The Letter to the Church at Ephesus
This week we’ll begin our examination of the ‘seven letters’ to the churches in Asia Minor, which I view as the most important portion of the entire book of Revelation. Why? Because these letters were written to all of us to prompt us to examine our own spiritual condition. If you’ve ever wondered what God thought of your own personal faith, you can find that answer right here, because each one of us can find ourselves in one or more of these churches. In fact, as we go through these letters over the next seven weeks, I would encourage you to find the church that most represents your own personal state. I think I know which one mine is, and if I were honest with myself…..I have a little work to do.
As a short primer for the seven letters, let me point out the structure that each letter is built upon. They all follow a specific pattern that includes the following seven elements;
1) Church Name – The name of the church summarizes the letter
2) Jesus’ Name – Jesus gives himself a name that relates to that church
3) Commendation – Jesus gives the church a commendation
4) Admonition – Jesus gives the church an admonition
5) Exhortation – Jesus gives the church an exhortation
6) Closing – Jesus gives a closing statement
7) Promise – Jesus makes a promise to those that overcome
Although this is the basic framework, there are a few interesting deviations from this pattern. First, two churches receive no commendation, and two churches receive no admonishment. Also, the first three letters have item 6 followed by item 7, while the last four letters have item 7 followed by item 6. In addition, each of the seven letters can be applied in the following way;
1) Contemporary – They contained a message for that particular church in John’s day
2) Composite – Each letter had applications to the church as a whole
3) Chronological – Each letter represents a period in church history
As we proceed through the seven letters, many of these things will become apparent, but we’ll point out a number of these things along the way. So let’s get started.
THE LETTER TO THE CHURCH AT EPHESUS
“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 lamp stands.
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. 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 lamp stand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
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.” (Revelation 2:1-7)
1) EPHESUS – THE MEANING
In the Greek language, Ephesus can mean ‘Darling’ or ‘Desired One’ or ‘First’, and each of these potential names are quite appropriate for this church. As we learned in the earlier sessions on covenant and the Tree of Life, Adam was the patriarch of Ephesus, and the various names cited above draw a direct correlation between Adam and this church. Adam was God’s spiritual bride in the Garden, His ’darling’ and ’desired one’, and ‘first’ man, and Ephesus shared a similar experience as a church. As we proceed through this lesson, you’ll see the parallels.
Ephesus was the most prominent city of Asia Minor in its day, and was called the ‘Light of Asia’ by Pliny. It was a port city with a large harbor, making it a religious and commercial center second to none. When one arrived in the harbor and stepped into the city, they would enter through a spectacular harbor boulevard made of white marble. As a whole, the city was quite impressive with large buildings and markets, a theater that sat 25,000 people, and a large amphitheater that seated 100,000. It even featured the Temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ in that day, and with all of its available attractions, Ephesus often had between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 people in the city at a time.
The city was founded by Anatolians that worshipped the pagan goddess Diana, therefore the city was built around her Temple. This temple was four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens, but was built near the water’s edge, where the Cayster and Little Maeander Rivers eventually silted it over. Alexander the Great then rebuilt the Temple on higher ground, where it also served as the bank of Asia and as an art gallery for many famous artists. But the Temple was eventually destroyed by the Goths in 256 A.D. and was never rebuilt.
We’ll see in our examination of the seven churches that the Christians in Asia Minor were surrounded by pagan people groups that practiced many degrading and perverse rituals. The city of Ephesus was one of those areas, and for the typical Ephesian, worship became nothing more than a series of sanctioned orgies and perversion. Diana was the pagan goddess of fertility, so you can imagine the uphill battle that Christians had in dealing with her adherents. They were severely persecuted for claiming a gospel message that was antithetical to Diana worship. In other words, the Ephesians were essentially saying ‘don’t spoil our fun’ while Christians were saying ‘we’re trying to save your lives’.
Despite the pagan influences surrounding them and the severe persecution that they often endured, the church at Ephesus continued on undaunted, earning them the title of ‘the persevering church’. Ephesus was very blessed to have the influence of two Apostles, Timothy and John, and both helped pastor this church during its early days. In those years I doubt very much that these Apostles would have let them ‘forget’ their first love, Jesus Christ, with whom they had walked. But John was subsequently exiled to Patmos for at least 10 years, where he wrote the book of Revelation while in captivity. It was during this time that this church fell into its error. So upon his release around 95 A.D., John returned to Ephesus where he once again played a role in pastoring the church.
When we consider the seven letters to the churches as a whole, they provide a historical chronology that is still playing itself out, with each church representing the overall character of Christ’s church at a certain point in time. In this instance, most commentators agree that the conditions associated with the church of Ephesus represent the overall condition of the church during the period from its beginning around 30 A.D., to around 100 A.D. This was a time when many Christians suffered martyrdom at the hands of the pagan cultures around them, and this undoubtedly is why the color of the rainbow associated with Ephesus is red, the color of the blood covenant on our Tree of Life. More on that in a moment.
