- Christogenea Internet Radio
On the Revelation of Yahshua Christ, Part 3: What is a Nicolaitan?
In our last presentation we discussed Revelation chapter 1 and the nature of Yahshua Christ as He revealed it through the apostle John. While there are numerous indications in the words of the ancient prophets that Christ is Yahweh God incarnate, and while Christ Himself had made similar professions in several different ways in the accounts in the Gospels, and especially in the Gospel of John, here in Revelation chapter 1 He made several explicit statements as well as several allegories which reveal that He is God. This is found in the underlying meaning of epithets such as “He who is and who was and who is coming” and “First Born from the dead”, but it is explicit in verses 7 and 8 where we read: “7 Behold! He comes with the clouds, and every eye shall see Him, even whoever had pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth shall mourn before Him. Yeah, truly! 8 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, says Yahweh God, He who is and who was and who is coming, the Almighty.’”
In verse 4 we also see a reference to Christ as “He who is and who was and who is coming”, but here in verse 8 we see those words attributed to Yahweh God, yet they are referring to Yahshua Christ. There is a difficulty in the King James Version in verse 8, where it has only “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord”, yet the New American Standard Version has the complete verse to read: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” All of the Greek manuscripts have the phrase κύριος ὁ θεός, or “the Lord God” in verse 8, and the King James Version chose to ignore the word for God. That same phrase, κύριος ὁ θεός, was employed in the Septuagint wherever the Hebrew words for Yahweh Elohim, or Yahweh God, appear in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. For that reason we render κύριος ὁ θεός as “Yahweh God” throughout our translation of the New Testament, as it should be. So the terminology employed in these verses explicitly reveals the true nature of Christ as God, and Yahweh had also described Himself as the Shadday or Almighty throughout the Old Testament, yet here we also see that epithet applied to Christ.
Later in the chapter, we saw that Christ appeared to John in a vision as a man standing amidst seven golden lampstands, and as we had noted, this was also a reference to the Old Testament temple where the Oracle of God was situated in the midst of the lampstands. So Christ is portraying Himself as being that Oracle, and that also is a subtle assertion that He is God. As we proceed through the Revelation, right to the end we shall see further assertions. Yet critics of this message, or defenders of the pagan Trinity doctrine, will claim that the Revelation shows that Christ is different from God, for example where we read in Revelation chapter 22 references to “ the throne of God and of the Lamb”. We wonder whether they imagine that they shall see two figures, or persons, sitting on that throne, and that is where they fail. The throne of God is occupied by the Lamb, because as Paul wrote in Hebrews chapter 1, He is “the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person”. Yahweh God is a person from an intellectual point of view, but He is invisible unless he takes upon Himself some physical form, such as the burning in the bush, or the pillar of smoke or of fire. So these things were at one time an image of His person. But once He came as the Messiah, He acquired a physical body and Yahshua Christ is therefore the image of His person. There shall only be one visible figure on the throne of God, and that shall be Christ the Lamb, as He is the physical expression of the invisible God. They are not separate persons, but Christ is the image of the person of the invisible God, as Paul had written. I do not comprehend how this is so difficult for Catholics and other Trinitarians to understand, as the belief that God is three different persons is plain idolatry no matter how many times they deny it.
Now as we are about to enter into a discussion of Revelation chapter 2 and the messages to the seven churches which have already been mentioned towards the end of chapter 1, we are compelled to first take a lengthy digression. In those messages which address the churches at Ephesus and Pergamus, we read warnings about Nicolaitans, which is a term from a compound Greek word Νικολαΐτης which we have chosen to translate literally as people-conquerors, since it is used in a plural form. The word is related to νικόλαος, which can be interpreted to mean prevailing over the people, a word which was also used as a given name in Greek, even long before the time of Christ. But that does not necessarily mean that there was any certain Nicolaus within the scope of the use of the term Νικολαΐτης by Christ here, where, as we shall assert, it describes a certain class of people, but not necessarily a particular sect or the followers of a particular heretic.
So before we begin this chapter we are going to discuss these Nicolaitans, and what they could be, because as we shall see, while the word is typically interpreted by early Christians as if it described some extant sect, the opinions or testimonies of the early Christian writers concerning this sect are not consistent. There are several accounts, none which are truly complete, of a sect of the Nicolaitans in the early Christian writings. In the past I have asserted that I doubt the existence of the Nicolaitans as a sect at all, and I continue to believe that the word describes a class of people. But now I realize that there may have at one time been such a sect, although it seems that it could not have existed for long, if indeed it existed at all, and if there were such a sect, they were not necessarily the Nicolaitans of whom Christ had spoken here. The word nevertheless defines certain behavior found among a certain class of people, but we shall wait until later in this presentation to expound upon that assertion.
Because of the wide array of heresies attributed to this sect by the early Christian writers, here we shall present and discuss all of the significant references to them which we have found in those writings. These excerpts shall exhibit the inconsistencies among the early Christian writers where they describe the character and teachings of a sect of the Nicolaitans, which in our opinion discredits them all. The Nicolaitans are generally described as being peddlars of idolatry and licentiousness, but also as having professed a form of Gnosticism. Other perceived heresies are also attributed to them. None of these are found in the words of Christ in the Revelation. Writers have evidently only assumed that the Nicolaitans maintained the same heresies as the doctrine of Balaam, or as Jezebel. But in truth, Christ did not specify what the doctrine of the Nicolaitans was, although He attested to having hated it.
