The Church in Ephesus
Malcolm Horlock, Cardiff, Wales
REVELATION 2. 1-7
THE CHURCH ADDRESSED
‘To the angel of the church of Ephesus’,
The church in Ephesus ranks among the most privileged in the New Testament, having benefitted from the labours of some of the most devoted and gifted servants of the Lord. Apart from the possibility that the gospel had been carried there first by some of the Jews from Asia present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, we know that Paul spent time at Ephesus on at least three occasions, on the second of which visits there he remained teaching for almost three years, Acts 18. 19-21; 19. 1 - 20. 1 (with 20. 31); 1 Cor. 16. 8 (with Acts 20. 4). Paul’s address at Miletus to the elders of Ephesus is the only oral message of Paul to believers that we possess, Acts 20. 17-35. Apollos, a one-time disciple of John the Baptist, a learned man and mighty in the scriptures, also taught here for a period, Acts 18. 24-26. Timothy, Paul’s spiritual ‘son’ laboured here, 1 Tim. 1. 3, and there is a strong tradition that the apostle John relocated from Jerusalem to Ephesus about A.D. 66 and spent most of his remaining days in the city.
All in all therefore, even before receiving this the ‘Second Letter to the Ephesians’, the church in Ephesus had been abundantly blessed.
THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST
The features of Christ identified in verse 1 refer back to the description given of the transcendent Lord in chapter 1, but with distinctive emphases.
‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand’, v. 1b.
In chapter 1, we read that He ‘had’ the seven stars in His right hand, v. 16, and that they were ‘on’ (lit.) His right hand, v. 20, and, in chapter 3, simply that He ‘had’ the seven stars. But here He describes Himself as ‘holding’ them firmly and tightly in His grasp – which the Greek word signifies.1 Their grip on Him may weaken, but not His grip on them! Compare and enjoy John 10. 27-28.
‘Who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands’, v. 1c.
In chapter 1, the Lord Jesus is seen ‘in the midst’ of the seven lampstands, v. 13. But here He describes Himself as ‘walking’ in their midst – expressing His unwearied activity among the churches and implying His constant and vigilant supervision.
‘I know your works, your labour, your patience (endurance)’, v. 2a.
The words ‘I know’, common to each of the seven letters, serve to stress Christ’s omniscience and His evaluation of the life and activity of the church. Nothing escapes Him, nothing! We note that the Lord commends before He reproves.
The church in Ephesus at the end of the first century was clearly an exceptional church. Indeed, to the eyes of an outside observer it must have appeared a model New Testament church. There were no perceptible flaws or failures in its activity, in its organization or in its doctrinal stand. The wheels of assembly machinery were all seen to be turning correctly and the commendation, which the Lord Himself gives, is comprehensive and wide-ranging:
(i) ‘Your works . . . labour’. Whatever else it was, the Ephesian church was no rest camp for lazy believers. It was marked by fervent activity and energy – the word ‘labour’ denoting wearisome toil and expressing something of the exhausting effort and cost which lay behind their ‘works’.
(ii) ‘Your patience’. This word indicates their active and steadfast ‘endurance’, necessitated by the fierce opposition they encountered. For their very existence as a Christian community constituted an attack on the principal trade of Ephesus – the manufacture of the idolatrous shrines in honour of Diana (‘Artemis’).
Some time before, Paul had written of the ‘work of faith, labour of love, and patience of hope’ of the recently converted Thessalonians, 1 Thess. 1. 3. The same external triad of activity were present at Ephesus, but (seemingly) without the underlying graces. The faith, love and hope of the Thessalonian church are conspicuous by their absence. Already there is perhaps a hint that all was not well at Ephesus.
‘And you have persevered and have patience (endurance), and have laboured (‘borne’, lit.) for My name’s sake and have not become weary’, v. 3.
(iii) ‘Not become weary’. They had proved, over a long period, that they had the staying power and reserves of strength necessary to continue in their faithful service ‘because of (His) ‘name’.
‘You cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars’, v. 2b.
(iv) ‘Cannot bear’. Whereas they were patiently ‘bearing’ persecution from outside, v. 3, they steadfastly refused to ‘bear’ evil men inside, v. 2b – the same word in both cases. This church was not prepared to tolerate or condone wickedness.
(v) ‘You have tested’. They had examined any professing apostles, and, on finding them false, had rejected them. The Lord Jesus had warned of false prophets, who were ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing, Matt. 7. 15, and Paul, in his address to the elders of this very church, had warned that savage wolves would invade the flock, Acts 20. 29. They had diligently heeded the warnings and weeded out all ‘false apostles, deceitful workers’, 2 Cor. 11. 13.
