Revelation – The letter to the loveless church in Ephesus

And so it begins.  The first of the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The one to the church in Ephesus.  Jesus had some good things to say to them.  And some bad things.  But then another positive statement.  The Ephesian church certainly wasn’t in the worst condition of the seven.  But then, it wasn’t the best either.  So there’s plenty to look at.

Revelation - The letter to the loveless church in Ephesus is article #3 in the series: Seven Letters to Seven Churches. Click button to view titles for entire series

Revelation - The letter to the loveless church in EphesusThe title – The letter to the loveless church in Ephesus – is taken from the section titles in two different translations.  I chose to do that because I think it gives a direction to start with while examining this letter.  Not that it’s the only direction.  But it’s one that people who did the New King James Version thought was important enough to include, as opposed to the NIV usage of just the location in their section title.

Blessings in the Seven Letters

The Book of Revelation starts with these verses:

Rev 1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. 

We learn something of the importance of each of the letters from this passage.  Of course, we get a modern-day evidence chain of sorts, to let us know this is from God.  And while John is the recipient of the vision, we also see:

3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it …

Just like when Jesus spoke of things like love and believe, He was also saying that the love and belief should be so strong as to bring about action on our part.  Not our action alone – and not action to gain love or to have stronger belief.  No – it’s about faith and love that are stronger than anything we could ever have ourselves, because it’s God’s meaning of faith and love that we can only achieve with the Holy Spirit.

Then the action follows from having the Holy Spirit.  And with the Holy Spirit working through us, the actions that we carry out will come from God and be effective the way He intends them to be.  In short – it’s not about us.  It’s about God.

So when we see Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, all of that involves action as a result of having read or heard the prophecy.  It takes the Holy Spirit to understand the words, to take them to heart.  And once we do that – we should have a desire, also coming from the Holy Spirit, to act on the words.  Both for ourselves and for others.

It’s a message that God wants us to hear / read – and then do something with it.  As we’ll see, each letter speaks to what Jesus has for and against each of the churches.  He lets us know very clearly where we stand in relation to what He wants.  To what He taught.  Our goal is to be more Christ-like, and when we read this, we can look for ourselves in the letters and know just where we are.

And as always, we need to do what David wrote about in Psalm 139.

Psalm 139

For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

Ps 139:1 O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.

Ps 139:2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

Ps 139:3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Ps 139:4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.

Ps 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

Ps 139:24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

The letter to the loveless church in Ephesus

So here we go.  Let’s start off with the letter to the church in Ephesus

To the Church in Ephesus

Rev 2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Rev 2:4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Rev 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Before we get into any details, let’s take a look at the graph we built in parts 1 and 2 of the series.  Based on what we just read, where would you put the church of Ephesus on the graph?  Why there?  Don’t worry if you don’t know anything beyond the seven verses we just read.  Part of the study will be to see how your placement might change as we go through more about the church in Ephesus.  Context and culture are usually important.  So is what it might mean to us today, in our context and our culture.

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The letter to the church in Ephesus

Here’s the letter addressed to the angel of the church in Ephesus.

Tothe angel of the church in Ephesus
Fromhim who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands
Divine KnowledgeI know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
But -Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.
So -If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Hear
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
To those who overcomeI will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

The letter to the church in Ephesus

The tradition To and From headings are present.

To:

Obviously, it’s to the church in Ephesus.  Specifically, it’s addressed to the “Angel” of the church.  What we don’t know is whether it’s a heavenly angel or a person at the church.  That’s because of the Greek word that’s used:

32ἄγγελος [aggelos /ang·el·os/] n m. From aggello [probably derived from 71, cf 34] (to bring tidings); TDNT 1:74; TDNTA 12; GK 34; 186 occurrences; AV translates as “angel” 179 times, and “messenger” seven times. 1 a messenger, envoy, one who is sent, an angel, a messenger from God. 1)Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship

You see, it could be an angel, the way we normally think of a Heavenly angel.  Or it could be someone, probably of a high position, within the church.  To that end, Young’s Literal Translation says:

‘To the messenger of the Ephesian assembly write:  2)Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 2:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software

From:

This one maybe isn’t quite so obvious.  The letter is from him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.

