The Roman government exiled the apostle John to the aisle of Patmos, because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. He was not there alone. On the Lord’s Day, John was filled with the Holy Spirit. The glorified Christ revealed himself to John. In Revelation 1:19, Jesus commands, “Write therefore the things you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.”
John wrote what we call the Revelation or Apocalypse. It is predominantly about things to come in the last days. It begins with the things that are. Chapters 2 and 3 record a series of letters Jesus sent to seven congregations in the Greco-Roman province of Asia Minor, southwestern Turkey today. The seven churches were Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
The first church addressed was in Ephesus. Located on the west coast of Asia Minor, a messenger traveling from Patmos would arrive at Ephesus first. Moreover, Ephesus was the de facto capital of the province, because of its economic strength, diverse population, cultural wealth, and religious activities. It was the “Vanity Fair of Asia.” To visit Ephesus in the first century would be to visit Los Angeles or New York City today.
In Ephesus, there was a church started by Paul, led by Timothy, taught by Apollos, and served by Aquila and Priscilla. Tradition claims John ministered in Ephesus before and after his exile. The church at Ephesus had an unrivaled legacy. But it did not rest on its laurels. At the time of this letter, it continue to have a dynamic ministry. Yet it was on the verge of swift and severe judgment. Verse 4 says, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
Lehman Strauss wrote: “Love is the first essential in Christian character, and when it commences to decline, the soul begins to drift.” The church at Ephesus had busy feet, clean hands, strong shoulders, a sound mind, and an upright heart. But its soul was adrift. It was on a collision course with spiritual disaster. Jesus reached out to pull it back to safely, before it was too late. Verse 7 says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
This letter was written to the church. But each member was responsible for his response. So was every member of the seven churches. This letter was not written to us, but it was written for us. We are reading someone else’s mail. But if the shoe fits, wear it.
- Does this shoe fit you?
- Have you abandoned your first love?
- Do you have everything but the main thing?
Here what the Spirit says to us through this love-note the Lord wrote to the church at Ephesus.
The Lord Counsels the Loveless Church
Verse 1 is the salutation of the letter: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The word of him who holds the seven starts in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lamp stands.” “Angel” means “messenger.” It may refer to a human being or supernatural being.
Revelation is written in signs and symbols. So “angel” may refer to the pastor-teacher of the church. But we should not call the pastor “the angel of the house.” Pastors are not angels. Ask our wives and children. We are messengers on assignment. The Lord introduces himself to the seven church differently. In verse 1, Christ identifies himself to this church as the one “who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the golden lamp stands.”
Christ holds the seven stars in his right hand. In Revelation 1:16, John describes the glorified Christ: “In his right hand he held the seven stars.” In verse 20, Christ explains: “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lamp stands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches…” The seven stars are the seven angels or pastors of the seven churches. In Revelation 2:1, Jesus “holds the seven stars in his right hand.” “Holds” means to firmly grip, indicating the authority Jesus exercises over the leadership of the church. The “right hand” is a place of strict accountability, strong protection, and strategic usefulness.
This is a word of caution for the pastors and members of the church. Members must be careful with how they treat pastors, because Jesus holds the seven stars in his right hand. Pastors must be careful how they treat members, because Jesus holds the seven stars in his right hand. This is also a word of comfort for pastors. Revelation was written to and for persecuted Christians. To be a member of Christ’s church was to be in harm’s way. All the more, to be a pastor was to be in harm’s way. Pastors put their lives in jeopardy to lead the church. The Lord says to them, “I am the the one who holds the seven stars in my right hand.”
Christ walks among the seven golden lampstands. In Revelation 1:13, John saw the glorified Christ “in the midst of the lampstands.” The picture is intensified in Revelation 2:1 where Christ “walks among the seven lampstands.” According to Revelation 1:20, the seven lampstands are the seven churches. Jesus is walking in the midst of the churches. There reason is in the word “golden.” In scripture, golden symbolizes purity. Jesus walks among the golden lampstands to examine the purity of the church.
Church growth experts teach the key to growth is to ask what guests see when they visit your church. Bu the real key is to ask what the Lord sees as he walks through the church.
- What does Christ see in our worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, choir rehearsals, and counseling sessions?
