Bible Study Series: Revealing Jesus in Revelation
Revelation Chapter 2:1-7 Ephesus - The church that left its love
by I Gordon
We are moving from the past into the present today. Well, not literally. I don't have a time machine... yet. I'm working on it but not completely sure what I'm doing to be honest. But in the book of Revelation we are shifting into the present. We are starting Revelation chapter 2 and looking at what the Bible calls 'the things that are'. Jesus has seven messages... seven report cards if you like, to seven specific churches that not only sum up what different churches were like then, but also what they are like now. And, for good measure, what they have been like progressively throughout church history. Not bad for seven short letters! But then again, this is a message from the One who knows and sees all things!
So in this study we will explore the following:
- First we will drill down on how we are to understand these 7 letters
- Secondly we'll explore Jesus' letter to the first church, Ephesus - a church that was to be commended for many things - but one also that had one rather large, somehow unseen, elephant in the room
- Thirdly we'll draw some application points from this church that we can take away for our own lives.
7 churches: Understanding 'the things that are'
So... as mentioned, Revelation chapters 2 and 3 present 'the things that are' from God's outline to this book in Revelation 1:19. I'm sure you remember that 'key' verse from last time! So there are seven messages to seven different churches but before we look at the first church mentioned we need to explore how to interpret these messages. For example, are they just messages for literal churches in the 1st century? Why were these particular churches chosen instead of more prominent ones such as in Rome or Jerusalem? Is there a prophetic element to these messages with the churches selected representing something greater than just a church in the first century?
The answer is that these were literal churches that contain a spiritual and prophetic message for all of church history. There are three ways to take these letters as mentioned by William MacDonald:
First of all, they describe conditions that actually existed in the seven local churches at the time John was writing.
Secondly, they give a view of Christendom on earth at any one time in its history. The features found in these letters have existed in part, at least, in every century since Pentecost. In this respect, the letters bear marked resemblances to the seven parables of Matthew 13.
Finally, the letters give a consecutive preview of the history of Christendom, each church representing a distinct period. The general trend of conditions is downward. Many believe that the first three letters are consecutive and that the last four are concurrent, reaching to the time of the Rapture.
William MacDonald, Believer Bible Commentary
The seven churches selected by the Lord Jesus were ordered in a clockwise position in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) as show below. John himself was on the island of Patmos seen in the picture south-west of Ephesus.
While they were not the most prominent churches of their day they were selected because of the particular issues that each church has, which would in turn be a prophetic pointer to what the church throughout history would encounter. Always remember that Revelation is a prophetic book and this prophetic element doesn't just begin it chapter 4. It is right through these messages in chapters 2 and 3. So I totally agree that these churches represent different church ages with the last four churches running simultaneously to the end of the church age... and three of them go, in large part, beyond that into the tribulation1. I have visibly represented this in the chart below:
The state of these churches can also be seen in the meanings of their names. Bible teacher and scholar, Dr J Dwight Pentecost, gives the following meanings in his awesome book on end time prophecy, 'Things to come':
Ephesus ('Desired'), Smyrna ('Myrrh'), Pergamos ('Thoroughly married'), Thyatira ('Continual sacrifice'), Sardis ('Those escaping'), Philadelphia ('Brotherly love'), Laodicea ('People ruling')
Why the meanings of these names are significant will become clear as we continue through each letter. It is also important to see that each letter follows a specific pattern. As F.B Meyer writes:
Each of these letters consists of three parts:
1. The introduction, specifying some characteristic from the vision of the preceding chapter, which is appropriate to the need of the church addressed.
2. A description of the condition of the church.
3. A promise to the overcomer, following the successive revelations of God in the Old Testament, which begin with the tree of life and include the manna, the conquest of Canaan, the glory of the Temple, and the reign of Solomon."
Another way of stating it is that each church has commendation, complaint, counsel and a challenge. Although, as we shall see, there are two churches that Jesus has no complaints with and one that has no commendation! And the one that has nothing to be commended for just happens to represent the age in which we live! Not good.
Quick Ephesus Overview
Ephesus was not only a beautiful city, it was also the chief city of the province of Asia. It was called "the Vanity Fair of Asia." Pliny called it "the Light of Asia." It was both the religious and commercial center of that entire area which influenced both East and West—Asia and Europe.
J Vernon McGee
- Meaning of Ephesus: 'Desired' - A pointer to God's love for His church - and hopefully their love for Him!
- The city itself was founded alongside an excellent harbor. However it was morally corrupt.
- It had one of the seven wonders of the ancient world located here, the temple of Diana (Acts 19:27-28,34), whose worship led to all types of sensuality and sexual sins.
