MESSAGE TO EPHESUS
It seems that Jesus started with the city of disciples that had the greatest opportunity of all the other cities. The prominence and location of this city meant that the disciples in Ephesus had a great impact throughout western Asia Minor, which impact, they were in danger of losing. The Christians in key urban centers as Ephesus must keep this in mind. What they do will often affect the existence of the church through a region, if not an entire nation.
Ephesus had been given the greater privilege of having the apostle Paul teach and work in the city for three years (At 20:31). Therefore, the Christians in this city had the greater responsibly to maintain the flame of their lamp because they had the greater privilege of the personal ministry of a Christ-sent apostle. This may be the reason why we know more about the work of the early Christians in this urban center than we do of any of the other cities that are addressed in Revelation 2 & 3.
A. Ephesus was a commercial and religious center.
Ephesus (meaning “desirable”) was a seaport city that was located on the Cayster River. The city was the largest port city of all Asia Minor, and thus roads directed trade to and through its port. It was a gateway port to the Mediterranean basin. It was also the gateway to western Asia Minor for political, religious and commercial influences. By the time Paul stepped foot in the city in Acts 19, the city was at lest one thousand years old. Some have estimated that the population at the time of Paul’s first visit was over 250,000. Since the city was a seaport city, it was the center of trading from inland Asia Minor, which made the city very wealthy and important to Mediterranean commerce.
What was unique about Ephesus is that it housed the great temple of the local god Diana (Greek, Artemis). This temple was once considered one of the seven wonders of the world. From the time of the beginning of idol worship in the city, there were actually five temple structures that had been destroyed and rebuilt on the site where the temple of Diana stood at the time Paul was in Ephesus. The fourth temple that was built on the site burned the night Alexander the Great was born in October 365 B.C. Construction was started on the fifth temple in 350 B.C. It took 220 years to complete this temple. This temple was about 25,000 square meters in size upon completion. It was eventually burned in A.D. 263. After the destruction of this temple, there was never again a temple built on the site.
Housed within the temple at the time Paul was in Ephesus was a large stone that some historians believe was a meteorite. Because it appeared to be multi-breasted, it became the idol of Diana, the goddess of fertility. The people were so fanatical about this idol, and the religion it represented, that when they recognized, upon his arrival at the temple, that Paul was a Jew, “all with one voice for about the time of two hours cried out, ‘Great is Artemis [Diana] of the Ephesians’” (At 19:34).
Because of the location of the city of Ephesus, the temple of Diana became a banking center where the people entrusted their money to the priests. By the time of Paul’s arrival, it was not only a center of worship, but a treasure house for the people, and a museum for many of the best pieces of art in the region. The temple was the heart and soul of the people of Ephesus. The fanaticism that was expressed against Paul upon his arrival in Ephesus in Acts 19 can be understood because of the people’s zeal for the idol worship that was associated with the temple of Diana. The message that Paul preached was against everything the temple represented among the Ephesians. The message of his preaching not only attacked the idol worship of the culture, it also attacked the idol business that was associated with the temple.
In the messages written to the seven churches, it is possible that Jesus used the influence of the cities as a metaphorical prophesy concerning the future decline of the influence of the disciples in the regions of the cities. Ephesus, for example, would have been an example to define the religious, commercial and cultural influence of the city throughout the region of Ephesus. The other cities, in a similar way, were also influential in their regions. But the disciples’ positive influence for the truth was declining. The flames of their lamps were flickering. In some cases, they were reverting to the behavior of idol worship from which they were originally converted.
When the influence of Ephesus began to wane, so did the influence of the church throughout the region of Ephesus. When the disciples saw the demise of the influence of the church throughout their region, they would remember what Jesus said about the removal of their lamp. When the influence of all the seven cities eventually came to an end, so did the influence of the church in the region of the cities. The lampstand was taken away as the cities, and the church in the cities, disappeared from history. The lamps of the churches eventually ran out of oil, and subsequently, flickered out.
