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“Forsaken First Love”
Before actually beginning the exposition of the message to Ephesus, it would be helpful to consider a few of the distinctive and common features that can be observed in each of the messages to the churches of Asia Minor as we find them in Revelation 2 and 3.
Why seven and why these? These were letters to seven historical churches at the time of John’s writing. The letters each dealt with actual conditions of church life in John’s day. But as God’s Word is written to the whole body of Christ for all history, they are also representative of all churches both in John’s day and at any time in the history of the church. Just as the letters to the Corinthians concern not only the church at Corinth, but all churches past, present, and future, so do these letters. Reasons:
(1) The fact there are seven, but only seven listed. Though many other churches existed and many were larger and better known, only these seven were selected. Seven is the number of completion and it is suggested that these seven perfectly represent conditions that would be characteristic of various churches throughout history.
(2) Though each letter is written to a specific church, all the letters close with the words “let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (pl.).” Each message is pertinent to all the churches, not only of John’s day, but of ours as well.
It should be noted that each message with its warning or counsel or comfort begins by calling attention to some aspect of the majesty and glory of Christ as to His person and work as it is revealed in the vision of chapter one. But, significantly, this is always in some way related to the needs, problems, and conditions within the local assembly. This serves to stress how Jesus Christ perfectly meets our need, and is the source of our strength. All the problems and needs of the church are met in Jesus Christ. He and He alone is the ANSWER to our needs and the SOLUTION to our problems. Please note:
(1) Christ is the Author of each message: it is a special word from Him.
(2) Christ is the Answer for our every problem: He is our need and solution.
(3) Christ is the Authority for our lives: we are all answerable to Him.
Each letter begins with a statement of the Lord’s omniscience like “I know your works or deeds” (cf. 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, and 15). How awesome this is and how careful this should make us. This should make us careful to walk by the Spirit for it is Christ Himself, whose searching eyes, like a flame of fire, tries our works. Yet, how comforting for there is no problem and no condition that we face that He does not know or care about.
In each letter to the churches, there is a unique relationship between the problems they faced and the particular nature and character of the environment in which they lived. It is these conditions that presented particular temptations, testings, and problems.
Chapters 2 and 3 contain seven messages that are extremely practical for us today both on a personal and a corporate level. For the most part, each letter contains six divisions:
1. A reference to the City or Assembly, the destination of the letter
2. A description of Christ, the Author and Answer
3. A Commendation or Approval
4. A Condemnation or the Ailment
5. A Counsel or Admonition
6. A Challenge and an Assurance
Now let’s look at the church at Ephesus and the problem of forsaken first love in verses 1-7.
Ephesus was located near the mouth of the Cayster River only three miles from the coast. It became the capitol of Asia Minor, was connected by highways with the interior of Asia and all her chief cities, and became a great commercial center. The emperor had made Ephesus a free city and it was given the title “Supreme Metropolis of Asia.” It also contained one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple of Diana, and was a center of mystical cult worship. “The temple was 425 feet long, 220 feet wide, and 60 feet high, with great folding doors and 127 marble pillars, some of them covered with gold. The worship of Diana was ‘religious immorality’ at its worst.”36
The church of Ephesus was established by Paul on his third missionary journey (read Acts 19-20), and it was from this church that Paul called the elders of Ephesus to meet him at Miletus when he was on his way to Jerusalem (Acts 20:16f). After that, Ephesus became the residence of the Apostle John before and after his exile, but no church stands there today. Many believe this church may well represent the apostolic age in its moral and doctrinal purity.
“The One who holds the seven stars.” This is a note of warning and comfort. It stresses Christ’s authority, control, possession, and provision for the messengers of the local churches who have the responsibility to lead and teach God’s Word. They are in the hand of the risen Savior to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given (Matt. 28:18). As the one who holds them, He will provide for, protect and enable them for their ministry. But this also stresses the messenger’s need to be both submissive to and dependent upon his Lord for all that is needed for his ministry.
