Let's examine the universal spiritual advice Jesus Christ gave for Christians of all time in his message to the church in Ephesus.
Many people today think of Jesus Christ's messages to the churches in the book of Revelation as simply historical warnings to the specific congregations addressed. While it is true that these were warnings to specific congregations, there is also a much broader application. The messages to each congregation are relevant today to all the people of God. This timeless instruction is strikingly applicable to events Christians continue to face.
Christ's admonition: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" is repeated within the message to each congregation (Revelation:2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). This warning tells us that we need to carefully consider and heed all of the messages. Let's examine the universal spiritual advice given by Jesus for Christians of all time. To better understand what Christ is telling us today through these messages, it is helpful to examine the history of a specific congregation and then consider Christ's instruction as we make the spiritual application for today. Let's take a close look at the message to Ephesus.
Ephesus was a large and important city on the west coast of Asia Minor. According to Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, "A number of factors contributed to the prominence which Ephesus enjoyed.
"The first factor was economics. Situated at the mouth of the river Cayster, Ephesus was the most favorable seaport in the province of Asia and the most important trade center west of Tarsus. Today, because of silting from the river, the ruins of the city lie in a swamp 8 to 11 kilometers (5 to 7 miles) inland.
"Another factor was size. Although Pergamum was the capital of the province of Asia in Roman times, Ephesus was the largest city in the province, having a population of perhaps 300,000 people.
"A third factor was culture. Ephesus contained a theater that seated an estimated 25,000 people. A main thoroughfare, some 35 meters (105 feet) wide, ran from the theater to the harbor, at each end of which stood an impressive gate. The thoroughfare was flanked on each side by rows of columns 15 meters (50 feet) deep. Behind these columns were baths, gymnasiums, and impressive buildings.
"The fourth, and perhaps most significant, reason for the prominence of Ephesus was religion. The Temple of Artemis (or Diana, according to her Roman name) at Ephesus ranked as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. As the twin sister of Apollo and the daughter of Zeus, Artemis was known variously as the moon goddess, the goddess of hunting and the patroness of young girls. The temple at Ephesus housed the multi-breasted image of Artemis which was reputed to have come directly from Zeus (Acts:19:35).
"The temple of Artemis in Paul's day was supported by 127 columns, each of them 60 meters (197 feet) high. The Ephesians took great pride in this grand edifice. During the Roman period, they promoted the worship of Artemis by minting coins with the inscription, 'Diana of Ephesus'" (electronic database, article "Ephesus").
The Church of God at Ephesus likely began through the efforts of Paul and the husband-wife team of Aquila and Priscilla in A.D. 50. The Scriptures indicate that these three worked together in Corinth as tentmakers (Acts:18:1-3) while Paul also preached and taught in the local synagogue. After some time in Corinth, the three sailed to Ephesus. Upon arrival, Paul preached in the synagogue and then left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus while he returned to Jerusalem to observe one of God's Holy Days. Paul promised to return if God so willed (verses 18-21).
While Paul continued his travels to Jerusalem, then on to Galatia and Phrygia (verses 21 and 23), a zealous and gifted speaker named Apollos came to Ephesus. Though he had a good knowledge of the Scriptures, he understood only the baptism of John (verse 25). Priscilla and Aquila then took him aside and explained to him "the way of God more accurately" (verse 26). This combination of Apollos' speaking and Prisicilla and Aquila's instruction began to bear fruit.
When the apostle Paul returned to Ephesus, he found a number of disciples, including about a dozen men (Acts:19:1, 7). Paul then began an extensive ministry in Ephesus by baptizing these disciples and laying his hands on them for the receiving of the Holy Spirit (verses 5-6). From this exciting beginning, Paul spent three months teaching in the synagogue and then two years in "the school of Tyrannus." This was one of the apostle Paul's longer stays and the results were impressive-"all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus" (verses 8-10). It also appears that Paul wrote the book of 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (1 Corinthians:16:8).
