Message to Ephesus
2:1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.
7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
In the first chapter of Revelation, John sees a great vision of the Risen Christ, holding 7 stars in his hand, and standing among 7 golden candlesticks. This vision of God incarnate is so awesome that it literally blows John away. What he is seeing is so totally beyond any human ability to comprehend that he is reduced to a state of fear and confusion and physically collapses. But the Lord reassures him, tells him not to be afraid, and tells him basically to get over it, because he has a task. He must write down these visions.
In 1:20, referring to the 7 stars and 7 candlesticks, the awesome Lord says, “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.” Now the number 7, in Revelation, is the number of completion and perfection. So, when Revelation refers to 7 churches, most commentators take it as referring to all churches. The image of Christ standing in the midst of 7 candlesticks emphasizes that Christ is the lord of the church, of every church.
Notice also that 1:20 says that each of the 7 churches has an angel. This verse has caused some folks to think that each church has a guardian angel. I do not know if that is true or not, but I like the thought. Every church has a special angel to look after it. You might say that would take a lot of angels, but that is not problem for God. God has as many angels as he needs.
In any case, chapter 1:20 serves as an introduction to the next part of Revelation, chapters 2 and 3, which consists of 7 Messages to 7 churches--Ephesus, Smyrna, Sardis, Pergamum, Thyatira, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. These are all actual churches that were in existence at the time the book of Revelation was written.
Now you might ask, why these specific churches are named? These 7 churches were located in the Roman province of Asia in what is today western Turkey. Granted they represent the whole church, but why did the Lord single out these churches? The simplest answer may lie in John himself.
Some debate exists about which John wrote Revelation. The traditional answer is that John, the son of Zebedee, an apostle of Jesus Christ, is the author, but the author of Revelation never identifies himself as that John, so we do not actually know that, but my inclination is to accept the traditional answer, which is that, in his old age, exiled on the tiny island of Patmos, John the apostle received these visions of Christ.
You may know also that John the apostle is traditionally identified as the beloved disciple of the gospel of John. When Jesus was on the cross, he gave the beloved disciple the responsibility to care for his mother. The tradition is that John did that and, for many years, John and Mary lived Jerusalem, and then eventually moved on to Ephesus.
The apostle Paul had founded a great church at the seaport of Ephesus back in the fifties, but this would be years later, toward the end of the century. As the only surviving apostle, John would naturally be looked to by the churches of the area as their leader. So by the end of the first century, these 7 churches were John’s pastoral charge.
They were John’s churches, but they represent all churches. They represent us. The 7 messages that Christ gives to the 7 churches are to us. Each message follows the same format: the name of a church, a descriptive phrase referring to the risen Lord, and a commendation or condemnation of that church. There is then a warning, and a concluding promise or exhortation. Now we do not have time today to cover all 7 messages, so we will use the first one as an example--the message to Ephesus.
John is writing to a church that he knows, a church with real people and real problems. Also verse 1 tells us that the real author is not John. John is serving as a sort of secretary. The real author is “he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks,” which is obviously a reference to Jesus. And there is a point here we don’t want to miss. Christ “walks” among the churches. The lord is with his people. This leads us to a basic definition of a church. The church is not just a group of people. The church is where Christ is with his people. In the apostle’s creed, we express belief in the “holy catholic church.” The church is not holy because the people are holy—they are not—the church is holy because Christ is there in his perfect holiness.
Back to our scripture, v2, this one who holds the church in his hand says, “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience.” Sometimes we think, “nobody knows the troubles I have seen.” Nobody understands my anguish and my inner turmoil. We are assured here that someone in fact does know. Jesus knows. He knows what we have suffered, what we have achieved, and where we have failed.
In v2, the Lord commends the Ephesians on two counts. First, “thou canst not bear them which are evil.” This is a church that knows what sin is and calls it what it is. These are what we call solid citizens, good people. They do not tolerate ugly behavior, and that is the way every church should be.
The second commendation is also found in v2: “Thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.” We call the early leaders of the church “apostles.” They are people like Peter and Paul and John and his brother James, but there were apparently other people going around claiming to be apostles, for the money. We call them scam artists. It is amazing how little things have changed in the church. In the first century, some people tried to rip the church off. In the 21st century, some people still try to do that.
So how do you tell the difference? How do you tell the difference between real apostles and false apostles, real Christians and false Christians. The answer centers around Jesus. V3 hints at this when Jesus says the Ephesians have done what they have done “for my name's sake.” In Philippians, the apostle Paul says, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,” … “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (2:10-11). That is a definition of a Christian, a Christian believes in Jesus as lord. A church is group of people who proclaim Christ as lord. The old Presbyterian definition of a church is that it is where “the gospel is preached and the sacraments are celebrated.” I am not entirely happy with that definition but it makes some good points. First, the church is where Christ is. Secondly, the church is where God’s people proclaim the gospel of the crucified savior. If a church does not proclaim that, it is not a church. It may be a great social club, and nothing wrong with social clubs, but it is not a church.
In v4, we come to the condemnation of the church at Ephesus. “Thou hast left thy first love.” The first love is God. When Jesus summarized the law of God, he said that the first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul. The first commandment is to love God entirely and completely, with our whole being. God is what it is all about. Compared to God nothing else is important. We have a saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Well, it is all small stuff, except God.
John is in exile and he is concerned about his church. His concern is for their spiritual life. He believes their zeal has waned, their enthusiasm for the Lord is not what it should be. Many churches have that same problem. They have been a church for a long time. They have done the same old things for years, decades. The preacher has said the same old stuff, the choir has sung the same old songs and everybody is a little bored. Revelation says, you need to get your attitudes straightened out. Jesus Christ is the most important thing in your life.
Hear the threat of v5: “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place.” If the Ephesians do not get their act together and get back to God, they will cease to be a church. Can that happen? Can a church stop being a church? That certainly what the verse indicates. When does a church stop being a church? Ordinarily, we say, the members all leave, the church closes its doors, and that is it. That is not what Revelation says. Christ says, I will come and take my candlestick, my light of spiritual truth, and I will leave and then it is not a church anymore. When Christ is not there it is not a church, and Christ will not be found where the people have stopped believing.
So what are the first questions you should ask if you are considering going to a church? Is the gospel preached there? Do the people depend upon the cross? Is the light of spiritual truth to be found there? Now you may be surprised to learn that most people never ask those questions about a church, but they ought to.
In our passage from revelation, having warned the church, maybe Jesus wants to encourage them a little, because he says in v6, “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Notice they don’t hate people. They don’t hate the Nicolaitans, they hate their deeds, that is their sins. Now we wonder who the Nicolaitans were and what they did, and the short answer is that we don’t really know. Commentators speculate that they were a sect of the Gnostics who taught impure doctrine and lived immoral lives. It is said that they practiced adultery and fornication and every manner of evil and taught that God smiled on such acts. Well the church at Ephesus was having nothing to do with any of that, and John praises them for that attitude.
V7 is the conclusion of the message to Ephesus. It is a conclusion of triumph and victory. “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” The reference is to the early chapters of Genesis, to the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden represents that total communion with God that we were created for. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden. It was the tree of immortality. Living in the garden, and eating of that tree, Adam and Eve would have lived forever, but when they were expelled, they became mortal, just like us. The point of the verse from revelation is that the tree is restored to us by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Genesis describes paradise lost; Revelation describes paradise regained. Through Christ, we have the promise of eternal life and a final state of blessedness. Through Christ, we regain the communion with God that Adam and Eve lost. Through Christ, we eat of the tree of life and live forever.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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