1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
The book of Revelation was written just before the end of the 1st century. Church historians have estimated that there were probably about 100 Christian Churches at that time, so why would Jesus have chosen these specific Churches for John to write to? Most scholars believe that the issues - both good and bad - which these congregations faced were common among Churches in their day, and also in ours.
This means we can view these letters both literally, in that they were written to a specific group of people at a particular time in history, and also personally.
This means that the message in these letters applies to the Church today.
There is an old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The world that John the apostle lived in was radically different to our world, yet these letters are as relevant to the Church today as they were 2000 years ago.
Jesus had a personal message to these seven Churches that existed at that time, but if we only regard these letters as historical documents and nothing more, we would just read them without thinking they may apply to us today. Everything else in the Bible applies to us, so why wouldn’t Revelation chapters 2 and 3?
There is a very important point that I need to stress and I will remind us of it often throughout the coming weeks.
Whenever we read warnings and admonishments in Scripture, it is very easy to slip into a works-based salvation mindset. In the context of the letters to the Churches, we see the warnings that Jesus gives to them, and we find ourselves thinking, “so what must I do? What plans or preventative measures can I put into place or what steps must I take?”
This is a mistake we make all the time.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the proclamation of the good news that He has done for us what we have already failed to do. We have not lived up to the law of God and we have fallen short of His glory. As a consequence, we deserve death and eternal separation from Him, but Christ, out of His great love for us, went to the cross and suffered and died there on our behalf.
As a result we have been clothed in His righteousness, God has made a legal declaration that we are now justified in His sight, and because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, we have been reconciled to a Holy God.
Romans 4:25 says it best: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”
That’s the Gospel. That’s the central message of the Church.
I hope you never come to Church hoping to hear about how you can become a better parent, a better spouse or even a better Christian.
There are lots of self-help books out there which teach those things.
Or you can watch Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer on YouTube if you believe that the Christian faith is about being a better you. The Christian faith is about Christ.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler, who asked Him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He was asking for a checklist. Don’t read your Bible with a checklist in the other hand, looking for the things you need to do in order to please God, because Jesus has already done it for you.
However, this does not mean that we are free to do as we please. Remember, Jesus came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it.
As disciples of Christ we fall under His authority, joyfully serving and worshipping Him - not out of fear of punishment - but out of love for who He is, what He has done, and love for each other.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that in the first of the seven letters in Revelation Jesus tells the Church in Ephesus that they have lost their first love.
In Romans 13 Paul says that love fulfils the law, but even this is something that God has already done for us in Christ.
Look at what John writes in 1 John 4:13-21. “We know that we live in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like Him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And He has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
So even when we read that Jesus says we have forsaken our first love, remember that He is love, and we love because He first loved us.
Someone once said that cows moo because that’s what cows do. Cats meow because that’s what cats do, and Christians love because that’s what Christians do.
So - Ephesus. All seven Churches were situated in modern-day Turkey, and Ephesus was on the west coast, separated from the Greek mainland by the Aegean Sea. It was a modern, flourishing city with a large harbour which was big enough to accommodate the largest ships in the world at the time. Ephesus grew to become one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world.
It was a religious city as well, but Christianity wasn’t the only religion in Ephesus. The temple of Diana was there, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was the largest Greek temple ever constructed. Diana was believed to be the mother goddess of the world by the Greeks. Diana was the goddess of fertility, life and reproduction, and the worship of Diana was immoral beyond description. This “worship” consisted of sexual orgies and mutilation. The Church at Ephesus had much immorality to contend with, just has the Church today has to contend with pornography and homosexual agendas, so not much has changed.
Jesus begins by commending the Ephesian Church for their faithful deeds and perseverance. He encourages them due to their witness among the world.
This was not a Sunday social club, but a body of believers who were dedicated to getting the message right, and getting the message out.
They were undeterred by the opposition they faced, and their focus was on serving the Lord whatever the cost.
The Church today needs to be just as diligent and fervent in doing the things we are called to do, even in the face of adversity and opposition.
The Ephesian Church was also determined to rid itself of false teachers and the heresies of these people. This is what it means to get the message right before getting it out. Jesus says in verse 2, “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” This is about using spiritual discernment. They knew how to evaluate men who claimed spiritual leadership by their doctrine and behaviour.
In verse 6 Jesus says, “You have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
The Nicolatians were a sect that taught our actions didn’t affect our spiritual condition. It was a ‘do as you please’ doctrine. God likes to save, I like to sin. It’s a perfect relationship.
Paul directly opposed this false doctrine in Romans 6:1-4. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
The Church at Ephesus wasn’t deceived by their false doctrine and remained true to God. As we’ll see in a couple of weeks time, the false teaching of the Nicolatians had also spread to the Church at Pergamum, and this caused huge problems for that Church.
So the Nicolatians were a powerful and influential sect which not all congregations resisted, but the Ephesian Church was one of them.
We need to guard against false doctrine in the Church today. If we don’t, what we ignore today will be accepted tomorrow. We must stand for the sake of God and our children and grandchildren. Everything we do and say has to be founded on and rooted in the Word of God.
There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Christians all over the world who are being led astray by wolves in sheep’s clothing. There are some powerful and influential people out there masquerading as Christian teachers who are doing untold damage to those who believe their lies.
The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) movement and the Word of Faith heretics are a poison and a blight on the true Church of Christ, and we need to be praying that the Lord would give us the discernment we need to stand firm.
Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.”
Can we say this about Upper Umgeni? Would Jesus tell us the same as He told the Church at Ephesus? Do we hate the sin that is in our world today and do we not tolerate wicked men and their lies, especially those who claim to be men of God but clearly are not?
