Between his first and second imprisonments in Rome, Paul writes a letter of encouragement and instruction to Timothy, whom Paul has left as overseer of the church at Ephesus. Timothy faces some tough challenges: false teaching, leadership and organizational problems, and an absence of sound doctrine. Sound like the local church today? This 11-part study explores how Paul urges Timothy to face these challenges head-on, with the goal of “love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.”
Revelation 2:1–7 (HCSB)
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands says: I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. You also possess endurance and have tolerated ⌊many things⌋ because of My name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love ⌊you had⌋ at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. Yet you do have this: you hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
The letter to the church at Ephesus
Ephesus is one of the largest and most influential cities in the Roman Empire. It is devoted to the worship of Artemis (Diana in Latin), the goddess of fertility, and to the Roman emperor, who demanded to be worshipped as a god. Evidently, Priscilla and Aquila planted a church there around 52 A.D. and Paul ministered there for at least two years and used Ephesus as his base for evangelizing the region (Acts 19:8-10).
Jesus borrows from Rev. 1:20 to describe Himself as “the One who holds the seven stars [angels of the seven churches] in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands [seven churches in Asia].” In this statement we are reminded of Christ’s authority as the Head of the church, His loving care as the Bridegroom, and His sovereign Lordship over all creation.
Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition
Jesus commends the church at Ephesus for its doctrinal purity and perseverance. Believers there have tested those claiming to be apostles and weeded out the false ones, perhaps in accordance with John’s instructions in1 John 4:1-6 and in light of Paul’s warnings in 2 Cor. 11:13-15. They also have held fast to sound doctrine despite withering attacks from those who oppose Christ and His people. They even share with Jesus a common hatred of the works of the Nicolaitans, a heretical Christian sect that, like Balaam, seduced God’s people to partake in sexual immorality (vv. 14-15), perhaps disguising these sinful practices as Christian freedom (see 1 Cor. 6:12-20; 8:1 – 11:1). Even so, Jesus rebukes the church for having “abandoned the love [you had] at first” (v. 4). Some interpreters say this means the church has lost the love it had for Christ when their faith was new. Others believe Jesus is rebuking His followers for losing the love they once had for one another. Still others see both meanings in view since the love of Christ and love of one another are related (Mark 12:29-31; 1 John 4:20). In any case, Jesus is sounding a wake-up call to a church that otherwise seems to have it all together.
Christ’s comfort and/or commands
Jesus commands the believers at Ephesus to remember and repent. They are to remember how far they have fallen – not from salvation but from a pure love for Christ that is lived out in Christ-like love for one another. It seems they are going through the motions of their Christian lives, doing all the right things but doing so mechanically rather than eagerly. They are slowly losing the joy of their faith and with it their effective ministry to one another and their witness to the world. Matthew Henry comments: “The sin Christ charged this church with, is, not having left and forsaken the object of love, but having lost the fervent degree of it that at first appeared. Christ is displeased with his people, when he sees them grow remiss and cold toward them…. If the presence of Christ’s grace and Spirit is slighted, we may expect the presence of his displeasure” (Matthew Henry Concise, Bible Explorer, Rev. 2:1).
Therefore, Jesus urges believers at Ephesus to repent, or to have a change of mind and heart that leads to a change in behavior. Otherwise, He warns, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (v. 5). In other words, He will come in special judgment and cause the church to close. The ESV Study Bible is more direct: “Remove your lampstand means that both in the near future and when Christ returns, they would lose their status as a church and Christ would treat them like apostate Israel.” The silting of the harbor at Ephesus and the ravages of earthquakes forced the abandonment of this once-glorious harbor town in the centuries that followed. What remains are the archaeological remnants of the temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and other evidence of a city known for its wealth, commerce and religion. The church at Ephesus evidently suffered a similar fate. W.A. Criswell writes: “The lamp does not burn apart from personal love to Jesus; and when love dies, the light goes out” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 90).
Christ’s urge to listen
Jesus says, “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 7). These words echo Jesus’ warning at the end of the parable of the sower: “Anyone who has ears [to hear] should listen” (Matt. 13:9). While Christ’s message is directed toward the first-century church in Ephesus, it is clear He also is speaking to believers throughout the church age who will stand in judgment one day before Him (Rom. 14:10-12). As we see the church at Ephesus from our Savior’s perspective, we would do well to examine the works in our Christian lives, and the attitude behind them.
Christ’s promises to the victor
Jesus has defeated Satan, sin and death so that victory already is ours in Him. At the same time, He has sent His Spirit to live in us and give us power over sin on a daily basis. Even when we suffer hardship or persecution for the sake of Christ “we are more than victorious through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Believers who remain faithful conquer the dragon “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11) and they conquer the beast as well (Rev. 15:2).
Jesus promises the victor “the right to eat from the tree of life” (v. 7). Access to the tree in Eden, and the eternal life it offered to the pure, was denied after humanity’s fall (Gen. 3:22-24). But now the tree reappears in New Jerusalem, watered by the spring that gushes from the throne of God, providing nourishment and healing to all whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. One of the symbols of ancient Ephesus was the date palm tree. Perhaps Jesus is reminding the faithful in Ephesus that the tree of life in New Jerusalem is to be desired far above even the most glorious icons of renowned cities, just as the Lamb Himself is to be desired above all earthly possessions.