The earliest Christian writer we are going to cite for this subject is Ignatius of Antioch, who is reported to have been martyred as late as 140 AD, but in some sources, as early as 108 AD. The early date is not entirely credible, as it is from Eusebius of Caesareia and Eusebius seems to have purposely pushed his ecclesiastical chronology to earlier dates in order to support his own agenda concerning apostolic succession. These citations are also from the longer version of the epistles of Ignatius, as there are long and short versions and scholars debate the veracity of either. There are other controversies surrounding the circumstances under which Ignatius was said to have been martyred, as they are vaguely reported in the seven epistles attributed to him which are esteemed to be authentic, most of which he had purportedly written on his way to Rome, where he was going to be martyred. These issues are peripheral to our purposes here, so we shall not expound upon them.
All of the following citations from the early so-called “Church Fathers” are from The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, volumes I through VII, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. In all cases, the chapter headings seem to be the work of the editors.
From the Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Chapter XI.—Avoid the Deadly Errors of the Docetae.
Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies. For these men are not the planting of the Father. For if they were, they would appear as branches of the cross, and their fruit would be incorruptible. By it He calls you through His passion, as being His members. The head, therefore, cannot be born by itself, without its members; God, who is [the Saviour] Himself, having promised their union.
Do ye also avoid those wicked offshoots of his, Simon his firstborn son, and Menander, and Basilides, and all his wicked mob of followers, the worshippers of a man, whom also the prophet Jeremiah pronounces accursed. Flee also the impure Nicolaitanes, falsely so called, who are lovers of pleasure, and given to calumnious speeches. Avoid also the children of the evil one, Theodotus and Cleobulus, who produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies, and that not a mere temporary death, but one that shall endure for ever. These men are not the planting of the Father, but are an accursed brood. And says the Lord, "Let every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted be rooted up." For if they had been branches of the Father, they would not have been "enemies of the cross of Christ," but rather of those who "killed the Lord of glory." But now, by denying the cross, and being ashamed of the passion, they cover the transgression of the Jews, those fighters against God, those murderers of the Lord; for it were too little to style them merely murderers of the prophets. But Christ invites you to [share in] His immortality, by His passion and resurrection, inasmuch as ye are His members.
A footnote in the text claims that the reference to Jeremiah was in reference to the sect of the Ebionites, who may not have yet existed by that name, however there were presumed Christians in Judaea who denied the divinity of the Messiah, and the Ebionites upheld that same heresy. Furthermore, the word Docetae is from the Greek verb δοκέω which means to seem, suppose or imagine. So the noun δόκησις was used of an apparition or phantom. An early heresy called docetism taught that Christ was really only an illusion or phantom, and not actually a man.
Of greater importance to our purposes here, note that while Ignatius warned against Nicolaitans, he described them as being “falsely so called”, and I would interpret that to mean that some sect may have taken the name, but they are not what Christ had in mind when He used the term here in the Revelation. While Ignatius warned of the Nicolaitans here in his epistle to the Trallians along with certain men who must have been Docetae, in his epistle to the Philadelphians he mentions both of these groups once again:
From the Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians, Chapter VI.—Do Not Accept Judaism.
If any one confesses the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and praises the creation, but calls the incarnation merely an appearance, and is ashamed of the passion, such an one has denied the faith, not less than the Jews who killed Christ. If any one confesses these things, and that God the Word did dwell in a human body, being within it as the Word, even as the soul also is in the body, because it was God that inhabited it, and not a human soul, but affirms that unlawful unions are a good thing, and places the highest happiness in pleasure, as does the man who is falsely called a Nicolaitan, this person can neither be a lover of God, nor a lover of Christ, but is a corrupter of his own flesh, and therefore void of the Holy Spirit, and a stranger to Christ. All such persons are but monuments and sepulchres of the dead, upon which are written only the names of dead men.
We would interpret the reference to one who “calls the incarnation merely an appearance” as a reference to the heresies of the Docetae. Then after likening such heretics to “the Jews who killed Christ”, he makes a different sort of warning. Where he writes “If any one confesses these things” I would rather interpret that as a reference to what he is going to say next, and not to what preceded. So he speaks of the true Christian profession of the nature of Christ where he wrote “and that God the Word did dwell in a human body, being within it as the Word, even as the soul also is in the body, because it was God that inhabited it, and not a human soul”, and he makes this description in answer to the heretics of both Jews and Docetae.
However then he warns about immorality where he continues, and properly Christians should know that to profess Christ but to continue as sinner is actually the same as denying Christ. So here he spoke about those who made that proper profession of the nature of Christ yet “affirms that unlawful unions are a good thing, and places the highest happiness in pleasure, as does the man who is falsely called a Nicolaitan, this person can neither be a lover of God, nor a lover of Christ, but is a corrupter of his own flesh, and therefore void of the Holy Spirit, and a stranger to Christ.” So where Ignatius wrote “as does the man who is falsely called a Nicolaitan” he is speaking of any such man in general, and not necessarily of a certain man, and once again he says “who is falsely called a Nicolaitan”, where once again we would assert that such men are not really what Christ had described here in the Revelation. When Christ did describe such sexual immorality, it was ascribed to Jezebel, or to the doctrine of Balaam, but not to the Nicolaitans.
