Broadcasting now. Watch Live.

Ephesus: Loveless Fidelity

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:1-7


Well, I encourage you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Revelation 2. Revelation 2. Last week, we completed our study of chapter 1 and tonight we come to a new section. Just to remind you of what we’ve seen so far, in chapter 1:1-20, it’s the things which you have seen - the outline, of course, given by chapter 1:19, “the things which you have seen.” And in the first chapter, we saw the setting of Jesus’ prophecy. Tonight, we began the second major section, and that is, “the things which are” - the state of Jesus’ church. This encompasses all of chapters 2 and 3 as we see the letters to the seven churches.

Now, even though we’re putting these in a different section, don’t forget that in reality, the letters to the seven churches in these two chapters are really a continuation, a continuation of the vision that began in chapter 1. Christ displays Himself to John and then He commands him to write. And chapters 2 and 3, Christ is still dictating to John as this continues.

When you look about - when you look at, rather, the seven churches and the letters to each of these churches, there are some different approaches that people take in terms of how to understand why there are seven and exactly what are these. Well, let me give you the different interpretations.

First of all, there is the obvious interpretation, and that is, these are actually seven first century churches located in seven cities in Asia Minor. That seems fairly obvious and certainly I think that is true.

Another view is that this, in addition to those churches, it also encompasses all the churches in the first century. And here’s the way this argument goes. Just as the rest of the letters of the New Testament speak to all churches in every place in time - 1 Corinthians wasn’t just to the Corinthians, it was to all churches, to all believers - in the same way, these letters characterize or are written to believers in all churches in every place. And it makes sense. Notice at the end of each letter, all churches are encouraged to take note of what is written. Look down in verse 7 of chapter 2: “He who has an ear, let him hear [notice this] what the Spirit says to the churches [plural].” Even though the letter is addressed to one church, the promise is for all churches and, ultimately, the instruction is for all churches as well. Another way to argue that this represents not only those seven actual churches but it’s, in essence, written to all the churches in the first century, is Christ could have added a number of other churches in that region of Asia Minor. We know of a number of churches that were there. But the fact that He addresses only these seven, and that these seven were on that major postal route, and they were key hub cities, implies that His instructions are not only for these seven churches, which they are, but also for the surrounding churches as well. Another argument for this is Revelation is, of course, filled with symbols, as we will see, and since the number seven occurs so frequently in this book and often speaks of completeness, it may well be that not only are these seven churches meant, but all churches are implied as well, so, seven first century churches, all churches in the first century.

A third view is all churches throughout church history, that is, it includes every church in all times.

A fourth view that isn’t as common but it’s out there (you may encounter it) is that, really, we’re not talking about seven churches. It’s really just a literary device for Christ to instruct all churches then and now. It’s kind of related to #3, but a different sort of approach to it.

And then, a fifth view is that these seven letters actually are not primarily written to seven churches, although some who take this view would see that they’re also written to the seven churches in Asia Minor, but they would say in addition to that, or perhaps beside that (some), there are successive movements throughout church history and each of these letters represents those movements. So, for example, the letter to the church in Ephesus represents the time of the early church after the apostles and so forth, working through the rest of church history. And, of course, that’s a bit arbitrary. And, you know, exactly where do you cut it off? And where do you start the next period of church history? And how it’s represented in these churches? But that is a common view that is out there.

So, what is the appropriate view? I think, as we go through them, you will see that a combination of the first three makes the most sense. There are seven literal churches located in seven cities in first century Asia Minor, but Christ intended these letters to speak to all the churches in the first century. And beyond that, He intended them to speak to all churches like ours, throughout church history, and in all places. So, I hope that makes sense to you.

Now, when we look at the letters themselves, there is, as I think you understand, a repeating structure. In our English text, you can see that these seven letters all follow this similar structure but, frankly, in Greek it’s even clearer. So, let me show you exactly how each of these letters unfolds.

First of all, every single one of them begins this way: “To the angel of the [in whatever city/church] write...” You see, the Greek structure is a little different from our own but “To the angel of the in Ephesus church write...”, “To the angel of the in Smyrna church write...”, and so forth.

Secondly, that is followed by this statement in every case: “This says the one”, and that is followed then by a description, a personalized self-description of Christ from the vision in chapter 1. So, He begins His statement to the churches by saying, “This says the one”, and then He describes Himself. Christ intentionally describes Himself with one of the features from the vision in chapter 1 that is especially suited to either the needs or the condition of that church.

The third element of all seven letters is, “I know”. It’s interesting. I was struck with this in the Greek text, as I was reading through it, just within the last few weeks. Again and again, seven times, Jesus says to these churches, “I know”, “I know”. And the word He uses for “know”, here, is a word that implies full, comprehensive knowledge. It’s not progressive, gaining of knowledge but, rather, “I have this sweeping, comprehensive knowledge”, “I know”. It’s a sobering reality that Jesus knows every church. He knows our church. He knows every church that exists in the DFW area, every church that exists everywhere - “I know”.

