Pastor Scott Andrews | June 12, 2022
The Apostle Paul went on three missionary journeys recorded for us in the book of Acts. Almost half of the NT books were written by Paul to these churches he planted or visited on those journeys, others to apostolic delegates sent by him to pastor those churches, like Timothy and Titus. Now, central to his third missionary journey was Ephesus. We read that incredible story in Acts 19.
He had visited Ephesus actually at the end of his second missionary journey, on his way from Corinth back to Jerusalem and Antioch. When he visited Ephesus, he left behind Priscilla and Aquila, who were both tentmakers and believers, like him. A short time later, after reporting to the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch, he made his way back to the churches in Galatia he had planted on first missionary journey. He then traveled to Ephesus, where he stayed for over two full years. During that time, we read all those who lived in Asia Minor heard the word of the Lord – that is, the gospel. Which means, this is likely when many of the churches of Asia Minor – to include the seven churches of Revelation – were planted.
Now, Ephesus was a major city, a huge city – estimates place the population somewhere between 250-300,000 inhabitants. Some say it was second in importance only to Rome. Located on the Cayster River, it was a port city on the Aegean Sea, at the crossroads of three important trade routes. They had come under Roman rule in the second century BC. While it wasn’t the capital of Asia Minor, it was undoubtedly the most important city of the province. The Roman governor even lived there.
So important was the city that Timothy spent time there, pastoring the church. So important was the city that Paul wrote one of his letters to Ephesus while he was under house arrest in Rome. So important was the city that the Apostle John spent the last few decades of his life there. In fact, it was in Ephesus he wrote the Gospel of John and the three epistles of John. Tradition tells us he was exiled from Ephesus to the Island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. So important was Ephesus that it was the first of the seven churches of Asia Minor to receive a personal letter from Jesus through John, which included that book of Revelation. Ephesus was indeed an important city, central to the expansion of the church.
Not only was it an important Roman city, it was also a hotbed of both pagan and emperor worship. Part of the pagan worship involved the occult or the black magic arts – demonically inspired. There were also temples of worship to emperors Hadrian and Domitian – under whose reign John was exiled to Patmos in the 90s AD. You see, it was thought if you rightly worshiped the emperor, you would receive special treatment from Rome.
But those temples, right on the city’s major street, paled in significance to the Temple of Artemis. The Roman name for Artemis was Diana. She was the goddess of the hunt, but for Ephesus, she was the goddess of fertility. Her temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Here’s an artist’s rendering. It was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens. It was 425 feet long by 220 feet wide. It had 127 marble columns which were sixty feet high. It was a sight to behold. Inside was not a statue of Artemis, but a likeness that some surmise was a meteorite that had fallen from the sky. But the carved images/idols of Artemis were grotesque. Again, she was the goddess of fertility, and her likeness was a multi-breasted image. She was served by thousands of priests and priestesses, who were nothing more than temple prostitutes. That’s the way you worshiped – engaging in sexual immorality. The temple, worship, and silver likenesses of Artemis brought many worshipers and much economic wealth to the city.
Back to when Paul first visited the city – about 51-52 AD. He first met 12 Jewish men who had believed – we’re not sure what – but they had not received the Holy Spirit. In fact, they had only been baptized into John the Baptist’s baptism, which was a baptism of repentance to prepare for the coming of the Messiah Jesus. So, Paul baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus, and they received the Holy Spirit. Presumably, the church of Ephesus was then born. The Jews then ran him out of the synagogue, and he went to the Gentiles where they met in the school of Tyrannus.
Later, God was doing extraordinary miracles through Paul such that even his handkerchiefs or work aprons were taken to sick people who were then healed. Some were even delivered of demonic possession. There were these seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish priest, who wanted to do what Paul was doing. So they tried to exorcise a demon, but the demon said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you? The demon then beat them up, and they ran from the house naked and bleeding. The news of this spread quickly and widely. Such that, the name of Jesus was magnified and believed. The church caught on fire. We read that many brought their magic books filled with spells and incantations, and burned them. The value of the books was placed at 50,000 pieces of silver.
