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The Church at Ephesus

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Chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation provide us with the letters that Christ instructed John to send to the seven churches of Asia (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea).

However, these are not letters in the ordinary sense. They are more like progress reports. Some commentators have even noted that they resemble the prophetic oracles of the Old Testament more than New Testament epistles (for a comparison, study the twenty-eighth chapter of Isaiah). The reason for this, of course, is that they were never meant to be individual epistles, but rather parts of a single epistle that covers the entire book. Although specific matters are mentioned relative to each of the seven congregations, each church was supposed to heed the messages given to the others in addition to its own. In a sense, this is true of the entire Bible. Concerning the Old Testament Paul wrote, Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope (Rom. 15:4). The application of God’s Word goes far beyond the circumstances of its original recipients, and God promises that his Word will never fail to accomplish its purpose (Isa. 55:11).

The seven mini-epistles in Revelation also share a common structure. Each begins with an address, followed by a description of Christ taken from the first chapter, a commendation, usually a condemnation and warning, an exhortation to hear, and a promise to those who remain faithful.

A Church Once Strong in a Noble City

Ephesus, the recipient of the first message, was in John’s day a very noble city. It had wealth, prosperity and incomparable beauty — due largely to the fact that Ephesus housed the temple of Diana (Acts 19:21 ff.), which, being four times as large as Athen’s Parthenon, was recognized even then as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Silver­smithing, primarily the making of idolatrous trinkets for the worship of Diana, encouraged a robust trade and economy, which was easy access by both land and sea made possible. With a population of approximately 250,000, Ephesus was the most important city in Asia Minor in the first century.

The history of the church at Ephesus is well chronicled in the New Testament. Paul passed through the city briefly on his second missionary journey (AD 52), apparently leaving Priscilla and Aquila behind to establish and organize the church with the help of Apollos (Acts 18:18–21, 24). God blessed their work so much that, when the apostle returned on his third missionary journey, he found a thriving congregation (AD 54–56). To promote its growth even more, he stayed there for the next two and a half years, preaching and teaching both publicly and from house to house (Acts 19:1–20:1; cf. 20:17–38). Sometime after this, he sent Timothy, his young son in the faith and companion, to serve as its pastor (I Tim. 1:3). When Timothy left Ephesus a few years later, the apostle John assumed leadership of the churches of Asia Minor, including the seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation, though his ministry was soon interrupted by his exile to Patmos for the Word of God (Rev. 1:9). Tradition tells us that he returned to Ephesus afterward, where he eventually died and was buried. So all in all, the Ephesian congregation had been blessed with the four or five of the best preachers of the day.

As we turn our attention to the Lord’s message to the Ephesians, the first thing we notice is that it was addressed to the angel of the church in Ephesus (v. 1), and not simply to the church. But why would John write to an angel? Was his purpose to endorse a theory of guardian angels — heavenly beings assigned to protect and defend individual congregations?

Actually, the assumption that the angels of the seven churches are heavenly beings is not very likely. The Greek word translated angel (ἄγγελος) simply means “messenger.” An angel, of course, can be a heavenly being whose job is to minister before the throne of God. In fact, the Jews had developed a very detailed angelology between the Old and New Testaments, which can be seen in the apocryphal literature. The recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews seem to have embraced something similar to this. But an angel can also be a human messenger. John the Baptist was the messenger sent to prepare for the coming of the Messiah according to Mark 1:2. Luke 9:52 says that Jesus sent messengers to prepare for his visit to a certain Samaritan village. John the Baptist and the ambassadors sent by Christ were men, but the Greek word used in both passages is the same as in our text. These men were “angels.”

In Revelation the angels of the seven churches were also human messengers. They may have been the men whom John commissioned to deliver the book of Revelation to the individual congregations. In my opinion, it is more likely that they were the pastors of these churches, whose responsibility it was to see that Christ’s instructions were fulfilled. Either group could be called the messengers of the churches.

To the church at Ephesus, Christ described himself as he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks (v. 1). Just as the priests moved among the candlesticks in the Old Testament sanctuary, so the Lord Jesus Christ walks among his church.

