Letter to Ephesus
THE LETTER TO THE CHURCH IN EPHESUS
To the Church in Ephesus
2 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Ephesus is the leading city of Asia (2:1–7). Paul first preached the gospel here, with daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus ().
Ephesus is the leading city of Asia (2:1–7). Paul first preached the gospel here, with daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus ().
7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Ephesus is the leading city of Asia (2:1–7). Paul first preached the gospel here, with daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus ().
The Christians at Ephesus are hard-working and right-thinking. There is a letter from Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, which praises their brave stand for truth. In particular, they have hated the practices of the Nicolaitans. Nicolaitans are the followers of Nicolas, who may be the deacon from Antioch—one of the seven deacons appointed to serve the church in Jerusalem in . He may have been guilty of mixing paganism with Christianity. Nicolaitans are mentioned again in the letter to the church at Pergamum, where they are linked with the false teaching of Balaam—the prophet who was tempted to compromise with Israel’s enemies ().
Alpha and Omega
‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God in the first chapter of Revelation (1:8). The same description is used of Jesus in the last chapter (22:13).
Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The Father and the Son were there at the beginning of the universe—and they will be there at its end.
There is a constant battle to live as Christians in a pagan society. Meat comes from sacrifices in pagan temples. Sex is degraded by permissiveness and perversion. It seems that the Nicolaitans are allowing pagan ways to infiltrate their Christian lives—and Christ hates this dangerous compromise.
But, in their desire to be strict Christians, the Ephesians have lost their first love. Their delight in Christ and one another has faded to a grim but determined sense of duty. Christ urges them to return to their first joy. Instead of the meat of fear and superstition, he will give them the fruit of the tree of life. Instead of seeking satisfaction in obsessive sex, he will give them the peace and plenty of paradise.
Knowles, A. (2001). The Bible guide (1st Augsburg books ed., p. 697). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
What promises are found in chapters 2 and 3? Seven promises to “him that overcometh” the temptations and trials of earth. These promises are symbolical. , , , ; , , .
Adams, A. D. (1996). 4000 questions & answers on the Bible (p. 134). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
The first message that John is commanded to write is addressed to the angel of the congregation in the great city of Ephesus. Ephesus would have been the first of the seven congregations reached by a traveller arriving from Patmos by sea.
The church at Ephesus is the only church in the New Testament to which two apostles addressed letters. When Paul wrote to Ephesus, it was at a time when the church stood at the pinnacle of spirituality. Of all the truths revealed through Paul, none excel the truths revealed in the Epistle to the Ephesians. But when John wrote to Ephesus, it was a time of crisis in the church. The furnace was still there, but the fire had gone out. There was still a measure of warmth, but the coals no longer had a bright, red luster; they had merely a dull and dying glow. Paul wrote to the saints, John to the angel. he first letter is addressed to the church in Ephesus—the crossroads of civilization—considered to be a city of great political importance. Aquila, Priscilla, and Paul had planted the church in Ephesus (see ); Timothy had ministered there (); John the writer of this letter, was closely associated with the church. A letter carrier would leave the island of Patmos (where John was exiled), arriving first at the port of Ephesus, where he would begin his journey by visiting the church there. The seven churches were located on a major Roman road. He would travel north to Smyrna and Pergamum, turn southeast to Thyatira, and continue on to Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—in the exact order in which the letters were dictated. His basic problem with the church in Ephesus is that even though church members had stood fast against evil and false teaching, they had left their “first love”—their basic love for Christ and for one another.
The period that is forecast prophetically in this letter runs from the Churches beginning at Pentecost to approximately A.D. 160.
1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks [lampstands];
“Ephesus” was a center of land and sea trade, for three major land-trade routes converged in the city, and a large port sat on its coast on the Aegean Sea. Along with Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria, Ephesus was one of the three most influential cities in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. It had been accorded an advantage given too few cities in the Empire—it was a “free” city, meaning that it enjoyed a certain amount of self-rule. The city boasted a huge stadium, marketplace, and theater. The theater, built on the slope of a mountain that overlooked the harbor, seated twenty-five thousand people.
