Ephesus, The First Church

Works, Labor, and Patience

“Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” (Revelation 2:1).

by David Wittbrodt

Ephesus, the First Church

In the first three chapters of Revelation, the apostle John addresses seven churches in sequential order. Historically, each of these churches was a city in Asia Minor. If we were to visit these churches today, the ancient city of Ephesus would naturally be our first stop. It is a port city on the west coast of present-day Turkey. The six that follow are inland, away from the coast. From Ephesus, a traveler would go to the other cities in the same order that Revelation has laid out. This suggests a time sequence for the churches, visiting Ephesus first, then Smyrna, and so on until reaching the church of Laodicea. Since the seven churches represent the entire Gospel Age, each individual church spans a set period during the age.

Ephesus, the first church, represents the first 40 years of the Gospel Age when the apostles were actively on the scene. This spans from Pentecost in 33 AD until the fall of Masada in 73 AD, which ended the Jewish revolt. This included the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the scattering of the Jews to other nations.

Pentecost marks a starting point for the Gospel Age, at which time God’s interest in mankind is no longer centered in Jerusalem and Israel. Now, God’s elect have their own place apart from Israel, leaving the Jewish nation behind. They enter a “new land,” as it were, symbolizing a “new way,” leaving behind the laws and sacrifices the Jews tried to follow, as described in Hebrews 10:1,9.

“For the law having a shadow of good things to come … can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers there unto perfect … He taketh away the first that he may establish the second.”

God is now developing a new creation, “by a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20), based on faith in the sacrifice of Jesus. This new way for the church is a clean break from the old Jewish ways and is aptly symbolized by this fresh start in Asia Minor. Ephesus serves as a good starting point for this fresh start because of the wonderful example it serves for our Christian walk today.

Star or Messenger

Each of the seven churches had an angel (star, or messenger) to guide it. Each “star” provides a guiding light, truth, and direction to the church during its particular period (Revelation 1:20). The most defining event for the church of Ephesus was the casting off of the Jewish Nation and the grafting of Gentiles into the church. The nation of Israel had been rejected as unworthy, and very early on, God invited the Gentiles into the church. Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13, Galatians 1:16, 2:7). He wrote much of the New Testament, ministering to both Jewish and Gentile brethren alike, guiding them together in this new way. Therefore, the apostle Paul was the shining star for the church of Ephesus, its messenger.

Paul’s three missionary journeys witnessed that Jesus was the true Messiah long hoped for, and that only by faith in him could anyone truly find life. Paul’s many letters to the churches attest that he continued to minister to all, and his light is still shining for us at the end of this age.

This first church period was also characterized by persecution from the Jews. They felt threatened by this new religion, especially because the apostles were former Jews and had access to the Jewish temples. The Jews felt that Christians were desecrating their holy places and they were intent on stamping out this new
offshoot.

The City of Ephesus

The ancient city of Ephesus was the capital of this region of Asia. It was wealthy, diverse, and home to the Temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This prosperity came by way of its harbor, which provided much commercial trade. The laws and decrees that came from Ephesus aptly typify the inspired teachings of the apostles to the early church. In addition to Paul, the other apostles were on the scene guiding, directing, developing, and nurturing the early Christian movement. It was a spiritually rich time indeed.

In Revelation 2:1, the Apostle John, the writer of Revelation, was instructed to send a message to the angel of this first church, the Apostle Paul. Though John was the agent, the message was not John’s. The words of the message were from “he that holdeth the seven stars in his right [favored] hand, who [actively] walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” (the seven churches, Revelation 2:1). In other words, the message was from the one who tends and cares for the seven churches, Jesus, our head.

By the time John wrote this message to Paul (around 96 AD), the first epoch of the church, Ephesus, was complete, and the Smyrna church period had begun. The implication is that the message of Ephesus was given for the later churches so that they would have a complete spiritual picture of the entire church age. Let us examine the verses in Revelation 2 that share the message to the Ephesian church and extract applications for us to use in our daily walk.