B. Ephesus was formerly a focal point of Asian evangelism.
By the time Paul arrived in Ephesus, idol worship had been commercialized. Idols of the religion of Diana were on sale at great profit (At 19:24). When a great conversion resulted from Paul’s preaching of the gospel, the people burned thousands of religious books that were worth a great deal of money (At 19:19). The people did not seek to synchronize their spiritualistic religious beliefs with the truth. On the contrary, they sought to eradicate pagan beliefs from their minds. Some historians believe that by the time of Paul’s third mission trip to Ephesus, the worship of Diana was waning. The great conversion of idol worshipers through the preaching of the gospel certainly continued the demise of this religion. For this reason, the idol business was in serious trouble. And when men have commercialized religion, we can expect trouble when the truth endangers their profit.
It is certain that the preaching of the gospel to the city of Ephesus came long before Paul’s arrival. There were surely Jewish citizens who returned before and after the Passover/Pentecost feast of Jerusalem in A.D. 30. Upon their return to Ephesus, they would have shared what they heard being preached throughout Palestine by both John and Jesus (At 2:9; See Is 2:1-4). This may explain the existence of a small group of about twelve disciples whom Paul found in the city who knew only the baptism of John (At 19:1-7). Since John’s preaching took place six months before Jesus began His ministry, and before the Passover/Pentecost feast of Acts 1,2 took place in A.D. 30, then we could assume that these disciples Paul found had been meeting for approximately twenty-five years in their house before he showed up in Acts 19:1-7. Maybe such faithfulness will give us some idea of the religious soul of the Ephesians. They took their faith seriously.
As far as our knowledge of the formal establishment of the disciples in Ephesus, Acts places Paul, Aquila and Priscilla in the city after the trio left Corinth. Paul left Aquilla and Priscilla in the city, while he went on to Jerusalem (At 18:18-21). Apollos also preached in the city and was initially contacted by Aquila and Priscilla when he was preaching in the Jewish synagogue of Ephesus (At 18:24-26). He too only knew the baptism of John.
The presence of these two Christians, Aquila and Priscilla, in the synagogue does indicate that they as Jewish Christians continued their outreach to the Jews. Their meeting in the synagogue illustrates that Christians should not shun the opportunity to be anywhere with any religious person who might want to hear. We do know that Aquila and Priscilla, with other disciples, maintained a low profile while they met in the Ephesus synagogue, for when Paul came, and was more distinct in his message, “some [Jews] were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude” (At 19:9).
What Aquila and Priscilla were doing was waiting for any opportunity to speak privately with anyone who came along, and such they did with Apollos (At 18:26). Instead of creating opposition publicly, Aquila and Priscilla worked privately. Paul, however, went public and specific. As a result, the unbelieving Jews of the synagogue desired that it was time for the Christians to move on. So Paul “departed from them and separated the disciples [from the synagogue of Jews], reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus” (At 19:9). From his ministry of teaching in the school of Tyrannus, “all those who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus” (At 19:10). It was a classic example of God using opposition to move the evangelist on to a more fruitful ministry. This may have been when the disciples began to meet in homes throughout the city.
After the mass conversion that took place during Paul’s two-year stay in Ephesus, he traveled on, eventually ending up in a Roman prison around A.D. 61,62. From prison he wrote to the disciples in Ephesus. He made some significant statements in the text of Ephesians 3:14-19 in reference to their personal relationships with one another. He wrote that he prayed that the Father would grant them strength in order that they be “rooted and grounded in love” (Ep 3:17). He prayed that they might “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ep 3:19). It seems from these exhortations in the letter that at the time he wrote to the Ephesian disciples, they were possibly having some trouble in reference to implementing the “love of Christ” in their lives. They were possibly falling from the love of Christ that would motivate them to reach out to the unbelievers as they did in the beginning in Acts 19. By the time of the exhortations of Revelation, they had lost their “first love.” It seems that they maintained their love of one another, but lost the love that motivated works, specifically evangelistic works.
When we define what the “first love” was, it is necessary to reflect on what Paul wrote in the Ephesian letter. Bible students have differed on what the “first love” was. When comparing the Ephesians’ initial response to the gospel in Acts 19, and the exhorations in the Ephesian letter, there are two possibilities. First, the term “first love” may have been a relational love of the disciples for one another. Or second, it could refer to the love that was expressed by Paul in Galatians 5:6: “… in Jesus” it is “faith working through love.” This statement was made in the context of some of the Galatians disciples who were seeking to be legalistically justified before God through their meritorious works of law. Such works could not justify one before God, and thus, legal works are useless in reference to our salvation (Gl 2:16). It is our opinion that the Ephesians had lost their works that were motivated by faith and love, and thus were continuing their legal works whereby they, as some in Galatia, were seeking to take pride in their works in order to be justified before God.