Now, that is followed by a commendation of the good, and that happens in all seven churches except Laodicea. And then, there’s a correction of the sin in that church, and that happens in all the churches except two, Smyrna and Philadelphia. And then, there’s a call for repentance where there is, in fact, a correction.

There’s an interesting pattern, if you look at the seven churches. Think about this for a moment. There’s seven of them. One and seven, as we will see, are in serious danger for different reasons. Two and six are faithful churches with no obvious flaws. And the middle three (3, 4, and 5), have a mix of strengths and weaknesses. So, “I know” - that’s the third part of the repeating structure.

The fourth part is this: “The one having ears, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

And then, finally, the fifth part of the structure is: “To the one overcoming”, followed by Christ’s personalized promise to the persevering believer or believers in that church. Now, with the final four churches - numbers four and five here in my list are reversed for no apparent reason. You’ll see that when we get there. But both elements are still there.

Now, look again at those five elements. The first two serve as an introduction to each letter, identifying the one writing and those to whom it’s addressed. The third is the body of the letter. And then, the last two serve as the conclusion of the letter. And that’s the structure that we’re going to follow with each of these letters as we work our way through them.

So, let’s begin tonight with the first of the seven letters to the church in Ephesus. You follow along. Revelation 2:1-7: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place - unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’”

In this first letter to the first of the seven churches, Christ warns His church of the deadly danger of losing its first love, and He also explains how to recover it. With each of these seven letters, I’m going to use the same basic outline, just as Christ does. So, we’re going to see the introduction to the letter, the body of the letter, and then the conclusion of the letter. So, let’s look then at Ephesus, a church known for its loveless fidelity, it’s loveless faithfulness.

He begins in verse 1 with the introduction to the letter, the command to write. Notice verse 1 begins, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write...” Now, as we discovered, the letters are intended for all the members of each church but are sent to and through the key leader in each church and that’s the meaning of the expression, “the angel of the church”. I’m not going to go back and defend that; we’ve already been through that.

But from this first phrase in verse 1, we are reminded of several important elements here in this introduction. First of all, we are exposed to the character of the city. It’s to Ephesus. Just to remind you where Ephesus is, it’s there in Asia Minor. This is a map, and you can see where the Red Star is. That’s where the city of Ephesus is, right on the coast, close to the Aegean Sea, in a strategically important place. Now, Ephesus is addressed first because if you leave Patmos, which is out in the Aegean Sea, and you go to the coast of Asia Minor, the first major city on that postal route I’ve shown you, was the city of Ephesus. It was a politically important city. Pergamum was actually the capital of the province of Asia, but Ephesus was the greatest city of that region. Even the Roman governor resided there. It was a free city with the right of self-government. Its population was somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000. The theater which still stands, in which I’ve been and have held a meeting there, seats about 25,000 people - the great theater. There’re two but the great one, the large one, holds about 25,000 people. It was a major city. It was economically prosperous. It was situated on a major trade route that ran from the Euphrates, in the east, to Italy and Greece in the west. In addition, two other major roads passed near the city. The ancient geographer, Strabo, describes Ephesus as the market of Asia. All of the goods of the east and of the west met in Ephesus. It had access to the Mediterranean through the Castor River, which flowed down about 3 miles to the Aegean Sea. It was the primary harbor at that time for the province of Asia. That became increasingly more difficult, however, because silt from the Caster River continually filled up the harbor, and even during Paul’s time and before, there were a number of attempts to dredge the harbor, but it was eventually lost. But even in Paul’s time, it was becoming less and less important because of the silt that was filling in that harbor.

Here are just a few pictures of the ruins of Ephesus. If you go with us next year, as it looks like we’re going to be able to go to visit the cities of Paul, we will visit the ruins of Ephesus. It’s a magnificent city. These pictures don’t do it justice, but this will give you just an idea of the setting. Here is a street near the Temple of Domitian, there in Ephesus. You can get a feel for the surroundings, the Mediterranean feel. Here is a street that goes down to the Library of Celsus. And here you’re in the great theater where they chanted for two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians”. It’s still there. Lord willing, we’ll have a meeting there. And you can see the major road that heads out toward the Aegean. It’s still - again, all of these things are there and there’s so much to see. There’re ruins. You can see the way houses were decorated, some of the frescoes and the mosaics on the floors - really magnificent. And it was a magnificent city. The ruins of Ephesus today, because of that silt process, actually are almost 6 miles from the Aegean Sea. The city was known for the Ionian Games which, in that day, rivaled the Olympic Games in prestige and were held annually.