“The One who walks among the seven lampstands.” “Who walks.” In the vision of chapter one, He is evidently standing, but here we see not only Christ’s constant presence in our midst, but His active ministry. In that ministry, He examines us for the quality of our production, He provides for our needs, and He is always available to us seeking to minister and to have fellowship. Our need is to be available to Him! This is also a note of warning and comfort.
The opening words of verse 2, “I know,” serve to stress Christ’s omniscience, interest, and evaluation of the works, life, and activity of the church. Nothing escapes Him, nothing! Compare 1 Corinthians 3:12f; 2 Corinthians 5:9-10; Psalm 139:1-12.
“Deeds” is the noun, erga, the plural of ergon, and refers to “a deed or action or task (this was an active church), to occupational or official activity or service (shows Christ was aware of their official ministries and service, i.e., elder, deacon, teacher, helps, etc.), and of achievements, accomplishments (Christ knew what they had done on His behalf). Compare 1 Corinthians 15:51.
“Toil” is kopos, and referred to a toil or labor to the point of weariness. It stresses the depth and degree of their labor for the Lord. Compare Colossians 1:29-2:1.
“Perseverance” is Jupomenw, from Jupo meaning “under” and menw meaning “to abide.” It refers to the capacity or ability to endure, to remain under pressure or pain over the long haul. It looks at staying power. Compare James 1:2-4. This word stressed the extent of their labor whereas “toil,” kopos, stressed the degree. Verse 3 will expand on this.
“That you cannot endure evil men.” “Endure” is the Greek bastazw, “to bear, carry as a burden,” and then, “to endure,” “tolerate.” Now compare Galatians 6:1-5. However, when men refuse to respond to the Word and personal rebuke, there comes a time when believers should no longer tolerate their actions and must take the necessary steps as outlined in the Word. Point: The Ephesian church had refused to allow apostasy and immorality to go on in the church. They exercised church discipline when men refused to respond to God’s Word (Matt. 18:15-18; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:19-20; Titus 3:10-11).
“And have put to test …” peirazw, “to make proof of, to test, try, prove.” They remembered the word of the apostles regarding false teachers (Acts 20:20-31; Jude 17-18). There are three major areas to test: (1) the message and doctrinal belief (1 John 4:1-2); (2) the manner of life (1 John 3:10; 4:8; Jude; Matt. 7:15f); (3) the audience, to whom do they appeal? (1 John 4:5-6).
Verse 3 summarizes their perseverance. They endured. They had not grown weary but things were not as they should be. Ephesus was orthodox in theology, practice, and service, yet something was missing which, if not corrected, would ruin their light-bearing capacity. This is followed, then, by condemnation. A key to their problem can be observed by comparing the deeds, labor and perseverance here with that of the church at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:3) where the same Greek words are used, only we should note the accompanying phrases—work of faith, labor of love, and endurance of hope. Faith, love and hope were the sources of the work, the labor, and the endurance. This stressed production from a vital spiritual life.
“Forsaken first love.” The word “left” is the Greek word afihmi, “to leave, forsake, depart.” It stresses an act for which one is personally responsible. This is not LOST LOVE, but LEFT LOVE and suggest three particular problems: (a) they had moved away from their original position of devotion and fervor for the Savior by a gradual departure (Heb. 3:7f); (b) they came to put service for the Lord ahead of love, devotion, and fellowship with Him (remember 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and compare Proverbs 4:23); (c) their labor gradually came to be merely mechanical, the thing they were responsible to do, but the Savior wants it to be the result of the abiding life, the result of an intimate walk with Him through the Spirit of God (John 15:1-7; Gal. 5:1-5, 16-26; Eph. 5:18).
But the Man in the midst of the churches saw what was missing: they had left (not “lost”) their first love (Jer. 2:2). The local church is espoused to Christ (2 Cor. 11:2), but there is always the danger of that love growing cold. Like Martha, we can be so busy working for Christ that we have no time to love Him (Luke 10:38–42). Christ is more concerned about what we do with Him than for Him. Labor is no substitute for love. To the public, the Ephesian church was successful; to Christ, it had fallen.37
When the Lord first appointed the twelve disciples, it is significant that Mark tells us that Jesus appointed them for two main purposes marked off by two Jina purpose clauses in the Greek text: (a) to be with Him and (b) to send them forth to preach and to cast out demons, and the order here is very significant. The first order of His appointment was their fellowship, being with the Lord Jesus, with their ministry in the world being the product of that fellowship as root to fruit or enablement to activity.
