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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Nicolaitans--From Revelation 2 and 3.

Perhaps because of the craziness around Harold Camping's predictions of the end of the world, some Christians I know are studying the Book of Revelation to see what it really says. So far, we've gotten only into the first two chapters, but already there's a lot to think about. One questions arose about the Nicolaitans, a groups condemned in the Risen Christ's admonitions to the churches of Ephesus and Pergamos.

Here's what the Scriptures themselves say about the Nicolaitans:

"Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I [the risen, glorified Jesus Christ] also hate." (Rev. 2:6)

"But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Baalam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans." (Rev. 2:14-15).

The identification of these Nicolaitans and the false doctrines they taught is a difficult task, for sources on them outside the Book of Revelation are few. In the letter to Pergamos, mention of the Nicolaitans follows hard on the heels of mention of Balaam, the Moabite prophet sent out to curse Israel, but who ended up blessing them (Numbers 22, 23). The name Baalam means “master of the people” in Hebrew, while the Greek name Nicolas, from which the Nicolaitans took their name, means “overcomer of the people”. In II Peter 2:15, Balaam is one who put a “stumbling block” in the way of Israel, the Greek word for “stumbling block” being skandalon, the source of our English word “scandal”. Indeed, the participation in idols cults and sexual immorality in Pergamos, with no need to further explain who the Nicolaitans were and the sins they countenanced, may well justify linking the name of Nicolaitan with the temptation the Moabites offered the Israelites prior to the latters’ entry into Canaan.

Early Christian history is also scanty in its record of the Nicolaitans. Ireanaeus of Lyons, who lived and wrote around 180 A.D., says the following:

"The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles.(1) 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." (Ireanaeus, Against Heresies, 26:3."

Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote during the first quarter of the fourth century, around the time of the Council of Nicaea, has the following to say in his Ecclesiastical History:

"At this time [in the late first century] too, there existed for a short time the heresy of the Nicolaitans of which the Apocalypse of John makes mention. These claimed Nicolas, one of the deacons in the company of Stephen who were appointed by the Apostles for the service of the poor. Clement of Alexandria in the third book of the Stromata gives the following account of him: “He had, they say, a beautiful wife; but after the ascension of the Saviour he was accused of jealousy by the apostles, and brought her forwards and commanded her to be mated to anyone who wished. They say that this action was in consequence of the injunction ‘it is necessary to abuse the flesh,’ and that by following up what had been done and said with simplicity and without perversion those who follow his heresy lead a life of unrestrained license. But I have learned that Nicolas had nothing to do with any woman beside her whom he married, and that of his children the daughters reached old age as virgins, and the son remained uncorrupted. Since this is the case it is clear that the exposure of the wife of whom he was jealous in the midst of the disciples was the abandonment of passion, and that teaching the abuse of the flesh was continence from the pleasures which he had sought. For I think that according to the command of the Saviour he did not wish to serve two masters—pleasure and the Lord. They also say that this was the teaching of Matthias, to slight the flesh and abuse it, yielding nothing to it for pleasure, but to make the soul grow through faith and knowledge.” (III.29)."

Flavius Clemens, whom Eusebius quotes at length, was an important Christian teacher of Alexandria in Egypt who lived between 150-215 A.D.

These traditions are all mentioned in Eusebius' _Ecclesiastical History_. This major work was written by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the days of the Emperor Constantine (after 311 A.D.). While it is more than two centuries later than the Revelation of John, it may well preserve important historical accounts, for Eusebius cites numerous earlier authors and appears to have been a careful researcher. Further, his patron Constantine, who became a Christian, wanted as much information as could be found about the origins and rise of Christianity, and Eusebius’ work seems to be in fulfillment of the Christian emperor’s desire.

Before Eusebius, Irenaeus of Lyons (active in the latter half of the 2d century) is the other key node of transmitting information about the Nicolaitans. A native of Smyrna, one of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, Irenaeus went to Lyons, in Gaul (today’s France), and seems to be one of the earliest to carry the Gospel into the West beyond Italy and northern Africa. The cited work, _Against Heresies_, sought to distinguish the Christianity bequeathed by the Apostles from various counterfeits, spending the most time refuting Gnosticism, which was the most common and most virulent heresy of his time. However, he mentions the Nicolaitans, along with the followers of Simon Magus (the man who tried to buy the Holy Spirit mentioned in Acts 7), tand the Cerinthians, who were forerunners of the Gnostics.