Since Jesus exhorted them to do the first works (Rv 2:5), then they had to restore the first love in order to do the works that came from love, not legal religiosity to merit their salvation or validate themselves as the people of God. One of the first works was fervent evangelistic outreach, the works that were manifested in those first years of the existence of the church in Ephesus.
In the context of Revelation 2:1 in which the statement was made that they had lost their first love, the exhortation would define the loss of this first love to be somewhat different from the love that Christians are to have for one another. The phrase “first love” seems to refer more to evangelistic outreach, than love among the disciples. They had the “first love” when they first became disciples during the Acts 19 event. When Paul wrote the Ephesian letter in A.D. 61,62, they seemed to have continued in their love for one another, for Paul said nothing in the Ephesian letter about their losing their love for one another. Neither did he say anything about losing their “first love.” But by the time of the exhortation of Revelation, the “first love” was gone. So by the time Jesus addressed them, we also wonder how they were actually doing concerning their love for one another. When disciples begin to lose their love for one another, then we know that their love for the lost is flickering out. There is no desire to be evangelistic when Christians do not love one another. No one of an unloving fellowship of disciples has the desire to being converts into an unloving fellowship.
C. Ephesus is admonished by Jesus.
Jesus is the One who is delivering the messages to the seven churches. There is a metaphorical description of Him in the address to each church. His address to each city church is sent through the medium of an “angel,” which Greek word can also be translated “messenger.”
In the introductory message to the Ephesus Christians, Jesus is pictured as the One who has ownership (“hold”) of the disciples in all the seven city regions. And as the One to whom Christians belong, He is among His people. The fact that Jesus is among His people assumes that no man should seek to rise up and take the place of Jesus in His ministry among His people. There is no need for presumptuous men as Diotrephes to set aside the headship of Jesus in order to become the center of reference and controlling power for the disciples of Jesus. Jesus is the only needed head (Cl 1:18; Ep 1:22,23). Paul had warned the Ephesians that some elders would be so arrogant as to walk among the disciples, calling disciples after themselves (At 20:29,30). But Jesus’ reminder here is that He only is the One who walks among His disciples.
It is significant to note that Jesus did not send a message to the elders of any of the churches, nor to some apostle, or prominent preacher. As the head of His universal body with all authority (Mt 28:18), the picture that is painted with words in each introduction is that He is addressing the members of His body directly. There were no authorities on earth through whom He had to go in order to reach the members of His body. There is no need of a pope or some authority or synod of men on earth who should direct the affairs of God’s people. Jesus is capable of leading His people through the instructions of His written word alone. Since all authority resides with Jesus (Mt 28:18), who is the head of His universal body, then no universal institutional authority on earth is needed to take the place of Jesus’ direct authority of His body through His word. If any authorities would set themselves up on earth to rule the affairs of the body of Jesus, then the “all” authority of Jesus would be minimized. Authorities on earth always seek to set aside the authority of Jesus over His body through His word.
1. They worked and labored: Jesus’ first statements to these disciples was, “I know your works and your labor and your patience” (Rv 2:2). They were still an active group of disciples throughout the region of Ephesus. Jesus did not want them to think that their labors were in vain, nor unnoticed. He knows the work of every active disciple, and thus He seeks to commend His people on the basis of their work (2 Co 5:10). The Holy Spirit had earlier written to them, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works …” (Ep 2:10). They certainly continued that about which the Spirit reminded them through the Ephesian letter. However, if they could have been saved on the basis of their work, then there would be no problem. But in the context of reminding them that they were His workmanship, the Spirit also stated, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ep 2:8). Could it have been that they were legally trusting in their works, and thus, had forgotten that no amount of works could save them? Churches that are motivated by legal performance alone, and not grace, soon run out of steam. As will be noticed later, disciples can work themselves into spiritual death (Rv 3:1). At least the flame of these disciples was flickering, even though they were working.
