Return to Your First Love

| Revelation 2:1-7

The Point:  Return to a love for Christ that permeates everything you do.

To the Church in Ephesus:  Revelation 2:1-7.

[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.’   [ESV]

[1-7]  The angel is both the guardian over the city and corporately identified with the city, so the letter is sent to the Ephesian church as a whole via the angel. This is in keeping with 1:1-2, in which the Apocalypse is sent from God through Christ to an angel and then to John to give to the churches. Thus the angel has the basic biblical function of “messenger” to the church. However, the angels function as more than messengers here. In several places in the New Testament angels function as authoritative “witnesses” overseeing the plan of God as it works out among His people. Their presence in a passage always adds eschatological force to the message as a reminder that divine forces are at work and watching. The Ephesian church was recognized as the mother church of the region. Therefore, it is natural that this be the first church addressed, not only for its status but also because the mail route for these letters would naturally begin there. The words of him is a prophetic formula built on Old Testament patterns that introduces Christ’s description in each of the seven letters. It will be clear as we study the letters that the character of Christ adduced in each letter is perfectly chosen to address the needs of that church. These characteristics remind the Ephesian church of key truths they have begun neglecting. Since Ephesus is the mother church, she must realize that Christ, not her, holds the seven stars and walks among the seven golden lampstands. There is no room for pride, for it is Christ alone who is sovereign, not any church. The two characteristics are drawn from 1:16 and 1:13, respectively. It is interesting that the two were at the beginning and toward the end of the vision in 1:12-16, and that the order is reversed here, probably to follow the order in the address in which the angel is mentioned before the church. The Greek word translated as holds emphasizes the sovereign control of Christ over the seven stars (churches). The imagery of walking combines the ideas of concern for and authority over the church. Christ is present among His people and is both watching over them and watching them. The disciplinary aspect is certainly present in a letter which warns that Christ might come to you and remove your lampstand [5]. The five churches that have strengths all include the words: I know your works, indicating that Christ had absolute knowledge of the strengths of each of the churches. Works mean more than just “good deeds” but refer to the whole spiritual walk of the believer. Here works is defined by two terms: toil and your patient endurance. These two nouns govern the following discussion, with the toil expanded in the rest of verse 2 and the endurance in verse 3. By toil John means hard work. The term is used by Paul to designate the exacting labor he did to support himself [1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8]. It is used twice in Revelation (here and 14:13) for the Christian labor that will reap rewards. The successful labor of the Ephesian church entailed a battle with false teachers, a situation seen in Ephesians [4:14], Colossians, the Pastoral Epistles, and 1 John as an ongoing problem in Asia Minor. First, they cannot bear with those who are evil which describes the basic character of the false teachers as evil. The term evil refers to both moral and spiritual evil. The strength of the antipathy that the Ephesians showed these heretics is seen in cannot bear with them. John now turns to the active response the Ephesians made to the false teachers. Building on Old Testament mandates, they tested the claims of the false teachers, to see if their teaching was valid or true. This word tested is the basic term in both Old Testament and New Testament for a critical examination of a person’s claims. Apparently, these heretics acted like wandering missionaries/teachers and went from house church to house church calling themselves apostles. Paul had warned the Ephesians in Acts 20:29 of fierce wolves who will come in among you, not sparing the flock. That prophecy had now come true once more, and unlike the outcome related in 1 and 2 Timothy, the Ephesian church had now triumphed over them. In the early church apostle was used two ways: in a particular sense to describe the leaders chosen by God for the church, and in a general way to describe church representatives who traveled from place to place with complete authority from the sending church. These self-labeled apostles here were like those of 2 Corinthians, calling themselves the divinely chosen leaders and teachers of the church. But the Ephesians tested their claims and found them to be false. In other words, it was evident that they were a pack of liars, pretending to be something that they were not. After a description of their toil in verse 2, John turns to their endurance in verse 3. Endurance refers to patient perseverance in the midst of trying circumstances. It is a comprehensive concept