Who Were the Nicolaitans?
The Nicolaitans in Revelation
The Bible only mentions the Nicolaitans twice. In His letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus, “This you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” Revelation 2:6). And to the church in Pergamos Jesus says: “You also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate” (Revelation 2:15).
What Were the Teachings of the Nicolaitans That Jesus Hated?
What we do know of the Nicolaitans links them with two main teachings—sexual immorality and eating food offered to idols. In His letter to the church at Pergamos, Jesus wrote:
“I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate” (Revelation 2:14, 15).
The Nicolaitans and the Story of Balaam
Jesus connects “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans” with “the doctrine of Balaam.” He summarizes Balaam’s doctrine as:
- eating things offered to idols and
- sexual immorality.
How does the story of Balaam in the Old Testament relate to the Nicolaitans in the New Testament? Let’s review, briefly, the story of Balaam (Numbers 22-25).
On their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan, the Israelites eventually came to the plains of Moab (Numbers 22:1).
Balak, the king of Moab, was terrified that the Israelites would destroy his kingdom as they had already destroyed many other kingdoms along their path. He persuaded Balaam, a non-Israelite “prophet,” to curse the Israelites in an attempt to destroy their power. Four times Balaam tried to curse the Israelites, and four times he was able to pronounce only blessings (Numbers 23, 24).
Balaam and sexual immorality
After this, Balaam counseled Balak to have Moabite women seduce the Israelites in order to remove God’s protection from them (Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14). The Bible says:
“While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. . . . And the Lord’s anger burned against them” (Numbers 25:1-3, NIV).
The people of Moab enticed God’s people to sin by eating food offered to their gods and by engaging in sexual immorality. These are the exact same sins Jesus attributes to the Nicolaitans, which He hates. The story of Balaam and the Israelites’ sin illustrates the course of those in the early Christian church who left the faith and sinned against God. (See 2 Peter 2:15, 16; Jude 11).
Eating Food Offered to Idols
We understand why Jesus would hate the sin of sexual immorality. But why did eating food offered to idols become such a big problem for the New Testament church? (See 1 Corinthians 8.)
The world in which Christianity arose was filled with many pagan religions and gods. The worshipers of these gods offered sacrifices to them, and their priests blessed these sacrifices. Some of this sacrificial food was eaten by the worshipers and the priests. But most of it went to the marketplaces and was purchased—as we buy food in the grocery store today.
The problem was that eating this food was considered an act of worship to the god to whom it had been offered. There was nothing wrong with the food itself necessarily. It was what eating that food represented.
Jews had always refused to eat anything that had been offered to idols. So when Gentiles began accepting Jesus and joining with Jewish believers, this issue became a major problem. Many Gentile converts to Christianity saw nothing wrong with eating this food. They hadn’t offered it to an idol. They weren’t worshiping a false god by eating the food. The issue threatened to split the church.
The Jerusalem Council
Finally, the apostles had to hold a council to decide how to deal with the problem (Acts 15). After much discussion, they decided that Gentile converts to Christianity should avoid two things—eating food offered to idols and sexual immorality (Acts 15:29).
As we have seen, these are precisely the two things the Nicolaitans were promoting in their “doctrine.” So the Nicolaitans can be seen as a symbol of those who refused to follow the church’s guidance and persisted in sin.
What Does All This Have to Do With Us Today?
Today, we don’t face the issue of eating food offered to idols. But we do face some of the same questions involved in that issue so long ago. As you look at your life, what habits or practices would Jesus ask you to give up? What things would He encourage you to continue or to place more of a focus?