The Letter to Ephesus: Revelation 2:1-7

Exploring Revelation 2:1-7

Chapters two and three of Revelation contain seven letters addressed to the seven churches that made up the most popular trade route through Asia. Although these seven brief passages are referred to as “letters” they are really more like seven messages or oracles that are proclaimed by Christ to the churches through John the Revelator.

2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:

One of the fascinating questions about Revelation 2-3 is why each letter is addressed to the “angel” of the particular churches. There are three possibilities. The first is that the letters are simply addressed to the messenger or pastor at each congregation. The Greek word for angel is the same as the word for messenger. However, it seems clear that the message in the letter is not addressed only to the leaders of the churches but to the church as a whole.

A second possibility is that John is addressing a spiritual entity that has either been assigned by God to care for each congregation or that has taken captive each church. But that seems highly unlikely contextually and would be a very unusual use of the term given the rest of the Scripture.

The majority of NT scholars offer a third alternative. They argue that the word “angel” is to be taken metaphorically as a way of describing the ‘ethos’ or ‘spirit’ of each church. In the same way that when all of parts of a human body come together a person becomes more than the sum of their parts, so too a community of individuals takes on a unique ethos or spirit that is more than the sum of its parts. The letter to Ephesus is addressed to all of the people who make up the church there, but the Lord wants to address the ethos or spirit that is emerging from their life together.

At around the time Revelation was written (approximately 95AD) the population of Ephesus was about 225,000. Although that would not be considered a major city today compared to New York or Los Angeles, in the first century that population size made Ephesus a major cosmopolitan center of culture and commerce. It is by far the largest of the seven cities addressed in Revelation 2-3. It was a major center of both cultic and emperor worship. The highlight of the city was the temple to Artemis (in Greek) or Diana (in Latin) [pictured]. The temple to this well-known and highly honored goddess of fertility was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

We can piece together from other sections of the Scripture that the church in Ephesus began under the influence of Aquila and Priscilla about AD 52 when Paul left them there on his way from Corinth to Antioch (see Acts 18:18-22). On his next missionary journey, Paul remained in Ephesus for more than two years (see Acts 19:8, 10) and sometime later Timothy ministered there (1 Tim 1:3). But it is also believed that prior to being exiled to Patmos, Ephesus was home for the apostle John and was the center of his ministry for a number of years.

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 

Jesus Christ, through the Revelator, praises the church in Ephesus for the very quality that we saw in chapter one as the primary virtue of the book of Revelation – patient endurance. They were living in the midst of perhaps the most challenging city in “Babylon” (or Rome) in which to maintain faith, and yet they were working diligently and enduring in the faith with great patience.

There certainly would have been many challenges to keeping faith in first-century Ephesus. Perhaps more so than any other city of the day, Ephesus was the center of cultural change. Located on four different water passages, every known culture and language would pass through Ephesus in pursuit of economic trade. The affluence of Ephesus would have posed a significant temptation to faithful discipleship. But most challenging would have been the lure of the pagan and nationalistic rituals that filled the temples in the city. As William Barclay comments, “The worship of the temple was a weird, ecstatic, hysterical business. To the accompaniments of shouts and wailings, the burning of incense and the playing on the flute, the worshippers worked themselves up into an emotional and hysterical frenzy in which the darkest and most shameless things could and did happen” (Barclay, 5).

The paganism of Ephesus pervaded every aspect of life in the city, including day-to-day economics. You may remember that the Apostle Paul was forced to leave the city because his preaching had begun to affect the sales of miniature statues of Artemis or Diana. Imagine what gambling means to Las Vegas, Nevada, what Walmart means to Bentonville, Arkansas or what Kellogg’s cereal means to Battle Creek, Michigan and it would be getting close to the pervasive nature of the cultic practices that filled Ephesus.

Historically, whenever the Christian church has found itself in the midst of rapid cultural change, and especially as it has found itself in the urban centers of secular culture, it has been forced to create “filters of orthodoxy.” The Ephesian church worked diligently and patiently at discerning the false from the true, the holy from the profane. They were praised for using their filters of orthodoxy to keep the faith pure in a time of great challenge.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then from what 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.

The majority of NT scholars connect the rebuke in verses 4-5 to the praises mentioned in verses 2-3. In the process of developing great filters of orthodoxy, the Ephesians had lost the centrality of Christian love for Christ and for one another that had connected them in the first place. “The Ephesian converts had known such a love in their early years; but their struggle with false teachers and their hatred of heretical teaching had apparently engendered hard feelings and harsh attitudes toward one another to such an extent that it amounted to a forsaking of the supreme Christian virtue of love” (Ladd, 39).

This loss of Christian love is not a small matter. If the Ephesian church does not recover their connection of love they will be removed from the lampstand of the churches. The threat here is reminiscent of Paul’s concern for the Corinthian church in the great love chapter – 1 Corinthians 13. One may have amazing spiritual gifts, passionate spiritual devotion, and world-shaking Christian faith, but if it is not accompanied by love, it is nothing. I might paraphrase this letter to the Ephesian church this way, “If you stand up against the heretical threats to the church’s doctrine with the most sophisticated lenses of orthodoxy and discernment you can create, but don’t have love, you are the gatekeepers of ideas but you are not the church that reflects the life of the one who walks among the lampstands.”

6 Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

The exact nature of the Nicolaitans’ teachings is a mystery for historians. It is most likely that they were teaching some form of either Gnosticism or antinomianism. Gnostics taught a radical separation of the soul and body. The goal of Gnosticism was to find the secret knowledge (“gnosis” means knowledge) that would help the soul escape the body and enter into the realm of the spirit. Antinomianism means anti-law. Some took the early church’s rejection of Torah (the Law) as a complete rejection of any ethical standards. The effect was basically the same: a rejection of the unique claims of the faith on the body. For Gnostics, as long as one’s spirit was connected to God, one could do whatever they wanted with the body. For antinomians, living wildly could be claimed to be an act of faith demonstrating how truly free one now was from the law.

If this is indeed the nature of the Nicolaitans, it is clear that this form of teaching is to be rejected. Like the church in Ephesus, the contemporary church located in the midst of a culture of rapid change has to find that balance between grace and truth that Jesus embodied perfectly in his life. Loving discernment, convicted civility, and a generous orthodoxy are all ways that some contemporary theologians have tried to describe the life Christ implores the Ephesian church to discover.

Grace without conviction becomes sentimentality. Truth without love becomes legalism. The angel of the church honors Christ when it is empowered by his Spirit to embody grace and truth.

7 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

There is a great deal of debate about what the meaning of the “tree of life” is here in this text. Because many of the believers in Ephesus were not Jewish there is some question as to whether or not John intends to make a reference to the tree of life in Genesis, or whether he is making a reference to the important role that trees played in the cultic religions in Ephesus.

If it is the former, it may mean that the tree of life that was barred from Adam and Eve in the garden is now available to those who will connect with the life-giving Spirit of Christ, now and into eternity. If it is the latter, then the meaning would be that the saints should reject the life offered by the cultic religions and find the abundant and eternal life offered only in relationship to Christ.

It is also possible that the “tree of life” became a way in the early church of describing the cross of Jesus. In this case, it could mean that the church will always find the way of love as it discovers the way of the cross.

Either way, the essence of the promise is that those who discover the loving way of Jesus in the world today, live with the assurance of being part of his eternal kingomd of life and love into eternity.

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