referring to a life of trust and patient steadfastness in hard times. Christ elaborates on this concept by adding that they have endured for my name’s sake which means they have stood up for Christ in the midst of persecution and false teaching. The Ephesian Christians have not only stood firm for orthodoxy but have both triumphed over the heretics and maintained their spiritual watchfulness: you have not grown weary. The triumphant tone of verses 2 and 3 changes abruptly with but [4]. Now an extremely serious problem, one that endangers the very life and future of the Ephesian church, must be introduced. The formula, I have this against you, in the seven letters describes the spiritual and moral problems of the churches. It indicates divine displeasure, and the against you warns of future judgment if the situation does not change. The problem of the Ephesians is the abandonment of their first love. This love refers to the love they had for Christ shortly after their conversion. They had lost the first flush of enthusiasm and excitement in their Christian life and had settled into a cold orthodoxy with more surface strength then depth. The second generation of the church had probably failed to maintain the fervor of the first. They had fulfilled Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24:12: the love of many will grow cold. It is clear that the Ephesians loved truth more than they loved God or one another. This does not mean that they were not believers or that they had no love at all, for the commendations of verses 2-3 would be impossible in that case. Rather, their early love had grown cold and been replaced with a harsh zeal for orthodoxy. As in the other four letters addressing serious problems, the solution takes the form of a series of imperatives demanding repentance and change, followed by a warning of judgment if they do not repent. [5-6]. The first thing they must do is remember, a present imperative normally used for required conduct, in this case their memory of the past. Like all terms of “knowing,” to remember is not just to bring it to mind but to act on it. The Ephesians needed to actualize and thereby reenter their past experience of their first love. Remembering was often used in Old Testament and New Testament contexts to call the people to repentance and to recapture earlier moral and spiritual standards. In particular, they were to remember from where you have fallen. The only answer is to repent, and do the works you did at first. The church is being told to begin reflecting on their past history. That will convict them of their present errors and cause them to repent of their error and change their actions. In other words, remembering is the basis of repentance. Repentance is the basic New Testament term for a change of heart, involving repudiation of the past as well as embrace of a new lifestyle. The form this repentance must take is not so much a new turn but a return to the past. They must do the works you did at first. These are not just good works but the acts of love toward God and one another that characterized the early years of their church. Their battle against the heretics could certainly be construed as “good works,” but because it was not accompanied by love, it was insufficient. In short, orthodoxy without orthopraxy is a false religion. To make the point inescapable, John now states it negatively. The statement of divine judgment is surrounded by two such statements, if not and unless you repent. The placement of the two conditionals framing the judgment statement produces a powerful effect, as it emphasizes a way out of the dilemma – repent! The judgment to fall upon them, if they refuse to change their ways, is incredibly severe: Christ will remove your lampstand from its place. The threat to remove the lampstand is probably a serious warning against apostasy and the subsequent loss of their status as a church. The purpose of verse 6 coming at this point of the narrative is elusive. It could be a return to the commendation of verses 2 and 3, in which case it would be unique among the seven letters; or it could be a further encouragement to repent and persevere; or it could be both. The use of yet (but) as in 2:4 establishes a contrast with the preceding context [2:4-5] and does indeed return to the thought of 2:2-3. At the same time, the word works repeats the term from 2:5 and connects the two verses [5,6]. Christ could be saying: “You need to return to the works you did at first, but at least you hate the same evil works that I do.” While the Ephesians did fall away from their first love, they have managed to maintain their fighting spirit against false teaching. The language in verse 6 is much stronger than 2:2-3. There they found the false teachers to be false, but here they hate their works. An important key is the repetition of hate in both clauses: you hate and I also hate. The hatred of the Ephesians parallels God’s own hatred. The Nicolaitan movement is difficult to define, for the only information we have is found in Revelation 2:6 and 15. While we know next to nothing about their doctrine, we can be more certain of their practices. The key is the practices linked with Balaam [2:14-15] and Jezebel [2:20-23]. The two sins found in both are idolatry and immorality. Therefore it is likely that the twin problems were syncretism (trying to accommodate the pagans by participating in practices like emperor worship) and an antinomian type of libertinism (showing freedom from the law by doing what one wishes). The exhortation in verse 7 is built on Jesus’ call, He who has ears to hear, let him hear [Matt. 11:15; Mark 4:9,23; Luke 8:8; 14:35], which functions as a prophetic warning to open one’s mind and heart to kingdom truths. