Impact

Seven Church Conditions during the Times of the Gentiles – The Legalistic Congregation

As we study the prophetic messages to the seven congregations in this series, we will quickly see that they follow the same well-defined structure. The Lord begins each message with a greeting that relates back to John’s vision of Jesus, the Son of Man, in the heavenly scene in the first chapter of the Revelation. In other words, Jesus greets each congregation with an aspect of His person or His title that relates who He is to their particular circumstance. Jesus then commends the congregation for the good things He can say to them. Jesus then exhorted the congregations to take the appropriate action with a promise of blessings for obedience. The believers were to overcome must be understood within the context of the struggles and temptations each congregation faced. Furthermore, the Lord connects the congregation’s spiritual condition with the city’s character and reputation in each letter. (2)

Because the believers were being persecuted, the Lord wanted to encourage them as well as challenge them in areas where they were failing to live up to their high calling. He introduced Himself as the exalted Son of Man in a way that related to their individual situations, both physically and spiritually. He gave each congregation a word of promise to the overcomers and a warning of consequences if they did not obey His instructions. It is most important that we realize His words of promise were not to those who failed to repent. The Lord only had harsh words to those who were carnal and lukewarm in their commitment. The Lord did not give any of these congregations a watered-down, seeker-friendly, entertaining message. The very survival of the Lord’s work in the city depended on the believers responding positively to what the Lord told them. He promised blessings to the overcomers but chastening to those who did not heed His message. (2)

The Library of Celsus within the ruins of Ephesus

The Congregation at Ephesus

With this introduction, let’s get some background information about Ephesus that will help us understand why the Lord said what He did to the believers in this strategic city. Then we will study this prophetic message with a view of its practical application to our world and lives today. (2)

Background

The names of each city are important because they convey a spiritual message to the congregation in the city. The name Ephesus means “desirable.” As we will learn, there was much good and desirable about the congregation in Ephesus. When Rome established Asia Minor as a province in 129 B.C., Ephesus was chosen to be Rome’s administrative center for the province. This meant that Roman government officials resided in Ephesus, presided over official Roman functions, and kept a close eye on activities in the city. Ephesus’s most important city in Asia Minor was strategically located, having a large port on the Aegean Sea and major land-trade routes connecting the city to inland markets. As a result of its strategic location, and with a population of over 250,000, its influence rivaled Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria. Ephesus was a beautiful and prosperous city, the “San Francisco by the bay” of Asia Minor. It was easy to fall in love with Ephesus. (2)

But there were ecological problems that, over time, had a significant impact on the city. Inland deforestation in the mountain regions left much of the soil exposed. Heavy rains washed the eroded soil down to the harbor, and the silt was gradually filling the port. Roman engineers did their best to dredge the harbor but to no avail. By the end of the first century, the port had silted up. As a result, Ephesus went into decline. By the time John wrote his prophetic messages, people were losing their first love for Ephesus. Today, the ruins of Ephesus are about seven miles from the sea. Because of its extensive ruins, Ephesus is a major tourist destination with significant sites, including the Basilica of St. John, the supposed house of the Virgin Mary, the Ephesus Museum, and the Great Theater. (2)

Ephesus prided itself on being a major cultural and entertainment center, with a large stadium, a bustling marketplace, and a theater carved out of a hill seated 25,000 people. This is where the silversmiths rioted because Paul was hurting their business of making statues of Diana. Seeing that the rioting was getting out of control, a city official calmed the people and dismissed the crowd because of fear that the local Roman proconsul might use Roman soldiers to bring order (Acts 19:21-41).