Commendation

Jesus spoke directly to the church in verses 2 and 3, commending them for their good deeds and growth. He was aware of all the good deeds (“works”) of the church on his behalf and their prolonged toil and efforts (“labors”) in accomplishing those good deeds for him. It was done with cheerful endurance (“patience”).

More than any other church period, the Ephesus church avoided the trappings of the worldly influences that were among them and the false teachers spreading flawed beliefs (“lies”). Many individuals looking for apostolic authority emerged during this time, but their efforts were resisted and they were shown to be liars. 1 John 4:1 says, “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” This vigilance for pure doctrines held true while the apostles were on the scene. It deteriorated rapidly once they were gone. False doctrines multiplied in the centuries that followed and are still prevalent today. This is a stark warning for us today, but for which the Ephesus church is a fine example.

Jesus recognizes that the church of Ephesus had carried (“borne”) its difficulties and trials with “patience … for [his] name’s sake” (Revelation 2:3), and continued in these efforts without weariness, without slowing down.

Concerns

While the early church was faithful in much, they left their first love (verse 4). When Jesus was put to death on the cross, his followers, including the Apostles, were scattered and disillusioned. There was so much that they could not understand. But by Pentecost, they knew enough that they could count the cost of discipleship and consecrate their lives to Christ. Within that time, from the cross to Pentecost, Jesus taught them God’s plan concerning the ransom price paid, the call of the church, and the future kingdom, things they could not have known earlier.

They fell in love with the Plan of God, just like we also have. In time, that love faded. Perhaps their focus shifted away from Christ, to each others’ faults and deficiencies, leading them to talk among themselves, distracting them from their true purpose, their first love. The lesson for us all today is to remain vigilant toward Christ and avoid distractions of the flesh: judging one another, disrespecting our neighbors, and losing sight of pure love.

Remedy

The church of Ephesus was told to remedy this by remembering, repenting, and returning to their first love (verse 5). By following these admonitions, we, the body of Christ, are sure to keep our focus on our first love as well. We should first remember the burning excitement and zeal for the newfound truths that we had when we first understood God’s plan and the good deeds that it produced.

Then we are told to repent from our “fallen” course. We must always remember that we are all fallen in God’s eyes. We are not to focus on one another’s faults, but look to our first love, Jesus, who has covered all of our sins. It is no wonder that Jesus gave us a new commandment to love one another (John 13:34, 15:10). Only by doing these things will we be able to return to our first love. If we do not repent, our position as light-bearers in the world will be taken from us.

Verse 6 points us to another matter that the Ephesus church did well. They avoided “the deeds of the Nicolaitanes,” which Jesus also hates. The word “Nicolaitanes” comes from nikos, which means to conquer or subdue, and laos, which means the people (laity). It literally implies to conquer and lord over the people. The apostles were careful not to establish nor allow this practice of church hierarchy, something they recognized in the Jewish system. Despite their apostolic authority, the apostles treated everyone as equals, brothers and sisters in Christ (Galatians 3:28, 29, 1 Peter 5:3), avoiding the deeds of the Nicolaitanes.

Promise

Finally, in verse 7, a promise was given to the overcomers, to those who diligently seek to follow the Lord’s direction. “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” Each of the messages in Revelation was especially valuable to the church for which it was written. In addition, these special messages apply to Church members living throughout the Gospel Age. They are to heed these admonitions given by the Spirit.

The promise given to the church of Ephesus is life in its fullest sense, immortality. The symbolism used, the tree of life, reminds us of the earthly Eden. Perhaps this promise was selected for Ephesus because during their period an understanding of life was regained, and its true value was understood in its fullest sense.

The church of Ephesus is a profound example for us to live by today. Let us keep in mind the church of Ephesus in our daily walk and learn from their mistakes (and their commendations).

Let us keep our focus on our first love, Jesus, and his ransoming power. Let us remain vigilant and keep the true doctrines in our hearts, avoiding the temptation to look for faults in one another. Rather, let us encourage, support, and pray for our brethren.

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