With this in mind, we come to the Lord’s loving counsel and admonition.
The church as Ephesus from all outward appearances was a very spiritual church for it was certainly a church that was very active in the work of God. They toiled for the Lord, endured much, were doctrinally sound, and took a strong stand against the deeds of the Nicolaitans (vss. 2-3, 6). Nevertheless, something was wrong. They were guilty of a sin that is sometimes hard to detect. But the Lord, who knows our hearts as well as our outward deeds, counsels Ephesus to do three things that were desperately needed to reestablish their closeness and walk with the Savior, or they would lose their witness. There is a very important lesson in this message for God’s people in any period of history, but the message here is particularly important for our performance oriented society. It is the warning that, if we are not ever so careful, we can lose our spiritual vitality, the abiding life principle where we live and serve out of our awareness of Him, and slip into mere orthodox routine. Someone has rightly said that a routine can become like a rut which can be nothing more that a grave with the ends knocked out.
The three things they needed:
(1) Remember. This is a call to reflect, to go back and recall the past. The Savior is saying, “remember the way it used to be in your relationship with Me.” Undoubtedly, the process of looking back is also a call to recognize one’s true condition. We can’t very well confess sin if we don’t clearly see it for what it is. Has our Christian life lost some of its excitement and joy? Are we finding our Christian work rather boring and dull, even to the point of drudgery? Have we lost the joy of the Lord, if so, it is because we have left the position of devotion and occupation with Christ.
“Are fallen” is the perfect tense in the Greek. It looks at a completed act with existing results, a state, and not a process. We are in a fallen condition (are out of fellowship) and working in the energy of the flesh whenever we move away or cease to operate out of condition of love and devotion that stems from personal fellowship or a walk of faith with the Lord Jesus.
(2) Repent. Repent is the Greek word, metanoew. This word means to change the mind or purpose, to change one’s decision. It means to recognize one’s previous decision, opinion, or condition as wrong, and to accept and move toward a new and right path in its place. The verb is in the aorist tense in the Greek which may look at a single, decisive act. Repentance includes confession of sin with a view to stopping the bad behavior so it can be replaced with what was right.
(3) Repeat. “Do the deeds you did at first.” This is not a call to more Christian service or to renewed Christian activity. They had plenty of that. Then what does the Lord mean and how does this apply to us?
“First” is prwtos which means “first in time, place, or rank.” It clearly looks back to the beginning of a Christian’s life, but could it not include those deeds which should be first in a believer’s life and are the most important because of what they mean to us, to God, and our fellowship with Him?
So, what are the first deeds? John does not say, but in the light of the above mentioned passages they include the basic techniques and disciplines of fellowship and abiding in the Lord. It would include such things as honest confession of sin, prayer, Bible study, reading, meditation, memorization, fellowship with believers, being occupied with Christ and refocusing all of our life on Him, the faith rest life, reckoning on our position in Christ, etc. (cf. Mark 3:14; 6:30-32; John 15:4-8; Ps. 119).
Removal of their lampstand or witness is the alternative. Our Lord was and is saying, either do the above three or else you will lose your light-bearing capacity. Left love means lost light. The church of Ephesus does not stand today. Its light has been not just dimmed, but completely snuffed out.
They hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans. Scholars differ on their understanding of this group. Some think they were the followers of Nicolas according to early church Fathers (cf. Acts 6:5). Since their heresy seems to be associated with the doctrine of Balaam in 2:14-15, some believe this was an antinomian sect that advocated license in matters of Christian conduct, including free love. Others believe, based on the etymology of the word which can mean, “one who rules the laity” or “laity-conqueror,” that it was an error that exalted the clergy over the laity. Regardless, the church at Ephesus took a strong stand against the heresy and is commended by the Lord for doing so. Note that what was merely a matter of deeds in Ephesus, became an accepted doctrine in Pergamum because it was tolerated. An important lesson. If we do not correct our practices by the Word, they will become traditions that become the doctrines of men who nullify the Word of God.