But something else happened. As I said, the city’s economy was tied to pagan worship, especially the worship of Artemis. The silversmiths made lots of money selling little silver trinkets and idols of Artemis. But with the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus, the trade began to suffer. And so, led by a silversmith named Demetrius, they started a riot, that ended up in the city’s outdoor theater that was said to hold 25,000 people. By the way, the theater still exists today. The people gathered there, and in opposition to Paul and his Gospel, they began shouting for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” Paul wanted to go to the theater, but he was prevented by the brothers – they knew if he showed up, they’d tear him limb from limb. Soon thereafter, he left for Macedonia and Greece where he continued strengthening the churches he’d planted on his second missionary journey.
At the end of that third missionary journey, he headed back to Jerusalem. He knew that arrest, imprisonment and perhaps martyrdom awaited him. So on the way back, he stopped in Miletus, to the south of Ephesus. He didn’t have time to go to Ephesus, so he called for the elders of the church to meet him in Miletus. We read about it in Acts 20. It’s a familiar passage, but look at it with me – this is the last thing he said to the Ephesian elders of the Ephesian church:
17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.
18 And when they had come to him, he said to them, “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time,
19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews;
20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house,
21 solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
22 “And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there,
23 except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me.
24 “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.
25 “And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face.
26 “Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.
27 “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.
28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
29 “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;
30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
31 “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.
32 “And now I commend 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.
33 “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes.
34 “You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me.
35 “In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
36 When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.
37 And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him,
38 grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they were accompanying him to the ship.
That’s a long passage, but here’s what I want you to notice:
- First, Paul and these people loved each other deeply. Lots of tears, especially when they heard they would never see him again. (Bless be the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love.)
- Second, Paul talked about how he worked hard among them, and encouraged them to work hard in this manner, to be able to provide for people in need.
- Third, he warned these elders to guard the flock, because false teachers, savage wolves, would arise and seek to devour the sheep.
Ephesus was an important city. Through Paul and his associates, a faithful church was planted. The gospel went out from this city throughout Asia Minor. Don’t miss that – we’re going to talk about that next week – faithful churches plant faithful churches. It is no wonder Jesus, through the Apostle John, who spent many years there, would address this church. Bringing us back to the book of Revelation.
Remember, Revelation was written to people suffering for their faith. Persecution had begun. It was going to become greater, especially at the end of the last days, just prior to the return of Christ. So, John receives a revelation from and of Jesus Christ. He reminds his readers that Jesus is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him. Then he received a vision of the exalted, glorified Christ, who told him to write to the seven churches of Asia Minor. He was to write of the things which he had seen in this vision of Christ; he was to write of the things which are – because Jesus is among the churches, and He holds them in His powerful right hand; and he is to write of the things which shall take place after these things.
And so now, Jesus dictates seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Seven speaking of totality and completeness. A careful study of the seven letters reveals seven characteristics largely present in all the letters:
- First is a command to write the angel of the church.
- Second, Jesus gives a self-description, which comes from the vision of Christ that John saw in chapter 1. But the self-description is appropriate to each church addressed.
- Third, there is a commendation of each church – well, except for Laodicea.
- Fourth, there is an accusation because of some sin in the church, except for Smyrna and Philadelphia.
- Fifth, there is a call to repentance and a threat of judgment, again, except for Smyrna and Philadelphia.
- Sixth, there is a call to listen to the message of the Spirit to the churches.
- Seventh, there is a promise to the one who listens and overcomes.
These seven letters cover all of chapters 2 and 3. Lots of discussion about them through the years. The most common but recently and rightly rejected idea is that these seven churches cover seven periods of the church age – starting with Ephesus and ending with Laodicea. Most agree today that these were seven actual churches that had these specific qualities – some good, some not so good. They needed commendation and correction. And the qualities of these seven churches represent churches of all time in all places – that is, churches will face some or all of these challenges in their life cycle. We can see Alliance Bible Fellowship in many of these churches – this is a message to Alliance today.
