Dr. Richard L. Strauss
September 24, 1978
The proud city of Ephesus boasted that it was "the metropolis of Asia," and it made good on its claim. Situated on the major land and sea trade routes between Rome and the East, it rose to be a powerful commercial and cultural center. While not the capital of Asia Minor, it was certainly the chief city. Its native goddess Diana (the Romanized form of the Greek goddess Artemis) became the leading deity of the province and wealth poured into the city beyond measure. People poured into the city to participate in the sexual orgies that were part of Diana worship. And they paid lots of money for the silver replicas of the temple itself--which was four times the size of the great Parthenon. It was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World.
The impact of the gospel of Jesus Christ seems first to have been made on Ephesus during a brief visit by the Apostle Paul as he headed home after his second missionary journey. Acts 18:19-21 says, "And he [Paul] came to Ephesus and left them [Pricilla and Aquila] there, but he himself entered into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. And when they desired him to tarry a longer time with them, he consented not but bade them farewell and said, 'I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem, but I will return again unto you if God will.' And he sailed from Ephesus."
That was on his second missionary journey. He was on his way home. He stopped. He preached the gospel. Presumably some people came to know Christ and the church at Ephesus was born.
It was a very short time later that the Apostle Paul started out on his third missionary journey (Acts 19:1). He traveled north, then west through Asia Minor, and then came to the city of Ephesus. Paul remained there between two and three years--most Bible scholars believe he stayed there a full three years. His combined ministry of evangelism and education produced the nucleus of strong believers who comprised the church of Ephesus, and so powerful was their testimony that the fame of the new religion spread throughout the province. Persecution only served to fan their fever for their new Savior. And the church continued to grow. It was probably numerically larger than any other of its time, and no other surpassed it in its reputation for faithfulness to the Lord.
1. The Commendation
(Revelation 2:1-3, 6)
It was almost 35 years after Paul's last contact with the Ephesian church that Jesus Christ dictated to the Apostle John in a vision on the island of Patmos a brief letter to the same church. It's 35 years later. Many of the original converts were dead now. But their children and other recent believers had taken their place. The letter the Lord Jesus writes to them is filled with praise and commendation for them. This commendation is the first thing expressed after a brief introduction of the Savior in verse 1.
"To the angel of the church of Ephesus" (Revelation 2:1).
We learned that the angel was a messenger, and it may have well been a human messenger, who delivered the letter to the whole church at Ephesus.
"These things says He that holds the seven stars in His right hand..." The one who speaks is Jesus Christ, who holds the seven stars in His right hand--the stars being His messengers as we learned in Revelation 1:20.
"...Who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands"--the lampstands being the churches themselves as revealed in the same verse. The Christ who walks about in and among His churches, examining, searching, and evaluating, is about to speak to the church at Ephesus. What will He say?
Well, the first thing he has to say is a commendation. It's basically a four-fold commendation.
a. Their Persistent Endeavor
"I know your works" (Revelation 2:2). The writer to the Hebrews said, "And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:13).
He knows all things, and He knows our works. What kind of works were they in the case of the Ephesian church? Ah, there could be none better. "I know your works and your labor." They worked for the Lord to the point of exhaustion. The word means "toil with great exertion." It's an arduous endeavor, strenuous activity. It's hard work.
The church at Ephesus was a virtual beehive of industry. They were always doing something for the Lord. It was a marvelous thing to behold. It was a busy church, a church on the go, an active church; every committee, organization, agency, and fellowship just hummed. There was never a shortage of workers--always volunteers available, with some to spare. And it wasn't easy work either. It involved both a spirit of sacrifice and a great deal of physical exertion. The pastor of the church at Ephesus had much to be thankful for. He had a congregation that worked.
They weren't doing it to get a name for themselves. Verse 3 tells us that they were working for the Lord. They weren't looking for praise and prestige and popularity. They were doing it for the Lord, and that's commendable.
b. Their Patient Endurance
But there was more to be thankful for. "I know your works and your labor and your patience." It's a word that means "endurance." These folks had undergone persecution and suffering, yet had learned to bear it with patient endurance. This is the implication of the word John used here translated "patience."
