Unto the Church in Ephesus, Write
Last week, we were introduced to the magnificent vision of Christ which John saw, which left him as though he were dead. This was similar to the vision that several of the Old Testament prophets had seen with a similar feeling of being undone. However, in this vision, it was more than a vision as John felt the touch of the hand of Jesus. Several parts of Jesus’ appearance were described and which will find themselves again at various points of the text, including today’s passage.
Today, we will look at the portion of the letter which is addressed to the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was considered the crown jewel of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Even though it was not the capital of the Roman province of Asia which was Pergamum, it was the greatest city in Asian Minor. It boasted one of the largest populations of any city in the Roman Empire. It had magnificent buildings, and all the amenities of what was then modern Rome. There was running water, baths, indoor toilets for the rich, anyway, a library, a school and library complex, as well as a large theatre which could seat 25,000 people.
The city was a free city which the Romans granted the right of self-governance. This was an esteemed privilege which was granted and defended against anything which would disturb the peace. This is why the clerk of the city (mayor) in Acts 19:35 was quick to calm the disturbance which broke out as a result of Paul’s preaching there. This was a real threat. We can see that this happened to Judaea and Jerusalem who had been self-governed under the Herods. But when the peace was disturbed there, Rome took control and appointed a Roman governor. The same could have happened here.
There were several temples in the city dedicated to various gods. The biggest of these was the Temple of Artemis (Diana) which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was the cause of much of the cities wealth, and many entrusted their valuables to her safekeeping in the Temple. Loans were made on these deposits, making the Temple serve as a bank. The tourists of the Artemis trade was a major boost to the economy, just as the Temple in Jerusalem was to Palestine. When Paul arrived there, his preaching there disturbed the business of selling souvenir shrines as well as those who sold magic charms. This led to the aforementioned disturbance that caused the pople of the town to riot and rush to the theatre shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”
There was also a large Jewish community there as well. The preaching of John the Baptist had arrived there which led to speculation that the Messiah was at hand. Apollos, a Jew from another great city of the Roman Empire, Alexandria, had come there with his great knowledge of the Scripture and probably the Alexandrian Jewish theology as well. So Paul and his companions had found fertile ground to expound Jesus to. And apparently, the well-educated Jews gave Paul a little more time to make his case before rising up against him. It was one of these Ephesian Jews who led to Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem.
Ephesus became a great center of Christianity. Paul spent three years there preaching. At some later time, John himself came there. Timothy was there. It became the source of missionary activity to Asia Minor, including the seven churches or Revelation.
We don’t have any Scriptural evidence of the interactions between the Christians which Paul evangelized, and those which John had charge over. As churches were usually house churches, it is possible that Ephesus was large enough for Paul and John, especially if Ephesus was considered to be the city with its surrounding suburbs. This does not mean, of course, that there was not some degree of contact between their churches. However, the only other church of the seven in Revelation that Paul makes mention of in Colossians is a now lost letter to the Laodicieans.
Many of the New Testament seem to focus around Ephesus. Of these, Revelation, Acts, and Ephesians make direct mention of Ephesus. In addition, we can add 1 and 2 Timothy, probably 1 John, the Gospel of John, and possibly Hebrews. From these, we can come up with some idea of the churches of Ephesus. Paul had prophetically warned the elders of the church to guard the church’s teaching against grevious wolves who would attempt to scatter the flock. There is strong evidence that these travelling false teachers had tried to infiltrate the churches with their heresies. We see this in 1 and 2 Timothy and 1 John. From Revelation, we learn that they had passed that test. We also learn from the other sources that Ephesus struggled with Christian love, which is also evidenced here.
Finally, Emperor Worship was firmly established in Ephesus. The guardians of Emperor Worship in Ephesus were called Asiarchs and are mentioned in Acts as warning Paul not to venture to the theatre to defend himself. Eventually this cult would demand worship from everyone. In order to buy anything in the market, one had to offer incense to Caesar as a god in order to enter. They would receive a stamp on their hand (mark of the beast?) which cleared them to enter the market. They were also to obtain yearly certificates indicating they had made the proper sacrifices. We cannot be sure how far along the worship of the Emperor had progressed at the time of Revelation, but Caesar wanted to be called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The fact that both Revelation and 1 Timothy claim this title for Jesus indicates that a showdown was starting between those who would worship Caesar and those who would worship Christ.
Exposition of the Text
The messages to all seven churches begin with “Unto the church in __________, write” and an admonition that those who have ears need to head this message which comes from the Holy Spirit. This introduction to the church is followed by a “Thus says”. This reminds us of the Old Testament prophets introducing their oracles with a statement like “Thus saith the LORD. These messages which are coming by the pen of John are actually coming from God Himself.
