We’ve now come to the first section in Revelation, where Jesus directly addresses 7 different churches and by so doing addresses His universal Church throughout all time. An initial look at these 7 churches may reveal that each church is presented to us with its own cares, concerns, and issues – but upon a closer look this isn’t the case at all. There is a pattern present in how these letters to the 7 churches are ordered. Church 1 and Church 7 are in immediate danger. Church 2 and Church 6 are healthy and doing very well. Church 3, Church 4, and Church 5 are lukewarm and stagnant. As we work our way through each of these 7 churches we’ll find ourselves mixed with joy and despair, because all of the characteristics describing these churches (whether good or bad) easily apply to SonRise Community Church, and every other church in the world. Our Church in view today is the Church in Ephesus. It’s one of the two churches in grave danger, such that if things don’t change they will soon cease to be a Christian Church. The passage today is 2:1-7, let’s begin.
2:1 gives us the background saying, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.”
Directing His first letter to the Church in Ephesus, Jesus has words that commend and confront this body of believers. To give some background, Ephesus was the capital city of Asia Minor, it was a port city, so naturally it was the center of land and sea trade routes, and along with Alexandria and Antioch it was one of the three most influential cities in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The Greek temple of Artemis or Diana (Roman), one of the ancient wonders of the world, was located in this city. This pagan temple manufactured images of their goddess, promoting both sexually immoral worship of pagan deities and the worship of varying Roman Emperor’s as well. Because of these things the citizens of Ephesus were well known for their love for and devotion to superstition and magic (Acts 19:13-20). Over the years the temple took in so many vagabonds and ‘on the run’ criminals that it slowly became the headquarters for most of the organized crime in the region. Into this environment Paul planted a church that eventually grew so large that it became the hub of gospel missionary strategy for the whole of Asia Minor (Acts 19:1-10).
Very early Church tradition says the apostle John and Mary the mother of Jesus settled in Ephesus and ministered there after Christ’s ascension. Tradition also tells us that it was young Timothy and Tychicus who led the Ephesian Church. Acts 19 tells us Paul spent three years in Ephesus teaching and preaching. Paul even wrote a long letter to this congregation instructing them in various things. The conclusion we should arrive at seeing the robust teaching they had the privilege of hearing is that the Ephesian Church was a well-taught Church. So the ‘angels’ v1 refers to are Timothy and the rest of the elders there. That v1 speaks of ‘Him who holds the seven stars in His hand and who walks among the seven golden lampstands is another reminder that the words of this letter are from the Cosmic Christ who holds the elders and their churches in His hand despite how difficult times become.
I said earlier Jesus has words which commend and confront the Ephesians. Beginning where Jesus does in v2 we’ll also begin with the strength of Ephesus and then move onto their sin.
1) The Ephesian Strength: v2-3 say, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for My name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” Similarly v6 says, “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
The strength of the Ephesian congregation was their love for orthodoxy. They had been toiling with those who were wicked and evil by teaching false doctrine, they had been patient by remaining within sound theology instead of giving in to compromise, which was so prevalent in their day. They knew how to evaluate and examine men who claimed to have true spiritual leadership, claiming to be apostles when they’re not. The Ephesians were bearing much, enduring, and unyielding in their devotion to right doctrine. Jesus even commends them saying they did all of these things for His name’s sake. An example of their steadfast stance on orthodoxy comes to us in v6 when we see their rejection of the group called the Nicolaitans. This group received their name because they followed a popular teacher of their day named Nicolas. This group was also called the ‘Balaamites’ due to the sexual nature of their immoral heresy. Like Balaam had deceived, tempted, and lured the Israelites away from God with sexually explicit promises in Numbers 23-24, so too the Nicolaitans were teaching that one could be involved with the sexually explicit worship in Diana’s temple and still be a Christian. This position is obviously one of compromise, and Jesus commends them for not giving in to this lie. The early Church Father Clement of Alexandria said this about the Nicolaitans, “They abandoned themselves to pleasure like goats, leading lives of self-indulgence.” God hated the works of this heretical sect, and the Ephesians did too.
And here we’re brought face to face with a challenge for ourselves. As Jesus commended this Church for their devotion to right doctrine, we must hear the call to devote ourselves to right doctrine as well. We must hear the call to embrace orthodoxy and reject heresy. This may sound foreign to you because the popular notion of our culture today which believes the only heresy today is to say there’s such a thing as heresy. Rather than seeing a pure devotion to Biblical theology, our culture views all those who think heresy exists as modern day Pharisees. I wonder if you view it like that? I hope you don’t. If you think theology gets in the way of the Christian life you have no idea what the Christian life is truly about. To love God is to love theology. To disregard theology is to disregard God Himself. I think there’s a misunderstanding here: contrary to popular opinion, everyone is a theologian. The question isn’t do you do theology or not, the question is do you do theology correctly or incorrectly. You see, anytime someone makes a statement about God they’re making a theological statement. The one who says ‘I just love Jesus, I just want to be about His love, I don’t do theology’ is making a significant theological statement, a theological statement that reveals what this person really thinks about God. Do not be deceived, the Ephesian strength in doctrine must be our strength. We must embrace, fight for, love, and defend orthodox theology rather than giving into the prevalent thinking of our day.
