Who In The World 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 נאכל (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 (נֹאכֵ֔ל) our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach. If this Hebrew word נאכל (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 τῶν Νικολαϊτῶν (ton nikolaton) “the Nicolaitans” as a group or teaching can originate from Hebrew נאכל (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” τῷ νικῶντι (to nikoti) which is a form of the verb νικάω (nikao) that means “to win, conquer, persevere and be victorious”. This suspiciously sounds very similar to the term we just encountered – Νικολαί̈της (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.

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  1. les

    Thank you Brother Eli. this teaching of the practice of the Nicolaitans is the most reasonable explanation I have heard!! then the sexual immorality of Jezebel in Thyatire puts all the pieces together. the practices of the Greco-roman world.

    1. Richard Leigh

      Likewise for me!

    2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I am glad it makes sense, Richard and Les. Sometimes Hebrew is the key to understanding NT.

  2. Steve Barnes

    Thanks for a most enlightening article. I’ve read a few studies on the Niclaitans and until now I had the understanding that the Niclaitans were those that believed they were to rule over the laity or common members of the Church. I see some things in scripture much more clearlY now. I think it’s in John’s Gospel where Yeshua says to some of his detractors that if they were blind they would not be held accountable (see Lev. 4) but since they say they see they will be held accountable.

    ShSlalom,

    Steve

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      That is true.

  3. Mona Drion

    The points raised on the subject of the

    nicolaitans are each very interesting but you leave out the idea that the Nicolaitans were those who practise division in the church between lords, nikos, and laity, since Christ alone is the Christian’s only Lord.
    I am student 871866 on BH course B.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      It is impossible to cover all bases. The goal it is to provide a good interpretive framework.

  4. Maria Isabel Villamizar

    Estoy interesada pero yo no hablo Ingles.

    1. Deborah Lee

      Puede leer el estidio en Español también aquí:
      http://iibsblogs.wpengine.com/es/quienes-fueron-los-nicolaitas-en-el-mundo-de-efeso-y-pergamo/

    2. alfredo

      Hola María Isabel. Hay arriba en esta página una pequeña banderita de España con el rótulo “ESPAÑOL” para que cuando hagas click allí, puedas ir a la traducción en español de este y de todos los artículos en el sitio.

  5. Paul Kingery

    in this post modern era: ISIS/ ISIL, those whom would impose the will upon others without mercy.
    Those whom pray to GOD, Most Merciful, gracious, and faithful, yet depart from that to impose judgement upon others.
    ….By what measure one judges, so they to will be judged.
    Nicolatians in Revelations, they would interpret the law of condemnation to others, while expecting mercy and grace for themselves.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Haven not thought about drawing such parallels.

  6. Deborah Kametz

    Thank You for this study, I started a study on face book in the book of Revelation, today I started chapter 4, The Throne of God. Not one Pastor or minister will tackle and preach the book of Revelation or Prophecy being full filed today. NOT ONE in my area of Akron Ohio , that I know of, and I have many friends that are pastors, and not one will contribute a word on face book, after I invited them. There are about 12 or more with several husband and wife pastors. I do not get it. This is why I am doing this study to pull out the fear out of all. We need to rejoice He is coming soon.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      There is nothing scary in Revelation, Deborah. People feel inadequate, unprepared to teach it because it is complicated and one needs to know a lot about history, Hebrew and Jewish Scriptures to do a good job.

    2. Michael Lawrence

      I agree with Dr. Eli, Deborah. I also live in the Akron area and there is very little substantial teaching coming from the pulpits here. Teaching The Revelation and other books of that caliber requires a great deal of study and preparation. Many Pastors are too distracted with prosperity theology and social gospel to rock the boat with sound doctrine. Let’s keep our city in prayer.

