The Letters to the Seven Churches: Background
This letter from John was written to the seven key churches of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). They were representative of the churches throughout the region and were chosen, in part, because they were located in the key cities of Asia Minor’s seven postal districts, making them central points for disseminating information. The order in which these churches are listed is the same order as the postal route. When a messenger arrived at Miletus, he would travel north to Ephesus and then follow a clockwise route to the other six cities. So, when Jesus delivers His messages to the churches, He begins with Ephesus.
Jesus Introduces Himself to the Church at Ephesus
In each of His addresses to the churches, Jesus uses a different aspect of the vision that John saw to introduce Himself. To Ephesus He says:
Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; (Revelation 2:1)
Jesus’ Right to Address Any Church Body
This part of the vision stresses two aspects of Jesus’ relationship to the Church: His control and His careful scrutiny. Ephesus was the mother church of the other six churches mentioned in this book. That city was where the Gospel first took root in Asia Minor and that church enjoyed a long history in the region by the time John wrote this letter. Forty years had passed since the ministry of Paul. Most, if not all, of the generation that Paul, Priscilla and Aquilla, and Apollos had personally won to the Lord had passed away. To its praise, the church of Ephesus was still going strong.
Jesus’ Full Knowledge of the Activity of Every Church
Jesus told them “I know thy works.” The term translated “know” comes from the Greek word oida. This word is distinct from ginosko, another Greek word commonly translated as “knowledge.” Ginosko knowledge is about coming into new knowledge or growing in understanding of something. Oida knowledge is having full or complete understanding of something. It is knowledge that has all the facts. When Jesus said, “I know thy works,” He meant He knew everything about Ephesus – warts and all. Based on that complete knowledge, the Lord offers Ephesus well-earned praise.
The Ephesians’ Well-Earned Praise
He praises them first for their labor. “Labor” is translated from the word kopos, a word covered in sweat and marked with battle scars. The word literally means “a beating.” It pictures intense labor coupled with trouble and toil. Ephesus was a city dedicated to the worship of the goddess Diana. The manufacture of idols of this goddess was big business. When Paul came to town and started winning converts to Christ, the silversmith Demetrius, seeing a potential loss of income, incited the city to riot (Acts 19). It was only by the actions of the town clerk that the city managed to avoid a complete meltdown. Forty years later, the Christians of Ephesus had had an impact, but even so, to stand up for Christ was no small feat. Jesus recognized this labor and acknowledged it. Whatever is done for Christ, whether it’s driving the church bus or becoming a martyr for Him, Jesus notices.
The Lord further commends the Ephesians’ patience. In the Greek, this is the word hupomone. It means “an abiding under.” It could also be translated as “endurance.” In the New Testament, the word is almost always used to refer to endurance in trial. Because the church at Ephesus made itself distinct from the world through its steadfast stand for Christ, the members of that church suffered much. Proclaiming Christ in that culture could mean loss of employment, being ostracized from society, even being disowned by family. Jesus reminded them that He is keenly aware of all the suffering His followers endure and He praised the Ephesians, not just for enduring hardship, but for doing it in a way that honored Him. “Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19).
In another note of praise, Jesus says of the Ephesians “thou canst not bear them which are evil.” This church made a conscious effort to maintain a high moral standard, difficult to do in a city actively given to pagan worship. They also worked hard – and faithfully (see v. 3) – not just to remain morally pure, but to remain doctrinally pure as well: “thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and found them liars.”
Hard Words of Criticism
Proverbs tells us “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6a). How much truer is this when that Friend is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? A true friend will tell you what you need to hear, even if it hurts because he loves you. While Jesus offers the Ephesians hard words, they are not harsh words.
After all this praise, Jesus tells them “nevertheless I have somewhat against thee.” I can only imagine how crestfallen the Ephesians must have been upon hearing those words. They were crossing all their “T’s” and dotting all their “I’s.” In terms of conduct and doctrine, they were above reproach. What could have gone wrong? Jesus told them plainly: “Thou hast left thy first love.” The Ephesians had become spiritual “Martha’s” (See Luke 10:38-42.) where they were busy about their church activities but neglectful of their personal devotion to Christ. What we need to be asking ourselves is: “Am I so busy working for God that I am too busy to spend time with God?”
Jesus being the Savior that He is, did not leave the Ephesians where they were, He showed them a way back. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works” (2:5a). Being morally pure and doctrinally correct and not balancing that with a vibrant love for Christ can lead to high mindedness. The Ephesians needed to remember that they, too, were sinners in need of a Savior. They needed to leave their spiritual pride and come back to the basics. It doesn’t matter how long you have been saved or how long you have served the Savior, we all need to remember to read our Bibles and pray every day so we can grow, grow, grow.
With that way back, Jesus also gives a solemn warning: “Repent and do the first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” We cannot take Jesus’ calls for repentance lightly. We must be immediate in our obedience to Him. The Ephesians needed to get right with the Lord immediately or He would remove their candlestick. This is not a threat of loss of salvation, but it did mean they would be rendered useless as a church. Churches don’t usually die sudden deaths. They atrophy, and this was Jesus’ warning to the Ephesians: “Get back to worshipping Me or your church will die.” I cannot substitute church activity for a personal devotional life. My own walk with God must be on purpose and jealously guarded. If I am not personally worshipping the Lord, I suffer and then my church does.
Another Word of Praise
Before He closes, Jesus offers one more note of praise to His Ephesian church: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolatians, which also I hate” (v. 6). As unpopular as it may sound, true devotion to Christ means loving what God loves and hating what God hates. What is important to note is the Jesus says “thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolatians.” He did not say “thou hatest the Nicolatians.” Who these people were, or what practices they engaged in is not the focus here. It’s that the Ephesians made no compromise in their stand. Some of these people may have been folks the Ephesians knew personally, nevertheless the Ephesians stood with Christ. Being firm with those who are living in disobedience is still love, but we must be careful not to let our hatred of the sin morph into hatred for the sinner. As cliché as it may sound, our mission for Christ is still to hate the sin but love the sinner.
A Reminder of His Promise
As He finishes, Jesus utters a familiar phrase, one He used many times during His earthly ministry: “He that hath an ear, let him hear.” In the Gospels, that plea was made to a mixed multitude of believers and unbelievers. Here, it is specifically to believers. We know this because of how He describes his audience: “To him that overcometh.” The word “overcome” is the Greek word nikao. It is the word on which the sneaker brand Nike is based, Nike being the Greek goddess of victory. The Romans called her “Victoria,” and the word means “to be victorious.” In John’s epistles, that is an identifier for all who know Christ as Savior:
1 John 5:4-5
(4) For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.
(5) Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?
After identifying His audience, the Lord delivers a powerful promise: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (2:7).
The Tree of Life was lost to mankind when Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9). By declaring that believers will partake of the Tree of Life, Jesus reminds us that the gospel promises the complete reversal of the curse upon mankind. He further emphasizes this by declaring the tree’s location: “in the midst of the paradise of God.” That is no other place than Heaven! In addition to overcoming our curse, our Savior has given us a home with Him! (See. John 14.) Positionally, we are already citizens of that place, but one day we will be physical inhabitants of it! Like the Ephesians, we must remember what Christ means to us personally. None of what we are destined to have (see verses like Romans 8:29) comes to us without a personal faith in Christ. We were unlovable, and He reached out to us. We must ever remember to personally, actively love Him because He first loved us.