The Lord is compassionate. He hates anything that stands in the way of our partaking in life, truth, and the paradise He prepared for us.
January 13, 2024
Speaker: Dustin Scott
Passage: Revelation 2:1-7
We’re going to be in Revelation chapter two, and we’re going to be diving into a fairly mammoth topic within the scriptures. If I’m honest with you, I think it will take a couple of weeks. I don’t think we’re going to get through it in one week. We’re going to be talking about the Nicolaitans. Now, I thought this word that Dan gave about evil authorities, which work to sow chaos, is precisely what Nicolaitanism was within the life of the church, and maybe still is today.
Two disclaimers before we get going. The first one is this: it’s going to take us a while. We’re going to study this in-depth, we’re going to go slow, we’re going to be academics. So put your academic hats on; we’re going to go down some rabbit trails and, if necessary, maybe even spread into a couple of weeks.
The second disclaimer I have for us in this passage is that Jesus’ rebuke within this passage is quite severe. He’s even going to verbalize hatred. Now, I want to bring us back to a particular truth within this passage. We know that within the letter of Revelation, Jesus is going to address seven different churches. Within four out of seven of those addresses, Jesus is going to speak to things He loves and praises within the church. He’s also going to speak to things that He hates. That’s a majority, four out of seven.
I think we would be humble as the people of Vintage this morning to approach this passage with the assumption that when Jesus looks at our church, and when He looks at our lives, there are things which we’re doing well, there are things which He’s dispensing praise on, but yet, there might be other things which He hates. Our job is to find out what those things are, repent, and be restored to His right path.
Why does Jesus hate these things? I want to begin with that question. Well, if we go to the end of this morning’s passage, which is Revelation 2:7, Jesus is going to make a statement to the church of Ephesus. He’s going to make a promise. He’ll say to everyone who conquers, “I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.”
Why does Jesus hate certain aspects of what we do? Because He’s compassionate and He’s loving. He despises those things that stand in the way of our partaking in the life He’s prepared for us.
I want to get a little bit personal, and maybe a little bit strange at first. Kelly and I have a daughter. Her name’s Emelia. She’s about six months old, and she despises sleep, which is a problem. One of our friends gave us this stuffed koala to help get our daughter to sleep. It’s kind of disturbing in the day because it plays music and it breathes heavily. It’s kind of disconcerting to look at. But at nighttime, it sometimes works to get her to sleep.
The problem is, once she’s asleep, cuddling this koala, by that point, I can’t sleep because I’m staring at how beautiful she is, and I’m so engrossed in the life that she has. Oftentimes, I’ll be awake in the middle of the night thinking, “Oh my goodness, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you away from the things that could harm you.”
Jesus will say that if we human parents, being evil, still know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more immense must the Lord’s love be for us? How much more does He hate the things that stand in the way of our partaking in life? Jesus will say, “I’ve come that you might have life, and life abundantly.” So, that’s the foundation of our passage this morning. Jesus hates sin precisely because He loves us.
We need to remember that first because Jesus might rebuke us through this passage. He might even discipline us, but God intends that this communication is for our benefit so that we might partake in the life He has prepared for us. That makes sense. Let’s stand for the reading of the scriptures. We’re going to be in Revelation chapter two, verses one through seven. I’ll be in the New Revised Standard Version this morning.
“To the messenger of the church in Ephesus, these are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. ‘I know your works, your toil, and your endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers. You have tested those who claimed to be apostles but are not, and you found them to be false. I also know that you were enduring and bearing up for the sake of My name and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then, from where you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent. Yet this is to your credit, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. But anyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, that everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of my God.'”
We’re going to be moving through a lot of material this week and next. Jesus is going to say to the church at Ephesus, “This is to your credit.” Remember, He’s just rebuked them for leaving their first love. But here He brings affirmation, saying, “This is to your credit, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Jesus is telling the Ephesians in this passage, your most favorable attribute, the thing that you have an A plus grade in, the thing I’m giving you 100% on, is your hatred of the work of the Nicolaitans. I prefer the Greek form, Nikolaitai.
That seems strange, doesn’t it? We don’t typically think of hatred as being a most admirable attribute. If we fast forward to Jesus’s rebuke of the church at Pergamum, we’ll discover that the Nikolaitai were propagating a teaching. So what we have is a teaching of the Nikolaitai and the works of the Nicolaitans. Let’s hold those two things together. This means when these passages are understood together, we’re going to define a teaching that results in a very specific kind of activity as a false teaching. Nikolaitanism was corrupting the daily moral behavior of believers. The passage indicates that this teaching was splitting believers’ inward alignment with Jesus from their outward obedience to His commandments.
