The Letters to the Seven Churches Introduction and Letter to Ephesus
Philippe R. Sterling
The Lord of the Church judges the seven churches of Asia which represent the possible state of churches of any time (2:1–3:22).
What do you look for in a church? Many churches believe they must have a dynamic, young, good looking pastor with a hot wife who raises beautiful children, has a professional singing voice, and conducts a weekly Bible class for the women of the church. Other churches think they will attract the crowds with a lavish sanctuary, a first rate orchestra, or a contemporary worship band. None of those things are necessarily bad, but are they the important things?
What does Jesus look for in a church? The Lord who “builds” the church has spoken concerning what He wants and doesn’t want in His churches. The theme of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 is “Jesus speaks to His churches.”
Chapter one of the Book of Revelation ended with Christ as the Lord of the church moving in the midst of the seven golden lampstands which represented the seven churches in the first-century Roman province called Asia, the western part of the present-day country of Turkey. Jesus told John to write to the seven churches about how they should respond to the prophecy of His coming.
The seven churches were seven literal churches that existed in Asia Minor in the first century A.D. These churches were real. People attended services in them and listened to the messages. Although the letters were written in the first century, they apply to our contemporary churches and have personal value to every believer. These letters have not been assigned to the national archives to gather dust. They are as current as today’s calendar, and they offer a comprehensive evaluation for churches today. Here we have WWJS – What Would Jesus Say.
Ephesus was the largest city in the area and probably the largest church. Ephesus served as a “mother” church to the other six which were connected by Roman highways. It would be like sending letters today to churches in Dallas, Irving, Coppell, Lewisville, Carrollton, The Colony, Frisco, and Plano.
Those churches in the first-century represent the variety of spiritual conditions that have characterized local churches throughout the centuries since Christ’s first coming to earth. In other words, the messages to the churches are commentaries on existing conditions of churches up to and even including churches of the twenty-first century.
Since the churches of John’s time, like the churches of the present had areas that needed improvement, John at Jesus’ command devotes the next two chapters of Revelation (chapters 2–3) to challenging the seven churches to attend to their areas of need, especially in light of the imminence of His return.
In essence, Jesus reminded the churches that judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Before He begins to judge the world, He calls the churches to repentance. Churches 1 and 7 are in grave danger; churches 2 and 6 are in excellent shape, churches 3, 4, and 5 are middling, neither very good nor very bad.
Before considering each of the seven letters that follows, we should note some of their features as a group. They are similar in that they are all brief, and each contains a unique description of the Lord Jesus, mostly drawn from 1:12-20, that is appropriate to that church. Moreover each contains a word of commendation (except the letter to Laodicea) and each carries some rebuke for the congregation (except those to Smyrna and Philadelphia). Furthermore each exhorts its readers to specific action, and each holds out a promise as an incentive for faithful obedience. These promises in some cases present interpretative difficulties. Each is future reward oriented and is correlated with the last two chapters of the book (21—22). Furthermore, the promises are echoes of Genesis 2—3: what was lost originally by Adam in Eden is more than regained in Christ.
One of the crucial issues is the identity of the overcomers. Some commentators propose that the overcomers represent all believers on the basis of 1 John 5:4-5. However, we are dealing with two distinctly different contexts. In 1 John 5, John is speaking of people who through a single instance of faith in Christ overcome the blindness intrinsic to the present world system so hostile to the gospel. Understanding the message of life and believing it is truly a significant victory. In that sense they have “overcome the world.” But the victory that Jesus is looking for from His people in Revelation 2-3 is subsequent to their faith in Christ for eternal life and results in eternal rewards such as partaking of the tree of life (2:7), ruling with Christ over the nations of the earth (2:26; 3:21), and the confession of the overcomer’s name before the Father and His angels (3:5) to name a few. This kind of victory (i.e., overcoming) is not by faith alone as in 1 John 5, but involves demanding endeavors such as keeping Christ’s works “until the end” (2:26). We are talking about two different types of victory. The overcomers here in chapters 2-3 are those people who not only believe in Christ for eternal life, but walk in godliness (see 2 Pet 1:5-11) and remain faithful to Him until the end of their lives (see 2:26; Matthew 25:19-21; 2 Timothy 2:12).
The Lord Jesus judges the church at Ephesus that left its first love (2:1-7).
THE LOVE CONNECTION
The church at Ephesus was one of the outstanding churches of the apostolic era. Paul, Timothy, and John all served this church in the first century. Aquila and Priscilla were also involved at Ephesus, as was Apollos. This was a privileged church.
Ephesus was known as the “metropolis of Asia.” It was self-governing. There was no permanent Roman military stationed there. It was a large and prosperous city. Even today, its ruins are the most extensive in the region. It had a population of more than 250,000 people. It also had a large Jewish population.