Located outside the town, the temple to Diana was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. According to historical records, the temple was 425 feet long, 220 feet wide, and had 127 columns that were 60 feet high. Since Diana was the goddess of fertility, the temple employed thousands of temple prostitutes. Merchants from the sea and pilgrims throughout the region went to Ephesus to worship at the temple. We don’t need much imagination to know what this worship involves. (2)

The citizens of Ephesus were fanatically devoted to Diana. There were Diana festivals with huge crowds participating in the idolatry and immorality associated with Diana worship. To the pagan mind, sex with temple prostitutes was a sacred act by which they expressed their desire for union with the gods and goddesses they worshiped. The festivals were one big carnival atmosphere of immorality and debauchery. Obviously, the temple and its accompanying activities were a significant source of income for the city. (2)

But more important than the temple to Diana was the temple of Domitian (1). It was the construction of the temple of Domitian that created a crisis for the believers in Ephesus. Recall, the temple had a statue of Domitian and an altar for making sacrifices to the emperor. Citizens of Ephesus were required to bow in worship to the image of Domitian as lord god. Those who refused to do so were considered enemies of Rome and either exiled or killed. (2)

Imperial cult worship was the way Rome united its empire. Therefore, emperor worship was the test of loyalty to the empire. Acknowledging the emperor as a god, bowing to his image, and sacrificing was more of a political statement than a religious one. It showed your loyalty to the empire and all it represented, including its government, policies, decrees, rulings, institutions, and culture and values. Having a Roman proconsul in Ephesus put even more pressure on the believers to bow before the emperor. It was a clear choice of allegiance to the anti-God empire of the beast (the emperor) or to the Kingdom of God. (2)

Jews and followers of Jesus worshiped the One True God and Him only and could not bow to the emperor in good conscience. While most resisted at the cost of being exiled or martyred, some were weak and bowed to the emperor. As you can imagine, this caused significant problems between those who resisted and those who submitted. Obviously, this was a major crisis for the believers. The Lord sent His prophetic message to encourage them. (2)

Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, and Apollos at Ephesus

We learn about Paul’s ministry in Ephesus in Acts 19. He had been to Ephesus earlier with Priscilla and Aquila. Since he was anxious to get to Jerusalem for Shavuot (Pentecost), he stayed only a short time teaching at the synagogue but left Priscilla and Aquila there to share the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (Acts 18:18-21; 20:16). (2)

Later, Apollos came to Ephesus to preach the Gospel. He was an influential teacher, but he only knew about the baptism of John. When Priscilla and Aquila realized that Apollos did not have up-to-date information about the Messiah, they took him aside privately. They explained to him the good news that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 18:24-28). (2)

Paul returned to Ephesus around A.D. 55. He found 12 disciples who only knew of John’s baptism. When Paul shared the Gospel with them, they believed. Paul then baptized them as full believers. When he laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:1-7). (2)

This time, Paul stayed in Ephesus and preached the Kingdom of God for three months at the synagogue. Unfortunately, some in the synagogue resisted Paul’s message, so he took the believers and rented the facility of Tyrannus, where he taught daily for two years. Since Tyrannus taught in the morning, the building was vacant for Paul to teach in the afternoon. Altogether, Paul stayed in Ephesus for three years (Acts 20:31). Because Ephesus was the gateway city to Asia Minor with many visitors, Paul’s message reached the entire region (Acts 19:8-10). Ephesus’s congregation became the “Mother Church” for all of Asia. (2)

God worked extraordinary miracles through Paul, so much so that Jewish exorcists who were not followers of Jesus used His name to cast out demons. When the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest, tried this, it didn’t work. The demon in the man said, “Jesus, I know, and Paul, I know, but who are you?” The demon overpowered them, tore off their clothes, and wounded them. They barely got away with their lives (Acts 19:11-16). Everyone in Ephesus heard about this, so the name of Jesus was exalted. Many of the new believers began confessing their sins, and many who practiced magic repented and burned their magic books, the value of which was 50,000 pieces of silver (Acts 19:17-20). (2)

So many people in Ephesus were turning to the Lord that it was hurting the business of the silversmiths who made statues of Diana to sell to the public. They gathered a large crowd at the theater and provoked them to riot. But a city official persuaded them to disband for fear of the Roman authorities. (2)

