Text: Revelation 2:1–5
When I arrived at Bible College in the late summer of 1988, it did not take long for me to realize that the mailroom was one of the most exciting places on campus. This was long before email, texting, or social media. Spam was actually something we ate! Students would go to the mailroom excited to receive a letter from that special person back home. Perhaps a check would arrive to help with tuition or expenses. And if we got lucky, sometimes grandma would even send a box of cookies!
I wonder how we would react if we were to receive a letter from Jesus. I have a feeling we would be engrossed in the contents of the letter, pouring over every word and detail.
Revelation 2–3 contains a group of letters, written centuries ago, that are sent to various churches in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), but their words are still highly relevant for us today. Because of our impatience to get to the more apocalyptic portions of Revelation, it is easy to overlook the incredible insights to be gained from what Jesus has to say to these churches. Each message contains words of wisdom and application for all churches throughout history until Jesus comes again.
I do not believe that these seven churches represent seven ages or dispensations of the church. Yet these literal, historical congregations had specific problems that local churches face, both now and throughout history.
As the Lord of the Church looks at the church of Ephesus, he finds a lot to commend, but his heart is broken by one glaring absence: they had abandoned the love they had at first.
1. The City and the Church: Ephesus (v. 1a)
Ephesus was probably the most important city in Asia Minor. Its population was somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000. It was not a small town, but a large, growing city. It was a metropolis.
First, it was a prosperous and wealthy city. Ephesus was a major commercial center, primarily because it was located on the coast and the most important seaport in the region.
Second, it was a major cultural center. Some say that Ephesus was second only to Rome as a cosmopolitan center of culture and commerce. As one example, it held athletic events that rivaled even the ancient Olympics.
Third, it was a religious epicenter in the Roman Empire. Ephesus was the center of worship of the goddess Artemis, who is also called Diana. There was a huge temple dedicated to her, which is now considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. To this day, its foundation and fragments remain in modern day Selçuk in Turkey. Thousands of priests and priestesses served in the temple, many as religious prostitutes.
Ephesus was not an easy place to have a church. This church was surrounded by paganism, materialism, sexual immorality, and idol worship. Yet, as recorded in Acts 19, God planted a much-needed church there.
Paul founded the church and left Priscilla and Aquila to carry on the work. They were later joined by Apollos, a powerful preacher. Then on his third missionary journey, Paul returned and ended up spending almost three years ministering there. Later, Timothy pastored the church, and some scholars even believe the apostle John led the church after Paul’s death. It’s entirely probable that John was in Ephesus when he wrote his epistles, and he was probably the leader of the church when he was arrested and sent into exile on the island of Patmos, just 60 miles off the coast from Ephesus.
The church had great spiritual leaders over the years, but by the time Jesus writes this letter through John’s pen, decades have passed since the church was founded. The apostle Paul, the founder, has died. Most of the first-generation believers are gone, many of them martyred for their faith. Now there is a new generation who only knew of Paul, and they needed to renew the love they had at first.
That’s what Jesus also wants to address in our lives. It’s so easy to live on past victories and successes. We may have a great spiritual history or may have experienced times of great renewal, but as Jesus searches our hearts, he desires to speak to us about where we are right now.
2. The Christ of the Church (v. 1b)
To each church that is addressed, Christ reveals himself in ways that are unique to the church’s context and specific problems. Here Christ reveals himself as the one who “holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the golden lampstands” (2:1b).
In Revelation 1:20, we discover that the lampstands are the churches and the stars are the angels of the seven churches. Most scholars believe that these angels refer to the pastors of the seven churches. Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: the Christ of the Church is in complete control. As the one who holds the church and walks in our midst, he is in sovereign control of everything.
3. The Commendation Christ Gives (vv. 2-3)
First, they were a serving church (v. 2a). Jesus was fully aware of their “works” and of their “toil and labor.” The Greek word for “toil” means to work to the place of exhaustion. This was not a lazy church. They were active and involved; they were busy and diligent. No doubt they were a positive influence in their corrupt city.
Because of their faithfulness, this church became the hub for missionary activity in the entire region. This church may have not been known for its seating capacity, but it was known for its sending capacity. New Testament scholars believe that many of the other seven churches, like Smyrna, were started by the church at Ephesus. The planted church soon became a planting church! That should serve as a model for our churches as well.
Second, they were a steadfast church (vv. 2b-3). Jesus says, “I know your…patient endurance…I know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
Ephesus was not an easy place to have a church or to raise a godly family. The emperor was worshipped as a god, and if you refused to do so, you could be put to death. Yet in spite of those challenging circumstances, this church remained steadfast. What an example for us today!
Third, they were a spiritually discerning church (v. 2c, 6). Paul warned the Ephesians in Acts 20:28-30 that after his departure “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
True to Paul’s words, heresy soon invaded the church. Paul instructed Timothy to confront false teachers (see 1 Tim. 1:3-11), and now this generation that John is writing to has to deal with the Nicolaitans.
