you to look in the Greek yourself to notice there are only two variants in the WH / UBS / NA27th edition texts as well, and those don’t have an impact on this particular question (though they do have an impact in another discussion on the definite article – you shoulda stayed and got your masters at LMBIS – we got a new book called Beyond the Basics, and it gets deep in the Greek language. Stuff you’ve never thought about. It blows our minds.)

    Anyway, when parsed out, I think much of this conversation boils down to the translation of the Greek word in verse 15. The NLT (a horrible excuse for a translation in my opinion) stated “In a similar way, you have some Nicolaitans among you who follow the same teaching.” This is the ONLY translation which gives anything close to this idea. In translating the Greek, a wooden translation would be…

    So too / in like manner / likewise – Adverb
    you are having – Verb
    and you (are having) those who are holding the one teaching of the ones Nikolaitons
    the one which / that which I am hating.

    We find here the first adverb must correspond with a verb, adjective or other adverb, not a noun such as doctrine. The “so”, “likewise” or “in like manner” adverb applies here to the verb of holding the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. The church was holding the doctrine in a similar manner as they were holding Balaam’s doctrine. This is the only conclusion I could come up with in the Greek.

    At the end of the sentence, we have a relative pronoun which means (according to all lexicons I’ve viewed) who, which, that, that which, the one which, the one who, what, etc.. It NEVER means “the same” teaching. Looking at either Greek text, it befuddles me how they got their “translation” for the NLT. The KJV gives 10 TIMES better translation. Even though people don’t like the KJV, they’d be hard pressed to argue with the translation here.

    Revelation 2:15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.

    I think parsing out the verse clears up the whole issue (which would’ve been solved by viewing the KJV in the first place.) There is no tie here between the two doctrines other than the way the church was holding them. The doctrines of Nicolaitanes and the doctrine of Balaam were two separate doctrines, with nothing connecting them in this context. Now if you can find a historical book showing the Nicolaitanes to believe like Balaam, then go for it. I just hope none use this scripture to prove that point. It’d be a gross corruption or “wresting” of the scripture and its syntax.

  9. Oh yea, if you’d like the full parsing, let me know. I’ve saved it in table format for easy viewing. I can email it as an attached word doc if you’d like.

  10. Hey James,

    Now that you’ve bowed at the alter of King Jimmy, please “clarificate” your answer. I am not sure what you said, through all the technical jargon.

    We will certainly all give you hand for “one-upping” us with your LMBIS edumication. 🙂

    You said “There is no tie here between the two doctrines other than the way the church was holding them. The doctrines of Nicolaitanes and the doctrine of Balaam were two separate doctrines, with nothing connecting them in this context.”

    It seems to me that JESUS was connecting them for us.

    BTW, I do use the KJV, NKJV, NLT, The Message, and occasionally the NIV. I just usually use the NLT on here and in my personal reading. I usually like the “dynamic” rendering it offers.

    However, please refrain from “pet” arguments here please. Bible versions is a pointless argument on my blog. I will not allow the Word of God to be thrown under the bus by those who think they have it all figured out.

    Thanx!

  11. You don’t remember the technical jargon? Surely you do. You sat under Brother Brown just as I did. You learned the same about the greek language I did. On top of that, you are more intelligent than I’ve ever thought of being, so I’m sure you know the jargon.

    Anyway, for the sake of the other readers, I’ll simply explain again and try to be as thorough, yet easy to understand as possible.

    The verse doesn’t tie the two together, because it doesn’t say that at all. Like I said, even if someone doesn’t believe the King James Version to be a good translation, all other translations except this one give the same idea. They all pretty much say the following.

    Some members of that church hold the doctrines of Balaam, which include teaching Balac to cast a stumbling block in front of Israel to eat things sacrificed to idols and teaching them to commit fornication.

    In the same way, (like manner), some hold to the teaching of the Niclaitanes, the teaching which Jesus hates.

    In the same way or like manner here is an adverb phrase. Remember the 8 parts of speech. Adverbs describe an adjective, a verb, or another adverb. So Basically, some in the church hold to the teaching of Balaam, and in a similar way (of holding), some (others) in the church hold to the teaching of Balaam. If some hold to one teaching and others hold to another teaching, they aren’t one in the same. You can find this in any translation except that one which should tell you that one particular translation is misleading.

    I’m not trying to get on my “pet.” If that were the case, I wouldn’t suggest all other translations to this one. I’m just saying this particular translation ties the two doctrines together as one in the same, whereas all other translations separate them. Even translating myself from the greek, the come out separate. Even if I was trying my best to make the greek say what the NLT says, I can’t even make up an argument to support it. I tried to see how they got that, but I can’t. They changed and added words which change the meaning.

    All I’m saying is if you stick to all other translations, you’ll see there is no connection between the two teachings, but rather a separation.

  12. James, thank you for clarifying your writing. I had read it a couple of times but could still not comprehend it. It is now much easier to follow your thoughts on the matter.

    On another matter, I am hoping that the exchange between you and Jeff is “friendly rivalry” the origins of which the rest of us are not aware. If this is the case I am of the opinion that you guys might want to clarify a little of this for every reader. It comes across as a little too agressive.

    Considering that we are talking about The Master and trying to “defend the faith”, this kind of agressive dialogue goes against everything the faith teaches.

    Hoping I am reading the agression wrong,
    Ticia.

  13. Ticia, I’m sorry if it comes across aggressively. It isn’t. We are good friends from years ago. Brother Jeff actually opened my eyes to a lot of things. I guess it only sound aggressive b/c you can’t hear the inflection in things. For example, the LMBIS thing is a joke between us from 2004. Something he mentioned to me about the professors and the reason he was attending there again. Just a friendly joke with no harm intended. The whole Bible version issue we disagree on is one we don’t discuss anymore, since we both know where the other stands. When we do bring it up (as i did in my post), it is a brief comment, and kind of like a poke at the other, not an attack.

    I’m sorry to all readers if this came across aggressively. It was not the intention.

  14. Thank you for responding so promptly. I appreciate the concern you show in doing this. I suspected that a deep friendship from way back was behind the banter but I could not be sure.

    what a commentary on communication!

    Thank you again,
    Ticia

  15. Yes, I concur with James. We have been friends for many years. It has been a while since we have seen one another. I have been out of touch with much of my past for last several years. The Bible versions issue is something that is resolved for me: use what you will, just read it, and read it lots. I am incredibly leary of Bible version discussions, because they tend to do more HARM to the Word of God, than good. There are several places to discuss that issue, but I avoid it like a plague. I was abrupt, but serious, and James knew that.

    I am glad to have new readers lately.

    Thanx for the discussion.

  16. I see where the idea of this post came from now. It came from Organic Leadership by Niel Cole. I read his argument, but it still seems like a stretch to me.

    Anyways, what I wanted to comment on, is pages 107-108 in Cole’s book. That section on the nature of the church is blowing my mind right now and really challenging me. It’s just… wow!

    I wonder if you had any thoughts about it.

  17. this is truly food for thought……however, the application of this in our daily lives is what is desperately needed… I cannot tell you how many “Christians” that I use to know participate in all kinds of weird practices…..for example, the new and improved “Chain Letter”….or I guess that I should call it “The Christian Chain Letter of Prayer”…..meaning that, if you say that it involves prayer to God then that should make it alright ….my final comment is regarding what was mentioned before “Prosperity Preachers”….this is one of the biggest deceptions of our time…you don’t have to pay/give money to be blessed by God….obedience to his word is all that is needed….furthermore, the false doctrine that money is a “Seed” is not in my Bible… where, when, and who began this modern day misrepresentation….. falsehood….. lie…???

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