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The Book of Revelation 2:1-7

To the Church in Ephesus

Jirair Tashjian

Introduction to the Seven Churches

Immediately after the vision of Christ in chapter 1 there are a series of short messages to each of the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3.  It may be that the order of the seven churches in these two chapters follows the route that the courier would take, starting in Ephesus, traveling north through Smyrna and Pergamum, then south through Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and finally to Laodicea. 

However, that may not be the only explanation.  There were more than seven churches in the province of Asia.  For example, there was a church in Colossae, not far from Laodicea.  Since the number 7 is so significant not only in Revelation but also in the entire Bible, it may be that John selected these seven churches because they represented the whole range of issues that he wanted to bring to light.  In fact, at the end of all the individual messages there is a statement indicating that what Christ said to a particular church was intended for all the churches.

The message of Revelation is a call to the churches to resist the seductive lure of an ever-present empire and live faithfully by a vision of the alternate reality of the true empire, the kingdom of God.  Although Revelation may legitimately be read as a critique of Rome, or "empire" in general, it is not really addressed to the Roman Empire as such but to the churches in the Roman province of Asia.

The messages follow more or less the same pattern.  First, John is told to write to the "angel" of the church in a given city.  Then, the phrase, "these are the words of," followed by a description of Christ who is speaking.  Most of these descriptions of Christ are a flashback to what was said about Christ when he appeared to John in 1:13-18.  After this there is a statement that Christ knows about the church, whether as a warning or encouragement, followed by the main body of the letter that contains a promise and praise and/or blame and warning.  Only two churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) receive unqualified praise.  Finally, there is a call to listen, pay attention and obey, and to those who are conquerors there is a promise that anticipates what is envisioned toward the end of the book in chapters 20-22.

It is possible to take the first three chapters of Revelation as the introduction to the book.  These chapters function as an overture or foreshadowing of the visions that John was going to describe in chapters 4-22.

Revelation 2:1-7

1. "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:  These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:

2. "I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance.  I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false.

3. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.

4. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

5. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.  If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

6. Yet this is to your credit:  you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

7. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.  To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God."

It is a bit puzzling that in each case of the seven churches, the message is addressed not to the church as such but to the "angel" of that church.  The Greek word for angel can mean a heavenly being as well as a human messenger, such as a church leader or pastor.  However, since angels as heavenly beings are all over the place in Revelation, it is best to understand it that way here also.  This would imply, then, that a church is not only under the leadership of men and women called by God but also under the guidance and supervision of God's Spirit that may employ various means to get the attention of the church.  Another explanation is that a church's "angel" stands for the very essence, soul, and essential identity of the church.

Ephesus was the largest city and most important seaport in the province of Asia.  Although the Asian seat of government was in Pergamum, it was in Ephesus where the commercial, political, and religious action took place.  Ephesus was known for the ancient temple of the goddess Artemis that was considered one of the seven wonders of the world.  Forty years before Revelation, Paul had made Ephesus his base of missionary activity for three years and antagonized the patrons of Artemis and caused a riot (Acts 19).  Ephesus became an important center of Christian activity.  It is possible that the Gospel and the three Letters of John were written here also.  One of the Pauline Epistles, Ephesians, was addressed to the church in Ephesus.

The description of Christ in verse 1 as the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands comes from chapter 1:13, 16.  The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the lampstands are the seven churches (1:20).  The churches are supposed to be lampstands to give out light.  Christ praises the church in Ephesus for its toil, patient endurance, intolerance of evildoers, testing and discrediting those who claimed to be apostles but were false, bearing up for the sake of Christ, and not growing weary.  This church put up a good fight and did not lag in its zeal for truth.  It worked hard.

Christ commended this church for its adherence to the truth of the gospel.  It applied rigorous tests to people who claimed to be apostles but were fake.  Here the reference is probably not to people who claimed to be one of the twelve apostles.  The Twelve were well defined.  The reference is rather to traveling prophets, preachers or evangelists who claimed to be sent by this or that church, but their teaching and doctrine apparently did not measure up to the high standard of truth that the Ephesian church insisted on. 

This church was commended for its orthodoxy.  They hated the work of the Nicolaitans, which Christ also hated.  We don't know much about the Nicolaitans, who are mentioned here and in the message to Pergamum (2:15).  Whoever they were, their teaching was false as far as Christ was concerned.  In the province of Asia, known for all kinds of mystery religions, sects, and spiritual fads, the church in Ephesus stood its ground against anything that compromised the truth of the gospel.  This church was known for its theological integrity and was commended for it.

Another thing that stands out in Christ's commendation is the church's patient endurance, which is mentioned twice in verses 2 and 3.  This implies that the church was undergoing certain pressures from the surrounding culture.  Ephesus boasted of being one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, located strategically at the crossroads of trade routes and in a Roman province whose cities vied with each other to see which one could advance the cause of the Empire the most. 

If Acts 19 is any indication, Paul's preaching of the gospel in Ephesus had the potential to undermine the cottage industry that grew around the temple of Artemis.  If Christians won the day, this great temple would not have any visitors, the merchants would not have any customers to buy their little statues and paraphernalia, and the meat markets would not have customers to purchase the meat of animals sacrificed to idols.  It would be an economic disaster that would bring down the power and prestige of Ephesus, the fourth largest city of the Roman Empire.  It was tough being a Christian in Ephesus.  Yet this church endured these pressures, did not grow weary, and suffered patiently for the sake of Christ's name.

