Revelation: The Culmination of Scripture – 03
(“The Vision of the Son of Man Among the Seven Churches – 02”)
Today we are going to start looking at the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor, but before we do that, there are a couple of ground rules for the interpreting of these letters that we must pay attention to:
• They were written to seven real and existing churches: These churches were real churches in existence during the first century A.D. in different parts of the current Turkey (the then called Asia Minor). They were also not the only churches, but were the ones personally selected by Christ for His letters. No doubt the book of Revelation as a whole was circulated to all the churches, so that they would be aware of what Christ said to the other churches as well as what He said to them.
• The local church is very important in the eyes of our Lord: In the light of the fact that Christ dealt with these churches indicates to us how important the local church is to Him and how seriously we ought to take our belonging to it and our responsibilities towards it! We can (and many Christians unfortunately do) treat the matter of church membership far too lightly, either never joining and giving ourselves whole-heartedly at all, or else joining, resigning, joining another fellowship and resigning and so on at our whim (Afrikaans: “na willekeur”). Or we can be members but just not committed as expected from us ~ “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebr.10:24-25).
• The ‘seven churches’ are representatives of the church of Christ at all times: Christ has written these letters to us as well as to them. Each church had a particular characteristic (some good, some bad) and these features add up to a picture of the ups and downs of the church of Christ throughout the ages: lack of love to Christ; faithfully facing persecution for Christ’s sake; falling into compromise rather than standing firm; indulging in over-tolerance at the expense of church discipline; preening itself that everything is just right when there is only empty form with no vital life and power; growing lukewarm in devotion and duty; presented with great opportunities for evangelism and service.
• There are abiding spiritual lessons to be learned for the church of Christ: These letters are NOT representative of “seven periods” or “seven ages” (as the Charismatic- or Apostolic theology reason) until the second coming of Christ (or the so called “rapture”).
• There is a clear structure to the letters: All seven letters begin with…
– An address to the pastor of the church.
– A reference to some attributes of Christ that has been mentioned in John’s vision of Christ in chapter 1 (e.g. 2:1 and 1:13, 16; 2:8 with 1:17,18; 2:12 with 1:16 etc.). So, there is an intimate relationship between the vision of Christ and the letters from Christ, in order that we do not miss exactly who it is who is speaking to His church.
– A word of praise from Christ (except for Laodicea).
– A word of criticism or rebuke (except for Smyrna and Philadelphia) – a word of warning from Christ, expressed with such vividness that it is if He were right at hand and ready there and then to come and deal with them.
– A word of exhortation (or council) from Christ to hear His word.
– A word of promise from Christ (the promises with which the letters end, provide some of the richest and most precious promises to be found anywhere in the Word of God).
Our exegetical outline for these seven letters to the churches in Asia Minor will take the following form:
1. THE ADDRESSEE (vs.9). In other words, we will look at who the receiver of the letter was and what and where this church was.
2. CHRIST’S IMAGE (vs.10a). Here we will look at some of Christ’s characteristics, or attributes.
3. CHRIST’S PRAISE (vss.10b-11).
4. CHRIST’S REBUKE (vss.12-20).
5. CHRIST’S COUNCIL (vs.9). In each case, Christ gave the churches advice on what to do in their specific circumstances.
6. CHRIST’S PROMISE (vs.10a). Each of the seven churches received a promise.
2. SCRIPTURE READING:
Rev.2:1-7 (ESV) ~ “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”
3. THE CHURCH IN EPHESUS (2:1-7):
The Receiver of the Letter (vs.1a): “To the angel of the church in Ephesus.” As in the case with the other six churches who received this letter from Christ, the receiver of the letter to the church in Ephesus was “the angel of the church.” We have already seen last week, that “the angel” of the churches were the leaders, or pastors of the churches.
According to Acts 18:19-21; 19:1 and 20:16-38, Paul, together with Aquilla, planted this church between 60-63 A.D. He not only planted the church there, but he also fed this church with the Word of God for some time. We see then, that this letter was delivered to this church a mere 35 years after the start of the young church.
This was a church that was indeed privileged, because it was build, on a firm foundation – the Word of God, taught to them by none other than the great apostle Paul, as well as other spiritual leaders of name, like Aquila (Acts 18:18, 26), Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) and Timothy (1 Tim.1:3). Just think of the experience and opportunity to sit at these formidable men to learn from the Word! And as if this is not enough – this church receives Pauls first letter that he wrote from prison (approx. 60A.D. – Eph.1:1)! What a privilege! A church whose foundation was firmly laid in the Word. Furthermore, this church was situated in a rich, well known and flourishing city – a city known for its trade, but also for the temple of Diana, or Artemis, the Greek goddess of fertility (Acts 19:23-27). With all these wealth and abundance in a city, corruption and sin are usually the natural outcome.
