The Letter to Ephesus ~ The Fifth Oracle
The Letter to Ephesus ~ The Fifth Oracle
The Fifth Oracle
“Painfully recollect the height from which you have fallen, and repent, and perform your original works. If you do not repent, I will be coming to you and will remove your lamp out of its place. Nevertheless, you possess the ability to detest the life’s work of the Nicolaitians, which I also detest.”
The fifth oracle, whose contents tie it closely to those that both precede and follow it, is divided into three parts.
The Call to Repentance
There are, in turn, three words in the text that define exactly what the imperative to repent involves. The first we have translated “painfully recollect.” The Greek word is mnamoneue and is used in the durative imperative tense here and means a constant remembering. This, of’ course, is the key to maintaining ones first love, a secret the Ephesians had regrettably forgotten.
The second word is peptokas, which we have rendered by the descriptive phrase “the height from which you have fallen.” It could, with equal ease and accuracy, be translated “the course from which you have drifted.” Whether we take the meaning to be that of a bird falling from the sky or of a ship that has left its proper longitude, the imagery is vividly descriptive of the spiritual condition of the Ephesian church.
The final word is metanoason, a term that defines the feeling of regret that inevitably corresponds with the act of true repentance. To the Old Testament Jews it meant the perception of ones errors after it was too late to alter the event. With the advent of Christianity its meaning was softened and it came to mean a penitential sorrowing that is followed by a return to the rightful path.
Taken together these three words accurately describe the psychological implications of the repentance experience that is continually demanded by the Son of Man throughout the Seven Letters. He calls upon the Ephesians to correct their course and return to the harbor of their first love. A similar call for repentance and correction will be issued to the other churches of the Apocalypse. It is our opinion that these admonitions, when taken as a whole, are descriptive of’ the spiritual state of the churches that will prevail when the events of John’s prophecy begin to unfold. They are also vividly descriptive of the major areas in which these same churches will have to effect change before they can become truly effective. I believe that these oracular calls for the Seven Churches to repent are the first intimation of an idea that pervades the entire Apocalypse, namely, that a Great Revival will sweep through Christendom in the last times. During this period these appeals for repentance and reform which today, for the most part, fall upon the unhearing ears of an erring and apostate Church, will strike to the very hearts of the Christians of this final period and bring about a vast spiritual awakening.
The promised return of the Son of Man is directly associated with the call to repentance. Failure to do so, it is said, will result in the removal of the Ephesian “lamp” from its place at the time of His return. These are harsh words, indeed, to a church possessing such undisputed excellence. It must be remembered in this connection, however, that “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.” It occurs to me, in this context, that if such a strong judgment is to befall the Ephesian church the rest of the churches have serious cause for concern.
After the stringent emphasis upon the urgent need for repentance on the part of the Ephesians the oracle speaks once again of their greatest strength – they possess the ability to hate the lifestyle of the Nicolaitians. Doctrinal purity is, of course, one of the most important responsibilities of the churches, but the most important responsibility of all is love. It seems that the Ephesians had experienced some emotional confusion in this respect and were placing their emphasis upon hating their enemies rather than upon loving their leader. The sole purpose of the fifth oracle is to bring about a realignment of these priorities.
The Nicolaitians are singled out in the text to illustrate the sort of “false apostles” the Ephesians were contending with. They must, therefore, represent a cult that was present and active during the first century. Several of the recent commentators suggest that the term denotes a historical reference that cannot be verified. This view has, in turn, led to some rather speculative interpretations. One of the most prevalent views is based on the etymological derivation of the term Nicolaitians. By insisting that the two Greek roots that make up the name nikan to conquer, and laos – the people) are indicative of the group’s theology, expositors such as Donald Barnhouse find in the term a veiled reference to the triumph of the priesthood over the laity, and consider it to be one of the first claims to apostolic succession. Unfortunately, these ideas fly in the face of a great deal of historical evidence.
The earliest Christian writers, from the time of Ignatius onward, identified the Nicolaitians as followers of Nicholas, one of the seven men who were chosen to administer the business matters of the first Jerusalem assembly. Evidently Nicholas lapsed into heresy and attracted to himself a faithful group of followers, who, after his death, spread the teachings of this “false apostle” among the churches. Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp and, therefore, linked closely to John, described the cult and its teachings in his treatise Against Heresies.
“The Nicolaitians are the followers of Nicholas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the Apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, where they are represented as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.”
Irenaeus’ analysis was echoed by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Victorinus, Epiphanius, Eusebius, Theodoret and Augustine. In the light of such weighty testimony there is really no reason to doubt the connection of the cult with Nicholas, especially when one takes into consideration the fact that it was not in the interest of the early churches to needlessly soil the reputation of the Apostolic Christians.
It will be the task of the Ephesian church of the last days to confront and challenge these pernicious ideas and those who advocate them.