What does Jesus say about it? He says He hates it. The result of this teaching is that sin and immorality abound within the church. Jesus exhorts the Ephesian Christians, and I believe us as Christians today, to partner in His hatred of sin. As we move forward, I want us to tackle a couple of key questions within this passage.
Here are our academic questions. The first one is who were the Nikolaitai? Can we locate or at least approximate their historical identity? Were they a heretical group? Were they an actual movement within the early church? Are they just a symbol of a wider spiritual danger?
Next, what works did Jesus hate? What were these false teachers teaching? What were they doing? What were they encouraging others to do? Last, but certainly not least, does Nikolaitanism exist today? If so, what does it look like? Where does it show up within the church? How do we contend against it with Christ?
If we go to the Greek word for Nikolaitan, the word is nicolaites. It’s a compound word. It’s formed of two smaller words. One is nicao, which means “I conquer.” And the other one is laos, which means “people.” If you take these two words together, it might say something like “people conquerors.” The Nicolaitans were conquering people within the life of the early church.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when people come and conquer me. So what were the Nicolaitans doing? Were they austere and harsh as pastors? Were they encouraging believers to do things they didn’t want to do? Now, that’s an interesting speculation. But my problem with it is it doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of what was happening here. I want to first consult the church fathers.
So Irenaeus, a Christian in the second century, is going to identify the Nicolatians with a deacon by the name of Nicholas, who shows up in the book of Acts. He contends that this deacon, this leader within the early church, later lapsed into false teaching. Hyppolitus, another church father, is going to agree with Irenaeus as well. Epaphanius argues that Nicolas was an ascetic gnostic false teacher who taught polyamory and even encouraged other men to have sex with his wife.
The church father, Clement of Alexandria, somewhat problematically argued with them and said that Nicolas was a holy man and we shouldn’t associate him with this group. By the time we get to the medieval ages, things get much more vague. Thomas Aquinas says that maybe Nicolaitanism is just a symbol for the sexual distortion we find in most cults. So while the church fathers are worthy of attention, problematically, they don’t help us get to our answer, do they?
I believe the scriptures themselves provide a much better answer for who the Nicolaitae were, what they were teaching, and what resulted from their teachings in the early church. Jesus will say in His rebuke to the church of Pergamos, I have a few things against you. You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel so that they would eat food, sacrifice to idols, and engage in sexual immorality. Similarly, you have some who hold to the teachings of the Nicolaitans.
I want you guys to be honest. Who in this room is like, “Who on earth is Balaam?” A lot of us are probably like, who on earth is this Balak? What is St. John talking about here? If we go back to the early scriptures, we’ll find an answer. Within the construction of St. John’s sentence, he uses an adverb, similarly, which in Greek is homoios. It connects the teaching of Balaam to the teaching of the Nicolaitans, which means that these teachings are the same teaching. What did Balaam and the Nicolaitans teach others to do? Eat food, sacrifice to idols, and practice sexual sin.
All right, who’s Balak? Let’s figure that out. Within the Hebrew Scriptures, Balaam was a wicked gentile prophet who received compensation from a Moabite king named Balak to place curses on God’s people, Israel. Now that didn’t work out very well for him. He couldn’t find success in doing it.
Numbers chapters 25 and 31 say when Balaam’s method failed. He later recruited Moabite women to work as prostitutes and so baited the Israelites into destruction. So, looking at these two ideas, the Nicolaitan teaching and the Balaam teaching, what we can understand is that this method uses idolatry and sexual immorality to keep God’s people trapped. Without ascertaining the precise identity of who the Nicolaitans were, we can conclude that they corrupted the Christian faith by contending a person could inwardly be a follower of Jesus while outwardly continuing an unrepentant idolatry and sexual sin. I’m going to repeat that. The Nicolaitans corrupted the Christian faith by contending that a person could inwardly be a follower of Jesus while outwardly continuing to practice unrepentant idolatry and sexual sin. Does that make sense? Are you guys tracking with me? Cool, we’ll keep going.
I want to focus on the works that Jesus hated. Let’s dig into these sins and see what they were. One is food sacrificed to idols, and the other one is sexual immorality. Most of us have gone to King Soopers. Maybe you’re like me, and you shop in the clearance section, and I have yet to find food sacrifice to idols there. So, what does this say to us as modern listeners? How are we to understand it? Are you guys ready for a rabbit trail? Cool.
