Understanding The Apocalypse

Revelation 2:1-7
Chapter 2

Ephesus was the capitol city and the most important commercial center in Roman Asia. The city boasted a population of over 300,000 people, an amphitheater that seated over 25,000, and fine harbor facilities that were lined with rows of commercial warehouses. But the city was most widely known throughout the Roman Empire for its temple and worship of Artemis. Because Artemis or Diana, as she was known to the Romans, was thought to be the goddess of fertility, she was worshipped by all the world, according to Acts 19:27.

This temple, recognized as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, measured some 340 feet by 100 feet and was fronted by 100 columns that stood over 55 feet high. It is said that the temple was supported by prostitution and the building itself was an asylum for fugitives as well as a banking or lending center. One quickly gets the idea that society did not really care what happened there as long as it was business as usual. This sounds like our own society at times. We are tolerant of practically anything as long as the money flows.

This atmosphere of idolatry, immorality and tolerance is what the Apostle Paul found when he first came to Ephesus. Yet, so effective was Paul's nearly three years of ministry in Ephesus that he caused an uproar among the silversmiths who made silver shrines for Diana, by preaching the Word of the Lord to all who lived in the providence of Asia.

Now, some 43 years later, the church at Ephesus has grown to major prominence and the aging Apostle, John, pens this letter from the Lord to them.

I. The Salutation

"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 lampstands" (Revelation 2:1).

We find in Revelation 1:4,11, that John was instructed to write to the seven Asian churches named in the text. However, we see this letter was addressed "Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus." The Greek word that is used here is "angelos" and it is most often used to mean the heavenly angels. Some have said this is a reference to a guardian angel or angels that look after the church. But there is a problem with this viewpoint. It is our Lord, who Shepherds His Church, not an angel. We also know from the last phrase of Revelation 2:1, that it is Christ, not an angel, who walks in the midst of His Churches.

Therefore, we must dig deeper. The word translated "angel" in this text, is translated "messenger" in Matthew 11:10, which is a quotation from Malachi 3:1, "For this is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee." Clearly, this is a reference to John the Baptist, not to an angel.

While angels have served as God's messengers throughout the ages, He used them most before the advent of the Church and the completion of the Canon of Scripture. In the present dispensation, God speaks to His Church through His Holy Word and through the earthly messengers He has called for that purpose.

So, who is the messenger to this church at Ephesus or to any church? It is the one who brings the message of God's Word. Most often it is the pastor, the under-shepherd of the Lord's people.

The next phrase in Revelation 2:1, we need to examine is, "He that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden lampstands."

In Revelation 1:13, we read it is the Son of Man, or our Lord Jesus Christ, who is in the midst of the seven lampstands. In Revelation 1:16, He has seven stars in His right hand and in Revelation 1:20, the seven stars are defined as the messengers of the seven churches and the lampstands are the churches. Applying these definitions to our text, we see that Christ, Himself, upholds His messengers in His Churches (the seven stars in His right hand) and walks in the midst of His Churches (the seven golden lampstands).

Certainly, this is in the spirit of Matthew 18:20, where our Lord said, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." What comfort to know that He is always in our midst and to paraphrase what the Apostle Paul said in Phillipians 4:13, "We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us."

II. The Commendation

"I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them who are evil; and thou has tried them who say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars; And has borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast labored, and hast not fainted" (Revelation 2:2-3).

The church at Ephesus had grown from a core group of twelve, to a position of prominence and there is no questioning this growth was the result of hard work and much of it. A growing church is not the result of coasting Christians. Rather, it is what happens when God's people busy themselves with the work of His Kingdom and so our Lord says to this church in Revelation 2:2, "I know thy works and thy labor."

He also commends them for their patience and their perseverance is indicated with the phrase, "...hast not fainted." Perseverance is sticking with the task, not giving up, but seeing it through, and patience is waiting to see the results of the efforts. Clearly, these are requirements for the building of a church.

As we look back in Church History, we realize there were those who were totally committed to the task, who did not give up, but were dedicated to the growth of the church. We also realize there were times when they had to wait patiently for the results of their efforts. So it was for those at Ephesus and so it is for us today, we must persevere and we must be patient to wait upon the Lord to grant the increase.

