Ephesus: Sound Doctrine But Deficient Love

THE LETTER – “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: 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 lampstand 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)

Background – At the time that Revelation was written, Ephesus was a major city of Asia Minor. It was a seaport community and was the location of the great temple of Artemis (Acts 19:24, 27–28, 34–35), which was numbered as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Paul had visited Ephesus about 53 AD, or about 43 years before the letter in Revelation was sent to them. Paul remained in Ephesus for several years and preached the gospel so effectively “that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). This large city was thoroughly stirred by Paul’s message (Acts 19:11–41), with the result that the silversmiths created a riot because their business of making shrines of Artemis was threatened.

The church accordingly had a long history and was the most prominent one in the area. Ephesus was also the home of the magic arts and of the mystery-cults, and was one of the first Asian centers of the imperial cult. The civilization of the city was mixture of Greek and Oriental. Ephesus also had a sizable Jewish population.

Ephesus was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. Its population is estimated to have been around 250,000 during the time of early Christianity. In the time of the Romans it bore the title of “the first and greatest metropolis of Asia.” A part of the site of this once famous city is now occupied by the small Turkish village of Ayasaluk, which is regarded as a corruption of the two Greek words, hagios theologos, which means the holy divine.

Greeting: What’s in A Name – Christ is depicted as holding seven stars in His right hand and walking among the seven golden lampstands. As previously noted, the stars were the angels or messengers of the churches and the lampstands were the seven churches. Figuratively speaking, God’s right hand is the means whereby victories are obtained for the people of God (Psalms 17:7; 98:1). It is also an instrument of punishment for the ungodly (Hebrews 2:16). While the right hand of man may be powerless to save (Job 40:14), God’s right hand is more than able to sustain His children in their hour of need (Psalm 139:10). Furthermore, God promises to strengthen the right hand of the person he helps (Isaiah 41:13).

The right hand of God is a place of choicest blessings (Psalm 16:11). Presently, Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for those he redeemed (Romans 8:34). With this description of Himself, the Lord reminded this church that He was in control (right hand) of their ministry. He places the stars wherever He so pleases and sees fit. The ministers of Christ are under his special care and protection. He knows the number of the stars, and calls them by their names.

Walking among the churches expresses a deliberate and measured activity, as He guards the church from both internal and external evils. As high priest, He moves freely to and fro in its midst. Christ is present and conversant with his churches. He knows and observes their state and desires to take pleasure in them. Though Christ is in Heaven, he also walks in the midst of his churches on earth, observing what may be amiss and what it is that they may be lacking. At this church, He is not on the outside knocking to be let back in.

This is how Christ addresses Himself to the church in Ephesus, whose condition at that time was seen in its very name. Ephesus means to relax or to let go. But how long will Christ continue to firmly hold a church in His grasp that is letting go? Ephesus was also called “the light of Asia,” and “first city of Asia.” But how long can a church’s light continue to shine after it begins to relax its love and fervor for the Lord?

Praise: What’s Pretty Good – This was a serving church, busy doing the works of the Lord and persevering. No doubt their weekly schedule was filled with many “religious” activities. It was also a sacrificing church. The words hard work or labor means to toil to the point of exhaustion. The Ephesian Christians paid a price to serve the Lord. They were also a steadfast assembly. The word perseverance or patience carries the meaning of endurance under trial. They kept going when the going got tough. The church was probably encountering opposition to their efforts, which may have resulted in persecution. Their refusal to conform to the demands of the imperial religion would have also caused social and political tension, causing backlash in commercial dealings and familial relationships.

The Ephesian church was a separated people, for they carefully examined the visiting ministers (2 John 7–11) to see if they were genuine. Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that false teachers would come in from the outside and even arise from within the church (Acts 20:28–31). John had instructed them to “try the spirits” (1 John 4:1–6). Satan has his false ministers and the Church must be constantly alert to detect and reject them (2 Corinthians 11:1–4, 12–15).

The Nicolaitans were specifically mentioned as a group that the church in Ephesus had tested, found false and would not tolerate (hated their deeds and expelled them). The word Nicolaitan means to conquer the people. There has been much speculation concerning the identity of the Nicolaitans, but the Scriptures do not specify who they were. But they apparently were a sect that had wrong practices and erroneous doctrine. So much so that Christ hated their practices. The early Church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian identified the sect with Nicholas a proselyte of Antioch and one of the seven original deacons of Jerusalem (Acts 6:5). If so, he later became an apostate from the truth. The sect appears to have been characterized by sensuality, seducing Christians to participate in the idolatrous feasts of pagans, and to unchastity. They are denoted by the names of Balaam and Jezebel, two leading agents of moral contamination under the Old Testament dispensation. Balaam enticed the Israelites through the influence of the women of Moab and Midian to engage in idolatry and fornication (Numbers 25; 31:16). Jezebel murdered the Lord’s prophets and established idolatry in Israel. The Nicolaitans taught that one must experience the entire range of sensuality in order to master it. They also taught that one could unreservedly abandon himself to the lusts of the body, since they affected only the body and did not touch the spirit.

Criticism: What’s Not So Good – While the church at Ephesus had deeds, hard work, and perseverance, their love for Christ had cooled to such an extent that Jesus said that they had “forsaken your first love.” In contrast, Paul had commended the Thessalonian church for “your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope” (1 Thessalonians 1:3). You see, it is not just what we do for Christ, but the motive behind it that really counts. Ephesus was a busy church with high spiritual standards, but their work lacked faith, their labor lacked love, and their patience lacked hope. It might have looked something like Figure 4.1.