There is a further link to Nicolaitan history in Irenaeus’s own background. Eusebius tells us that Irenaeus, when young, heard the teaching of Polycarp, overseer of the church in Smyrna who was martyred in 155 A.D. after serving Christ for “eighty-some years” (in Polycarp’s own words). Polycarp (70?-155 A.D) is described as having been a disciple of the Apostle John, and belongs to a group of early Christian writers known as the Apostolic Fathers, meaning that they knew the apostles. Hence, Irenaeus may be seen as a spiritual “grandson” of the Apostle, living in a time when the events surrounding the writing of Revelation were as fresh as historical material as the end of World War One, Prohibition, or the May 4th Movement might be to us today. Polycarp, as overseer of the church in Smyrna, may have been the messenger of that church addressed in Revelation 2:8-11; although this is a point on which we cannot be dogmatic, since John does not name the messengers of the seven churches. In his surviving Letter to the Philippians (not to be confused with the New Testament book of the same name), which dates from the early 2d century, Polycarp notes that some of his readers may remember the example of Paul, who founded their church.

Yet the information that Eusebius gives us is mostly a quotation from Clement of Alexandria, and there are points at which the quote from Clement differs from the testimony of Irenaeus. Information available to Clement indicated the Nicolas and his immediate family were more ascetic than libertine, and Clement notes that Nicolas sought the Lord rather than his own pleasure. This suggests that Nicolas himself may not have belonged to the sect which claimed him as their founder, the association of the heretical sect with the early deacon of Antioch and Jerusalem may have been unfair, and discussion about this issue appeared very early in church history. Yet it is also worth noting that Irenaeus speaks of “these men”, meaning the Nicolaitans rather than Nicolas himself, so there is probably no real contradiction between the testimonies of Irenaeus and Clement.

In modern times, there is a tendency to identify the Nicolas who founded the Nicolaitans as the first to establish a hierarchical order of Christian clergy. This argument is based on the etymological meaning of the name “Nicolas”. This tendency goes back to at least Cyrus I. Scofield, late 19th century editor of the famous study Bible. It was continued by Watchman Nee in his book The Orthodoxy of the Church, for Nee was deeply influenced by the Plymouth Brethren, who shared a common Dispensational theology with Scofield (Scofield systematized doctrines he had learned from the Plymouth Brethren). Yet this approach should be taken with a great deal of caution. There is no earlier evidence than Scofield’s own speculation that the essence of the Nicolaitan heresy was hierarchicalism To suggest that the main thrust of the Nicolaitan heresy was to categorize Christians into classes of higher and lower is a little like suggesting that people who name their sons Peter favor idolatry, since the name “Peter” comes from the Greek word for a stone.

While it is perhaps frustrating that the identification and doctrine of the Nicolaitans remains unclear, their mention in the book of Revelation has three lessons for modern Christians: (1) the enemies of God and his anointed perish (Psalm 2:10); (2) the risen Christ would have us flee sexual immorality; and (3) idolatry remains a major sin, with which we must not compromise.

We know of a number of schisms, sects, and heresies from the first several Christian centuries, and even know something of their beliefs, due largely to the efforts of men who sought to refute them. For example, we know that in the secon century, Gnostics came stressing secret knowledge rather than Christ as the bringer of salvation. In the early fourth century, the Arians preached a Christ who was merely the first created being. But the actual message of the Nicolaitans, apart from the possibility that it had something to do with compromising with idolatry and sexual immorality, is lost.

The “sexual revolution” that besets us today is actually nothing new. In Revelation 2, Christ warns the churches against fornication, which is sexual activity outside of marriage. In Romans 1, both male and female homosexuality are listed among the unwholesome fruits of idolatry. Indeed, throughout history, unregenerate people have often indulged their sexual appetites. The Greeks and Romans of the first century were notorious for indulging in every sexual perversion. In modern America, sexual license is closely associated with the rejection of Christianity. When there is sexual sin in the household of a prominent Christian, non-Christian media report it with glee, as the coverage of Bristol Palin’s problems makes clear. In Islam, while rules for women are strict, the carnal desires of men are greatly indulged. So, perhaps, one of the major challenges facing the church in our age is to model healthy sexual relations in our marriages and families, even as we acknowledge difficulties in doing so.

Last, but not least, the God we worship is distinct from others gods, or idols. The word Eidolon in Greek means “something seen”. The little gods worshipped by those who deny Christ are many. Among the ancient Canaanites, the gods were personified powers of the natural world. For the Greeks and Romans, many gods represented the cultural powers of man. In ancient China, many heroes and great men ended up deified, Guan Gong and Yan Ping Wang being two examples. In more modern time, so-called “atheists” are really manufacturers of new gods: Karl Marx introduced us to the worship of a goddess called “historical necessity”; Carl Sagan speaks of the cosmos in terms transparently borrowed from ancient Hindu Vedas and Upanishads; deep ecologists would have us worship the earth as “Gaia”. But these are only man-made substitutes for the true God who made heaven and earth, and, who for us and our salvation, became man, dwelt among us, atoned for our sins on the cross, and conquered death in his resurrection. Before him, all these other gods are empty.

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