April 20, 2014

EPHESUS: A RUINOUS HERESY

Revelation 2:1—7 (contd)

HERE, we meet a heresy which the risen Christ says that he hates and which he praises Ephesus for also hating. It may seem strange to attribute hatred to the risen Christ; but two things are to be remembered. First, if we love anyone with passionate intensity, we are bound to hate anything which threatens to ruin that person. Second, it is necessary to hate the sin but love the sinner.
The heretics we meet here are the Nicolaitans. They are only named, not defined. But we meet them again in Pergamum (verse 15). There, they are very closely connected with those ‘who hold to the teaching of Balaam’–and that in turn is connected with eating things offered to idols and with immorality (verse 14). We meet precisely the same problem at Thyatira, where the wicked Jezebel is said to cause Christians to practise immorality and to eat things offered to idols.
First, we may note that this danger is coming not from outside the Church but from inside. The claim of these heretics was that they were not destroying Christianity but presenting an improved version.
Second, we may note that the Nicolaitans and those who hold to the teaching of Balaam were, in fact, one and the same. There is a play on words here. The name Nicolaus, the founder of the Nicolaitans, could be derived from two Greek words, nikan, to conquer, and laos, the people. Balaam can be derived from two Hebrew words, bela, to conquer, and ha’am, the people. The two names, then, are the same, and both can describe an evil teacher, who has won victory over the people and brought them under the influence of poisonous heresy.
In Numbers 25:1—5, we find a strange story in which the Israelites were seduced into illegal and sacrilegious unions with Moabite women and into the worship of Baal-peor, a seduction which, if it had not been sternly checked, might have ruined the religion of Israel and destroyed Israel as a nation. When we go on to Numbers 31:16, we find that this seduction is definitely attributed to the evil influence of Balaam. Balaam, then, in Israelite history stood for an evil person who seduced the people into sin.
Let us now see what the early church historians have to tell us about these Nicolaitans. The majority identify them with the followers of Nicolaus, the convert from Antioch, who was one of the seven, commonly called deacons (Acts 6:5). The idea is that Nicolaus went astray and became a heretic. Irenaeus, the second-century Bishop of Lyons, said of the Nicolaitans that ‘they lived lives of unrestrained indulgence’ (Against Heresies, 1:26:3). The third-century theologian Hippolytus said that he was one of the seven and that ‘he departed from correct doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifference of food and life’ (Refutation of Heresies, 7:24). The Apostolic Constitutions (6:8) describe the Nicolaitans as ‘shameless in uncleanness’. Another early Christian theologian, Clement of Alexandria, said that they ‘abandon themselves to pleasure like goats … leading a life of self-indulgence’. But he goes on to acquit Nicolaus of all blame and says that they distorted his saying ‘that the flesh must be abused’. Nicolaus meant that the body must be kept under control; the heretics distorted it into meaning that the flesh can be used as shamelessly as a person wishes (The Miscellanies, 2:20). The Nicolaitans obviously taught loose living.
Let us see if we can identify their point of view and their teaching a little more precisely. The letter to Pergamum tells us that they seduced people into eating meat offered to idols and into immorality. When we turn to the decree of the Council of Jerusalem, we find that two of the conditions on which the Gentiles were to be admitted to the Church were that they were to abstain from things offered to idols and from immorality (Acts 15:28—9). These are the very conditions that the Nicolaitans broke.
They were almost certainly people who argued on these lines. (1) The law is ended; therefore, there are no laws, and we are entitled to do what we like. They confused Christian liberty with un-Christian licence. They were the very kind of people whom Paul urged not to use their liberty as an opportunity for self-indulgence (Galatians 5:13). (2) They probably argued that the body is evil anyway and that people could do what they liked with their bodies because it did not matter. (3) They probably argued that Christians were so completely defended by grace that they could do anything and come to no harm.
What lay behind this Nicolaitan distortion of the truth? The trouble was the necessary difference between Christians and the society in which they lived. The non-Christians had no hesitation in eating meat offered to idols, and it was set before them at every social occasion. Could a Christian attend such a feast? The non-Christians had no idea of chastity, and sexual relations outside marriage were accepted as completely normal and brought no shame. Must Christians be so very different? The Nicolaitans were suggesting that there was no reason why Christians should not come to terms with the world. The archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William Ramsay describes their teaching in this way: ‘It was an attempt to effect a reasonable compromise with the established usages of the Graeco-Roman society and to retain as many as possible of those usages in the Christian system of life.’ This teaching naturally affected the upper classes most because they had most to lose if they went all the way with the Christian demand. To John, the Nicolaitans were worse than those who were not Christians, for they were the enemy within the gates.
The Nicolaitans were not prepared to be different; they were the most dangerous of all heretics from a practical point of view, for, if their teaching had been successful, the world would have changed Christianity and not Christianity the world.

Barclay, W. (2004). The Revelation of John (3rd ed. fully rev. and updated., Vol. 1, pp. 74—77). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press.

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