A final exhortation (2:7a). “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This is a loving call to hear what the Holy Spirit is teaching in these seven messages. Note the change from an appeal to the individual, “he who has an ear,” to the plural, “what the Spirit says to the churches.” This change broadens the appeal of each message to all the churches because the messages are representative and applicable to all of us. Here the Spirit of God who is the Spirit of truth and the author and teacher of Scripture is calling on us to evaluate our openness to respond to the things that need to be learned and applied in these messages.
Each message of Revelation 2 and 3 concludes with a promise to the overcomer, but there is a great deal of disagreement over the meaning of the overcomer promises. “Overcome” is the nikaw, “to conquer, prevail, triumph, overcome.” But the question is how exactly are we to understand these promises to those who overcome? This is where the disagreement exists. There are four primary views of these passages:
(1) The loss of salvation view: The promises are written to believers to encourage them to overcome lest they lose their salvation. To fail to overcome is to lose salvation.
(2) The ultimate triumph of faith or the perseverance of the saints view: According to this view all genuine believers persevere and overcome the world by living godly and obedient lives. Overcoming equals faithfulness or obedience which proves the genuineness of salvation.
(3) The all believers view: According to this view, all believers become overcomers the moment they believe in Jesus Christ. The very act of believing overcomes the world: “Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:5). Faith, not faithfulness is the primary focus in this position.
(4) The rewards view: According to this view, the overcomer passages are promises of rewards given to believers to encourage them to be faithful by overcoming the trials and temptations of life through faith in their new life in Christ.
For a discussion of the various views and some of the issues involved, see Appendix 3. For reasons discussed in Appendix 3, the fourth view is the position that is presented in this study.
The promise regarding the tree of life: “To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7b).
“Paradise,” paradeisos, is a Persian word meaning, “a pleasure park, or garden.” The Septuagint uses it to translate the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:8-10. To the oriental mind it meant the sum of blessedness. Christ, as the “last Adam,” is the restorer of paradise lost as is seen clearly in Revelation 22:1-4, and 14.
But what about “the tree of Life”? First, the tree of life is literal. It is not just a symbol for eternal life or for the person of Christ. In Revelation 21:1-22:5, John is describing the eternal state which includes the new heaven and the new earth with the new Jerusalem, a literal place with some 25 verses devoted to its description. It is not a symbol.
Second, it is probably not just one tree, but a collective term referring to a whole row of trees that exist between the river and the avenue described in Revelation 22. This is all a part of the beautiful park or paradise of God.
Third, having a right to the tree of life is not equivalent to salvation, nor is it necessary for the maintenance of life. Why? Because possession of eternal life and the maintenance of eternal life comes from possession of Jesus Christ who is our eternal life. All believers possess eternal life at the point of believing in Christ (John 3:16). Furthermore, eternal life, as God’s gift to those who believe, is never maintained by what we do. Compare 1 John 5:11-12; John 1:12; 3:16, 18, 36; 5:24; 6:47; 11:25, 26; 20:31; 17:3.
Fourth, the tree of life, then, must offer some kind of superlative experience and blessing though the details are simply not explained to us. It is left with a certain vagueness, but in 2 Corinthians 12:4 we read that Paul, when he was caught up to Paradise, heard inexpressible words which a man is not permitted to speak. Hodges writes, “The vagueness surrounding the promise of the tree of life is an example of the deliberate inexplicitness of the rewards which are mentioned. Almost all of the other promises have something of the same undefined, but numinous, character.”38
It is simply a special reward for those who overcome through a walk of faith that results in faithfulness; it is a special reward of special blessing that will somehow enrich the blessings of paradise. I am reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:58 which promise:
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.