The Importance of Doctrine
Having challenged the Ephesian church to repent, that is, to change their thinking, our Lord reminds them in verse 6 of the one thing they have done positively. "But this you have," and he uses the strong contrastive conjunction there, indicating that He is now shifting from the negative back to the positive; "that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate."
We need to understand this figure of speech here that is used, the concept of hating. Does God hate in the same way you and I hate? When you and I hate it is a product of the sin nature, motivated by the fact that we have been hurt or injured. We perceive one thing or another and so there is a response of bitterness and antagonism, usually missed with a desire for revenge, a desire to see the other person hurt, and all those other thoughts that just well up within our hearts. This is not what this is talking about. When we look at the Scripture, for example, "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated," it does mean that when God saw Jacob He just wrapped him up in His arms. And when God says he hates Esau it is not because somehow he embittered God against him. This juxtaposition of love and hate is a figure of speech that indicates acceptance and rejection. So when this phraseology is used in the Scripture we usually talk of it in terms of an anthropopathism, a figure of speech where human emotions which God doesn't actually possess are attributed to Him in order to communicate to us the plans, the purposes and the policies of God.
So when it says that they hate the "deeds," the Greek word ERGON [e)rgon] which is a general word for production, and it is a general word for the outworking in the life of these Nicolaitanes. It is the idea of rejection in total of the product8on of the Nicolaitanes. They have a frame of reference that they are utilizing to have discernment. It isn't a fact that they don't like these people, that somehow they are following another pastor who is not our pastor and so we don't like them. It is that we understand the production in your system. It is not just the outworking of the system, it is the under girding doctrine that is the foundation for their production. All production in life, whether it is mental production or overt production, has a foundation in some sort of philosophical or theological view of life. In the situation with the Nicolaitanes they had a particular theology that produced a certain lifestyle, and so it is the entire package that is being rejected by the Ephesians because they have a frame of reference.
What was that frame of reference? The frame of reference was the doctrine that they had been taught faithfully by the various pastors that they had had down through the years. Because they learned the truth they had a frame of reference so that they could evaluate what was going on around them. They didn't just live in some sort of isolated bubble where they just went to church and then went home. Everywhere they went in that Ephesian culture they were being virtually slapped in the face with paganism. So every time they left the church they had to interact with rank paganism on a day-to-day basis, they couldn't just get off into their own little Christian country club where they had associations with only other like-minded people. This is important. Christians are in the world. We haven't been removed from the world and we are to be engaged with the world around us. We are to be witnessing to unbelievers, something which is supposed to be a standard dynamic of our Christian life, always being ready, Peter said, to give an answer for the hope that is in us. The Ephesians understood all of this and they rejected the entire framework of the Nicolaitans. All of us need to develop that kind of critical thinking grid so that we can filter out the garbage and take in that which is good, but also so that we can have a better understanding of where people are coming from. When we hear certain phrases, when we see certain things take place, we have an idea of what is really going on, what the underlying issues are and we can think better; not so we become critical. There is a difference between having critical thinking skills and being a negative critical person where we are just running another person down or other positions down. It is to be able to understand where their weaknesses are so that we can have a better leverage in communicating the truth of God's Word.
Fundamentally what we are talking about here is that a high priority in the Ephesians church was doctrine, the study of doctrine. What do we mean by the study of doctrine? This is one of the most misunderstood phrases today. In fact, it has even been under attack for the last thirty or forty years. The word "doctrine" that is used in the Scripture derives from the Greek word DIDASKALIA [didaskalia]. The verb means to teach, and this noun means teaching. All it means is teaching. It starts with biblically sound theology and it automatically leads to application in two realms. It begins in the thought realm, mental attitude dynamics, it relates to how you think, what you think, and leads to overt actions. All of that is involved in teaching. When we are teaching we may be teaching something that may seem a little more abstract but we always know that if it is biblical truth it has application, either in the thought realm or in overt action. 2 Timothy 3:16, "All scripture is God-breathed, and is profitable for doctrine…" It is a good biblical word. It is profitable for teaching, and this is to be the priority of the local church. The trend today is to reject doctrine. Doctrine divides. If you teach doctrine you are going to have fewer people.
