With Revelation Chapter One closed, we now move into the part of the Revelation which Jesus referred to in Revelation 1:19 as …the things which are… Revelation Chapter One was what Jesus called …the things which you have seen…(Revelation 1:19) and now we are moving into the part of the Revelation where Jesus is going to give His address to the Seven Churches. In this Chapter, I am going to cover the Church of Ephesus, but prior to doing that, I am going to lay some ground work for us to rightly understand the Seven Churches as a whole.
After I had become a Christian I heard from lots of people that every Church is like a finger print, there are no two that are alike. This phrase was a powerful statement that helped me understand the great diversity in the body of Christ. It’s not that every Church is so different that none of them has anything in common. It’s that every Church is led by a different set of leaders who are as diverse as are the peoples of the earth. All Christian Churches have a set of beliefs that are common to all of us, or at least should be common to all of us. But on top of that, we build according to our personalities, our season in life and the culture in which Jesus has set us.
The same thing is true with these seven Churches Jesus is about to address. It’s not that they were so radically different that no two Churches agreed on anything as being the same, it’s that they each had a different set of strengths, weaknesses, struggles and both internal and external pressures. Jesus in His creativity addresses each of these seven Churches with words, phrases, scriptures and facets of Himself that are specific to each Church. In this Chapter I am going to cover the introduction to the Seven Churches, the history of Ephesus, and Jesus’ address to the Church of Ephesus.
Introduction to the Seven Churches
After reading various commentaries and looking at different people’s works on the book of Revelation and the Seven Churches of Revelation 2-3 it’s very apparent that people have lots of different ideas about those Churches. It’s my passion to share some simple thoughts about these Churches that will help simplify what Jesus wanted us to understand concerning them. It’s not that what I am going to share is the complete picture, but rather a simplified picture to help us understand in a safe way how to look at these seven Churches.
It’s my belief and my understanding through reading the whole of the Bible that Revelation 2- 3 are Jesus’ address to seven historical, physical and literal Churches. These seven Churches that Jesus addressed are located in what used to be called Asia Minor, but is now known simply as modern Turkey. And when you look at these letters in the way they are numbered it becomes very clear that they were placed in a very specific order by the Holy Spirit. Here is a breakdown of the Seven Churches and where they’re healthy, from Jesus’ eyes;
- Ephesus Bad shape
- Smyrna Great shape
- Pergamos Struggling
- Thyatira Struggling
- Sardis Struggling
- Philadelphia Great Shape
- Laodicea Bad shape
You can see from the layout above that the first and last Churches were in the worst shape. And the second and sixth Churches were in the best shape. Now a side note on the two Churches that Jesus didn’t have anything negative to say against. Smyrna and Philadelphia were suffering persecution but were being faithful to God. So it wasn’t that they weren’t struggling, they just weren’t struggling with sin and other issues like the Churches around them. But sandwiched in-between these Churches were three churches, Pergamos, Thyatira and Sardis, which were a mixed bag of both positive and negative statements from Jesus.
The Churches which looked the best externally (Ephesus and Laodicea) were in the worst shape from Jesus’ perspective. And the two Churches which looked the worst externally (Smyrna and Philadelphia) were doing the best from Jesus’ perspective. This goes to show us that God doesn’t evaluate things in the same way that man does; because the Churches which looked best in man’s eyes were doing the worst in Jesus’ eyes.
As I have already mentioned there has been much said about these seven Churches and what they mean. Here is a another breakdown of what some theologians have assumed these Churches represented;
- Ephesus—First century
- Smyrna—Persecution period of the 2nd and 3rd centuries
- Pergamos—The Church of Constantine
- Thyatira—The middle ages
- Sardis—The reformation
- Philadelphia—The Church of the modern missionary movement in the 18th century
- Laodicea—The Church of the 20th and 21st century
I have purposely included these beliefs about which Church represents which part of the past 2,000 years of Church history. I have not included these because I believe in them, but because I disagree with the breakdown and placing these Churches in various time periods. Although there may be some similarities with these various Churches and different time periods, I believe that looking at these Churches, primarily through this lens, is an unsafe way to interpret scriptures.
I have overheard various leaders in my denomination state that we are clearly in the Laodicean hour because of the lukewarm state of the Church and the only thing that remains is Jesus returning. That’s all we are waiting for. But what about Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira and Sardis? I see more similarities with these other four Churches than I do with the Church of Laodicea. Those other Churches represented Churches who had lost their first love, were working for Jesus but not with Him, were tolerating immortality in their midst, were thought by others to be alive and really happening but were actually dead on the inside, and so much more. To assume that we are one of the Seven Churches is not a safe way to view the Bible in part or in whole.
