The Letter to the Church at Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7)

October 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Summary of Past Lessons

B. Text of Rev 2:1-7

“1Write to the angel of the church in Ephesus: This is the message of the one holding the seven stars in his right hand, of the one walking among the seven golden lampstands. 2I know your good deeds, work, and steadfastness. I also know that you do not allow evil, for you tested those who say to themselves that they are apostles (but are not) and you found them to be liars. 3You have perseverance and endured difficulty in my name while not getting tired. 4But, I have this against you: you abandoned your first love. 5Therefore, remember where you have fallen, express remorse, and do the things you did at first. But, if not, I will come to you and I will remove your lampstand from its place if you don’t repent. 6But, you have this: you hate the work of the Nicolaitans whom I also hate. 7The one who has an ear must listen to what the Spirit says to the churches: ‘To the one who overcomes I will give the privileged to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”

John Writes to the Churches in Ephesus and Smyrna

Bamberg Apocalypse: “John Writes to the Churches in Ephesus and Smyrna” (AD 1000)

C. History and Background of the City of Ephesus

Ephesus was a thriving city at the time of John’s letter (95 AD) that had a population of about 250,000 people (Osborne, Revelation, 108) to 500,000 people (Mulholland, Revelation [2011], 434). In terms of commercial work, it was the largest city in the Roman province of Asia (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 128). The city was accessible by both sea and land with well built highways connecting it to other cities (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 128-129). There was no military installment there. Instead, the city was known for its athletic games that it held annually (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 129). Religious life revolved around the Greek goddess, Artemis (see Acts 19:24, 27, 28, 34, 35). Artemis had a 425 foot long and 220 foot wide temple that is considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 129).

The city of Ephesus is mentioned several times throughout the New Testament:

  • Paul ended his second missionary journey to Ephesus in AD 52 (Acts 18:19-21)
  • Paul left Priscilla and Aquilla in Ephesus (Acts 18:26)
  • Paul returned to the city of Ephesus in his third missionary journey (Acts 20:31)
  • Paul left Timothy in charge of the church after one of his visits (1 Tim 1:3)

II. JESUS ADDRESSES THE ANGEL IN EPHESUS (2:1)

“Write to the angel of the chuch in Ephesus: This is the message of the one holding the seven stars in his right hand, of the one walking among the seven golden lampstands.” (Rev 2:1)

A. The Angel in Ephesus (v. 1a)

“’These things says [the One] …’ The expression τάδε λέγει (tade legei) occurs eight times in the NT, seven of which are in Rev 2–3. ‘The pronoun is used to add solemnity to the prophetic utterance that follows.… In classical drama, it was used to introduce a new actor to the scene’ (Smyth, Greek Grammar, 307 [§1241]). But the τάδε λέγει formula in the NT derives from the OT, where it was used to introduce a prophetic utterance (BAGD, s.v. ὅδε, 1)’ (ExSyn 328). Thus, the translation ‘this is the solemn pronouncement of’ for τάδε λέγει is very much in keeping with the OT connotations of this expression. The expression This is the solemn pronouncement of reflects an OT idiom. The LXX has the same Greek phrase (τάδε λέγει, tade legei) about 350 times, with nearly 320 of them having ‘the Lord’ (Heb יהוה, Yahweh) as subject. That the author of Revelation would use such an expression seven times with the risen Christ as the speaker may well imply something of Christ’s sovereignty and deity” (NET Bible Translation and Study Note).

The other time that this phrase is used in the New Testament is in Acts 21:11. Thus, this is a very authoritative address that Jesus gives to these seven churches. The Greek phrase is used 714 times throughout the Old Testament to demonstrate God’s divine word. See the graph below.

B. The Description of Jesus (v. 1b)

We will see in the book of Revelation that various descriptions are given of Jesus Christ. In the letter to the Ephesian Church, Jesus is described as the one who has the stars in his right hand (which are angels in Rev 1:16) and who walks among the seven gold lampstands (which are churches in Rev 1:13).

Furthermore, it is likely that Jesus says he “walks” among the seven churches as a way to emphasize that he is intimately present with the church (Mulholland, Revelation [2011], 433). Or it shows that Christ is “with” the churches while also having authority “over” the churches (Osborne, Revelation, 112). Walvoord states that this is “a symbolic presentation of the fact that Christ holds the messengers of these churches in His right hand, a place of sovereign protection as well as divine authority of them” (Walvoord, Revelation, 55).