John starts with Ephesus as it was the most important church in Asia Minor, and also the first church you would come to after leaving Patmos and starting on this circular postal route. So let’s read the text for today – Revelation 2:1-7.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches – to this church. We’ll simply make our way through this letter, examining those seven elements found in most the letters:
- The Angel of the Church of Ephesus (1)
- The Self-Description of Christ (1)
- The Commendation of the Church (2-3)
- The Correction of the Church (4)
- The Call to Repentance (5)
- The Call to Hear the Spirit (6)
- The Promise to the Overcomers (7)
Yes, I know that’s seven points – but it makes for a perfect sermon. Besides, we’ve already covered a lot. For example, Jesus says, to the angel of the church in Ephesus write. We saw a couple weeks ago the word angel in Revelation usually means angel. This likely refers to an angel who represents this church before God and is responsible for this church. Some suggest it refers to the leader or leaders of the church. Regardless, the point is, the church is to hear what Jesus has to say to them through this angelic messenger.
And how does Jesus characterize Himself – that is, from the description in chapter 1, what does Jesus highlight for the church in Ephesus? The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands. Now – there are two subtle differences in these words from chapter 1. The One who holds is a different word than earlier. In chapter 1, it was the one who holds – but this word is stronger – it is the one who holds tightly, who grips the stars in His right hand. It speaks of Jesus’ firm and sovereign grasp of the church. You see, the first and the last churches – Ephesus and Laodicea, have some significant challenges, and Jesus wants them to know, I hold you tightly. I’m in control.
Second, notice in chapter 1 Jesus was among the lampstands. But now, He walks among the lampstands. This highlights His presence in the church – He is omnipresent – He is present with His churches and is in a position to know what’s going on. He knew what was going on in Ephesus, and He knows what’s going on in this church. He knows what’s going on with you. After all, this is His church, and you are His.
Bringing us, already and amazingly to our third point, the commendation. Jesus says, I know your deeds and your toil and your perseverance. Three things – He knows their deeds, a general word for work, and your toil, that is, your work is hard labor, and He knows their perseverance through it all.
That’s good, isn’t it? This church works hard – just like Paul encouraged them to do. They hadn’t forgotten Paul’s final words to the church – he had set an example of working hard – he encouraged them to follow his example. In fact, the word for toil is to work to the point of exhaustion. They had given it all for the church. Just like they were supposed to. No such thing as burn out in this church. Jesus knew their deeds, their hard labor – and it was good. And they had persevered – they had not given up. Sure, these were likely second-generation Christians – it was their fathers who had heard what Paul had said. But their fathers had taught them, and they had listened, and learned, and they had continued the faithful work in the midst of a culture that opposed them.
Not only that, they didn’t tolerate evil people. Seems like they even practiced church discipline. Further, they had put to the test those who called themselves apostles. These apostles weren’t calling themselves one of the original Twelve – that special groups of men who had walked with Jesus. No, these were traveling, itinerant teachers to the churches – messengers – sent ones by Jesus and the church to the churches to teach truth and doctrine. They claimed positions of authority. But, there were false apostles, false teachers who traveled and taught falsehoods. And the Ephesians had put them to the test, and found them to be false, and didn’t tolerate them.
Why would they do that so well? Because they remembered what Paul had told them – that after his departure, savage wolves would come in among them. So they were on the alert – ready to defend the faith and defend God’s people against false teaching and false teachers. That’s good, right?
Further, they had persevered, that is, they had endured much in this pagan town which opposed the gospel – and they had done it for His name’s sake. Not for their own name’s sake – their own notoriety or fame or fortune. No – they had worked hard and persevered and protected the church for Christ’s sake.
That’s all good, right? It is. But the letter to Ephesus does not end there. Verse 4, point four – they needed correction. Jesus highlights a rather significant failing. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. That is, you have left the love you had at the first. What is that? Lots of discussion – but almost every agrees it at least includes their love for God, and their love for one another. And many point out it also includes their love for the lost. Why do they say that? Because if they don’t repent, Jesus will remove their lampstand – the fact that they are to be lights in the world. Apparently, that light was dim. I’m reminded of our six core values or purposes that we’ve grouped into love for God, love for the church, and love for the lost.