After ministering in Greece, Paul returned to Ephesus and addressed the elders of the congregation. He gave a passionate address to them and exhorted them to protect the believers because false teachers would come from without and within to draw the people away to themselves. Paul’s farewell message to them and their response was one of genuine love (Acts 20:17-38). He later wrote a letter to them while a prisoner in Rome. Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to pastor the congregation of believers (1 Timothy 1:3) and wrote him two letters (1 Timothy 1:1-6:21 and 2 Timothy 1:1-4:22). Christian tradition is that John also lived and ministered at Ephesus. (2)

John at Ephesus

With this background, let’s now see what the Lord had to say to the believers in Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7). John is writing around A.D. 96, which is about 40 years after Paul’s ministry. There is a new generation of believers who were not around when Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, and Apollos were doing the hard pioneering work of bringing God’s Word to Ephesus. It seems that the later generation is taking for granted what the pioneers had to fight to establish. (2)

This second generation of believers considered God’s work in their midst their right rather than a privilege earned by those who went before them. This is human nature, which is why we need to be reminded of the price paid by those who have gone before us so that we can reap the benefit of what they sowed. In many instances, our spiritual forefathers and pioneers gave their lives for the blessings we enjoy. We don’t think about these things for various reasons, but it is so important that we remember and honor those who lived for and sacrificed for the next generations of believers. We owe our spiritual forefathers, including the faithful believers at Ephesus, so much. Let’s now read the Lord’s letter to these believers. (2)

The Greeting

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has a firm grasp on the seven stars in his right hand—the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands: (Revelation 2:1 NET)

Jesus is addressing His prophetic message to the angels (1) that watch over the seven churches. Why not to the leader of the church? Leaders come and go, but the angel assigned to the church remains until recalled by the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ! (Ephesians 5:23) John has explained that the seven stars symbolize the seven angels of the seven congregations, and the seven lampstands represent the seven congregations (Revelation 1:20).

The Lord refers to Himself differently in each greeting based on the problems of the congregation to whom He is writing. He says two things to them in His greeting to the church at Ephesus:

  • First, Jesus reminds them that He holds them in His right hand. In biblical times, the right hand was considered the place of power and protection based on a covenant relationship. For example, God says to His people through Isaiah:
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you! Don’t be frightened, for I am your God! I strengthen you— yes, I help you— yes, I uphold you with my saving right hand! (Isaiah 41:10 NET)
  • Second, Jesus reminds them that He walks in the midst of them. Even though He is in Heaven and they are on the earth, He has sent them the Holy Spirit who lives in them. The Holy Spirit (1) manifests the life and power of Jesus living in them. In the First Covenant, God said to His people:
I repeat, be strong and brave! Don’t be afraid and don’t panic, for I, the Lord your God, am with you in all you do.” (Joshua 1:9 NET)

In addition, Jesus gave the following tremendous promise to His disciples: (2)

Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you. (John 14:16–17 NET)

These are certainly reassuring words of encouragement and comfort. No matter the challenges and difficulties facing the believers in Ephesus (and us today), we have a covenant relationship with God, who is responsible for strengthening us and empowering us to overcome and endure whatever evil comes against us. God has not forsaken His covenant people. He is with us and in us. As He said: (2)

Your conduct must be free from the love of money and you must be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you and I will never abandon you.” (Hebrews 13:5 NET)

Jesus said:

I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but take courage—I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33 NET)

Both the Bible and history are clear that the world hates God’s people. Persecution and suffering are part of the Jewish and Christian experience. The good news is that the glorious Son of Man overcame Rome, overcame sin, overcame Satan, and overcame death. He lives in the hearts of His people, and greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world. (2)

You are from God, little children, and have conquered them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4 NET)

Jesus told His disciples:

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way. (Matthew 5:11–12 NET)

Jesus the Messiah was walking in the midst of the churches and as He walked, He was observing and watching. Jesus was literally seeing, perceiving, understanding, comprehending, and gaining knowledge of the churches by personal experience or observation. We should consider this both an encouragement and a warning. It should encourage us that Jesus is aware of everything happening in the churches and in our lives. This should also serve as a warning because Jesus sees and knows everything firsthand. He viewed every aspect of the churches and knew its condition because He had seen it with his own eyes. Jesus sees every victory won, but also every misstep that is taken. Jesus also saw every challenge faced by the believers at the churches. He saw every demonic attack they withstood along with every error they tolerated. He saw it all. (5)