While in other epistles Ignatius seems to have addressed what other writers called Gnosticism and Gnostics, in his epistles he did not mention them by those names. But in these two epistles where he had mentioned Nicolaitans, he never associated them with Gnostics, and the Nicolaitans of which he warned may have practised sexual corruptions, but as he states it, they were not deserving of the name Nicolaitans. Both of these epistles are among the seven epistles of Ignatius which are esteemed to be genuine, but on another note, if we had followed the shorter version of the epistles of Ignatius, perhaps he did not mention Nicolaitans at all, as these citations would appear in neither of these epistles.
But perhaps we may see that if there was a man who called himself a Nicolaitan, then he only used the term falsely, and apparently that means that he is not the subject of these warnings of Christ in the Revelation. Therefore we may conclude that since the term was first used by Christ here in Revelation chapter 2, the men of whom Ignatius had warned could not have been the Nicolaitans of which Christ had spoken. Ignatius is attributing to these false Nicolaitans some of those same corruptions of the flesh for which others, but not necessarily the Nicolaitans, are also condemned by Christ in the Revelation, but he nervertheless denied them the title, so Christ must have been describing something other than mere sexual corruption where He mentioned Nicolaitans. Ignatius also attributed to them “calumnious speeches”, speeches containing falsehoods which may have been defamatory, libellous or slanderous. But Christ really did not describe the deeds of the Nicolaitans, so apparently Ignatius may have only assumed that their doctrines were the same as those of Balaam and Jezebel. Modern commentators continue to make that same error.
Now we shall turn to our next witness, Irenaeus, who was born in 130, and who evidently wrote as a bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul from about 170 AD until his death in 202. We shall not read entire chapters, as they are quite lengthy and contain much unrelated information.
From Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1 Chapter XXVI.—Doctrines of Cerinthus, the Ebionites, and Nicolaitanes.
The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.”
Here I would hesitate to accept this testimony on the basis of a single witness, since it was written at least 140 years after the events recounted in Acts chapter 6, where we find the mention of a certain Nicolas, where he was described as “a proselyte of Antioch”, and also as one of the seven men who would attend to the care of widows within the Christian community. There is no further mention of Nicolas in Scriptures after that chapter. Unlike Ignatius, Irenaeus directly associated the Nicolaitans which he describes to this Nicolaus of Acts chapter 6, and also to the Nicolaitans of Revelation chapter 2, without any hesitation or qualification. Yet no such association is found before this time. Basically, this amounts to slander against the Nicolaus of Acts chapter 6.
From Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3 Chapter XI—Proofs in Continuation, Extracted from St. John’s Gospel. The Gospels are Four in Number, Neither More Nor Less. Mystic Reasons for This
John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that “knowledge” falsely so called, that he might confound them, and persuade them that there is but one God, who made all things by His Word; and not, as they allege, that the Creator was one, but the Father of the Lord another; and that the Son of the Creator was, forsooth, one, but the Christ from above another, who also continued impossible, descending upon Jesus, the Son of the Creator, and flew back again into His Pleroma; and that Monogenes was the beginning, but Logos was the true son of Monogenes; and that this creation to which we belong was not made by the primary God, but by some power lying far below Him, and shut off from communion with the things invisible and ineffable.
It is difficult to know much about Cerinthus outside of what either Irenaeus or Dionysius of Alexandria had written about him, and the two do not agree. But in the citations which we used in relationship to the events of the life of John, there are accounts in which the apostle was said to have made contemporary references to the heretic. Elsewhere in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (1.26.1 which we have already cited in part here), Cerinthus is described as “a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians”, which is a reference to the Gnostics of Alexandria in Egypt. Dionysius of Alexandria, who followed Irenaeus by about 60 years, described Cerinthus only as a man given to carnal pleasures, rather than as a Gnostic. However if John and Cerinthus were contemporaries, as they seem to have been, where Irenaeus states that the Nicolaitans were “a long time” previous to that of Cerinthus, we are taken back to the earliest years of Christianity where we have no record of the existence of any such group as Gnostics among Christians.
Furthermore, it may be established that many of the fundamental elements of Gnosticism were being expressed in Alexandria by Philo Judaeus, who wrote nothing of Yahshua Christ although he lived until about 50 AD. Elsewhere, Irenaeus accounts Cerinthus as having been responsible for other troubles among the apostles, such as instigating the events at Antioch which led to the council of Jerusalem in Acts chapter 15. If that were true, Cerinthus may be guilty of having been a Judaizer, rather than a Gnostic. But there is no true way of knowing whether the same Cerinthus was actually behind any of those things since Irenaeus was writing over a hundred and forty years after the events in question, and Cerinthus is not mentioned by the earlier writers.
In Book 1, Chapter 26 of his Against Heresies, which we have cited above, Irenaeus said that the Nicolaitans “lead lives of unrestrained indulgence” and that “it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols”. Dionysius of Alexandria does not mention Nicolaitans, but attributed those things to Cerinthus, while Irenaeus confounds them all together. These things concerning indulgence and sexual license may also be inferred from the messages to the churches of the Revelation where the Nicolaitans are mentioned, but they were not mentioned in direct reference to the Nicolaitans themselves. Furthermore, we cannot accept the attribution of them to the Nicolaus of Acts chapter 6 without further and earlier evidence.