Each of the descriptions that Christ gave to the seven churches spoke to the circumstances of the church to whom it was addressed. According to verse 2, the church at Ephesus had been tested by the presence of false teachers, men who called themselves apostles but were not really apostles at all (v. 2). Years earlier, Paul had warned this very church that ungodly men would try to destroy it after his departure (Acts 20:29). But the church was not to fear, for Christ walked among the candlesticks (cf. Lev. 26:12) and by his sovereign protection demonstrated that he held the seven stars (i.e., the churches; see 1:20) in his right hand.

The church at Ephesus had a reputation in the early history of the church for its faithful adherence to apostolic teaching, which the Lord commended in verses 2 and 3. This was still the case fifty years later. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in the early second century, also praised this church for the same thing. He wrote the following in his letter to the Ephesians: “And indeed Onesimus himself greatly commends your good order in God, that ye all live according to the truth, and that no sect has any dwelling-place among you. Nor indeed do ye hearken to any one rather than to Jesus Christ, the true Shepherd and Teacher” (To the Ephesians 6).

The false apostles mentioned in verse 2 were probably the Nicolaitans mentioned in verse 6. Paul briefly alluded to false apostles in II Corinthians 11:13–23, but said very little about them except that they were hypocritical. While they pretended to be ministers of righteousness, their works betray them. This also fits with what John wrote about them in verses 14 and 15, viz., that their doctrine resembles the teaching of Balaam. Balaam, you will remember, advocated unrestrained sexual promiscuity as a means of enticing the Jews to bring God’s curse upon themselves (cf. Num. 25:1ff.). The Nicolaitans, in other words, encouraged an extreme sensual antinomianism.

Over the years, commentators have tried to figure out just who these Nicolaitans were. A common opinion is that they were followers of Nicolas, the proselyte of Antioch, who became one of the first deacons in Acts 6. F.F. Bruce even goes so far as to say that Nicolas had became a disciple of the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus. While it is true that some forms of Gnosticism tended to be antinomian (one group claiming that Satan’s counsel to Eve in Genesis 3 was good advice), the only thing we can say for certain is that the word Nicolaitan means “the victory people.” Apparently, they believed that their association with Christ set them free from the law of God. They were no longer subject to rules and regulations because they had the victory.

As the church of Ephesus was tested in this particular area, it passed with flying colors. The Lord commended it in verse 2 not only for its intolerance of men pretending to be apostles, but also for its works, labor and patience. The church had lived up to the teaching it had received from Paul and the others.

Backsliding and a Promise

Even so, the Lord still had one problem with this church. Although it was rich in doctrinal purity, and its abundant good works were well known throughout the Roman world, it had also left its first love (v. 4).

Here we have to keep in mind that John wrote these words to a church and not to individual believers. Churches are constantly changing — membership, officers, level of energy, etc. A church that once was a tower of strength can easily find itself in need of support from other congregations after a very short period of time, and vice versa. Individual believers can change, too. But while it is possible for a church to lose its first love, individual believers can never completely abandon their love for Christ and deny their Savior. Jesus himself promised that none of his true disciples can ever be lost (John 6:39–40).

But what did the Lord mean when he said that the church at Ephesus had lost its first love? For that matter, is it even possible for a church to maintain a strict doctrinal orthodoxy coupled with abundant good works, and yet leave its first love?

Some commentators have suggested that the problem with the church at Ephesus was its devotion to sound doctrine. Doctrine, they say, crippled the church, making it cold and heartless. But sound doctrine can hardly be the problem, since the Bible requires sound theology. In his second epistle, John himself stated this about as clearly as anyone. He wrote, Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son (II John 9–10). Note that John does not encourage merely to have a passing knowledge of the doctrine of Christ, but to abide or live in it. This is the only way we can have Christ. It’s also the only way that we can have the Father.

 But doctrine alone does not make a church alive to the things of God, not even when that doctrine is sound and coupled with countless good works. Martha illustrates this for us. When Jesus went to her house, she was annoyed that her sister Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching while she went about preparing lunch. She knew who Jesus was, and because of this she wanted to make his visit as comfortable and as pleasant as possible. But her complaint about her sister’s lack of cooperation only brought the Lord’s gentle rebuke: Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her (Luke 10:41–42). Like her sister, Martha had been given a wonderful opportunity to learn at the feet of her Savior and God, but she chose to busy herself with the things that she considered necessary. Her priorities needed an adjustment.