The Commendation

‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false. I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:2–3 NET)

The Lord has some good things to say to the congregation at Ephesus. He commends them for five aspects of their congregational life:

  1. Zealous for good works
I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false. I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:2–3 NET)

The congregation at Ephesus is about 40 years old. They are still “doing the work of ministry” in that they were zealous for good works. Jesus said that the works He did were proof that the Father had sent Him (John 5:36). He told His disciples: (2)

In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16 NET)

New Testament faith was a way of life. When Constantine embraced Christianity as the official religion of Rome, he changed the very essence of the faith from a lifestyle of deeds to a religion of creeds. From that time until now, Christianity, as a religion, has been based on what one believes rather than how one lives. While it is essential to know why and what we believe as Christians, there is a huge difference between the Apostle’s Creed (what we believe) and the Sermon on the Mount (how we live). (2)

Many professing Christians erroneously think they are true believers just because they “believe” in Jesus. Yet, they show little if any evidence of genuine faith. For much of the Christian world, faith is a noun—it is something we believe. But to the Lord, faith is an action word—it is the way we live. In our “easy-grace” world of modern Christianity, we really need to ponder the words of James: (2)

But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves. (James 1:22 NET)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? (James 2:14 NET)

The apostle Paul clarified that we are not saved to the Lord by our works. Most believers are taught early in our faith Paul’s word to the Ephesians:

For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.(Ephesians 2:8,9 NET)

In this statement, Paul is talking about religious works and the good things we do in our own strength to earn God’s favor. He does not mean that we should not live holy lives of love, kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, and righteous deeds. Paul’s statements on grace and faith have been so emphasized that we have missed Paul’s other statements that true faith is evidenced by works of covenantal loving-kindness produced in us, through us, and out of us by the motivation and power of the Holy Spirit. (2)

This same Paul wrote to Titus warning him about people who claimed to be believers although their lives proved otherwise. He said: (2)

They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. (Titus 1:16 ESV)

Paul also said in his same letter to Titus that, as we look for the coming of the Lord, we should be “…zealous for good works.” (2)

waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:13–14 NET).

Finally, in case anyone reading his letter to Titus missed his point, he concluded his letter with these words: (2)

This saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on such truths, so that those who have placed their faith in God may be intent on engaging in good works. These things are good and beneficial for all people. (Titus 3:8 NET)
And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. (Titus 3:14 ESV)

This should be especially true of believers living in the end time, as it is our deeds, not our creeds, which bear witness that our faith is genuine and not just talk. May we live our lives in such a way that the Son of Man will also commend us for our Holy Spirit-inspired works of loving-kindness. (2)

Or as Paul said:

For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them. (Ephesians 2:10 NET)

2. Persevering (Patiently Enduring)

‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false. I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:2–3 NET)

The Lord also commends the congregation at Ephesus for persevering through patient endurance of the crisis they faced regarding emperor worship. It would have been easy for the believers to “fix their sandals” (1) in front of the emperor’s statue. They didn’t really have to worship the emperor. It was just an outward show to appease the local Roman officials. They could have compromised and gone on with their lives. But they refused to bow to the emperor and the evil empire he represented. As a result, they were enemies of the state. (2)

America was born out of Judeo-Christian heritage, and that heritage is what has made America great. Now that America despises what has made it great, we are destroying ourselves from within. Ultimately, Jews and Bible-believing Christians will become enemies of the state. Like the believers at Ephesus, we too will have a choice either to accept the anti-God policies and values of the government or follow the teaching of the Bible. The Bible says that God will deliver [protect and seal] His own from His coming wrath and judgment on the earth (1 Thessalonians 1:10). His wrath and judgment are not against His own people. Regarding these times, Jesus told His disciples: (2)

But the person who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:13 NET)
And you will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22 NET)

As America continues to turn away from God, may we live in such a way that the Lord will be able to commend us for our patient endurance amid trials and tribulation. James also wrote: (2)