The largest structure at Ephesus was the Temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The temple stood on a platform measuring over 100,000 square feet. That’s twice the size of a football field. The temple was supported by 100 marble columns 55 feet in height. Inside the temple stood the statue of the goddess Diana, Artemis in Greek.
Portrayal of Jesus
In each letter the exalted Christ presents Himself in a way selected for the most part from the description in chapter one which is relevant to the condition of the church addressed. In this instance He emphasizes His watchful relationship to the churches and their leaders in two ways. He holds fast the seven stars or messengers, and He is walking in the midst of the churches.
It was the assignment of the High Priest to go into the Holy Place and there to trim and light and care for the seven golden lampstands. In the great picture of the Lord Jesus here in the Revelation, He is dressed in His kingly and priestly robes, and He is walking in the midst of these seven golden lampstands. As He walks among His lampstands, He pours in sacred oil, He takes out impurities, He trims the wick and He makes the light to shine.
Jesus walks among His churches and sees everything that affects their flame. He sends messages that congratulate, criticize, and counsel.
Praise for the Church
The Lord commends them for their labor, patience, faithfulness, and endurance (verses 2-3). They were excelling in hard work. They had stood true to the faith despite their pagan surroundings. The constant lure of temptation was all around them, yet they remained pure. They rejected false apostles and hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans – false teachers who claimed the actions of the body didn’t affect your spirit, so go out and sin up a storm. They did not tolerate false doctrine and false practices. Yet as time wore on, they had begun to lose their first priority.
Criticism of the Church
Sounds like a great church, doesn’t it? But Jesus saw past all the pious façade. The church at Ephesus had heart trouble. Jesus said, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (verse 4). What a shock to be told that you don’t love Christ as you once did. These Ephesians (and the spiritual Ephesians of our time) had stopped loving Christ and each other the way they once had done.
We hear the same about marriage. “I just don’t love him anymore,” the wife complains to a counselor. What happened to the girl whose heart beat faster when she heard his car outside? Where is the man who used to bring flowers and tell her how lucky he was to have found her? The “Ephesian” marriages have lost the thrill of first love.
“Have you ever been in love with God? How can we avoid ‘leaving our first love’?”
Once the diagnosis is made, the prescription can be written. Here are three steps to renewing love.
First, remember (literally “keep on remembering”) what it was like. Relive the thrill of romance. When I see the tears of joy in the eyes of men, women, and children who have believed in Jesus for eternal life, when I perform a marriage and see the faces of that couple as they look at each other, I want to touch them and say, “Don’t lose your first love.”
Second, repent and turn your life around. Take steps to make that relationship right again.
Third, repeat – “do the things you did at first” – those acts of first love, even if you don’t feel like it. Do those acts of first love and the feelings will follow! Restore the original fellowship that was diminished by neglect. Reengage in prayer, Bible reading and reflection, obedient service, and worship.
We are to preserve continually the warm and intimate love for Jesus that we first had when we learned of His self-sacrifice for us, the sacrifice which made our salvation possible. It’s partly for that purpose that we often participate in the Lord’s Supper.
“Watch your motivation,” says Jesus. “Renew often your love for Me.”
Penalty or Reward
Jesus warns the church at Ephesus that it would lose its light and testimony in the community if the first love was not revived. He might even close the church’s door (which He eventually did).
Jesus includes in every one of the letters to the churches the same admonition: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The use of the plural “the churches” indicates the universal aspect of the invitation. By means of this call the message to a single congregation is extended to all the churches of Asia and through them, as representatives, to the church throughout the world. The ordinary title “the Spirit” is substituted for the visional symbol of “the seven Spirits.” The exalted Son of Man gives His message through the Spirit.
Hear and respond to the message sent to the church at Ephesus. In our busy lives we may allow our love relationship with the Lord to grow weak. The church at Ephesus has an important message for us: the Lord is to have priority in our lives.
Promise to Overcomers
To the one who listens and overcomes, Jesus promises that he will eat of the Tree of Life which is in the Paradise of God. This reward is reminiscent of the original paradise in Genesis 1–2 where Adam and Eve were allowed to eat from any tree in the Garden, including the tree of life. At the end of the Book of Revelation the tree of life is described as bearing twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month, with leaves that bring healing to the nations (22:2). Not everyone has the right to eat from the tree of life (22:14). A believer can forfeit the right to eat from the tree by adding to or taking away from the words of Revelation (22:19). Aside from this we know little about the tree of life. Its vagueness makes this reward even more tantalizing and motivating.
WWJS to the church that left its first love: “Watch your motivation. Renew your love.”