Christ’s Image (vs.1b): “The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” Two things are said here in connection with Christ:
– First, these words are a reflection of Christ’s protection and control; of the church and His vital concern for it.
– Second, it describes Christ as the One who “walks among the seven golden lampstands” which contains a note of warning: He may visit Ephesus to remove their lampstand (2:5), but the fact that He is walking also expresses His unwearied activity in the Church, guarding her from internal and external evils, as the high priest moved to and from in the sanctuary. Though Christ is in heaven, He walks in the midst of His church on earth, observing what is amiss in them and what it is that they want. This is a great encouragement to those who have the care of the churches, that the Lord Jesus has graven them upon the palms of His hands. The Lord reminds them that He is in control of the ministry, placing the “stars” (ministers) where He pleases. How easy it is for a church to become proud and forget that pastors and teachers are God’s gifts (Eph. 4:11) who may be taken away at any time. At the same time however, some churches need to be cautioned to worship the Lord and not their pastor!
The right hand is a depiction of power ~ “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Is.41:10). Jesus Christ is the head of His church and He governs His bride with a firm hand – not the pastor, not the leadership, not anyone on the church are in control of the church. All other leaders or leadership are subordinate to Christ. Leaders of churches who are subordinate to Christ are chosen, appointed and equipped by Him.
Christ is intensely involved in His church and He moves around “between the seven golden lamps” even with their daily activities – wherever His children are – He is present, that is why Matt.18:20 says ~ “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Why is He so intensely involved and present? In order to guide and bless His children. Christ is truly omnipresent and almighty and therefore not a single activity or motive slip His eyes or attention. Knowing this let one trembles and forces you to see to it that your doctrine and your actions will always testify of purity and obedience to the Word. On the flipside however – this knowledge should encourage and comfort all believers who are in the truth, because they know that their Comforter is always in their midst.
Christ’s Praise (vss.2-3): “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.’” The Lord Jesus Christ is very gracious (Hebr.6:10). He is not slow to praise, comfort and encourage. He gives credit where it is due. And in the things here, that He commended, we can discover the vital marks of a true evangelical church.
The Christians at Ephesus demonstrated ~ “wholehearted commitment to the Lord’s work” (vs.2a), a church bustling with spiritual activity, everyone labours together with God. They were ~ “sound in doctrine and faithful in discipline” (vss.2b, 6), both notes that need to be struck with fresh vigour in our day. The church of Christ must hold firm to the truth of Christ, the truth of the Word of God, for the church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15). False claims must be dealt with and false teachers exposed.
About fifteen years after John’s writing of Revelation, Ignatius wrote to the church of Ephesus and commended them for refusing to give a home to any heresy. Thyatira had failed (2:20), but the Ephesians had won the victory over false teachers. They had heeded Paul’s earlier warning (Acts 20:28-30).
When looking at this church we might say, “What a church!” Surely, they had everything you could possibly desire in a church. But…
Christ’s Rebuke (vs.4): “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” The One who “walks among the seven golden lampstands,” Jesus Christ, saw something which troubled Him so much that He said, “I hold this against you” (vs.4). Not all was well. They had forsaken or let go, of their first love. This was a serious defect that, if uncorrected, would result in the loss of their position as light bearers (vs.5).
The majority of commentators take “the first love” to refer to the original Christian love the Ephesians had for one another. Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders to “help the weak” (Acts 20:35) and the warm commendation he gives them in their early years for their fervent love of one another (Eph.1:15) may lend support to this view. Other commentators, however, see the “first love” as a reference to their inner devotion to Christ that characterized their earlier commitment, like the love of a newly wedded bride for her husband (Eph.5:22). This interpretation is supported by the fact that the letters to the other churches reveal problems of inner betrayal to Christ as subjects of his complaint. Neither view necessarily eliminates the other. Loving devotion to Christ can be lost in the midst of active service, and certainly no amount of orthodoxy can be a substitute for a failure to love one another. “First” love suggests that they still loved, but with a quality and intensity unlike that of their initial love.
Christ’s Counsel (vss.5-6): “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Christ now offers a way to correct the fault. The imperatives (Afrikaans: “opdrag”) are instructive: “Remember . . . repent . . . do.” The Ephesians are to reflect on their earlier works of fervent love, to ponder how far they have fallen from their former devotion and enthusiasm. They have to humbly “repent” before God, and to do their former works motivated by love. These imperatives are all part of a single action designed to keep the Ephesians from the judgment of Christ, which would effectively remove them as His representatives in the world.