So here in Book 3 of his work, Irenaeus also attributes to the Nicolaitans the same proto-Gnostic beliefs which he had also attributed to Cerinthus. While proto-Gnosticism was prominent in Alexandria from at least the time of Philo, there is no indication that the Nicolaitans of which Christ had warned were Gnostics, or proto-Gnostics, and Ignatius never associated them with Gnostics. There is also no direct proof that John wrote his Gospel for the reason of countering proto-Gnostic heresies, as Irenaeus claimed here, even if it is true that much of John’s Gospel stands as a refutation of Gnostic beliefs. Long before John wrote, Paul had mentioned γνῶσις in his first epistle to Timothy, where he wrote warning him in chapter 6 to avoid “profane empty speech and [the] opposition of falsely labeled ‘knowledge’”, which is an apparent reference to the Gnostics. The apostles must not have been ignorant of the heresies of the Gnostics, yet they did not oppose them directly so they could not have seen them as a threat to their Christian Gospel. To the apostles, the Gnostics were very likely just one more Judaic or pagan sect, like Pharisees, Sadducees, Epicureans and Stoics, and the countless others which existed at the time.
From Clement of Alexandria, Elucidations, Book II, from Chapter XX.—The True Gnostic Exercises Patience and Self-Restraint.
Such also are those (who say that they follow Nicolaus, quoting an adage of the man, which they pervert, “that the flesh must be abused.” But the worthy man showed that it was necessary to check pleasures and lusts, and by such training to waste away the impulses and propensities of the flesh. But they, abandoning themselves to pleasure like goats, as if insulting the body, lead a life of self-indulgence; not knowing that the body is wasted, being by nature subject to dissolution; while their soul is buffed in the mire of vice; following as they do the teaching of pleasure itself, not of the apostolic man. For in what do they differ from Sardanapalus, whose life is shown in the epigram:—
“I have what I ate—what I enjoyed wantonly;
And the pleasures I felt in love. But those
Many objects of happiness are left,
For I too am dust, who ruled great Ninus.”
Clement, who was nearly a contemporary of Irenaeus, having died in 215 AD, did not make any direct mention of Nicolaitans, but only spoke about men who perverted the teachings of some man named Nicolaus, so they were not actually following that Nicolaus. Neither did Clement associate him specifically with the Nicolaus of Acts chapter 6. Clement, being in Alexandria, was also quite knowedgable of Gnostics and other similar heretical sects, yet he did not associate these supposed followers of Nicolaus with Gnostics. The basis for Clement’s argument in that book is that Christianity is the true γνῶσις in opposition to the γνῶσις of the Gnostics.
Without any further contemporary witnesses, I would assert that the testimony of Ignatius and of Clement neutralize the assertions of Irenaeus, who apparently made some undue associations. But now we shall turn to Tertullian, who wrote until about 220 AD. Being a contemporary of Clement, he seems to have followed Irenaeus in this matter, while at the same time going far beyond what Irenaeus had said about either Nicolaus or the Nicolaitans.
From Tertullian, Against All Heresies, Chapter I.—Earliest Heretics: Simon Magus, Menander, Saturninus, Basilides, Nicolaus.
A brother heretic emerged in Nicolaus. He was one of the seven deacons who were appointed in the Acts of the Apostles. He affirms that Darkness was seized with a concupiscence—and, indeed, a foul and obscene one—after Light: out of this permixture it is a shame to say what fetid and unclean (combinations arose). The rest (of his tenets), too, are obscene. For he tells of certain sons, sons of turpitude, and of conjunctions of execrable and obscene embraces and per-mixtures, and certain yet baser outcomes of these. He teaches that there were born, moreover, demons, and gods, and spirits seven, and other things sufficiently sacrilegious. alike and foul, which we blush to recount, and at once pass them by. Enough it is for us that this heresy of the Nicolaitans has been condemned by the Apocalypse of the Lord with the weightiest authority attaching to a sentence, in saying “Because this thou holdest, thou hatest the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which I too hate.”
As a digression, these names agree with the list of early heretics in the long version of the epistles of Ignatius, so it seems to be partially corroborated here. But as we have said, Christ never actually described the heresy of the Nicolaitans. Furthermore, if their heresy really had its origin in the Nicolaus of Acts chapter 6, we must wonder how it went unnoticed by the apostles and the other early Christian writers until the time of Irenaeus, and even Irenaeus did not describe it as fully as Tertuallian has described it here, although some of the things he describes seem to be elements of the Gnostic teachings.
While we will not present the entire chapter, one of Tertullian’s greatest faults was his acceptance and willingness to defend Montanism. Montanus was a 2nd century Phrygian who apparently converted to Christianity from the pagan priesthood of Apollo. Accompanied by two women, he professed to be a Christian and a prophet of God, and had apparently claimed that the Comforter, or Paraclete, spoke through him. Other Christian bishops, including a bishop of Rome, supported the heresy, and apparently it persisted for several centuries.
From Tertullian, The Five Books Against Marcion, Book I, Chapter XXIX.—Marcion Forbids Marriage. Tertullian Eloquently Defends It as Holy, and Carefully Discriminates Between Marcion’s Doctrine and His Own Montanism.