    3. Shannon Evans Emmans

      Deborah and Michael, you should try Pastor John Muncy, he’s in Ohio but he travels around a lot doing prophecy seminars… and by the sound of it you’d really like him. He has a special study he does on the calamities that befall nations that are against Israel… it is very intriguing.

      https://www.facebook.com/johnmuncy?fref=ts

  7. yetilived

    I hope to understand this better as my perspective within the historical text still influences my words repentance and grace. First, what did the 7 bulls and 7 Rams represent in Numbers? The two treacheries of the Nicolaitans as I see it (coming from a non-sacrificial system) are:
    1. WORKS – What part does God play in… our bread, our clothes, our sacrifices? ( Gen 22:8, Exodus 24:4-7, Mark 14:22-25)
    2. Poor social laws – wouldn’t second law be hidden as offerings to God (first law) rather than brotherly love if idol worship was present. And how does someone repent from second law and still acknowledge the Roman Government? 
    I treasure these articles – looking forward to more …..

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      These are all worthy and deep questions. I am not sure we can answer them here in context of Revelation. Thanks for the feedback.

      1. yetilived

        Context is my goal 🙂 —tweaking my idea of a synagogue as I experienced two sides of victory (repentance + asking for the gift) prior to attending church 😉

  8. GILBERT WALTER

    SHALOM DR. ELI I AM A HOLOCAUST, FROM BERLIN,JEW AND LOVE YOUR TEACHINGS. I HAVE CHILDRENS WHO ARE MARRIEED TO CHRISTIANS PARTNERS WHO INFUSE THEIR RELIGIONS TO MY GRAND CHILDREN, WHICH IN TURN CONFUSE THEM AND THEY REFUSE TO HAVE A BAR/BATH MITZVAH WHICH HURTS ME VERY MUCH. I DO LOVE YOUR TEACHINGS, BUT I DO NOT WANT TO INTERFER IN MY CHILDRENS MIXED MARRIAGE. I LOST A LOT OF MY FAMILY IN THE HOLOCAUST AND I DO NOT WANT TO LOOS MY CONFUSED GRAND CHILDREN. SO AGAIN THANK YOU FOR YOUR TEACHINGS! G.WALTER

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Family is very important. Draw close to you grandchildren and perhaps you can help them see their identity in different light someday. Blessings, my prayers are with you.

  9. Lynda Janzen

    Shalom, Dr. Eli. Thanks for this exposition of the term “Nicolaitans”. The converts to the Way of Jesus from the pagan religions of Asia Minor (mainly Greek) would have been used to the use of both sex and food (worship of Aphrodite, Eleusinian mysteries). Therefore, the proscription of the abuse of both in their new faith could certainly be considered warranted. Also, there was an heretical teaching about, at the time, that since Grace flows to sinners (who repent), the more sin, the more Grace, which is, of course, antithetical to Jesus’ teaching of “Repent, and sin no more.” May I also say that your teaching, from the Jewish point of view, is enlightening. The Hebrew / Aramaic languages are so rich in texture; more so than either Greek or English.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Lynda.

  10. J.Skinner

    Shalom Dr. Eli,
    Thank you for your billiant synopsis about the Nicolatians in Revelations. In all the studies I have attended, it seems that this portion of the book is somewhat elided, prophecy the primary importance.

    I fail to understand how the two subject matter modulate into one tonal key of prophecy.
    Is it possible to get an explanation?

    Bless you,
    J. Skinner

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Very true. The way they modulate is that apocalyptic prophecy is about real life drama that the people to whom the words are addressed to are going through at the moment of prophecy. That is the nature of apocalypse. And that means history is important and thus culture and language of the culture.

      1. Jan Lewis

        Thank you for this explanation. I was wondering if you could expand more on the reference to the verse in Isaiah 4:1 from whence you gathered the “we will eat” Hebraism. That verse is in the context of polygamy, which we know Jesus abolished in the Sermon on the Mount when He reclassified entering into most second marriages as adultery. Do you think a further connection can be drawn between the “we will eat” people from Isaiah 4 and the sexual immorality ascribed to the Nicolaitans in Rev2? Might these people have been advocating eating what they wanted as well as adding wives (perhaps in order to provide some level of protection for woman as is applied in the Isaiah 4 request)? If not, can you expand on the sexual immorality aspect charge against the Nicolatains?

        Thank you for your consideration.