Christ adds a further commendation (Afrikaans: “aanbeveling”) concerning the Ephesians’ hatred of the practices of the Nicolaitans (2:15) – a hatred directed at the practices of these people, not the people themselves (Ps.139:21). It is difficult to determine exactly who the Nicolaitans were and what they taught. Etymologically (Afrikaans: “betekenis van die woord/naam”) the name means “to conquer the people.” Information about the Nicolaitans is limited, what we do know however, is that they mixed Christian faith with idolatry and cult prostitution. They also claimed to have insight into the divine or, more probably, into the demonic. They lived immoral lives, which allowed them to become part of the syncretism (Afrikaans: “samevoeging/vermenging van verskillende godsdienste”) of pagan society and to participate in the Roman civil religion. In short, they mixed their Christian faith with idolatry and false religion.
How many churches today stand at this same crossroads? Do we sense the importance to Christ of not only honouring His name by the truth, but also by our loving relationship to others? This threat of loss of light bearing applies equally to the other four churches to whom a similar exhortation to “repent” is given (Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea).
The point is this: the Ephesian church had preached and taught against the error of the Nicolaitans. They had refused to allow the error to enter the church. They were doctrinally sound; they stood staunchly for the truth of Christ and the Word of God. But they lacked the main thing: love for Christ. They had lost their love for Christ.
The Lord counsels the church to return to Him. When a church or a believer goes astray, the Lord issues the very same call that He issues here: return. Three steps are involved in returning.
– First, remember from where you have fallen: Think back over your former love for the Lord. Remember His presence: the feelings of warmth and tenderness; the fervour, spark, and unction; the fellowship and communion with Him; the prayer and sharing; the consciousness and awareness of His presence; the joy and rejoicing of His presence that filled your heart.
– Second, repent: Turn away from whatever has pulled you away from Christ and turn back to Christ. Something has drawn you away from Christ. You are attached to something more than you are to Christ. Something is consuming your thoughts and energies and keeping your mind from focusing upon Christ and fellowshipping and communing with Him. You are not flickering your mind to Him in prayer as you walk throughout the day. You are not sharing and communing with Him like you did. Turn away from that attachment and turn back to Christ ~ “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat.3:2). “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
– Third, do the first works that you did. Begin, as in the beginning, to acknowledge Him in all your ways, and He will direct your paths (Prov.3:6). Take set times to get alone with Christ and study His Word and pray (2 Tim.2:15; 3:16; Ep. 6:18). Start walking just as Christ would walk if He were walking by your side – step by step and hour by hour. Do this from the moment you awaken in the morning to the moment you go to sleep at night.
We see however, that Christ is also warning the Ephesian church in vs.5b – He is warning them that if they lose their love for Him, He would remove their lampstand. What does this mean? It means that Christ will remove the church…
– From being a true church.
– From being a true representative of Christ upon earth.
– From being a church of God’s true kingdom.
– From being in touch and in union with God.
– From being a true light and witness to the world.
– From being a church of the gospel of God.
– From His presence, from the light of His presence.
This is a terrible judgment. This warning is going to be shattering to some when Christ returns. Why? Because many are doctrinally sound, but they have lost their first love for Christ. Note how doctrinally sound the Ephesian believers were.
Christ’s Promise (vs.7): The Lord saw the corporate Ephesian church in a fallen condition. He appeals to the individual ~ “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Love is a personal matter. We are saved one by one; we must be restored one by one. No hint is given that the entire Ephesian church would respond to this letter, but the hope is that individuals would. The Lord’s call here is a call to individual believers to get back to the daily quiet time with Himself. There is no other way to restore a lost love and a lost life. It is tragically possible to have a saved soul and a lost life.
There is the promise to the overcomers. The word overcomer has the idea of conflict and struggle. The overcomer is a person who overcomes and conquers and gains the victory. He is the victor and conqueror. What is it that he is to overcome? Everything that pulls his heart and love away from Christ and attaches it to the world. Whatever possessions, whatever pleasures, whatever it is that has dampened the believer’s first love for Christ—it is that thing that the believer must overcome.
The overcomer is promised access to the “tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” The “tree of life” is first mentioned in Gen.2:9 as one of the many trees given to Adam and Eve for food and was off-limits after their fall into sin (Gen.3:22, 24). It is last mentioned in Rev.22:2, 19, where it conveys symbolically the truth of eternal life. Those at Ephesus who truly follow Christ in deep devotion and thus experience the real victory of Christ will share the gift of eternal life that He alone gives.
4. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
Looking at this letter to the Ephesian church, we must ask and answer a few questions for ourselves:
– Do we have it clear that Christ is protecting us and guarding us?
– Do we realise that we are directly under His authority? How do we apply these truths in our lives and in the church?
– Christ is not slow to praise. Can we be praised for staying in the truth?
– Where do we stand in regards to our first love?
– Do we regularly repent about sin?
Always remember and be encouraged IN Christ – those of us who are in Christ Jesus, will share the gift of eternal life.