Revelation 2 is not included in our three-year Lectionary.  This is unfortunate, as it contains Christ’s letters as conveyed by St John to four of the seven churches of apostolic times.  

This omission makes this chapter eligible for the Forbidden Bible Verses.  Today’s post is the first of four concerning Revelation 2.  Our reading comes from the New International Version (NIV).

Revelation 2:1-7

To the church in Ephesus

 1“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
      These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. 

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The use of imagery in Revelation puts many laypeople off reading it.  Yet, a reliable commentary explains the allusions and all becomes clear.  Source material for the following is at the end of the post.

We begin (verse 1) with an instruction for a letter to the church in Ephesus.  Who is making this request?  Who is the recipient ‘angel’?  What about the ‘seven stars’ and the ‘lampstands’?  

This passage is the first of the letters that St John received by revelation from Christ during his exile on the Greek island of Patmos.  Christ dictates the letters to St John, so His words are those in the letters.

The ‘angel’ — sometimes translated as ‘messenger’ — in all the letters is the bishop, or minister, of that church.  The angel is to deliver that letter, as a messenger, to the members of that church.

The ‘seven stars’ represent Christ’s seven churches, the ‘lampstands’ (or ‘candlesticks’ in some translations).

Now for some background on the church in Ephesus.  Ephesus was a wealthy, sophisticated trading port in Asia Minor.  It was so important and highly developed that Rome granted it ‘free city’ status.  Not only could it trade freely via sea through its many docks but also via land by four main highways that linked to the city. 

Ephesus was also the centre of worship of the goddess Diana (Artemis).  Ephesian silversmiths and artisans did a bustling trade in crafting statues of her as well as of other gods to be used in worship.  The religious ceremonies surrounding such worship involved orgies and other depraved carnality, including self-mutilation or that of another person.  Even the Greek philosopher Hereclitus denounced such behaviour as being lower than that of dogs: ‘At least dogs don’t mutilate each other’.  Despite that, Diana-worship was popular in the city. 

Because it was so revered and, therefore, unlikely to be vandalised, Diana’s temple served as a safe deposit box for Ephesian citizens of means.  They stored their valuables there.  Her devotees also donated expensive works of art to the temple; as such, it served as a museum for that part of the world.  Furthermore, because Ephesus was a free city of Rome, it had no garrison or army officers.  It was self-governing.  This meant that it attracted criminals who could legitimately seek sanctuary in a special area of the temple.  This later had to be expanded as it attracted so many of them.

Ephesus also offered sports events, festivals, parades and theatre throughout the year.  It was an exciting city in which to live.  Compare it to similar world cities today.  If Ephesus still existed with such a reputation, many of us would wish to visit it. 

It is into such a context that St Paul arrives.  Ephesus already had a small number of Christians but no established church.  Acts 19 tells us the story of his ministry there.  It is definitely worth reading before you continue with the post below.  This is one of the most intriguing and fascinating chapters in the New Testament.  In short:

– Paul meets the disciples of Ephesus.  As they have already been baptised, he lays hands on them so that they receive the Holy Spirit.  They immediately speak in tongues and prophesy.

– Paul preaches and debates in the synagogue for three months.  Some of the Jews there decry Jesus and Paul takes his leave.

– With the Ephesian disciples, Paul teaches and preaches at the lecture hall for two years.   

– Using the apostolic gifts of the Holy Spirit, Paul works miracles.  People touch him with their handkerchieves and aprons so that they could take these items and touch the sick with them to effect healing.  Illnesses and demons disappear.

– Some of the Jewish exorcists are unhappy that people no longer come to them for healing, so they heal falsely in Jesus’s name.  One day, whilst doing this, a voice answers them saying (Acts 19:15):

“Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” 16Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding

– That episode spreads like wildfire throughout the city.  Jews and Gentiles alike realise the power of Jesus and proclaim him the Son of God.  Many confess their sins.  Others bring their elaborately-wrought scrolls used in the worship of Diana and burn them publicly in a bonfire.  Paul makes more converts for Christ.