2. They resisted moral and doctrinal error: Morally, the Ephesians were zealous to walk according to the standard of the word of God. They did not “bear those who are evil” (Rv 2:2). Neither could they bear those who professed to be messengers (Gr.: “apostles”) of the church, but were liars (Rv 2:2). There were those coming through their area who said that they had been sent out by other Christians, and thus were seeking to validate themselves as church-sent apostles. But the Ephesian disciples tested these self-proclaimed apostles and found that they were only masquerading themselves as church-sent apostles (See 2 Co 11:13-15; 1 Jn 4:1,6).
The Ephesian disciples had certainly remembered the exhortation of Paul when he met with the presbyters of the church from Asia a few years before on his third mission journey. During that visit, Paul warned all the churches that men would arise and call the disciples after themselves (See At 20:28-31). It seems that it was not long after Paul’s admonition that the false apostles were circulating among the assemblies of the disciples.
It is significant in our times to notice the existence of these self-proclaimed apostles as those who were also among the early churches. In this context, Jesus calls these self-proclaimed apostles liars in that they said that they were sent out by other disciples. But they had not been sent out by others, but by themselves. Since the Greek word apostolos means “one who is sent,” then no man can send himself, and then claim to be an apostle. Apostles are sent by someone else (See At 18:27; 2 Co 8:23; Ph 2:25). Even Paul was cautious about claiming to be an apostle of Christ. He thus validated his apostleship by reminding the Corinthians that he had been personally called and personally sent out directly by Jesus (1 Co 15:9,10; 2 Co 10). He did not send himself.
When the self-sent apostles who came to Ephesus were tested with the word of God, the conclusion was that no other group of Christians had sent them because faithful Christians would not have sent out one who was teaching error. It is easy for a self-sent apostle to teach all sorts of error if he does not know his Bible. If he does not know the Bible, then he often sets himself up as his own authority. But when a church-sent apostle is tested by the word of God by a group of disciples (1 Jn 4:1), then it is less likely that such a person will be going about teaching error. Paul reminded the Corinthian disciples of self-sent false apostles who were circulating among the disciples. He wrote of such self-sent apostles, “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Co 11:13).
It is easy for a self-proclaimed apostle to send himself in order to live off the church. This was the problem. And because it was a problem in the first century, Paul supported himself when he went forth as a Christ-sent apostle (At 18:1-3; 20:33-25). But to claim that one is sent out by the church when he has sent himself, is to be a liar. According to this text, all self-proclaimed apostles would be liars, for they have been sent out by no one other than themselves. If they claimed to have been personally called by Jesus, as Paul, then they need to be reminded that Paul said he was an apostle who was born out of the time when Christ-sent apostles were personally called by Jesus (1 Co 15:8). Because of this untimely birth as an apostle, Paul said that he was not as the original twelve (1 Co 15:9). So where would this put all the modern-day self-proclaimed apostles? They would certainly not be as the untimely born Paul. And if they have not been sent out by the disciples, then neither are they “ones sent” (apostles).
Those who seek to go forth individually on their own, are encouraged to do so. But one should not claim to be sent out by the church if the church has not sent him. If one claims to be sent by the church when he was not, then he is masquerading as a church-sent apostle. They are as those in Corinth who were self-proclaimed apostles, for they were wanting to be somebody they were not.
3. They lost their first love: Contrary to many disciples in various regions of the world, Jesus commended the Ephesian disciples, for they had “labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary” (Rv 2:3). The Christians in Ephesus stood against that which was evil, hating the licentious evil taught by the cult of Nicolaitans (Rv 2:6). They were active and doctrinally able to test with the word of God those who came by and said that they were apostles sent out by other disciples (See 1 Co 12:10). They had not grown weary in their vigor to be cautious about maintaining their works. But something serious had gone wrong.
In verse 4 Jesus stated, “… you have left your first love.” In order to understand that to which Paul refers in his use of the phrase “first love,” it might be good to reflect on the time when he wrote to them a personal letter from Rome in A.D. 61,62. In the letter he wrote,
Therefore, I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers (Ep 1:15,16).
It would seem unlikely that they had lost their love for one another and all the saints from the time of the writing of this statement in A.D. 61,62 to the time Jesus made the judgment of Revelation 2. In fact, Paul commended them in the letter for their reputation for loving one another and all the saints. Even if Revelation were written about thirty years later in A.D. 96, it seems unlikely that they would have fallen out of love with one another.
