Today we begin a 7 week series called 7 Letters, looking at the 7 letters found in Revelation 2-3. These 7 Letters were written to 7 different churches in the midst of the Roman Empire/Asia Minor over 2,000 years ago. We’ll be taking a look at each of the 7 letters and seeing what these 7 letters to various churches that were in existence 2,000 years ago might have to say to us gathered together as a church in the midst of the 21st century. While these letters are very contextual to each church, using language, metaphor, and images that were connected to each local church, these letters also speak to us about where we are as followers of Jesus both individually and corporately.
These 7 Letters all follow the same structure. Each letter begins with a greeting. Then the greeting is followed by a title of the risen Christ taken from the description of Jesus found in Revelation Chapter 1. Then following a description of the Risen Christ, John (the author of the letters under the inspiration of Jesus) writes words of praise for each local church, with the exception of Laodicea). Following the praise section, comes a section of criticism for each local church with the exception of Smyrna and Philadelphia. Then comes a warning, an exhortation which begins with “He who has an ear…” and each letter finishes with a promise.
You’ll also notice this seven fold structure where churches 1 and 7 are in grave danger, churches 2 and 6 are in excellent shape and churches 3,4, and 5 are in the middle, neither very good nor very bad.
If you are keeping track you’ll notice something that stands out. It is the number 7. It appears throughout the book of Revelation but here it appears in that there are 7 letters to 7 churches, and 7 sections of each letter. If you have looked at the Scriptures at all you’ll realize that 7 is a very important number. In fact in Revelation alone the number 7 appears over 24 times. In the Bible 7 is one of the numbers of perfection or completeness.
So with that little bit of background we can now unpack together the first of the 7 letters. The letter to the church at Ephesus which is found in Revelation 2:1-7.
The letter to the church in Ephesus in 2:1-7 says this, “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. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, 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. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far 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. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
The first of the seven letters is to the church at Ephesus. To understand more about what is happening in this letter, we need to take a look at the city of Ephesus for a bit. Ephesus was the most important of the seven cities in Revelation 2 and 3. Ephesus had the largest population of the 7 cities, estimated at around a quarter of a million people. It was a center of business, commerce, education, and religion. And Ephesus was the most obvious center of imperial power (think Roman Empire) in the region. So it makes sense that John starts his 7 Letters to the church at Ephesus.
After the greeting to the church at Ephesus, John grabs a picture of the risen Jesus from Revelation 1:12-13 which says, “I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.” He uses these words in Revelation 2 then to describe Jesus. Notice the similarities, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” The seven lamp stands are the seven churches and Jesus is walking among his churches. This gives us the picture of Christ as present in the trials, struggles, and life of the churches that John is writing to. Jesus knows the churches intimately and knows what good things are taking place and also the things that need to be corrected.
Once John is finished with the picture of the risen Christ, he turns the corner and shares what the Risen Christ has to say to the church at Ephesus; both the praise and also the criticism. In verses 2-3 we read the praises and verses 4-5 we read the criticism.
The praise found in verses 2-3 for the church at Ephesus is that the worked hard, they were patient even under threat and persecution and they have drawn a clear line between those who were really following Jesus and those that weren't. It seems like the church at Ephesus was truly concerned with doctrinal “purity”. They were rightly concerned about the gospel and making sure that they were always on the lookout for individuals or groups who tried to teach strange new ideas or who tried to introduce strange new practices. Just look at verse 6 which says, “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” This verse shows the Ephesian believers carefully discerning between truth and not truth. What these Nicolaitans taught is still a mystery. Ancient and modern scholarship haven’t been able to find out much about this group. Even though nothing is known about this group, this much is known, that this group wasn’t seeking to destroy the church from the outside. This group was claiming to present an improved and modernized version of the gospel. But the church at Ephesus was strongly rooted in the gospel and in doctrine as to understand who were the wolves in sheep’s clothing.