Now, such a scheme as this must no doubt involve the proscription of marriage. Let us see, then, whether it be a just one: not as if we aimed at destroying the happiness of sanctity, as do certain Nicolaitans in their maintenance of lust and luxury, but as those who have come to the knowledge of sanctity, and pursue it and prefer it, without detriment, however, to marriage; not as if we superseded a bad thing by a good, but only a good thing by a better. For we do not reject marriage, but simply refrain from it.
We mentioned this passage only because it shows that Tertullian repeated the assumptions concerning the Nicolaitans. There is one more passage where he mentions them.
Tertullian, Elucidations, Book VII. On Modesty, Chapter XIX.—Objections from the Revelation and the First Epistle of St. John Refuted.
For (the angel of the Thyatirene Church) was secretly introducing into the Church, and urging justly to repentance, an heretical woman, who had taken upon herself to teach what she had learnt from the Nicolaitans. For who has a doubt that an heretic, deceived by (a spurious baptismal) rite, upon discovering his mischance, and expiating it by repentance, both attains pardon and is restored to the bosom of the Church? Whence even among us, as being on a par with an heathen, nay even more than heathen, an heretic likewise, (such an one) is purged through the baptism of truth from each character, and admitted (to the Church).
Modern commentators make this same mistake, reading what Christ had said of the doctrine of Balaam, attributing the same doctrine to the Nicolaitans whom He had mentioned thereafter, and then extending that to imagine that the Jezebel mentioned in the message to the Church at Thyatira had the same doctrine as the Nicolaitans, although she did have the same doctrine as Balaam. The truth is that Christ never described the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, although He did state that He hated it, whatever it was.
Nicolaitans are only mentioned twice in the Revelation, both times in chapter 2. Here we shall cite the King James Version. The word first appears in verse 6, but we shall read from verses 5 through 7, speaking to the church at Ephesus: “5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. 6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” Note that the actual deeds of the Nicolaitans were not described.
The second mention is a little later in the chapter, and we shall read from verse 14, where it addresses the church at Pergamos: “14 But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. 15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. 16 Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” The early Christian writers attributed the doctrine of Balaam to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, but Christ Himself did not make such an attribution. Rather, He mentioned the doctrine of Balaam, and then separately and in addition to that He mentioned the doctrine of the Nicolaitans without ever having described it, so it must have been something different than that of Balaam even if He did not inform us as to what it was. When we get to Jezebel and the message to the church at Thyatira, her doctrine is the same as that of Balaam. We would assert that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans must be something different than that of Balaam or of Jezebel, but that Christ did not ever describe what it was. The error continued with later Church writers.
From Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book VII, Chapter XXIV.—The Melchisedecians; The Nicolaitans.
There are, however, among the Gnostics diversities of opinion; but we have decided that it would not be worth while to enumerate the silly doctrines of these (heretics), inasmuch as they are (too) numerous and devoid of reason, and full of blasphemy. Now, even those (of the heretics) who are of a more serious turn in regard of the Divinity, and have derived their systems of speculation from the Greeks, must stand convicted (of these charges). But Nicolaus has been a cause of the wide-spread combination of these wicked men. He, as one of the seven (that were chosen) for the diaconate, was appointed by the Apostles. (But Nicolaus) departed from correct doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of both life and food. And when the disciples (of Nicolaus) continued to offer insult to the Holy Spirit, John reproved them in the Apocalypse as fornicators and eaters of things offered unto idols.
So Hippolytus of Rome, who died in 235 AD, seems to have followed either Irenaeus or Tertullian, or perhaps both men, by associating the Nicolaitans with both the Nicolaus of Acts chapter 6, and with the Gnostics, as well as with pleasure and sexual license. This is much unlike Clement, who professed that those claiming to be followers were only perverting some Nicolaus’ teachings, and who never associated them with Gnostics. Of course, neither did Ignatius associate them with either group, nor did he credit them as being the Nicolaitans of whom Christ had spoken. Victorinus of Pettau, who died soon after 300 AD, had also followed the same errors.
Victorinus, from his Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John
[From line 6 of chapter 2:] “This thou hast also, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes.” But because thou thyself hatest those who hold the doctrines of the Nicolaitanes, thou expectest praise. Moreover, to hate the works of the Nicolaitanes, which He Himself also hated, this tends to praise. But the works of the Nicolaitanes were in that time false and troublesome men, who, as ministers under the name of Nicolaus, had made for themselves a heresy, to the effect that what had been offered to idols might be exorcised and eaten, and that whoever should have committed fornication might receive peace on the eighth day. Therefore He [referring to Christ in the Revelation, at 2:7] extols those to whom He is writing; and to these men, being such and so great, He promised the tree of life, which is in the paradise of His God.
[From line 14 of chapter 2:] “Thou hast there some who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught in the case of Balak that he should put a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat and to commit fornication. So also hast thou them who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes; but I will fight with them with the sword of my mouth.” That is, I will say what I shall command, and I will tell you what you shall do. For Balaam, with his doctrine, taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the eyes of the children of Israel, to eat what was sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication,—a thing which is known to have happened of old. For he gave this advice to the king of the Moabites, and they caused stumbling to the people. Thus, says He, ye have among you those who hold such doctrine; and under the pretext of mercy, you would corrupt others.
While his comment on verse 14 did not explictly mention Nicolaitans, he certainly inferred that the words concerning Balaam also applied to them, as he also said explicitly in his commentary on verse 6.
