The Seven Letters to the Seven Churches
THE LETTER TO EPHESUS: “FIRST LOVE”
Imagine opening our church mailbox and finding a letter addressed to St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, with the return address identifying Jesus Christ as the sender. In a real sense Revelation is such a letter. While the apostle John wrote the words of Revelation, Jesus Christ was the Author; as stated in the first verse of the first chapter: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants what must soon take place.”
The letter of Revelation was first addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. All seven churches were connected by a circuitous road, and were listed in Revelation in the exact order they would be reached if traveling north from Ephesus.
Why only seven churches when there were other churches in Asia Minor? One reason may be the frequent use of the number seven in Revelation, a number of completeness. Seven spirits before God’s throne. Seven eyes. Seven lampstands. Seven stars. Seven seals. Seven angels with seven trumpets announcing seven woes. And so on. Additionally, in keeping with the idea of completeness, the seven churches of Revelation may also represent a composite picture of conditions possible in any Christian congregation until the end of time.
Though the letter of Revelation was first addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor, Jesus also intended it for the “mailbox” of every other Christian congregation, including the one at 208 11th Street East, Lemmon, SD 57638. This is clear from the reference to Christ’s “servants” in Revelation 1:1; and from 1:3, where blessing is promised to everyone who reads and believes the message of Revelation: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy,” said Jesus. “And blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”
Today’s text contains the specific message Jesus had for the church in Ephesus. Over the next seven weeks, as we study the seven letters to the seven churches, you’ll notice a similar format in each letter. First, the name of the city. Second, some aspect of the vision of the glorified Christ presented in Revelation 1:12-18. Third, an evaluation of that church, followed by any corrective action needed. Fourth, the familiar call to listen and apply the message: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Our approach to these seven letters will be to discuss the city where the church was located; then the church itself, if information is available; and then the content of the message. City. Church. Content.
First, the city of Ephesus. Even in antiquity, Ephesus was known as the “Light of Asia.” The city was so important that every newly-appointed governor of Asia was required by law to enter the province at Ephesus.
Ephesus was the financial center of Asia Minor. Located at the juncture of several trade routes, and with a spacious harbor on the Aegean Sea, the city thrived with commerce. Its agora or marketplace was referred to as the “Vanity Fair of Asia.” Its main road, the Arcadian way, was one hundred feet wide—the equivalent of a ten-lane freeway, paved with marble, and lined with columns.
Late in the First Century A.D., when Revelation was written, Ephesus had a population of nearly 300,000; about the size of Corpus Christi, TX or Pittsburgh, PA. The city was also a cultural and religious center, filled with shrines, temples, statues, fountains, communal baths, and various government buildings. It had a concert hall; a 25,000-seat amphitheater, the very same theater where a mob rioted against Paul and his gospel in Acts 19; also the renowned Library of Celsus with its more than 12,000 scrolls or books. Conveniently, a tunnel connected the library to a nearby brothel. Ephesus was home to the famous temple of the fertility goddess Artemis—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Worship of the Roman emperor was also prevalent in Ephesus, as elsewhere in Asia Minor. Among the ruins of the Library of Celsus one can still see this inscription: “From the Emperor Caesar August, the son of the god, the greatest of the priests.”
Second, the church in Ephesus. Much is known about this church from the Book of Acts and Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. Paul himself founded the church at Ephesus during his second missionary journey. His initial visit was brief. However, when he returned to Ephesus on his third missionary journey, he spent nearly three years with the Ephesians—longer than with any other congregation.
Over time, the church at Ephesus was served by many New Testament notables: the apostle Paul; the great orator Apollos; the husband-and-wife missionaries Aquilla and Priscilla; and young Pastor Timothy. According to early church writings, the apostle John, the writer of Revelation, also pastored the Ephesian congregation. In fact, visit Ephesus today and you’ll see the alleged tomb of the apostle John.
Paul’s final goodbye to the elders of Ephesus was heartbreaking. He told them: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood. For I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. Now I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among those who are sanctified.” And with Paul’s farewell spoken, “he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again,” Acts 20:28-32, 36-38.
Third, the content of Christ’s message to the Ephesian church. Jesus introduced this message by saying, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus,” 2:1. The Greek word for angel, ANGGELOS, means messenger. In this context, the messenger was likely the pastor of the Ephesian congregation.
Jesus continued: “These are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” What are the seven stars and the seven golden lampstands? Jesus answered this question Himself in Revelation 1:20, saying, “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” So, from the outset Jesus assured the Christians at Ephesus that He was personally and intimately involved in the matters of their congregation. How?
To begin with, Jesus “holds the seven stars in His right hand.” Said differently, He selects, upholds, and strengthens their pastors; as He still does today. The Greek verb for “holds” is in the present tense; ongoing, uninterrupted action. And as a pastor, I am grateful for this assurance, for His assurance that He is upholding me; because without that assurance I would never slip on a black robe, preach from a pulpit, or undertake any pastoral responsibility. Why?
For the very same reason Paul shared with the elders of Ephesus. You, dear Christians, are people whom God “bought with His own blood.” And I am accountable to Him for the manner in which I shepherd His flock. That is a sobering thought to me. But let it also be a comforting thought for you—the knowledge that every pastor who has served St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, from the first to the last, regardless of age or personality or speaking ability, has been “hand-picked” by Jesus Himself to serve this congregation.
