Christ’s Greeting to His Church in Ephesus (v. 1)
The City of Ephesus and the Church Paul Planted There
The ancient city of Ephesus was founded by the ancient Greeks, Ionians from Athens, in 1100 B.C. The people worshipped the goddess Artemis (Diana) and built a temple nearby in her honor. This temple burned in 356 B.C. It was soon rebuilt on such a magnificent scale that it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The temple boasted 127 marble pillars, 36 overlaid with gold and jewels. Life in Ephesus revolved around the worship of the goddess Artemis. "She is the expression of a religious belief, which regarded the life of God as embodying, and representing the life of nature, and proceeding according to the analogy of the natural world, so that in the drama of Divine life there is a God-Father, a Goddess-Mother, and a Son or Daughter born again and again in the annual cycle of existence" (William Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches 221). Ephesian Artemis worship became the dominant religion of Asia Minor, and its inhabitants took their religion seriously, as can be seen in the New Testament by the uproar that Paul caused there (Acts 19).
Ephesus was conquered along with the rest of Asia by Alexander the Great in 335 B.C. At that time, the city was located on a natural harbor, and so became a major trading center. The harbor was subject to silting, however, which called for the constant toil of the city's inhabitants to keep the harbor open. Today, the impressive ruins of Ephesus are approximately eight miles inland. The harbor is a grassy marshland. Ephesus was deeded by the last Syrian king to the Roman Empire in 133 B.C. and subsequently remained one of the central Roman cities in Asia Minor. It was a center of commerce, claimed the title "the Supreme Metropolis of Asia," and housed many important government functions. The emperor cult was prolific in Ephesus, and temples were built in honor of the Roman emperors Claudius, Hadrian, and Severus. The city housed as many as 250,000 inhabitants.
It was to this wealthy, pagan, and religious city that Aquila and Priscilla brought our Savior’s gospel in A.D. 50. Paul was there for a short time reasoning with the Jews, and left Priscilla and Aquilla behind to develop the work (Acts 18:18-20). Apollos, "a mighty man eloquent in the Scriptures," came to Ephesus (Acts 18:24-29). Aquila and Priscilla found him a useful ally in proving that Jesus Christ is the Son of God from the Old Testament Scriptures. Upon returning to Ephesus, Paul found a group of disciples and remained three months reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews concerning the arrival of the kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. When the Jews rejected his preaching, Paul remained two more years teaching in the local university, the school of Tyrannus.
According to Acts 19:11, Ephesus became a great missionary center for all of Asia Minor. Such a large number were converted to Christ that Artemis worship declined greatly and sorcery fell into public disfavor, not only in Ephesus proper but also in all of Asia (19:26). Many burned their magic books and rejected the cultic worship of Ephesus that had been practiced for 1,000 years. This caused the great uproar and riot we read of in Acts 19:21-41, led by the merchants who were experiencing declining profits due to the decline of idolatry. Paul subsequently left Ephesus, but several years later, he returned to Miletus, a nearby town, and gathered the Ephesian elders for a final conference before his fateful trip to Jerusalem (Acts 20:17ff.). Paul's letters to the Ephesian congregation demonstrate a rapidly maturing congregation that had been soundly taught in apostolic doctrine. Very early, the church in Ephesus became a leading voice for Jesus Christ in the Roman world, influential beyond its years, and led thousands to abandon the ancient pagan religions in favor of the worship of the one true God.
Christ’s Powerful Presence with His People
Christ’s greeting was specific to each congregation. To Ephesus, well-taught and sound in doctrine, he reminds them that he “holds the seven stars in his right hand.” I take these stars to be the pastors as the heavenly messengers of the everlasting gospel. Each church has its own star or angel, its particular pastor and teacher. Jesus Christ holds the church in his hand. It is by his power that we stand fast. He is our only strength against the world and Savior from our sins. Jesus also greets them as the one who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands. He is our light. The living Christ is our light and will help us walk through the darkness of this world. We must trust him, call upon him, and walk by the light he gives us in his word. The Ephesians required confrontation with the glory of Jesus Christ’s power and presence – to redirect them to his person and work.
