(Second in a series on the Book of Revelation)
Chapters two and three of Revelation contain individual letters written to the seven churches in Asia Minor to whom the entire book of Revelation is addressed. We should see these letters as seven actual letters written to seven actual churches in seven actual cities. There is absolutely no evidence that would cause us to see the seven churches as somehow representing seven periods of church history, as some would have us do. Our appropriate use of these letters is twofold. First, we can use them to gain insight into the historical situation addressed by the book of Revelation. Second, we can look for parallels between their situation and ours so that we can accurately apply the message in the letters to our own situation.
Let us first look at some of the details of the letter to Ephesus.
First, note that the letter is addressed to the “angel” of the church. Some have suggested that the “angel” of the church is the pastor of the church, since all pastors are angels. Actually, the word angel literally means “messenger,” so that is not an unreasonable suggestion. We must note, however, the explicit statement at the end of chapter one: “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (1:20). So, the angel of the church is its heavenly representative. There are two possible ways to think about that truth. First, perhaps each church has a “guardian angel” in heaven. Second, this is a pictorial way of affirming that the help each church needs is found in heaven. In essence, Christ holds the church in his hand in heaven, and the church can rely on his help.
Second, Ephesus was a leading city of the time. It had the best seaport in Asia Minor, although the harbor was always threatened by a silting problem. It had a tremendous temple built for the worship of the goddess Artemis, so idolatry was an ongoing temptation for the Ephesian Christians. Ephesus was also the site of a great temple of the worship of the emperor Domitian, which no doubt made the church’s situation very difficult.
Third, the church was an important church. We can’t be sure when the church was founded there or who founded it. On the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem Jews from Asia Minor were present (Acts 2:9). Perhaps some of them became Christians and took the gospel back with them. We know that when Paul arrived in Ephesus he found disciples who had been baptized with the baptism of John the Baptist, and Paul baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19). He spent three years there. One of the many remarkable events was a riot that took place. It was incited by silversmiths who made idols for the worship of Artemis and whose business was being cut into by the growing number of Christian converts.
With those background matters in mind, let’s look at the content of the letter.
Verse one communicates that the church has help in heaven. It also communicates that Jesus is always among his churches (the “lampstands”), so he always knows what they are doing, be it good or bad. It implies that Jesus is there, either to help or to judge.
Words of commendation are offered in vv. 2-3. The Lord knew what the church was doing right. He complimented them for the work they were doing. Included in that work was their effort to detect and to identify doctrinal problems among certain teachers. We cannot know exactly who these teachers were. They “claim to be apostles but are not.” Apparently they claimed some kind of apostolic authority. Perhaps they were travelling evangelists. At any rate, the Ephesian Christians correctly disputed these teachers’ incorrect and dangerous doctrine. The church is also commended in v. 6 for hating “the works of the Nicolaitans.” Our best guest about these heretics, who were also a problem at Pergamum, is that they taught that it was all right to be involved to some extent in the worship of Artemis and/or the emperor, since that involved only the body but not the spirit. Such an attitude would be very dangerous in a context like Ephesus. The church is further commended in v. 3 for their endurance.
All is not positive in the letter, though. The Lord criticizes them for having “abandoned the love you had at first.” What is this all about? There are several possibilities, none of which are mutually exclusive. First, they might not have loved Christ as much as they had at first. Second, their love for one another may have waned, particularly in light of the doctrinal and ethical issues they had dealt with. Third, their evangelistic witness and zeal may have deteriorated; that is, they did not love the people around them enough to be the kind of witnesses that first generation Ephesian Christians would have been. Persecution could have put a damper on their missionary spirit, as well. The continuation of this criticism in v. 5 gives some credence to that interpretation. Perhaps the lampstand has in its range of meaning the sense of “sharing the light” of faith; not doing so would result in the removal of the lampstand.
How can we apply the message of this ancient letter to our situation?
First, we can remember that the Lord Jesus walks among us. That can be good news or bad news, depending on our condition. He is with us to help us in our troubles, and he is with us to judge us in our failings.
Second, doctrinal integrity is important. Not everyone who speaks in the name of the Lord speaks accurately in his name. Now, I think that we should remember that not everyone who disagrees with me is a heretic. There can be honest differences of interpretation on matters that are open to interpretation. Still, some matters, like the person of Christ and the reality of salvation in him, cannot be debated. All of us have access to all the books and speakers and tapes and TV programs that we want, and then some. Be careful. Be discerning.
Third, love is important. In our disagreements, let us still love. Most importantly, let us love Christ and the people around us enough to share the gospel with those who need to hear it.
Fourth, courageous integrity is important. We cannot worship at the altar of the world and the altar of Christ simultaneously. Be careful about how easily and regularly you compromise your exclusive devotion to Christ.
Finally, great joy and blessings await those who are truly Christ’s and who truly conquer those things that beset us. The reward will be paradise restored, as we will eat from the tree of life (v. 7).