Seven Letters to Seven Churches: The Letter to Ephesus
Today we continue our series Seven Letters to Seven Churches. I invite you to turn with me to Revelation 2 and also to Acts 19. As we come to these seven letters, we will see that each one is addressed to the angel of that particular church. Knowing that angelos, a Greek word, can mean messenger, maybe John addressed the letter to the pastor or an elder. In all probability though, angelos, in John’s way of doing things, meant angel. In Hebrews 1:14, we are told that angels are “ministering spirits sent forth to serve the heirs of salvation.” The phrase “heirs of salvation” means all Christians. John may have had this verse in mind when he addressed these letters to the angel of each church.
You recall the description of the Son of Man standing among seven lampstands in the first chapter of the book of Revelation. We see a brief segment of that initial description included at the beginning of most of these seven letters. That segment includes the Son of Man and some defining characteristic. John’s message to each church is one of consolation, confrontation, or, in most cases, both. He used as his opening words of each message, “I know…” or “I know all about you.” Christ also knows us intimately – the good, the bad, and the ugly. He knows each Christian and each church thoroughly.
Notice the use of an ending statement in this letter to Ephesus. John wrote, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:11). He repeated this same message in his other letters to the churches in Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. This concluding sentence means, of course, that all seven churches are expected to read all seven of John’s letters. This is not a violation of reading mail that belongs to someone else. John intended all Christians to hear his words. The conclusion of each letter could not be summarized any better than the words of the song sung earlier in the service: “Let those who conquer claim the reward.” This closing offers a word a hope to those who are victorious.
We might well ask why John addressed seven churches. This number is consistent with his frequent use of the number seven throughout the book. We know that the Apostle Paul had established many more churches in Asia Minor at the time John wrote. These churches in particular are representative of the others. Maybe John knew these congregations best. Some scholars suggest that these seven represent seven periods of church history. I disagree. Others say these seven represent seven types of churches. The churches that John addressed in Revelation certainly were different, but we know of many more types than seven. The point is that these seven represent all churches of all times. If we read carefully, we will see that every church we have ever been a part of finds its place among these, including Morningside.
We come to Revelation 2 and John’s message to the church at Ephesus, beginning at Verse 1. Hear now the Word of God.
“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. 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far 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. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
Ephesus, the first church mentioned, is closest to the island of Patmos, where John was living in exile. Though Pergamum was the official capital of the province of Asia, Ephesus was undoubtedly the greatest city in all of Asia Minor. Ephesus was called the first and greatest metropolis in Asia. One Roman scholar called it the Light of Asia. The very name Ephesus means desirable.
Ephesus was the gateway to Asia. All roads led to this city as it was a major seaport with a natural harbor. There the mouth of the Cayster River brought its waters into the Mediterranean Sea. The long road to Ephesus from Mesopotamia – the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, which we now know as Iraq – came by way of Colossae and Laodicea to that seaport town. The road from Galatia reached the sea at Ephesus coming by way of Sardis. A road up from the south, from the rich Maeander Valley, led to the port city of Ephesus. This city was clearly the highway to Rome, as people traveling to Rome caught a boat in that location.
We see the importance of the city for other reasons. People from all over the known world poured into Ephesus during what was called the Ephesian Games, much like the Olympic Games or the Isthmian Games in Corinth. When the Roman Proconsul came to Asia as governor, he was required by law to enter through the port of Ephesus. Ignatius called Ephesus the Highway of the Martyrs because persecuted Christians traveled though the city and eventually went to Rome where they were put to death, probably in the Coliseum.
Strabo called the region the Market of Asia. Think of the commerce that passed through the port of Ephesus. Imagine the merchandise from ships going to inland areas of Asia by way caravans, traveling along these various roads leading to and from this port city. Think of Ephesus as Charleston, South Carolina, and what is called the International Zone. Interstate 26 ends in Charleston, Interstate 95 passes close by Charleston, and railroad terminals pass through Charleston. The sea and land literally meet in commerce.
I understand that a new inland terminal will be built in the near future close to the BMW plant in Greer. I also understand that when that happens, the number of trains passing behind our house will double. Eleven trains pass our house each day now. We can expect twenty-two trains a day once that terminal is completed. Traffic in that area will certainly increase.
The demographics of Ephesus, a free city at the time this letter was written, were important. The population, numbering about a quarter of a million people, was multicultural in nature. At least six different people groups lived in the city: the original inhabitants, a large Greek population, a very strong Roman presence of citizens, as well as slaves, and free people from all over the world. In addition, at the time of the Babylonian Captivity and afterwards during what was called the Diaspora, Jewish people spread throughout the known world. A large number settled in Ephesus.