Finally, there are the so-called Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, also sometimes called the Apostolic Constitutions, which are usually dated to the late 4th century. This work is later than I prefer to consult for anything on early Christianity. However it does inform us that of those who may have been called Nicolaitans, they were only falsely called Nicolaitans, where it agrees with Ignatius of Antioch.
Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Book VI, Chapter VIII, Who Were the Successors of Simon’s Impiety, and What Heresies They Set Up.
But when we went forth among the Gentiles to preach the word of life, then the devil wrought in the people to send after us false apostles to the corrupting of the word; arid they sent forth one Cleobius, and joined him with Simon, and these became disciples to one Dositheus, whom they despising, put him down from the principality. Afterwards also others were the authors of absurd doctrines: Cerinthus, and Marcus, and Menander, and Basilides, and Saturnilus. Of these some own the doctrine of many gods, some only of three, but contrary to each other, without beginning, and ever with one another, and some of an infinite number of them, and those unknown ones also. And some reject marriage; and their doctrine is, that it is not the appointment of God; and others abhor some kinds of food: some are impudent in uncleanness, such as those who are falsely called Nicolaitans. And Simon [Magus - WRF] meeting me Peter, first at Caesarea Stratonis (where the faithful Cornelius, a Gentile, believed on the Lord Jesus by me), endeavoured to pervert the word of God; there being with me the holy children, Zacchaeus, who was once a publican, and Barnabas; and Nicetas and Aquila, brethren of Clement the bishop and citizen of Rome, who was the disciple of Paul, our fellow-apostle and fellow-helper in the Gospel. I thrice discoursed before them with him concerning the true Prophet, and concerning the monarchy of God; and when I had overcome him by the power of the Lord, and had put him to silence, I drove him away into Italy.
We cannot really know whether the Clement mentioned in Philippians chapter 4 is the same Clement as the later Roman bishop known as Clement of Rome, who may have lived for nearly 40 years after Paul was executed in Rome. In the context of his statements in that chapter, the Clement to which Paul had referred is in Philippi, and not in Rome. The given name was not uncommon among Romans.
These words here in the Apostolic Constitutions are apparently attributed to Peter, but Peter was not even an apostle to the so-called “gentiles”, and I would not trust the words as his. But we nevertheless see that the Nicolaitans were “falsely called”, as we also saw in the words of Ignatius, and in Clement of Alexandria who said that they were not actually followers of some Nicolaus, but had perverted his words, whoever he was. In other words, there are divergent accounts of the Nicolaitans, none of the early Christian writers are entirely consistent on the issue, and while some writers seem to have followed what Irenaeus wrote, others did not. When we presented the actual words of Christ concerning the Nicolaitans, we also observed that none of these later opinions or stories from the early Christian writers about the Nicolaitans are creditable, because they all took things which Christ had said about other heretics and applied them to the Nicolaitans, which Christ Himself had not done.
It is easy, and academically speaking, it is even safe to follow the errors of men who are esteemed to have been authorities, and merely parrot whatever they say. We can read all of these citations and construct a list describing Nicolaitans from all of the words of these so-called “Church Fathers”. But it would not be right, and why should we merely follow their errors? Would it not be more compatible with the spirit of Christ to “search the scriptures” in order to see “whether those things were so”, as the Bereans had done to Paul, and where Luke had commended them for having done so?
So before we begin our commentary on Revelation chapter 2, we shall attempt to see in Scripture what Christ may have been referring to when he made these references to Nicolaitans, or as we translate the compound Greek word, to people-conquerors. Christ first mentioned them in His message to the church at Ephesus, which was also the first of the seven churches which He had addressed. So at first, He commends the Ephesians where He says, citing the King James Version: “2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: 3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.” But then He criticizes them, where He continued and said: “4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. 5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” Finally, to their credit, He tells them: “6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
So the Ephesians had rejected false apostles, but they also had left their first love, for which they were criticized. Then where they were credited for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans, we see that the Nicolaitans were not false apostles, but rather they must be something different. The first love of the Ephesians must have been the Gospel which was brought to them by Paul of Tarsus, as it is recorded in Acts chapters 18 and 19. At first Paul preached Christianity in the synagogues at Ephesus, and when he insisted on leaving to attend a feast at Jerusalem, the Ephesians wanted him to stay. Instead, he promised to return after the feast, and he did, as it is recorded in Acts chapter 19. So upon returning to Ephesus, Paul encounters disciples of John the Baptist, and converts them to Christ. After that, he spent three months preaching in a certain synagogue, and a much longer time at the school of Tyrannus, where he had continued for at least two more years. Paul departed Ephesus some time after that, after the troubles with the silversmiths recorded near the end of that chapter. All together, he must have spent nearly three years in Ephesus, which he attests in Acts chapter 20.