Are we standing up against sin in the world and in our own lives, or are we just sitting back and letting it happen? Jesus commended the Church at Ephesus for their hard work against the wicked in their service to Him. What would He say to us?
Also, do we know the Word of God well enough to test someone’s teaching accurately and Biblically?
We need to be in the Word of God every day in order to apply it in our lives, so we would be equipped to recognise false doctrine when we hear it.
We are to be faithful to the Word of God. We must stand firm.
Unfortunately, all was not well at Ephesus. As we saw earlier, Jesus condemned them for forsaking their love for Him.
Vernon McGee writes, “They had lost that intense and enthusiastic devotion to the person of Christ. It is difficult for us to sense the state to which the Holy Spirit had brought this Church. He had brought the believers in Ephesus into an intimate and personal relationship to Jesus Christ. He had brought them to the place where they could say to the Lord, ‘We love you.’ This may seem like a very unimportant thing to us today, but their love for the Lord was very important to Christ. He was saying to the Ephesians, ‘You are leaving your first love.’ They hadn’t quite departed from that love, but they were on the way. It is difficult for us in this cold, skeptical, cynical, and indifferent day in which we live to understand this. The world has intruded into the Church to such an extent that it is hard for us to conceive of the intense, enthusiastic devotion the early Church gave to the person of Christ. The early Church first went off the track not in their doctrine, but in their personal relationship to Jesus Christ.”
I think McGee hits the nail firmly on the head here. We’ve just looked at all of the good things the Church at Ephesus was being commended for, and how we should be striving for the same, but if we lose our passionate love for God, it’s just a matter of time that our work for Him and our dedication to His truth will begin to erode.
Paul had visited Ephesus about 40 years before the book of Revelation was written and had stayed there pastoring them for about three years. Acts 19 records a powerful Christian revival which happened during Paul’s ministry there.
This was a Church which was on fire for the Lord. Their hearts were in the right place as they praised and worshipped God with all their hearts.
Their love for Christ was greater than their love for anything else, but over the years that love had begun to fade, so when Jesus dictated the letter for Ephesus to John, it was about 40 years after Paul had left Ephesus. This means that these people had 40 years to cool down from the revival that Paul had started there.
They were like many Churches today. Outwardly we see their good deeds and their religious traditions, but inwardly they are empty. So many Christians go through the motions of doing ministry activities, but is there really a zeal for Jesus Christ first and foremost?
And what about us? We can faithfully do the ministry, we can attend Church every Sunday morning because we feel that it is what is expected of us. But where is our love? 40 years earlier, Paul wrote to that same Church in Ephesus, commending them for not only their love for Christ, but also for their love for each other.
But now, Jesus scolds them because they had forsaken that love.
If there was true love for God and each other in the Church today, there would be no bickering or jealously in the Church.
Ask those on the outside what they think of the Church, and I can guarantee we’d have to hang our heads in shame at some of the replies we’d hear.
If we still had our first love for God, we would be lifting each other up instead of trying to break one another other down.
John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
John 13:35 “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Romans 12:10 “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.”
Romans 13:8 “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”
Galatians 5:13 “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
Ephesians 4:2 “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
Hebrews 10:24 “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”
1 John 3:11 “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.”
1 John 3:23 “And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us.”
1 John 4:7 “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”
1 John 4:12 “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.”
I could go on, but hopefully we get the point…
If we still had our first love, we would be praising and worshipping God with joy instead of just going through the motions.
Remember, God first loved us. If we would return to that first love, He would transform our lives and He would transform His Church. Including this one.
We are so involved in methods and self-help courses in the Church. Vernon McGee says that all these Band-Aid courses do is create Band-Aid believers.
We give people a checklist which teaches them rules and patterns to follow. We teach people how to be better people and how to get along with one another.
All of those relationships are important, but too many people think that if they can follow a few rules, they will have the key to a successful Christian life.
McGee goes on to say, “My friend, let me put it in a nutshell by asking one question: Do you love Jesus Christ? I don’t care what your system is, what your denomination is, what your program is, what little set of rules you follow, they will all come to naught if you don’t love Him. Although some systems are better than others, almost any system will work if you love Christ. An intimate relationship with Christ will make all of your relationships and all of your Christian service a joy.”
Christian love is the key. Love for Christ, and love for each other.
Jesus says in verse 5, “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
Jesus gives a solemn warning to the Church.
There are many Churches that have lost their love for Jesus. They are still meeting, but there is no power, no conviction, no joy, or praise. They have a form of religion and that is all. My earnest prayer is that this congregation would not be one of those, but that God, by His Spirit, would teach us to love Him and one another.
The church at Ephesus had good intentions. They were diligent in their labour, but their love had grown cold. Where is our love for God? Do we love Jesus as we should, because a busy Church isn’t necessarily a Church which is in love with Him.
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Revelation 2:1-7
Discuss the words of commendation and affirmation from Jesus in verses 2, 3 and 6.
What insight do these verses give us into the life of the Church in the 1st century?
How do you see the same things in the Church today (both worldwide, and in our own context)?
The Nicolatians were a sect of false teachers who taught a mixture of Christianity and paganism.
Can you think of any modern-day Nicolatian “pastors” or “churches?”
How do we protect ourselves from their heretical teaching?
Read Ephesians 1:15-23
This letter was written to the same congregation by the apostle Paul some 40 years earlier.
Compare this with Jesus’ words in Revelation 2:4-5.
Why did the Ephesian Church fall so far?
What can we do in order to guard ourselves from making the same mistakes?