III. JESUS’S APPROVAL ABOUT WHAT THEY DO (2:2-3)

A. Good Work (v. 2)

“I know your good deeds, work, and steadfastness. I also know that you do not allow evil, for you tested those who say to themselves that they are apostles (but are not) and you found them to be liars.” (Rev 2:2)

1. Jesus’ Knowledge

The “deeds, work, and steadfastness” do not just refer to the actions of the believers in Ephesus. Instead, it is Jesus saying that he has an intimate knowledge of their entire spiritual walk. This is emphasized when Jesus said that he is the “one walking among the seven golden lampstands” in Rev 2:1.

2. New Testament Apostle

In the New Testament the word, “ἀποστολος, apostle” was used in two ways. In one way it was used to describe the men who were chosen by God to be leaders of the church (the twelve disciples, Paul, and a few others such as Barnabas [Acts 14:4] and James [Gal 1:19]). In another way it was used to describe church “representatives” who traveled from place to place with the authority of the church (2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25) (Osborne, Revelation, 114).

However, in the New Testament we see evidence of people who call themselves “apostles” but are not appointed by God or a church leader (2 Cor 11:5; 12:11).

LEADERSHIP MOMENTVetting Evil People

I remember seeing a video on Facebook a while back from a writer who was furious that the Huffington Post had removed two of the articles he had written questioning Hilary Clinton’s health. While “free press” works in both directions (people have the right to publish what they want while the publisher also has a right to publish what it wants), I thought that Hilary’s health should have been a valid area to “vet” her. If we are going to elect a 70 year old person for public office, that person’s health should be part of the discussion related to whether or nor she can do the job. Likewise, leaders are responsible for vetting the people they lead. They need to take time to get to know people, understand their values, and see what the person’s personal integrity is like. In the city of Ephesus there were evil people yet the believers did not tolerate them. Leaders must keep an eye out for evil people and not tolerate them part of the leader’s team.

B. Suffering without Quitting (v. 3)

“You have perseverance and endured difficulty in my name while not getting tired.” (Rev 2:3)

1. Perseverance

The Greek word used for “perseverance” here is ὑπομονη, which can mean patience, endurance, perseverance, fortitude, steadfastness (BDAG, 1039-1040). This noun occurs seven times in the book of Revelation (1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12). Interestingly, the word only occurs in Revelation in a context of cultural evil (Osborne, Revelation, 114).

2. Standing Up for Jesus

The last part of this verse shows what the Ephesians did in spite of the evil they were surrounded with. Jesus says that the Ephesians stood up for the name of Jesus. The same Greek phrase, διὰ τὸ ὄνομά μου, “in my name” or “because of my name” is used by Jesus in Matt 10:22 and Matt 24:9 in contexts where Jesus’s followers had been persecuted because of the Gospel (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 139).

IV. JESUS’S COMPLAINT AGAINST THE EPHESUS CHURCH (2:4-6)

A. Love Fallen Away (v. 4)

“But, I have this against you: you abandoned your first love.” (Rev 2:4)

1. Two Views on the Loss of Love

There are two views on the loss of love of the Ephesus believers.

  • A Diminished Love. One view says that when Jesus gave this message to the believers in Ephesus they still had a love for Jesus, but it had simply diminished since they first became Christians (see Eph 1:15-16). They knew Jesus and thought about him, but they no longer had a strong love for him. Walvoord explains this view saying, “Though the Ephesians had not departed completely from their love of God, it no longer had the intensity or meaning it once had—which is a very serious condition. . . The passion they once had for Christ had grown cold” (Walvoord, Revelation, 56).
  • A Forgotten Love. Another view says that while the believers held close to their Christian faith early, they had completely forgotten it by the time John received this revelation.

2. Two Objects of Love for Christians

  • Fellow Brothers and Sisters. This “love” referred to in Rev 2:4 might be the love for brothers and sisters in the faith. This type of love is emphasized in the New Testament (John 13:34; 15:12; 1 Thess 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 14).
  • God. Some believe the love that has been lost is the love of God. The New Testament emphasizes love for God and Christ (Rom 8:28; 1 Cor 2:9; 8:3; Eph 6:24).

LEADERSHIP MOMENTDo What You Did at First

When you first became a leader you were probably excited and passionate to do a good job. You communicated well with those you supervised, you listened to their thoughts, and you provided good support to them. However, leaders can become lax and fail to do the things they did at first. Sometimes the comfort of having a leadership position leads you to simply do what you want to do while not putting in the time necessary to work effectively with the people you supervise. You need to do what you did at first when you first became a leader. Keep the good habits of communicating with the people you supervise, listening to their thoughts, and providing support. Those things take time and effort, but they show the love you have for the people you lead.