The temple to Artemis (the Roman name is Diana), one of the ancient wonders of the world, was located in Ephesus. According to historians, the temple was 425 feet long, 220 feet wide, and 60 feet high. I have read that there were 127 marble pillars, some of them overlaid with gold and jewels. The temple employed thousands of priests and priestesses; many of the priestesses we’re temple prostitutes, for Artemis was the goddess of fertility. A major industry was the manufacture of images of this goddess (see ). This city was also proud of its temples to the emperors—a growing cult, called the “imperial cult,” viewed the ruling Caesar as a god, so the city had built temples to the succession of ruling Caesars. In short, Ephesus was a city known for its idolatry.
Paul had ministered in Ephesus for three years and had warned the Ephesian believers that false teachers would come and try to draw people away from the faith (see ). False teachers did indeed cause problems in the Ephesian church, but the church resisted them, as we can see from Paul’s letters to Timothy, who stayed in Ephesus when Paul left for Macedonia. John spent much of his ministry in this city and knew that these believers had resisted false teaching (2:2).
Although John was writing, the words are clearly from Christ, the One “who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands” (see 1:13, 16). Christ controls the churches. Christ is described differently in every letter, mainly because each description is tied to the problems of the specific church. Ephesus, the mother church of all the other churches, was filled with pride. That Christ held these churches in his hand shows that he was in control over the churches. Ephesus had become a large, proud church, and Christ’s message would remind them that He alone is the head of the body of believers. How easy it is for a church to become proud and forget that pastors and teachers are God’s gifts () who may be taken away at any time. Some churches need to be cautioned to worship the Lord and not their pastor! [I must admit that in the past I have been guilty of placing certain pastors on a pedestal, only to be disappointed every time I do it.]
John begins the letter to Emphasis with two descriptions of the Risen Christ:
He holds the seven stars in His right hand. That is to say, Christ holds the Churches in his hand. Our security lies in the fact that we are in the hand of Christ. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (, NIV).
Christ commended the church at Ephesus for five things:
3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
Working hard (toil)
2–3 The narratio of the Ephesian message is initially promising. The angel is praised for your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. It begins, as in all seven messages, with the phrase I know, for the omniscient Lord has his finger on the pulse of the whole Church. The word deeds is not meant to suggest some kind of ‘works-righteousness’, an idea which is probably far less Jewish than Christian exegetes have often wanted to claim (see Sanders 1977). Indeed, both Jewish and Christian texts envisage that it will be in accordance with one’s works, as a loving response to the divine call, that one will ultimately be judged (e.g. ). The vocation of Christians in continuing the faithful witness of Jesus is here stressed: the Ephesian angel, and those whom he represents, are praised for their hard work and perseverance. Revelation continually uses the language of struggle and faithful endurance, even when the battle is far from evident to those hearing its message.
Persevering (patient endurance)
Yet there is no indication in this message that hostility is external. Rather the angel of the Ephesian congregation is praised for testing and finding wanting those who call themselves ‘apostles’. How an angel might express disapproval of Christians in his charge is not made clear (though Paul may be concerned with just such angelic disapproval, of liturgical misdemeanours in this case, at ). The language of ‘so-called apostles’ suggests internal dissensions within the Christian community, akin to battles that Paul had with those he considered ‘false apostles’ in Corinth (). Indeed, given that John’s later vision of the new Jerusalem bears the names of only ‘twelve apostles of the Lamb’ (21:14), some regard this verse as a sideswipe at Paul’s claims to apostleship in the city in the previous generation (cf. ). The precise situation is now lost to us, however, since Revelation resorts to the kind of stereotypical language regularly found in Jewish and Christian writings to describe religious enemies, whose own voice is rarely heard (e.g. ; ). Though the phrase evildoers suggests that the issue has more to do with ethics than doctrine, even this may be stock language.