One way to look at it is this:

The reference to Christ as the one who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands (v. 1) may call attention to the fact that, while the church’s heavenly existence is secure in the sovereign care of Christ, he must visit the earthly counterparts to inspect and correct their conduct and attitudes. As a priest in the temple tends the lamps to keep them from growing dim or going out, Christ moves among the churches to attend to the purity and brightness of the light they give to the world. 3)Gregg, S. (1997). Revelation, four views: a parallel commentary (p. 64). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers.

The seven stars being in the heavens, above the earth, as opposed to the lampstands that we have here on earth.  It points out that it’s up to the priest to keep the temple lamps from going out.  However, that’s very Old Testament thinking.  Under the New Covenant ushered in by Jesus, the one walking in the midst of the lampstands, we – every Christian – are the temple.

On Divisions in the Church

1Co 3:10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

1Co 3:16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

1Co 3:18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

As Paul writes, we are the temple, and God’s Spirit (The Holy Spirit) lives in us.  As such, it’s also up to us to be sure the “light” of the Holy Spirit doesn’t go out in us.  As Paul tells us in 1Co 2:16, the Holy Spirit is the mind of Christ.  Therefore, Jesus is walking, so to speak, in our midst all the time.

That this needed to be pointed out to the church in Ephesus is something to take note of.  It seems that the light of that church is getting dim.  In danger of going out.  This is something we need to pay attention to today as well.

It’s worth noting that Paul even wrote to the church in Ephesus about this very issue.

Living as Children of Light

Eph 4:17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.

Eph 4:20 You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. 21 Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Eph 4:25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.

Eph 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Eph 5:1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Eph 5:3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them.

Eph 5:8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Eph 5:15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. 19 Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Eph 5:21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

I emphasized Eph 4:30, since that’s the part about grieving the Holy Spirit.  God doesn’t force Himself on us.  If we don’t want Him, The Holy Spirit can be quenched.  Put out.  And there goes our light.  More on that thought in a moment, as it relates to the Church in Ephesus.

For now, my point is that Jesus is among us.  All the time.  And that specific fact is being pointed out to this church.

Divine Knowledge of the church in Ephesus

These are, presumably, the things the church in Ephesus is doing right.

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance.

This sounds good.  This church is working hard.  And they’re getting through the struggles.  However, there’s a “but” coming on this one.

I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.

Whatever is going wrong with the church in Ephesus, their light isn’t going out because they were led astray by false apostles or teachers.  Nor have they been affected by “wicked men”.  For some idea of what “wicked” could involve, here’s what the word portrayed at the time:

2556κακός [kakos /kak·os/] adj. Apparently a primary word; TDNT 3:469; TDNTA 391; GK 2805; 51 occurrences; AV translates as “evil” 40 times, “evil things” three times, “harm” twice, “that which is evil + 3458” twice, “wicked” once, “ill” once, “bad” once, and “noisome” once. 1 of a bad nature. 1a not such as it ought to be. 2 of a mode of thinking, feeling, acting. 2a base, wrong, wicked. 3 troublesome, injurious, pernicious, destructive, baneful.  4)Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship

It appears their problems aren’t from false teachings or from outsiders bringing evil into the church.  So what could it be?

You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

The church in Ephesus, as implied by the word perseverance above, is enduring hardships because of Jesus – as promised in the Gospels.

Is the Divine Knowledge of the church in Ephesus really “good”?

Before we actually get into the “But” that’s coming, let’s look at something Jesus said about the signs of the End of the Age.

Pay special attention to the highlighted verses below.

Signs of the End of the Age – Mark

13:1-37 pp — Mt 24:1-51; Lk 21:5-36

Mk 13:1 As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

Mk 13:2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Mk 13:3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”

Mk 13:5 Jesus said to them: Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

Mk 13:9You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10 And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11 Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

Mk 13:12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

Mk 13:14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. 17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again. 20 If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ !’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect—if that were possible. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

Mk 13:24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“ ‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;

Mk 13:25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

Mk 13:26 “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Mk 13:28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

The church in Ephesus appears to have done the things Jesus warned about.  They weren’t deceived – either from within or by outsiders.  And they did persevere through the hardships they encountered in Jesus’ name.