Doctrinally sound churches can lose their first love. They can, for example, become so preoccupied with testing one another’s beliefs, which has a place in the life of the church as have already seen, that they trample over and sometimes exclude the sheep for whom Christ died. Or perhaps they’re so engaged in the ideological warfare of the day, which, again, is absolutely necessary, that such things as diaconal ministry and evangelism are put on the back burner. There are all kinds of things that can divert a church from the love that it once embraced. The message to the Ephesians warns us not to let this happen to us.

The fact that the church at Ephesus declined so soon after John was exiled to Patmos has been argued against an early date for the book of Revelation. How could the church have sunk so low in just a couple of years?

There are a few things we can say to this. First, the question itself assumes that the church was strong during John’s ministry. We don’t really know that. The last record of the church’s condition prior to Revelation was Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, which speaks very highly of church. But Paul wrote Ephesians at least six to eight years earlier. A lot of things can happen to a church in that length of time. Second, there is no reason why a church could not lose its first love in a much shorter period of time. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians describes a church that had almost destroyed itself with a very serious doctrinal error only a year or two after he had visited it. He wrote, I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel (Gal. 1:6). Paul himself could hardly believe that the change had taken place so fast. The quick spiritual decline of the church at Ephesus, then, cannot be used to deny that Revelation was written shortly before the siege of Jerusalem in AD 66.

That the church at Ephesus had declined in its love cannot be doubted. In verse 5, Christ commanded it to remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. Thankfully, this church had regained enough strength to survive into the second century, as I’ve already mentioned, but today there is no church, no candlestick, in Ephesus. Islam is now the established faith. And what does this show? That Christ kept his word. He said that he would remove the candlestick at Ephesus, and now that candlestick is gone. The warning is clear. We must never take God’s threats lightly. We must never underestimate the value that God himself places on the love and zeal of people.

The fact that a church no longer exists in Ephesus also proves one of the key points that I’ve made time and again in our study of Revelation, viz., that the second coming is not the only coming of Christ mentioned in the New Testament. He came in judgment against Jerusalem in AD 70. And look at what he told the Ephesians: I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place. The removal of the candlestick at Ephesus in the early history of the church testifies to the fact that Christ already came against it just as he said. The Old Testament frequently speaks of the coming of Yahweh (Isa. 13:9–10; 19:1–4; 34:4–5; Micah 1:3–5). Each of these comings was for the purpose of judging sin, and most of them are already past. Let there be no doubt, Jesus will come physically in the clouds of glory at the end of the present age to consummate his eternal kingdom, but he will also come many times before then. Specifically, he comes to remove churches that lose their first love. We will deal more with the various comings of Christ later in the book.

And lastly, the Lord Jesus Christ gave a promise to those who overcome by faith: they will be able to eat from the tree of life which is in Paradise. Each of the seven churches of Asia Minor received a promise, and each promise refers to a figure of speech that John develops later in Revelation. The tree of life, for example, is mentioned three times in chapter 22 (vv. 2, 14, 19) and symbolizes the unending bliss of the righteous as they dwell in covenant fellowship with their Savior. This is a life that begins now and continues forever. Just as the descriptions of Christ at the beginning of each message link the early chapters together, so the promises of life at the end of each message show that there are ties with the rest of the book as well.

Do these seven mini-epistles, then, have anything of value for Christians of our day? Or were they merely for the Asian churches of a bygone era?

The Lord answered these questions for us in verse: He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. Notice that the word churches is plural. This takes us back to something I said earlier, viz., that, although this particular message was originally given to the church at Ephesus, it was a message that every church must heed. Those that do not guard the pure preaching of the Word must learn to do so. Those that have lost their first love and replaced it with some other form of service that they believe to be more God-honoring must repent and reestablish right priorities. And all churches need to see that Christ is present in their midst, working in and through the preaching and teaching of his holy Word.

May the Spirit help us keep us faithful, so that our candlestick remains firmly grounded in Sacramento for our children and our children’s children to the thousandth generation. Amen.

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