Resisting sin (cannot tolerate evil doers)
Such disagreements between different Christian groups in Ephesus are perhaps unsurprising. New Testament references to Ephesus remind us that various trajectories of early Christians could come together in one location. Paul and his circle (; ; ; ; ), Apollos (), John (e.g. Iren. Adv. Haer. 3.1.1; 3.2.4; Eus. H. E. 3.31.3; 3.39.1–7) and the disciples of the Baptist () are all associated with this city. This should warn against the scholarly tendency to imagine the early communities as self-contained congregations of Pauline, Petrine and Johannine believers. Nevertheless, in a city of the size of Ephesus (estimated as a quarter of a million in the first century) it would be possible for a number of house- and even synagogue-churches to emerge. Tensions between these, and even within these, are to be expected. How one deals with such tensions depends in part upon how firm one believes the boundaries separating church from world should be. John’s apocalyptic vision of impending crisis calls for strong boundaries which cannot countenance internal dissension, or much haziness in the distinction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (see e.g. Thompson 1990). Other voices within the New Testament canon advocate a rather different approach (e.g. ; ).
Critically examining the claims of false apostles (tested those who claimed to be apostles)
The angel is also praised for perseverance and because he has tolerated much as a result of my name. This need not refer to organised persecution, but to more general hostility and difficulties facing a distinctive, countercultural group within a city like Ephesus. Alternatively, it could be related to the internal ecclesial dissensions. Whatever may have been the case, Revelation again uses the language of the eschatological woes to heighten the sense of crisis and—through their angel—to encourage the members of the Church, or that Ephesian congregation faithful to John, to hold fast.
Enduring patiently (In general this church had continued in its faithful service to God for more than 40 years) and bearing up without becoming weary.
4–5 All is not well, however. The angel has let go of the love you had at first. To ask whether this is love for God or love for human beings is probably a false dichotomy: the two are intimately related. Nevertheless, this failure of Ephesus’ angel (and Christians associated with him) is probably especially manifested in lack of love towards other Christians. Love growing cold is one of the expected features of the end-times (), another indication of Revelation’s rhetoric of eschatological crisis. Didache 16:3 interprets this saying of Jesus as love turning to hate. Passion for truth, especially religious truth, can so easily degenerate into an unloving witch-hunt against those with whom one disagrees. Hatred of deeds is one thing (see v.6), hatred of brothers and sisters something else entirely (; ).
All of these characteristics show a church busy doing good works and suffering willingly for the cause of Christ. The Ephesian believers knew evil when they saw it and did not tolerate it. The Lord wrote, “I know how . . . Thou canst not bear them which are evil.” The kind of thing which took place at Corinth would not have been tolerated at Emphasis. No man who was unscrupulous in business, impure in his conversation, known to be living in immorality, habitually intoxicated, given to fits of rage, unfaithful to his pledges, or convicted of lying would have lasted in the Ephesian fellowship. He would be judged and excommunicated with due dispatch. True, there would be a certain hardness in the procedure, but high standards of discipline would be maintained. I know James would never have written to Ephesus his stinging rebuke, “Faith without works is dead.” This church was full of good works. It had a magnificent program.
This rebuke links the ‘what is the case’ of the narratio to the ‘this is what you must do’ of the dispositio which begins at verse 5: So remember from where you have fallen; repent and act as you did before. The Ephesian angel is jolted out of his complacency by being described as a fallen angel. That he is not in the same league as Satan and his angels (), however, is made clear by his ability to repent and act as you did before. This call to repentance or change of mind will also be made to the angels at Pergamum, Sardis and Laodicea (2:16; 3:3, 19; the angel in Sardis is also urged to ‘remember’), and to the followers of ‘Jezebel’ at Thyatira (2:22). The angel of the congregation in Ephesus is not irredeemably fallen. Nor are those humans he represents. Repentance will be a recurring theme throughout the Apocalypse. Not only will it be offered to the churches; one of the purposes of the heavenly plagues will be to lead those who worship the monster to repentance (e.g. 9:20; 16:9). The alternative is that Christ will come to you and remove your menorah from its place. The coming of Christ, whether on the last day or in the Eucharist, can be experienced as either salvation (as at 3:11) or judgement (here and at 2:16). This warning is generally taken as a threat to the Ephesian congregation that it will lose its status as the pre-eminent church in the province, or even its very status as a church, unless it repents. Yet these words are addressed not to the congregation/menorah itself, but to the angel who has charge of that menorah. It is just possible that it is the angel’s position as heavenly representative of that church which is under threat: the menorah is not being well tended, and it is in danger of being removed into the care of another.