– Demetrius, the chief silversmith, grows restive with the loss in trade.  He gathers workmen and artisans.  Together, they incite a riot.  The city clerk eventually calms things down.  He tells the crowd that Paul and his disciples live and preach peaceably.  Therefore, if they have done wrong, Demetrius and others should bring proceedings through the courts, instead of inciting violence.  The crowd disperses.

Note the continued importance of living and preaching peaceably in the previous paragraph.  This is a good example of why Christians are enjoined to resist violence whenever possible.

Now, back to Christ’s letter to the church in Ephesus.  In verse 2, Christ tells its members that He knows the hard work and holiness which went into establishing it. He knows the Christians there have denounced false teaching. He remembers and recognises all of the above events from Acts 19.  In verse 3, he acknowledges that His people have worked tirelessly in His name, never growing weak in body or spirit.

And yet, Christ notes that the church has become lukewarm (verse 4).  All the fire of the early years as documented in Acts 19 is becoming history.  We can compare it to the relationship that some people have with their spouses.  The early, heady love and passion diminish over the years to a mechanical indifference.  Yes, one is still married but where’s the love?  Our first commitment as Christians is to Christ.  It is He who deserves our undying love.  If that cools, our faith becomes endangered — just like an earthly marriage devoid of passion.

In verse 5, Christ does two things.  He demands that the Ephesians recall their past zeal in His name and to contrast that with the indifference they now display.  Then, he warns that if they do not retrace their steps — in other words, go back to square one and truly recover their faith and holiness of Acts 19 — He will remove His blessing from their church.  The church and the Christians will physically exist, but they will be spiritually dead in practice and teaching.  Here, Christ is reminiscent of the God of the Old Testament.  He is not the kind and cuddly Jesus so trumpeted in our modern congregations.  We would do well to pay attention.

Christ wants the Ephesians to study His teachings, gather together for heartfelt prayer and evangelise in wisdom and holiness.  Recovering their early love for Him will make these responses automatic and spontaneous, not tick-in-the-box, legalistic ‘things to do today’. 

Having said this, He credits them with their vigilance against false teaching (verse 6) and their disgust with the Nicolaitans.  ‘Who were they?’ you may ask.  In Acts 6, a man named Nicholas was made a deacon.  His followers spread to various places, including the church in Pergamum and probably Ephesus.  At some point Nicholas became a heretic, embracing libertinism and preaching a type of perverted grace — not unknown in some of our apostate churches today.  At least the Ephesians receiving this letter still had the gift of discernment on their side.  But if they failed to repent and recover their holiness, this, too, was in danger of going by the wayside. 

This is why in verse 7 Christ says the words He spoke on Earth (Mark 7:16, KJV, NKJV): ‘Let he who has ears to hear, listen’.  In other words, ‘Listen up and pay attention!  Heed the Holy Spirit — use His gifts to My honour and glory!’  No warm, cuddly Jesus this!  Imagine if your priest or minister read this letter out to your congregation.  What would you think sitting there listening?

Matthew Henry notes — and this is something particularly relevant to us today (emphases mine):

An indifference of spirit between truth and error, good and evil, may be called charity and meekness, but it is not pleasing to Christ. Our Saviour subjoins this kind commendation to his severe threatening, to make the advice more effectual.         

Verse 7 contains the word ‘overcome’.  Today, we connect the word to protest marches and liberation theology, as in overcoming one’s political or social enemy.  However, in the true scriptural sense it means vanquishing temptation and sin.  In this letter to the Ephesians, Christ enjoins them to overcome sin and assures them that if they do so, they will enjoy everlasting life with Him: ‘the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God’.

That promise is meant not just for those of Ephesus from ancient times but holds true for us today.  Yet another reason to read the Book of Revelation along with a good commentary.   

You may wonder what happened to the city of Ephesus.  Sadly, it no longer exists.  That great, bustling metropolis of the early world has disappeared.  Over time, silt from the River Cayster accumulated to such an extent that it ruined the city and its harbour. It is now desolate. Would this have happened if the Ephesians heeded this letter?  Could your city become Ephesus in time?

Next week: Revelation 2:8-11

For further reading:

‘Falling out of Love with Jesus’ – John MacArthur

Matthew Henry’s Commentary