So be patient, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s return. Think of how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the ground and is patient for it until it receives the early and late rains. You also be patient and strengthen your hearts, for the Lord’s return is near. (James 5:7–8 NET)

3. Resisted Sin and Intolerant of Evildoers

‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false. I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:2–3 NET)

The Lord also commended the congregation because they did not tolerate sin or evildoers among its members. This is an excellent word of praise because they lived in the city that was the center of Diana worship and all the idolatry and immorality that accompanied it. Also, as we have learned, Ephesus was a vast center for the occult. The English language uses the word magic. Ephesus offered many temptations and fleshly pleasures to its citizens. Yet, the Lord commended the congregation for staying pure and holy. (2)

Like Ephesus, the anti-God American culture of our day constantly bombards us with temptations that appeal to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Immorality, greed, pride, and arrogance against God are the accepted and expected way of life for many in leadership in government, business, the entertainment industry, the media, and sadly, many in the Christian world. What was considered evil is now called good, and what was good is now called evil. (2)

Those who call evil good and good evil are as good as dead, who turn darkness into light and light into darkness, who turn bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter. (Isaiah 5:20 Net)

As our world becomes more and more secular with no fear of God, may we live pure and holy lives that please the Lord. Perhaps John’s admonition in his first epistle (i.e., letter) would be a good reminder for us today: (2)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him, because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions) is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever. (1 John 2:15–17 NET)

4. Tested and Exposed False Apostles.

‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false. I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:2–3 NET)

The Lord further commended the congregation at Ephesus for testing and exposing false apostles. Recall that Paul warned them about this in his farewell address (Acts 20:28-30). In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he exhorted Timothy to teach sound doctrine so the people would be firmly established in the faith and not easily led astray by false teachers. There are also many false teachers in our Christian world today. We see them not only in the pulpit but on television and on the Internet. Jesus warned us against them with these words: (2)

“Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves.You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they?In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. (Matthew 7:15–20 NET)

With so many false teachers who pretend to be ministers of the Lord, the words of Jesus are just as crucial to our world today. Human beings have a natural tendency to embrace the sensational. We are easily deceived by charisma and performance that appeals to our soul. We are to, (2)

But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. Stay away from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:21–22 NET)

According to Jesus, we should all be “fruit inspectors.” (1) We should be looking for the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the minister. We should follow those who have proven character rather than charisma. (2)

Charisma can be counterfeited; character cannot.

Dr. Richard Booker

Along with the supernatural work of the Lord, Christians must be taught sound theology. We must be firmly grounded in the foundations of our faith. When taught under the control of the Holy Spirit, Christian doctrine can be exciting, motivating, stimulating, and life-changing. (2)

Lord, convict us if we chase after signs and wonders and look to men rather than seeking You. Amen

5. Hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans

But you do have this going for you: You hate what the Nicolaitans practice—practices I also hate. (Revelation 2:6 NET)

As a last commendation, the Lord praised the congregation for hating with righteous anger the deeds of the Nicolaitans. Who were the Nicolaitans? They were a group of professing believers who taught that the grace of God was so great, they did not have to be concerned about sin and holy living. Most likely, they participated in the sins of the townsfolk, including the idolatry and immorality associated with emperor worship and the festivals of Diana. To their credit, the believing community shunned them. (2)

I have personally heard preachers teach this same error regarding the grace of God. Many professing believers live their lives in sin without any fear of the Lord. They know that God loves them, and they accept His grace as a cover for their lawless lifestyle. While God’s grace certainly provides forgiveness for our sins, it is not a license to sin.

Paul explains,

What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1–2 NET)

In writing to the Thessalonians, Paul said,

Stay away from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22 NET)

God’s grace is not a license to sin; it is a license to serve Him and our fellow human beings. God’s grace frees us from ourselves. God’s grace liberates us from sin, not to sin. Paul explains to the Galatian believers:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1 NET)
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)

May all of God’s people abstain from every form of evil. May we live our lives to please our Lord in every word, thought, and deed. May we make God glad and not sad by the way we live our lives.