Christ Commends the Ephesians (vv. 2-3,6)
Diligence in Serving the Lord
Ever present, the Lord knows what is going on in the church. It is not before men that we stand but before the Lord Jesus, who examines and evaluates us. What men may see or not see about us, say or not say to us, the Lord knows. The Ephesians were hardworking people. Many times they dredged their harbor to keep it navigable and rebuilt the city and temple after fires and wars. The Ephesians were no less diligent in serving the Lord Jesus, and he commends their intense labor. They were “fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” They were patient, having already endured the resistance of their fellow-citizens. They were associated with Paul, whose zealous missionary labors had led Asia to reject idolatry and occult books. The Ephesians did not tolerate worthless members, those who care little or nothing for Christ and the gospel, who are what we call today "nominal" Christians. The Lord Jesus describes them as evil men, those who profess godliness but who refuse to walk in obedience to him. In verse 4 Christ further commends them for not becoming weary in their diligence. Perseverance and patience in doing the will of Christ and defending his cause was what characterized the Ephesian congregation. They took their faith and calling seriously. They worked hard at being disciples of Jesus Christ. They lived their profession and did not waver in the performance of their duty as believers. They were a remarkable band of Christians, and we should imitate them.
Faithfulness in Maintaining Sound Doctrine
Part of this diligence was expressed in their rejection of itinerant opportunists who came bringing false gospels into their midst. The Ephesians took Paul's warning seriously (Acts 20:25-31). They did not accept those who claimed to be sent from God, i.e., apostles, but who taught false doctrine (Gal. 1:8-9). They exposed them as fraudulent and expelled them. Our Lord’s commendation for their faithfulness to his word is vital for the church. Concern for doctrine is neglected and sometimes ridiculed in our age of easy believism, entertainment worship services and pulpit ministries, and seeker friendly methods. Jesus Christ, the King and Head of the Church, condemns all who do not care for preserving sound doctrine and teaching. Faithfulness to apostolic doctrine, coupled with examination and rejection of false teachers and doctrines, is a prerequisite to receive our Lord’s approval (Acts 2:42). Though this is deemed narrow and unfriendly today, we must learn to judge by the standard of Scripture and not bow to the gods of political correctness and progressivism.
Hatred of Libertinism
In verse 2, all the verbs are in the aorist tense, a description of their past, which may indicate the Ephesian love and defense of the truth had waned. In verse 6, however, the verbs pertaining to the Nicolaitans are present tense, an indication that this was an ongoing battle in the congregation at the time of John's writing. The Nicolaitans were a group within the early church who practiced sexual immorality and did not see anything wrong with participating in cultic practices of the pagan religions in the area. They were advocates of extreme Christian liberty, i.e., libertinism. They used liberty in Christ as a cloak for sin and license. Our Lord commends the Ephesian congregation for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans. A modern equivalent is that we must hate cheap grace and reject impurity of every kind as against God’s will that we possess our bodies in “sanctification and honor” (1 Thess. 4:4). To be approved by our Lord, we must hate what he hates and who he hates. We must share in his intense love for righteousness and hatred of iniquity (Heb. 1:9). We cannot love Jesus Christ and live under his blessing while tolerating moral compromise with the world, whether public or private (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).
Christ Has Something against the Ephesians (v. 4)
They Have Lost Their First Love
There can be much good in our lives, while there is much amiss at the same time. With all the good in the Ephesian congregation, in less than 20 years, they had lost their first love. They were still orthodox, but the love of Christ had grown cold in their hearts. The first and defining love of a Christian is the love he first experiences for Jesus Christ when the Holy Spirit opens his eyes to the truth. This truth lies in two directions. First, we see the truth about our sinfulness in the light of God’s holiness and righteousness. This might happen suddenly, or the conviction might grow over time, even years. The second truth is when the Spirit reveals God’s love in Christ to our hearts – that he assumed our nature to obey God’s law and to suffer the penalty for our lawlessness in his holy soul on the cross. These truths unite to kindle a glowing love for Jesus Christ in the believing heart. It is the first love we have. It is the love that defines us. It is the love that inspires devotion, motivates faithfulness, and empowers diligent, patient service to Christ. It is also a love that can be lost, forgotten, abandoned, or left behind, even while we keep up other aspects of our duty. If the motivation of Christ’s love for us and our responding love for him is lost, then orthodoxy becomes proud, contemptible, and cold.