B. Turn Back! (v. 5)

“Therefore, remember where you have fallen, express remorse, and do the things you did at first. But, if not, I will come to you and I will remove your lampstand from its place if you don’t repent.” (Rev 2:5)

1. Jesus Still Comes Back

Jesus promises to come back even if the believers in Ephesus don’t repent and do what they did at first. The only change will be that Jesus will “remove their lampstand.” Evidence for this is seen in the use of the verb, ἕρχομαί, “I come, go.” Osborne notes that the verb occurs six times in Rev 1-3 and each time it is used it refers to Jesus’s physical return to earth (Osborne, Revelation, 118).

2. When Jesus Comes Back

It is important to note that the believers in the church in Ephesus will not “bring Jesus back” through their disobedience. Instead, a time has been appointed for Jesus to return and that time is independent of any church’s obedience to Jesus. Thomas provides an expanded translation of this verse: “When I come, I will remove your lampstand, if you shall not have repented before that coming, whenever it happens” (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 145).

3. Loss of Salvation?

A proper understanding of the lampstand use in Rev 1-3 must be understood for a proper understanding of Ephesus losing its place as a lampstand. The lampstand metaphor in Rev 1-3 describes these churches as a “light” that shines out among people. The light draws others to Jesus and shows the way of life. Here, Jesus is simply saying that the believers in Ephesus will no longer be among the “lights” that guide people to Jesus (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 146; Walvoord, Revelation, 58; Osborne, Revelation, 118).

C. Hate for the Deeds of the Nicolaitans (v. 6)

“But, you have this: you hate the work of the Nicolaitans whom I also hate.” (Rev 2:6)

1. Evil People of Rev 2:2-3

The false teachers described in Rev 2:2-3 are not identified, “I know your good deeds, work, and steadfastness. I also know that you do not allow evil, for you tested those who say to themselves that they are apostles (but are not) and you found them to be liars. You have perseverance and endured difficulty in my name while not getting tired” (Rev 2:2-3). Jesus returns to the topic of evil people who teach incorrect doctrine and identifies them as the Nicolaitans in Rev 2:6.

2. Identity of the Nicolaitans

Three options for the Nicolaitans has been advocated.

  • Followers of Nicolaus of Antioch. Nicolaus of Antioch was one of the seven original deacons (Acts 6:5). However, he was a Jewish proselyte (a Gentile that converted to Judiasm) and who apostatized (abandoned the Christian faith). Nicolaitans, in this view, were a sect of “licentious antinomian Gnostics who lapsed into their antinomian license because of an overstrained ascenticism” (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 148). In other words, the Nicolaitans tried to accomodate the pagans by participating in emperor worship and showed freedom from the Law by doing whatever they wanted (Osborne, Revelation, 120-121). Irenaeus is famous for referring to the Nicolaitans in this way, “The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, (when they are represented) as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: ‘But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate’ (Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, 352). Tertullian holds the same view as Irenaeus, “A brother heretic emerged in Nicolaus. He was one of the seven deacons who were appointed in the Acts of the Apostles. He affirms that Darkness was seized with a concupiscence—and, indeed, a foul and obscene one—after Light: out of this permixture it is a shame to say what fetid and unclean (combinations arose). The rest (of his tenets), too, are obscene. For he tells of certain Æons, sons of turpitude, and of conjunctions of execrable and obscene embraces and per-mixtures, and certain yet baser outcomes of these. He teaches that there were born, moreover, dæmons, and gods, and spirits seven, and other things sufficiently sacrilegious alike and foul, which we blush to recount, and at once pass them by. Enough it is for us that this heresy of the Nicolaitans has been condemned by the Apocalypse of the Lord with the weightiest authority attaching to a sentence, in saying ‘Because this thou holdest, thou hatest the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which I too hate’” (Pseudo-Tertullian, “Against All Heresies,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, 650). This view has strong support from the early church: Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Dorotheus of Tyre, Jerome, Augustine, Eusebius. Support for this view: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 150.
  • Teachings of Nicolaus. In this second view, Nicolaus is not seen as the originator of the group nor is he seen as wild. In other words, this view sees the Nicolaitans having a relationship to Gnosticism and having freedom in their faith to sin. Furthermore, Nicolaus is was not an apostate that walked away from the Christian teachings, instead he was a teacher that had his tenets exploited immorally by others.
  • Etymology of the Word. The third view sees no physical connection to the person Nicolaus. Instead, it traces this group back to the origin of the word: νῖκος, “victory” and λαός, “people” which results in “conqueror of the people.”