I personally believe in a threefold approach to viewing these seven Churches. Firstly, these seven Churches were from the past. From the past meaning they were literal, historical Churches that you can actually go today and see their ruins and what remains. They were real Churches. Secondly, there are present truths. What I mean by present truths is that ever since those letters were penned they have been relevant to the Church in every generation including this present one and will be in the future. And thirdly they represent future truths. These seven Churches will be such a strength to the final generation of human history as God equips a people to endure the onslaught of demonic oppression, world tyranny, gross immorality, the temporal judgments of God and creation’s groan. Beloved, those letters will be the breakfast of an entire generation that God is preparing to send into the midst of the greatest crisis in world history. So in my opinion, I see these seven Churches as having a past, present and future reality.
According to how these Churches are laid out geographically it’s clear that they were on a circular pattern with Ephesus being the gateway Church to the other 6 Churches. They seemed to be laid out in Revelation 2-3 in such a way that a preacher could start at Ephesus and work his way through the other 6 in a circuit. It’s also believed that from these seven Churches the message would then spread far and wide through other preachers carrying the message to the other brother and sisters scattered throughout the world.
It was common that the various letters from the New Testament were sent around to the other Churches besides the one for which it was specifically written. Look what Paul has to say about this in Colossians 4:16 Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the Church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea. This verse so tickled me, for two reasons, the other day when I read it. Firstly, that they were passing letter around from Church to Church is a beautiful thing. What God says to one group He says to all groups. And secondly, there was and might still be a letter to Laodicea floating around. How cool is that. No, for whatever reason, Jesus didn’t include it into the cannon of scripture, but it’s still existed and might still be around today.
Within Revelation 2-3 there is a common structure that Jesus follows as He addresses each Church. It’s actually a seven-fold structure that He uses, and I want to break it down briefly right now. Firstly Jesus gives the Address. This includes His words to the leader of the Church and it always goes like this To the angel (Preacher, Pastor, Shepherd, Elder) of the Church in ________. Jesus does this the same way to all seven Churches, greeting the leader or overseer of the ministry prior to Him speaking to them. Secondly, Jesus gives the Attribute. In the Attribute Jesus ascribes to the Church one of His facets that He revealed to John in Revelation 1, as a specific part of Himself that would apply to the direct situation the Church was in. The attribute is usually given like this These things says He ________. These Attributes give us insight in the specific area of Jesus that would strengthen them to repent and/or endure.
Thirdly, Jesus gives the Approval. Jesus’ approval comes to every Church just like His Address. He says this to them I know your works.Fourthly, Jesus gives nearly all of the Churches, except a couple, an Accusation against them. Jesus’ Accusation against the Churches comes across by stating I have this against you. What powerful, painful and healing words from the resurrected Man in glory! Fifthly, after Jesus’ Accusation against the Churches He then gives them His Advice. Jesus surely isn’t out to destroy the Churches, because He loves them dearly! But He also doesn’t shy away from telling them the truth about their situation. But with the truth also comes His advice, which is His wisdom to them about how they can be restored back into right relationship with Him. In His advice He says something like Or else I will come to you quickly..…repent, and do your first works…
Sixthly Jesus would then give them His Assurance. The power of the Assurance is that, unlike the Attribute which is related to what He showed John from Revelation 1, the Assurance is from what He showed John in Revelation 20-22. Jesus’ Assurance to the various Churches was that if, and only if, they overcame the pressure and difficulty that was before them, would He then give them a reward. For the math student, there are actually 22 eternal rewards listed in Revelation 2-3 for the believer who not only gives their life to Jesus, but also overcomes. Jesus, who knows all things, understands that the Church would have to have an incentive to overcome the pressure that would be stacked up against them throughout Church history as well as in the final generation. His Assurance to them sounds something like To him who overcomes, I will.
And seventhly, Jesus gives each Church an Appeal. His Appeal to them is the same for all seven Churches and it’s said like this, He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches. Jesus’ appeal to the Seven Churches is that they not just give their ear, but also their heart to the various things He has to say with them. Because Jesus is trustworthy we must listen to Him, trust Him and give ourselves to the activity of the Holy Spirit so that we are with Him where He is. Jesus is such a beautiful preacher and the best, literally the best, sermon organizer.
It’s my hope that this information about the Seven Churches as a whole is helpful, as we now start to look at the different parts of each Church in an individual study. Jesus has so much to say and it’s important that we take time to look at the many moving parts as they relate to the city, the Church and the era of time they are in.
