The Nicolaitans are the boogeymen of the Bible. Since the scriptures say almost nothing about them – except that they were false teachers whose deeds Jesus hated (see Rev. 2) – they are a blank sheet onto which we can write just about anything. If there is a group in the church that disagrees with the pastor, you can just about guarantee they will be dismissed as divisive or Nicolaitan.
So who were the Nicolaitans?
They were false teachers who taught grace as a license to sin. They were not confused Christians. They were libertines who infiltrated the early church and introduced destructive heresies. They promised freedom, but were themselves slaves of depravity (2 Pet. 2:19).
False teachers and false apostles may seem like Biblical boogeymen, but they are Satan’s principle means for attacking the church from within (see 2 Cor. 11:13–15). Left unchecked, they destroy churches and ruin lives.
When John said, “Watch that you do not lose what we have accomplished that you may receive a full reward” (2 John 1:8), he was referring to smooth-talking deceivers who draw people to themselves and away from Jesus. Jude, the brother of James, offered a similar warning:
For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (Jude 1:4, NIV)
The Nicolaitans elevated intellect above faith, and Self above Savior. In so doing they denied the lordship of Jesus and undermined the faith of the weak.
Why did Jesus hate the works of the Nicolaitans?
Jesus told the Ephesians he hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6), and a good question to ask is why. Commentators provide two unsatisfactory answers. Some frame the issue as one of lawbreaking. “The lawless Nicolaitans were violating the Apostolic Decree passed by the Jerusalem Council forbidding the consumption of idol foods” (see Acts 15:29). Then why didn’t Jesus say so? If the Nicolaitans were breaking the rules, why didn’t he lay down the law? Jesus didn’t mention the Apostolic Decree because there was no Apostolic Decree. The Jerusalem Council met to discuss whether the Gentile Christians should be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. They did not reject the old law of circumcision only to replace it with new laws pertaining to idol feasts (Acts 15:20). We are under grace, not law.
Others frame the Nicolaitan issue as one of spiritual compromise, as though Jesus was upset that his church was spiritually impure. “Compromise arouses the jealousy of the Lord and causes him to remove his hand of protection.” The picture of Jesus as the jilted lover withdrawing in a huff is a horrendous distortion of God’s character. Jesus is not insecure, and purity is not the price you pay to earn his love. God’s love has no price tags.
So what was the problem with the Nicolaitans?
They put people in harm’s way and promoted unbelief in the goodness of God.
The idol-industrial complex of Pergamum was a machine for carrying out Satan’s dark agenda. From the Altar of Zeus to the humblest shrine, the city was geared towards the ruination of all who participated in the vile festivals.
The Pergamenes were enslaved to the power of sin and death. God’s plan for liberating them was the gospel of Jesus Christ. But the light of the gospel was being dimmed by an attitude of accommodation. The church, which was supposed to be an advertisement for the kingdom of heaven, was presenting a mixed message. Instead of offering a radical alternative to the devilish enterprise, some in the church were supporting it.
Why did Jesus hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans?
He was not angry because they were breaking the rules or compromising his standards. He was angry because they were feeding God’s children to the devil’s machine.
Jesus and the Apostles encouraged people to put their faith in God, while the false apostles and the Nicolaitans discouraged them. They may not have said it in so many words, but their message was “God cannot be trusted. Secure your future by worshipping demons.”
The fruit of their mixed-up message was appalling: Instead of idol worshippers coming to the church to find grace and freedom, the Christians were going to the temples and kowtowing to demons. Instead of spending themselves on behalf of the hungry and oppressed, the saints were subsidizing Satan.
The Ephesians hated what the Nicolaitans were doing, but the Pergamenes were ambivalent. They were so hung up on the “all things are lawful” part of Paul’s message that they forgot that “not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor. 10:23). When it came to what the Nicolaitans were teaching, they had no boundaries. “They make a good point,” said some. “I’m not so sure,” said others. They debated and discussed but they drew no line in the sand. So Jesus drew one for them. “I hate it.” End of debate. End of discussion.
Is there a modern-day example of Nicolaitan teaching?
Wherever you have a false teacher preaching grace as a license to sin, you have a Nicolaitan. False grace messages come in many forms but are easily recognized by their tacit approval of sin, usually in the form of sexual immorality. Modern-day Nicolaitans quote scripture and make bold claims about freedom, but the fruit of their message is bondage and death.
Make no mistake, Jesus hates the false grace message, but it’s important to understand why he hates it. He doesn’t hate it because he’s allergic to sinners or because he’s keen for us to keep the rules. He hates it because it destroys those who buy into it and because it renders his church ineffective. He hates it because counterfeit grace is a doorway to captivity.
It’s true that some treat grace as a license to sin. They say sinning is okay because God’s grace will cover any error. This is toxic teaching. God’s grace is indeed greater than your sin, but sin can ruin your life. Steer clear of those who preach a licentious message lest you lose the freedom that Christ has dearly bought.
From time to time we have to make difficult choices: Do we become all things to all men or do we take a stand? Do we join in or remain apart? When sin is involved and people are getting hurt, the choice is easy. God has called us to shine in a dark world, so shine, and have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness.
Jesus has given you a new name and a new identity. Your name is not sinner and your identity is not defined by your imperfect performance. You are a dearly loved child of God, so act like it. Be who God made you to be.
Extracted and adapted from Paul’s award-winning book, Letters from Jesus.