In any multicultural population, we could expect many different kinds of religions. That was the case in Ephesus. Temples were built there to honor several different Roman emperors such as Nero, Claudius, and Hadrian and to honor numerous Greek and Roman gods of mythology. This area was the center of pagan superstition. Temples sold amulets and charms said to have healing properties for the sick. The trinkets were even said to ensure success for those who owned businesses.
One huge temple that overwhelmed all the others in Ephesus was the temple to the goddess of fertility, Diana, also known as Artemis. Her temple was 425 feet long and 220 feet wide, covering about 100,000 square feet. Thirty-six of the 120 sixty-foot high columns, gifts from various kings of the world, were carefully carved and gilded. The entire temple was covered with a roof of cypress. Considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple to Diana was the pride of the city.
There in the temple the people worshipped an image of Diana or Artemis, which you might think would be carefully carved and sculpted out of exquisite marble. You would be surprised to discover, however, that the representation was not at all beautiful. The worshippers declared that the image was sent to them from heaven and that its many surface lumps and pits were Diana’s many eyes and breasts. They positioned this image of their goddess in a prominent place in the temple and worshipped it.
How does a person worship a fertility goddess? Four hundred priestesses assigned to Diana’s temple practiced what is called cultic prostitution. Those who venerated Diana paid money, selected one of the 400 priestesses, and had an ecstatic experience of worship. Remember that this seaport town attracted many sailors; they were easy converts to this pagan religion. The temple was also a safe haven for common criminals. Anyone with any criminal charge could find safe asylum there. No wonder the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, called the Weeping Philosopher, wept over Ephesus because of the great immorality occurring.
Even in the midst of this worship to Roman emperors, to Greek and Roman gods, and especially to the goddess Diana, a very strong Christian community resided. Can you imagine trying to start a church in a place like Ephesus? The Apostle Paul could imagine that, and the church there actually became a place of some of the greatest triumphs in the first century. The church was not without its difficulties though.
One of the difficulties we find mentioned in Acts 19:24-27. The cult that worshipped Diana included a number of silversmiths who made idols and silver shrines to honor her. That particular craft brought considerable business to Ephesus. Demetrius, who must have been the head of the silversmith’s union, called the worshippers together and complained, “This fellow Paul has convinced and led astray a large number of people in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all. If he persists in this, we will lose our trade and he will destroy our good name. Even Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
A huge riot resulted in Ephesus at the time Paul was there. The rebellion finally settled down, but not before the people shouted for two hours, “Great is Artemis of Ephesus!” We read in Verse 35 that the city clerk finally calmed the crowd and reassured them, “Men of Ephesus, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven?” There we find scriptural reference that this image of the fertility goddess was nothing more than a squat black rock, probably a chunk of meteorite from outer space.
The very strong opposition to the Christian church in Ephesus and to Paul as well influenced Paul in a passage he wrote in I Timothy 2:9-12.
9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.
Why would Paul reference the women in the church to Timothy, the first bishop at Ephesus? Remember that we must consider the whole of Paul’s work. In Galatians 3:28, he wrote, “In Christ Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” The church in Philippi had women leaders. In fact, they were the very ones responsible for establishing a church in that city. Among the women leaders at the church in Rome were women deacons.
Paul’s words in I Timothy and his similar instructions in I Corinthians address this situation of cultic prostitution. Both cities had built large temples dedicated to goddesses with its followers engaging in cultic prostitution. The unbelievers in Corinth, however, worshipped the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Paul did not want Christian women in either city to get all gussied up in ornate clothing and makeup from fear that they might be confused with the temple prostitutes. Imagine a drunken sailor, looking for some liberty time in these cities, encountering a Christian woman and mistaking her for one of the prostitutes associated with the temple of Diana or Aphrodite. Understanding the context in which Paul gave these instructions is so important.
The Christian community in Ephesus, where Paul based his operation, grew strong, very strong. It is said that Paul stayed longer there than at any other place. Aquila and Priscilla, the first Christian missionary couple, and Apollos, a great teacher and preacher of the first century, eventually settled there as well. Remember that during the crucifixion, Jesus connected the Apostle John – the disciple who was standing at the foot of the cross – with his mother, Mary. Jesus told John to take care of his mother. The tradition is that the Apostle John went to Ephesus, taking Mary with him, and that they both died there.
Now John the Elder, author of these letters, gave the Christians in Ephesus four commendations. First he recognized their hard work in remaining committed Christians, saying in Revelation 2:19, “I know your deeds, your hard work and perseverance.” They were not couch potatoes; they were activists, working for the sake of the gospel. Second, he commended their sound doctrine. They had learned how to carefully weed out those who had no sound doctrine and to determine the true faith among others professing belief in Christ.
