In many ways, the last of the Seven Deacons of the early church in Jerusalem is the most interesting. From the book of Acts, we know Nicolaus had a good reputation, was full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Luke also tells us, Nicholaus was not a native Jew. Like the Ethiopian Eunuch, who comes two chapters later (Acts 8:26 – 42), Nicholaus was a convert – a proselyte. Perhaps Luke mentions this to help prepare us for the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Being a proselyte gave Nicolaus a special appreciation for the people of God and unique insights.
Later, twice in the book of Revelation, a heretical sect called the “Nicolaitans” is mentioned. Jesus tells the Ephesian church: “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate,” and he tells the church in Pergamum, “you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent” (Revelation 2:14 – 16). Because of the similarity of “Nicolaus” to the “Nicolaitans,” many ancient writers believe Nicolaus the Deacon fell away and started this heresy in Asia Minor.
What was the heresy? Revelation 2:14 tells us they “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.” (See Numbers 25:1; 31:16; 1 Corinthians 10:8.) The last of the Western Fathers was Isidore of Seville, who explained in his book Etymologies, book VIII, titled The Church and Sects (635 A.D.), “The Nicolaites (Nicolaitso-called called from Nicolaus, deacon of the church of Jerusalem, who, along with Stephen and the others, was ordained by Peter. He abandoned his wife because of her beauty so that whoever wanted to might enjoy her; the practice turned into debauchery, with partners being exchanged in turn. Jesus condemns them in the Apocalypse, saying (2:6): ‘But this thou hast, that thou hates the deeds of the Nicolaites.’”
Although I am not convinced, Nicolaus was the founder of the Nicolaitans, this explanation of what the sect believed is probably true. Christianity breaks from every other religion through the teaching of salvation by grace. Most people (even today) think you’ve got to be “good enough” to go to heaven, so the doctrine of grace is frequently misunderstood. “If we are freed from legalism,” they might argue, “then we are free to do whatever we like.” (The technical term for this belief is antinomianism. See 1 Corinthians 6) Some heretics, such as Cerenthus, even argued Christians should experience sin to appreciate forgiveness!
Many early Church Fathers linked Nicolaus and the Nicolaitans. Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 A.D.) wrote: “The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas 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, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery and to eat things sacrificed to idols (Adversus haereses, i. 26). Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – c. 235 A.D.) agreed (Refutation of All Heresies vii. 24).
On the other hand, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 A.D.) disagreed, as did Eusebius (260/265 – 339/340 A.D.).
The most likely explanation was that the Nicolaitans falsely claimed Nicolaus as their founder to give themselves credibility. History records Nicolaus had a beautiful wife, faithful daughters, and a son who followed in his father’s exemplary footsteps.