08 June 2015

continue in him 2

In the seven oracles given in Revelation 2–3, mention is made of the Nicolaitans. This group had been a factor in the Ephesian community (2:6), though not much is known about them. So it is difficult to assess what sort of challenge the Nicolaitans presented to the church, but the Ephesians are commended for deeming such theology and practice as false. The name Nicolaitan means something along the lines of "conquered the people," and Bauckham has wondered if this isn't a statement about those who would follow the ways of conquering, in the same manner as the Beast in later Revelation.*

If this is the case, then Bauckham further gives us insight in to the name Nicolaitan being connected to Balaam and Jezebel, both also mentioned in the seven messages to the churches. This gives us some better footing on which to understand the influence of the Nicolaitans, and the challenge they presented to the Ephesians.

Acclimating the Gospel

In the seven messages to the churches in Revelation we are hearing the words of Christ. He speaks as one who walks among the lampstands, which represent each of the congregation (2:1). Thus, he has intimate knowledge of these churches, and is close in their struggles. When he offers his commendation and criticism he does so from within the situation, not as a far-off bystander. It is common for scholarship to speak about John's polemic here, but he is seer who simply writes what he sees and hears – it is the risen Christ who evaluates his church, a point that many historians will not likely accept. We can be certain that John does not approve of the Nicolaitans, but his position is formed by the powerful presence of Jesus before him.

Clearly, the Nicolaitans were advocating a way that was contrary to the gospel that was first brought to Ephesus under apostolic authority. On the surface we see a conflict arising from food sacrificed to idols, and idolatry itself. For the modern world these appear as foreign practices on many levels, although beneath the surface there is a great theological battle being waged. The Ephesians were inundated with pagan religion; the presence of idols and their sacrifices was a constant presence in Ephesus. This was a very real and present danger for those cities in the Roman Empire, and Ephesus was the third largest in this dominant civilization.

The Nicolaitans advocated for more openness and accommodation to the larger culture, believing that there was a less-rigid way of being a people in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world than had previously taught by the apostles. They thought that culture could be experience without surrendering one's theological commitment to the Christian message, and that the more mature believer was equipped to navigate the more mature aspects of society. Advanced spirituality meant an increased participation in the life of the city would not contaminate the truly committed heart. (While we are mentioning it, it is probably safe to say that this was an ancient voice that would have denied the existence of a 'slippery slope,' if the phrase had been around.)

The Nicolaitans were probably attractive to many because they appeared to have mastered the art of faith and civic life, and they didn't suffer as much persecution as a result. On a very important level, they were chameleons in the city – Christians who did not awkwardly stand out in a crowd, even if they were supposed to be.

Our present culture might not struggle with what to do with food sacrificed to idols, but when it comes to adapting our Christian spirituality to the wider culture we have proven ourselves to be masters of the art. The common evangelical in America can go through every aspect of life without raising an eyebrow, perhaps even achieving such blended spirituality as to never give the world any reason whatsoever to think about gospel in the same breath as the individual.

What is worse, we have churches and leaders who advocate this interaction – even celebrate our assimilation into the pagan culture. This is done under the guise of Christian freedom, but is nothing more than adolescent faith masquerading as something advanced – the foolish being used to appear as wise. The church is being made to accommodate culture, a practice that, whenever God's people are guilty, is referred to as spiritual whoredom. So it is no surprise that the evaluation of the risen Christ here is that he "hates" the practices of these Nicolaitans – those who would act as conquerers in the manner of the Beast, as opposed to being victorious in the Lamb.

The Ephesian church is here commended for evaluating the teaching of the Nicolaitans and rejecting them. They do well in this part of their faith, though they still fall short. It appears that maybe the Nicolaitans might have had a different effect than they intended, for they were able to take the Ephesian church off their game. For while this congregation had won a theological battle, they are still summoned to get back to their first love by working out their faith as they had when they first believed. So, theirs is a matter of practice driven by theology. Now that they had their theological understanding of how to live, their summons was to indeed live as the church in the midst of the great city of Ephesus. As John writes these words he can envision the hard work that lay before the church, who could hear the Spirit and become victors in the kingdom of God.

*Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 127.
**For this series, see the detailed study: Paul Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

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