“To the church at 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 something 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.”‘ (NKJV)
As we go through these seven letters, we’ll look at the city in which the church lived. Our Lord uses what they experience there in His counsel to them. Then we’ll look at the description Christ uses of Himself, descriptions which come from the vision opening the book. Then we’ll look at the content of the letter and what our Lord said to each church.
The City of the Epistle.
Ephesus was a very important city of the Roman province of Asia, which, as we’ve seen, was not in the Far East, but was in what we know as Turkey. Until the harbor filled in with silt, it had been a prominent sea port. It remained a center of commerce, a point of contact between Greek and Asiatic cultures and was noted for its riches and trade.
By NT times, Ephesus had enjoyed a rich and varied history. A focus of that history was the famed Temple of Diana (Artemis), the pride of the city. It had been burned down on the night of the birth of Alexander the Great, but was rebuilt larger and more beautiful. Its construction took 220 years and required contributions from the whole province of Asia. Paul saw it at the height of its glory, when it was listed among the seven wonders of the ancient world. There was, in addition to and connected with this temple, a tremendous emphasis on magical powers. Paul had to deal with this while he was there.
The NT records a period of intense activity, Acts 20:20, 31, and of unusual miracles by Paul, Acts 19:11. These “unusual miracles” (Gk. “uncommon works of power”) are no basis for the so-called “prayer cloths” or “handkerchiefs” some have offered, but were designed to counteract the pagan focus of the city. Even to Paul, these things were “uncommon.” And “signs and wonders” weren’t permanent, even to the apostles. We read later in the NT of the sickness of one of Paul’s associates. We read nothing of Paul “healing” him.
As a result of Paul’s ministry, we read that many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. And many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted up the value of them, and it totaled fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed, Acts 19:18-20.
Now this true revival and work of God in turning many from falsehood to the worship and service of the true God led to a tremendous decline in the commercial side of the worship of Diana, with loss to the business of selling the little shrines used in her worship, and the consequent loss to those who made and sold them. And about this 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, vs. 23, 24. The resulting riot forced Paul to leave Ephesus and there are no further recorded visits to the city.
The Christ of the Epistle, 2:1.
Each of the seven letters begins with a characterization of Christ taken from the vision John saw in chapter 1, a characterization suitable to the spiritual condition of the church addressed. In this letter, Christ is described as the One holding the seven angels, or ministers of the churches, in His right hand. He is the One who places them there, and it is to Him they are answerable.
Christ says, “I know.” The word He uses here is instructive. One of the words the NT uses for “knowing” means, “to progress in knowledge.” We might say, “to learn” because there’s something of whatever we do “know” that we still don’t “know.” That’s not the word our Lord uses here. The word He chose means “to know completely.” There’s nothing about this church, or about us, that He doesn’t know everything about or that He has to “learn.”
This means He knows our “secret” sins, our failures, our shortcomings. There’s no use trying to hide them or to gloss them over. He knows them.
But it also means that He knows our secret struggles and sufferings. Sometimes Christians are amazed when suffering in one form or another comes to us. And there are those who make a good living teaching that the Christian life is “without a care,” as an unfortunate “Gospel” song used to say. But the fact is we live in enemy territory. This world, under the leadership of Satan, “the god of this age,” 2 Corinthians 4:4, is no friend to us. In this country, we’ve been spoiled because we’ve enjoyed many years of relative peace and protection. That’s coming to an end. It probably won’t too many years, maybe months, before Christianity and the Bible are declared illegal in this country that was founded by those who had respect for both of them.
Further, we live in a world that’s been cursed because of sin. It should be no surprise then to find “thorns” in whatever “field” we are in, Genesis 3:17-19.
Our Lord knows all about it. In fact, I believe He knows it far better than any of us could, having experienced it Himself. We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with out weaknesses, but was in all points tested as we are, yet without sin, Hebrews 4:25.
He walked in our shoes.
The Contents of the Epistle, 2:2-7.
1. commendation, vs. 2, 3.
– Our Lord commends the church for their faithful labor: “your works, your labor, your patience.” They had labored and persevered to the point of exhaustion.
– He commends them for their faithful diligence. They could not bear those who are evil.” There are two main words used in the original for “evil,” often interchangeably, but there is still some distinction between them. One word is “poneros,” which means destructive, injurious evil. It’s used of Satan, that “wicked one,” in several places in the NT. The other word, used here, is “kakos,” and denotes what is useless, incapable or bad. It describes one who is “useless” in an area in which he ought to be useful: a cowardly soldier, a lazy student, an unproductive employee. The Ephesian church could not bear those whom we might call “dead wood,” for example, folks whose bodies are in the pew, but not their minds and hearts.