Lost First Love a Serious Fall from Christ
The Lord would not have them choose between truth and love. He would not have them recover their love by being less concerned with his word. He would have them see that if they are picky for truth without love for him, they have forgotten the important why of sound doctrine, the personal motivation for diligence, patience, and steadfastness. Without his love in their lives, all the rest is like trying to keep a fire going without any fuel. On the other side, love without truth is no good and never the answer. We have many of these false branches among us today – all loves accepted, no loves questioned, provided you are authentic to yourself. But there is no truth to direct love and no standard to differentiate legitimate from illegitimate loves. The choice is not between truth and love. It is between truth and love, or no truth and no love. If you lose either, you lose both. And losing first love, therefore, is an extremely serious fall from Christ. The Ephesians might have dismissed all this – you do not know how hard it is to keep up doctrinal faithfulness and hard work when everyone is screaming at you, misunderstanding you, and speaking evil of you. You wonder that we are not more loving? We cannot even say “love” without getting into a fight with people who have other versions of love. Dealing with people has driven love right out of us. Our Lord will not accept this excuse. “I have something against you.” Shudder! Jesus has something against us? That we have lost the first flush of love for him. But we know so much, Lord; we have worked so hard. If you lose your love for me, your wonder at my love for you, the rest is lifeless. It is the Father’s love that led him to send me into this sinful world. It is my love for you that led me to bear your judgment on the cross and rise again for you. You cannot lose your first love, or you lose me.
Christ Shows the Path of Recovering Lost First Love (v. 5)
Remember – How Far You Have Fallen
The first half of verse 5 gives the remedy for their loveless peril. They must remember, repent, and return. Remember the height from which you have fallen! A decline in love for Christ and conviction of his love is very serious. “Remember” is honest self-examination of past strength and present sin. Where did we go astray? Why do we not love the Savior as we once did? Do we hear sermons about God’s love and our Savior’s sacrifice but yawn? Are our present attitudes consistent with the first joy we experienced when we came to love the Savior and his word? The newness of certain doctrines may wear off over time, but the glory and majesty of them must not be allowed to diminish. Greater understanding and practice of even basic Christian doctrines is a constant source of joy and praise for the believer. Remembrance is vital. Doctrinal passion and evangelistic zeal will give way to dead orthodoxy, cynicism, and eventually false doctrine unless the heart is constantly rekindled before the cross of God’s love in his Son. We must never stop prayerful study of Scripture, prayerful hearing of God’s word, seeking Christ Jesus in his word, and humble, soul-searching meditation upon Scripture.
Repent – Recognize the Sin, Confess to the Lord, and Resolve
They must not only remember but also repent and return. Repentance recognizes the sin of losing one’s first love. It is a sin not to love the Lord with all your heart, soul or life, strength, and mind. Sin would not make such inroads in our lives if we quickly and honestly recognized the mother of all sins – not loving the Lord with the first love fervency and not being motivated by his great love for us to serve him. Do you want to kill the lust of the flesh in your life? A lying tongue? Idolatry of self in all its forms, pleasures, and selfishness? Recognize these for what they are – turning away from loving Jesus Christ. The reason world loves, lust loves, self loves, and money loves grow in us is that they have become the love of our lives. This is love idolatry. The reason we can hold fast to truth with cold hearts is that we substitute pride for love, being right for righteousness that loves God and his truth. These must be recognized for the evil that they are and replaced with sincere love for God and for Jesus Christ.
Return – Do the First Works to Regain the First Love
The loss of love for Christ and sense of his great love is dangerous and reminds us how carefully we must “keep ourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). If this could happen to the Ephesians, it can happen to us. It has happened to us. Is anyone brave enough to confess their love for Christ is very small, like a small candle wick? Will another honest soul confess that you have lost any controlling sense of God’s great love for you in Christ? That you can read in the Gospels about Christ’s love (John 13:1) but you find your heart strangely cold, silent, and unmoved before such love? You will debate election or the Trinity or the Sabbath like a soul afire, but you find that it was to win an argument, not because you loved Christ. And you are not as zealous as you once were. You have stopped defending Christ and his word altogether. You hear his name blasphemed, and your soul does not tremble, even a little.
