EPHESUS – THEN and NOW
A Study in Revelation 2.1-7
The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Revelation two and three were long since described as ‘first century letters to twentieth century churches’, and such they certainly are. They are neither to be banished to the past in terms of antiquarian interest in those who first received them, nor are they to be relegated to the future in the concerns of prophetic speculation, even though they contain both history and prophecy. They are more accurately understood as the message of the risen Christ to the entire church on earth throughout the whole Christian era, in exactly the same way as the other church epistles of the New Testament. A large part of the uniqueness of these Seven Letters is that they record the very last words of the Lord Jesus Christ to His churches before the close of the apostolic age and of the canon of holy scripture. With one or two notable exceptions the substance of each Letter comprises the three elements of Commendation, Complaint and Counsel.
“Unto the angel of the church at Ephesus” (v. 1) – a city of culture and of commerce, in fact the commercial capital of the whole province of Asia. Also a city of great corruption, it had passed through the political control of both the Greeks and the Romans by the end of the first Christian century when the apostle John penned under inspiration, and delivered this Letter from the living Lord for the Christian church located there. A word from the Lord was welcome in the Ephesian church at that time, for it was rivalled locally by the temple of the great goddess Diana (Acts 19). Founded under the ministry of the apostle Paul some fifty years earlier, and consolidated under his later ministry, the record occupies Acts eighteen to twenty, culminating in Paul’s deeply moving words of farewell to the church’s elders. After an interval of forty or fifty years this same church now received this Letter, not from Paul, but from the great Head of the church by the hand and pen of the apostle John.
The commendation freely given to this church derives its worth from the standing and character of Him who gave it: “He that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” (v. 1).
(1) Two things are to be observed concerning the Author of this Commendation.
(i) The seven stars in Christ’s right hand are the angels, or pastors, of the seven churches (1.20; 2.1). Thus, since the churches are representative of the entire Christian church on earth throughout the Christian era, the seven stars are representative of the ministry of Christ’s church on earth throughout the same era, and that ministry is held firmly within the hand of the church’s reigning Head. Christ has placed His ministers in a place of authority, and that to the point of awesome solemnity; something not to be thought of in a casual or flippant manner. Wherever there is a regular and faithful ministry, such a ministry speaks from Christ’s right hand, and in His Name. As it is faithful to His word and gospel, so is it to be received; and by that standard alone the Christian hearer is to assess it. Refusal to hear a faithful ministry leaves the Christian in an invidious and dangerous position. Under the figure of seven stars in the right hand of the reigning Christ is portrayed the entire faithful Christian ministry, thus held and thence deriving its authority through all the succeeding centuries to the end of time. How large that hand! And how exalted in might and majesty is this function!
(ii) The other notable thing about the One who offers this Commendation is this: “He . . . walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” or churches (1.20; 2.1). This indicates that the Head of the churches knows them all from the inside as well as from the outside. He is not a mere onlooker, though He is that. Christ’s view and vision of His churches on earth is both internal and external as befits His attribute of omniscience, and His headship is both comfort and challenge to their constituent members.
(2) The Commendation of the Ephesian church focuses in two things.
(i) The first is the church’s activity or service.: “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience . . . (thou) hast laboured, and hast not fainted” (w. 2,3). Christ says, “I know”. He knows as all-seeing, all-knowing, all-wise. No church can hide anything from her Head. Nor can any individual member. At Ephesus there were, as there should be in all Christian churches, plenty of “good works which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2.10). Their works are not particularised, but it had registered with perfect clarity in the mind of Christ their Head that they were “zealous of good works”, outworking the gracious salvation that God had wrought in them (Phil. 2.12,13). Here was a church at work. There was nothing somnolent about them. Christ knew, from both without and within, that their toil and labour in His name, in its many and varied forms, was not slick, effortless and formal, but eager, vigorous and joyful, the spontaneous outflow of hearts changed by saving grace.
For all its variety, the commended service of this church was shot through with one outstanding mark and characteristic: “I know thy patience” (v. 2). Not a spectacular nor sensational virtue, but one that suited people under pressure and opposition and persecution. There were severe difficulties then – as now – in the path of a faithful Christian church; but they were met at Ephesus with patience, perseverance and the obedience of faith in common exercise. Almost certainly there was actual physical persecution at Ephesus, for they lived under the Roman emperors in the latter years of the first century when such persecution was widespread. In such circumstances their service had not languished, but they had “borne, and (had) patience, . . . and for my sake . . . laboured . . . and not fainted” (v. 3). This was not the whole truth about them, but this fact and feature of their whole life received, in writing, Christ’s ‘well done’. “I know thy patience”. Whatever oppression the Nicolaitanes or anyone else brought upon them, the church persevered, stood firm, refused to retract or retreat. And commendation for such Christian constancy from the church’s Head is commendation of no mean order. It does not inflate; it humbles; it spurs on to further faithful service in His Name. Let each church of today examine itself and see whether it has its Lord’s commendation.