So over a year after having departed from Ephesus, Paul is in the Troad where the apostles who were his fellow-workers had joined him, and he is ready to sail for Jerusalem in time for a feast. Planning that, he also correctly feared that he would never see the Ephesians again. He must have become quite intimate with the Ephesians, as he insisted on stopping in Miletus in spite of a tight schedule, and tarrying for at least several days as he sent for the elders of the church of Ephesus to see him in Miletus while enroute to Jerusalem for the feast. When they arrived, he addressed them at length, and we read in Acts chapter 20, from the King James Version, where he warned them to: “ 28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. 32 And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. 33 I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel. 34 Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. 35 I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
There are times when Paul had assistance from others, but in Corinth, and apparently in Ephesus, he worked for himself whenever he could. In this address, it seems that with his profession to have “coveted no man's silver, or gold” he sought to distinguish himself from the wolves who would covet such things. This is expressed in other ways in some of his other epistles. For example, in Philippians chapter 3 we read: “17 Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample. 18 (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: 19 Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)” This warning sounds very much like the warning concerning the wolves which he had given to the Ephesians. So we shall hold this thought, and then, since the term Nicolaitans means people-conquerors or prevailing over the people, now we shall seek out from Paul’s epistles men who may meet such a description.
After Paul left Ephesus in Acts chapter 18, he went to Jerusalem for a feast, and then to Antioch where he saw Peter and perhaps some of the other apostles. Paul had planned to traverse Anatolia to Galatia, and evidently wrote his epistle to the Galatians at this time, telling them of some of his experiences with Judaizers in Antioch. In that epistle, it is evident that the Galatians were also being lured by Judaizers, so Paul wrote to them about the works of the law, as opposed to the faith which is in Christ, and how man could not be justified by the works of the law. As he did that, describing his experience in Antioch he wrote, in part: “3 But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: 4 And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage.” Then later in the chapter he recounted his further experience with Peter: “11 But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. 12 For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.”
Here the nature of the people-conquerors may be evident: those Judaizers who were “false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage”, thereby prevailing over the people by keeping them enslaved to the works of the law, from which Christ had freed them. At Antioch, Paul had responded to Peter in part by saying “16 ... that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” Paul mentioned the works of the law several times in that chapter, and from the context in which he used the term, and also from its appearance in the Septuagint and in the Dead Sea Scrolls which were contemporary to his own time, it is evident that the phrase “works of the law” refers to the rituals of the Old Testament which had been conducted by the Levitical priests. So later, in his epistle to the Hebrews, Paul went to great lengths to explain to his fellow countrymen why and how those rituals as well as the Levitical priesthood itself were done away with in Christ. After nearly 300 years, the term “Christian priest” began to be used by Eusebius and certain other so-called “church fathers” of the fourth century and later, and a new class of Nicolaitan arose to hold the people in bondage.
Much later, while he was in prison in Rome, Paul wrote an epistle to the Ephesians once again, in which there are no explicit references to Judaizers. This is perhaps reflective of the facts that the Ephesians had rejected both false apostles and Nicolaitans, for which Christ had commended them in Revelation chapter 2. So when Paul wrote his epistle, even if he made no explicit mention of Judaizers or contentions over the “works of the law”, he left no space for any such heresy. For this I will cite the Christogenea New Testament.
So we read in Ephesians chapter 1, in part, where he described Christ Himself as holding all power and authority, and Christians as being mere members of His body, where he wrote: “17 in order that the God of our Prince, Yahshua Christ, the Father of honor, would give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in His knowledge, 18 the eyes of your mind being illuminated for you to know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the honor of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the exceeding greatness of His power for us who are believing, according to the operation of the might of His strength, 20 which He produced in the Christ, having raised Him from the dead, and sat Him at His right hand in the heavenly places 21 over every realm and authority and power and dominion, and every name being named, not only in this age, but also in the future. 22 And all things He placed under His feet, and has given Him a crown over all things in the assembly, 23 which is His body, the fulfillment of that which all things in all are being fulfilled.” So if Christ did not require something, all things having been placed under His feet, then it is not required. Christ never required rituals or sacraments, or a priesthood to dispense those things to Christians.
In Ephesians chapter 2 Paul stressed the fact that salvation is a gift from God, and contrasted faith with works, where he evidently referred to the works of the law: “2:1 And you, being dead in transgressions and in your errors 2 in which you had at one time walked, in accordance with the age of this Society, in accordance with the ruler of the office of the air, the spirit that is now operating within the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom we also had all at one time conducted ourselves, in the desires of our flesh, acting out the wills of the flesh and of the thoughts, and we were by nature children of wrath, even like the others. 4 But Yahweh, being rich in compassion, because of that great love of His with which He has loved us, 5 and we being dead in transgressions, are made alive with the Anointed (in favor are you being preserved), 6 and are raised together and are seated together in the heavenly places with Christ Yahshua, 7 in order that He would exhibit in the coming ages the surpassing riches of His favor in kindness to us among the number of Christ Yahshua. 8 For in favor you are being preserved through faith and this, Yahweh’s gift, is not of yourselves, 9 not from works, lest anyone would boast, 10 for His work we are, having been established among the number of Christ Yahshua for good works, which Yahweh before prepared in order that we would walk in them.”
Now as Paul continues, he repudiates the validity or necessity for circumcision of the flesh, which the Judaizers had promoted:
2:11 On which account you must remember that at one time you, the Nations in the flesh, who are the so-called ‘uncircumcised’ by the so-called ‘circumcised’ made by hand in the flesh, 12 because you had at that time been apart from Christ, having been alienated from the civic life of Israel, and strangers of the covenants of the promise, not having hope and in the Society without Yahweh; 13 but now you among the number of Yahshua Christ, who at one time being far away, have become near by the blood of the Christ.”
