The condition of the 7 churches of Asia is often posited as evidence for the late date, i.e. 95-98 A.D., of the book of Revelation. Stanley Paher, for instance, in an unpublished paper says "the existence of heretical sects such as the Nicolaitans, the Balaamites and Jezebel’s group [Rev. 2:6; 14, 15, 20] is not confirmed by anyone in A.D. 64." He then takes note of Ignatius, early 2nd century, and Iranaeus, later in the 2nd century, both of whom referred to the Nicolaitans. Paher then says "It takes time for heresies to arise from within, for in the first place a church must have had developed a more or less orthodox faith as a standard to compare a departure from it."
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the Nicolaitans, instead of being evidence for a late date, serve as extremely strong evidence for the early date of the Apocalypse.
The Doctrine of the Nicolaitans
The doctrinal identity of the Nicolaitans helps us place them within a definite framework: the Nicolaitans taught that it was alright to "eat meat sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication" Rev. 2:14-15. Why was it wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols? Why was it wrong to commit fornication? Caution is needed before answering too hastily.
The doctrine of the Nicolaitans was in direct conflict with the Jerusalem Conference, Acts 15:29, the purpose of which was to enhance Jew and Gentile oneness in Christ! This conference is generally dated around A.D. 51.
It is clear from Paul that the eating of meat sacrificed to idols was in and of itself not wrong, Romans 14; I Corinthians 8; but clearly it was offensive to the Jewish segment of the church. Thus for the sake of unity in the body, the Gentiles were told to abstain in those circumstances in which the eating would bring offense to brethren, I Corinthians 10:23ff. The question of fornication should also be seen in light of its association with the idolatrous background so offensive to the Jewish Christians.
The doctrine of eating of meats sacrificed to idols and fornication was then a matter of grave importance and an issue that arose very early in the life of the first century church. It was an issue of body unity; of Jew and Gentile fellowship. If the Gentiles could be convinced that they had the liberty to continue, because of the abounding grace of Christ, to eat meats and participate in the sensual practices of idolatry then the unity of the body of Christ would be threatened if not sundered. The significance of this issue is revealed when one examines Romans 14, I Corinthians 8, and 10 in great detail and see how much time and energy Paul devoted to it. This was not just an issue of setting forth a doctrine of expediency; it impinged upon "unity of the Faith," Eph. 4:13f; the "the fullness of the Gentiles," Rom. 11:25; and the consummation of the mystery of God in Christ, Ephesians 3:3ff.
2 Peter 2 sheds light on the issue before us. If 2 Peter was addressed to the same audience as 1 Peter then it was addressed to "the pilgrims of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia" 1 Peter 1:1. Thus, 2 Peter was written to the very churches addressed in Revelation. 2 Peter is, we believe, to be dated circa, 64-66. [See The New Open Study Bible, Nelson, NASV, introduction to 2 Peter]. What issues did Peter address?
Peter says that the false teachers he is addressing "walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness" 2:2:10; they "have eyes full of adultery" and they were constantly "beguiling unstable souls" vs. 14. Further, Peter says what they were doing was "following the way of Balaam the son of Beor" vs. 15. This is precisely the charge against the Nicolaitans, Rev. 2:14! Compare also the epistle of Jude, vss. 7-12. What we find then is that the very things that were troubling the seven churches of Asia were the issues at stake in books generally dated earlier than the Apocalypse.
Revelation deals with those from within the body teaching false doctrine, 2 Peter and Jude do the same, 2 Peter 2:13. Revelation deals with those teaching sexual immorality, as does 2 Peter and Jude. Revelation calls the false teachers Nicolaitans; but they are also called teachers of the way of Balaam; just as in 2 Peter and Jude. Revelation is addressed to the churches in Asia; 2 Peter is also. With these points of parallelism how can one discount the association? And if the early date of 2 Peter is admitted then the early date for the Apocalypse can hardly be denied.
Further, when one considers how early the issue of eating meats and fornication, [cf. I Cor. 6], became an issue, circa A.D. 51, Acts 15; Romans 14, circa A.D. 57; I Corinthians 8, 10, circa A.D. 56, it can hardly be argued that these doctrines were not major issues as early as the 60s. On the contrary, it is seen in the light of Acts, Romans, and Corinthians that the issues of Revelation 2-3 were issues of long standing trouble in the early church. Revelation does not stand isolated therefore from the religious milieu of the rest of the New Testament. Instead, we have the testimony of Acts, Romans, Corinthians, 2 Peter and Jude that the very issues addressed by Jesus in Revelation were part of a widespread endemic problem within the early church.
Instead of the doctrinal problems of the Asian churches being distinctive from the issues in the other epistles we find that they are the identical issues. Instead of Revelation demanding a later period of time allowing for a time of evolutionary doctrinal development and then apostasy we find the standard established very early, Acts 15 and within 5-6 years problems arising in direct relationship to that standard. Instead of the doctrinal aberrations of the Nicolaitans being indicative of the late date for Revelation therefore we find that it provides evidence that the possibility for the early date for Revelation certainly cannot be ignored; the probability becomes apparent; the certainty becomes increasingly likely.
There is a great deal more that could be written in regard to the Nicolaitan controversy as it related to the Jew-Gentile one-ness and the attempts to destroy or prevent that unity from becoming reality. I believe, however, that this article has refuted the basic argument of Paher and others that attempt to remove the historical and doctrinal situation of Revelation from the context of the rest of the New Testament. I shall have cause to say more about Paher’s article later.