Let’s go to Acts chapter 15. There’s a moment within Acts chapter 15 when an apostolic throwdown breaks out over the issue of Gentile circumcision. If you’re going to get into a theological fight, circumcision is the place to go. We find Paul, Peter, and James, the bishop of Jerusalem leading the party of the Pharisees, in this passage. They asked the question, “Do Gentiles have to be circumcised to follow Jesus?” They seek out the direction of the Holy Spirit. At the end of this council, which becomes a model for the later Ecumenical Councils, the church and James, the brother of Jesus, gets up and announces a verdict. He says we should write to them, the Gentiles, to abstain only from things polluted by idols. Does that sound familiar? And from sexual immorality, that sounds familiar, too. They’ll later say that Gentiles must also refrain from things strangled or from blood.
I want us to notice that the Nicolaitan’s teaching nearly directly contradicts what the apostles claim as true of the Council of Jerusalem. The book of Revelation will even claim that these false teachers, the Nicolatians, claimed to be apostles, but were false teachers. They attacked the authority of the scriptures and also God’s church by setting themselves up as an alternate source of spiritual authority.
I think there’s something of a Nicolaitans spirit common amongst most pseudo-Christian groups and cults, which says something like, “The scriptures, the apostles, those people you know, they’re wrong. Let me tell you the real truth about God.”
Has anyone ever encountered someone like that? Islam makes that claim. Mormonism makes that claim. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists. And I could go on with all of them. Just like the ancient Nicolaitans said, “We are the advocates of God’s real truth. Don’t listen to what the Scriptures have to say about this.”
I think it’s interesting that many of these cults have introduced sexual sin into the life of the church. Jesus is going to praise the Ephesian believers’ ability to both test and discard these false claims. So let’s dive into a couple.
The first one is an object offered to an idol — eidolothytos. There’s a problem here that a lot of theologians and pastors have wrestled through throughout the centuries. The question is, why does Paul, in First Corinthians eight, have a bit of a nonchalant attitude towards eating food sacrificed to idols? Paul will say that as long as you’re not participating in the idolatrous worship, the food’s fine. Go ahead and eat it as long as you’re not offending a brother.
Yet Revelation is so strongly prohibiting it here. We told you from the onset of our study we’d be honest when we didn’t have an absolute answer. This might be one of those mysteries where you have to say, “I don’t know the foolproof answer to this, But our Study Team came up with some awesome answers that might potentially be solutions to this problem.”
The first one is that maybe Christians were prohibited from participating in idolatrous worship, but they weren’t necessarily prohibited from buying the meat at the marketplace later. You can think of it like the clearance section at King Soopers. The next one is maybe God assigns differing levels of accountability to a young versus a mature believer. And last but certainly not least, maybe the sacrificial food is just being used as a broad symbol for idolatry. Now we’ve got some good speculation here. And perhaps the best truth of all is for us as 21st-century believers is that the historical details matter less than the principle, right?
The aim of Jesus’s condemnation is that Christians are taking on the idolatrous practices and sexual immorality of an unbelieving culture. Jesus says, I didn’t call you to be like the world. So let’s dig into this question further and talk about what these idolatrous practices look like in their historical context.
If we back up to ancient Israel, sacrifices are a holy act. They’re commanded by a changeless God who doesn’t have any external needs. Now, God doesn’t command sacrifices because He’s hungry. Instead, they emphasize the dignity and presence of life represented by the blood. They also represent the requirement that Israel, God’s people, be cleansed of its sin, its uncleanliness, and ultimately, the consequences of sin.
If any of you have ever taken a Greek literature class 101, you’ll know that the pagan cultures of antiquity were way different. Zeus had more affairs than we probably can count on our calculator. The Greek gods were full of appetites, desires, needs, and whims. So if I were an ancient pagan, I would go to a temple to offer a sacrifice as a bribe. I would seek to bribe the god. “I want this, Zeus, could you make it happen in my life?” It was a transactional relationship. It wasn’t the relationship that Christ called for.
The ultimate aim of paganism was the freedom to live according to my wants, whims, and desires. If you dig through history, most of the times when pagans were making sacrifices, the thing they were seeking out is, “Would you Gods just leave us alone.” Quite interestingly, if you wanted to find a very religious place within ancient Rome, it was the military soldiers who were the most religious among the pagans. Why? Because they were ready to offer sacrifices to any god who might tilt wartime circumstances in their favor.