Who were these people called Nicolaitanes? We don't know a lot about them. It was a sect which generated itself in the first century but didn't continue on into the second century, so there is no hard evidence about who they were or what they believed. We know a few things for certain. First of all, we know that it was a first-century sect that had a serious doctrinal aberration. That is why they were referred to in two of these short critiques, the one to Ephesus and the one to Pergamum. Both churches had a problem with the Nicolaitanes. The Ephesians rejected them, though, and were praised by the Lord Jesus Christ for having done so. The Pergamum church was ecumenical and invited them in. So there is a contrast there. In the letter to the Pergamum church there is an identification of certain sins that were associated with the Nicolaitanes, sins of eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, as well as the practice of sexual immorality. This seems to be connected to the doctrines of Balaam which has a heavy undertone of anti-Semitism.
These problems of eating foods sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality were addressed in the early church as early as the first Jerusalem council, which is covered in Acts 15 when the church began to expand out of its Jewish roots in the first fourteen chapters of Acts as Paul went out and took the gospel to the Gentiles. This was a problem that a lot of Jews had. How do we assimilate who do things that aren't orthodox? After they argued back and forth the grace of God prevailed and they ended up saying there were only two things that they asked, and that is that they abstain from eating things sacrificed to idols (it indicated a compromise with idolatry) and that they abstain from sexual immorality. These were problems that were common in the early church but apparently they had sort of crystallized in a sect called the Nicolaitanes. We don't know much else about them. There are two basic views and it is not sure that either one of them has any strength. The first view is that these were the followers of a man named Nikolaos of Antioch, mentioned in Acts chapter six as one of the seven men that were chosen to help with the distribution of financial aid to the widows in Jerusalem, along with Philip and Stephen, and that somehow he had become negative to the Word of God and become involved in the licentious heresy. Clement of Rome believed that Nikolaos was not involved but it was somebody else of that name. So we are really uncertain as to who it was. In the 18th century scholars began to take the view that Nicolaitane was based on a Greek word that was a code word for Balaam in the Old Testament—NIKAO [nikaw], which means to overcome, to have victory over, or to exercise authority over someone. So there is a second school of thought that these were the early denominationalists and they were developing a hierarchy of authority in the local church and that this led ultimately to what became known as the monarchical bishop, and the idea that there was some kind of hierarchy of leadership in the local church, and that they were abusing that authority. It is probably far-fetched to link that to Balaam. What we do know for sure is that this was a group that was licentious and libertine in their understanding of the Word of God and they compromised with the value system of the Greek pagan culture around them. They found ways to justify that in terms of the Word of God. That is nothing new in terms of the history of Christianity.
In Revelation 2:7 we have the overcomer believer: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches." That phrase is addressed to the believer who is positive, the believer who is ready to listen to what God the Holy Spirit is going to teach us in the process of learning the Word. The Holy Spirit illuminates our minds to the truth of His Word. If we are positive we will listen, we will have genuine humility.
"… To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God." This is a warning that there are two classifications of believers in eternity, the overcomers and those who fail. We see the same classification at the judgment eat of Christ in 1 Corinthians chapter three. There are those who will enter into heaven with rewards—gold, silver, and precious stones—and those who will have all their works burned up and they will enter into heaven, yet as through fire; saved, but they have lost everything; there is nothing in their life that has eternal production. That is the situation we have to face as believers. Are we willing to just be saved, are we willing to recognize that where we are headed today determines eternity? The decisions we make today shape out character, determine what happens at the judgment seat of Christ, and shapes our destiny in the eternal kingdom.
To those who overcome are promised a special blessing, to eat from tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God. The idea is that there are those who will overcome and have a victory in the Christian life in terms of their advance to spiritual maturity, and they will be given special privileges and position and responsibilities in the eternal kingdom. And there are those who won't. This is the grace challenge to the licentious issue. There is no place for licentiousness and libertinism in the Christian life, because there are consequences. How we spend our time in time will affect what happens in eternity.