In a letter written to the Ephesians about ten years later, Ignatius wrote, ‘I have heard of some who have passed on . . . to you, having false doctrine, whom you did not suffer to sow among you, but stopped your ears, that you might not receive those things which were sown by them’2.
‘This you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate’, v. 6.
‘The Nicolaitans’ are referred to only twice in the New Testament; here and in verse 15. From these two verses it is clear that they were corrupt both in doctrine, v. 15, and in practice, v. 6. In verse 15 they are closely associated with those who held the teaching of Balaam, which in turn is connected with eating things offered to idols and with immorality, cf. Num. 25. 1- 2; 31. 16. The Early Church Fathers claimed that the Nicolaitans ‘lived lives of unrestrained indulgence’ and were ‘shameless in uncleanness’.
In marked contrast to the church at Pergamos that tolerated their teaching, the church at Ephesus shared the Lord’s hatred for their deeds.
THE CRITICISM LEVELLED
But, wedged between His words of commendation, the One who walked in the midst of the lampstands cast a dark shadow over all else He said.
‘Nevertheless (‘But’, literally) I have this against you, that you have left your first love’, v. 4.
The church was doing all the right things. But why was it? What inward motive prompted its actions? The Lord Jesus doesn’t say, but He does make it clear that it certainly wasn’t love for Him! For this, their ‘first love’, the believers had ‘left’ (‘set aside’, ‘forsaken’, ‘abandoned’). This wasn’t a case of ‘lost love’, but of ‘left love’!
A merely external examination would have given the church a clean bill of health. But the penetrating gaze of the One with ‘eyes as a flame of fire’ detected an unsatisfactory heart condition, which the heavenly Physician diagnosed and which He warned, unless treated urgently, would prove fatal!
Once they had been characterized by an inner devotion to Christ, just like the love of a newly wedded bride for her husband. But no longer. They had fallen prey to the same temptation as Israel many centuries before; ‘Thus says the Lord: I remember you, The kindness of your youth, The love of your betrothal, When you went after Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown . . . they have gone far from Me’, Jer. 2. 2, 5. The paraphrase in the Authorised Version is misleading. The Saviour said, not that ‘I have somewhat against’ you, but ‘I have against you’! For them to leave their first love was no mere ‘somewhat’; it was everything. Something had gone seriously wrong. The earnest toil was still there . . . the gallant endurance was still there . . . the exemplary orthodoxy was still there . . . but the love was gone. They hated, v. 6, but they did not love! They had not abandoned their former hatred for evil, but they had abandoned their first love for Him.3 The Lord Jesus still had their heads and their hands, but not their hearts! And He clearly felt it very keenly. To the Lord Jesus, all the activity and patient suffering in the world could never compensate for the lack of inward devotion. The church at Ephesus diligently rendered Him the obedience of a slave, but they denied Him what He prized far, far more, the love of a bride. And He would not accept the one in lieu of the other.
THE COUNSEL GIVEN
‘Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works’, v. 5a.
The appeal of the Risen Christ is that the saints at Ephesus undertake a return journey – a return journey with three distinct stages.
‘Remember’. Memory was to be the first step on the way back – just as it had been for ‘the prodigal son’ of Luke 15. The believers at Ephesus were commanded to throw their minds back to the earlier time when their motivation and fellowship with Christ had been very different. ‘Remember how close’, the Lord Jesus was saying, ‘your relationship with Me had been then’. ‘From where you have fallen’, He added. Their present spiritual condition was lower than before; as they forsook their earlier affection for Christ so their spiritual state declined.
‘Repent’. Repentance was to be the second leg of the return journey. With the exception of Smyrna and Philadelphia only, each of the churches in Revelation 2-3 is called on to repent, 2. 5, 16, 22; 3. 3, 19. Repentance is never easy. It includes the acceptance of responsibility for one’s sin and a decision to move in a different direction in the future.
‘Repeat’. ‘Do the first works’. This was not a summons to increased service or renewed activity. They were not short of such works – they knew all about toil and endurance, all about hatred of that which was evil. This was a call rather to practise again their earlier devotion to the Lord and closeness of fellowship with Him – to abide in Him.
‘Or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place – unless you repent’, v. 5b.
Literally, the Lord Jesus said, ‘And if not, I am coming’ – using the present tense. He wanted them to know that His impending arrival was imminent – and that, unless there was a change, ‘love left’ would mean ‘light lost’! For loveless churches eventually lose their ability to shine in the world.
The expression our Lord used was equivalent to saying that the church at Ephesus would cease to exist. It is sad that both the first and last churches of Revelation 2-3 were threatened with complete extinction, 2. 5; 3. 16 – Laodicea being warned of the Lord’s intention to vomit them out because He was nauseated with their half-hearted profession. But what makes it doubly sad is that these were the only two churches of the seven to which, as far as we know, the apostle Paul had written letters, Eph. 1. 1; Col. 4. 16, and for which he had earnestly prayed, Eph. 1. 16; 3. 14; Col. 2. 1.