Although it was outwardly an attractive, prosperous, ancient city, there was a dark side to Ephesus. It was known for the occult. According to Acts 19:11-17, even some of the Jews who lived there were into exorcisms. It was known for its connection to magic and spells. In fact, the first century called books of incantations, “Ephesian writings”. And in Acts 19:18-19, we’re told that just those Ephesians who were converted to Christ, just the ones who were redeemed, had a collection of magic books worth 50,000 Greek drachmas. One drachma was about one day’s pay, so they burned (the Christians who were saved burned) books of magic incantations worth 50,000 days’ pay.

Ephesus was also famous and, frankly, was most famous for the great Temple of Artemis, or Diana as she was called in Latin. This is an artist’s rendering and reconstruction of the great Temple of Artemis. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. It was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens. There was a 35-foot-wide road paved entirely with marble that wound its way from the city of Ephesus out to the temple which was almost a mile away. The area of the temple itself, as you can see here in the reconstruction, the area of the temple was larger than a football field. The roof was supported by 127 marble columns, each 6 feet in diameter and 60 feet high.

The temple also served as one of the largest banks in the ancient world. There was an area in the back of the temple where your valuables could be held, and many people put them there. It was considered one of the safest places. In addition, Rome declared the Temple of Artemis, and eventually the territory within a bow shot (about 200 yards) a legal sanctuary, which meant that criminals could not be arrested within the temple precincts or up to 200 yards beyond it. So, you can only imagine what happened as a result. It doesn’t seem like a great idea, you know, having a bank and criminals in the same location, but this is the way it worked.

It was a beautiful building, as you can even see from the recreation. But understand this, it was a disgusting place. Artemis was not a beautiful goddess. She was an ugly, squat goddess with these series of multiple breasts protruding from her chest - ugly, deformed. But she was the goddess of fertility, and so, there were 1000 priests and priestesses who served the temple, with rooms in the temple for religious prostitution. It was an act of worship. The Temple of Artemis was one of the city’s great sources of income. Each spring they held a month-long festival to honor the goddess. It included athletic contests, plays, and even music concerts. You remember, when Paul and his companions were in Ephesus, they were confronted by those who worshipped the goddess during their time there in Acts 19. Charms connected to the worship of Artemis were extremely popular. In fact, one of the leading Olympians of that era said whenever he wore one of the charms from the Temple of Artemis, he always won. And the one time he didn’t wear it, he lost. They were widely believed to cure sickness and to bring good luck. And you’ll remember that Paul’s ministry in Ephesus ended because of a riot instigated by a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who was concerned about the effect of Paul’s ministry on the sale of charms and statues associated with the worship of Artemis. That’s when you remember, as I said before, they gathered in the theater (that great theater there seats 25,000 people) and shouted for more than two hours at the Christians, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians”.

So, think about this. The area around the Temple of Diana was a strange mixture of pagan worship, ritual prostitution, financial deals of the highest order, criminal activity, and even the arts. That’s Ephesus. And you thought Dallas was bad! But even in Ephesus, Christ had His church.

And that brings us to... We’ve seen the character of the city, let’s consider for a moment the history of the church. Verse 1 says, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write...” Now, the word for “church”, as you know, is the word ekklesia. It simply means “an assembly”. Its etymology means “those who are called out for a meeting”. But by the time of the first century, largely, that etymology was lost, and it was just a general word for “the assembly” but, in Christian sense, the assembly that was the church. In the Old Testament, in the Septuagint, this word ekklesia describes the assembly of Israel when they come together. In the New Testament, the word ekklesia is used of one of three things. It’s used of all believers who are in the body of Christ. Jesus Himself was the first to use it that way in Matthew 16:18 when He said, “I will build My church”. It’s used, secondly, of a particular assembly of believers in one local church. It’s used that way, as we’ll see, in Roman 16 of one of the house churches. And then, thirdly, this word ekklesia is also used of all the assemblies in a single city, and we’ll see it used that way in Romans 16 as well (Roman 16:1). In a city the size of Ephesus, it’s likely this third meaning that Christ had in mind. In other words, there wasn’t likely just one church. There may have been several house churches, but clearly there was a church in Ephesus led by Timothy.

