The Letter to the Church at Ephesus (2:1-7)
It is appropriate that the first of the seven letters goes to Ephesus, for although not the titular capital of Asia (Pergamum held that honor), it was the most important political center of all. By the time the church received this letter, the city of Ephesus had grown to a population of @ 250,000. The imperial cult was present in Ephesus, as the temples of Claudius, Hadrian, Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Severus give ample testimony.
Religion and magic were hopelessly intertwined and the magical arts were widely prevalent (cf. Acts 19:19). As Charles put it, Ephesus “was a hotbed of every kind of cult and superstition” (48). The most preeminent of all religious attractions was the Temple of Diana (Artemis), construction of which began in 356 b.c. It was regarded as one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. According to Aune, the platform on which the temple was built measured more than 100,000 square feet. Pliny the Elder gives the dimensions as 425 ft. long, 220 ft. wide (hence, 93,500 square feet), and 60 ft. high (Hist. Nat. xxxvi. 95ff.). Some 127 pillars were of Parian marble and 36 were overlaid with gold and jewels.
Christianity came to Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla in a.d. 52 when Paul left them there as he traveled from Corinth to Antioch (Acts 18:18-22). On his next missionary journey Paul remained and worked in Ephesus for more than two years (Acts 18:8,10) and sometime later Timothy ministered there (1 Tim. 1:3). The effect of the gospel in that city is best illustrated by the incident recorded in Acts 19:23-41 (esp. vv. 23-29; the theater mentioned there could accommodate more than 24,000 people).
It was believed that the apostle John spent his final years in Ephesus, from which city he also wrote his gospel account. Eusebius records that he was buried there. Later tradition also locates the grave of Mary, mother of Jesus, in Ephesus.
Each of the seven letters to the seven churches, with one exception (3:7), is prefaced with a description of Jesus taken from 1:12-18. Furthermore, in most cases the description is especially relevant to the circumstances of the church being addressed.
The letter proceeds from him who “holds” the 7 stars in his right hand and who “walks” in the midst of the 7 golden lampstands. The meaning of this symbolism is given in the immediately preceding verse (1:20). But notice the advance made from the description in 1:13,16 to that of 2:1. He not only “has” the stars, he “holds” (lit., grasps) them. He not only “stands” in the midst of the lampstands, he “walks” among them! Our Lord patrols the churches with an intense and ever present awareness of all thoughts, deeds, and activities. Thus it is no surprise that each letter begins with the ominous, “I know your deeds” (2:2,9,13,19; 3:1,8,15).
In a book written to strengthen faith, the emphasis on “words” or “deeds” is important. Words are the criterion of the genuineness of faith. He who has true faith, works. He who does not, has not.
As is true, generally speaking, of all the churches, there is in this first letter both commendation and complaint (the exceptions: Smyrna and Philadelphia have no complaint and Laodicea has no commendation).
The commendation of the church in Ephesus is quite notable and involves three virtues (cf. 1 Thess. 1:3). Under the general category of “works” or “deeds” we find the first two virtues:
(1) “Toil” – Lit., “toiled to the point of exhaustion.” It refers to a spending of oneself in arduous labor. Apparently Ephesus was a busy, active church. It no doubt had all the programs and activities we normally associate with a church that is spiritual and passionate. They were truly diligent and conscientious.
(2) “Endurance” – The KJV renders it “patience” and the NASB has “perseverance.” He is perhaps referring to their diligence in bearing the persecution and hostility of an unbelieving society. Despite the temptations which assaulted them from every quarter, they stood unswerving and firm in their allegiance to Christ.
(3) “Orthodoxy” – This virtue is described in vv. 2 and 6. This was their most stellar achievement. No false doctrine could ever raise its ugly head in Ephesus without being decapitated by the swift stroke of biblical truth. The Lord heartily commends their doctrinal purity. The orthodoxy of the Ephesian church manifested itself in three ways:
First, according to v. 2a, they refused to bear with men of evil inclination. They firmly resisted those whose lives were outwardly licentious.
Second, according to v. 2b, they have tried and tested those who lay claim to being apostles. “Evil men” and false “apostles” is a two-fold reference to the same group of individuals, the former a description of their disposition and the latter of their doctrine. The precise identity of these men is left unstated, but “they were probably claiming to be part of the outer circle of apostles, wider than the twelve, which included James the Just, Silas, Andronicus, and Junia (Acts 14:14; Rom. 16:7; 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19; 1 Thess. 2:6)” (Beale, 229). Paul had warned the Ephesian elders of precisely this scenario. Upon returning to Palestine after the third missionary journey, Paul’s ship put in at Miletus some 35 miles from Ephesus. He sent for the elders and spoke to them of the emergence within their midst of heretical teachers. See Acts 20:28-31. How did they respond? They listened . . . and they tested what they heard (cf. 1 Thess. 5:21-22; 1 John 4:1-6). Then they categorically rejected the message and the messengers.
Third, according to v. 6, they joined Jesus in hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans (yes, Jesus does “hate” certain things). Who were the Nicolaitans? Early tradition among the church fathers (most notably Irenaeus) identifies them with Nicolas, the proselyte of Antioch who was appointed one of the first seven deacons (servants) in Acts 6:5. This, however, is highly unlikely. They are mentioned again in 2:15 in the letter to Pergamum and by implication in 2:14 and 2:20-21. The name itself may be derived from two words which mean “victory” (nikos) and “people” (laos), thus the idea of their consumption or overpowering of the people. They were evidently licentious and antinomian and advocated an unhealthy compromise with pagan society and the idolatrous culture of Ephesus.
