EPHESUS (Rev 2.1-7)
The history of the Ephesian assembly
Ephesus is the most familiar to us of the seven churches. The New Testament contains details of its origins in Acts 18-19 where the involvement of Apollos along with Aquila and Priscilla is followed by Pauls visit which lasted for over two years. This marks the start of a long and affectionate relationship between Paul and the Ephesians. Some two years later he met with their elders en route to Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 20. Subsequently, Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians and two letters to Timothy while the latter was located there, having been sent by Paul. Further visits or proposed visits are referred to in these letters, and indeed, by the time Paul approaches his death, he marks a fifteen year relationship with this company by sending Tychicus to them (2 Tim 4.12).
The incident in Acts 20 indicates the strength of the bond between Paul and the Ephesians, and the contents of his letter to them seem to indicate a spiritual church. There is little need for corrective ministry, but there is rather the sharing of great spiritual truths and an occupation with heavenly things. Paul does warn them of threats from without and within (Acts 20.29-30), and in his final letter to Timothy he confirms the departure from Paul and his teaching by all those around in Asia (2 Tim 1.13-15). However, the contents of Johns letter now before us seem to indicate that the Ephesians had successfully withstood these threats, holding on to sound doctrine. They had enjoyed fifteen years of the interest and teaching of Paul and several other great servants of God, and now, some twenty-nine years later, are the first church addressed by the last remaining apostle. In summary, the Ephesians had benefited from the best of teaching, enjoyed high spiritual truth, been faithful to sound doctrine, and occupied a prominent position among the New Testament churches.
Ephesus and Laodicea linked
All this makes it more remarkable that this church, along with the seventh, Laodicea, is subject to the severest censure from the Lord. After around forty-four years of continued testimony it is now facing the prospect of having the "candlestick" removed, in other words the cessation of their functioning as an assembly. In days when many assemblies are declining and closing we should look very carefully at this lesson from Ephesus. But before we do this it is important to note that we must not be judgmental and assume that when assemblies decline or close it is always for reasons like those at Ephesus. When the Lord Himself was here it is evident that there were places, for example Nazareth, Bethsaida and Chorazin, where, despite the most faithful testimony, there had been little or no response. Indeed, the Lord instructs His disciples that there comes a point when in the face of constant rejection they must "shake off the dust" from their feet (Mt 10.14) and leave those places. Also, as we will see in future articles, neither of the two churches which receive no criticism appears to be thriving in human terms. However, we must face up to the challenge posed by this assemblys predicament.
The Lord in the midst
The opening verse, as in all the letters, presents us with a view of the Lord Jesus. Here it is the one in supreme control of all seven churches as He both holds their representatives in his hand and walks in their midst observing them and giving His true assessment of them. These churches are not accountable to each other, nor to any central earthly authority. This perhaps explains the diversity of their condition despite being geographically close. No, they answer only to Him, and He must have total supremacy. The description leads us to acknowledge His person, power, presence, and priesthood as being supreme. This surely is a fundamental truth from which we must not part today. He is our first love, and allegiance to Him must surpass all else regardless of mens opinions.
Verses two and three offer encouragement. We see that He still finds that which is commendable, despite the serious situation. Surely here we are thankful for a righteous judge who takes all into account. Well might we say, "Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds" (Neh 13.14). Indeed, their commendation is perhaps the most comprehensive of all the churches. This church had clearly shown commitment in works and labour; they have been particularly diligent in matters of false teaching showing great doctrinal correctness, and had done this consistently showing patience and perseverance, no doubt over many years. We would have concluded that here was a "good, sound assembly".
But the One observing them with perfect knowledge knows all and He has "somewhat against" them (v.4). The word "somewhat" in the AV reduces the seriousness and should not be there. This is a vital and over-riding issue He has against them. The expression "left thy first love" implies they have left for something else, but who or what? Perhaps an illustration from Scripture might help us. The first man, Adam, clearly had a unique and vibrant relationship with God in those early days. When Eve was formed he then had another special and loving relationship which was totally legitimate and in perfect harmony with his relationship with God. However, sin came in and the woman was deceived and sinned. She offered Adam the fruit, and he had a clear choice. Would he maintain his relationship with God and obey Him regardless of the womans position, or would he "leave his first love" and disobey to stand alongside the woman? We all know what Adam did and how he is held accountable. The promise to the overcomer (v.7), referring to Eden-like conditions, seems to suggest that Adams failure is indeed a picture of the issue at Ephesus. When we get saved and join Gods people we not only have a love for the Lord, but this extends to His people and our gathering with them. Just as with Adams love for Eve, this is a legitimate even demanded love, but it must never displace our "first love" for the Lord Himself. The Ephesians faithfulness indicates a love of doctrine, a love of gathering, what we may call a love of the assembly. But could it be that this was now out of mere formality and duty, perhaps even legality, seeking the approval of men, rather than arising from the devotion of first love? Sadly, it seems it is possible to love even a commendable thing like the assembly and its principles more than the Lord who should be at the centre of it in every way.
Now the Lord moves from commendation and condemnation to counsel in order to avoid the imminent danger of closure (v.5). They are to "remember", "repent", and recover. No doubt that remembering would take them back to the simplicity of early days, where their devotion to first love resulted in the sacrificial surrender of all which might displace it (Acts 19.19). It would also take them back to the meeting with Paul (Acts 20.36-38) and the softness of first love displayed for the Lords servant, not just in word but clearly demonstrated. It would take them back to the suffering from adversaries endured willingly in vigorous gospel outreach (1 Cor 16.8-9). It would take them back to Pauls letter to them and remind them they enjoyed "all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph 1.3). These remembrances should bring us all back to first love conditions and help preserve our testimonies until He comes in return, not for the purpose of removal.
Graciously the Lord holds out hope with further commendation (v.6). Perhaps their sharing of a joint hatred of falsehood could be the foundation of a return to first love? More encouragement is found in a final appeal to individuals in v.7. Full recovery is always possible where there is true repentance. A return to the first love closeness and fellowship can even exceed former days as partaking of the "tree of life" and the "paradise of God" seems to indicate. May God give us help that this may be our experience as individuals and assemblies.
To be continued.