Now, the history of this church plays out on the pages of the New Testament. Aquila and Priscilla originally brought the gospel to Ephesus in Acts 18:18-19. Shortly after that, a powerful preacher named Apollos joined them and they discipled him, you remember, and taught him the way more accurately (Acts 18:24-26). Paul first arrived in Ephesus at the end of his second missionary journey, at the end of Acts 18:18-22. And then, he returned to Ephesus on his third missionary journey, and it is recorded at length in chapters 18, but particularly 19 and 20. Paul spent almost three years building the church in Ephesus. So, Paul was heavily invested in this church. In the late 60s AD, around the time of Paul’s death, the apostle John, tradition tells us, moved from Palestine to Ephesus. And for nearly 30 years, John served there until he was exiled on Patmos for his faith. In fact, it was during his ministry in Ephesus that he wrote the gospel of John and his three epistles. A number of other key New Testament leaders served in this church or these churches. You have Aquilla, Priscilla, Apollos, Onesiphorus (in 2 Timothy 1). You have Tychicus in 2 Timothy 4. When Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy, Timothy, his young son in the faith, was serving as pastor of the church. But there were a number of other elders, besides Timothy, both lay elders and staff elders according to 1 Timothy 5:17. So, this was a church with a rich, spiritual heritage of solid, biblical teaching, incredibly spiritually mature examples. It was the most significant of the seven churches. In fact, it was the mother church. The other six churches were founded out of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus according to Acts 19:10. That’s the history of this church.

As we continue the introduction, I want you to see, then, the description of Christ, how He describes Himself to this church. Verse 1: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this...” Now, remember, that with each church, Christ presents a personalized self-description that fits their circumstances. And that description goes back to what John saw in chapter 1. In the case of this church here in Ephesus, Christ reminds him, reminds them rather, that He is intimately present with His churches, including their church. Verse 1: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand...” By the way, the Greek word for “holds” here is stronger than the word “had in His hand”, back in chapter 1:16. It means “to hold firm or to grip”. Christ sovereignly controlled the leaders of the church in Ephesus. Those leaders, you remember, are addressed by the apostle Paul in Acts 20. When he knew he wouldn’t see them again, he gave them that great charge in ministry.

Verse 1 goes on to say, “...the One who walks among the seven golden lamp stands...” You remember in chapter 1; Christ is standing among the lampstands representing His churches. Here, He’s walking among all the churches, including the church in Ephesus. The idea is He is engaging. He is active. He’s constantly evaluating the condition and state of each one. Jesus says to the church in Ephesus, “I’m the One who is now sharing My evaluation of your church with the leaders and congregation in Ephesus. I’m the One who sovereignly controls the leaders and who is walking among His churches constantly assessing, evaluating.” It’s so important to remember the same is true with Christ’s evaluation of every church, including ours.

So, that’s the introduction to the letter, and a powerful introduction it is. But that brings us then, secondly, to the body of the letter where Christ gets to the state of the church in verses 2 through 6. Now, as I mentioned, the body of each letter begins with the same word. Seven times Jesus says, “I know” - “I have a comprehensive, full, complete knowledge”. What follows is His commendation, if there is one, His correction, if there is one, and His call for repentance, if correction was necessary. With Ephesus, it includes all three. So, let’s look at them together.

He begins with a commendation of the good in versus 2 and 3 and verse 6. He starts by saying that the church in Ephesus was known for its pattern of faithful, enduring service. Verse 2: “I know your deeds...” That’s a general term for what goes on in the church. But then He gets specifically to their ministry service. He says, “[I know] your toil...” This word describes their service as hard work. It’s a word, the word “toil”, is a word which means “to toil to the point of exhaustion”. The people who were part of the church in Ephesus worked hard. They worked hard to share the gospel with the lost, to edify their fellow believers, to care for the physical needs of the saints. ”I know”, Jesus says, “your toil and your perseverance”. He says, “I know that you not only work hard, but you continue to faithfully serve in spite of the difficulty of living in a society that is opposed to your efforts.” That’s the idea behind perseverance. So, this was a church known for a great pattern of faithful service.

It’s also a church that was known for its spiritual discernment. Notice verse 2 goes on to say, Christ says, “[I know this; I know] that you cannot tolerate evil men...” In other words, this was a church that insisted on the importance of personal holiness. They refused to tolerate those who professed Christ, but lived sinful, antinomian lives. Undoubtedly, they practiced church discipline - “you cannot tolerate evil men”. And by the way, just file it away that Christ praises that. You know, there’s a weak, sentimental form of Christianity across our country, including churches in our area, that think loving Christ and loving people means tolerating anything and everything. Christ says, “No, I commend you. I commend you for the fact that you don’t tolerate the lack of holiness among the church.”

He goes on to say, verse 2, “...and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false...” We don’t know if these were men claiming to be apostles, on the level with Paul and the eleven who survived after the death of Judas, or whether they were simply claiming to be itinerant ministers who were sent out by another church and were there to help the church in Ephesus. That’s unclear. But, likely, there are those who were very much self-promoting, false teachers who promoted themselves as leaders. As Paul had urged the Galatians, the Christians in the Ephesian church compared the teaching of men who claimed to be apostles against the Scripture and found them to be false apostles, that is, found them to be lying.

