Ephesus and Pergamum: Who Were the Nicolaitans?
The stern warning to Ephesus is followed by an encouragement that is notoriously difficult to understand. It is this encouragement that provides us with a considerable amount of clarity about the matter of criticism itself.
6 But you do have this going for you: You hate what the Nicolaitans practice – practices I also hate. (Rev 2:6)
The encouragement had to do with Christ’s affirmation that the believers in Ephesus do hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans. In order to understand what those deeds may have been we must see what John was asked to write to the congregation in another great Roman city in the Asia Minor – the City of Pergamum. We read in Rev. 2:13-15
“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is… I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” (Rev 2:13-15)
In these verses we see the evil deeds of Balaam in teaching Balak to entice Israel to sin. The treachery concerned two things 1) eating foods sacrificed to idols and 2) engaging in acts that are sexually immoral (Num 22-24). These things are somehow connected with the evil teachings of the Nicolaitans. Incidentally, the decision of the Jerusalem council as expressed in their letter to the Gentile followers of Jesus, while exempting the non-Jews from all kinds of burdens of observance obligatory to Jews, set forth a concrete set of food-related prohibitions for Gentiles as well. We read in Acts 15:28-29,
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
It is not hard to notice that out of four behaviors forbidden to Gentiles two had do to with Nicolaitans and Balam/Balak issues (eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality). It is important to see that this combination of food and sex-related offenses was particularly important for the Jewish Apostles and elders to address in their letter to Gentile converts to the Jewish Christ. In other words, is it even conceivable that the Apostles would permit Gentile followers of Christ to commit murder, to steal or to be obsessed with the possessions of their neighbors?! The answer to this is of course not. This was not a comprehensive list. But these issues brought up at the Jerusalem Council (consuming food sacrificed to idols, blood, and illicit sex) seem to constitute central challenges that the Gentile followers of the Jewish Christ encountered in their daily lives in the Roman Empire.
In the Roman world, the overwhelming majority of meat sold on the market was first offered/dedicated to one or another deity. The only exception to this was the Judean/Jewish isolation from the rest of the Roman population who had their own slaughter rules and privileges. Most Jews residing in the Roman Empire were a part of the network in which food was handled differently. The writings of the Apostle Paul to the nations (all the letters that Saul/Paul ever wrote that made into our New Testament) show clearly that these issues continued to plague the believers enough for him to address them in considerable detail (1 Cor.8-10).
Judging from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (that we mistakenly call the first Letter to the Corinthians – 1 Cor.5:9) some Gentile Christ-followers felt that they could continue to purchase and consume meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan deity. The Apostle Paul while agreeing with them that these gods (idols) are nothing, sides with the Jerusalem council in forbidding all the Gentile Christ-followers from eating food associated with Greco-Roman worship rituals in any way (1 Cor.8:1-13). Having considered this important issue, let us return to the discussion of the Nicolaitans.
Who were the Nicolaitans and what is the origin of this word that first comes up in Rev. 2:6and then is repeated in Rev. 2:15? The main traditional attempt to understand the etymology of the word is often tied to diaconal appointee Nicolas in Acts 6:5 – “The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch.” Presumably at some later stage Nicolas began to teach what was eventually defined as evil deeds of the Nicolaitans and the matter is quite obscure. However, there is another, often overlooked option, suggested many years ago by great Jewish Christian Hebraist John Lightfoot. It allows one to continue reading the Book of Revelation as thoroughly Jewish anti-Roman document. He suggested that perhaps deacon Nicolas was a wrong trail to follow. Instead Nicolaitans was a Hebraism (in this case something originally said in Hebrew but spelled with Greek letters). What did he have in mind?
In Hebrew in order to say “we will eat” verb ???? (nokhal) would have been used. We read in Is.4:1, “And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat (???????) our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach. If this Hebrew word ???? (nokhal) is transferred into Greek it can be used as a term describing the “we will eat” people. In a sense that this was their motto, their sentiment – “we will eat” the food that others think is forbidden (food offered to pagan deities). Thus ??? ?????????? (ton nikolaton) “the Nicolaitans” as a group or teaching can originate from Hebrew ???? (nokhal) “we will eat” making a cohesive connection to the context of Balaam and Balak and incident in the book of Numbers referred to in Rev. 2:13-15.
7 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’ (Rev 2:7)
“The one who has an ear, let him hear” is also a Hebraism that is used also on a number of occasions in the Gospels by Jesus himself. For example, in parable of the seed falling on the good soil and producing various level of fruit (Mark 4:1-20). The basic meaning of this Hebraism is this: “if one is able to hear it, one must obey it.” In this case (Rev. 2:7) what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Christ-following congregations of the Asia Minor is so important that if one hears it, one must obey it.
Besides the Hebraism there is a word play in Greek of this verse. The one who hears is “the one who overcomes” ?? ??????? (to nikoti) which is a form of the verb ????? (nikao) that means “to win, conquer, persevere and be victorious”. This suspiciously sounds very similar to the term we just encountered – ??????????? (nikolates) “a Nicolaitan”. If the motto of Nicolaitans is “we will eat” then as a pun this is exactly what God promises to the one who overcomes. If they forgo eating food sacrificed to idols they will eat of the Tree of Life and live. The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon compared the righteous people to the trees of life, as if each one of them is a tree.
1 Faithful is the Lord to them that love Him in truth, To them that endure His chastening, (2) To them that walk in the righteousness of His commandments, In the law which He commanded us that we might live. 2(5) The pious of the Lord shall live by it forever; The Paradise of the Lord, the trees of life, are His pious ones. 3(4) Their planting is rooted for ever. They shall not be plucked up all the days of heaven: (5) For the portion and the inheritance of God is Israel. (Wisdom of Solomon 14:1-5)
Almighty always keeps those he calls and chooses. He chastises them but always desires for them to prove themselves faithful, so that they may be with him forever, planted as the trees in the House of the Lord. This was a serious warning.