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, “to hear” is “to obey.” The second half of the saying centers on the Spirit as the medium of revelation. The prophetic word comes to us via the Holy Spirit, who is speaking to the churches. Moreover, the message of this letter is meant not just for Ephesus but for all “churches.” All who read this letter are to ask whether their church fits this situation and whether they too should listen and repent. One of the most important messages of the book is the challenge to be a conqueror. It is an athletic and military metaphor that connotes superiority and victory over a vanquished foe. In the New Testament the military overtones are primary. Here in Revelation it speaks of the eschatological war between the beast and the people of God. Our victory is a participation in Christ’s victory. It is critical to realize that in the seven letters the victory is a promise held out to all of them, even the weak churches of Sardis [3:5] and Laodicea [3:21]. Yet it must be achieved through perseverance. Thus it demands faithfulness and a determination that we will place living for Him alone above all earthly things. To be a conqueror or overcomer in the eschatological war demands a day-by-day walk with God and dependence on His strength. In this sense there is also warning, as seen in the contrast between the conqueror and the cowardly in 21:7,8. Only the one who conquers in Christ will stand on the crystal sea and sing hymns of victory as in 15:2 or inherit God’s kingdom as in 21:7. Therefore, the overcoming theme in Revelation combines promise (God’s blessings on those who persevere) and warning (God’s judgment on those who fail to persevere). In short, overcoming in Revelation is analogous to believe in Paul, referring to an active trust in God that leads to faithfulness in the difficult situations of life lived for Christ. The reward for the faithful is striking – they will participate in the blessing intended at creation but never realized by Adam and Eve – to eat of the tree of life. It is introduced by a critical term in Revelation, I will grant. This verb is almost a formula in the seven letters to typify the future (it is always in the future tense in the following passages) rewards or gifts God has for the overcomers [2:7,10,17,26,28; 3:21]. Whenever the verb is used of God in the book, as in the repetition of was given in 6:2,4,8,11 (authority given to the four horsemen) and 13:5,7 (authority given to the beast), it depicts divine sovereignty over all earthly and cosmic forces. The promised gift is to eat from the tree of life. In Genesis 2:9 the tree of life was placed in the garden; but in 3:22-24 Adam and Eve were not allowed to partake of this tree because of their sin, and an angel with a flaming sword guarded the tree, so they could not eat from it and gain immortality. In Proverbs 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; and 15:4 it became a symbol for the life-giving properties of wisdom and righteous living. In Jewish apocalyptic the tree of life came to typify the eternal life given by God to His followers. This theme continues in 2:7 and 22:2, as the overcomers inherit God’s reward for their faithfulness. In the final Eden the curse of the first Eden is reversed and eternal life is now given to God’s people.”  [Osborne, pp. 108-126]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         The opening words of this letter to the church in Ephesus emphasizes the sovereignty of Christ over His church. What does it meant that Christ holds the seven stars and walks among the seven golden lampstands? How does Christ’s authority over your church impact the way your church operates?

2.         What did Christ praise in the church in Ephesus? Would he find these two strengths in your church?

3.         What did Christ find wrong with the church in Ephesus? What three things did Christ command the church to do in order to correct the problem [5]? What would Christ do to the church if it failed to respond to His commands [5]? What does this tell you about the importance Christ places on this particular characteristic for His church? Pray that your church will continually heed this warning that Christ gives to the church in Ephesus.

4.         What instructions does Christ give the church in Ephesus concerning false teachers [2,6]? Why does Christ hate false teachers? What do we learn here concerning how we are to deal with false teachers in the church today?

References:

Revelation, Simon Kistemaker, Baker.

The Book of Revelation, Robert Mounce, Eerdmans.

Revelation, Grant Osborne, Baker.