But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.—Rev. 2:14-16
Although grace is surely amazing, it is also subject to distortion, especially by those who use it to excuse loose and licentious behavior (see Gal. 5:13; Jude 4). The justification comes in a variety of forms [but] perhaps the most egregious expression of such justification was stated rhetorically by Paul himself in Romans 6:1: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” God forbid!
The church at Pergamum was infested with people who thought in precisely such terms. They were called Nicolaitans. They were evidently licentious and antinomian and advocated an unhealthy compromise with pagan society. . . . The Pergamemes had welcomed them into the fellowship of the church and given them freedom to propagate their destructive ways.
There’s no indication these false teachers had openly denied the “name” to which the others at Pergamum held fast. . . . Rather, they were guilty of turning the grace of God into licentiousness. [They] had dared to insinuate that freedom in Christ granted them a blank check to sin. The fault of the Pergamemes was not so much that they had followed this pernicious teaching but that they had allowed it be vocalized in the congregation. This matter of indifference to the licentiousness of the Nicolaitans was of grave concern to the risen Lord.
But why not just live and let live? Is it really necessary that the faithful in Pergamum confront these libertines? Why rock the boat? Doesn’t Christian love call for tolerance and minding our own business?
I’ll let the words of Jesus answer those questions: “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:16).
Two things deserve comment. First, the repentance Jesus calls for entails immediate acknowledgment of the error in their thinking and the lack of courage in their stance regarding the antinomians. “Recognize and confess,” says Jesus, “that you are doing no one a favor by overlooking and allowing such sin in your midst! Confronting the Nicolaitans may be uncomfortable for you, even painful, but not nearly as painful as the judgment they will suffer if they remain in their sin.” This call to repentance may also include the ultimate expulsion from the church of the Nicolaitans should they choose not to respond favorably.
Second, notice that Jesus says “I will come to you” soon, but will “war against them.” The faithful at Pergamum aren’t off the hook. If they don’t repent Jesus will bring discipline against them, in precisely what form we aren’t told. But the Nicolaitans will be the focus of judgment. It is against them that Jesus will make war. Such language suggests that their lack of repentance would be evidence of a lack of saving faith. Their persistent licentiousness and morally compromising behavior undermines their claim to know Jesus in a saving way.
The Christians in Pergamum had sacrificed the ethical purity of their congregation on the altar of “love” and for the sake of some nebulous peace they feared to lose. Purity often comes at an extremely high price. But we must be prepared to pay it. Confrontation is never pleasant, but it often reaps a bountiful harvest. By all means, pursue love, but not at the expense of truth or in such a way that overt sin is left to fester and spread in the body of Christ.
Adapted from Sam Storms, To the One Who Conquers: 50 Daily Meditations on the Seven Letters of Revelation 2-3, Kindle Edition