So again – what went wrong?  Why are they being warned via the image of Jesus walking among the churches?

And for us as individuals, what does this mean for us?  Why are we being warned about the Holy Spirit in us – the light in our temple – maybe going out?  We did all sorts of good deeds.  We didn’t fall prey to lies or to evil.  What’s going on?

The “But” for the church in Ephesus

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.

OK – the church in Ephesus has forsaken their first love.

First of all, what does forsaken mean?  Apparently, it can mean quite a few things.

863 ἀφίημι, ἐναφίημι [aphiemi /af·ee·ay·mee/] v. From 575 and hiemi (to send, an intens. form of eimi, to go); TDNT 1:509; TDNTA 88; GK 918 and 1889; 146 occurrences; AV translates as “leave” 52 times, “forgive” 47 times, “suffer” 14 times, “let” eight times, “forsake” six times, “let alone” six times, and translated miscellaneously 13 times. 1 to send away. 1a to bid going away or depart. 1a1 of a husband divorcing his wife. 1b to send forth, yield up, to expire. 1c to let go, let alone, let be. 1c1 to disregard. 1c2 to leave, not to discuss now, (a topic). 1c21 of teachers, writers and speakers. 1c3 to omit, neglect. 1d to let go, give up a debt, forgive, to remit. 1e to give up, keep no longer. 2 to permit, allow, not to hinder, to give up a thing to a person. 3 to leave, go way from one. 3a in order to go to another place. 3b to depart from any one. 3c to depart from one and leave him to himself so that all mutual claims are abandoned. 3d to desert wrongfully. 3e to go away leaving something behind. 3f to leave one by not taking him as a companion. 3g to leave on dying, leave behind one. 3h to leave so that what is left may remain, leave remaining. 3i abandon, leave destitute.  5)Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

The common theme in all that is they the church in Ephesus essentially walked away from their first love.  As we saw, they weren’t led astray by false teachers.  And they didn’t have their first love corrupted by evil coming in from outside the church.  They just let go of it, neglected it, walked on and left it behind.  In other words, they probably weren’t paying attention and their first love just got lost in everything else they were doing.  Buried under all the deeds, hard work and standing up under trials.

What was the first love?

Well, the Greek word used is agape.

ἀγάπη (agapē). n. fem. love. This term means “love” but can also denote ideas such as benevolence or goodwill.

The noun ἀγάπη (agapē) carries the sense of affectionate regard or benevolence toward someone. The Septuagint almost always uses this word for love to translate one of the main Hebrew words for love (אָהֵב, ʾāhēb). The nt employs the term agapē in two basic ways. First, it can denote “love” in a general sense. Examples of this use include references to love as an idea (e.g., John 15:13; Rom 13:10) and love between people (e.g., 2 Cor 2:4; 8:7). Second, the nt writers use the noun agapē to refer to the love of God (e.g., Rom 5:5; 2 Thess 3:5) or of Christ (e.g., John 15:10; Rom 8:35). This use of the noun is epitomized in the affirmation that “God is love” (ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, ho theos agapē estin; 1 John 4:8, 16).  6)Nettelhorst, R. P. (2014). Love. D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

The church may have lost any sense of love at all, but that second meaning is really a bad sign for them – nt writers use the noun agapē to refer to the love of God (e.g., Rom 5:5; 2 Thess 3:5) or of Christ (e.g., John 15:10; Rom 8:35). This use of the noun is epitomized in the affirmation that “God is love” (ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, ho theos agapē estin; 1 John 4:8, 16).

Let’s look at something John wrote about God’s love.

God’s Love and Ours

1Jn 4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

1Jn 4:13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

1Jn 4:19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

There are a lot of “love” words in that passage.  The question is, are they the kind of “love” we’re looking for?  Are they the agape love?

Well – here’s the passage again, with the words highlighted that are either agape or its Greek root.

