1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘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, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where 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 you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” – Revelation 2:1-7 ESV
If you recall, in verse 19 of chapter 1, John was told, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” These next two chapters of his book contain the things “that are.” In other words, he is going to write about the seven churches that existed in real time during his own day. These were seven literal congregations located in seven different cities in Asia Minor. In these two chapters, John is seen acting in the role of a secretary, writing down everything he hears from the lips of the Lord. The first church Jesus addresses is the one located in the city of Ephesus. In each case, Jesus will state the identity of the church to which He is speaking. Then He will point out their strengths and weaknesses. This will be followed by a call to repentance and an exhortation to listen carefully to His words. And Jesus makes it perfectly clear that his intended audience is far bigger than the existing congregations of these seven 1st-Century churches. He says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelations 2:7 ESV). This is obviously a reference to the seven churches, but also includes a call to the churches of all ages to hear and heed what He has to say. Anyone and everyone who has the capacity to hear each of the messages to these churches should listen carefully and consider the implications, regardless of the century in which he or she lives.
As Jesus begins His address the church in the city of Ephesus, He singles out its “angel” or messenger. John provides us with no clarification as to whom Jesus is referring. There are those who believe His use of the Greek word angelos is a reference to angels or heavenly beings who are assigned to the various churches as guardians or keepers. There are others who believe the seven angels of the seven churches is a reference to the pastors of these churches. The Greek word, angelos can also be translated as “messenger” and could be used to speak of those who will deliver the message of Jesus to the particular churches. From Revelation 1:20, we do know that the seven lampstands are intended to represent the seven churches.
So, Jesus addresses the angel of the church at Ephesus and He points out two things that He knows regarding this local fellowship:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” – Revelations 2:2 ESV
“I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” – Revelation 2:3 ESV
Jesus offers two statements of commendation to the church in Ephesus. In spite of the presence of false teachers, they remained true to the Word of God, faithful to their calling to live out their faith in love and good works, and for patiently enduring persecution for the sake of the gospel. At first glance, it looks as if this church has their spiritual act together and that Jesus is well-pleased with them. And they were doing a lot of things right. But then, Jesus drops the other shoe.
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” – Revelation 2:4 ESV
This church had started out with a deep love for God’s Word and a desire to defend it at all costs. They would not tolerate false gospels or allow faulty interpretations of the Scriptures to mislead or confuse them. But something had happened along the way. They had lost their fervor for God. Jesus describes it as having abandoned the love they had at first. The love to which Jesus refers is agape love, the sacrificial, lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love with which He loved us. Jesus gave His life for the church. His was a selfless kind of love, preferring to put the needs of others ahead of His own. And evidently, this local fellowship had allowed their love for one another to wain. They were orthodox in their theology and dedicated to the gospel, but somehow they had allowed the flame of love to dwindle and practically die out. So, Jesus calls them to repentance.
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” – Revelation 2:5 ESV
This church had a heart problem. They loved God. They loved the Word of God. But it seems that they didn’t necessarily love one another. At least not in the way they once did. Perhaps they were lacking in unity and harmony. Sometimes a church’s determination to maintain orthodoxy can result in an uncompromising dedication to the truth that lacks compassion for others. We end up disliking those with whom we disagree.
It is interesting to note that in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul had commended them for their love for others.
“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” – Ephesians 1:15 ESV
And Paul had ended his letter to them with the following words:
Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. – Ephesians 6:23-24 ESV
Notice his emphasis on brothers and love with faith, as well as love for Christ – a love that is incorruptible. This church had allowed that love to be corrupted in some form or fashion, and Jesus called them to do two things: First of all, they were to remember from where they had fallen. In other words, they were to reflect on the difference between their current state of affairs and how they had started. Then, they were to repent. They needed to change their minds and, as a result, their behavior. They were to return to their former way of loving Christ and others. Orthodoxy (right thinking) without orthopraxy (right behavior) can be deadly. It can become divisive. What we say we believe has to show up in how we behave. John, the very one to whom Jesus was dictating these words, had written something about this very matter in one of his letters.
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. – 1 John 2:9-11 ESV
Jesus warns the church at Ephesus that if they don’t repent, He will remove their lampstand. It is important that we remember this message was to the church as a body, not to an individual believer. So, Jesus is not threatening the loss of salvation. He is simply warning the believers in Ephesus that their refusal to repent will result in their failure to exist as a local fellowship. They will forfeit their preferred position as Christ’s ambassadors. A church that lacks love lacks the ability to truly reflect the message of the gospel to a lost and dying world. Loveless, bickering Christians are the worst form of advertising for the life-transforming power of the gospel.
But Jesus has one last word of commendation: “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6 ESV). We don’t know much about the Nicolaitans. Whoever they were and whatever they taught, it is important to note that Jesus expresses His hatred for their works. Notice that Jesus says He hates their works, not them. It is speculated that these were individuals who had infiltrated the church at Ephesus and who were teaching false doctrines, most likely some form of false gospel. The apostle Paul had some harsh words to say about these kinds of people and their dangerous doctrines of salvation.
“Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you.” – Galatians 1:8 NLT
Jesus commends the Ephesian church for its hatred of falsehood. But He longed for them to return to their first and former love – a love for God expressed in their selfless love for one another.
Finally, Jesus leaves the church at Ephesus with a word of promise.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. – Revelation 2:7 ESV
He challenges them, and us, to listen. To heed what He has to say. This is a call that is common to all seven letters and is intended to be true for the church throughout all the ages. The Spirit of God is out to convict the people of God, in all times and places, with the truth of God. Jesus is offering us the promise of eternal life, guaranteed to all who conquer. But what does that mean? Is Jesus inferring that we have to win the victory? Is he saying our future glorification is somehow up to our ability to fight the good fight on our own? The answer is a simple, yet resounding, “No.”
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul reminds us that our ability to conquer comes from without, not from within. He asks the compelling question:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? – Romans 8:35 ESV
Then he provides us with the confidence-boosting answer:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39 ESV
The key to conquering is Christ and our faith in Him. Paul reminds us that it is the love of Christ for us that makes us conquerors. Not the other way around. And the apostle John reminds us, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT). Our ability to conquer comes from God. It is He who redeemed us through the blood of His Son. And, the apostle John tells us that our basis for love is the love showed to us by God. “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16 NLT). When we realize how much God loved us, we should desire to share that love with others. And what should encourage us is that God’s love for us is perfect and unwavering. Nothing can separate us from His love. So, why would we allow anything to keep us from loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. The church at Ephesus needed to return to their first love. They needed to be reminded that their salvation had been based on God’s unmerited love and favor. And their love for one another was to be a reflection of that reality. If they did what Jesus was telling them to do, they would not only continue to exist as a church, they would conquer and enjoy eternal life.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.