Each message to the individual church picks up something which John has already written in the Apocalypse about Jesus. To the church at Ephesus, he reminds them that Jesus holds the seven stars firmly in His right hand. This means that He is Lord and has authority over them. It also means that it is also He who protects Him. As we noted last week, the “right hand” is a metaphor of strength. This should produce a mixture or reverent fear as well as comfort to the church.
In addition, Jesus reminds them that He is walking in the middle of the seven churches. If the image of Jesus in a long white robe and golden sash is that of a priest, then Jesus is portrayed as one who maintains the oil in the lamps and walks back and forth between them, then here we see that Jesus is taking an active role in maintaining discipline in the church that the light of the seven churches may not go out. And if the lamp is din, then these admonitions which He brings to the seven churches are for the purpose of the lights shining even brighter. Even though this is directed at Ephesus, all of the other churches will be hearing this message as well and need to take heed.
In verse two, Jesus begins by letting the Ephesians know that he is aware of what is going on for good or ill in Ephesus as well as the other churches as well. He knows their works, and nothing is hidden. He relates what the church is doing well at Ephesus. This is true of the messages to all the churches except Sardis and Laodicea. The Ephesian church had many things going for it. First of all, the church is commended for its perseverance under difficult conditions. They had been patient and deliberate in their undertakings. This was demonstrated in their thorough investigation of claims of those who came, claiming that they were sent by God. They showed no tolerance for those whose claims were not consistent to what Jesus had taught and what had been transmitted by the true Apostles, They were the inside threat to the purity of the church. These “liars” are mentioned before the outside threat because they actually represent a greater threat to the church than any amount of persecution from outside. The northern tribes were not destroyed by the Assyrian army. Many captives were taken and assimilated into the world culture. But they had lost their identity as Israel. God said this was the result of rot from the inside which resulted in their removal as the people of God.
Verse three seems to mention the outside pressure brought to bear under the Ephesian church. Under some degree of external opposition, they had remained faithful to Christ and had borne up well from the reproaches which had been cast at them. They had not fainted in their witness to them. It is interesting that the word “fainted” or in some translations “become tired” is a verb which is used to describe Jesus’ condition at the Samaritan well in John 4 as well as used with the noun “labor” twice in John 4:38 to describe the labor that the Old Testament Prophets and Jesus underwent to sow the seeds of the Gospel. Their labor was unto death. John uses the verb here and these three times in the perfect tense in Greek which indicates an ongoing condition. If the meaning carries over here, it might be similar to the admonition to the church in Hebrews 12:4 that they had not yet resisted unto blood. Ralph Bass seems to think that Hebrews was written during the same time period as Revelation, that is not long before the destruction of Jerusalem and was dealing with a immanent persecution of the church, as does Revelation. I also seem to think that Hebrews has Ephesus or the general area as either the source or destination of the letter. This would then serve as a warning to Ephesus that they had held up well from external pressure; however, these pressures were about to increase. The church needed to remain faithful under these deteriorating conditions.
If the reader wishes to know more about the use of “tired” in John 4, he/she might want to reference my sermons “She Finally Found a Good Man” and “Sole Food” which are available in this sermon archive.
Verse four begins with a strong “BUT”. The Greek has a weaker and stronger word that are translated “but” in English. When the strong BUT is used in Greek, it has the idea of replacement. This means all the good things Jesus has said so far is about to be cancelled out and replaced by what He does not like. In other words, all the good things the church was commended for are for nothing if it continues in doing what is wrong.
The real danger to the church was an internal, not an external one. As much as the pressure from the outside was mounting. And the internal danger to the church was not doctrinal. Jesus has already commended them for that. The internal danger to the church was not loose morals either. They were commended in verse 6 that they hated the libertine teaching of the Nicolaitans. Their problem was that they had left their first love. This must be immediately addressed, or else.
We do not know the relation between the time that the Gospel of John, 1 John, and Revelation were written. It seems probable that the Ephesian church was in some way involved in all three of these writings of John. But love is strongly stressed. John in his gospel shows the paradigm of love. “He loved them with a perfect love (telos), a love that was demonstrated by His laying His life down for them. This was something Jesus expected from his disciples as well. First John also deals extensively with love that is sacrificial as well.
What here is meant by “first” love? Jesus Himself in the gospels describes the two commands of love, that of God and neighbor as being the fulfillment of all ten of the commandments. Is this first love, the love we are to have for God? It is very difficult to separate these two commands as this was an answer to the question in the singular “What is the greatest commandment.” The two are inextricably tied to each other and cannot be separated. John teaches this very strongly in agreement with Jesus. So I don’t think this is exactly what is in mind here.
If Jesus commands sacrificial love, this love must be demonstrated first among the brethren and made a reality before it can be extended to those who are without. If this is a command, then it is a doctrine as well. Doctrine is not abstract truth; it is truth that is meant to be lived out. Truth and love are not oxymorons. It is not an either or but a both and. So in this context of immediate persecution. I feel first love is the love in which each member of the body looks out for the welfare of the other, even to the point of laying down their lives to protect their fellow brothers and sisters. The church needed to make a united front to those who are outside or else brother would betray brother unto death to save one’s own skin. If the church motto became “every man for himself”, the church would lose its distinctiveness and would die.
