A Torn-up Love Letter
(Image by James Best, (C) 2019, https://www.behance.net/gallery/82544295/Sermon-Illustrations-2019.)
You may wonder why we’re devoting such attention to the church in Ephesus. Part of the answer is that Ephesus is arguably the pre-eminent Gentile church in the New Testament. More is written about the Ephesian church than any other church except Jerusalem. It’s thought the Gospel of John was written there. What we can learn about the church in Ephesus serves us as a guide to our own problems and their solution, describing the way our life together should be, with God’s help.
CONTEXT = Between the description of Jesus in ch. 1 and the visions that begin in ch. 4, John’s Revelation has two chapters of love letters written to churches located in Asia Minor. The fact that Ephesus appears first in the set may be suggestive of the pre-eminent place of the church in the history of how the Gospel spread throughout Asia Minor.
This morning we get to see the mind and heart of Jesus reflecting on the church in Ephesus. The heart-breaking image communicated in Revelation 2:1-7 is that of a torn-up love letter.
Legalism & ungraciousness are signs of having forsaken Jesus Christ, our “first love.”
1. The Author identified Himself. (1)
First identifier: HIM WHO HOLDS THE SEVEN STARS IN HIS RIGHT HAND. This image is repeated from 1:16. The SEVEN STARS are identified in 1:20 as the angelic messengers to the seven churches receiving these letters. STARS are associated with angels in JOB 38:7 and Revelation 9:1. In Daniel 12:3, faithful witnesses are said to shine like stars. The RIGHT HAND is a symbol of authority. To be at a ruler’s right hand was to be in a place of power and security. Put it all together and this is an image of the authority of Jesus over His church; the angels are His messengers.
Second identifier: HIM WHO…WALKS AMONG THE SEVEN GOLDEN LAMPSTANDS. This image is repeated from 1:12-13 and has already thereby been attributed to Jesus Christ. In 1:20 the SEVEN GOLDEN LAMPSTANDS are identified as the seven churches in Asia Minor. In Zechariah 4 the prophet was given a vision of a golden lampstand with seven lights, oil fed to it directly from 2 olive trees. The message there was, ‘NOT BY MIGHT NOR BY POWER, BUT BY MY SPIRIT,’ SAYS THE LORD ALMIGHTY. (Zechariah 4:6) Placing Jesus AMONG the LAMP-STANDS implies His closeness to His people. He is with His people, not apart. In total, the Author of the letter has identified Himself as an authority figure who is in relationship with His Church.
2. The Author commended the church in Ephesus.
First, He commended them for their DEEDS; for their HARD WORK. (2) This Greek word can be translated as “wearisome toil,” yet it has NOT made them GROW WEARY. Presumably, this work includes good deeds and witness to the Gospel.
On a related note, He commended their PERSEVERANCE. (2+3) The Ephesian believers ENDURED HARDSHIPS FOR MY NAME - for His sake - because of association with Him. They had NOT GROWN WEARY to the point of giving up, but stayed true to Christ. PERSEVERENCE is commended by Paul in Galatians 6:9, LET US NOT BECOME WEARY IN DOING GOOD, FOR AT THE PROPER TIME WE WILL REAP A HARVEST IF WE DO NOT GIVE UP.
Second, Jesus commended the Ephesus church for their discernment. (2) They did not naively assume fast talkers were apostles. They did not TOLERATE WICKED MEN. Rather than suffer the effects of wickedness in their midst, the rightly expelled WICKED people for the fellowship. They TESTED THOSE WHO claimed TO BE APOSTLES, exposing their falsehood. In this, they followed the teaching of John: DEAR FRIENDS, DO NOT BELIEVE EVERY SPIRIT, BUT TEST THE SPIRITS TO SEE WHETHER THEY ARE FROM GOD, BECAUSE MANY FALSE PROPHETS HAVE GONE OUT INTO THE WORLD. (1 John 4:1)
Third, Jesus commended their hatred of THE PRACTICES OF THE NICOLAITANS. (6) Note they hated THE PRACTICES, not the people. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is the time-tested maxim. One of the qualities of a love letter is that the text mentions things known to the lovers but unknown to another reader. Similarly, we can only guess who these Nicolaitans were and why Jesus hated them. Where they the WICKED MEN mentioned in verse two? We don’t need to know the details; it is enough that the Ephesian believers didn’t put up with their false teaching and wickedness.