How? How did they test the false teachers? Well, I wish I had time for this, but in the New Testament, we discover that false teachers can be identified in three ways. They can be identified by their teaching, by the behavior of their converts, and by their own lives. So, the church in Ephesus evaluated the false teachers and discovered that’s exactly what they were. They looked at their lives and how they lived. They looked at their converts and how their converts lived, those who followed them. And they looked as well at their teaching and found it to be out of sync with the teaching of the New Testament.

You remember, at the end of his third missionary journey, Paul had urged the elders of the church in Ephesus to be on their guard against false teachers. Turn back there. Look at Acts 20. This was Paul’s parting charge to the elders of the church in Ephesus. This would have been some 30-35 years before Christ dictates this letter in Revelation 2. Acts 20:29: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend [by the way, that’s that word we had encountered this morning - I entrust] you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Paul charged the leaders of the church in Ephesus - “Beware! There’re going to be false teachers!” And by God’s grace, this church had remained faithful to that charge. Forty years later, they were still holding the line doctrinally. This was a church that took its responsibility seriously. It worked hard in ministry, and it guarded and preserved the truth. It identified error. It protected its people.

Verse 3 says, “and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.” They simply refused to quit. They kept working and they kept refuting error, and they kept teaching the truth. And notice, they were driven by the highest of motives - “for My name’s sake”. Christ says, “You’re doing this for the sake of My name, for the glory of My name. And you haven’t grown weary. You’ve just kept on and kept on.”

Christ adds a related commendation down in verse 6. Let’s go ahead and look at that together: “Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” The church in Ephesus hated the false teaching and actions of a group called the Nicolaitans. Now, let me just be honest with you. We really don’t know a lot about this group. Outside of Revelation, almost nothing is known. From the standpoint of etymology, the name that’s used for them here combines the Greek words “victory” and “people” - either the victory of the people or victory over the people. What’s interesting is, the Hebrew equivalent of this name, or very close, is the name Balaam. Irenaeus, the early church father, says this heresy, the Nicolaitan heresy, was started by a man named Nicholas, who was one of the seven men appointed to distribute food to the widows in Acts 6:5, and who became an apostate (proved to be a false believer), and yet maintained his influence because of his past credentials. A number of other church fathers agree with that. Tertullian, Hippolytus, Jerome, Augustine, and the church historian, Eusebius, all agree calling this a sect, that came from Nicholas, a sect of “licentious, antinomian Gnostics”. In other words, they lived immoral lives, they were happy to live however they wanted, and they were Gnostics in their basic approach. Victorinus, the first commentator on Revelation, says this, “They were false and troublesome men who, as ministers under the name of Nicholas, had made for themselves a heresy to the effect that what had been offered to idols might be exorcised [that is, cleansed - the demons, if you will, thrown out of them] and eaten, and that whoever should have committed fornication might receive peace on the 8th day.” In other words, those things didn’t matter. You could engage in those things.

What we know for sure is that in chapter 2:14-15, the Nicolaitans come up again and, there, they’re connected, as we’ll see, with the teaching of the Old Testament false prophet, Balaam. You remember, God prevented Balaam from cursing Israel. So, what did Balaam do? He advised Moab’s king to seduce Israel into both sexual and spiritual adultery (Numbers 25:1-2). The Nicolaitans were following the very same approach. They had worked out a way to compromise with their pagan society. They encouraged sexual and spiritual unfaithfulness with the surrounding pagan idolatry. The main point is this. Like Balaam, the Nicolaitans were not an outside enemy seeking to destroy the Christian faith. They were false teachers who were destroying the faith from within. Leon Morris writes, “This is the insidious fifth column - destroying from within.”

By the way, did you see that Christ praises the church in Ephesus for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans? Biblical love is not the absence of hate. In fact, biblical love is always accompanied by a corresponding hatred for both evil and error. It’s interesting, in Psalm 36, the wicked person is described as one who does not despise evil. It’s an interesting expression - “He does not despise evil.” The church in Ephesus wasn’t like that. They hated the deeds of those who called the church into sexual and spiritual adultery. And Christ adds in verse 6, “which I also hate.”

Now, folks, take a look at that list I just went through in verses 2 and 3 and verse 6. You would have been proud to attend this church. It was a wonderful church in so many ways, and yet, all was not well because next Christ turns to a correction of the sin in the church in Ephesus in verse 4. It turns out there was a fatal flaw: “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” The Greek word translated “left” means “to give up or to abandon”. But it’s interesting. It’s a word that can also mean to neglect something that is more important because you’ve chosen to pursue something less important. Let me say that again. The word can also mean that you neglect what is most important because you’ve chosen to pursue something less important. It’s used this way in Matthew 23:23, where Jesus is condemning the scribes and Pharisees and He says, ”Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin [your garden herbs. And listen to this] and have neglected [there’s our word. You’ve left. You’ve neglected] the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness...” So, in other words, this leaving can happen by abandoning it, or it can happen by choosing to stress something else more. And I think that’s exactly what’s implied in this letter to the church in Ephesus.