But Jesus stated more in that introductory verse. He also described Himself as the one “who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” This verb too is in the present tense. As Jesus always upholds the pastors of a Christian congregation, so also He always walks in the midst of a Christian congregation, including this one. Though we do not see Him with our eyes, we know with certainty in our hearts that Jesus Himself is with us today, at this moment, in this building, walking back and forth amid the pews and people. In Greek the phrase “walks among the seven golden lampstands” is more literally “walks in the middle of the seven golden lampstands.” Jesus is at the very center of His congregations. He is not walking around the periphery or only modestly involved. He is intimately involved.
And because He is intimately involved and infinitely God, He knows what happens within a congregation; as He Himself stated in Revelation 2:2-3, “I know your deeds, your hard work and perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for My name, and have not grown weary.”
The Greek words in these two verses are very descriptive. The Christians in Ephesus had worked hard. The Greek term, KOPOS, denotes intense, tiring, sweaty labor. Peter used a different form of this word when he told Jesus: “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” Rowed the boat. Threw the nets. Swatted mosquitoes. Banged chins. Kept hoping. Kept trying. Caught nothing.
The Ephesians had also persevered—UPOMONE in Greek, meaning “to bear up under.” The author of Hebrews used this same word when comparing the Christian life to a long-distance marathon and encouraging Christian runners to find endurance in Jesus. “Therefore,” he wrote, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the raced marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God,” Hebrews 12:1-2.
When I read Revelation 2:1-7, I not only think of the Christians in Ephesus; I also think of the Christians in Lemmon SD; who, since the founding of this congregation, have worked so hard and persevered for so many years—the worship services; the Sunday School and Bible Classes; the confirmation classes and all the confirmands pictured on the stairway walls; those who have cleaned, taught, served meals, played organ; changed vestments; ushered, served as voters and council members. So often deeds like these may go unnoticed and unheralded and forgotten. But not by the Lord. “I know your deeds,” He said to the Christians in Ephesus. “I know your deeds,” He says to the Christians in Lemmon.
In many respects, the Ephesian congregation was a model congregation. Hard work. Endurance. Commitment to the truth. Forty years earlier, when saying that final goodbye, the apostle Paul had solemnly warned the Ephesians against false teachers from without and within, saying: “For three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” And thankfully, the Ephesians had heeded Paul’s warning. We know this from the words of Jesus Himself, who said: “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false,” Revelation 2:2.
And yet, despite all the hard work and perseverance and doctrinal integrity, something was seriously wrong in the First Christian Church of Ephesus. What was it? The answer is found in Revelation 2:4. “Yet,” said Jesus, “I hold this against you. You have forsaken your first love.”
What did Jesus mean by “first love”? Did He mean love for God? Did He mean love for lost sinners or love for one another? Certainly, all of these loves are closely related. In his First Epistle John wrote: “We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seem, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also,” 1 John 4:19-21. Our love for God, our love for each other, and our love for lost humanity should never waiver or lose its first-love priority.
Yet, I believe that the “first love” Jesus mentioned in today’s text is the love between Christians. And I say this for two reasons. First, each of the seven letters to the seven churches deals with a specific congregational issue. The problem of “lukewarm” love for God is dealt with in Christ’s letter to the church in Laodicea.
But second, Jesus clearly taught His disciples the importance of loving each other when He said in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”
It is the genuine love Christians have for each other that shines so brightly in a dark world of hatred and vengeance; shines like those golden lampstands in Revelation. It is the genuine love Christians have for each other that exemplifies God’s great love for them and for the whole world. Jesus said this too. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
And here is the staggering reality. While the Christians in Ephesus had a love for the truth, they had lost a Christlike love for each other. They were pure in doctrine but poor in love. And this was such a serious matter to the risen Christ that He told the Ephesians in Revelation 2:5, “Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
Our congregation, St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church; and our synod, The Church of the Lutheran Confession, have been built on the sincere desire to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, of God’s Word. How many of us can recite the words of Romans 16:17-18 from memory—one of the foundational verses of Scripture that by God’s grace led to the founding of our church body? “Now I urge you, brethren, mark those who cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.”
Doctrinal purity is vitally important. But doctrinal purity without brotherly love is simply unacceptable and unwanted by our Lord Jesus Christ. The church in Ephesus was a doctrinally pure church. But remarkably, Jesus told the Christians there that He would rather have no church in Ephesus at all than to have a confessional church with no brotherly love.
“You have forsaken your first love,” Jesus told the church in Ephesus. But He also told them hot to get that first-love back. He said, “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first,” Revelation 2:5-6. I’ve come to think of this advice from Jesus as the “Three R’s”. Remember. Repent. Resume.
REMEMBER. Remember the way things were when this vibrant first-love filled the congregation. Even more importantly, remember the undeserved love that God has shown to you—a love so great that He sacrificed His only Son for your sins.
REPENT. Yes, repentance in the narrow sense of true sorrow over sins—including the sin of failing to love each other as much as we should, asking and receiving God’s forgiveness. But also repentance in the broader sense of change. Changing the way we view each other “You are not just a person who attends St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. You are a child of God. You are my brother and sister in Christ. We are blood relatives; though the blood is not ours, but the blood of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave Himself for us. What if God suddenly lost His first-love for us?
And finally, RESUME. Or as Jesus said it, “Do the things you did at first.” All those years ago, remember when we as a congregation used to…” I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks. ‘Do the things you did it first.’ Friends, this is not only the secret of having a strong romance; it is the secret to having a strong, loving congregation.
To which we add the invitation of God Himself: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”