3. The Author condemned the church.
The heart of the matter is expressed poignantly in verse four: YOU HAVE FORSAKEN YOUR FIRST LOVE. This is our key verse. This is a very emotional statement but we are not told its specific meaning. Given the warning that follows in verse five, to REMOVE their LAMPSTAND, it is a sin, one so serious that threatened the church’s existence. Also, the word FIRST indicates an earlier part of their Christian experience, something which they had more recently FORSAKEN. The phrase, REMEMBER THE HEIGHTS FROM WHICH YOU HAVE FALLEN (5) implies a way in which the church can regain their FIRST LOVE.
Though He commended their DEEDS, the Author called them to action. (5) To call them to REPENT means that the church was guilty of a sin. In addition to repenting, they were to DO THE THINGS YOU DID AT FIRST. Here’s that word FIRST again.
Putting all of this together, we are not over-interpreting if we say that the church in Ephesus had somehow gone away from the spiritual status they enjoyed when the church was founded. Going back to Acts 19:19 we’re reminded the new converts burned 50,000 drachmas worth of magic scrolls. That showed a literal and figurative fire, a love for Jesus that cancelled all the appeals of superstition and the occult. We can guess that the fire needed to be rekindled. We have all experienced periods where our enthusiasm and the excitement of faith waned. Whether on an individual or church scale, formalism, judgmentalism, legalism take the place of a living faith. We quit learning and growing, and thereby start dying.
He warned them: IF YOU DO NOT REPENT, I WILL COME TO YOU AND REMOVE YOUR LAMPSTAND FROM ITS PLACE. (5) Since the LAMPSTAND is the symbol of the spiritual existence of the church, this is a warning of death. Church people tend to worry over the “Killer B’s,” Buildings, Budgets, and By-laws; these are not the real life of the church. The real life is our love for Jesus Christ and any time a church loses that, they’ve ceased to be a church. At that point, the Killer B’s that are left merely mark the presence of a corpse. To summarize, the most important church in the Greek-speaking world was in danger of not being a church at all.
4. The Author made a promise to the “overcomers.” (7)
An overcomer is herein identified by two qualities. First, an overcomer is one who listens to the Spirit = HE WHO HAS AN EAR, LET HIM HEAR WHAT THE SPIRIT SAYS TO THE CHURCHES. The presence of the Holy Spirit is one of the signs of true faith. The presence of the Holy Spirit is verified by actions in conformity with what the Spirit teaches; an overcomer follows the Spirit’s lead.
Secondly, an overcomer is one who does what the Author commends, not what He condemns. He is faithful in word & deed. All believers are to do the whole work of righteousness: avoid evil and do good. We learn about overcomers in these letters and elsewhere in RVN (7:14; 12:11; 15:2).
Jesus promised that overcomers will receive an eternal home in heaven: they are given THE RIGHT TO EAT FROM THE TREE OF LIFE. The TREE OF LIFE bookends the Bible; it is PARADISE lost and restored. It appears first in Genesis 2:9 as one of the trees given to Adam and Eve as food. It was lost to them when they sinned. It appears again in Revelation 22, where it gives life to the people who live with God in the New Jerusalem. The TREE OF LIFE is a symbol of the eternal life God gives to His people.
In both Genesis and Revelation, the TREE OF LIFE IS located IN THE PARADISE OF GOD. The word PARADISE was borrowed from the Persian language and refers to a park or garden, exactly the place you’d expect to find a tree. It is a symbol of life after death, the reward God graciously gives to the people who are His.
Legalism & ungraciousness are signs of having forsaken Jesus Christ, our “first love.”
Jesus warned against this abandonment of love: “Because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:12–13). Notice that both the warning and the promise are the same ones delivered by angel to the church in Ephesus.
In an article entitled “Have You Left Your First Love?” Greg Morse wrote, “They had a zeal for orthodoxy, but they had lost their love for Jesus. They showed up for Bible studies and debated the heretics, but lost their pure love for their Lord. They stood against evil in their midst, but tolerated a sluggish love towards Jesus and each other.
“It is a scary reality that the road to hell is not only paved with good intentions, but good deeds and theological precision as well.” He called it a “paralyzing lack of happiness in God.”
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revelation, Alan F. Johnson
Harper’s New Testament Commentary, St. John the Divine, G.B. Caird
And I Heard a Voice, Brett Best