2) The Ephesian Sin: we’ve seen the words that commend this church, lets turn now to the words that confront this church. v4-5 say, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
Note the sin of the Ephesian Church revolves around what Jesus means in v4 when He says they’ve ‘abandoned the love they had at first.’ What is the love they had at first? There are three options here, and I think the Ephesian sin is a combination of all 3.
1) The love the Ephesians lost was love for Christ: in seeking after right doctrine it seems that the Ephesians began fighting for orthodoxy while leaving Christ behind. They began to love theology more than the One whom theology is about. We all know what this feels like. Think back to when you first embraced Jesus Christ as He is offered to you in the gospel. Think about the freedom you felt from sin, the victory given you in Christ, the rescue and liberty that burst into your heart the moment you believed. Contrast that with how you feel about Jesus today. Is there still an intimate embrace, a freedom, a delight, love, victory, life, or light? Perhaps in the first steps of your Christian life it’s true to say many of you had enthusiasm without much knowledge. Do you now have a vast knowledge with little enthusiasm? If so, be rebuked. Deep theology leads to deep love for Christ, if it doesn’t, you’re not doing theology.
2) The love the Ephesians lost was love for the Church: in seeking after right doctrine it seems the Ephesians began doing theological study with only themselves in view, rather than doing theological study with the other Ephesians in view. They became what some call ‘ivory tower theologians’ who are always buried in a book and never interacting with the church. Again, we all know what this feels like. Think back to when you first became a member of the Church. Think about the friendship, the community of saints, the love you had for one another, the gospel grace given horizontally from person to person. Think about the deep study you joined in with others to know God better as a community. Contrast that with today, is there still a community mindset when doing theology? Do you still desire to do theology for the sake of loving others well? Or do you fight for orthodoxy alone and isolated with only a view to yourself? If so, be rebuked. Deep theology leads to a deep love for the local Church. If your theology leads you away from the Church, you’re not doing theology.
3) The love the Ephesians lost was love for the lost: in seeking after right doctrine it seems the Ephesians began doing theological study with the church doors/windows shut, rather than pursuing the lost with a theologically deep, clear, and concise gospel witness. They began to insulate themselves from unbelievers, remove themselves from the neighborhoods they lived in, and ceased pursuing the lost. When a church ceases reaching out into the community it becomes ingrown, and when a church becomes ingrown it immediately becomes unhealthy. If a church remains ingrown for long enough, the church dies. Paul had once commended the church at Ephesus for its love for God and love for others (in Ephesians 1:15), but by the time of Revelation most of the church founders had died, and many of the second-generation believers had lost their zeal for God. They were a big and busy church—the members did much to benefit themselves—but they weren’t giving much attention to the community around them.
Because of this love the Ephesians had lost, Jesus in v5 calls them to do three things: remember, repent, and return. They must remember how much healthier they used to be. They must remember the passion and heat they had for Christ, be shamed at how far they’ve fallen from that, and be stunned at how cold they presently are. They must repent and acknowledge this sin to God, being honest in confession and humble in sorrow. Lastly they must return and do what they did at first. They must, as it were, begin again. They must go back, step by step, until they find the place where they took the turn away from the light. They must endeavor to resuscitate and regain their first zeal, warmth, affection, passion, and love, praying earnestly for God to do a work in their hearts.
v5b is a warning to them if they do not repent of this sin. That Jesus says He will ‘remove their lampstand’ means He will ‘unchurch’ this church, no longer seeing it as a true representation of His name or His gospel. Afterwards in v6-7 we read the common refrain that’s found at the end of each letter in this section, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Throughout Church history there are differing opinions as to whether or not the Ephesian Church heeded this warning, the bottom line is that we don’t know for sure. Perhaps it’s a good thing we don’t know, because by not knowing, it forces us to face this warning today.
So hear the warning…
Many of us at SonRise Community Church are lovers of right doctrine. Many of us would fall into the category of being those who fight for and seek to defend the historic reformed tradition. Many of us warn others of false teachers who, like Nicolas, are preaching a false gospel. But has SonRise Community Church become a place where there is much knowledge and no warmth for Jesus? Have we become a place where there is clear and concise doctrine but a lack of love for one another? Have we become a place where we’ve closed ourselves off from the lost we do life with everyday? Have we forgotten the gospel that has rescued us? Have we forgotten the deepest of all theologies that comes streaming to us in the crucified Son of God in behalf of sinners? Have we forgotten the salvation we now enjoy? Have we forgotten the love that won our hearts? Have we forgotten the love we had at first?
Never forget it SonRise. Remember the good news: you are more wretched than you could ever imagine, but in Christ God loves you more than you could ever dare hope.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Church.