2) CHRIST’S NAME
The name Jesus uses for himself in this instance is “Him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lamp stands.” From an earlier lesson you may recall that the ‘seven stars’ were the seven angels that Jesus uses to administer these seven churches, and that the ‘seven lamp stands’ were actually the seven ‘menorahs’ that form the Tree of Life. And the fact that Jesus is seen walking among the seven menorahs signifies that He is our High Priest tending to the light emitted by each church, just as the High Priest always tended to the menorah lights in the Temple, causing each to burn with its greatest possible efficiency.
While it may not seem apparent at first, the reason this particular name was used in association with Ephesus was that this church had lost its focus on Jesus, and was in danger of losing its lamp stand entirely. As High Priest, Jesus was charged with either re-igniting their flame, or snuffing them out completely, because they no longer burned with the brilliant light of their past. They had lost their ‘first love’. So we can imagine that John, having recorded these words himself, immediately addressed this concern upon his return, and helped the Ephesians re-kindle that love.
The report card for these Ephesians was mostly positive, which was no small task for a persecuted church in a pagan land. They were not a dead church, since they had deeds in their favor (James 2:26), and they also were characterized by hard work and perseverance, so that’s a good start. And add to that the fact that they didn’t tolerate the wicked men of that area, which were many, and that they tested those that preached a different Gospel than the Apostles preached (2Corinthians 2:3-6). In other words, the Ephesians were good ‘Bereans’ (Acts 17:11) that tested the claims of others, and they apparently endured quite a few hardships in this process of defending their faith. That seems to be the lot for Christians that remain pure to God’s word. But…..the church at Ephesus did have one gaping problem that could potentially prove fatal;
“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.”
Ouch. What a thing to hear from the Lord after all the work they had done for His name. Ephesus was so busy with their deeds and works that they lost their focus on the One they were doing them for; Jesus. Of course, that’s probably more common in Christianity than we would care to admit, as many modern day denominations have shifted their emphasis away from Christ and into deeds. I can recount a number of sermons I’ve attended in recent years while on vacation, and a few of those sermons contained NO reference to Jesus Christ or the message of the Cross. If I can be so bold, it seems that those churches had also forsaken their first love due to the influence of the world around them, and we see churches like these all over America that are now losing their ‘lamp stands’.
When Ephesus was told to “Remember the height from which you have fallen!”, we can draw yet another analogy to Adam. Clearly Adam was at the pinnacle of the human experience as the spiritual bride of Jesus in the Garden of Eden. But Adam forsook his ‘first love’ by sinning in a way that God had expressly forbidden. In the same way, the Ephesians also had a pinnacle experience while John pastored them, but they too would fall away once John was exiled. So Jesus told both to repent and examine their priorities, or they would cease to exist. This reality is all too familiar in Christianity, and there is no better example of this than right here in America, where the ten largest churches in the United States in the 1950’s no longer exist. And I’ll bet dollars to donuts that they too lost their ‘first love’.
Despite the rebuke, Ephesus wasn’t done receiving praise. Although their admonition must have stung, the Lord’s exhortation concludes with another compliment. It seems that Ephesus was very much a laity-driven church, which is why they hated the practices of the ‘Nicolaitans’. The name of this group, comprised of two words, has a very distinct meaning in Greek that reveals their character. The first part is Nico which comes from Nicao, which means ‘to conquer’. This is related to the word Nike, the god of victory that we’ll all recognize from the swoosh on our athletic shoes. The second is Laitan which comes from laos and means ‘laity’ or ‘common people’. So when combined, the Nico-laitans were clergymen that had ‘conquered’ their ‘laity’. Many commentators feel that this referred to a Gnostic group in Ephesus that had taught it’s people that to understand sin, you had to indulge in it. In this way, their pagan beliefs had conquered their laity, steering them away from the truth that would save them.
PROMISE TO OVERCOMER
The promise to the overcomer at Ephesus that he/she would eat from the ‘tree of life’ is another direct reference to Adam, since it was Adam that was denied the right to eat from the tree when he was expelled from the Garden. This tree obviously was symbolic of eternal life, which Adam forfeited after disobeying God, and eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But as with all overcomers, Adam will get another bite at the apple one day soon, and this time it will be allowed.
At this point we can refer to the illustration of the Tree of Life that was presented in an earlier lesson. Adam was the first patriarch and signatory to God’s Ketubah, and he was associated with Ephesus, the first church. The color of this church was red, signifying the blood covenant.
The symbol of blood was appropriate for Adam because Adam’s sin required the first shedding of blood on earth, since God then sacrificed animals to create clothing for Adam and Eve. And the red color of blood was also appropriate for the church at Ephesus, since many of their saints were martyred during this time period. So both Adam and Ephesus typified the ‘blood covenant’ that represented the salvation we have in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus, the Son of God.
The overall theme of this letter to the church at Ephesus is to remain devoted to Jesus Christ, even during times of persecution. Only in this way can we become the ‘overcomer’ that will inherit the kingdom of God.