So, for now, I think it suffices to say that pagan offerings, these foods sacrificed to idols, were intended to satisfy the appetites of whimsical gods. Why? Because human beings were granted selfish blessings and, most importantly, guarded from divine interference in their lives. Jesus is going to remind His readers, I am not like the false pagan gods that you’re familiar with. My favor cannot be bought. I don’t turn a blind eye to lifestyles of disobedience. Your relationship with me is not a transaction. Most of all, I cannot be bribed. So don’t participate in wicked acts, which offend and test My character.
We’ve worked through food sacrifice to idols. Let’s give ourselves a pat on the back. Are you guys ready? We’ll unpack one more sin, and then we’ll probably have to be finished for today. Let’s talk about sexual immorality. This word is porneuo. In Greek, it means “to fornicate,” “commit illicit sexual acts,” or “prostitute oneself.” It’s a broad word within the scriptures that can denote a lot of different things. One is extramarital sex. The next is prostitution. The next is what I would like to call two-directional lust — I’ll unpack that for us — and most importantly, it’s a scriptural symbol for humans and faithfulness to God.
What does two-directional lust mean? That’s kind of an interesting term, isn’t it? It means finding gratification and giving sexual attention to a person who isn’t my spouse. Jesus is going to speak to that in Matthew 5:28. It’s also going to mean finding gratification and receiving sexual attention from a person who isn’t my spouse. Revelation is going to use that symbolically a lot in chapters 17 and 18.
So we know that this verb encapsulates both lust and sexual immodesty, and quite interestingly, in the realm of linguistics, it’s the ancestor to the modern English word pornography. What were the Nicolaitans doing? They were teaching believers that faith in Christ in a continuous and unrepentant, immoral lifestyle could coexist. Nicolaitanism was a moral heresy. It permitted believers to follow their appetites just as long as they were maintaining a religious exterior.
The inspired words of Scripture are that Jesus hates this. He hates the intentions of those who tried to make sin okay and the word He uses for the trap of idolatry and sexual immorality is skandalon. Jesus is going to use it, too, in the Gospel of Luke. He says thatoccasions for sin, skandalon, are bound to come. But “woe to anyone who through whom they come, it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the bottom of the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
Pretty severe, right? I want to push just a bit further. Jesus is not making a pop-savvy message here. He not only praises hatred but, even more counter-culturally, He moves on and praises intolerance. He says, “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people.” The word He uses is bastazo, which means “I bear,” “I put up with,” “I lift up,” or “exalt.” Think about that. I know that you cannot bear wicked people. I know that you cannot put up with wicked people. I know that you don’t lift them up and exalt them.
Remember, wicked people, as defined here, are the Nicolaitans, those who tell others that it’s permissible to sin. The apostle Paul is going to illustrate this in his letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you?”
As Christians, we’re absolutely forbidden from blessing, excusing, and even tolerating the sinful things that Jesus hates. We’re to humbly and compassionately encourage repentance, not sin. It’s a religiously disguised arrogance to contend that we, as human beings, finite creatures, possess a more elevated, loving, and truthful perspective than our Creator. We get to choose: Are we going to participate in the design which our God both loves and wills? Are we going to partner with the things which He declares, “I hate?”
Remember, remember, remember, this is set against the backdrop of Jesus’s love for His children. He desires that we would have life and life abundantly. That’s why He hates the things that harm us and lead us away from that. We must always keep that at the forefront of our minds. So we’re going to have to veer into next week, but remember, our Lord is breaking chains. He’s breaking those things that bind us so that we can participate in the life and the paradise that He’s prepared for us.
Would you stand with me so I can pray for you and myself?
Lord, Jesus, I think it’s appropriate to pray the words of your servant David from Psalm 51, “create in me a clean heart, oh God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Don’t banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore me to the joy of Your salvation, and make me and make our church willing to obey You so that we can be examples to sinners that they might return to You.”
Lord, we know that this is difficult, but the scriptures promise that You discipline those whom You love. So, Lord, we receive this word. Examine our hearts this week as we spend time before You in prayer. Could You articulate those things that You hate so we can be drawn back to the life and the love that You always intended for us? We remember that You are a good, good, good, father. Your intentions are so much better than we can imagine. So don’t let us be distracted by Nicolaitanism. Let us return our eyes and our hearts to You. We ask this in Your name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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