The way to recover the first love is to do the first works. Study God’s holiness again. Compare yourself, even as a Christian, to his holiness, and see what you find. If you are honest, you will cringe. I had forgotten how much God hates sin! I had forgotten how great his love is! Then, remember what the Father did for you in sending his Son, the horrors he laid upon his Son to save you, the truth he gave you by sending from heaven his Son of wisdom. Study his grace again. Read Isaiah 53 regularly. Ask for mercy again. Beat your breast again, like the publican. Ask the Lord to show you how much more evil your sins are as a Christian, for you profess to know and love Jesus Christ. You have his word, and perhaps you defend it boldly, but it has become more about defending a tradition than a Person. Perhaps the world did it. Indulging in sinful thoughts and gratifying sinful desires will always freeze love. Perhaps cynicism about the world quenched your love. The Holy Spirit can break your heart, thaw you to tears, and fire love again. Ask the Father in mercy to give you the Spirit so that he might pour into your heart God’s love (Rom. 5:5). Then, we can love him back again, with first love fervency, motivation to forsake the world and everything else for his sake.
Christ Gives a Warning and a Promise (v. 7)
Repent, or I Will Remove Your Candlestick
Without love, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Why do we bother to defend God’s truth unless love for our Savior drives us to speak to lost and dying souls (2 Cor. 5:14). Can we win someone to Christ unless we love them as our neighbor? I suppose it is possible, but it is like doing one-handed surgery. One hand may be skillful, but it will slip without the other. Truth is the same. We must “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:19) – not apologizing for the truth or being syrupy when we speak, but making sure that we are communicating in our verbal expressions, tone, and countenance the most sincere love for Christ and for our fellow men. The penalty for lost love is that the Lord Jesus will remove their lampstand from its place. This "excommunication" from Christ's visible church by the court of heaven must awaken us to the seriousness of love. God is love. It is true that so many false loves are thrown in our face that we grow sick of the very word. We must not. God so loved the world that he sent his Son. Our Savior loved us to the cross. It is by love that all men know we are Christ’s disciples – love in union with the truth, truth spoken in love.
Conquerors Eat of the Tree of Life in Paradise
In the Asian religion of that day, the tree was the symbol of the divine life on earth. Trees were venerated, worshipped, and carefully cultivated. It was commonly thought that at death the soul of a man would enter a tree, thus entering into a union with the divine. This pagan understanding of a tree is wholly dissimilar to what John intends by this expression, but there is a point of connection. To the Asian mind, trees represented life and contact with the divine. In biblical religion, trees symbolize life not in any pantheistic sense but as a symbol chosen by God to convey life and fellowship. To be allowed to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God speaks primarily to the enjoyment of fellowship with God in his very presence. Man was cut off from the tree of life as a result of Adam's sin. History from Eden has been man’s attempt to get back to this tree, to recover life and meaning, though in futile ways forbidden by God and ultimately destructive to man. Admittance to this tree, admittance to God's presence in the perfected state of heaven with all its blessedness, is allowed to the faithful believer in Jesus Christ. Christ saved us by dying on the tree; faith in him restores us to the tree of life. This tree, according to John, brings life and healing (22:2).
Only the overcomers eat at the tree of life, the conquerors in the strength of Christ. "Overcoming" is a central theme in the book of Revelation, being found in each of the seven letters and throughout the remainder of the book (2:11,17,26; 3:5,12,21; 11:7; 13:7; 17:14; 21:7). To overcome is to maintain the faith of God in the face of whatever obstacles, trials, and pressures may come, until one either dies or Christ returns to consummate his kingdom. It is the duty of each Christian to overcome, and all true Christians will overcome. In union with our Lord Jesus, we shall persevere in faith and obedience to the end of life. For the Ephesians, this promise is based upon their repentance and recovery of their first love for Jesus Christ. All their defending of truth is for nothing without love (1 Cor. 13:1-3). And love itself enables us to overcome the world. If we are assured of Christ’s love, we shall not be overly concerned if the world does not love us – we shall love it anyway, as our Savior loved us when we were his enemies. Because the love of God is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5) we shall not be mean and nasty to those who disagree with us. Our loving spirit will be a powerful incentive to them to listen to what we say. It is no exaggeration to say that God saved the world by loving the world (John 3:16). We shall overcome as his love transforms us and empowers us to speak the truth in love. Revelation's thematic emphasis upon "overcoming" is a vivid reminder to all ages of the church. Our approach to sin in ourselves and culture must not be toleration and compromise but warfare and overcoming. It is the duty of the church not to give in to evil but to overcome it. We are here to overcome – by the love of God in Christ, holding fast to his truth, and speaking that truth in love without fear and with courage and zeal.