The Nicolaitans are only mentioned here and in Revelation 2:15, where the church in Pergamum had to deal with them as well. The New Testament is silent on what they taught, but the church father Irenaeus states that they led “lives of unrestrained indulgence” (Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 26).
Though we may not know entirely what they taught or believed, we do know that the church in Ephesus rejected their teachings and they even hated their heresy. In a day when heresy is often tolerated in the church, how refreshing it is to see a church so committed to orthodoxy.
Ephesus sounds like the kind of church I want to join or even pastor! On the surface, it is a picture of what every church should be: orthodox, loyal, steadfast, and faithful. But underneath the surface, Jesus puts his divine finger on their problem.
4. The Criticism They Received (v. 4)
What sobering words to hear from Christ: “…you have abandoned the love you had at first.” The church at Ephesus was not criticized for reading the wrong books, or for having the wrong preachers preach in their pulpit, or because they were not generous givers or faithful witnesses. They were criticized and reprimanded because the church that seemingly had everything, didn’t have the greatest thing: love.
If we refuse to listen to the correcting and convicting checks of the Holy Spirit, this malady can happen to any church and any believer. Unless love is consistently rekindled, the propensity for becoming unloving increases the longer you study, the more you give, the more success you achieve, and the more you serve others and pour yourself out in ministry. It is entirely possible to love ministry more than you love Christ. Ephesus, while still a remarkable church in many ways, failed to keep the main thing the main thing. Unless our first love is kept vibrant, it can be lost.
The term “first love” can be a bit misleading, but I use it because we are mostly familiar with how the KJV translates this passage. What then is meant by “first love?”
Sadly, I have heard some misguided preaching on this passage. I have heard it said that it refers to our emotional state. That we need to be just as “fired up” as we were when we first came to faith in Christ. But first love is not an emotional feeling. In fact, love is never presented in Scripture as a feeling or an emotion. That’s actually good news! I cannot control my emotions very well at times. Listen to how John Stott phrased it: “They had fallen from the heights of their devotion and had descended into the plains of mediocrity.” This should not surprise us. After all, Jesus said that when “sin increases, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12). Unless we recommit to the priority of loving Christ first and foremost, we will not be a loving church.
5. The Consequences of Their Sin (v. 5b)
Note the words, “I will come to you.” There is absolute certainty in these words. The Christ of the Church will not allow this sin to remain unchecked. Christ will come and he will “remove your lampstand from its place.”
When the church fails to love Christ as it should, it stands to lose something very special—her identity. The warning that Christ gives to the church in Ephesus is just as appropriate to us today. Our own light will be extinguished; our own identity will be lost, if we stubbornly continue to abandon our love for Christ.
Sadly, many churches today have ceased to truly exist. Their buildings are still standing, their preachers still preach, the people still gather together, but the lampstand has long been removed. The church has plunged into darkness because it has no love.
6. The Cure For a Loveless Church (v. 5a)
Verse 7 says, “To the one who conquers.” The KJV says, “overcomes.” That implies that this sin of forsaken love can be overcome. But it does not come automatically. As we cooperate with God’s grace, we are called to do three things to overcome.
First, we are called to remember (v. 5). Remembering calls us to action. From time to time, we must take a spiritual inventory and evaluate our lives. We need to pause and remember that commitment we once had to God, to his Word and the means of grace, to prayer and fellowship with other believers. Don’t forget to remember!
Second, we are called to repent (v. 5). Biblical repentance literally means to turn around and go in the opposite direction. It implies a change in our behavior. We must repent and turn away from all that has cooled our love for Christ and others.
Third, we are called to redo (v. 5). Christ calls them to, “…do the works you did at first.” No person has truly repented if they do the same things over and over again. Repentance must always be followed by actions that express repentance.
Now, Jesus does not specifically say what these “first works” are, but perhaps it means that the church must get back to the basics found in Acts 2:42. These spiritual disciplines, along with God’s Spirit at work in our lives, can lead us back to a renewed love for Christ.
If these actions are undertaken, the church at Ephesus is given an incredible promise in verse 7: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” The Tree of Life was first seen in Genesis in the Garden of Eden. Adam lost his right to eat from this tree because of his sin and disobedience. But now, for those who overcome, the Tree of Life is promised to the faithful and victorious. It all begins with having an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church (v. 7). Are you listening?
I was just a young boy when Prince Charles married Lady Diana. It was like a fairytale. Even now, it’s difficult to imagine that in 1981, 750 million people watched the wedding. Untold thousands lined the streets of London, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the newly wedded royal couple. After the elaborate ceremony, the newlyweds dashed off to their honeymoon—full of life, love, and hope, but that was then. Somewhere along the way their lives grew apart and their love grew cold, stale, stagnant, mechanical, and routine—the royal romance was a thing of the past. They went through the motions for a while, until even that became unbearable, and finally they called it quits.
How often I have seen that in the lives of believers as well. I’ve watched as they went through the motions, while their hearts were not fully engaged. And soon enough, they too grew tired of the show, and they abandoned the love they had at first.
What about you? Do you need to rekindle the fire of your first love? If so, remember, repent, and redo!