We get a glimpse of this disdain toward Christians from the perspective of a governor of a neighboring province north of Asia.  Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia, less than twenty years after the writing of Revelation, sent a letter to the emperor Trajan asking for the emperor's advice in deciding how to deal with Christians.  What he says about Christians in Bithynia could easily apply to Christians living in Ephesus twenty years earlier.  Here are some excerpts from his letter:

I have never been present at the interrogation of Christians.  Therefore, I do not know how far such investigations should be pushed, and what sort of punishments are appropriate.  I have also been uncertain as to whether age makes any difference, or whether repentance and renunciation of Christianity is sufficient, or whether the accused are still considered criminals and whether persons are to be punished simply for the name "Christian" even if no criminal act has been committed, or whether only crimes associated with the name are to be punished.

In the meantime, I have handled those who have been denounced to me as Christians as follows:  I asked them whether they were Christians.  Those who responded affirmatively I have asked a second and third time, under threat of the death penalty.  If they persisted [the Latin word here is the same as the Greek word translated patient endurance in the Revelation text] in their confession, I had them executed.  For whatever it is that they are actually advocating, it seems to me that obstinacy and stubbornness must be punished in any case.  Others who labor under the same delusion, but who were Roman citizens, I have designated to be sent to Rome.

Those who denied being Christians now or in the past, I thought necessary to release, since they invoked our gods according to the formula I gave them and since they offered sacrifices of wine and incense before your image which I had brought in for this purpose along with the statues of our gods.  I also had them curse Christ.  It is said that real Christians cannot be forced to do any of these things.

Others charged by this accusation at first admitted that they had once been Christians, but had already renounced it; they had in fact been Christians, but had given it up, some of them three years ago, some even earlier, some as long as twenty-five years ago.  [Note that 25 years earlier would be the time of the emperor Domitian, during whose reign Revelation was written.]

I considered it all the more necessary to obtain by torture a confession of the truth from two female slaves, whom they called "deaconesses."  I found nothing more than a vulgar, excessive superstition.

The plague of this superstition has spread not only in the cities, but through villages and the countryside.  But I believe a stop can be made and a remedy provided.  In any case it is now clear that the temples, almost deserted previously, are gradually gaining more and more visitors, the long neglected sacred festivals are again regularly observed, and the sacrificial meat, for which buyers have been hard to find, is again being purchased (From M. Eugene Boring, Revelation [Interpretation; John Knox Press, 1989], pp. 14-15).

The emperor's response essentially endorses Pliny's policy while cautioning him, "Christians should not be sought out.  But if they are accused and handed over, they are to be punished, but only if they do not deny being Christians and demonstrate it by the appropriate act, that is, the worship of our gods."

This shows that at the time of the writing of Revelation there was no systematic persecution of Christians, as it would be later on in history.  The Roman Empire tolerated a wide variety of local religions, sects and cults, as long as their adherents were loyal to the Roman Empire demonstrated by their worship of the Roman gods and a reverent bowing before an image of the emperor.  Most people had no problem with this, but Jews and Christians were never at home with such an arrangement because of their exclusive worship of God.  The Roman Empire had made an exception in the case of the Jews, being sensitive to their religious scruples.  With regard to Christians, when they were still considered a sect within Judaism, they enjoyed the same privileges as all Jews.  But that would not last long.  In the time of John's writing of Revelation, there was already a rift between Jews and Christians, as we will see later.

If not widespread persecution, there were all sorts of social, religious, political and economic pressures on Christians to fit in the prevailing culture of the Roman Empire.  Christians in Ephesus faced such pressures and persisted in their faithfulness to Christ, who offered them praise and commendation.

Nevertheless, Christ's message to the Ephesian Christians included not only praise for their staunch orthodoxy and endurance of suffering for Christ but also a word of caution and a call to repentance.  Their problem was that they had abandoned the love they had at first.  In other words, their commitment to Christian truth was so strong that they could not love people who advocated false doctrine.  Their adherence to the truth of the gospel, as commendable as that was, stood in the way of the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated even to those whose teaching he could not endorse.  It's not that Christ was calling this church to be sloppy in its theology.  Nor was he saying that truth is relative and unimportant.  Nevertheless, he was giving a warning.  Is it possible that some Christians become so rigid in their understanding of the Christian faith that they spew venomous sentiments against non-Christians as well as fellow Christians who might have a different understanding than theirs?

Perhaps this reminds us of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13:2.  What good is it, he asks, if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but have a bickering spirit that's always on the ready to launch an attack on fellow believers because their theology does not quite agree with mine?  OK, these are my words, not Paul's, but is this not what Paul had in mind?  Has the church in Ephesus become so preoccupied with orthodoxy that it forgot how to love as it did at first?  The threat is that if the church does not repent and do the works that it did at first, that is, the works of love, then its lampstand would be removed, meaning that it would no longer be a church.

The verb conquer is frequently repeated in Revelation.  It is a military term that involves the use of force that attacks and kills.  But the verb is also applied to Christ and those who are in Christ.  There is of course a vast difference between a military conqueror and a Christian conqueror.  Just as Christ has conquered death by dying, so also a Christian is called to be a conqueror through self-giving love.  Victory is possible through vigilance.  But vigilance is not simply a matter of being alert about doctrinal purity.  It is rather being alert that one's words and actions spring from a heart inflamed by Christlike love.

Discussion Questions

1. What cultural pressures are there for American Christians to compromise their life of faith?

2. Is it possible for a Christian to stand up and be counted for Christ but do it with an unloving attitude toward those who despise Christians?

3. Which is easier, to maintain theological correctness or to be passionate about loving God and loving others in the way that Christ loved by giving himself for others?

4. Consider the blessings as well as the liabilities of growing older as a Christian.  How can we continue to be committed to Christian truth and at the same time maintain a sweet spirit toward younger Christians whose expression of faith may be different from ours?

-Jirair Tashjian, Copyright 2016, Jirair Tashjian and CRI/Voice, Institute
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