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Studies in the book of Revelation: When life makes no sense

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 2:1-7

Ephesus was the greatest city in Asia Minor and was often called Lumen Asiae, “the light of Asia.” It was the wealthiest city in Asia Minor and had the greatest harbor in that part of the world. Three lucrative trade routes led to her shores, bringing wealth from across the Empire. And so she grew to a population of a quarter-million people, a giant metropolis for her day. Her ruins are spectacular still today.

Ephesus was the most religious city in Asia as well. Her money had built the greatest temples and shrines in the ancient world. Her chief claim to fame was the Temple of Diana. It had the following characteristics:

425 feet long by 225 feet wide.

127 columns, each 60 feet high and the gift of a king.

36 of the columns were covered with gold, jewels, and carvings.

The entire temple was made of cypress wood.

The Greeks said, “The sun sees nothing finer in his course than Diana’s Temple.”

Emperor worship was very significant in the city as well, with shrines to the emperors on every major street. Greek mystery cults had followers here as well, and the Jewish contingent was strong.

Visiting the Ephesian church

By popular consent, the Ephesian church was the most accomplished Christian congregation in the world.

The church was probably founded jointly by Aquila and Priscilla; they were later joined by Paul, who preached there for more than 2 years (Acts 18.18-19; 19.1-10). Timothy succeeded Paul here, as did Apollos. John the Beloved Disciple pastored in Ephesus as well; tradition says that Mary lived and died in the city also. Church councils would be held here in later centuries, bringing Christians from across the world.

In our letter, Jesus commends the church with wonderful praise. First, he commends their actions (v. 2):

He knows their “deeds” (ergon, activities).

And their “hard works” (kopos, to toil or work hard).

He notes their perseverence. The word is hupomone, which means to endure with steadfast courage despite all opposition. Jesus commends them: “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (v. 3).

He commends their integrity: “how you cannot bear evil men but have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and found them to be false” (v. 2).

Later he repeats his approval: “this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (v. 6). Nicolaitans are mentioned only here and in 2.15: “You also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”

Irenaeus attributed the movement to Nicolas, one of the Seven (Acts 6.5) and said, “They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence” (Against Heresies 1.26.3). Clement of Alexandria described them as “abandoning themselves to pleasure like goats, as if insulting the body, lead a life of self-indulgence…while their soul is buried in the mire of vice” (Miscellanies 2.20).

Victorinus of Pettau, the first commentator on Revelation, refers to them as “false and troublesome men, who, as ministers under the name of nicolaus, had made for themselves a heresy, to the effect that what had been offered to idols might be exorcized and eaten, and that whatever should have committed fornication might receive peace on the eighth day” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 2.6).

Perhaps the reason more is not known about them is that their sect lasted for only “a very short time,” according to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.29).They were obviously a doctrinal threat to the church, for Jesus says that he “hates” them (2.6). And the Ephesian Christians agree.

So we begin our tour of the seven churches with the most attractive one of all. Their actions, courage, and doctrine are above reproach. They appear successful in every way. But appearances are usually deceptive.

Solving the Ephesian problem

Their problem is simple, and disastrous: “I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (v. 4). “First” means “first in time.” The person a Christian loves first in coming to faith in Jesus himself. Put simply, the Ephesian Christians have forgotten Jesus. In doing the work of the church, they have forsaken the Lord of the church.

They have lost their sense of purpose, their direction in life. They are so busy doing, they have forgotten being. Their lives and faith makes no sense, as they are consumed in the busyness of “success.”

Now they must return to him, or he will “remove your lampstand from its place” (v. 5). The lampstand symbolizes their church (1.20). As the “light of the world” (Matthew 5.14), their church exists to shine the candle of God’s love into a very dark world. But this lampstand is in Jesus’ hand, and it is about to go out. They are perilously close to losing their church. They must “Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first” (v. 5).

We must “remember” the time when we loved Jesus first and most of all and “repent,” change our minds and lives about our priorities now. Then we must “do the works we did at first,” acting ourselves into a new way of feeling about the Lord Jesus.

Do not assume that you can make this decision later. Today Ephesus is no more, their church gone, their city in ruins. The Temple of Diana is a metaphor for her greatness and fall: the once magnificent temple today has only one column standing amidst the ruins.

So it is with any church or Christian who forsakes Jesus. But you and I have this day to return to him. Does your life make sense? Would Jesus say that he is your first love, your first priority? What practical step does he intend you to take, today?