During Paul's ministry in Ephesus several other noteworthy events took place. Here, it is recorded that "God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them" (verses 11-12). When seven sons of Sceva unsuccessfully tried to follow Paul's example of exorcising evil spirits, they ended up fleeing the house "naked and wounded" (verse 16). The result? "This became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified" (verse 17).
In the wake of these events, many in Ephesus turned from their practice of magic and burned their books pertaining to that craft. It is recorded that the value of these books amounted to "fifty thousand pieces of silver" and "the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed" (verses 19-20).
The truth of God made such an impact in the area that local craftsmen who made replicas of shrines to Diana soon became fearful that this teaching would put them out of business (verses 23-41). After this "great commotion" (verse 23) died down, Paul left Ephesus for Macedonia (Acts:20:1). Paul's teaching in Ephesus had monumental success. It was also the most probable foundation for the establishment of other congregations in Asia Minor.
When Paul left the area, Timothy remained to care for the congregation at Ephesus. Paul's pressing advice for Timothy was to warn the brethren to beware of false doctrine (1 Timothy:1:3; 2 Timothy:4:3). In a brief, final trip back through the region, Paul also met with the Ephesian elders, telling them, "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears" (Acts:20:29-31).
Christ's Message to Ephesus
A number of traditions hold that the apostle John lived in Ephesus toward the end of the first century ( Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers, article "Ephesus"). When Jesus appeared to John and gave him the vision recorded for us in the last book of the Bible, John was on the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor. As the vision unfolded, John must have been surprised as Jesus vividly and accurately described the challenges facing the congregation where it is likely he most often attended.
Christ began by telling them, "I know your works, your labor" (Revelation:2:2). Jesus knew how powerfully the gospel had been preached in Asia Minor. He was well aware of the impact of the truth upon the entire city of Ephesus. He also knew how the whole congregation was involved. He commended them saying, "you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake" (verse 3).
Jesus also praised them for rejecting false teachers saying, "you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars" (verse 2). They had obviously heeded Paul and Timothy's advice to beware of such teachers. They had successfully faced this challenge and had not become weary through this taxing process (verse 3).
Now we come to an important admonition. Even though Ephesus was greatly commended, Jesus also said, "Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place-unless you repent" (verses 4-5). They had lost their initial excitement and zeal for doing God's work. Over the years their enthusiasm had waned. Jesus warned them to return to their "first love" so they wouldn't lose their place as part of the Church of God.
Next, Jesus again praised them for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans (verse 6). Who were these Nicolaitans? According to the Expositor's Bible Commentary of the New Testament, "The close association of the name with the Balaamites in 2:14-15 may suggest either identity with this group or similarity to their teachings." As we will later see, those who follow Balaam's example are ones who compromise God's instructions. The Ephesians didn't accept this insidious way of thinking.
Finally, Jesus concludes His message to Ephesus saying, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (verse 7). Just how can we apply Jesus' command to adhere to this instruction originally given to the church at Ephesus? What is the modern application?
Like our spiritual brethren in Ephesus at the close of the first century, God's people today must reject modern false teachers and their mistaken ideas masquerading as Christianity. The United Church of God today strives to continue in the path followed by the Body of Christ throughout the centuries. It is our spiritual conviction to hold fast to the true doctrines of Christ and reject those who attempt to annul and alter His teachings.
Now we come to what is perhaps the most important consideration for God's people today in the message to Ephesus-the warning to return to our "first love." This term, "first love," refers to love for and among our spiritual brethren and for our enthusiasm in doing the work of God. It does not mean one doesn't have any love. It simply means he or she doesn't have the same amount or degree as before.
When we face trials and difficulties, apathy is a common result. We become too tired to expend the same energy as before. We can tell ourselves that it is no longer necessary to preach the gospel-we can just hold fast until Christ returns. Yet Christ tells us to "repent [regret our recent actions and change] and do the first works" (Revelation:2:5). This is done by returning to our initial love of our brethren, of God and of doing His work. To better grasp the magnitude of Christ's directive, let's consider the characteristics of a Christian in his or her first love.
