The Loveless Church (Ephesus)
Scripture: Revelation 2:1-7
The greatest city in first-century Asia Minor was the city of Ephesus. It was a great port city, full of riches—and sin. The city had almost as much religious diversity as Athens.
The main religion Ephesus was known for was the worship of Artemis, for whom they had an enormous temple. The Temple of Artemis was known as one of the seven wonders of the world, along with the Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens, the Colossus of Rhodes, etc.
Additionally, there was a strong presence of the cult of Dionysus—the wine god.
On top of all that, the Roman imperial cult (where they would worship the dead emperors as gods), was extremely strong in Ephesus. This city was considered the center of emperor worship in Asia Minor.
In this culture, a church was born.
The church in Ephesus had a tremendous background and history. It seems to have been established by that great man-wife duo, Aquila and Priscilla. They were Roman Christians who became Paul’s companions in Corinth. They traveled to Ephesus together, but since Paul was hurrying back to Jerusalem, he left there (Acts 18:18–19).
Aquila, Priscilla, Apollos
Aquila and Priscilla spent quite some time teaching and converting in Ephesus, during which time Apollos came to Ephesus. Apollos was a Bible scholar from the city of Alexandria, which is something like saying he graduated from Harvard Law. Aquila and Priscilla noticed that Apollos was only familiar with John the Baptist and his baptism, so “they took him aside and explained the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:24–26).
Paul and Timothy
Later on, Paul made his way to Ephesus for the first time and found some of the disciples Apollos had taught before his conversion, so he taught them the truth and continued working with them for a total of three years. While there, he converted a number of those in magic cults and Artemis-worshipers. The church was so successful in Ephesus that the local idol-makers led a riot protesting the losses they were taking as a result.
Sometime after Paul left Ephesus, he met the elders in a town near Ephesus to warn them. They need to beware of false teachers who will arise from the congregation, and possibly even from the eldership, and have the potential to destroy the church:
“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” (Acts 20:29–31)
Later on, Paul dispatched his protégé Timothy to work with them. Imprisoned in Rome, Paul penned a letter to the Ephesian church and two letters to Timothy specifically—all of which are in our Bibles.
Finally, history records, the Apostle John moved to Ephesus after the destruction of Jerusalem, where he carried on his ministry until his exile. During this time, John drafted the Gospel of John, as well as three short letters.
In all four of John’s writings, he primarily targeted sects who claimed to be Christian, but taught all kinds of heresies.
There was a growing movement we call Gnosticism. The Gnostics attempted to mix the teachings of Christianity with the Law of Moses, Jewish mythology, and Greek pagan philosophy.
Some Gnostic groups taught that Jesus was just a spirit, and never had a physical body. Others claimed that Jesus was never divine, but just a great prophet.
Gnostics often proposed living a free life, since nothing in this body really affects our spirit. Others, more influenced by Stoicism, became austere and advocated refraining from marriage, from enjoyable food, and from social connection.
The Apostle John fought tooth and nail against Gnostic teachings. John and 1 John balance a strong stance for the truth with the importance of loving God and your brethren.
In Revelation 2:1–7, Jesus dictated a letter to John to deliver to the church in Ephesus.
This is the last record we have in Scripture about them.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
This is what the One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says:
I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot bear with those who are evil, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, you also have not grown weary.
But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first. But if not, I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place, unless you repent.
Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.” (Rev 2:1–7)
Jesus describes Himself as “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands,” alluding to the figure in 1:12–13, 16.
The figure of the seven stars and seven lampstands is explained in the last verse of chapter one:
“As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev 1:20).
The “angels” here are most likely not what we think of as angels, but simply messengers or representatives of the various congregations.
If you were in Bible class a few weeks ago when we discussed the period of the exile, you may recall some of the tips I gave for understanding apocalyptic literature; one of those is to consider all numbers as figurative rather than literal. Here, there are literally seven churches that Jesus writes to, but He chooses to do so for a figurative reason. Most times you see the numbers 3, 7, 10, or 12, they’re figurative. Seven represents completeness or perfection. Although these seven churches are in Asia Minor, they represent all kinds of churches throughout time and space.
By mentioning that He holds these stars and walks among the candlesticks, Jesus emphasizes He is the One who is sovereign—He has control over them and their outcomes.
The Letter to the Church in Ephesus is one about a church that tried very hard to succeed in one way spiritually, but failed because they only got half the picture.
God’s people must value the truth, but never let a commitment to sound doctrine swing them too far.
Put in the work and be productive!
“I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot bear with those who are evil, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, you also have not grown weary.” (Rev 2:2–3)
Notice that Jesus starts by mentioning several very positive elements: their deeds, their labor, their perseverance, and their doctrinal purity.
Let’s look at their deeds and their labor. They had been exceptionally successful as a congregation. Evangelism had been effective, and they had grown tremendously over the years. The words “deeds” is plural, and the word “labor” is singular, meaning that Jesus is pleased with not only their individual contributions and service, but also with their efforts as a congregation.