(ii) The second thing for which the Ephesian church was commended was its intolerance: “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” (v. 2). There is an important place for intolerance in the Christian church, indicated here and commended by Christ the Head. The nature of that intolerance is high-lighted in the church’s policy.
First, there was a healthy intolerance of false teachers in general. The members of this church were capable of distinguishing such from the faithful ministry in the hand of Christ (v. 1). They were sufficiently well taught to discriminate between the false and the true; they tried them; put them to the test and found the counterfeit wanting. And Christ commended their assessment! How many churches of today are capable of detecting “them which say they are apostles, and are not”? But if intolerance of false teaching be an obligation on every church and every member, how well taught in the word and doctrine such churches and Christians must be! Babes in grace are ill equipped for this service. “Thou canst not bear them which are evil” (v. 2). No evil is so great as that which leads men astray in the name and pretence of truth; that professes to come from God, but in fact comes from the devil. This the Ephesian church would not tolerate, and they had Christ’s hearty commendation for repudiating the ministry of false teachers in general. The proper reaction to all that is spurious in the church, even though it garb itself in orthodox phraseology is not tolerance but intolerance, even though it must follow the Puritan maxim:
‘Tolerate no man’s errors, but touch no man’s person’. “Thou canst not bear evil…” Such intolerance has Divine commendation.
Second, there was an intolerance of the Nicolaitanes and their views and practices in particular. “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes which I also hate” (v. 6). A hatred commended by Christ and shared by Christ!
Who were the Nicolaitanes? They were supposedly the followers of Nicolas of Antioch who is found in Acts 6.5 as one of the seven deacons. There is no documentary proof of this identification, but whether or not it was this Nicolas is beside the point. These followers of Nicolas, known as Nicolaitanes, were a pernicious brood because they had infiltrated the church at Ephesus, as certain others of their number had done at Smyrna (v. 15). They were lax in their conduct because they saw nothing wrong in participating in pagan festivities. They were compromisers, carnal in their spiritual profession. Worse still, they held a serious doctrinal error. They were both professing and practising Antinomians. They had no place in their life or thought for the Law of God. Their belief was that so long as a man believed in Christ he is not under the Law of God in any respect at all; that so long as you belong to Christ’s church you may do as you like; the Law of God has nothing to say to you. That is evil teaching; it is deadly heresy; and it has come to be known as Antinomianism. To their credit the church at Ephesus hated and repudiated this doctrine, along with those who held and propagated it. They knew the mind of Christ, who also hated it; and they had His commendation.
Many in the church at large today fail to determine to be intolerant of anything, of any false teaching, or of non-christian practice flowing from it. Lacking firm convictions about anything, they cannot distinguish the false from the true, and so they smother all with a false charity. The Ephesian church would have stood aghast at the insipid thinking of many of today’s ‘churches’, that it is unimportant what a church or its members believes. Twentieth century churches and Christians need to take a leaf out of the book of this first century church, to whom the Lord said: “thou hatest. .. I also hate …” (v. 6). There is our mandate; there is our warrant for a thorough-going intolerance of false teaching in general, and of Antinomianism in particular.
With commendation such as this, it might be thought that nothing wrong could be found in such a church. Alas, there was a “Nevertheless . . .” (v. 4) in Christ’s message to Ephesus both then and now. After the acknowledgement of all the service and the patience and the entirely laudable intolerance, there comes this woeful word: “Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee” (v. 4). How could such a discovery be made? It was attributable to the “eyes of fire” (1.14) of Him who walked in the midst of the churches (v. 1) and saw the affairs of Ephesus from inside as well as from without. Christ saw something wrong; the beginnings of an incipient disease in that church in the absence of one essential and indispensable quality in the life of any church. So, said He:
“Nevertheless – in spite of my unreserved and unstinted commendation – “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (v. 4). “First love” is the love of espousals, when thou wentest after me . . .” (Jer. 2.2). The picture is of the mutual love of husband and wife at its beginning; enthusiastic, unselfish, and self-denying to the point of extravagance. So to the Ephesians -then and now – Christ says: I remember the love of your courtship days; how, as a bride you loved Me; but now “thou hast left thy first love”. It was, and is, a love for Christ on the part of His churches and people, that remained true in principle, but with the passage of time became jaded and stale, routine and commonplace, lacking its original all-consuming passion and fire.
