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From Chris's Heart

June 2009
The Strange Events in the Church in Pergamum
by Nick Harris

On our recent trip to Turkey one of our stops was in ancient Pergamum. To suggest that this site is spectacular is a real understatement. One can quickly understand why the city became one of the greatest in all of Asia Minor. The city became famous during the writing of the legendary Croesus in the sixth century, BC.

Dominating the city is a gigantic acropolis that rises 1000 feet above the plane upon which the lower city sits. Atop this acropolis is the Temple of Athena erected in the third century, BC, causing it to become one of the great religious centers of the ancient world. One of the great libraries of antiquity was located here, as are the palaces of Pergamum's Kings. Two of the most tremendous sites found here are these: the Temple of Trajan and the spectacular theater of Pergamum.

The largest building on the acropolis, however, was the altar of Zeus, built around 240 BC. The altar was 40 feet high and stood on a projecting ledge of rock that looked exactly like a great throne sitting on the hillside. All day, smoke would fill the sky for the sacrifices offered to Zeus. Some scholars believe that this is what the risen Lord was speaking of when he spoke of “Satan's seat.”

A church was located in this great city and the risen Lord had the apostle John direct an epistle to this congregation, one containing a severe reprimand. The Lord informed this church that they had entertained the doctrines of Balaam. Who were these people? In other epistles dictated by the risen Christ to the churches of Asia Minor, they are called the Nicolaitans.

This group is named for Nicolaus, who was the founder of this movement. The name Nicolaus comes from two Greek words, NIKAN, which means to conquer or to lord it over and the word LAOS, which means the people. The meaning of the name Balaam, in Hebrew, is very similar to that of Nicolaus. It is derived from two Hebrew words; BELA, which means to conquer or to lord over and HaYAM, which means the people

These two names, Nicolaus and Balaam, are code names that John uses to describe two or more teachers in the early church who were leading believers into a poisonous heresy. So, what was this heresy? The story of Balaam, found in Numbers 25:1-5 in the Old Testament, helps to answer our question.

In these verses, we are told how the men of Israel were seduced into having illicit sexual unions with certain Moabite women. These men were also lured into worshipping an idol known as Baal-Peor. And Numbers 31:16 tells us this: the seducer of the Hebrews was a prophet of God, this man known as Balaam. This is the same man to whom a jackass once spoke.

Church historians associate him with the New Testament heretic known as Nicolaus. So, who was Nicolaus? Church historians identify him with a proselyte from the city of Antioch of Syria who was one of the seven original deacons of the Jerusalem church. In fact, Acts 6:5 tells us this:

"And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch."

Church historians tell us that those people who followed this seventh deacon tended to live lives of unrestrained moral indulgence. Clement of Alexandria said this of the followers of Nicolaus:

"They abandon themselves to pleasure like goats... leading lives of total self-indulgence."

However, this great early church father totally acquits the deacon Nicolaus of all blame. He tells us in his writing that the followers of Nicolaus actually perverted the true message and the true intent of the deacon. They took his grace teachings to mean that the flesh can be used as shamelessly as a man desires.

So, let me see if I can identify the doctrine of the Nicolaitans a little more clearly. In the epistle that the risen Lord dictated in Revelation 3:14, we are told that the followers of Balaam seduce people into eating meat that had been offered to idols and into doing immoral things.

Well, let me show you something that is quite interesting. Do you remember the famous council that was held in Jerusalem in Acts 15? At that conference, you might recall, James, the brother of Jesus, issued the following ruling: Gentile believers who came to Christ did not have to be circumcised to be admitted to the church. This threw the doors of the church wide open to the Gentiles. They only had to abstain from doing two things. Let's read the restrictions:
"(They were required to) abstain from meat offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which, if you keep yourselves, you shall do well." (Acts 15:29)

So, the prohibition was twofold: no idolatry and no sexual immorality. But these would prove to be the very conditions that the Nicolaitans in Pergamum and elsewhere chose to break.

Let me share the arguments of these libertines! The first point was this: the law is ended! Since there are no laws, believers are entitled to do what they like. In other words, they confused Christian liberty with unchristian license. But listen to what Paul had to say in Galatians 5:13:

"For, brothers, you have been called into liberty; only do not use your liberty for an occasion to please the flesh, but to love and serve one another."

The second point of the Nicolaitans was this: the physical body is totally evil, so a believer can do what he/she likes, because what the body does or does not do does not matter to God. The believer is so defended by grace that it no longer matters what the corrupt human body does.

Anyone acquainted with church history knows that this was the birth of the heretical doctrine known as Gnosticism. This particular heresy almost overwhelmed the church at one time in its history and is making a come-back today. The key element in this heresy was this: the separation of spiritual things from material things. Gnostics believed that the invisible spirit realm is perfectly good while the physical realm is inherently evil.

The Gnostics believed their approach to be the enlightened approach to the faith, and they saw themselves as being the most enlightened people alive. In addition, they believed that since God is “wholly other,” to reach Him and to be in relationship with Him, one must have secret knowledge and esoteric learning. Since very few people have the intelligence for such a pursuit as this, only a few chosen people, a kind of religious aristocracy, could actually approach God. For them, the Gospel as it originated was just too simple and too elementary for people like them.

The problem with their teachings was this: they belong to the realm of philosophy and theosophy, not to the realm of theology. Thank God that the teaching of the Nicolaitans was eventually crushed. But watch for the revival of this heresy. It was the philosophy that could be found under the surface of the book made movie, “The DaVinci Code.”

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