The Rebuke and Exortation

But I have this against you: You have departed from your first love! Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—that is, if you do not repent. (Revelation 2:4–5 NET)

While the Lord had many good things to say to the believing community at Ephesus, He did have one rebuke. He said they had “left their first love.” What did He mean by this? Again, by the time the Lord sent this prophetic message to the believers at Ephesus, the congregation had been in existence for about 40 years. They have been faithful in maintaining sound doctrine, but their zeal and passion for the Lord Himself had begun to wane. They had sound teaching and pure doctrine, but their hearts had grown cold. This was the same thing happening to Ephesus’s visitors and citizens as the harbor was filled with silt. It was no longer “love at first sight.” (2)

Arch of Titus

The Lord warns them that if they do not repent and rekindle their passion for Him, He will remove their lampstand. Physically, this is most likely a reference to when Titus conquered Jerusalem in A.D. 70, extracted the lampstand from the temple, and took it to Rome. The people would have understood this as there was a victory arch (the Arch of Titus) in Rome showing the Romans taking away the lampstand. Spiritually it would mean that the Holy Spirit would leave their church. This congregation may continue their existence and carry on with their religious activities, but God’s Spirit will no longer be in their midst. Their light will go out. They will “have church” and not even know that the Lord is not there. (2)

Now, anyone who has been in love for a long time can understand what the Lord is saying to this congregation. When human beings first fall in love, all they can think about and talk about is their new love. Driven by their zeal and passion (hormones?), they want to spend every moment with the one with whom they have fallen in love. If their relationship works out, they marry and learn to live together as husband and wife. Over time, their love relationship deepens and matures. Frequently, however, the romantic passion and zeal for one another are diminished by the familiarity of living together. As some might say, “the honeymoon is over.” This is why married couples sometimes attend seminars and retreats or renew their vows to “rekindle their first love.” Else, they leave the children at home and go on a “romantic getaway.” If they don’t keep their relationship fresh and exciting, they may have a cold, loveless marriage. In other words, their “lampstand,” or fire, as we call it, may go out. (2)

Spiritually speaking, this is what has happened to the congregation at Ephesus. They love the Lord, but they have lost their passion and zeal for Him. Their focus is on their theology and correct doctrine rather than on the Lord Himself. We might say their spiritual hormones have grown cold. Their spiritual fire has gone out. Jesus is calling them to repent and renew their passion for Him. (2)

Jesus had previously given the Pharisees a similar message,

But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.You fools! Didn’t the one who made the outside make the inside as well? But give from your heart to those in need, and then everything will be clean for you. “But woe to you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and every herb, yet you neglect justice and love for God! But you should have done these things without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! You love the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces! Woe to you! You are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it!” (Luke 11:39–44 NET)

The “Pharisees” were originally a group of laymen who sought to be separate from impure things and people and attempted to apply Mosaic law to all parts of life. However, by the time of Jesus, they had lost most of the heart of their religion. Jesus offered a positive corrective that clearly shows he did not oppose strict attention to religious duties but rather the neglect of caring about people that strict religionists (i.e., legalists) often fall into. (cf. Luke 6:27–36; 10:25–37). (3)

Seen merely from the religious point of view, washing externally was in reality only a halfway measure. Jesus implies that in their “greed and wickedness,” the Pharisees had deprived the poor of the very food and drink that was “inside” their own carefully washed dishes. Furthermore, “inside” also refers to their inner moral life (“you are full”). (3) Likewise, they apparently were tithing possessions they should have shared with (or that rightfully belonged to) the needy. (4) These remarks might seem inconsistent for Jesus who did not practice the oral traditions because they nullified the Word of God (Matthew 15:6. Mark 7:13). However, Jesus commended meticulous tithing since it was an Old Testament principle of the Law. The vivid simile of the unmarked grave is an example of Jesus’ use of irony. Though the Pharisees avoided touching a grave for fear of ritual defilement, they were defiling those they contacted through their own unrecognized defilement caused by corruption. (3) In the Matthew 23:27 account, the figure is that of whitewashed tombs painted as such to warn others to be aware of an agent of defilement (i.e., dead men’s bones, etc.). However, Jesus used this simile to again point out the disparity between the righteous-looking outward appearance but the true internal unrighteousness of the Pharisees.