The outburst of opposition to Christianity in Ephesus recorded in Acts 19 was not an isolated occurrence. Evidently the resentment continued, and flared up in new violence and resistance periodically through the years. Christian families certainly felt the pressure. Christian businessmen must have faced serious obstacles. And the Christian church felt the pinch of these problems. Thirty-five years later, and there was still no discouragement and despair--just patient endurance.
c. Their Moral Excellence
There is yet a third cause for commendation. "And I know you cannot bear those who are evil" (Revelation 2:2b). This church had separated itself from sin. It was known for its purity. It would not tolerate those in its midst whose lives were stained with immorality and loose living. They dealt with sin; there was no laxness in the matter of church discipline. Those admitted to the fellowship were screened as to their manner of living. They did not condone the company of those whose lives were unchanged by the Gospel of God's grace.
d. Their Pure Evangelicalism
And there is one more matter here. "And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars" (Revelation 2:2c). These people were orthodox. They knew the doctrines of the Scripture, and they tested every man who spoke in their pulpit against the standard of the Word. They permitted no pollution of false doctrine. They were characterized by pure evangelicalism.
Paul had warned them 35 years before, that after his departure grievous wolves would enter in among them, not sparing the flock. They obeyed the apostle's instruction to "watch" (Acts 20:29-32). They were carrying out the Apostle John's injunction to believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God (1 John 4:1).
Like the noble Bereans of Acts 17, they were searching the Scriptures to see if these things were so. No false apostle lasted more than a day or two in Ephesus. These people had doctrinal discernment. Down in Revelation 2:6, a particular group is mentioned, one which tried to foist its false teachings upon the Ephesians. The Nicolaitanes were probably followers of one named Nicholas. Some say he was one of the seven deacons and some say he was not. He advocated loose living, and excused certain forms of impurity and immorality on the false pretense of believing in grace. We know that as the error of what we call antinomianism. It was the doctrinal error that said it really doesn't matter how you live. You can go ahead and get involved with immorality and impurity if you want because God is a God of grace and there is nothing we can do to offend the grace of God. These Nicolaitanes were trying to infiltrate the church with that damnable doctrine.
The name "Nicolaitanes" literally means "conqueror of the people." In all probability they were assuming some false apostolic authority. They were claiming to be representatives of Jesus Christ, and were seeking to force their opinion upon the people. They never got away with it at Ephesus. Those people knew the Word, and they hated the works of the Nicolaitanes and knew they were heretics.
The commendation is so glowing that the Lord seems compelled to repeat it, and so we get a summary in verse 3. "You have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary." There were no false motives in all this. It was not for their sakes, but for the Lord's name they worked so hard, and bore so much so patiently.
I think the whole church must have sat back and glowed when the letter was read one Sunday morning in 96 A.D. There was a smile of satisfaction and pleasure on every face as the commendation was finished and the reader paused to let it sink in.
2. The Criticism
But the reader continues, and every mind is jolted back to attention as the soothing commendation suddenly turns to stern criticism. Nevertheless. "Nevertheless," says the Lord, "I have this against you, that you have left your first love" (Revelation 2:4).
There's the criticism. Now that's something they hadn't really thought about, nor do we. I mean, after all, we're really busy. We're working for the Lord. We're being persecuted and we're standing firm and not growing weary. We're separated from sin. We are doctrinally sound. This is an orthodox church--an evangelical church. We stand for the truth of the Scriptures! Love?
The failure of the Ephesian church was not a slacking off of activity, not a chafing under suffering, certainly not a tolerance of evil, nor most certainly not a denial of the truth. It was much more insidious than that. It was something that often creeps into evangelical churches like our own: complacency: a cooling off from the warm attachment to Jesus Christ they once knew. Just a little less time spent adoring Him and meditating on Him and getting to know Him better. A loss of the warmth and graciousness that once characterized their relationships with one another. A lessening of their once zealous love for a lost world. They had left their first love.
It didn't happen suddenly. It just slipped gradually and they never even realized it. If a person suddenly plunges into icy water, he will quickly jump out because of the shock. But if he is exposed to the cold gradually, he can become so numbed that he will freeze to death without even knowing it. That's what had happened to the Ephesians. It had been a slow freeze.
