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:
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?
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.
Filed under: Challenge, Church History, Discussion, Elders, Leadership, Nicolaitans, Pastors, Religion, Thinking, Truth, Uncategorized | 17 Comments »