This is clearly a prophetic word for us today. It is easy for Christian denominations and local congregations (and individual believers) to love their theology more than they love the Lord and other people. Their basis for fellowship is often that we agree with their doctrines and statements of faith rather than our shared love for Jesus. While sound teaching and pure doctrine are undoubtedly important, they must be balanced with genuine love and passion for the Lord and other people. Otherwise, it becomes cold, judgmental, and uncaring. God’s Spirit will no longer be present when they meet. They have religion without a relationship. Many local congregations “have church” and don’t know God is no longer there (i.e., their lampstand has been removed). (2)

The core teaching of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is love for God and love for people. The great declaration of faith in the First Covenant is: (2)

Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You must love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4–5 NET)

Since true love for God will be evidenced by our love for other people, God adds: (2)

You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18 NET)

When a religious leader asked Jesus what He considered the greatest of God’s commandments, Jesus referred to these same verses about loving God and loving people.

Now one of the experts in the law came and heard them debating. When he saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The expert in the law said to him, “That is true, Teacher; you are right to say that he is one, and there is no one else besides him. And to love him with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered thoughtfully, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Then no one dared any longer to question him. (Mark 12:28–34 NET)(cf. Luke 10:25-28)

The religious leader noted that loving God and loving people were more important than religious activities performed out of duty. With that answer, Jesus affirmed the Scribe’s thinking was approaching the mindset of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus said that the witness to our relationship to Him was not our doctrine but our love: (2)

I give you a new commandmentto love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35 NET)

John wrote:

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God. The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love. By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God has sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God resides in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we reside in God and he in us: in that he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God resides in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in us. God is love, and the one who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in him. By this love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as Jesus is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears punishment has not been perfected in love. We love because he loved us first. (1 John 4:7–19 NET)

John then adds:

If anyone says “I love God” and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.And the commandment we have from him is this: that the one who loves God should love his fellow Christian too. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been fathered by God, and everyone who loves the father loves the child fathered by him. By this we know that we love the children of God: whenever we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God: that we keep his commandments. And his commandments do not weigh us down, because everyone who has been fathered by God conquers the world. This is the conquering power that has conquered the world: our faith. Now who is the person who has conquered the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 4:20–5:5 NET)

Many people may say that they love God. Many people may say that they love you. But the proof is in their attitudes and actions. John made it very clear with these words:

Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth. (1 John 3:18 NET)

The first church pastor, James the half brother of Jesus, wrote:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? (James 2:15–16 NET)

The wisest man, except for Jesus, King Soloman wrote:

Do not withhold good from those who need it, when you have the ability to help. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go! Return tomorrow and I will give it,” when you have it with you at the time. (Proverbs 3:27–28 NET)

The Promise

The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’ (Revelation 2:7 NET)

The Lord ends each of His prophetic messages with an exhortation to the listeners to hear His Words and a promise to those who overcome (i.e., do what the Lord says). For the believers at Ephesus, the Lord’s promise is that they will “eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”

In His blessing promise, Jesus refers to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. The word Paradise refers to this garden. It means the same as the Garden of Eden. The Lord placed two literal trees in the Garden of Eden (1), the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9). The tree of life represented eternal life and fellowship with God, while the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represented self-enthronement and independence from God. God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Unfortunately, as we know, Satan tempted Adam and Eve to disobey, and they ate from the tree. Because of their disobedience, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden and the presence of God. Otherwise, they would have continued access to the tree of life and would live forever in their sinful condition. That indeed would be tragic. Since they could no longer eat from the tree of life, they were separated from God and eventually died. The bad news is that we have all inherited their curse of sin and death and the sickness, sorrow, and heartache that it brings. While much of the world does not believe the Genesis account, there is really no other explanation for the condition of our world and the way human beings behave. (2)

The good news is that the Son of Man has conquered Satan, sin, and death. He has overcome it all and promises to restore full fellowship and eternal life with God to all who overcome with Him. His victory is ours if we surrender to Jesus’ Lordship in our lives (1). We are more than conquerors. We have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:11). Hallelujah!