Now continuing, Paul alludes to the one stick prophecy found in Ezekiel chapter 37, whereby Israel and Judah would be united. They could not have been fully united if the Israelite Christians of Judaea insisted on keeping a separate law, something which Paul was also struggling against: “14 For He is our peace, Who has made both one, and having broke down the middle wall of the enclosure: the hostility in His flesh, 15 having annulled the law of commandments in ordinances, in order that He would establish the two [Judaean Israelites and Israelites scattered abroad] with Himself into one new man, making peace, 16 and again reconcile both in one body to Yahweh through the cross, having slain that hostility by it. 17 And having come He announced the good message, peace to you who were far away, and peace to those near. 18 Because of Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So therefore you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow-citizens of the saints and of the household of Yahweh, 20 being built upon the foundation of the ambassadors and the prophets, Yahshua Christ being the cornerstone Himself. 21 In whom the whole building joined together grows into a holy temple with the Prince, 22 in which you also are being built together into an abode of Yahweh in Spirit.”
Paul is not explicitly addressing Judaizers, but he is writing to the Ephesians in a way that leaves no room for Judaizers, or for other sorts of Nicolaitans, such as the later so-called Christian priests. So he continues in Ephesians chapter 4: “1 Therefore I summon you, I who am in bonds in the Prince, to walk worthily of the calling of which you have been called, 2 with all humility and meekness, with forbearance, having patience with one another in charity, 3 being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 One body and one Spirit, just as you have also been called in one hope of your calling. 5 One Prince, one faith, one immersion, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Where he mentions one immersion, or baptism, in Romans chapter 6 he had insisted that Christians were baptized not in water, but in the death of Christ. He repeated that concept in chapter 2 of his epistle to the Colossians. So the one baptism to which Paul referred is that mentioned by Christ in Luke chapter 12, which was a long time after He had been baptized by John in water, where He said to His disciples: “50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!” That is the baptism of His death which is the “one baptism” of Paul’s epistle here.
Continuing with Ephesians chapter 4, Paul goes on to discuss the gifts which Christ distributes to men, and the offices within the assembly: “7 And to each one of us favor has been given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8 On which account it says, ‘Having ascended to the summit He has taken captivity captive, He has given gifts to men.’ 9 Now He that ascended, what is it if not that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is also He who ascended above all of the heavens, in order that He would fulfill all things. 11 And He has given the ambassadors, and the interpreters of prophesy, and those who deliver the good message, and the shepherds - teachers, 12 towards the restoration of the saints, for the work of ministering for building of the body of the Anointed, 13 until we all would attain to the unity of the faith and of the acknowledgment of the Son of Yahweh, at man perfected, at the measure of the stature of the fullness of the Anointed; 14 in order that we would be infants no longer - being tossed as waves and carried about in every wind of teaching by the trickery of men, in villainy for the sake of the systematizing of deception. 15 But speaking the truth with love, we may increase all things for He who is the head, the Christ, 16 from whom all the body is being joined together and is being reconciled through every stroke of assistance according to the operation of each single part in proportion; the growth of the body creates itself into a building in love.”
This last section is a detailed account of the function of the Christian assembly and the gifts and offices of its leaders, which says nothing of priests, rituals or sacraments. There is no room in any of this for any so-called Christian priest or dispenser of rituals, there is no room for maintaining the rituals, or works of the law, such as circumcision, and therefore there is no room for Judaizers, or Nicolaitans, who would rule over the people through sacramentalism, which is the organized dispensation of rituals. But one other way that the later so-called Christian priests would rule over the people is related to Gnosticism: the insistence on upholding, or even withholding mysteries. Yet Paul of Tarsus in his epistles had insisted, and rightly so, that all of the mysteries of God were revealed in Christ, and were being announced by the apostles. This Paul had professed in Ephesians chapter 6, where he encourages his readers to be found: “18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; 19 And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” Everywhere Paul had gone, he made known the mystery of the Gospel, and here once again he leaves no space for Judaizers and Nicolaitans.
So the church at Ephesus was commended by Christ for rejecting both false apostles and Nicolaitans. But they were criticized for having left their first love. We cannot know the extent to which they had departed from the teachings of Paul, but evidently they had not succumbed to Judaizers. However John, during the time of his own later ministry in Ephesus, does reveal a problem with at least one of its churches, where he wrote in his third epistle, addressing an elder named Gaius, and said in part: “9 I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. 10 Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.” In his second epistle, John had to admonish a woman about accepting the persons of Jews, where he wrote, in part, and said: “7 For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. 8 Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward. 9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. 10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: 11 For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.” Paul certainly would not have encouraged any of these things. But these also seem to be minor incidents, since the church at Ephesus was criticized for having left its first love, which seems to indicate that it departed from the teachings of Paul to a much greater extent.
Once a Christian thinks that he needs some priest to perform some ritual for his or her salvation, the priest has prevailed over the Christian, and becomes the arbiter of salvation in the mind of that Christian. So the priest prevails over the people, and it is the priest who becomes the Nicolaitan. Christ has already saved us, and only He is our arbiter, our judge and our savior. We are all priests, in the sense of performing our service to God, and we do not serve Him in rituals. He told us how to serve Him, by keeping His commandments and loving our brethren, who are the children of our own people.
When we return, Yahweh willing, we shall commence with our commentary on Revelation chapter 2.