The Ephesians had been quite productive in working together. They had followed the instructions of the Apostle Paul, when he exhorted them, saying,
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph 2:10)
That’s exactly what the Lord expects of His churches, and that’s what he requires of this church—here, today. Jesus still walks among the candlesticks and holds us in His hand.
The church was not designed to be stagnant or to collect dust, but to toil and be hard-working.
The word he uses for toil is interesting: it means the kind of work that wears you out. But notice verse 3: “You have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake and have not grown weary.” The expression grown weary in verse 3 is the verb form of toil in verse 2. Jesus observes that they have been laboring hard over the Gospel, so much that it should have worn them out, but they haven’t let that happen—instead, they have persevered and made it through all the troubles that have come their way.
Just before this letter was written, Emperor Vespasian appointed Ephesus to have another temple built for the emperor cult, specifically for his family, the Flavians. The city is bursting with excitement for the honor it was to have at the construction of this Flavian Temple. I cannot imagine the kind of pressure this must have put on the church there.
Yet they have remained faithful during all this time.
The Ephesian church is strong when it comes to productivity, and that’s a good thing. We need to have that same indomitable spirit that refuses to give up when challenged by circumstance or exhaustion.
Value truth and protect it aggressively.
“I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot bear with those who are evil, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false.” (Rev 2:2)
While the church suffered assault from the outside pagan culture, they fought corruption inside.
We read earlier Paul’s warning to them when he met with the elders. John cautioned and guided them for the past several years as well. The false teachings of the proto-Gnostics pervaded and damaged the church horribly, planting the seeds of heresies we still fight today. But apparently the work of Paul and John had been successful: the Ephesians were able to recognize these men for who they were and reject their teachings.
Today, we face a culture that is growing more and more wicked, too. Appalled, we see friends celebrate victories of immorality and culture devolve rapidly. Yet in the place we hope to find solace, in the church, we see false teaching growing too.
Jesus praises the Ephesians because they know better and are unafraid to rebuke error; we must have that same stalwart attitude.
John preached this, saying,
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.” (2 John 1:7–11)
Now, I want to point something out to you that you may find interesting.
In class this morning, I introduced the idea of a chiasm, where words or ideas are mirrored. There is a chiasm right here. Deeds on the outside, verses 2 and 5. Then toil, as we noticed already, sandwiches with not grown weary, verse 3. The next layer is perseverance, mentioned in 2 and 3.
The center layers pair up as well:
“You cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false.”(Rev 2:2)
We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Watch the pendulum.
“But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first. But if not, I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place, unless you repent.” (Rev 2:4–5)
The church seems like it was mostly faithful, “but,” Jesus says, “I have this against you.” He tells them their shortcomings are so severe, they threaten to destroy the church. If they do not repent and change their ways, He will remove their candlestick and no longer consider them a valid church.
They have “left their first love.” There are two possibilities of what Jesus means by this.
The first option: He could mean that they no longer have the zeal for serving God and that they are losing their spiritual fervor, but that doesn’t fit with the perseverance He just praised.
Let me explain the second option. I want you to consider some of the congregations that have fought the hardest battles with liberalism and false teachings—I can think of several, especially in the San Antonio area—what do those churches really seem to struggle with now, in the aftermath?
Fighting long and hard battles takes its toll on you, as I’m sure some of you know firsthand from your time in the military. That kind of toil can easily develop emotional callouses until there is a kind of coldness. It can leave a frigid attitude toward those who need to hear the Gospel message of love and joy.
John often warned about heretics, but he also implored Christians to love their brethren:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.” (1 John 4:7–14).
Love is just as critical to abiding in God as having the correct teaching and doctrine.
The Ephesians forgot that, allowing themselves to swing the opposite direction.
By telling them to “do the deeds they did at first,” Jesus means those deeds stopped. Remember, these deeds match up chiastically with the ones praised in verse 2. Not the singular toil, the work of the congregation, but the plural deeds: good works done by individual Christians for one another, motivated by their love.
Be careful that fighting for the truth doesn’t tear you down and turn you into a cold-hearted Christian, looking for false teachers around every corner. Instead, Jesus instructs, take the time to remember what it was like before. Remember the love you used to have and the acts of kindness that used to fill your time. Look for ways to rekindle the warmth of Christian fellowship and brotherhood. Rather than just bonding over the battles you’ve survived, enjoy the kinship of your Christian family.
Long for peace.
“Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.” (Rev 2:6–7)
To those who overcome, who find victory in battle, Jesus promises the Paradise of God—Heaven, where there is no more battle, but only peace.
In Roman culture, the ideal retirement is one of peace, epitomized by the farm. I picture the scenes in Gladiator, when Maximus longs to return to his farm, which is full of the peace and tranquility every soldier longs for.
God wants to see that you have persevered in your work as a congregation, but also that you are still full of love for one another, and that good works abound. After you finish your work and the fight is complete, then God will give you eternal peace and rest.