But there was a problem with the church at Ephesus and their strongly rooted doctrinal purity. Their concern for doctrinal purity or what some people call orthodoxy didn’t lead to the most important of Christian virtues, that of love. Love of God with all that they had and love for their neighbors. Jesus criticism of the church at Ephesus is this, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had a first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did and first. If you don’t repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.” They were rightly concerned about the gospel but they forgot the heart of the matter. They had yielded to the temptation, ever present to Christians, to put all their emphasis on sound teaching. In the process they lost love, without which all else is nothing. They were so concerned with orthodoxy (right belief) that they forgot about orthopraxy (right action). In fact their right belief didn’t lead to right action, which then to me isn’t right belief. If your right belief doesn’t lead to loving God and loving others, than it isn’t right belief. If it is all about being doctrinally pure and right then you would fit very well with the Pharisee’s who were all about being doctrinally pure and right but weren’t loving at all. Or you would fit very well in the Reformation when people were so concerned with doctrine (which definitely needed correction) but then would kill other people who didn’t quite fit into their theological framework. Reformers like Martin Luther and Calvin and others who were being taking to task by the Catholic church and were being persecuted turned around and persecuted others, mostly the Radical Reformers known as the Anabaptists. Their call and desire for right belief didn’t lead them to love God more or love others more. It actually led to bloodshed, war, and hate. Which the gospel of the Kingdom of God is totally opposed to and is at odds with. Their right belief didn’t lead to love and so therefore, in my opinion, their right belief wasn’t right.
So the church at Ephesus was so concerned with right doctrine that they had forgotten or forsaken their first love. The first love that God calls each of us to, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself. If they didn’t return to their first love, Jesus would remove their lampstand. This is a church that obviously listened to the letter and did return to their first love (for a while at least). In the early second century Christian writers were holding up Ephesus as a great example of Christian faith, life and witness. It held a place of preeminence and held one of the great 5th century church councils. There was once a thriving Christian witness there. But go to modern day Ephesus and the surrounding towns and one thing will stand out, there is no active church in that place (or if there are they are in hiding). This is what Jesus precisely warned the Ephesian church about in verse 5.
Jesus then lays out 3 steps to the Ephesian church in order to recover their first love. Their first love for God and for others. First, they needed to remember their first state. That first state when they loved Jesus with everything and was taking that love to their neighbors. To go back to the first days when they had come to know the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus. Secondly, they needed to repent. To turn around 180 degrees and go back to where they were. To go back to their first love. And lastly, because Christianity is not basically negative, they needed to do the things they did at first. The works they did that flowed out of their first love for God and for others.
At the end of the letter to the church at Ephesus comes the exhortation and promise found in verse 7 which states, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what they Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” This is one of the places where this letter is super contextual and uses an image that would be familiar to all those in Ephesus. NT Wright in Revelation for Everyone has this to say about the exhortation and promise found in verse 7. “The great temple of Artemis had within its extensive grounds a wonderful garden focused on a particular tree which was used, not only for a sacred shine; but as the focal point of a system of asylum. This tree even featured on some of the local coins. Criminals who came within a certain distance of it would be free from capture and punishment. It is not accident, then, that this letter finishes with the promise that God, too, has a ‘paradise’, a beautiful garden with the ‘tree of life’ as its heart.”
So if Jesus were to write a letter to the church at Veritas, what would he include from this letter? Have we forsaken our first love? Have we gotten so focused on right doctrine (orthodoxy) that we forgot right action (orthopraxy)? Where in our lives (both individually and corporately) do we need to remember our first state, repent, and do the things we did at first? What is God saying to us through John and his letter to the church at Ephesus? Let’s spend sometime talking and applying the letter to the church at Ephesus.
1. What thoughts, questions, insights, comments, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. What things stand out to you in regards to the connection between the church at Ephesus and our church? Have we forsaken our first love? Are we too focused on doctrine to the demise of right action? How can we remember, repent, and return?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?