Deceivers within the seven congregations were encouraging believers to compromise with the idolatrous rites of pagan society.
One of the chief concerns in the seven letters to the churches of Asia is with deceivers that work within the congregations. While several groups and one individual are named, the net effect of all their efforts is to cause believers to “commit fornication and to eat food offered to idols.” In short, to induce idolatry and compromise with the surrounding society.
While persecution by outsiders is a problem, strikingly, the criticisms of these deceivers are far harsher than comments by Jesus about persecutors, leaving the impression that internal threats pose a far greater danger to the churches.
Three groups are active in the churches: the “false apostles,” the “Nicolaitans, and those who “have the teaching of Balaam.” Additionally, the church at Thyatira has been tolerating the “prophetess Jezebel.”
Only minimal information is provided on these aberrant teachings, and primarily through allusions to characters from the Hebrew Bible. Very likely, the names assigned to the deceivers are not the actual ones used by them and are symbolic designations given by Jesus. “Jezebel” and “Balaam,” for example, are derived from Old Testament stories and applied typologically to contemporary deceptions. Since Revelation describes the practices of all three groups in similar terms, the same movement may be intended in each case.
The term “Nicolaitan” was first used in Revelation, and subsequent comments about the group by later church authorities are based on the relevant passages from it.The name occurs nowhere else in the Bible.
AT EPHESUS. Jesus commends the “messenger” of this church for weeding out the “false apostles.” Unfortunately for us, no information is provided about this group other than the fact they were not true apostles (“You tried them that call themselves apostles and they are not”). Possibly, they are associated with if not identical to the “Nicolaitans.”
The “messenger” is also commended for hating “the deeds of the Nicolaitans,” but again, no additional information is included. Apparently, this group is comprised of members of the congregation who were ejected for engaging in certain “deeds.”
Most likely, the term “Nicolaitans” is a derogatory label. It is a compound of the Greek nouns niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”), and niké is related to the verb nikaō used elsewhere in the letters for “overcome” (“he who overcomes”). Thus, it includes the ideas of “conquest” and “people,” and it may have the sense of “victory over people,” or “he who overcomes people.”
AT PERGAMOS. Jesus chides the “messenger” at Pergamos for tolerating followers of the “teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the sons of Israel to eat idol-sacrifices and to commit fornication,” and he equates this teaching with the “Nicolaitans” (“In like manner, thus, you have such as hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”). This indicates that the same deception is at work in the seven churches regardless of which group is named in an individual letter.
The reference to “Balaam” alludes to the Old Testament story when the prophet Balaam attempted to profit by cursing Israel. God thwarted his efforts, and instead, caused him to bless the Hebrew nation. But Balaam found another way by teaching the Moabite king to corrupt the people of Israel through fornication and idolatry. In the original story, the Israelites committed “fornication” with the pagan women of Moab, most probably temple prostitutes employed in pagan rites. That they “ate meat offered to idols” confirms that the chief sin was idolatry – (Numbers 25:1-3, 31:16).
The Bible often employs “fornication” metaphorically for unfaithfulness to the true God. In Revelation, it refers to idolatry, especially the sins perpetrated against the saints by “Babylon, the Great Harlot,” sins that included rendering homage to the “image of the Beast.” The references to “fornication” are deliberate verbal links to the later visions concerning “Babylon” – (Revelation 2:20, 14:8, 17:2-4, 18:3, 18:9, 19:22).
AT THYATIRA. This church is chastised for tolerating the false prophetess, “Jezebel.” Her teachings parallel those of the ‘Nicolaitans’ (“to eat idol-sacrifices and to commit fornication”), for she also promotes accommodation to the idolatrous culture of the city. The “prophetess” is modeled on the pagan queen Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab who promoted the worship of Ba’al and persecuted the prophets of Yahweh – (1 Kings 16:31, 18:4-19, 19:1-2).
In the letter, “fornication” is used metaphorically for idolatry, and this is demonstrated by the explanatory “eating meat offered to idols.” And the “lovers” and “children” of Jezebel are the adherents of her doctrine within the congregation.
This “Jezebel” is a harlot-like figure because of her seductive powers, which also link her to the “Great Harlot, Babylon,” the one who causes the earth’s inhabitants to drink the “wine of her fornication.” Thus, the great end-time seductress already is active within the church – (Revelation 17:1-6, 18:3, 18:8-9).
Jesus allows her time to repent, but if she refuses, he will “cast her into a couch along with them who fornicate with her.” The “couch” refers to a sickbed, and this is indicated by her pending punishment with “great tribulation” and plagues. And the threatened judgment on her and her “children” anticipates God’s final judgment on the “Great Harlot.” Anyone who partakes of her sins also partakes of “her plagues” – (Revelation 18:1-6).
The prophetess claims it is permissible to “know the deep things of Satan.” Possibly, this is the slogan propagated by her supporters (“as they say”). More likely, in her mind, she is teaching the “deep things of God,” that is, deeper spiritual insights that supposedly protect initiates from harm during idolatrous rites.
Jesus exposes this doctrine for what it is – the “deep things of Satan.” And this is a link to the “Abyss,” the deep pit from which the “beast,” demons, and Satan ascend to deceive men and to “wage war against the saints”- (Revelation 9:1-2, 11:7, 13:1, 17:8, 20:1-3).
IN ASIA. In the late first century, Satan was attempting to overcome Christians by encouraging them to engage in certain pagan rites, including participation in the Roman imperial cult. That would have included offering incense to images of the emperor. Refusal to do so could have incurred serious penalties, including economic sanctions, and in Pergamos, this may have been what lead to the martyrdom of “Antipas, my faithful witness.”
Though we lack many details, at the heart of these deceptions is accommodation to the surrounding culture, including its idolatrous beliefs and practices. The chief motivation for doing so is most likely to avoid economic deprivation and impoverishment, and possibly also to escape outright persecution by governing authorities.