V. LISTEN TO THE VOICE OF JESUS (2:7)

“The one who has an ear must listen to what the Spirit says to the churches: ‘To the one who overcomes I will give the privilege to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” (Rev 2:7)

A. One Message; Many Churches

The view I take is that these messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor are true messages to real churches that existed at that time. However, the struggles of these churches and the messages that Jesus gives to them extend into the future for all churches and believers. N.T. Wright says, “We should not imagine that Christians in Ephesus are only promised the right to eat of the tree of life, or that those in Smyrna are only promised that they will escape the second death, and so on. All the promises, and all the warnings, are for all the churches” (N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 12). The Grammar of this verse supports this when it says, “what the Spirit says to the churches.” Jesus gives this message to a church, but at the same time there is a plural idea that this message to Ephesus is also applicable to all the churches.

B. The Holy Spirit as a Person

Numerous times in the New Testament we see evidence that the Holy Spirit is God as well as a unique person. Here, the Holy Spirit “says.” A quick survey of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament finds that he has:

  • intelligence (John 14:26; 15:26; Rom 8:26-27; 1 Cor 2:10-17),
  • manifests affections and emotions (Acts 9:31; Eph 4:30; Heb 10:29),
  • has will and volition (Acts 5:9; 13:2; 15:28; 1 Cor 12:11).

C. All Are Overcomers

Jesus says, “to the one who overcomes, I will give the privilege to eat of the tree of life, which is the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7b). Osborne says that this phrase is “an athletic and military metaphor that connotes superiority and victory over a vanquished foe” (Osborne, Revelation, 122). I appreciate N.T. Wright’s explanation of “overcomers” in this verse. He writes, “The main challenge the young churches face is the threat of pagan persecution. Indeed, these seven letters seem to be written as part of the Lord’s preparation of these churches for worse to come. They are to ‘conquer’, not by fighting back, but by following Jesus himself, who won the victory through his own patient suffering. Some in these churches will suffer. Some will die. All must bear patient witness to Jesus, thereby ‘conquering’ the evil forces that surround and threaten them” (N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 14).

D. Tree of Life

The tree of life that is referenced in Rev 2:7 is first referenced in Gen 2:9; 3:22-24. Later, in the midst of the street of the new Jerusalem a tree is again described as it bears its fruit for the health and life of nations (Rev 2:22). The “tree of life” is the same thing as eternal life will be been seen:

  • “It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.” (Rev 22:2, NLT)
  • “Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life.” (Rev 22:14, NLT)
    In this way, Jesus is telling the church of Ephesus that all regenerate believers will have the privilege of eating from the tree of life. To be a regenerate Christian is to be an overcomer. (For more see Walvoord, Revelation, 59.)

VI. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION

A. Keep Our First Love

The Ephesian church reminds us that when we first become Christians we have a strong love for God and devotion to him. However, over time sometimes that love and devotion diminishes. As a result, we might get distracted and devote our attention and love to other things. The message to the Ephesian church reminds us to love God as much now as we did when we first met him.

B. Love What God Loves; Hate What God Hates

We see in Rev 2:6 that Jesus commends the church in Ephesus because they hate the Nicolaitans just as Jesus hates them. While we as Christians are fallen sinners and have an inclination to do things that we should not do, we are on the right track if we hate the same thing that God hates. Numerous times we see that emotions are healthy to have even if they might be the emotions that Christians often consider bad. In Aubrey Malphurs’s forthcoming book he describes some of the emotions that the three members of the Godhead experience.

The Father experiences: grief (Gen 6:6-7), anger (Exod 34:6), and jealousy (Exod 34:14). The Son experiences anger (Mark 3:5; Matt 21:12), distress (Mark 3:5), sorrow (Matt 26:37-38), felt forsaken (Matt 27:46), and will have wrath (Rev 6:16-17). The Holy Spirit experiences grief (Eph 4:30), and anger (Heb 3:7-11) (Malphurs, Developing Emotionally Mature Leaders, 51-52). These emotions are not all of the emotions that the Bible describes our God experiencing, but they are some of the emotions that God has which our culture normally labels as bad. The conclusion we need to make is that it is okay to feel some of these emotions if they do not control us and they are directed toward unholy behavior.

C. Focus on Sound Doctrine

While it is obvious that the Ephesian believers had lost some of their love for Jesus, the believers did seem to have focused on the correct interpretation and application of Scripture. That love for sound Christian doctrine is what led them to hate the work of the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:6). While we want to keep our first love and not abandon Jesus like the Ephesians did, we can model their focus on sound doctrine. They might not have modeled love for Jesus in a way that we want to follow, but their models for focusing on sound doctrine and hating what was false are ones we can apply to our lives.

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Fresno Pacific University and master’s degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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