The beginning of the Christian work of God in this city is recounted in Acts 18. 19 to 19. 20. There are many additional allusions to it in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church which will well repay searching out. The believers began with a zealous love for Christ which caused them to burn their books instead of selling them. Had they sold them, they would have spread the poison and retained the proceeds. But they suffered the loss. A little later their love was still aflame and Paul experienced this on calling the elders to him at Miletus, Acts 20. 17-38. Some years later their love was still aglow, and Paul was able to feed them with strong meat contained in his prison Epistle Ephesians, but he could not do this at Corinth, 1 Cor. 3. 2. Years rolled by, and some thirty years later they had left their first love, a departure that would result in Christ being ultimately outside the door, Rev. 3. 20. Whether this first love should be interpreted as a person or as a thing little matters. One should read Jeremiah 2. 2 ff in this connection; it is most revealing as to how the Lord reacts to such ungrateful requital.
This decline took place despite the fact that there were works, labour, patience, and even intolerance of evil persons and false apostles. There was unabating labour for His name’s sake. Actively they wrought; passively they endured. But the motive spring of love was lacking. Ponder the Lord’s interrogation of Peter, “Lovest thou me?”, John 21. 15-17, and the affirmation of Paul, “the love of Christ constraineth us”, 2 Cor. 5. 14- How easy it is to engage in a multiplicity of church activities, yet for all to be done by promptings unworthy of Christ. What a contrast is this with the motivation of the Thessalonians’ service, namely their “work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope”, 1 Thess. 1. 3.
What Paul had foreseen when addressing the elders at Miletus had now taken place, Acts 20. 29. “Evil men” and “false apostles” had attempted to come in, but the church could not bear the former, and had by trial discovered the spuriousness of the latter since they lacked the requisite credentials. These “false apostles”, 2 Cor. 11. 5; 12. 11, had previously beguiled the Corinthians, but they had not so far caught the Ephesians. The “elect lady” was warned by John against such persons, 2 John 9.
The pronouns “thou” and “thy”, which so frequently recur, refer to the “angel”, who is symbolized by the “star” denoting, as we have said, the responsible guiding element in the local church. It is this overseership which is first praised for what is praiseworthy and then is held responsible for the failure in the church. Overseers nowadays should mark this well.
To their credit stands their hatred of the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, a hatred shared by the Lord. There has been much conjecture about these Nicolaitanes. It does not appear to be tenable to associate them with Nicolas of Acts 6; the presumed evidence is far too flimsy. Nor does history know of any such sect in these early times. The etymology of the word must be examined for any symbolic meaning. The word Nicolaitanes is comprised of two Greek words: nico, to conquer; and laos, people. It therefore suggests a caste which dominated the common people in the church, much like those who would lord a heritage, 1 Pet. 5. 3. Diotrephes at Ephesus (presumably), whose self-assertive, dictatorial and exclusive behaviour involved even the apostle John, 3 John 9-10, is a typical case.
If this be the true explanation, it is not to be wondered at that clerical commentators do not mention it, for their very position would be condemned thereby. Happily, many of them are far better than the position which they hold; some indeed have had the courage to abandon it. But nothing scriptural whatever can be said in support of any form of clerisy; it is contrary to all New Testament teaching.
The Ephesians had left their first love. They should therefore remember from whence they had fallen and repent and return to their original position. Adam fell from his exalted position due to his not loving the Lord with all his heart. The record of Rebekah in Genesis 27 contrasts unfavourably with that of chapter 24. Adam lost his place in the garden and if Ephesus would not repent they, too, would lose their place. The lampstand would be removed, and this, in fact, actually took place. We should point out that not every local church that has ceased to exist has been thus removed by the Lord; there may be many other contributing causes. But North Africa stands as a solemn witness; once many lampstands were there, but behold it now! The Lord who ever walks in judicial garb in their midst removes this and that lampstand from the place of testimony because true motive is lacking. The area is thereby left in utter darkness.
The overcomer is promised precisely what our first parents forfeited. He would eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God. Adam and Eve were removed from the earthly garden, but God’s paradise is now in heaven, 2 Cor. 12. 4.
The phrase “tree of life” is remarkable, for the Greek word for “tree” denotes not a living tree but a dead tree stump. On such the Lord was hanged, but as a result of His death we live. Ponder Revelation 22 verses 2, 14 and 19 R.V. These verses have to do with those who are admitted to, and those who are barred from, the tree of life.
The clarion call of this letter is to remember, to repent and to repeat. Remember demands a looking back to the former condition; repent entails a consideration of the present state; and repeat envisages a recovery for the future. This recovery can only be achieved by the removal of every other rival claimant to our love, and to make Christ Himself our “first love”. All else will then be given its proper relative place. Overseers need to learn afresh that they are firmly held in His right hand, and are responsible to Him for those whom He has entrusted to their care. Saints need to learn afresh that the Lord is walking in the midst of the lampstands and from Him nothing can be concealed. An awareness of His presence and a sight of His Majesty as detailed in chapter 1 would evoke the awe and love of His people. Have we lost that awareness?