– He commended them for their faithful listening: “you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars.” Elsewhere, John put it like this, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world, 1 John 4:1. I wonder what he would say today, with all the means of communication we have: TV, radio, the internet, print, Twitter. More than ever, we need that attitude of some who heard Paul, who searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so, Acts 17:11, emphasis added.
Satan has no problem quoting Scripture, cf. Matthew 4:5. In fact, he probably “knows” it better than most folks. I once received a tract denying the Trinity, which claimed that Jesus is the only God there is. It had about 90 Scripture references. The thing that fascinated me was that several of these same Scriptures are used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to “prove” that Jesus isn’t God at all, but only a created being. Thus both groups totally miss the point, though using lot of Scripture.
We need to know what it says!
– He again commends them for their faithfulness in serving Him, v. 3. “and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.” This is the second time He’s mentioned their works and labor. One would think that’s enough; it certainly seems to be in our time. Church calendars are full of activities of all kinds. But there’s more….
2. complaint, v. 4, “Nevertheless….”
Oh, what a solemn word this is! The average pastor would likely be glad to have a zealous church like this, yet our Lord sees a grievous imperfection: “you have left your first love.” Note, they left, not lost, that love. The love of Christ and the church is compared to that of a bridegroom and his bride, yet how little fervency there is in the average Christian. I’m afraid we’ve grown to want what He gives us, but not Himself.
“Love” is a key word with regard to this church. In Paul’s letter to this church, there are some 18 references to “love,” beginning with God’s love toward us in eternity past in choosing and predestining us to adoption as sons, then focusing on Christ’s love and the effect it should have in our lives as believers, and closing with that grand crescendo of a man’s love for his wife.
With regard to this last, I think of Genesis 29:20, which happens during Jacob’s troubles with his father-in-law, Laban. Remember the story in Genesis 29. Jacob had fallen for Rachel, the younger of Laban’s two daughters. He agreed to work for Laban for seven years in order to be able to marry her. However, when the time came, Laban tricked him and gave him his elder daughter, Leah. Genesis 29:20 gives us Jacob’s attitude during this first seven years, and I like the KJV rendering here: And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her. “Seven years…a few days…for love…to her.”
Ephesus had lost that view, that lightness of spirit that make hard things easy. Serving Christ had ceased to be a delight; it had become simply a duty.
What should they do?
Our Lord tells them.
3. Counsel, v. 5.
– remember (lit. “keep remembering”). See the same word in Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders, Acts 20:31. Remember the first ardor of salvation. Remember who He is. Remember what He did. Remember what He has promised. Remember, remember, remember!
Yet how quickly we forget!
– repent. There are those who tell us that repentance is a “Jewish” doctrine and that it’s now unnecessary. Yet our Lord told His church in Ephesus to “repent” (twice). He told five of the seven churches to “repent.” Ephesus was to repent of leaving His love (cf. Jude 20, 21), and to –
– return, “do the first works.”
This is not a call to “service”! What is needed is not just more “service:” more activity, more items on the church calendar, more “things to do,” but a return to that supreme love to and for Christ. This love is the only acceptable motive (to God) for our service, a love that would make that service so much easier, not because we would do less (we likely would do more!), but because such love would change it from a “duty” (which is usually a burden) to a “delight” (which is something altogether different!)
– remain, “or else….”
This refers to our Lord’s coming in judgment to remove the church’s witness as a light-bearer. The church in Ephesus has been gone a long time. So have the other six churches. We wonder how many Christians and churches are still going through the motions, but have their true witness removed. And how many church buildings have been sold and are being used for something else. I think of one here locally that’s now a beauty salon. There are countless others.
It’s a solemn thought.
4. Commendation, “But this you have, that you hate the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
There is some discussion as to what this means. I tend toward the view that it refers to the separation of Christians into “clergy” and “laity.” This distinction has no basis in Scripture and introduced a great evil into the churches, namely, the evil of seeking for, and pride in, “position.” Such easily becomes the goal, instead of that love of and for Christ that is the only worthy and acceptable motive for service.
5. Conclusion, v. 7, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”
What does this mean?
It’s pretty clear that it means salvation.
“I thought we’re saved by grace through faith.”
Amen and amen.
Hear, or read, Paul:
In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love, Galatians 5:6.
There is a lot of stuff in this world that calls us away from the Lord Jesus. As we saw in our study of Hebrews, there’s danger in leaving Him; it might mean we were never His to begin with. This is why He calls the Ephesian church, and us, back to that loving faith in Him which is the only acceptable motive for Christian living, and that perseverance which is the only real evidence that we’re His.