- What does Jesus see inner offices, boardrooms, and parking lots?
- What does Jesu see when he follows us home from church?
In verse 2, the Lord declares, “I know.” Jesus makes this statement to each of the seven churches. He says it to us today. You can fool some people all the time. You can fool all people sometime. You can never fool Jesus. He knows us fully, perfectly, and completely.
The Lord Commends the Loveless Church
The letter begins with compliments, not criticism. Christ tells the church what’s right before he tells them what’s wrong. Jesus says more positive things about this church he rebukes than the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia he does not rebuke.
The Lord commends sacrificial deeds. Verse 2 says, “I know your works, your toil and your patience endurance.” This church was spiritually active, which is commendable. No church succeeds spare time, pocket change, or nominal commitment. Healthy churches are working churches.
“Toil” means to work to the point of exhaustion. They wore themselves out for the mission and message of Christ. “Patient endurance” means to endure under a heavy load. There were times when it was difficult for the members of this church to follow Christ. But they did not forsake the Lord. They carried heavy burdens for Christ without giving up.
The Lord commends sound doctrine. The doctrinal fidelity of this church is seen in their holy intolerance.
The did not tolerate carnal members. Verse 2 says, “I know… how you cannot bear those who are evil.” Church discipline is the missing mark of the contemporary church. We do not seem to care how professing Christians live, as long as they attend, serve, and give. Matthew 7:1 is the golden verse of American Christianity: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” We twist this verse to mean no one has the right to question our testimony, even though our lifestyle contradicts our profession. That was not the church at Ephesus. They had high moral stands. They called sin by its name. They could not tolerate counterfeit Christians.
Verse 6 says, “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” The Nicolaitans are only mentioned twice in scripture. Their deeds are mentioned in Revelation 2:6. Their doctrine is mentioned in Revelation 2:16. Jesu stated their deeds and commended the Ephesians for hating them. They did not hate the Nicolaitans. They hated their deeds. They hated the evil ways of those who claimed to be Christians but lived sinfully. This is the mark of a true church.
They did not tolerate counterfeit ministers. In Acts 20:28-30, Paul instructed the Ephesian elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in from among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
Paul’s ominous predictions came to pass. But false teachers were unable to harm the church at Ephesus. Revelation 2:2 says: “I know… how you.. have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” When an “apostle” showed up, they tested him. If he did not line up with the apostles’ doctrine, they rejected him.
The issue is not if a man can preach but what that man preaches. Focus on the soundness of his content to you will not be seduced by the smoothness of his style. We are not sure if this church had access to written scripture. We have the complete canon in multiple translations with countless tools to help us rightly divide the word of truth. But we forsake biblical truth for material prosperity. We need moral integrity, doctrinal conviction, and spiritual courage to test what we hear and condemn those who prostitute the word of God.
The Lord commends steadfast diligence. Verse 3 says, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” Heracleitus, the weeping philosopher of Ephesus, lamented the vileness of the city. Christians were persecuted, ridiculed, and maligned. But the church at Ephesus “patiently endured.” Verse 2 says they could not bear those who are evil. Using the same word, verse 3 says they did bear up for Christ’s name sake.
Do you find yourself where it is hard to be devoted to Christ? Don’t give up. Matthew 5:11-12 says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The Lord Criticizes the Loveless Church
There are no perfect churches. The church at Ephesus was apparently close. You would think Jesus would give this church a 5-star award and move on to the next church. Verse 4 says, “But I have this against you.” There are three verses of commendation. There is only one complaint. Verse 14 says to the church of Pergamum, “But I have a few things against you.” The Lord only had one thing against Ephesus. But it was so serious that he threatened to remove its lamp stand from its place, if they did not repent.
Jesus declares, “You have abandoned the love you had at first.” This complaint may point upward, inward, or outward. It may be love for Christ, love for one another, or love for the lost. The tone and content point to love for Christ. To love the Lord is the main thing. This church had everything but the main thing. They had not lost their first love. They left, forsook, abandoned their first love. It was not accidental or incidental. It was a willful act. it was intentional rebellion. It was a deliberate betrayal. But it did not take place all at once. Little by little, the church drifted away until it abandoned its first love.