The History of Ephesus
Out of the seven total Churches that Jesus addresses in Revelation 2-3 the city of Ephesus is by far the largest. By today’s standards Ephesus would be considered a real metropolis, much like New York City. The city was filled with theaters, sports arenas, a museum and shopping, along with large pagan temples. Because of the city’s proximity to the water it was a major trade center with ships coming and going, distributing merchandise to Ephesus to be sent from there to other places.
The city of Ephesus boasted of having one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis. Ephesus was a very wealthy city, known for great worship of the pagan goddess Diana who was covered in breasts. But in the midst of this corrupt, struggling, sin-ridden city was a Church, the Church of Ephesus.
We are led to believe that the Church of Ephesus was founded by Aquila and Pricilla under the leadership of Paul (Acts 18:18-19). It’s also said to have been later overseen by Timothy, one of Paul’s faithful sons in the faith. The city of Ephesus would prove an old adage true that in the midst of great darkness, the light shines its brightest. The Church of Ephesus was surely a lampstand ministry to the region and even beyond.
Jesus’ Address to the Church Of Ephesus
Just like all the other Churches, Jesus opens with His Address to the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:1 by saying To the angel (Pastor, Leader, Apostle) of the Church of Ephesus write, these things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands… Jesus, in His post-resurrection, is addressing the leadership of this ministry. The people of the Church of Ephesus are a direct result of the leadership over the ministry. It’s not 100% that way, but it’s very common that the majority of a Church will either rise or fall to the level of leadership that is overseeing the ministry. So Jesus fully understands that if He speaks to the leadership He will hopefully be speaking to the people of the Church as well.
Recently I was thinking about this passage and the idea struck that Jesus, in Revelation 2-3, is in His post-resurrected body. What this means is that Jesus didn’t only walk the earth, seeing things from a Human vantage point during His incarnation and His earthly ministry, but still today, in His resurrection Jesus is walking among His Churches. The implications of this truth mean that Jesus is currently leading, directing, overseeing, correcting, affirming and speaking to His Church. After Jesus gives the Address He then follows it with the Attribute.
Here, to the Church of Ephesus Jesus gives them the Attribute by stating I am the One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks among the seven golden lampstands… We know from Revelation 1:20 what the seven lampstands and the seven stars are. Jesus told John in that passage that the seven lampstands were the Seven Churches and the seven stars were the seven messengers of the Seven Churches. Jesus is pictured before them specifically as the One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and He who walks among the seven golden lampstands. This is very important for the Church of Ephesus.
Out of the Seven Churches Jesus is going to level the largest charge against them in just a few verses, but prior to doing that He wants them to know that He is holding them in His hand and that He will walk with them through the process of restoration. Jesus isn’t just mad at them, hoping that they perish. He is desiring that they will see His tenderness and His commitment to them for the long haul, to walk with them through the process.
Jesus continues speaking to the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:2-3, giving them His Approval and saying I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Prior to Jesus giving this Church His Accusation against them, He first gives them His Approval of them. Jesus, in His great tenderness, always speaks kindly to us telling us how He feels about us prior to sharing difficult information with us. The Church of Ephesus is the only one of the seven Churches that Jesus is going to threaten to close.
Jesus tells the Church of Ephesus that there were actually 6 things they were doing well. Jesus says to them that they have labored well, they’ve had patience, they’ve hated evil, they have good doctrine, they have preserved and even in their labors they haven’t grown weary. Seriously, this Church by most standards is in a class of its own. By most western standards when it comes to healthy Churches the Church of Ephesus would take the cake.
But in the midst of this busy Church there was a large piece that had obviously been neglected. Jesus starts this passage by stating that He knows their works. To hear Jesus speak this phrase in the midst of the Ephesus all-church staff meeting would bring this busy ministry to a halt. This is the God Man, who literally and actually knows everything. It’s possible to hide our hearts and our motives from others in the midst of our busy serving, but not so with Jesus. All things are exposed before Him and the sword of His mouth (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus is not just saying, I know what you’re doing, but He’s clearly saying, I know why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is a game changer with the Jesus.
From this passage about His intimate knowledge of their ministry, He now levels His Accusation against them in Revelation 2:4 by saying Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. According to Jesus, in the midst of their busy service to others, their defense of the Gospel and Doctrine, they had become like a porcupine, having lots of points but no love. The issue that Ephesus was facing was a serious issue that fills many ministries today and has even captured my own heart from time to time. It’s the place where we become so busy working for Jesus that we lose sight of our own personal relationship with Him. We turn in our intimacy with Jesus to ministry for Jesus. I hear God’s servants often talking about what they are doing for Jesus. This statement hasn’t any bearing in the Bible. Jesus really doesn’t need us to do anything for Him, what He does want is a people to do something with Him. It’s a partnership with Jesus. It’s a marriage of equally yoked partners serving alongside Him in His Father’s vineyard. It’s such a prevalent issue that even 3 of the 7 Churches of Revelation 2-3 are in the same place. They look good on the outside but are dead on inside. They are busy, but in their service of others they have neglected their ministry to Jesus.