The “first love” that they had lost, was not a reference to their love for one another, but the love that is defined in verse 5 in Jesus’ call for their repentance. Jesus exhorted, “… remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the first works ….” When we recall the tremendous evangelistic conversion and explosion in Ephesus that was recorded in Acts 19, the “first love” would certainly have been their love for the lost, which love motivated them to work to save the lost. If they did not restore this love, then they, as an influence for our Lord in Ephesus, would flicker out of existence. This would be certain since the lampstand was about to be removed. Since the lampstand would refer to their light of influence throughout the city, then when it was snuffed out, the affect of the Ephesian disciples in Ephesus would be gone. In this case, the usefulness of the body in Ephesus as a light to the lost would have terminated long before the disciples stopped their assemblies and legal works.
When disciples lose their local evangelistic outreach to the lost, they start believing that their mission is to themselves. This seemed to be the case in Ephesus with all the labor among themselves for which Jesus earlier commended them. But once the zeal to locally preach the gospel fades away among introverted disciples that are active among themselves, they will continue to meet in order to validate their existence, but their preaching of the gospel to the lost is long gone. Dead churches often have exciting assemblies for themselves, but there are no new converts among them who have recently obeyed the gospel. Active churches, as the Ephesian church, give the pretense of being alive, but they are dead if they have no local evangelistic outreach to the lost.
These disciples were dead because they lost the love that motivated them in the beginning when they were first converted. The statement “unless you repent” means that it was not well with these disciples (Rv 2:5). Though they were an active people among themselves, they were in need of repentance to restore their first love of reaching out to others. They needed to change their direction of focus. Jesus’ exhortation leads us to believe that churches that are active with themselves, but are not preaching the gospel to the lost, are in need of repentance.
D. Ephesus is given hope.
If they repented of their introversion, then there was hope for the future. “To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Rv 2:7). The word “overcome” would certainly be the right word to use in reference to repenting of losing our first love. Once the culture of apathy is established among the disciples in any area, it is a struggle to overcome the sin. It is a struggle to love again as one did when he first became a Christian. Restoring lost zeal is difficult, but not impossible. And from reading what Jesus said to these disciples, if we would be saved, and thus eat of the tree of life, restoring our first love is not an option.
The metaphor “tree of life” in this context finds its original meaning in Genesis 3:22. It was a literal tree, and the source of eternal existence (Gn 3:22-24). Reference in the context of Revelation is to the eternal life that one has if he continues as a repentant disciple who restores his first love. Those who are obedient until death will be able to have access to the tree of life (Rv 22:2,14,19). The Ephesian disciples were given the opportunity to repent from the walk of death in order to again be restored to eternal life, which life they lost when they lost their first love. This promise is a reaffirmation of 1 John 1:7:
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
Apathetic churches can overcome. It is difficult, but this statement of promise means that they can. The Ephesian church started in Acts 19, which would have been in the early or middle 50s. When Paul wrote the letter of Ephesians in A.D. 61,62, he commended them for their love for one another and all the saints. By the time Revelation was written, however, they seemed to have continued in their love among themselves, but they had lost their love for lost souls. It does not take long for a church to die, especially when the members become consumed with good works for themselves.
Early numerical growth of disciples in any area is usually in the first ten years after the beginning of the church. After the initial spark of growth, the first converts settle down as they get older, and then reach a plateau of existence. They will continue on this plateau, baptizing some to replace those who fall away, die away, or just go away. But once the plateau of non-growth is established, and apathy sets in, those who come into the fellowship of disciples soon adopt the same culture of indifference. The church is thus doomed to slide eventually down the back side of the growth scale, and go into oblivion. Such was the case with the Christians in Ephesus. They were on the back side of the plateau. The lampstand of influence was eventually extracted, and the disciples in Ephesus were no longer of any use for the mission of Jesus. Such seems to be the history of too many churches. They grow, plateau, and then within thirty to forty years, they are dead, if not gone.
Those disciples who realize that they are caught in the sin of evangelistic indifference need to remember the promise: “To him who overcomes [his indifference] I will give to eat of the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Rv 2:7). The hope is that one can regenerate his enthusiasm for the lost. The “first love” can be reborn. We can overcome.
Jesus began this first message to the seven churches with an exhortation to listen to His warnings and instructions. They must heed His call for repentance. If those in Ephesus refused to hear, then puff. The flickering flame would be snuffed out.
[Schedule for next lecture: March 14]