They, like the Corinthian church were espoused to Christ as His bride (2 Corinthians 11:2), but the thrill of those first days was gone. The honeymoon was over. Their love had grown cold.
This is often times the case with second-generation Christians. Not always, thank God, but often times. The first generation had a burning passionate love for Jesus Christ that gripped their lives. But sometimes they're so busy working for the Lord that they forget to pass along the love for Jesus to their children. So their children's love for Christ becomes cool. That's what happened to the second generation at the church at Ephesus.
I think the blow of verse 4 was unbearable to the listeners. After such flattery, they were flabbergasted. They must have asked the reader to go back and read the commendation again, and as he did, it sounded much different. Instead of satisfaction, they experienced a sickening feeling in their stomachs. It wasn't all as wonderful as it sounded. There was something missing.
I can't prove it, but I suspect that some of the other letters that Paul had written were already circulating among the churches in 95 A.D. If that's true, maybe that had read Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, where Paul commended them for their work of faith, their labor of love and their patience of hope (1 Thessalonians 1:3). For them it was only work, labor and patience. The faith, the love and the hope were missing.
Where love for Christ diminishes, everything loses its real meaning. Work becomes mechanical, instead of motivated by faith. Labor becomes obligatory, instead of impassioned by love for Christ. Patience becomes complacency instead of an active anticipation kept alive by hope. Separation from sin becomes a source of pride instead of a conscious act of the will to maintain my fellowship with God and my testimony with men. Orthodoxy and sound doctrine degenerate to cold-hearted intellectualism or hot-headed heretic hunting. Now they thought back over the waning of their influence among the lost. They meditated on the deadness of their worship services, the uninspired character of their singing, the vain repetitions in their prayers and testimonies, and their hearts were sick.
I believe they must have run to the cabinet and pulled out the letter Paul had written them some 35 years before. They turned to Ephesians 6:24 and read, "Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ with love undying" (RSV), and wept as they realized their love was already dead. It was love for Christ primarily, but love for Christ always issues in love for one another as John had taught in 1 John 4:20-21. And so they turned back to the first chapter of Paul's letter, and read in verse 15, "Wherefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints, cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayer" (Ephesians 1:15). They had to admit it. It was gone.
A coldness toward one another had fallen upon them. A spirit of criticism cropped up with every problem, and people pointed fingers and blamed one another. The pew was too hard. Or the music was too loud. Or, why in the world did they let her sing? The first love was gone. How ashamed they felt.
They knew better. They had been exposed to the Apostle Paul's teaching on love. They remembered the truth of 1 Corinthians 13. All their oratorical sermonizing and teaching was like sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal without love. All their gifts, and their knowledge of the Scriptures, and even their faith, was worthless, if they did not have love. All their good works, all the money they gave to the poor and to foreign missions--every bit of it worthless, if they did not have a warm, unselfish love for God and for one another. Of the three great Christian virtues--faith, hope, and love--the greatest by far is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
The Ephesian church had lost it. A church without love is a church without life. Without this essential ingredient, everything else degenerates into a weak, struggling, ineffective, powerless shell. But the heart is gone. Christ had put his finger on the problem at Ephesus, and their souls were smitten with remorse and shame.
3. The Challenge
Well, what can be done about it? The challenge is found in Revelation 2:5. "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works."
Many have suggested a three-fold formula for restoration: remember, repent, and repeat.
First we must remember. We must meditate a little on the love we once had, the warmth and blessing of a right relationship with Christ and with other believers we once enjoyed. It is from this position that we have fallen. Think of it, brethren. This was a great church. One of the largest churches in the world, filled with people who were working feverishly, patiently bearing suffering, separated from all evil, and doctrinally pure. Yet the church was fallen. All because their love had waned. They let it happen.
After remembrance, the next logical step is repentance. That involves sorrow, but sorrow is only the beginning. Repentance means a complete change of mind. It's taking responsibility for our sin and not blaming anyone else. Where my devotion to the Savior has dimmed, I must learn to love Him anew, to elevate Him to first place in my life again. Where critical attitudes have captivated my thinking about my pastor, and my Christian friends, I must cry out to God to give me love for them, appreciation for them in spite of their faults and mistakes. Where my love for a lost world has all but disappeared, I must plead for a passion for souls without Christ. My whole attitude must be reversed--there must be genuine repentance.
