May 2, 2008

Revelation 2:1-7: The Letter to Ephesus

Our recent series of studies has focused on the Old Testament prophets and what their messages reveal about the character of God. The Old Testament prophets were sent with messages that deal with sin of the times, and their prophecies were remarkably similar in showing how His people had turned away from Him, calling them back to worship and righteousness, warning them of consequences if they did not, and promising He would restore them in the future to Himself.

In our study so far in the Old Testament prophets, we have run into numerous of God’s character qualities: He is holy and desires for us to be holy, He is just and desires for us to be just, He is merciful and desires for us to be merciful; in short, He has high standards for us, and those standards involve knowing, adopting, and living out His holiness and character traits.

I want to take a break from the prophets for a few weeks in order to look at a short series of messages that are very similar from Christ in His messages to the seven 1st century churches. We find these messages, or letters, in Revelation 2 & 3, sent from the risen Savior to the seven prominent churches in the western part of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The churches were in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

The letters deal with situations and characteristics of those churches; some worthy of praise and some deserving rebuke and correction. Like the Old Testament prophecies, we can learn a lot about what God expects of His people in the church age; that is, what He expects from us.

These letters have three dimensions.

First, they were written to real churches at the time and deal with real victories and real problem areas. Two of the churches receive only commendations (Smyrna and Philadelphia); four receive commendations for some and rebuke for other characteristics (Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, and Sardis); and one (Laodicea) receives only a rebuke.

Second, they were written to all Christian congregations everywhere in every era.

Third, as the church age unfolded, it became apparent that there is also a prophetic element: the characteristics of each church in the order the letters are given tend to correspond to the characteristics of seven eras in church history from that time until today.

The letters to the churches should be a guide for us not only in the ways we individually live out our faith in our culture as well as the purposes and goals of our own church. Today we will start looking at these messages one by one.

The letter to the church at Ephesus

Revelation 2:1-7:

"To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, 'These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that 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; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds 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 to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.'"

The first letter is to the church at Ephesus, found in Revelation 2:1-7. The account of the beginning of this congregation is found in Acts 19, with Paul traveling to Ephesus from Corinth and, finding a group of a dozen disciples there, baptized them, taught them, and laid hands on them, imparting gifts of the Spirit. He spent the next several months teaching in the synagogue and winning new converts.

Ephesus was port city and shipping center, and three land trade routes passed through the city. It was an important city of trade and commerce, the home of many wealthy merchant families and a very strong economy.

Many religions were practiced in Ephesus. The temple of Diana in Ephesus was one of the 7 wonders of the world. It was 425 feet long, 225 feet wide, and 60 feet high. It featured a stunning solid cypress stairway. Because of the many religions in the city, the sale of idols was a big business, with hundreds of craftspeople and merchants earning their living from carving or casting idols for sale. This resulted in severe opposition to the growing Christian church, which preached not a superior God, as all the pagan religions of the city claimed for their gods, but that God was the true and only deity. If the Christian church gained a foothold, the craftspeople and merchants knew, the industry would suffer. If the Christians became the dominant religion, the industry would die. Acts 19:23-28 describes the reaction of the craftspeople to the new monotheistic practice:

“And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen. He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: ‘Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship.’ Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’”

Ephesus was a Roman “free city,” a judicial center for the region, enjoying the status of self-rule, and in which citizens highly valued individual rights and freedoms. The city was the site of annual athletic games drawing athletes and spectators from hundreds of miles away.

Paul spent at least three years ministering at the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:31). Timothy, Paul’s protégé, was pastor of the church (1 Timothy 1:3), and it is thought that John wrote 1, 2, and 3 John from Ephesus, after which he was exiled to the island of Patmos, about 70 miles from Ephesus, where he wrote the book of Revelation.

The Ephesian church was doctrinally sound and opposed evil, false doctrines, and false teachers (Revelation 2:2,6). From its outset, the Christians at Ephesus demonstrated love for truth and righteousness and opposition to false religion and doctrine.

In this letter to the church, our Lord commends the Ephesian Christians for their good works, patience, labor, rejection of evil people and false apostles (tested them and proved their error, verse 2), perseverance, and the fact they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (verse 6).

Irenaeus, a 2nd-century church leader, describes the Nicolaitans as a sect had arisen in the early days of Christianity. The Nicolaitans believed that since Christians are saved by grace and free from the law, nothing they do could be called evil. In his doctrinal work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes that the Nicolaitans “lead lives of unrestrained indulgence” as a right of Christian liberty. Clement of Alexandria, another 2nd-century church leader, wrote about the Nicolaitans: “They abandoned themselves to pleasure like goats, leading a life of self-indulgence.”

The practices of the Nicolaitans were similar to the practices of those accused of following the doctrine of Balaam (a charge against the church at Pergamos, verse 14; the church at Pergamos also is accused of tolerating the doctrine of the Nicolaitans in their midst, a fact which Christ calls "a thing I hate" in verse 15).

The Lord also has a reprimand to the Ephesians: “You have left your first love” (verse 4); “repent and do the first works” (verse 5).

What is that "first love"? That has been a matter of some debate over the centuries, but we can get insight from what we know about the Ephesians.

The Christians in the Ephesian church were absolutely doctrinally on target. Next to the Jerusalem church, they in fact were the most knowledgeable about pure doctrine. For years, Paul taught there. He left Timothy in Ephesus to lead the church. John spent many years in Ephesus preaching and teaching. They knew their stuff and knew false doctrine when they heard it. The Ephesians were known for doctrinal purity from the beginning of the church there. Ignatius, a very early church leader and bishop of the church in Antioch in Greece, wrote in a letter to the Ephesian church, “you live according to truth, and no heresy has a home among you; no, you do not so much as even listen to anyone if he speaks anything else but truth concerning Jesus Christ.” Ignatius wrote that sometime around 105-110 A.D.

But, while we find a lot of evidence of doctrinal purity, we find nothing in the epistles or any other literature about the Ephesian church being enthusiastic about their faith, a love for Jesus that just overflows, that shows itself to other Christians and is a witness to unbelievers to the love and power of the Savior. It’s the love Jesus describes when He was asked what is the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:39-31).

The Ephesians were right on when it came to doctrinal truth. But they seem to have lost touch with the zealous and unfettered love for their Savior and Lord; the bubbling-over kind of love for God we all knew as young Christians and which so effectively witnessed about God's love and saving grace to the pagan world.

So what does Christ tell them is the solution? “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works” (verse 5). In other words, think back to the time when Jesus saved you; bring back that enthusiastic love you once felt. Tell others not about your doctrinal purity, but about how deep is the love and grace of Christ, the Savior and Lord. Experience—not just individually, but also as a church—the love for your Savior you felt in the beginning, when you were first saved.

Conclusion

Our Lord wants us to be doctrinally pure. He wants us to study His word, discuss with each other Who He is, what He is like, what He reveals to us about His will. He wants us to be able to recognize false teaching and to confront it, but He also wants us to feel the love for Him that He feels for us: complete commitment; an enthusiastic love that puts no one but our Savior first; a love that enjoys His presence just because of Who He is; a love that we can know is with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.

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