- The church at Ephesus was founded by Paul on his second missionary journey (Act 18:19-21).
- Bible scholars believe Ephesus was one of the largest churches in the 1st century.
- It is obviously well known to New Testament readers because Paul would write what many see as his greatest epistle (alongside Romans) to this church.
As an overview, the letter has the following:
- Commendation - Known for their hard work, perseverance, doctrinal purity, challenge of false leaders/teachers
- Complaint - The large elephant in the room - They had left their first love (Jesus)
- Counsel - Remember their early days, repent and do the things that they did at first
- Warning - Their lampstand (representing the light of the church) would be removed if they didn't repent
- Challenge - Those that overcome will eat from the tree of life
Over-riding thought: This letter is a reminder of the subtlety of sin even while outwardly doing the right things. By sin I mean missing the mark. The church had much to commend it for. Yet they missed the most important person when they left their first love. Don't let busyness, even for the Lord, take away from you time and fellowship with Him!
Alright... that's the overview... let's dig a deeper into this first report card. Let's begin with things that they are commended for.
Ephesus Report Card - The Good
Rev 2:1 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:
As mentioned, the name Ephesus means 'desired, desirable'. This gives the view of Christ towards His church. This is the view of the Bridegroom towards His bride. She is desired and desirable. H.A Ironside writes
Ephesus means “desirable.” It is a term that a Greek applied to the young lady of his choice. Ephesus gives us a picture of the church as it was in the beginning. This is when the Lord held the stars (His servants) in His hand and controlled their ministry. He sent them here and there to proclaim the glad gospel of His grace and to minister to His saints. But human systems have largely changed all that.
Jesus is seen walking amongst the golden lampstands (which is the churches themselves from Rev 1:20). It makes you wonder if He walks among the churches today! Certainly by His Spirit He is... so what would He say? What would He say about your church? What would the report card for your church be like? What would He commend you for? What would He challenge you on? I said in the earlier chapter that this picture of Jesus walking amongst the lampstands is one of the High Priest performing His duties, making sure the light of the lampstand burns brightly. That is always the desire of the Lord, not only for the different churches but for our individual lives. But we also have an enemy without (Satan) and one within (our fleshly nature) that desires the opposite. Always remember that you can only be a light as you stay close to Him who is your life! (John 1:4). Without Him you can do nothing.
Rev 2:2-3,6 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary... you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Jesus says that 'I know your deeds (or works)'. He says this to each of the seven churches. If you thought your Mum had x-ray vision when you were little and knew what was going on, well you haven't seen anything! The eyes of the omniscient One don't miss much. Well, they don't miss anything. He knows exactly where each church and each believer is at. And this church had much to commend it for. At the time this report card was given in 95/96 AD it had been going for about 40 years. Jesus commends them for the following:
- Their hard work - They were committed to doing what the Lord was asking them to do. They weren't getting distracted by one hundred and one other things that were going on in Ephesus. They were dedicated to doing His work. We can learn from this in our day of instant distractions on hand (and especially online! Another cat video anyone?)
- Their perseverance and not growing wearing- They had the ability to keep going when it gets hard and not just throw in the towel. Remember - Ephesus was the center of the worship of the goddess Artemis (Greek), or Diana (Roman). False religion and immorality flooded the city. It was the norm. So it wasn't easy work in Ephesus but these believers persisted and preserved. Now we all become weary at times. But I like what J. Vernon McGee writes on this saying: "I can illustrate it by what Dwight L. Moody once said when he came home exhausted after a campaign and his family begged him not to go to the next campaign. He said to them, "I grow weary in the work but not of the work." There is a lot of difference. You can get weary in the work of Christ, but it is tragic if you get weary of the work of Christ."
- Their doctrinal purity - They didn't put up with wicked men, claiming to be apostles when they weren't!2 This is very important. Jesus commended this church for not putting up with wicked men. He commended them for not submitting to these ones that were falsely claiming to be apostles. We get a lot of this today. Many claim to be prophets and apostles and are not3. And yet many others don't seem to even test their words and lives by the lens of scripture. This is seen as being too judgmental. Actually it is Biblical and something that gets the tick of approval from Jesus on their report card!
- Their hatred of the practices of the Nicolaitans - There is debate on the meaning of this4. Many scholars believe that these were the followers of Nicolas who was a made a deacon in Acts 6, but was said to have become apostate. Like Balaam, he led the people into immorality and self-indulgence. Others point out that the meaning of his name is 'one who conquers the people' and believe that 'a priestly class had sprung up in the Church, domineering over the rest of the people, the so-called laity. And this domineering class claimed a superior place in the body of Christ.' (A.C Gaebelein). Quite possibly both were happening. Jesus commended the Ephesians for not allowing this and says that it is something 'which I also hate'. While we think of Jesus' love a lot, we often don't think of that which He hates. To some ears it will seem like strong language to say that Jesus hates something. But these are Jesus' own words. He hates the practices of these false teachers that lead His bride astray. If you have forgotten, He also had some strong words with the Pharisees in His earthly ministry (Matt 23) and it is the same today. It is an important point to remember as it is not discussed much today. But that which He hates, we should to!