The Meaning of "First Love"
Just continuing to go through the correct motions of loving and obeying God is insufficient. Jesus expects His followers to zealously conduct their lives in light of the inspiring reward He has in store for them. John wrote, "And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (1 John:3:3). How does one purify himself or herself? Just what are the characteristics of a Christian in his or her first love?
One of the first characteristics of Christians in their "first love" of God's truth is their excitement. They equate their calling to this way of life as their pearl of great price (Matthew:13:44-46). Do we view God's truth the same way today? Do we thank God in our prayers today the same way we did when we were first called? Or have you lost your enthusiasm?
Another characteristic of "first love" is a humble, teachable spirit. When God first begins to open our minds to His teachings, we may spend hours reading, studying and asking teachers to explain basic concepts. Christ illustrated this principle when He set a child in the middle of His disciples and told them, "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew:18:3-4).
But humans are not always teachable. Too often we would rather do things our own way than be taught. In our modern society, it is quite common for people to devise their own doctrinal ideas and practices instead of finding an instructional source where God's Word is taught. When God's people have successfully rejected heresy or been faithful for many years, it is also easy for us to think of ourselves as self-sufficient and no longer in need of being humble or teachable. The apostle Paul provides us an inspiring example of humility and willingness to be critiqued by others.
After 14 years of preaching, Paul went to Jerusalem to have his ministry reviewed by his peers to see if he was doing something wrong. As Paul explained, "Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem...and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but [I did so] in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain" (Galatians:2:1-2, New American Standard ). Are you still willing to be taught by human leaders God has placed within the Church for that purpose (Ephesians:4:11-12; Acts:20:28)?
Another characteristic of people in their "first love" is their eagerness to participate in everything related to the Church. In many cases, members faithfully drove long distances to attend services, mid-week Bible studies, clubs and even socials. Sadly, that level of commitment seems to have disappeared. In some cases, health or other equally valid situations don't permit people to attend and such circumstances are understandable. But it's sad when members, who are capable of attending, choose other options that preclude being with their spiritual family.
Being in one's "first love" is also associated with regular prayer and Bible study. As God began opening our minds, we freely talked with God and it seemed as if those new things jumped off the pages of our Bibles. If we grew up in a Christian home, our conversion may have reflected a deeper appreciation and joy from our biblical studies. Whatever our situation, we took pleasure in our relationship with God through prayer and study.
Our initial relationship with God likely included simple, trusting faith. We committed our problems and wishes to God and expected answers. Does this pure faith remain?
Still another characteristic of those newly called is their love of the brethren. In John:13:34-35 Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
From the beginning, it seems we loved everyone and gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. Yet the longer we remain in the Church, the more opportunities we have for anger, grudges and cynicism. Some today seem to be carrying a lot of baggage in these areas. Some distrust organizations, ministers or anyone who tries to approach them with religion. Some blame human mistakes on God instead of realizing all humans will make mistakes. The honorable, godly quest is for humans to strive to do better. We must learn to forgive and be forgiven. Church is a place for people who are striving to continually change and grow into the perfect spiritual family of God.
Still another characteristic of those in their "first love" is their willingness to serve others. From the outset we counted it an honor and privilege to be asked to help. Whether it was passing out songbooks, ushering, parking cars, hall setup, arranging flowers or taking care of a mother's room, we were happy and pleased to be involved. We learned that service is important-service to God and service to our fellow man.
The major admonition of this message to Ephesus is to hold on to our first love. If we have lost it, Jesus tells us to repent and recapture it. This passage also carries the inspiring message that this can be done. Christ would not ask us to do something that is impossible. In order to apply this message, we need to examine ourselves to see if we are maintaining the same excitement, participation, prayer, Bible study, humility, teachable spirit, service and love of our brethren as we had when we were first called. Jesus says, "To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (Revelation:2:7). We can do what Adam and Eve failed to do. We can eat from the tree of life. UN