If you have ever been in love, you know what first love is. It is honeymoon love. You have strong feelings. Yo cannot stop thinking about that person. You always want to be together. You talk all the time. You do everything together. You do whatever it takes to be together. You do whatever it takes to make your love smile. You are on a high from which you never want to come down. But in marriage, romance can become routine. Life happens. The fire that consumed the romance becomes a chill that freezes the relationship.
Imagine a husband says to his wife, “I don’t love you anymore. But nothing will change. I’ll still earn a living, sleep with you, and father your children. I just don’t love you anymore. To abandon your first love is to say, “Lord, I don’t love you like I once did. But I’ll still come to church. I’ll sing, pray, and give. I just don’t love you.”
This is what happened in the church at Ephesus. They forsook their devotion to Christ. All they had left was dead orthodoxy, headless morality, empty religion. It can happen to you! Has it happened to you? If there was a time when you loved Jesus more than you do now, you have abandoned your first love.
The Lord Corrects the Loveless Church
By amazing grace, there is still hope for those who have abandoned their first love. Verse 5 gives three ways to restore your first love.
Remember. Verse 5 says, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen.” The church at Ephesus had fallen from the heights of devotion to Christ and needed to be restored. The first step was to remember from where they had fallen. There are times when looking back is dangerous. Luke 17:32 says, “Remember Lot’s wife.” But there are times when forgetting the past can be dangerous.
Some things you should remember. Remember what it was like when grace gripped you. You may not remember the moment you were saved. But you should remember the aftermath of grace that saved you by the blood of Christ. Steve Lawson said, “Memory is the handmaid of revival.” Jesus commanded this fallen church to remember. It is in a grammatical emphasis emphasis that denotes continual action: “Keep on remembering.” It is perpetual recollection. Keep remembering what the Lord has done for you.
Repent. Matthew 22:37 records the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Love for God is our greatest spiritual duty. Love for Christ is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. To know the Lord is to love the Lord. To allow love to grow cold is sin. The church at Ephesus was in sin. Jesus commanded them to remember and repent.
What is repentance? It is a change of mind. It is to make a U-turn in your life. It is to acknowledge your way is wrong and God’s way is right. Stop going your way and start going God’s way. To repent is to come back to God. This is what Jesus commands. Come back to God!
Repeat. Verse 5 says, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Love is more than emotion. Love is what you do. 1 John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
This is the second “first” in the text. There is the first love in verse 4; now there are the first works. What are the first works? Jesus does not specify. He leaves it to you to fill in the blanks. The first works are whatever you did when you loved Christ at first. Go back to the basics. Pray. Read the Bible. Worship. Fellowship. Serve. Give. Witness. It is easier to act your way into a feeling than to feel your way into an action. Do whatever it takes to get closer to the Lord.
The church at Ephesus was free to ignore than instructions. But willful obedience would bring dire consequences. Jesus warns, “Repent, or else.” Verse 6b says: “If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” This is not the Second Coming. It is a special coming to the church at Ephesus. If this church did not heed the Lord’s final call, Jesus threatened to remove its candlestick out of its place.
What does this mean? It could mean the church would cease to exist. This is what ultimately happened. The city and church of Ephesus are not more. Every saved person has eternal security. No church does. The universal church is eternal secure (Matthew 16:18). Continued favor on a local church is never guaranteed. Or this could mean that Christ would not be obviously present or actively in-charge. This would be worse than extinction. Sometimes Jesus lets a church live, but snuffs its light out. It is still doing church, but Christ is not there.
Verse 7 records an exhortation and a promise: “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to teach of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of GOd.” In each letter to the seven churches, the Lord issues this call to hear. Then he gives a promise to those who heed his call. He calls them “the one who conquers,” which means to prevail after a struggle. Conquerers are not a special or select group. All true Christians are conquerors. 1 John 5:14-15 says: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that overcomes the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesu sis the Son of God?”
In each letter, the conqueror receives a reward. Revelation 2:7 says, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” The tree was life was in the Garden of Eden. The Lord banished Adam from the Garden, lest he also eat from the tree of life and so live forever in his fallen condition (Genesis 3:22-23). The second Adam will grant the one who conquers to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.
As Calvary, Jesus said to the penitent criminal hanging beside him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” All who trust the blood and righteousness of Christ will live with God forever. John 10:28 says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”