Then after we remember and repent, we must repeat. Christ says in verse 5, "Do the first works." I don't know what else those works could be but the time they spent in Jesus' presence. The time they spent in the Word--not just to get their doctrine correct but to really know their Lord through the Word. We must begin loving again as it was in those honeymoon days with the Savior. We must do it, beloved.
What if we don't feel like it? What if we don't feel that warmth we first felt so we don't feel motivated? God never tells us we have to feel like doing it. He just says do it. If we obey, the feelings will follow. There is no alternative. There is no putting it off. We must do it today.
Vance Havner has titled his book on the seven letters, Repent or Else! That is what the Lord has said. See it right there in Revelation 2:5. "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works; or else." Repent, or else. Or else what? "Or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place--unless you repent."
Do you know what that means? I think the Ephesians knew what it meant, like believers in no other city. Ephesus was a city of change. Originally it was built on a hillside overlooking its harbor. But as silt from the river settled, forming a plain between the harbor and the city, they moved the city closer to the sea. But the harbor continued to fill up, so that it became treacherous for ships to enter. Some think this is why, in Acts 10, the ship in which Paul rode, failed to stop at Ephesus, but went on down to Miletus. Already, Ephesus's supremacy was declining. This city of change was changing again, and this time it was passing right out of its place of influence. Today there is nothing left of it whatsoever. A once thriving city is covered in mud. Of the once thriving church in that city, nothing remains.
The lampstand represented the church, but remember it also symbolized the church: a testimony to the world. The testimony is going to be destroyed, Christ said, unless you repent. Your influence for Christ will be taken away. Your leadership among the churches will be changed and given to another.
No church--not even Emmanuel Faith Community Church--has a permanent place in the world. It is continuously on trial. If it fails, its lampstand is removed, its light is terminated. There are churches today whose lampstands have been removed. Their congregations congregate, their ministers minister. But there isn't any light. Their influence for Christ is over.
Listen, I don't want to belittle any of the four things for which they were commended. Those things are important: their works and their endurance, and their purity, and their perfect orthodoxy. But they left their love--and when they did, they died. God gave their place of testimony to another church.
Oh, that we might see it today! Unless there be love, the lampstand is removed. It is not our good works, nor out missionary giving, nor our separation from sin, nor our sound doctrine that keep our light burning, as important as all those things may be. IT IS OUR LOVE, love first for Christ, second for one another, and third for the lost souls around us.
"Where is the blessedness I knew
when first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshed view
Of Jesus and His Word?
"What peaceful hours I once enjoyed
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill."
Revelation 2:7 says, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." God preserved this letter for us.
4. The Consolation
Ah, but there is a closing consolation, a comforting promise. Read the rest of Revelation 2:7. "To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God."
Coins that have been recovered from ancient Ephesus show a date palm, which was sacred to the worship of Artemis. A tree was a symbol of that city. But the date palms are gone from ancient Ephesus. The Spirit of God transports us into a future scene, into eternity, where overcomers are feasting from the tree of life in the paradise of God. The tree of life. Forever.
Overcomers. Who are they? 1 John 5:4-5 tells us. "For whatsoever is born of God overcomes the world: and this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcomes the world, but he that believes that Jesus is the Son of God?"
"Overcomer" is a title for a true believer. If you know Christ as your personal Savior, you are an overcomer. The consolation in Revelation 2:7 for the church at Ephesus was that the true believers in their midst would eat from the tree of life. The true evidence of a Christian is that true love, and it needed to be rekindled in their hearts. "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, by the love that you have one toward another" (John 13:35).
How about us? Could we have left that first love? Could it be that some here have never even come to know that Savior?
Lord, you know our hearts. You can see what we cannot see. You know us better than we know ourselves. We pray that if there are some here today who have never come to know Jesus Christ, that they'd be willing to admit their sin and open their hearts to Him. And for we who know You, Lord, who may have walked away from that first love that we once knew, we ask You, Father, that today it may be rekindled it in our hearts and that we'd commit ourselves to spending time in Your presence just to get to know You. And may that love grow. In Jesus' name. Amen.