So there was a lot to praise this young church for. You might remember that when Paul spoke for the last time to the elders overseeing the church in Ephesus, he told them that difficult times, and difficult people, would soon come. He said:
Act 20:27-32 "For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. (28) "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (29) "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; (30) and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. (31) "Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. (32) "And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
So this church had, at least to this point in time, heeded this message. They were careful to test the false teachers and apostles. The leaders were protecting the sheep as best they could from the wolves with their false doctrine. They were active in the work of the Lord. Yet something important was going wrong. Something internally was slowly slipping maybe without them even realizing it. But Jesus saw it. Enter the unseen elephant in the room...
Ephesus Report Card- The bad
Rev 2:4-5 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which 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.
When Paul wrote his letter to Ephesus, 36 years earlier, he commended them for their faith and love (Eph 1:15-16). This was very evident in this young church and was beautiful to see. But as time went on the love waned. The work didn't... but the love did. So this one thing that Jesus had against them is a sad one... you have forsaken your first love. So what or who is the first love? I once read a 'Hebrew-roots' teacher argue that it was the law! Argh no, our first love is not the law! Our first love is the person of Jesus Christ! The Ephesians were doing the right things outwardly but without the heart, love and personal devotion to Jesus anymore. It is easy for our Christian lives to just become a religion, going through the motions but the Lord does not want that! We can become a Martha, active and serving the Lord while missing 'what is better', that which Mary chose, to be fellowshipping with Him (Luke 10:38-42). In the Old Testament the Lord tried to remind His people of their devotion in their youth, as a bride with her husband:
Jer 2:2-5 'I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert, through a land not sown. (3) Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them' declares the LORD. (4) Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel. (5) This is what the LORD says: "What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me?'
This is amazing language coming from the God of the Universe! He is in need of nothing yet sees His people as His bride and desires their devotion! That is what Jesus is telling the church at Ephesus but also all churches and believers today that are slipping from their first love. The heart of God hasn't changed in this. Ephesus was great in its knowledge and appropriation of truth. But they were missing Him! It is the same old story - can you not hear the heart of the Lord when He spoke to the Jews earlier saying:
Joh 5:39-40 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
Knowledge is important. We certainly don't what to be spiritual babies 'tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching.' (Eph 4:14) But Paul spoke of something greater than knowledge. A different type of knowledge actually. And that is to know, in your inner being, the love of Christ! This love, He said, surpasses knowledge. Paul prayed that those in Ephesus, saying:
Eph 3:16-19 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, (17) so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, (18) may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, (19) and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
And that is a very very relevant prayer for you and I today. We love because He loved us first and as we know this love in our innermost being, we abide in Him and our love for Him grows. But for the church of Ephesus, 36 years had now passed from when Paul wrote this prayer to when Jesus gives His report card and calls them back to their first love. And it is hard to be a light, a lampstand as the church should be, when all you have is doctrine and your love for Jesus wanes. Is that you? If so He tells them, and us, three things as a spiritual antidote to this condition:
- Remember - Remember how things were in the past when you walked closely with Jesus. What we things like back then?
- Repent - Change your mind and ways so that you walk in the way you should once again. What is it that you should change?
- Repeat - In your devotion to Jesus, repeat what you did in the early days when you first met Him. What did you do differently that you are not doing now? Do it again!
Finally a warning was given to the church at Ephesus that if they carried on in their current direction and didn't repent Jesus would remove their lampstand. This means they would cease to be a light anymore. You probably know churches and even denominations that have ceased to be a light. They may go on for years or even decades afterwards, but the light has gone. There are so many churches that follow the trends of the day or move to a social gospel and are no long a light for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Greek word ecclesia, translated “church” in our Bibles, means a called-out company. This is God’s ideal, and every effort to amalgamate the church and the world is opposed to His mind. Such efforts will end in confusion for the church will never convert the world in the present dispensation. Someone once asked Dr. A. T. Pierson, “Don’t you really think that the world is getting converted already?” “Well,” he said, “I admit that the world has become a little churchy, but the church has become immensely worldly.”
Conclusion & Application - Listen! See!