There was a warning against damage
The damage that false teachers cause is not limited to cults, nor to past days in church history. Some of the characteristics of false teachers show up today in churches and ministries professing to be faithful to the true gospel. Many leaders and authorities today demand allegiance. Because they seem to know the Bible, their influence can be dangerously subtle. How can believers recognize false teaching?
It promotes controversies instead of helping people come to Jesus.
6 The demanding call to repentance is mitigated somewhat by what the angel has in your favour: sharing the son of man figure’s hatred of the deeds of the Nikolaitans (though not the Nikolaitans themselves). Though this echoes what is said about the ‘false apostles’ in verse 2, we should not automatically assume that the two groups are identical. No further details are given here of the Nikolaitans, who seem not to have made inroads into the Ephesian congregation. We shall have a clearer (though still rather opaque) picture of them in the message to Pergamum, and possibly also in the message to Thyatira (see below on 2:14–15,20). Later patristic descriptions which claim that this group was named after Nicolaus of Antioch, one of the seven deacons of , and associated with Gnosticism (e.g. Iren. Adv. Haer. 1.26.3; Tert. Praescr. Haer. 33; Eus. H. E. 3.29.1), may be of little help in shedding light on the actual historical situation.
It is often initiated by those whose motivation is to make a name for themselves.
7 The message concludes, as will all seven, with two stereotypical sayings. Both indicate how a message to the angels can turn almost imperceptibly into one for the Christians in their charge. The first, Let the one with an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the congregations, echoes a Synoptic saying of Jesus (also Gos. Thom. 8, 21, 24, 63, 65, 96), and is a reminder that what is said to one congregation is for the benefit of all the congregations. Here, as in the Synoptic parables discourses (e.g. , ), the call to listen points to a particular kind of discernment, a hint that heavenly secrets are being offered to those with ears attuned. That the Spirit is mentioned as speaking may strike one as odd, given that the exalted Christ has been the subject so far. We need not conclude that for John, Christ and the Spirit are identical (that would make nonsense of a saying such as 22:17). Rather the saying emphasises the role of the Spirit of prophecy throughout the Apocalypse in mediating the message of the risen Lord.
It will be contrary to the true teaching of the Scriptures.
The second saying consists of a promise to the one who conquers, linking individual Christians with the victorious Christ. The language of victory, frequent in the Johannine tradition (e.g. ; ; ; ; ), reminds us that in the apocalyptic language of this book there is a battle being fought, albeit one whose outcome has already been established. In each of the seven messages, what is promised points us forward to the visions of salvation with which Revelation ends. Here the conqueror is promised fruit from the tree of life, which is in God’s paradise. Jewish hopes for God’s future sometimes spoke in terms of a restoration of what had been lost, ‘Paradise regained’ (e.g. 1 En. 25:4–6; 3 En. 23:18; T. Levi 18:10–11). The tree of life (; ) will appear again in the new Jerusalem (22:2), producing fruit for the healing of the nations. Eating at the messianic banquet, of which the Eucharist is a current foretaste, will be an integral part of the new age.
To protect the church from the deception of false teachers, church leaders must not avoid theology but should teach clearly what the Bible says about key doctrines. This will help believers identify false teachers and false doctrines.
But there is probably also a local reference, which first-century Ephesian Christians would detect. The Artemisium of Ephesus contained a tree-shrine which functioned as a place of asylum, enclosed within a boundary wall. ‘Paradise’ is derived from a Persian word meaning ‘enclosure’, ‘garden’ or royal park. What the victorious among God’s people are offered is a far greater sanctuary than the temple ‘paradise’ of Ephesian Artemis. Indeed, there may even be a hint here of how the battle has been won, for the tree of life would evoke in the Christian mind the cross of Christ, the means by which victory is assured (e.g. ; ; ; ).
Lets make it to the feast at the tree of life and lets bring everyone we can with us, Amen
Boxall, I. (2006). The Revelation of Saint John (pp. 47–52). London: Continuum.