God’s Love and Ours

1Jn 4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

1Jn 4:13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

1Jn 4:19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates {actually, does not love} his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

That’s every single instance of the word love in the passage.  They are all the kind of love that Jesus said they have lost.  In a very real sense, they’ve lost their connection to God.  No wonder they’re about to lose their lampstand.  To have their status as a church taken away from them!  And it’s not like this is the first time anything like that – ignoring Jesus – has been mentioned in the Bible.

Here’s how Warren Wiersbe put it.

The church at Ephesus had works, labor, and patience—but no love for Christ. In contrast, the Thessalonians were commended for their “work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope” (1 Thes. 1:3). It is not “what” we do for Christ, but the motive behind it, the incentive, that counts. Ephesus had a busy church with high spiritual standards.

It’s interesting that he puts it – with high spiritual standards – if we look at what “spiritual” generally means.

SPIRITUAL, spirʹit̮-ū̇-al (πνευματικός, pneumatikós, “spiritual,” from πνεῦμα, pneúma, “spirit”): Endowed with the attributes of spirit. Any being made in the image of God who is a Spirit (Jn 4:24), and thus having the nature of spirit, is a spiritual being.

(1) Spiritual hosts of wickedness (Eph 6:12), in distinction from beings clothed in “flesh and blood”—the devil and his angels. This use of the word has reference to nature, essence, and not to character or moral quality. God, angels, man, devil, demons are in essence spiritual. The groundwork and faculties of their rational and moral being are the same. This limited use of the word in the NT has its advb. equivalent in Rev 11:8, “which [the great and wicked city] spiritually is called Sodom.” As the comprehensive term moral includes immoral, so spiritual includes unspiritual and all that pertains to spirit.

It’s not likely that he meant spiritual hosts of wickedness.

(2) With the above exception, “spiritual” in the NT signifies moral, not physical antithesis: an essence springing from the Spirit of God and imparted to the spirit of man. Hence spiritual in this sense always presupposes the infusion of the Holy Spirit to quicken, and inform. It is opposed (a) to σαρκικός, sarkikós, “fleshly” (1 Cor 3:1), men of the flesh and not of the spirit; (b) to ψυχικός, psuchikós, “natural,” man in whom the pneúma, “spirit,” is overridden, because of the Fall, by psuchḗ, the principle of the animal life, “soul”; hence the unrenewed man, unspiritual, alienated from the life of God (1 Cor 2:14; 2 Pet 2:12; Jude ver 10). See Man, Natural; (c) to natural, meaning physical, “… sown a natural body; … raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44).

On the other hand, considering Hence spiritual in this sense always presupposes the infusion of the Holy Spirit to quicken, and inform, then it’s also hard to imagine the church in Ephesus as having high spiritual standards either.

(3) In the NT and general use “spiritual” thus indicates man regenerated, indwelt, enlightened, endued, empowered, guided by the Holy Spirit; conformed to the will of God, having the mind of Christ, living in and led by the Spirit. The spiritual man is a new creation born from above (Rom 8:6; 1 Cor 2:15; 3:1; 14:37; Col 1:9; 1 Pet 2:5). 7)Pratt, D. M. (1915). Spiritual. In J. Orr, J. L. Nuelsen, E. Y. Mullins, & M. O. Evans (Eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Vol. 1–5, p. 2842). Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company

Pretty much the same comment on this one.  If the church had the mind of Christ, living in and led by the Spirit, then would they not also have love?  It seems like without love, the Holy Spirit is being silenced in their hearts.

They could not bear “worthlessephes [evil] people” and would not listen to false teachers. The work had been difficult, but they had not fainted. In every way, it was a successful church from the human point of view. Some of today’s busy churches with their full calendars and weary workers would fit the description.

Again, it appears that the Holy Spirit is being set aside.  All the busyness puts the Holy Spirit so far to the back of their minds that love just doesn’t have a chance to show through all the deeds.

But the Man in the midst of the churches saw what was missing: they had left (not “lost”) their first love (Jer. 2:2). The local church is espoused to Christ (2 Cor. 11:2), but there is always the danger of that love growing cold. Like Martha, we can be so busy working for Christ that we have no time to love Him (Luke 10:38–42). Christ is more concerned about what we do with Him than for Him. Labor is no substitute for love. To the public, the Ephesian church was successful; to Christ, it had fallen.