Jesus, in great tenderness towards them, has some powerful Advice that will help them return to Him and be reconciled back with their Creator. In Revelation 2:5 Jesus says to them Remember therefore where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. The great God who remembers everything calls out the Church of Ephesus and gives them His Advice to remember both Him and where they have fallen.
The words of Jesus to the Church of Ephesus are reminiscent of His Father’s words to the nation of Israel in Jeremiah 2:2 when they were also in a backslidden state. God calls out to a people that are wandering from Him and says I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, when you went after Me in the wilderness… God was then calling out to His people as He’s calling out to them now, saying Remember Me, because I remember you! I remember when you went after Me in the wilderness, when you pledged yourself to Me. I long for you to remember Me! Jesus’ plea with the Church of Ephesus is the plea of a Lover. He’s a Bridegroom who is unwilling to share His bride with anyone else and on top of that, He also longs to be central in all the work that she (the bride) is doing on the earth.
Jesus’ advice includes a call for repentance. It’s hard to understand a Church culture today in the 21st century that struggles to call people to genuine repentance when it’s the only way we can be reconciled to God; it’s a powerful gift given to us by God. It’s the primary thing that joins us back to the Father from the place of sin and compromise; we have such a struggle to talk about it because of so many excuses. Beloved, Jesus doesn’t mind calling His own Church, and every human He’s every created, to repent, so why should we who are working as ambassadors for Him and His Kingdom. The call isn’t just for the Church of Ephesus to say they are sorry, it’s to call their busy life in ministry and their neglect of intimacy exactly what it is, sin.
Upon the heels of Jesus’ advice to the Church of Ephesus about repenting and being joined back together with Him is also the warning that if they refuse to repent, He will remove their lampstand (Revelation 2:5). I use to think that this was referring to this group of believers losing their salvation but I no longer believe that. I now believe that the Ephesian Church was an epicenter for the distribution of the Gospel to the nations of the earth, and that’s why it is characterized as a lampstand ministry. It’s a ministry that has been given great influence, alongside great responsibility, because how they deliver the ministry of the Kingdom is how others are also going to carry it out.
I believe that Jesus was saying to this Church I have called you to be an influential Church among the nations of the earth. But if you continue working without intimacy with Me and without returning to Me and putting the commands back in their proper order you are going to end up exporting more negative than positive. And My only option at that point, if you refuse to repent, is to close the doors to the Church and the ministry. Jesus is passionate about the Church, and when the Church moves into a place where it’s doing more negative than positive Jesus will step in, to address those things that must be addressed. Jesus, who loves the Church more than any other person, also doesn’t mind shutting the doors when it’s not run according to His plan.
From the place of Advice to the Church of Ephesus, Jesus now gives them their final Assurance and the Appeal. Revelation 2:7 says He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God. The assurance that Jesus gives them is directed not to the ministry as a whole, but to those individuals that make up the ministry. And it’s not a general promise to those that are saved, but specifically to those that overcome the unique challenges that are set before us. The eternal rewards listed in these two chapters are not a given for the believer, but for the believer who overcomes that which is stacked up in front of them. They are contingent upon overcoming in their day. It’s important that we don’t see these rewards as automatic, but as something that must be reached for, strived after and sought out.
From the Assurance of reward Jesus does something that’s common to all seven Churches, He gives the Appeal to listen to the Holy Spirit (Revelation 2:7). Jesus’ Appeal to them is that they wouldn’t just give their ear to hear the Holy Spirit, but that they would allow those words to go into their heart and change the way they are living, in light of what they have heard. Something powerful to note is the plural connection with Churches, not just Church. Jesus clearly expected that each of these letters were to be read to each other and to others as well.
As the Church of Ephesus comes to a close there is one big idea that I want to leave you with. The big idea is that Jesus longs to be involved in both the activity of our hearts and our hands. Jesus doesn’t just long for intimacy and no ministry, or ministry and no intimacy. What Jesus longs for is to have a people that love Him in the way that He loves them and to love others in the way that He loves others. This is Jesus’ passion for the people of God and for the Church. The Church of Ephesus shows us that we must live in the tension of both loving God and working with Him. Because, although they were doing great with ministry and reaching people, they were losing their love for Jesus; the result will always be a loss of love for others. Just like the Church of Ephesus, we also must repent and invite Jesus back into the center of our world and allow Him to be the Chief Cornerstone in everything that takes place.