The 7 churches of Revelation - Ephesus - How to Completely miss the point
Within this 1st of the letters to the 7 churches of Asia we have what is arguably the most significant statement made throughout the entire 7 letters.
‘In life the most important thing is that the most important thing remains the most important thing.’
At Ephesus it would appear that the most important thing, or better the most important person, becomes number 2, 3 or 4 in a list of revised priorities!
If I managed to convince you last week that these 7 churches could be viewed in 5 ways; 4 you will find elsewhere, and the 5th known only to you and me:
Practically – ‘what kind of church am I in?’
Personally – ‘what am I in this church?’ – in each there is the ‘overcomer’ and the exception (2:24; 3:4)
The significance of ‘7’
These stars and lampstands are ‘mysteries’ (1:20)
This whole book is a book of prophecy
Perfectly / Positionally / Eternally in Christ
What is a lampstand on earth is also a star in heaven.
The temporal has a link with the eternal.
The earthy is a reflection of the heavenly; as was the tabernacle and temple of old.
What is done of Christ on earth, before men and in time has an abiding worth and dignity in heaven, before God and eternally.
That reward never passes away!
All of the ministry to these 7 churches has as its goal the conformity of each church to the eternal and heavenly standard for it – its star in heaven!
Every step of obedience to this ministry and conformity to it brings us closer to God’s glorious vision of His church in Christ.
The star is what the church is in Christ – its perfect heavenly representative and the lampstand what that church is on earth.
Cf Elizabeth Elliott who speaks of love as being God’s gift to allow us to see another person the way God originally intended them to be.
If we appreciate that prophetic aspect to the 7 churches then we will see that in Ephesus that we have the PRIMITIVE church – the very first of the 7 churches, the church of the apostolic era and first century church.
It will be appreciated that problems and errors affecting the foundation of a structure could potentially have lasting and catastrophic effects on the whole of the structure subsequently; like a bad foundation to a house or like the sin sown into humanity in Eden! So it is here. The fundamental problem identified in Ephesus resonates through the subsequent churches; an empty hunger seeking fulfilment throughout the 7 in different avenues.
The church at Ephesus is unique in this list of 7 – it is the only one that we have any other NT letter addressed to: Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy. It is only Laodicea out of the others which is mentioned elsewhere in Colossians 4:16.
That turns out to be particularly helpful in our understanding of what is actually going on here at Ephesus!
Verse 2 – the deficit at Ephesus has often been noticed:
“I know thy works, and thy labour and thy patience…”
“Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father;” (1 Thessalonians 1:3)
What has happened to:
That is of course a very pertinent observation, however for me the more pressing question for me is not only:
What happened to …
How could anything happen without…
It is absolutely astounding, that you could remove:
Strip away the essence of Christian experience and yet everything seems to run on regardless!!
That is a phenomenal observation!
This is a church in a coma!
Sense of duty / expectation
Many people find great reassurance in going through the same rituals and routines week after week month after month, never really critically examining what and why they are doing what they are doing, if anything is coming out of it.
This church seems to have become focused upon / satisfied with:
principles, precepts, dogma and teaching; “and hast found them liars” (v2)
patterns of behaviour
But not the PERSON of Christ!
What would such a church look like?
Boring Orthodoxy? – routine and ritual with no reality of the presence of Christ and the power of the Word of God??
As opposed perhaps to Pergamos and Thyatira:
Ephesus seems to be dogged with the problem of:
Ephesus has become focused on:
Activity for Christ (v2) – Toil
Standards of Christ (v2) – Testing
Truth about Christ (v3) – Truth
Persevering because of Christ (v3) – Testimony
Ephesus strikes me as being like a bad marriage; in which one or both partners are so busy doing and working and earning that they are never present for one another!
Ephesus is the NT church so dogged by distraction:
1 & 2 Timothy:
False Teachers – 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17ff
False Teaching – 1:4ff; 4:14ff; 4:16; 4:2; Asceticism (4:3ff)
False Gospel of works righteousness – 1 Tim1:7-9; 1:13ff
Immorality – 1:5, 10; 1:19-20; 3:1ff; 3:9, 12; 4:2; 5:20-24; 6:5; 2 Tim 2:18-22; 26
Materialism – 6:5-10; 6:17-19
Lack of fervour in prayer – 2:1ff and evangelism 2:1ff; 2:8
It is Ephesus which ultimately becomes canvas upon which is painted the fatal distraction and false desires of the other loves of the last days:
Lovers of Self (2 Tim 3:2)
Lovers of Money (2 Tim 3:2)
Lovers of Pleasure (2 Tim 3:4)
Intriguingly the Ephesians appear to have tackled many of these problems highlighted by Paul to Timothy:
Deficit in activity – Rev 2:2
False Teachers – Rev 2:2
False Teaching and the Truth – Rev 2:2
Immorality and evil – Rev 2:2
They appear to have addressed:
But they haven’t really managed to tackle the underlying problem!
“thou hast left thy first love” (v4)
In many ways our understanding of this statement is critical not only for our understanding of Ephesus but also for our understanding of the other 6 churches, since this error lies at the foundation of all subsequent churches and their problems!
So what was this problem?