Remember, Mary got that one right.  Martha, like the church in Ephesus, was too busy.  So the interaction between Jesus and Martha went like this:

At the Home of Martha and Mary

Lk 10:38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Lk 10:41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Of course, Martha wasn’t in the same condition as the church in Ephesus.  Martha invited Jesus into her home, so there was a desire for His presence.  She just got so distracted with making everything right and properly prepared that she didn’t have time for Jesus once He got there.

On the other hand, the church in Ephesus pretty much pushed Jesus to the side with all their busyness.  Before they maybe even realize what happened, they had forgotten about Jesus and love.

His counsel to them is in these words: “remember, repent, repeat the first works” (v. 5). If we get back to our first love, we will repeat the first works, those labors of love that marked our first meeting with Christ. If the church does not get its heart back in the right condition, the lampstand will be removed. The local church is to shine as a light in the world. Without true love for Christ, its light will go out. 8)Wiersbe, W. W. (1992). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (p. 801). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

No – Jesus didn’t say go back and do the first deeds.  At least, not like we probably read it.  He didn’t say just do the first things you did before – keeping the same attitude you have now.  That would do nothing for the church on Ephesus.  What Jesus was likely referring to was a combination of those early works done out of love – and this:

Jesus the Bread of Life

Jn 6:25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jn 6:26 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Jn 6:28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jn 6:29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Even here, believe in the one he has sent, means to believe Jesus is the Son of God, believe what He said, and act on those beliefs so that our lives become ever more like His.  In that way, going back to the early deeds is a reminder of not only what they did, but why they did it.  And they did it because of their love for Jesus.

What was Jesus telling the church in Ephesus?

I feel like Jesus was telling them they were turning into “Pharisees”.  Consider these verses from the Seven Woes in Matthew.

Seven Woes

23:1-7 pp — Mk 12:38, 39; Lk 20:45, 46
23:37-39 pp — Lk 13:34, 35

Mt 23:25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Mt 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Mt 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’’”

The church in Ephesus probably looked good.  From the outside.  They were busy doing all kinds of “good” things.  And yet, without the Love of God involved, they really weren’t good.  They’re the kinds of works that will probably burn up when tested.  Made with the straw and wood of man-made effort.  Without the gold and precious gems of the Holy Spirit.  Without love.

The immediate context is, of course, to the church in light of the coming apocalypse.

But to look at it only in that light is, I believe, to sell it short.  The same warning applies to our churches today.  And not just the churches.  To every individual in a Christian church as well.

Remember this verse from the Prologue to Revelation.

Rev 1:3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

If you believe that the rapture will come before Armageddon begins, paying attention to that warning could be the difference between being raptured and avoiding it – or living through it.

If you don’t believe the rapture is just before Armageddon begins, then paying attention to the warnings is important for maintaining your faith during that time.

Either way – there’s a message there, from God, for us.

We’ll return to this thought line, but first, let’s move on to the “So” – if you do not repent portion of the letter.

So: If you do not repent

If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.  

As we’ve already seen, this is Jesus telling the church in Ephesus that if they don’t follow His recommendation, don’t get back to the love they used to have, He will take their lampstand from its place.  In other words, they will no longer be one of His churches.

In fact, Ephesus was destroyed in 262 AD by the Goths.  The Goths were Germanic people, not to be confused with present-day Germany.  There was some rebuilding, but in 614 a strong earthquake destroyed the city.  I was in Ephesus maybe 30 years ago.  It was still in ruins, as the image at the top of the page shows.

But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.   