Now, what does it mean “you have left your first love”? Well, “first love” could mean love for Christ, or it could mean love for fellow Christians. You’ve left your love for Christ, or you’ve left your love for fellow Christians. And if you read the commentaries, you’ll find they argue back and forth on this. But because the two of those are so intimately connected, I personally think it means both. Listen to 1 John 4:20. John, the apostle, the same one who wrote this, says this: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” In other words, he says the two are hand-in-glove. If you love God, then you’re going to love others. Or let me put it even more directly. If you love Jesus Christ, you’re going to love His people. If you love the husband, Christ, you’re going to love the bride. The two are together.

For 40 years before this was written, this church had been known for its love. I’m not going to take you back, but I encourage you at some point to read through the letter to the Ephesians that Paul wrote. And you’ll see that he praises them for their love - Ephesians 1:15, chapter 3:17-19 he prays that their love will increase, chapter 6:23. That was 40 years earlier. But the church had left the love that characterized them at the first. That’s the idea by “first love”. They had left the love. They had abandoned the love. They had neglected, by stressing something else, the love that had characterized them at the first. They were still faithful in their service. Don’t miss this. They were still faithful in their service. They persevered in that. They were still faithful in their doctrine. They were still faithful in their biblical discernment. But their love for their Lord and for others had grown cold. The sin of the Ephesian believers was that they allowed their zeal for hard work and for doctrine, a right zeal, but they allowed their zeal for those things to cause them to neglect their genuine love for Christ and their fellow believers.

Love for Christ is the greatest commandment, and it is the essence, in the end, of what it means to be a Christian. Remember the first and greatest commandment. Jesus says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. And 1 Corinthians 16:22 makes this very direct about our love for Christ: “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed [damned]...” In other words, he’s not a Christian. Real Christians love Jesus Christ. Ephesians 6:24: “Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible love.”

Can I ask you, tonight, if you profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ, do you love Jesus Christ? Again, I am not asking you about some profession you made in the distant past. I’m not asking you about some doctrinal affirmation you would make. I’m asking you; do you personally love Jesus Christ? Is He your Lord? Is He the one for whom you live? Is there anything more important to you than pleasing Christ? Love for Christ is the essence of what it means to be a Christian.

Love for others is the second great commandment. Jesus said, “The second is like it [likened to it].” In Matthew, He said, “Listen. Love your neighbor as yourself.” And loving your brothers and sisters in Christ is one of the clearest tests of genuine faith. Read 1 John. Again and again, John comes back to say, “Listen. Don’t say you love God, if you don’t love your brother.” And if you don’t love him practically, if you’re not looking for ways to help, 1 Corinthians 13 says, look, you can make great sacrifices, you can have extraordinary gifts, but if you don’t have love, it’s what? It’s like a clanging symbol. It’s just a bunch of noise. It’s not reality. Thomas Shriner, in his commentary, writes this, “Works that please God, aren’t merely the right actions. They have a specific quality colored and animated by love. We may hate nothing [listen to this] and confuse our apathy and tolerance with love, falling into the errors of relativism and pluralism. At the same time, the Ephesian church may have overreacted, so that their zeal for truth squelched love for God and for one another.”

You see, what happened in Ephesus is a really subtle error. It’s when you keep serving like you ought to serve, and you keep teaching like you ought to teach, and you keep using spiritual discernment like you ought to use spiritual discernment. All of those things Christ praises. We ought to do them, but we can so emphasize those that in the process of emphasizing them, we neglect the weightier, which is our love for Christ and our love for His people. In other words, it’s not a call for either-or, it’s a call for both-and.

So, that’s the correction of the sin. Verse 5 is a call for repentance. And there are steps. Christ identifies three steps, here, to rekindle their first love and this would be true for any of us or, if God forbid, this were true of our church. How does it happen?

Well, first of all, verse 5, here’s the first step - therefore remember: “Therefore remember from where you have fallen...” There’s a powerful word picture in that expression “where you have fallen”. It pictures having fallen from a great height, having fallen off a cliff. That’s what it’s like to leave your first love. It’s like you’ve fallen off a cliff spiritually. Christ says, “remember from where you fallen”. Force yourself to remember those days when you were driven by true love for Christ and for others. By the way, the Greek word here “remember” is in the present tense. It has the idea of keep on remembering, intentionally hold in your memory what it was like when you were motivated and driven by a true love for Jesus Christ and a love for His people. Remember.

