Reading: Revelation 2:1-7
Ephesus was an important church — tradition tells us that John settled in Ephesus, and that he brought Mary with him. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians is one that focused on the gospel of Christ rather than any specific problems with the church. Scripture tells us that Paul spent about 3 years in Ephesus — that he was nearly run out of town because the Christians were not buying things dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Scripture also tells us that Paul’s student Timothy became a leader in the church at Ephesus.
The message given to the Ephesians is given to a church that looks to me like it was the center of Christianity, following the destruction of Jerusalem. The last of the disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus settled there, all of the big names preached there, and it was enough of a center theological knowledge that John writes to them that they tested those who falsely claimed to be apostles and found them false.
The Church at Ephesus is a church that is theologically correct. The Ephesians cannot be fooled; they were taught by the best and they know who and what Jesus is; they know the True gospel, and when they see a false gospel, they are able to name it as a counterfeit.
This passage speaks of a specific false teaching — that of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans are only mentioned twice in scripture, the second time is later in this chapter in the letter to Pergamum:
You have some there who hold to the teachings of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so they would eat food scarified to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (Revelation 2:14-15 NRSV)
These short lines, and a few sentences from early Christian writers is all we have to tell us about this group. Ireanius called them antinomians, and associated them with one of the Gnostic sects of his time. Justin Martyr said that they ate food sacrificed to idols; which I also got from reading Revelation. What I was able to find left me guessing who the Nicolaitans were; but, one thing stood out: The early Christian writers were clear that they took the name from the Greek deacon Nicolaus of Antioch, who was appointed a leader with other Gentile Christians in order to correct a problem that was forming due to having a multi-cultural church.
Just making the leadership multicultural didn’t fix the problems. The conflict between the different cultures in the church would continue. When Paul wrote his epistles, the chief false teaching he opposed was that of the Judizers. Paul spoke against those who demanded that Gentile Christians first give up their own culture, and become culturally Jewish. Judiziers were not able to separate their faith from their culture.
When I was at FUM triennials, I went to a workshop led by Eden Grace where we learned about cross cultural ministry. While we were in the workshop, she spoke of the mistakes made by well meaning missionaries over 100 years ago — specifically in the context of Kenya.
The original missions in Kenya were large compounds, and the people who joined the church were taken into these compounds to live like Christians. They built western-style Christian houses, planted Christian gardens the way Englishmen planted gardens, dressed in Christian clothes like Englishmen wore, and learned English culture as the culture of Christianity. Many 19th century missions did not separate English culture from Christian faith; and they taught English culture as Christianity.
Growing up American, but having an interest in cross cultural ministry, I’ve become aware that I must recognize that faith and culture are not the same thing. When I experience cultural differences, my culture is the one that feels right. I even want to look for proof that what I am used to is better — but when I’m honest, I realize that scripture does not really endorse European culture either, there are things in there that challenge us too. We all can make the same mistake the Jewdizers made.
One thing that I learned when studying Church history is that Heretical teachings come in pairs; there is the false teaching, and then there is another false teaching that forms while trying to refute the first false teaching. When people focus on correcting errors, instead of the truth — that focus reliably leads to another error.
Now, what error would come from Greeks rejecting the call to turn into Jews; the most obvious error would be to create a Greek Christianity that cared more about being Greek than Christian. The error would be to avoid questioning anything that was part of Greek culture — leading to people who claimed Christianity, yet would go to the pagan temple to buy meat scarified to idols, and perhaps even offer a pinch of incense to Caesar. I really think this is the most likely error of the Nicoliatan; that they Hellenized Christianity just as the Jewdizers Jewdized Christianity.
In I Corinthians 8, Paul seems to be writing to exactly this type of Christian. They rationalize their behavior by pointing out that they know that the Greek gods are nothing. There is the idea that openly participating in Greek pagan culture is ok, because they don’t believe in the gods that received the sacrifice. This is a convenient faith, it is one that does not challenge a person’s place in society — but, as Paul writes: “not everyone has this knowledge.” Paul urges these Christians to behave different from their Greek culture, so they will not cause others without their knowledge to stumble.
What is ironic is that if I am right about who the Nicolaitans were, then they and the Ephesians church had something in common; both were correct in knowledge, but somehow in error. Those who did not separate themselves from idolatry simply because idols are nothing knew the right thing, yet did the wrong thing, and they were able to justify it by their knowledge. The Ephesians are condemned because they “abandoned the love they had at first”.
When Jesus spoke to the disciples at the last supper, he told commanded them to love one another. It is said that people looked at the Christians, and said of them “see how they love one another.” Even when Jesus spoke of how we will be judged, Jesus didn’t say there was a theological entry exam for heaven, but instead spoke of the way we treat others. Loving one another, and acting according to love is a big part of what it means to be Christian.
One group was smug, and acted wrongly with the knowledge that because there is but one true God, none of the Greek paganism even mattered, the other group was able to tell which teachings were right and which ones were wrong, but ended up failing to continue to live in love. One might say their faith moved from their hearts to their heads.
Of course, I’d recommend Biblical knowledge, good Theology, and a good enough understanding of the gospel to recognize when somebody is preaching a false one. The knowledge and discernment the Ephesian church had was a good thing to have. I think the point here is that we cannot put knowledge over the love we are commanded to have. A smug superior knowledge can even become a justification for bad behavior; and right knowledge can be applied wrongly. Knowledge is good, but knowledge alone is not enough.
We must remember the love that we had at first. We might make mistakes, we may even be mistaken about something that we think we know — but, as Peter wrote in I Peter 4: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Remember, no mater how much we know, no matter how good we are at discernment, if we forget to love, we have strayed from the way Christ taught us to live.