THE CALL FOR ATTENTION ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’, v. 7a. Each of the seven letters closes (or almost closes) with this command – very similar to our Lord’s words repeated several times in the Gospels; Matt. 11. 15; 13. 9, 43; Mark 4. 9, 23; Luke 8. 8; 14. 35. Each letter was provided for the benefit of all seven churches, 1. 11, and it was the Risen Lord’s desire that the readers of these letters heard with understanding the significance of what the Holy Spirit was saying. And it goes without saying that the messages are equally relevant and applicable to all of us today.
THE COMPENSATION PROMISED
‘To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God’, v. 7b.
It is not difficult to trace in sequence the allusions to Old Testament history through the seven letters.4 It is fitting that this particular promise is made to the first of the seven churches. For this is the church which had been beguiled from its single-hearted devotion and love to the Lord – doubtless by the devil, v. 4; cf. 2 Cor. 11. 3. This is the church that is said to have ‘fallen’, v. 5. And it is to this church that the Lord Jesus makes reference to the tree of life in the midst of the Para-dise of God. Each of these features refers us, of course, back to Genesis 3.
‘The tree of life’ here is clearly meant to link back to ‘the tree of life’ which stood in the garden which the Lord God had planted in Eden, Gen. 2. 8-9. But, unlike in God’s Paradise, in the centre of Eden’s garden there were two prominent trees. For alongside ‘the tree of life’ stood ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’, Gen. 2. 9; 3. 3. This latter tree was God’s appointed testing-ground for man. It not only gave man the opportunity to demonstrate his love for God; it represented his responsibility to obey God’s command.
Alas, man failed his probation, ate of this tree and sinned. In so doing, he fell under the divine sentence of death and forfeited his right to ‘life’. The Lord God immediately acted to frustrate any attempt on man’s part to snatch and secure for himself the eternal life which would have been his right had he passed the test of obedience. God ‘drove out the man’ and placed cherubim and a whirling flaming sword to guard the way to the tree of life, Gen. 3. 24. From that moment, the tree of life was out of bounds.
And so, as a result of man’s sin in Eden, he faced two great problems. First, there was the question of his sin itself – and the penalty of condemnation that it incurred – the effect of eating of the tree that represented his responsibility to obey God. Second, there was the loss of his title to eternal life – represented by God’s denying him access to the tree of life.
God’s single solution to these two problems came in the form of another ‘tree’ – not the sacred date palm, depicted on many coins of ancient Ephesus and regarded by Diana’s worshippers as ‘a tree of life’ – but the cross of Christ. For, firstly, the Lord Jesus ‘bare our sins in His own body on the tree’, thereby paying in full the price of man’s failure at the ‘probation’ tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And, secondly, ‘lifted up’ on His ‘tree’, the Lord Jesus secured eternal life for all who believe in Him, John 3. 14-15, thereby gaining access for man to the tree of life’5.
And this promise is well adapted to the substance of this epistle. For the overcomer is promised something infinitely better than the food offered to idols, with which the heathen at their licentious festivals tempted the believers. He is promised that he will eat of the tree of life; that is, he will inherit eternal life in the Paradise of heaven. And, significantly, it is to the overcomer in that church which had left its first love that the promise is given of access to the heavenly counterpart of the tree which stood in the midst of the garden in which God and Adam had once shared sweet fellowship. For such fellowship was the very essence of the ‘first love’ which the Ephesian church had ‘left’.
- The stars ‘are the angels of the seven churches’, 1. 20. For the identity of the angels see Additional Note (ii) to the article ‘Seven Golden Lampstands (2)’ in Precious Seed, Vol. 50 No. 6, Nov - Dec 1995, page 177.
- ‘The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians’, chapter 9 (shorter).
- Both Ephesus and Thyatira are commended for their ‘endurance’, 2. 2, 19 lit. Both letters refer to the church’s ‘first works’, 2. 5, 19. To both churches the Lord says, ‘But I have against you’, 2. 4, 20 lit. Yet there is one striking difference between them. Ephesus is praised repeatedly for its zeal for truth, 2. 2, 6, but is condemned for its lack of love, 2. 4, whereas Thyatira is praised for its love (the only church which is), 2. 19, but is woefully deficient in terms of concern for sound doctrine, 2. 20, 24.
- For further details see section 1 in the article ‘Seven Golden Lampstands (2)’ in Precious Seed, Vol. 50. No. 6, Nov - Dec 1995, pages 172-173.
- Reproduced with slight amendments from ‘Day by Day Bible Promises’, Precious Seed, November 2004, page 358.