That the Ephesian love for Christ remained true in principle is clear from its expression in terms of their faithfulness, patience, and service. They loved the truth and the preaching of the truth, as shown by their corresponding hatred of error. But while they loved the things of Christ, their love for Christ Himself was declining. Loyalty to principle was not matched by love to persons at large, and to the Person of Christ in particular. They were orthodox in doctrine, but less than careful in the matter of relationships. So we may hate “Nicolaitanism” in both doctrine and practice, be intolerant of the errors of modern Christendom, and still be without a vibrant and vigorous love for the church’s Head and for His church in personal terms. And where love dies in a church, orthodox doctrine becomes a corpse, and worship degenerates into formality. No external zeal, no multiplication of Christian service, and no amount of sound doctrine, compensates for a declining love of Christ Himself and for those for whom He died. Why? Because love is the crucible of the spiritual life, the crux of a redeemed sinner’s relationship to God, and the regulator of the common life in the body of Christ.
“Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (v. 4). So speaks the risen, reigning, redeeming Christ against His own church of Ephesus – ancient and modern, then and now. Oh the utter honesty of Him who has the eyes “as a flame of fire”! Just as the splendid Commendation was warranted, so also was this woeful Complaint against a declining love. And neither cancelled out or excluded or excused the other.
If the intermingling of Commendation and Complaint serves to show that there is no perfect church on earth, the introduction into the case of Counsel shows the covenant faithfulness and never-failing love of the great Head of the church.
(1) First there is a prescription for improvement, for correcting the condition of declining love in the church. No miracle cure was, nor is, on offer, but only diligent application for each and every member. Remember! Repent! Return!
(i) Remember! “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen . . . or else” (v. 5). Remember, recall, reflect upon what “first love” is like; those who have known it cannot forget it. That ought to stimulate your spirit; Christ’s “first love ” for you as lost and undone; and your love for Christ as the seeking and saving One. Declining love is a fall, not out of salvation, but out of the joy of it. Hence the psalmist’s cry: “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation” (Ps. 51.12).
(ii) Repent! “Remember . . . and repent… or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (v. 5). Repentance is not limited to unconverted sinners. Christians must repent. Churches have occasion to repent of many things it may be, but certainly of declining love. The bride has to repent before her Bridegroom who, though He humbles yet never humiliates her. Declining love produces coolness, and coolness may produce coldness, and coldness is a sign of death. “I will come quickly and remove thy candlestick” – the threat of providential judgement overhangs the utterly loveless church no matter what her name and repute in the earth: “Repent… or else”! The purpose of a “candlestick” – a church, is to give light. “Ye are … that ye should show forth …” (1 Pet. 2.9). If the candlestick is removed, so is the light. God will bring a church’s witness to an end, even though the church itself goes on outwardly and formally existing and acting as such. In Ephesus there was no light, no candlestick, no Christian church after the fourteenth century. Our land is currently littered with empty “candlesticks” i.e. buildings once housing Christian churches which in their day earned commendation and complaint but made no response to the counsel of the Lord: Remember! Repent!
(iii) Return! – “And do the first works” (v. 5). Go back to basics in service; this is no call for ‘some new thing’; but rather to reject the sophistication of modern psychology in its methodology, and return to “the work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father” (1 Thess. 1.3).
Declining love in church or Christian is solemn, and it is serious, but it is not necessarily fatal. There is a corrective. Here the Head of the church prescribes it. His counsel is that every member applies himself with diligence and dedication by way of remembrance and repentance and return to the “first love”.
(2) Then there is the element of promise found within the counsel. “To him that overcometh . . .” (v. 7). Overcometh what? The evil teachers, the false apostles and their doctrine, and the coolness and lethargy of a declining love. And what is the substance of the promise? – “to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” (v. 7). This is a symbol of Christ Himself, alluding to the tree of life in Eden, and so named because He is the author of life natural, spiritual, and eternal, and because He is both their spiritual food, and the faith by which they feed upon Him. As the Christian life is a constant warfare against sin and Satan, the world and the flesh, so this whole “Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1.1) speaks of the on-going war between Christ the Church’s Head, and the dragon, her great opponent. While there is a representative “overcoming” in Christ, there is also a personal “overcoming” to be known in measure in this life, and in full “in the midst of the paradise of God”.
The Letter to Ephesus speaks with clarity, then and now, to all Christ’s churches on earth. There is grace in action, which only the living Christ could give or commend. There is complaint of the failure of a constant love and affection to which churches, alas, are always prone. There is counsel against defeatism and despair, and toward the overcoming of all obstacles. And what is generalised in the Commendation and the Complaint is personalised in the Counsel of promise: “to him that overcometh”. All centres in the ever-blessed Person of the church’s all-sufficient and all-glorious Head; even “He that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, (and) walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.”
K. W. H. Howard*
*This was the last piece of work prepared by Mr. Howard, just before he died.