Rev 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
We've had the good and the bad from this report card... and here is the ugly... ok thankfully there is no ugly with this church but unfortunately we can't say the same with some of the other ones still to come! The letter ends with a challenge to those that have an ear to listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. Each letter will end with this exact same phrase - 'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches', stressing its importance. This language is similar to what Jesus said with his parables:
Mat 13:9,13-16 "He who has ears, let him hear."... This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand... But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.
See also Matt 11:15, 13:43. So... have you got an ear? And no... not just that funny looking thing sticking way out on the side of your head! Something more than a physical ear is required here! But have you got spiritual ears to hear? Can you hear the heart of the Lord? Is He saying anything to you from this letter? Because you will notice that the Spirit is speaking to the 'churches' - plural. This is not just a message to Ephesus. It is a message to all.
I had a lady wrote in to the website recently asking 'Where is my joy? Why don't I feel close to the Lord anymore?' I think we can all relate to that at times. So I was able to share the thoughts from this letter, plus some from Philippians about actively rejoicing in the Lord, with her which she said helped. Our relationship with the Lord is like a marriage as we saw above. That is how the Lord sees it. And any marriage requires work and time together. If you are married you can probably remember that early honeymoon phase (well... I hope you can!) But that slowly wears off over time (when you find out what he's really like right? : ) so to maintain that closeness and relationship couples need to keep spending time together. Our relationship with the Lord is like that.
So if we are slipping from this, what were the three R's from above? Remember... Repent... Repeat. Remember how things used to be. Repent from how they are now. Repeat what you did early on.
A final word is given to the overcomer - they shall eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God! Who exactly is an overcomer has caused some confusion so I appreciate the following words from William MacDonald in the Believers Bible Commentary:
"In general, an overcomer in the NT is one who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (1Jo 5:5), in other words, a true believer. His faith enables him to overcome the world with all its temptations and allurements. Perhaps in each of the letters the word has an additional thought, connected with the condition in that particular church. Thus an overcomer in Ephesus may be one who shows the genuineness of his faith by repenting when he has backslidden from his first love. All such will . . .eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God. This does not imply that they are saved by overcoming, but that their overcoming proves the reality of their conversion experience. The only way men are saved is by grace through faith in Christ. All who are saved will eat from the tree of life, that is, they will enter into eternal life in its fullness in heaven."
William MacDonald, Believers Bible Commentary
So what a destiny awaits true believers! That which mankind lost back in the garden shall be restored again... and so much more. Your faith in Christ overcomes the world and the enemy.
So stay close to Him and fellowship with Him.
Keep Him, and nothing else, as your first love.
He is your life and without Him you can do nothing.
This sounds like I believe in a partial rapture with some churches going on into the tribulation. Let me say I do not believe in a partial rapture. All true born again believers will go in the rapture. It is just that some of these church represent, and contain, many that are not truly born again. One of these churches is said to be dead. One is idolatrous. One is completely worldly and pictures Jesus outside the church. It is a sad indictment on the visual church that we see around us today. But please be clear... all true born again believers no matter what denomination they belong to will go in the rapture. I will have more to say on these churches that go into the tribulation later as we work through the 7 letters,
One of the church fathers Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus where he also commended them in this area, writing:
"But I have learned that certain people . . . have passed your way with evil doctrine, but you did not allow them to sow it among you. You covered up your ears in order to avoid receiving the things being sown by them." (The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians)
Paul also had to content with those that were calling themselves 'Super-apostles' (2 Cor 11:5) I'm surprised that this name has taken off again in our age! So as a general rule, beware of those that love to exalt themselves, give themselves titles and place themselves above others! See 2 Cor 11:1-15
Pastor David Guzik writes on the theories concerning the Nicolaitans:
i. Irenaeus (writing in the late second century) described what he knew of the Nicolaitans: "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 plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrifice to idols." (Against Heresies, book 1, chapter 26. From the Ante Nicean Fathers Volume 1, page 352)
ii. Hippolytus, a student of Irenaeus (writing in the early third century) associated the Nicolaitans with the Gnostics: "There are, however, among the Gnostics diversities of opinion . . . But Nicolaus has been a cause of the wide-spread combination of these wicked men. [He] departed from correct doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of both life and food." (Refutation of all Heresies, book 7, chapter 24; ANF volume 5, page 115)
iii. Others have emphasized the root meanings of the words that make up the name Nicolaitans. Nikao-laos means literally "to conquer the people." Based on this, some point to presumptuous claims of apostolic authority and to the heart that sets up hierarchies and separates the "clergy" from the "laity." Perhaps the Nicolaitans fulfilled all these aspects, being both an idolatrous immorality and a presumptuous, hierarchical, "hidden mysteries" system typical of Gnosticism.