The Nicolaitans were also mentioned in the letter to the church in Pergamum.  The difference is that while the church in Ephesus acted against and didn’t allow following the Nicolation practices, the church in Pergamum did.  Little is know about the Nicolaitans.  One possible suggestion is this:

3531 Νικολαί̈της [Nikolaites /nik·ol·ah·ee·tace/] n pr m. From 3532; GK 3774; Two occurrences; AV translates as “Nicolaitans” twice. 1 a sect mentioned in Rev. 2:6,15, who were charged with holding the error of Balaam, casting a stumbling block before the church of God by upholding the liberty of eating things sacrificed to idols as well as committing fornication. Additional Information: Nicolaitans = “destruction of people”. 9)Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

In any case, while it may be “in their favor”, that one thing alone isn’t enough to save the church in Ephesus from losing it’s standing.  That’s certainly of note to them at the time.  However, it’s also important for us today.  After all, Jesus told us about the Greatest Commandment.

The Greatest Commandment – Matthew

22:34-40 pp — Mk 12:28-31

Mt 22:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Mt 22:37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

What Jesus said in that passage leaves no room for following the practices of a pagan god.

Hear:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

That line is in each of the seven letters to the churches.  Its origin is from Isaiah, from when the prophet was given his commission from God.

Isaiah’s Commission

Isa 6:8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Isa 6:9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
“ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Isa 6:10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Isa 6:11 Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?”
And he answered:
“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
Isa 6:12 until the LORD has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
Isa 6:13 And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”

Of course, this was part of the prophecy of the birth of Jesus.  But we really can’t stop there, since Jesus Himself used it during His time on earth.  One of many examples is in the Parable of the Sower, which we looked at in part 2 of this series.  The excerpt below is from that parable, where Jesus explains to His disciples why He speaks in parables.

The Parable of the Sower – Matthew

13:1-15 pp — Mk 4:1-12; Lk 8:4-10
13:16, 17 pp — Lk 10:23, 24
13:18-23 pp — Mk 4:13-20; Lk 8:11-15

Mt 13:10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

Mt 13:11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

Mt 13:14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.

Mt 13:15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

So while the original prophecy in Isaiah is related to the birth of the Savior, Jesus clearly extends it beyond His birth.  And, as we see, He uses it yet again in Revelation.  Not just once, but to every church.

Jesus is letting the churches, and us, know that without the Holy Spirit we can only hear words and see images.  We must have the Holy Spirit in order to understand what we hear and see.

That’s important for three reasons.  Without the Holy Spirit, we cannot understand what Jesus taught during His time on earth.  And without the Holy Spirit, we will also not understand the warnings here in Revelation.  And finally, even during the tribulation, we will not understand what’s happening without the Holy Spirit.

Keep in mind, without the Holy Spirit, we don’t have God’s kind of love either.  No wonder the warnings to this church in Ephesus are so strong.  As they are today, both as churches and individuals.

Cultural factors

There are usually cultural issues at play in any situation.  What happened in Ephesus is no different.  Here are just a few of them.

Key Points

• Ephesus was a major commercial port city and an important node on the north-south and east-west road system, and thus a strategic hub for the immediate and ongoing work of a missionary/church planter like Paul and his team.

• The worship of Artemis and the city’s identity and pride were intertwined from the founding of Ephesus, making devotion to Artemis a natural rallying point against an invasive monotheistic cult.

• Ephesus enthusiastically and devoutly supported the Roman imperial cult, with a marked upsurge toward the end of the first century as it was awarded its first provincial imperial temple. This is the climate and situation to which John’s Revelation would appear to respond most directly for Ephesian Christians.

• The commercial structures and activity of Ephesus, particularly as a collection point for shipments heading west to Greece and, most especially, Rome, is another important point of connection with Revelation’s critique of the Roman imperial economy and the practices that sustain it.   10)deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Ephesus (Acts 18:19–21, 24; 19:1–41; 20:16–17; Ephesians 1:1; 1 Timothy 1:3; Revelation 1:11; 2:1). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (p. 537). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Since you, the readers, come from various countries and backgrounds, I leave it to you to compare your environment to the one around the church in Ephesus.  Each of the four items above certainly was at odds with living a Christ-like life.  No matter where we live, whether it’s a bof city or small town, democracy or dictatorship, rich or poor, Etc, – there are always negative influences that we need to be aware of.