This final restoration to the Garden Paradise of God and the tree of life is described in the last chapter of the Book of Revelation. This is when the One True God comes down from Heaven to walk again among His people as He did with Adam and Eve before they sinned (Genesis 3:8).

John writes:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life—water as clear as crystal—pouring out from the throne of God and of the Lamb, flowing down the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month of the year. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. And there will no longer be any curse, and the throne of God and the Lamb will be in the city. His servants will worship him, and they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more, and they will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will shine on them, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1–5 NET)

If the Lord’s message to Ephesus applies to your organization, your ministry, or your life, let us repent (1) and do what He says. Let us heed the words of Jesus who said: (2)

Jesus said to him, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37–40 NET)

Again, Jesus said:

But give from your heart to those in need, and then everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11:41 NET)

That is, if we give to meet others’ needs motivated by God’s grace, mercy, and compassion, which are the results of God’s love in our spiritual hearts, then that outflow of the love of God to others (1) will also cleanse us spiritually! (1) It will cleanse us from dead works (i.e., trying to earn God’s approval by our performance (i.e., legalism)), and thus free us to go on to good works (i.e., works done knowing that we are already, and for always, approved by God in Jesus Christ! (1)).

Everything you do should be done in love. (1 Corinthians 16:14 NET)

I have found it beneficial to pray this prayer, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, daily in order to have the fullness of God, our God who is love, in our spiritual hearts:

I pray that according to the wealth of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner person, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, because you have been rooted and grounded in love, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16–19 NET)

The Invitation

The Lord had some wonderful things to say to the believers at Ephesus. He greeted them as the “One who was in their midst.” He encouraged them for their good works, for their patient endurance, for not tolerating sin, for testing and exposing false apostles, and for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans. This is a wonderful spiritual “pat on the back” that we would all be grateful to hear from the Lord. When believers stand before God, the one thing we hope to hear Him say is, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (2)

Even though the Lord had many good things to say to the believers at Ephesus, He also had a warning—they had left their first love. They had many good qualities but had grown cold in their relationship to the Lord. This is certainly a relevant message for us today. We too often substitute religious activities and programs for a personal and intimate relationship with our Lord. We can become so busy serving God that we fail to spend time with God. There are many deeds we do that are good but not necessarily from the prompting of the Holy Spirit. For many of us, we need to spend a little less time doing what seems right to us and a little more time in the presence of God. We would get a lot more rest and not grow as weary in well-doing. May we heed the words of our Lord so that we will be counted among the overcomers who will eat from the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. (2)

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star!” And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say: “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wants it take the water of life free of charge. (Revelation 22:16–17 NET)
Feasts, Festivals, and Important Occasions of the Biblical Covenants Series:
– The Spring Festivals:
– Seven Church Conditions during the Times of the Gentiles:
– The Fall Festivals:
  • The Feasts of Israel – Trumpets
  • The Feasts of Israel – Atonement
  • The Feasts of Israel – Tabernacles


Shalom
(Peace, Wholeness, Success)

Dear friend, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul. 
(3 John 1:2 NET)


(1) Select the link to open another article in a new tab with additional information.

(2) Booker, R. (2011). The overcomers: series- understanding the book of Revelation. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image.

(3) Liefeld, W. L. (1984). Luke. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8, p. 956). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

(4) Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 497). Exeter: Paternoster Press.

(5) Renner, R. (2019). Companion study guide: Christ’s message to Pergamum. Rick Renner Ministries. www.renner.org

Hal has been teaching the Bible for over three decades. Presently, He desires to honor Jesus Christ through this Internet teaching ministry, thereby glorifying the Heavenly Father in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. He believes, second to cultivating his relationship with God that raising his family unto the Lord is the most significant task for him while on Earth. Furthermore, Hal believes that being a successful leader in the church or workplace is no substitute for failing to be a successful leader at home.

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