Screenshot (71)They could not “tolerate wicked people.” They would not listen to false teachers. They did not grow weary even though the work had been difficult. In every way, it was a successful church from the human point of view. Some of today’s busy churches with their full calendars and weary workers might fit this description as well. But the Son of Man, walking in the midst of the church saw what was missing. They had forsaken (intentional?) not forgotten (unintentional?) their first love (Jeremiah 2:2). The local church is espoused to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2), but there is always the danger of that love growing cold (a warning in the Olivet Discourse). Like Martha, we can be so busy working for Christ that we have no time to love Him (Luke 10:38–42). Christ is more concerned about what we do with Him than for Him. To the public, the Ephesian church was successful. To Christ, it had fallen away.

What is this “first love” Jesus speaks of? It is the devotion to Christ that so often characterizes the new believer: fervent, personal, uninhibited, excited, and openly displayed. It is the honeymoon love of the husband and wife (Jeremiah 2:1–2). While true love deepens, and grows richer, it should never lose the excitement and wonder of those honeymoon days. When a husband and wife begin to take each other for granted, and life becomes routine, the marriage is in danger. This is also a danger sign in our walk with Christ. It is possible to serve, sacrifice, and suffer “for My name’s sake” and yet not “truly love” Jesus Christ. The Ephesian believers were so busy maintaining their separation from the world that they were neglecting their union with Christ. Separation from the world does not necessarily result in closer communion with Christ. Work, labor and endurance are no substitute for faith, love and hope. Purity is not a substitute for passion. Without them, a church (or individual Christian) is nothing more than a “resounding gong and a clanging cymbal.”

Christ used the word agape, speaking of the deep kind of love that God has for people. This rebuke contrasts with what Paul wrote the Ephesians 35 years earlier, that he never stopped giving thanks for them because of their faith in Christ and their love (agape) for the saints (Ephesians 1:15–16). Most of the Ephesian Christians were now second-generation believers, and though they had retained purity of doctrine and lifestyle and had maintained a high level of service, they were lacking in deep devotion to Christ. Sound doctrine and perseverance are simply inadequate without faith, hope and love.

Exhortation – First love can be restored by following the three “steps” that Christ gave (illustrated in figure 4.2).

Screenshot (77)

  • Remember – “Consider [or remember] how far you have fallen.” Remember (literally keep on remembering) what we have lost and cultivate a desire to regain that close communion once again (as David said, “restore to me the joy of Your salvation”).
  • Repent – “Repent” (change our minds, turn around) and confess our sins to the Lord (1 John 1:9).
  • Return – “Do the things you did at first,” return to “the love you had at first.” This suggests restoring the original fellowship that was broken by sin and neglect.

They must retrace their steps until they come to the place where they took the first false step. They must revive and recover their first zeal, tenderness, and seriousness, praying earnestly and watching diligently, as they did when they first set out in the ways of God. In calling the Ephesian believers to repentance Christ was asking them to change their attitude as well as their affections. They were to continue their service not simply because it was right but because they loved Christ.

Warning – A church that loses its love is in danger of losing its light, no matter how doctrinally sound it may be. Despite the privileges it had enjoyed, the church of Ephesus was in such danger. “I will come” is not referring to the Lord’s return, but to His coming judgment then and there. And that is ultimately what happened. The once glorious city of Ephesus is today but a heap of stones and little or no light is shining there.

Promise to Overcomers – This promise makes it clear that individual believers within the church may be true to the Lord, no matter what others in the church may be doing. In these messages to the seven churches, the overcomers are not the spiritual elite, but rather the true believers whose faith has given them victory (1 John 5:4–5). The word overcome is a favorite with John. He uses it in 1 John 2:13–14 with reference to overcoming the devil. He uses it seven times here in Revelation to describe believers and the blessings they receive (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). He is using the word overcomer as another name for the born-again Christian. Because we have been born of God, we are overcomers.

A story is told of a soldier in the army of Alexander the Great who was not acting bravely in battle. When he should have been pressing ahead, he was lingering behind. The great general approached him and asked, “What is your name, soldier?” The man replied, “My name, sir, is Alexander.” The general looked him straight in the eye and said firmly: “Soldier, get in there and fight—or change your name!” Alexander the Great wanted his name to be a symbol of courage. Christ wants those who bear His name to serve Him in love and to share that love with others. He wants us to be known for our “our work produced by faith, our labor prompted by love, and our endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 1:3).

The tree of life that is promised here was first mentioned in Genesis 3:22 in the Garden of Eden. Later it reappears in the New Jerusalem where it bears abundant fruit (Revelation 22:2). Those who eat of it will never die (Genesis 3:22). This promise should not be construed as reward for only a special group of Christians but a normal expectation for all Christians (overcomers). “The paradise of God” is probably another name for Heaven (Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 12:4—the only other New Testament references to paradise).

Reflection – The church of Ephesus had become a careless church, made up of careless believers who neglected their love for Christ. As a Church today, we need to guard against forsaking our first love. If and when we do, we need to repent and do what we did at first – work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope.

Screenshot (73)

Up Next – The Church at Smyrna.

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Cited sources

  1. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 933). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  2. Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Re 2:1). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.
  3. Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Re 2:1–7). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  4. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 436). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  5. Seal, D. (2012, 2013, 2014). Ephesus. In J. D. Barry, L. Wentz, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair-Wolcott, R. Klippenstein, D. Bomar, … D. R. Brown (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  6. Easton, M. G. (1893). In Easton’s Bible dictionary. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  7. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 933). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  8. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 1860). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  9. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 571). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  10. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 2465). Peabody: Hendrickson.
  11. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 555). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  12. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 2465). Peabody: Hendrickson.
  13. http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/tbr/tbr012.htm
  14. Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (Re 2:3). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
  15. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 439). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  16. Wiersbe, W. W. (1992). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (p. 801). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  17. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 572). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

 

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