Notice also, in Revelation 2:2, that the Ephesians could not bear those who were evil. To their credit they not only rejected sin but they did not want to be around those who practiced sin. Perhaps, they read 1 Corinthians 15:33, which says, "Be not deceived: Evil company corrupts good morals." Hear this! Young people especially! One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to think that you can hang out with worldly people, and not be influenced by their worldly desires and ambitions. The Ephesians knew that "if you fly with the crows, you will get shot with the crows," which is perhaps, one of the best pieces of "cornfield philosophy" you will ever hear.

Not only did the Ephesians reject those who practiced evil, they also tried or tested the spirits as we are directed to do in 1 John 4:1, which says, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world."

The Apostolic age was practically over because the Apostles save for John, had all gone home to be with the Lord. However, there were those who claimed to be Apostles and were discovered to be liars by the church because the church was no doubt familiar with the scriptural qualifications for an Apostle.Acts 1:21-22 says,

"Wherefore, of these men who have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John unto the same day that He was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of His resurrection."
The primary emphasis of this passage is that an Apostle must be a witness of Christ's resurrection, that is, one who had personally seen the resurrected Lord.

In 1 Corinthians 9:1, Paul vindicated his own apostleship by calling attention to this requirement and proclaiming he had seen Christ on the road to Damascus. Today, there are those who claim to be Apostles, but they simply do not meet the qualifications, which puts them in the same category as those who made similar claims in Ephesus. They say they are Apostles but they are not, they are liars (Revelation 2:1).

In view of the commendations presented, we know the church at Ephesus was a very sound church. They worked hard, they were faithful, they maintained purity in their membership, they rejected false teachers and their erroneous doctrines. Ephesus is beginning to sound like the ideal church, except for one thing,

III. Thou Hast Left Thy First Love

"Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love" (Revelation 2:4)

The people in the church at Ephesus had no problems insofar as their actions were concerned. They were doing things right. The problem was in their motives. This is known, because our Lord said He had something against them, and because people only do things for one of two primary reasons: They want to or they have to.

When a Christian makes his Lord the first love of his life that Christian wants to be pleasing to God, in everything he or she does. Consequently, they will go about the work of the ministry in a glad-hearted manner because their motivation is love for the Lord.

On the other hand, when love for the Savior has cooled, a sense of duty often takes over and people will start to demand conformity to arbitrary standards. The work of the ministry then becomes drudgery and while the work goes on, it lacks the freshness, the enthusiasm, that creates a desire in others to participate willingly. This is legalism and once it begins to overtake individuals in the church, it normally spreads as wildfire until the whole church is infected.

The difference in the two approaches may be seen in the provision of loving parents for their children. We all know state law requires parents to provide for the welfare and education of their children until they reach a certain age. However, loving and concerned parents will always provide for their children, not because the law says they must, but because they love their children. Their provisions are provided out of their love, not their duty. Therefore, the law is of no concern to them.

This is why Paul told Timothy the law is not for a righteous man but for the lawless and disobedient (1 Timothy 1:9). Surely, the law is never the primary motivation to those who love God and His righteousness.

So, we see that the expectation for the church at Ephesus and for Christians today is to be pure in our motives as well as in our actions. The only acceptable motive for service is our love for the Lord. To have any other motive for serving Him is to have "...left thy first love."

There are two phrases in Revelation 2:5, that indicate the seriousness of leaving "thy first love."

(1) "Remember therefore, from where thou art fallen."

Make no mistake, not loving Christ more than any other thing in life, is sin. Sin always results in a fall for the Christian, not in standing, which is determined solely on the basis of grace, through expressed faith in Christ, but in his present state, which has to do with fellowship or communion with God. The same thing is true for the Church. When it is filled with members who are out of fellowship with the Lord, which is a direct result of sin, it loses its state. In other words, it ceases to be an effective witness for the Lord and when that happens we can expect the result contained in the second serious phrase, in Revelation 2:5.

(2) "I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy lampstand."

Because the true Church has its basis in grace, not works, the Lord will not allow His true Church to continue being legalistic and thereby deceive those outside. Rather than allow this to happen the Lord says He will remove the light of their testimony.

