What is the doctrine of Balaam (and of the Nicolaitans) in Revelation?

Q. What is the doctrine of Balaam (and also of the Nicolaitans) in the book of Revelation?  Jesus says in his letter to Pergamum, “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” The New Testament tells us that all food is good, for example, in Romans and in 1 Corinthians. So why is this mentioned here as problematic?

Basically, the situation in western Asia Minor in the AD 80s, which the book of Revelation addresses, was different from the situation there in the AD 50s, which Paul addresses in Romans and 1 Corinthians.  Paul was speaking to social situations—a friend invites you to dinner in his home or even at the temple; you buy meat in the marketplace.  Revelation is speaking to a different situation, in which the Roman emperor is insisting on being worshiped as God.

The cities of western Asia Minor were competing with each other in the AD 80s for the emperor’s favor by building or improving temples to the various Roman gods, and holding feasts in their honor.  For Christians, it was a “choose up sides” moment.  You either had to say “I’m in” to the Roman emperor-as-god, and join these temple feasts, or say “I’m in” to Jesus and refuse to honor anyone or anything else as God.

The book of Revelation was originally written to warn believers that they must now face this choice.  The “Nicolaitans” and “Balaam” (probably symbolic names for a group and a leader) said instead—and this was their “doctrine”—“You have to go along to get along.  No big deal, just eat the food in honor of the Roman god and nobody will bother you.  You can then get on with your ‘witness for Jesus.’” The book of Revelation says in no uncertain terms that they are wrong about this.

To put this more generally, there are some situations where something that’s otherwise neutral becomes wrong for a Christian to do.  For example, when I was in college, I had no religious objection to drinking in moderation.  But when I went to parties, I never drank at them, because the whole idea was that people there were drinking to get drunk, and I didn’t want to be part of drinking that had that purpose, even if I wasn’t going to get drunk myself.  In the same way, if eating food offered to idols was a declaration of allegiance to the emperor as God, then a person who otherwise had no issue with eating that food in an ordinary social situation shouldn’t and couldn’t do it, if they wanted to remain faithful to Jesus.

(Apparently the “Nicolaitans” also saw no problem with patronizing temple prostitutes, either—hence the reference to “sexual immorality.”  This was a different case.  Visiting prostitutes is not morally neutral so long as it is not done in honor of false gods!  There are strong moral and social-justice imperatives not only to refrain from participating in prostitution, but also to work actively to end the sexual exploitation it represents.)

Hope this is helpful.  We should all be very discerning about the situations we find ourselves in today, and make sure, when it comes to things that are morally neutral generally, that we are “free to do and free not to do,” depending on what the situation calls for.

Ruins of the temple at Pergamum. Photo by Carlos Delgado, CC-BY-SA.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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