It is a problem which reflects the central concern of Paul for the Ephesians in 1 Timothy 3:16:
1 Timothy chp 1 – Law and Sin
1 Timothy chp 2 – Sacrifice and Saviour
1 Timothy 3:16 – The Sanctuary ark and the mercy seat
1 Timothy chp 4 – The lamp, the loaf and the altar of incense
1 Timothy chp 5 – The sacred
1 Timothy chp 6 – The secular
The deficit lies in what ought to be at the centre of our Christian life – Christ!
What does it mean to have ‘left your first love’?
Often times this is interpreted to mean that the church at Ephesus has left the ‘intensity of the love it had at first’.
That this was a problem of INTENSITY of PASSION
The problem with that is that if it primarily means the INTENSITY of PASSION it really has little meaning at all.
Illust: Failing driving test and need to do better, and again and again
The problem with setting a fail or a standard based on ‘not enough’ you need a ‘bit more’ is that this will always be true! There is always more that we could love.
How much is enough?
How can I have enough?
How can I know I have enough?
An unrealistic expectation founded on an unjustified assumption leading to an unachievable standard!
I would suggest that the primary issue here is more concrete, down to earth and practical.
This is not so much leaving the intensity of love but rather leaving the object of love.
Not primarily a matter of PASSION but rather a matter of the PERSON.
Not WHAT but WHO
That seems hinted at by the use of the word “left” : ἀφίημι - used approximately 167 times in NT and almost always used of leaving a person or of leaving an object eg nets, a cloak, debts.
The solution to the problem then is not:
How do I work up a greater passion – which will never succeed – there will always be a greater passion
How do I get closer to the person?
In 1 & 2 Timothy they had got caught up with all of the distractions, here in Revelation they had got caught up with dealing with the distractions and all the activity of being a Christian!
What now seems to hinder is not the problem but rather the solution to the problem!
Starting with the problems won’t necessarily bring you into communion with Christ.
Starting with communion with Christ will tackle the problems however.
Ephesus is unique amongst the 7 churches of Asia in that we have other NT letters written to this church: Ephesians, 1 + 2 Timothy
We know relatively so much about it
Only Laodicea is mentioned in Colossians 4:16
That is useful for there are some fundamental issues here:
Ephesus is the first of 7 churches
Error at the foundation may well make its way through the whole of subsequent church history, if you do as I do take a church perspective on the pattern of the 7 churches.
As you travel through Europe and see the impact of Christianity on city skyline can’t help but be impressed by the impact that Christianity has had. Yet as you take a closer look you are equally struck by the amount of other things and the tangents that people have gone off on.
Probably out of the 7 churches of Revelation I have heard more ministry from Ephesus than any of the others, with Laodicea a close 2nd. It would be and has been very easy to take this verse and to do violence to the verse and use it to berate the believer.
That is not only an unproductive approach but is also an erroneous one.
Over the years I have heard this text used to chasten the Christian that they have left their original intensity of affection to Christ, that their current levels of devotion and love for Christ are insufficient and that that intensity, devotion and passion must be augmented to previous levels.
This is very misleading.
This is almost a salvation by works.
This is not the quantity nor even the quality of a believers devotion to Christ this is the presence or absence of it as a fact!
Its not the kind of love but the reality of that relationship that is absent!
Instead of a relationship with Christ being number 1, that relationship became number 2.
Like Adam in the garden (2:7) the tree of knowledge of good and evil, deceived by Satan, crept in and became the priority; displacing the tree of life (2:9) from it’s Divinely appointed centre place.
The beginning of the Church seems to re-echoe the fundamental problem at the beginning of creation!
History may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes!
1 + 2 Timothy are so important; these letters give us the background as to what had been making inroads at Ephesus:
Hedonism (1:19ff; 3:1ff; 4:12)
Jewish mysticism and the mystery religions (1:4ff; 4:7)
Legalism (1:7ff) and asceticism (4:3ff)
Demonic deception (4:1ff)
This is why at the centre of 1 Timothy in 3:16 we have THE GREAT MYSTERY, far surpassing anything you could be offered in any of the mystery religions!
They have let their first love (2:4).
How did that happen?
Failed to grasp the obvious
The all sufficiency of Christ
As the foundation and cornerstone of the building, the head of the body and the bridegroom of the church.
Christianity is all about Christ
Neglected the essentials
The centrality of Christ
Distracted by their own attainments and spirituality
Distracted by the utterly irrelevant
and then inevitably:
'thou hast left thy first love' (2:4)
What is the content to this our first love?
His Personal ministry
His Prayerful communion
This is a relationship with a person
First the person, not the religion, not the activity but the person
That relationship with Christ is pre-eminent
in the scriptures
in the gospel
'Jesus Himself drew near'
'Lo I am with you'
'There am I in the midst of them'
'I shall not leave you comfortless, I will come to you'
'The joy of the Lord is thy strength'
That surpasses understanding
The peace of the upper room
'my peace give I unto you'
Communion with Him is two way
'God is in you of a truth'
'let him speak as the oracles of God'
'Thou hast left thy first love'
Here is the first church
Here is the first condemnation
The first condemnation of the first church
This becomes the primary, the root condemnation for each of the failing churches, leading to all of the condemnations thereafter.
Leaving our first love is a prelude to disaster
It is easy to see how that could happen when the heart of Christian experience has been removed.
It is like the distinction between Mary and Martha:
Luk 10:40-43 “But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
From a series of sermons in our bible teaching series on the book of Revelation and the seven churches.
Yours by Grace in Christ
Dr J Stewart Gillespie