It is possible for a church established in grace that becomes legalistic to survive for years, but it will not grow and thrive because it emphasizes works not grace. This is a "dead church," not because it has ceased to exist, but because it is not fulfilling its Great Commission to preach the Gospel of the Grace of God and consequently, its lampstand has been removed by the Lord.

On the other hand, we know many so-called "churches" that openly teach salvation by works are thriving, but these are not God's churches established by grace, through faith in Christ. Therefore, they are not involved in legalism; theirs is false doctrine, taught by false prophets. While we are warned against false prophets and their doctrines, the Lord is for the present, tolerant of them in this age, whereas, He is not so tolerant of legalism in His Church.

Notice also, in Revelation 2:5, that He will come quickly. The Lord will quickly extinguish the light of a legalistic church, before it can do damage to His work.

The remedy for this legalistic condition is also given in Revelation 2:5. "Remember, therefore, from where thou art fallen and repent and do the first works."

Do you remember how excited, how happy, how refreshed you felt, when you were born again? If you are like most people, you had to tell everyone how Jesus redeemed you and gave you new life. Your enthusiasm was in a word, contagious. You were not preoccupied with "do's and don'ts," just with the love and grace of God that saved a sinner like yourself.

The Word of God is telling us to remember the enthusiasm and love that is experienced when one is first saved. Remembering this first love will cause one to repent and change the lifestyle from one of trying to be obedient out of the demands of legalism, to obedience out of love. Only then can the Believer "...do the first works."

We need to consider that the word "first" can refer to numerical order or order of importance. So, what are the "first works" of the Believer? First (numerically), is revealed in Romans 12:1, which says, "I beseech you therefore, brethren by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." When Chrisitians do this, it follows we will trust and obey Him, which makes us fit vessels for the Lord to use in His "first" (order of importance) works. Our "first works" are to yield ourselves in obedience and trust, which makes us fit for the Lord to do His "first works" in and through us, for His glory. Now the text turns,

IV. From Admonition To Encouragement

"But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" (Revelation 2:6)

Just when it seemed like it was time to give up on Ephesus and pull their charter, John, under direction of the Holy Spirit, tells them they have something in their favor - They hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans just as God does.

The identity of these Nicolaitans has been the subject of commentaries since the Second Century. Some say they were followers of Nicolas, one of the deacons chosen in Acts 6, who supposedly defiled his office and perverted the faith. Others say they were followers of another Nicolas who was a rabble-rouser in the early church. Still others say they were a sect that claimed to be "Christian" but lived licentiously.

However, careful examination of the text reveals the emphasis is on their deeds, which God hates, not on who they are. It seems the translators have given us a transliteration instead of the meaning of the Greek word used here. The word "Nicolaitans" comes from the compound Greek word, "nico-laos," meaning "conquerors" or "overcomers" of the people or laity.

The Scripture is telling us there were those who were trying to institute priestly assumption in the Church. They were trying to establish a hierarchy of pastors and priests to reign over the lay people in the Church. This is in direct opposition to the equal brotherhood and equal priesthood of the Believers.

This is the beginning seed of the Papal system that came to full fruition in the Roman Church and utterly corrupted Christianity until the Reformation. Because the papacy denies access to God, except through an earthly priest, it supplants the office of our Lord Jesus Christ who is Himself, our High Priest and it also denies the indwelling Holy Spirit. Therefore, God hates it.

V. A Great Doctrinal Theme

"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches: To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7).

The great theme of this verse is that anyone who has an ear to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying, will overcome. The way to overcome is through faith and according to Romans 10:17, "Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God." The reward for those who respond in faith is to partake of "the tree of life."

The tree of life was originally placed in the midst of the Garden of Eden, fully accessible to Adam and Eve who were free to eat of its fruit and live forever. However, they rejected the tree of life to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that was off-limits, thereby sinning against God and sentencing themselves and their descendants to death.

Nevertheless, God still desires for every human to live forever with Him. Therefore, He offers access to the tree of life, through faith in the substitutionary death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ allows the Believer to overcome sin and death, and to be a partaker of the tree of life, in the midst of the paradise of God.

With that, our Lord concludes His letter to Ephesus, leaving us with a picture of the Church, at the conclusion of the Apostolic Age.

From "Understanding The Apocalypse"
A book of sermons by Pastor Jim McColloch, Th.M., Th.D.
© Copyright 1994, 1999, 2006