It is most likely that the “teaching” of the Nicolaitans is identical with the “teaching” of Balaam (2:14-15). The similarity of language also suggests that Jezebel and her followers (2:20-24) constituted a group of Nicolaitans in Thyatira. They are all said to be guilty of enticing God’s people “to eat things sacrificed to idols” and “to commit acts of immorality” (2:14-15,20). Whether or not the “immorality” is of a literal, sexual nature, or is metaphorical for spiritual apostasy and idolatry, will be addressed later on.
The Ephesian believers, however, were not duped. Neither were they so nave as to believe that Christian charity can tolerate such false teaching. “Love,” writes Stott, “embraces neither error nor evil” (26). Note also the contrast: they “bear” trials and tribulations for Christ’s sake (v. 3) but they cannot “bear” the company of these evil men (vv. 2,6).
But there comes a time when doctrine is not enough! This high and lofty commendation from Jesus is coupled with an equally incisive complaint (v. 4). The principle revealed here is that “every virtue carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction” (Mounce, 88). Perhaps the Ephesians’ desire for orthodoxy and the exclusion of error had created a climate of suspicion and mistrust in which brotherly love could no longer exist. As Barclay says, “the eagerness to root out all mistaken men had ended in a sour and rigid orthodoxy” (I:77).
The words do not make it clear whether the “first love” which they had abandoned was love for Christ or for their fellow-Christians, but both may be in view. The subsequent command to “do the first works” which are a reflection of that love indicates that brotherly love may be the prominent idea.
In his epistle to the Ephesians, written some 30 years earlier, Paul had alluded to the fervency of their love for one another (1:15-16) as well as concluded the letter with a blessing on those “who love our Lord Jesus Christ with a love incorruptible” (6:24). But a new generation had arisen within the church which paid little heed to those words. The tide of devotion to Christ and Christian had turned and was fast ebbing. That the decrease in love for Christ issues in a loss of love for our fellow-Christian is self-evident:
“Where love for God wanes, love for man diminishes, and where love for man is soured, love for God degenerates into religious formalism, and both constitute a denial of the revelation of God in Christ. If the price paid by the Ephesians for the preservation of true Christianity was the loss of love, the price was too high, for Christianity without love is a perverted faith” (Beasley-Murray, 75).
Our Lord does not leave the Ephesians and their problem without a solution. Note the three terse commands of v. 5. [Before doing so, however, observe what he does not recommend: He does not recommend that they become lax theologically or tolerant of error!]
First, remember (from where you have fallen) – Here their “first love” is pictured as a height from which the church had fallen. To remember is to reflect and meditate on the peak of brotherly affection they once enjoyed.
Second, repent – Simply put, stop . . . then start. Stop the cold-hearted disregard for one another (and for Jesus) and start cultivating that affection you formerly had.
Third, do – In particular, do “the deeds you did at first” (cf. Heb. 6:10).
Failure to comply will lead to the imminent removal of their lampstand, i.e., the termination of their influence or public witness (cf. 11:3-7,10; see also Mark 4:21; Lk. 8:16) as a body of believers. The “coming” of Jesus in v. 5 is not the Second Advent at the end of history but a “coming” in preliminary judgment and discipline of this church (cf. 2:16; 3:20; and perhaps 3:5; the Second Advent, however, is probably in view in 2:25 and 3:11). It may even be that Jesus is threatening the end of this congregation’s historical existence.
The conclusion, like that in each of the letters, is an exhortation to heed what has been said. The exhortation assumes a mixed audience, not all of whom will respond positively (cf. Mt. 13:9-17; Mark 4:9,23; Lk. 8:8). Whereas some have thought that “what the Spirit says to the churches” implies that the Spirit is identical with Jesus, most likely this indicates that the exalted Christ speaks through the prophetic Spirit.
The promise for those who “overcome” is participation in “the tree (zulon) of life which is in the paradise of God”. There are brief references to “the tree of life” in Prov. 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; and 15:4. This tree is mentioned 4x in Revelation (2:7; 22:2,14,19). Aune believes that this points to “a restoration of God’s original intention for humankind that was frustrated by sin, for Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden to prevent them from eating of the tree of life (Gen. 3:24)” (1:152). Thus in paradise the verdict of Eden is reversed (“there shall be no more curse,” Rev. 22:3). The original condition of Adam in his unfallen state will be restored (and, no doubt, enhanced). But Aune then goes on to suggest that “the tree of life is not simply a symbol for eternal life alone, but also represents the cosmic center of reality where eternal life is present and available, and where God dwells” (1:152).
Colin Hemer (The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting) contends that there was something analogous to the tree of life in the Diana cult in Ephesus that makes this promise in v. 7 especially relevant.
He begins by arguing that the reference may actually be to the cross of Christ. In the book of Acts (5:30; 10:39; 13:29) explicit reference is make to the “tree” (zulon) on which Jesus was crucified; likewise in Gal. 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24. [By the way, the Greek word for “cross” (stauros) never occurs in Revelation.]
Hemer then points to the fact that two passages in ancient literature describe the foundation of the temple of Diana as a tree shrine! Inscriptions on coins from that era indicate that the tree, together with the bee and the stag, were distinctively associated with Diana of Ephesus. In addition, the temple was famous as a place of refuge or asylum for fleeing criminals, whose safety there was described as soteria (“salvation”!). For the Ephesian believers, “the cross [the tree of life] was the place of refuge for the repentant sinner in contrast with the tree [in Diana’s temple] which marked the asylum for the unrepentant criminal” (55). Diana’s “tree” of refuge gave the criminal immunity to continue his crimes. Christ’s “tree” of refuge, on the other hand, gives the repentant sinner eternal forgiveness! The so-called “salvation” of the fleeing criminal corrupted the city of Ephesus. “The Ephesian who had to live with this problem understood the promise of a city-sanctuary pervaded by the glory of God. Of that city it was said: ‘There shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie’ (Rev. 21:27)” (51).