The second step is “and repent”. In other words, acknowledge that your current state is unacceptable and resolve to return to the priority of love. A failure to love God, to love Jesus Christ, and a failure to love others is a failure to obey the two most important commands God has given us. It’s a sin. Now, don’t misunderstand. That doesn’t mean that we can abandon our service for Christ and our spiritual discernment and just love Christ and others. That’s the other extreme. Christ praises those things. As I said, this is not either-or but a both-and. Repent.

And then the third step in verse 5 is “and do the deeds you did at first...” In other words, intentionally, having remembered what it was like to do what you do, to do those very same things, but to do them from a heart driven by love for Christ and others. John says, “Do that. Do that again.” You need to rekindle your love for Christ and for others.

Those are the steps. And then he ends the body of the letter with a warning, the end of verse 5: “...or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place - unless you repent.” “I am coming” implies it’s in the present tense, as you can see there. It implies certainty (you can count on it) and quickness (it’s going to happen). By the way, this is not a reference to the second coming. This is a reference to Jesus coming to this church to discipline it. When Christ visits the church, if He finds that the church has not repented, He says, “I’m going to remove your lamp stand.” That implies the total destruction of the church. Not physically - He doesn’t mean the building where they met was going to go away, or that they would even stop meeting necessarily. Here’s what it means. Leon Morris writes, “A church can continue only so long on a loveless course. Without love, it ceases to be a church and its lampstand is removed.” But Christ’s judgment, His discipline, is not inevitable. If they will repent, there’s still hope, and that’s true for any individual believer, and it’s true for any church. Jesus says, “Remember, repent, and do what you did before.”

That brings us to the conclusion of the letter, an exhortation to each believer. First of all, there’s a call to listen. This is true with all the letters. Verse 7: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This is similar to our Lord’s common statement even when He was on earth - Mark 4:9, for example, and other passages. This is a challenge to every person, including you, who hears or reads these letters to pay close attention to what the Spirit is continually saying to all the churches through His Word. This is a call to every Christian and church to listen up, to hear every letter, to hear everything Christ says. By the way, did you notice what verse 7 says? What Christ says, the Spirit says. They are of one mind. So, there’s a call to listen. Can I plead with you? Don’t take these letters to the seven churches as a part of dusty history. This is Christ’s message not only to those seven churches that existed in the first century, but to all churches today and to every believer as well. “[Let him] He who has an ear” - let the person, the one who has ears, hear!

And there is, secondly, a call to overcome. Verse 7 ends, “To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.” This is not only a statement and a promise, it is an invitation. It’s a call to those who are part of the church. Now, who are these people who overcome? In John’s writings, an overcomer is not some special elite Christian. In other words, there aren’t the people who lose, you know, the losers and the overcomers. No. If you’re a true believer and you keep on believing to the end, you are an overcomer. Listen to how John himself defines it in 1 John. In fact, turn back there. You need to see this. 1 John and look at chapter 5:4: “For whatever is born of God [whoever is regenerated, whoever has God’s life in him] overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith.” This is how we overcome it. If you’re regenerate, you overcome the world, that is, you outlast them. You keep believing. You’re not turned aside. And the way you do that is through your faith. “Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Every true believer overcomes. So, every believer, then, is an overcomer. And every believer will inherit all the promises made in all seven of the letters to those who overcome.

But the way Christ expresses the specific promise in each letter is tailored to the believers and circumstances in that church. In Ephesus - go back to now Revelation 2:7. In Ephesus, the promise to true believers in Ephesus and to those who overcome (they’re one and the same) is this: “I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.” You remember, back in the Garden of Eden, Genesis 2:9, in the original paradise, there was the tree of life standing in the midst of the garden. But the hope of eternal life was lost when Adam sinned, and he was driven from the garden. And you remember in Genesis 3, the end of that chapter, God sent him out of the Garden of Eden, and He said, “...he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever...” And so, “I’m going to send him out.” And He drove the man out. And at the east of Eden, He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life. But the tree of life will be in the new heaven and the new earth. Revelation 22:2, Revelation 22:14 say the tree of life is there. It’s there in the new earth. The new earth is the paradise of God.

By the way, the word “paradise” is from a Persian word which means “a garden or a park”. Those who are faithful, Jesus says, those believers who are faithful and keep on believing, who are not turned away from their faith, but they endure, they just keep on believing in Me, one day, they will enjoy the tree of eternal life in God’s own personal garden on a new earth. And the fact that it’s the garden of God, the Paradise of God, means that God Himself will be there and, in the end, that’s all it takes to turn anywhere into paradise.