This is what drives Jesus to issue His command to the church to repent. Repentance is poorly understood in today’s world who sees it as an emotional sorrow. However, the Greek understanding of “repentance” involves carefully considering what has been said. The church need to think this out and then act on it. They should turn from the old and worldly way of thinking that it was “all about ME”, and instead think the way that Jesus and the Apostles had taught.
Jesus warns that if the church does not repent, He would remove their candlestick. This means that they would cease to be a church. This goes along with what I mentioned before about the lost tribes of Israel as well as the stress on holding together under external pressure. This is a serious threat.
After this warning, Jesus does commend that they have not given in to the spirit of the age, to compromise the faith and mix in pagan elements including perhaps emperor worship in order to get along. We will talk about the Nicolaitans later and what they believed. Compromise was as deadly to the identity of the church of Jesus as was outright denying the faith.
In verse seven, Jesus commands them to obey what they have heard. All others from the other six churches who were overhearing this need to take heed as well. By extension, we today need to heed this. He finishes by bringing a future promise of blessing which He will elaborate more fully later in Revelation. To the overcomers, they will have the right to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. We have talked before that Revelation is a comedy ending in a wedding to those who persevere in faith and a eternal funeral and tragedy to those who do not. Even though Jesus ends His message on an upbeat message to overcomers, it must be implied here that to those who are overcome and either deny or compromise their faith that they will not have a right to the tree of life.
We know that the churches of Ephesus continued for several hundred more years. They survived the persecutions of Rome well, which stands as a testimony that they took the message of Jesus to love one another sacrificially, seriously. But after the Roman Empire accepted Christianity, things started to deteriorate. The Romans wanted to use Christianity to achieve political unity in the Empire. But doctrinal differences developed between the followers of a bishop named Arius and another named Athanasius. The emperor Constantine saw this as a danger to the unity of the Empire and forced the Christian bishops to assemble at Nicaea to resolve the difference. This was not a matter of love to resolve these issues, but rather one of politics. Constantine did not seem to care which side prevailed. He would enforce the winning doctrine. The Nicean Creed became orthodox, I think rightly. But following Emperors preferred Arius. Both sides forgot Christian charity and threw anathemas back and forth at each other. Athanasius was exiled several times, and it stands as an act of supreme courage on his part that resulted in the victory of Orthodoxy. After this, several other doctrinal disputes broke out. One of these disputes led to a church council being called in Ephesus.
Shortly after Constantine’s death, the political unity he desired was lost, and the Empire split in two. This led eventually to a split in the church as well. This left Ephesus open to attack by the followers of Mohammed, a couple of hundred years later. Today, Ephesus is a ruin. Only rubble remains of the magnificent city. The church died with it. Jesus had warned them. Now the candlestick there is gone.
“Well, thanks for the history lesson, preacher”, you might say. But what does this mean to us? First of all, here in America, we face a deteriorating situation in the political, social, economic, military, and moral spheres. Whatever salt that Christianity has salted America with is quickly being lost. On top of this, a strong anti-Christian backlash is setting up in this country. As the Ephesian believers faced increasing persecution, we are facing persecution from the outside as well. Just as the church of Ephesus was told to stand firm to the faith, we are admonished to do the same.
As with Ephesus, the biggest threat to the church is not external, but internal. There are all kinds of men and women who calls themselves “apostles” but are instead liars. God has not sent them. The church must put these claims to the test, just as the elders of the Ephesian church did. We need to be a little less tolerant, to say the least. We must compare their teaching to the Scripture.
It is also true that we must be true to our first love. We cannot sacrifice love for the sake of doctrinal unity. We must, however, maintain unity of the faith. We cannot compromise truth in order to maintain unity. Unity can occur in two ways. We can say “doctrine divides, but love unites” as though the two were opposed to each other. So in order to preserve peace, we then minimize the doctrine. If we follow this process through, then we can invite people of all faiths or no faith to join with us because our faith has no content at all. We then can all share in a common faith that is empty. Everyone can believe in the great nothing together. This is the easy way, but what is the result of such unity at the expense of doctrinal truth? – an empty and hopeless faith that can save no one and results in hellfire.
The other choice is to lovingly come together, seeking the Scriptural truth, the Holy Spirit, and the counsel of God to come together to a common faith which has power and saving content. This means that some will need to be excluded from the bounds of the church. This is good, so long as we act in love and concern, even for those we need to, hopefully, temporarily exclude. We need to make sure that our pastors and seminary professors are committed to propagating Christian truth and not their speculations. We must take the warning given to the church of Ephesus, lest we find a church whose light has gone out, from which Jesus has removed the candlestick.