They had become deeply committed to working hard, to doing the right things and teaching the right things and defending the faith against falsehoods and heretics. But, they had become so committed to doing right and saying right that they had lost their love for God, their love for each other, and their love for lost people. They had become a fortress where the lost outside remained lost; where the battle was turned inward; where they perhaps served one another, but with no passion of love toward one another. They were going through the motions well. It looked like they were a good church. And the words of Jesus come flooding back – by this will all men know that you are my disciples, by your love for one another. And, when asked what is the greatest commandment? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And the second is like it – to love your neighbor – in that context – those inside and outside the church – as yourself. Two commandments – love God, love people.
They were doing right, but not loving right. Therefore, as Paul said in I Corinthians 13, to do right and even amazing things without love is to be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal – lots of noise – but ultimately meaningless. Do you understand that we can do the right things, teach the right things, but if we don’t love, we are failing? They needed correction.
So what was the church at Ephesus, and perhaps what are we to do? Three things in verse 5 – three R’s – Remember, Repent and Return. Remember from where you’ve fallen. Remember how you used to love – that’s what Christians do before they grow cold. Repent – that is, confess your sin, and change. And then return and do the things you did at the first. What were those things? Whatever it was that demonstrated you love God, you love His people, and you love the lost. Whatever it was before we became overly committed to doing the right things for doing’s sake. Dotting theological i’s and crossing doctrinal t’s. Now, we must do the right things, but it must be motivated by love.
And if they don’t, if we don’t, the threat is He will come in judgment – Jesus is not talking about the end of the age – He’s talking about coming right now to judge His wayward church. How? Notice, He will remove the lampstand. What is the lampstand? He told us in chapter 1 – the church. He will remove the church. You see, a church that does not love is not a church – it does not deserve to remain, and it will be removed.
Notice verse 6 quickly – having just pegged them, another quick commendation. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. I’ll save that for when we get to the church of Pergamum, but basically, the Nicolaitans were a church embracing the immorality of the culture and engaging is syncretistic worship. This, too, is a message for the church in America – sexual immorality and approving or adopting false religions – pluralism – matters.
So, points six and seven, verse 7 – he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Interesting – plural churches. This is not just addressed to the church in Ephesus, but to all seven churches – in fact, to all churches, to this church. He who has an ear, let him hear. Meaning, do we labor, do we persevere, do we not tolerate sin and false teaching, and do we love?
To him who overcomes – overcomes what? The world? Yes – but that’s not the context. The context is – the one who overcomes the sin of not loving – to this one, to this overcomer I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God. The tree of life we saw in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. But it disappears, until Revelation 21 and 22. To the one who demonstrates true saving faith by loving, I will grant – not on the basis of works, but faith which produces loving work – I will grant that he or she may eat of the tree of life – that is, they will have eternal life in my presence – the paradise of God.
I’ve told you we need to look at ourselves – our church – to see if we fit the bill. To see if this describes us. I must tell you, I’ve had to take a close look in the mirror. Those of you who’ve been around awhile – who know me – know I’m a pretty hard worker. And I’m quite committed to orthodox Christian truth – to being faithful to the truths of God’s word. I’m a heresy hunter – not only that, I can be quite critical.
But do I really do it for His name’s sake? And further, do I really love? Have I become so committed to doctrine and truth that I’ve forsaken my first love – my love for God, for you, for the lost? This has been a week of introspection for me. Self-examination. I want to love rightly. I want to love deeply. I’ve had some personal times of prayer with the Lord, asking for forgiveness in ways that I’ve worked hard, defended the faith, ferreted out heretics, but not loved well. I want to – and I want us to. We’re known as the Bible church in town – come to Alliance to get the Bible. That’s great. I want us to be known for that. But are we known as the place where people love God, love one another, and love the lost?
This is a great time for both personal and corporate introspection – examination. Do we work hard? Do we believe well? Do we persevere? Those are commended – we should do those. But do we love well?
Now, why was this written to Ephesus – at this point in the book of Revelation – how does it fit? Because, as things get harder and we are opposed more, we will be tempted to do one of two things. First, to draw in, to go into protection mode, and to not love well. Or second, we will be tempted to not persevere, to betray truth, to give into the culture – to go along to get along. And we can lose our faithfulness – and look just like the culture around us – sexually and pluralistically. Isn’t that what we see in the church today – where sexual sin is accepted and approved, where any teaching or even any religion goes? We must work hard, we must persevere despite the opposition, and we must love.