The psychology of the letter to the church in Ephesus

Before we reach the conclusion, let’s return to the graph at the beginning.  After reading all this, where would you put the church in Ephesus now?  Do you still like your original positioning?  Of have you learned some things that cause you to want to put it someplace else?

Click to see my placement of the church in Ephesus along the path

church of ephesus on graph

Yes, I have two markers.  The gray one indicates where I think the church in Ephesus believes they are.  By all indications, they don’t realize that they’re in any trouble at all.  They’re so busy, they think they’re still right where they need to be – in the middle of the narrow path.

On the other hand, the red marker is where I think Jesus knows they truly are.  While they used to be where the gray marker is, they’ve slid way back.  So far back that they’re nearing, if not at, the bottom of the trough of disillusionment.

The interesting thing is that regardless of which marker we pay attention to – this church is also near the point where they’ll just drop straight off the chart.

If the church in Ephesus doesn’t take heed of the warning, doesn’t overcome, Jesus will take away their lampstand.  They’ll no longer be a church.  They may become a social group – but will not be one of His churches anymore.

If we pay attention to the red marker, we’ll probably see this church just become so tired and worn out that they’ll knowingly give up on Jesus.  Not because Jesus isn’t worth following, but because they’ve forgotten how to do it.  They’ve forgotten about love.  And in doing so, they’ve lost the Holy Spirit – their source of energy.  Once again, like with the gray marker, Jesus will take away their lampstand.  They’ll no longer be a church.

To those who overcome:

Whether it be the church in Ephesus as a whole, some people in that church, or even those of us today in this condition – there is a reward for anyone who does take Jesus’ warning to heart.

I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

The tree of life represents eternal life.

Paradise?  Well, that’s a bit up in the air.

3857 παράδεισος [paradeisos /par·ad·i·sos/] n m. Of Oriental origin cf 6508; TDNT 5:765; TDNTA 777; GK 4137; Three occurrences; AV translates as “paradise” three times. 1 among the Persians a grand enclosure or preserve, hunting ground, park, shady and well watered, in which wild animals, were kept for the hunt; it was enclosed by walls and furnished with towers for the hunters. 2 a garden, pleasure ground. 2a grove, park. 3 the part of Hades which was thought by the later Jews to be the abode of the souls of pious until the resurrection: but some understand this to be a heavenly paradise. 4 the upper regions of the heavens. According to the early church Fathers, the paradise in which our first parents dwelt before the fall still exists, neither on the earth or in the heavens, but above and beyond the world. 11)Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

While many believe Paradise is the Garden of Eden and is somehow hidden, but on this earth, I tend to lean towards #4.  That Paradise / the Garden of Eden is not on earth.  That’s a topic all by itself, for another day.

Either way though, eternal life with God – what else can we ask for?

We read in the Bible about all those people who rejected God.  I always wonder why.  Adam and Eve did.  In the Exodus, the people didn’t want to deal with God directly, so they had Moses do it for them.  Later, the Israelites wanted an earthly king, in spite of the warnings, instead of God.  And it just went on and on.  You’d think someone, somewhere along the line, would have learned.

Then with Jesus, He was killed.  His followers were persecuted and killed.  And now we’ve reached a point where it’s often hard to even recognize Jesus’ presence in a lot of so-called Christians.

And I still wonder why.  What’s wrong with walking in the Garden with God?  I think that’s worth overcoming the ways of this world.  How about you?


Image from Logos Bible Software, by Faithlife Corp.


References   [ + ]

1, 4.Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship
2.Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 2:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software
3.Gregg, S. (1997). Revelation, four views: a parallel commentary (p. 64). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers.
5, 9, 11.Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
6.Nettelhorst, R. P. (2014). Love. D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
7.Pratt, D. M. (1915). Spiritual. In J. Orr, J. L. Nuelsen, E. Y. Mullins, & M. O. Evans (Eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Vol. 1–5, p. 2842). Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company
8.Wiersbe, W. W. (1992). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (p. 801). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
10.deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Ephesus (Acts 18:19–21, 24; 19:1–41; 20:16–17; Ephesians 1:1; 1 Timothy 1:3; Revelation 1:11; 2:1). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (p. 537). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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