Can I just plead with all of us to avoid the danger that Christ addresses in this letter? Work hard. Serve the Lord. Love the truth. Guard the truth from error. But in your zeal to do those things, don’t lose, don’t neglect your love, your passionate love, for Jesus Christ your Lord, and your love for His people. Because if we do, Christ has a warning: “I’ll come and I’ll remove the lampstand.”

Let’s pray together.

Father, thank You for this incredibly insightful letter from our Lord to the church in Ephesus. Lord, we can see how it was appropriate for that church, but we can see how it’s appropriate for, ultimately, every church. We’re all tempted in this direction. Lord, we can also see how it’s appropriate for every believer. Help each of us individually to guard our hearts. Help us, Lord, if we find our love having diminished, help us to remember, and to repent, and to do what we did before - to serve You, to love Your truth, to teach Your truth, to hate error, but to do so with a passionate love for our Lord Jesus Christ and for His people. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen!


A Vision of the Exalted Christ - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 1:9-20

Ephesus: Loveless Fidelity

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:1-7

Smyrna: Faithful in Suffering

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:8-11

More from this Series



The Revelation of Jesus Christ - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 1:1-3

The Revelation of Jesus Christ - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 1:1-3

Salutation & Dedication

Tom Pennington Revelation 1:4-6

The King is Coming!

Tom Pennington Revelation 1:7-8

A Vision of the Exalted Christ - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 1:9-20

A Vision of the Exalted Christ - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 1:9-20

Ephesus: Loveless Fidelity

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:1-7

Smyrna: Faithful in Suffering

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:8-11

Pergamum: Undiscerning Tolerance

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:12-17

Thyatira: Extra-Biblical Authority

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:18-29

Sardis: Dead Christianity

Tom Pennington Revelation 3:1-6

Philadelphia: Enduring Faithfulness

Tom Pennington Revelation 3:7-13

Laodicea: A False Gospel

Tom Pennington Revelation 3:14-22

He is Worthy! - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 4-5

He is Worthy! - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 4-5

He is Worthy! - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 4-5

He is Worthy! - Part 4

Tom Pennington Revelation 4-5

The First Six Seals: The Tribulation Begins - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 6:1-17

The First Six Seals: The Tribulation Begins - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 6:1-17

Tribulation Saints - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 7:1-17

Tribulation Saints - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 7:1-17

The Seventh Seal & the First Six Trumpets - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 8-9

The Seventh Seal & the First Six Trumpets - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 8-9

The Seventh Seal & the First Six Trumpets - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 8-9

The Seventh Seal & the First Six Trumpets - Part 4

Tom Pennington Revelation 8-9

The Little Book

Tom Pennington Revelation 10:1-11

The Two Witnesses - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 11:1-13

The Two Witnesses - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 11:1-13

The Seventh Trumpet: The Beginning of the End

Tom Pennington Rev. 11:14-19

The Woman, her Son, and the Dragon - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 12:1-17

The Woman, her Son, and the Dragon - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 12:1-17

The Woman, her Son, and the Dragon - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 12:1-17

Antichrist - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 13:1-10

Antichrist - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 13:1-10

The False Prophet

Tom Pennington Revelation 13:11-18

A Preview of Jesus' Victory - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 14:1-20

A Preview of Jesus' Victory - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 14:1-20

A Preview of Jesus' Victory - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 14:1-20

A Preview of Jesus' Victory - Part 4

Tom Pennington Revelation 14:1-20

Heaven Prepares for the End

Tom Pennington Revelation 15:1-8

Seven Bowls of Wrath - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 16:1-21

Seven Bowls of Wrath - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 16:1-21

Babylon is Fallen! - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 17:1-18:24

Babylon is Fallen! - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 17:1-18:24

Babylon Is Fallen! - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 18

Babylon is Fallen! - Part 4

Tom Pennington Revelation 18

The Rapture of the Church

Tom Pennington Selected Scriptures

The Future Tribulation

Tom Pennington Revelation 4-18

Heaven's Hallelujah Chorus! - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 19:1-10

Heaven's Hallelujah Chorus - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 19:1-10

The Glorious Return of Jesus Christ

Tom Pennington Revelation 19:11-16


Tom Pennington Revelation 19:17-21

The Real Binding of Satan

Tom Pennington Revelation 20:1-3

The Millennium: Christ's Future Reign on Earth - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 20:1-10

The Millennium: Christ's Future Reign on Earth - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 20:1-10

The Millennium: Christ’s Future Reign on Earth - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 20:1-10

The Last Judgment

Tom Pennington Revelation 20:11-15

Our Eternal Home - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 21:1-8

Our Eternal Home - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 21:1-8

The Eternal City - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 21:9-22:5

The Eternal City - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 21:9-22:5

The Eternal City - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 21:9-22:5

How Should We Then Live? - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 22:6-21