In his last visit with the elders of the church of Ephesus, the Apostle Paul called them to meet him in Miletus. Here as a prisoner, he delivered a very touching farewell message to them. With tears in his eyes, Paul offered a warning. Acts 20:29-31 reads,
“I know that after I leave savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them so be on guard. Remember that for three years I have never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
Paul’s warning actually came true; but because the Christians were strong, they held the faith even under difficult circumstances.
John commended the Christians in Ephesus, saying, “You have persevered and endured.” The Ephesians were not quitters. They had not grown weary of faithfully working and witnessing. They had stuck to their guns, not deviating from the truth.
Finally John affirmed the Ephesians for standing firm against the Nicolaitans, mentioned again in his letter to Pergamum. It is difficult to know the identity of these people, but apparently this group had mixed paganism with Christianity in what is called syncretism, which is similar to the New Age Movement. The group took a little of this faith and a bit of that faith and added some Christianity. John offered the church a blessing because they had not succumbed to that heresy.
We see that John also confronted the Ephesians, reprimanding them, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” We can better understand the meaning of John’s confrontation by returning to the prophets of the Old Testament, especially Hosea and Isaiah. We find there that the sin of adultery at a personal level was often compared to the sin of idolatry at a corporate level. Unfaithfulness to a spouse is adultery; being unfaithful to God or allowing something to interfere with the love for God is idolatry. Losing our first love means allowing something such as the approval of other people, the love of money, or the quest for success to take the place of our love for God. A church can become very busy in offering many activities, but that busyness does not mean it is expressing the love for God as its first love.
A pastor went downtown one Saturday and stopped by a store owned by a deacon in the church. He noticed the many balloons and banners decorating the storefront, employees handing out free popcorn and soft drinks to the children, and numerous people entering the store and exiting with items they had bought.
The pastor went inside the store and talked with the deacon, exclaiming, “My goodness! You are doing a booming business!”
The deacon answered, “Pastor, I am having a going-out-of-business sale.”
A lot of coming and going at a church does not mean that we are doing the business that we are supposed to do in the church. Our first love must be God. Our love is in response to His love. Perhaps you know the words to the hymn with the words, “Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Jesus said two great commandments stand above all others: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. You are to love other people as you love yourself.” (Luke 10:27). If our first love is God, if we give our first love all we have, then the second commandment follows.
What are the symptoms that we have lost our first love? First, we lose the joy in our lives. Life becomes humdrum and routine, and we begin to feel as if we have nothing new to learn. We feel as though we have heard it all already. Even the church service loses its impact and seems mechanical and routine, dull and drab. The second symptom is that we lose our ability to love others. We grumble and complain, bicker and find fault. We choose friends that think like us and fail to welcome everyone into the life of the church. The third symptom is that we completely lose perspective about ourselves. We become sensitive and touchy. We lose our humility and begin to think it is our way or the highway. We accept no compromise. When we lose our first love, we have only one way back, a path which John outlined: remember, repent, and return.
Do you remember what it was like when you first accepted Christ? I will never forget the day I asked Jesus into my heart. I was seven years old. My understanding then was very childlike. I had so much to learn; but I knew that Jesus loved me and that I loved him. I understood that his dying on the cross was somehow for me. Sometimes I think about that experience. We say, “Once saved, always saved.” That is a little like saying, “Once bathed, always bathed.” We must come back and re-experience this promise. We must make a re-commitment. John instructed, “Remember what it was like when you became a Christian.”
We repent by putting whatever is in the way of our relationship to God aside and reclaim the priority of that relationship. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything else will fall into place” (Matthew 6:33).
Third, we must return, the theme of so many good stories. Do you remember the little children’s book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice
? A little boy ventures out among the wild circumstances of the world but decides to come back home where somebody loves him best of all. We find the same theme in the journey of the prodigal son who went far away and found himself in a pig’s sty. Then he remembered, repented, and returned. John made the same point, telling us to come back to the One who loves us best of all.
How do you get back to your first love? John made it clear that we must remember, repent, and return. We come back to be victorious. We come back to this conquest, and we are promised hope and rewards beyond our imagination.
The great hymn writer Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, remembered on the eleventh anniversary of his conversion to Christ the joy of that moment.
A friend asked, “Charles, how would you express that joy?”
He confessed, “If I had a thousand tongues, I don’t think I could ever put it into words.” Wesley later wrote a hymn, using those words. “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.”
Do you know Christ? If you have never accepted Christ, this is the opportunity. If you have lost your first love, please remember, repent, and return. Is this the day you need to make a decision of re-commitment? You respond as God leads.Kirk H. Neely © January 2013