Sermon: Ephesus – Theologically Sound, But Lacking in Love: Revelation 2:1-7

New Testament Reading: Revelation 2:1-7

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” (Revelation 2:1–7, ESV)


If we were, for some reason, restricted to draw out only one principle from the letters to the seven churches I would choose to emphasize this one: local churches (like ours) ought to be concerned, not only with the question, are we a true church? but also, are we a good church – a healthy church – a church that Jesus Christ is pleased with? 

That seems to me to be the general and broad question that Revelation chapters 2-3 raises. Jesus Christ is presented as one walking in the midst of his churches and he is inspecting them, offering words of commendation and also words of rebuke. He is calling the churches to walk faithfully before him in this world in light of the victory that he has won. The message is clear: it is possible to be a true church but not a good one. It is possible to be a true church – one that has true Christians in it – one that teaches the truth of the gospel and administers the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper according to the command of Christ – but to be unhealthy and worthy of rebuke. The letters to the seven churches should compel us to inspect ourselves, asking if we are indeed a good and faithful church of Christ. That seems to me to be the most broad and general principle communicated in the letters to the seven churches.

I, for one, am glad that we are not restricted to draw out only this one broad and general principle from the letters. I think you’d agree that it would be quite frustrating to be told to “be good”, or to “pursue heath”, or to “walk faithfully”, and to be left wondering what it means to be a good, healthy, and faithful church. The descriptors “good” and “healthy” and “faithful” all assume a standard. “Good” according to what standard? “Healthy” in who’s eyes? “Faithful” to what – “faithful” to whom?

I am afraid that many professing Christians and many churches today have – perhaps unknowingly, or perhaps intentionally (motives are a difficult thing to judge) – constructed a standard for themselves. They have decided for themselves what is good and right and true, and it is according to that self-made standard that they are content to live. That way of life sounds a lot like the first sin, if you ask me.  God revealed to the first man and woman what was right and what was wrong, but they took another view. The scriptures everywhere condemn this way of life. We are not to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, good and true, but instead we are called to submit to the God’s word. Isaiah 5:20 addresses this evil, saying,  “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:20–21, ESV) There is a lot of this exchanging of good for evil and evil for good in our culture today. It is troubling, but not surprising. What is surprising is to see it in the church too.

It is true that, most broadly, the letters to the seven churches call us to be a good and healthy and faithful church, but see that the letters also provide us with a standard. We are to pursue goodness as Christ sees it – he is the one with eyes like a flame of fire. We are to be faithful to his word – he is the one with a sharp two-edged sword for a tongue. We are to faithful to him – he is Lord of the church. The standard, then, is from him. It does not originate with us.

Of course the letters to the seven churches are not the only place where God’s will for his church is set forth. The holy scriptures from beginning to end are useful in answering the question, what is the will of God for his church? But these seven letters to speak in a most powerful way. Here we find Christ inspecting his churches, offering words of both commendation and rebuke. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7, ESV).

What then can we learn Christ’s words to the church in Ephesus? That is the question that is before us this morning.

A Heathy Church Is One That Labors Tirelessly To Guard Sound Doctrine

First of all we learn that a good and healthy church is one that labors tirelessly to guard sound doctrine. This principle is clearly set forth in Christ’s words of commendation. Ephesus is commended by Christ for their diligent defense of the faith.

Look at verses 2 and 3 where Christ says, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:2–3, ESV). In verse 6 Christ, after rebuking the church, returns to commend them once more, saying, “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6, ESV).

Notice a few things about the commendation:

One, see that Ephesus was a church under pressure from without and within.

This is what Christ was referring to when he said, “I know your… toil”. The word “toil” here indicates troubling circumstances or distress.

It is not hard to imagine the trouble that the Ephesian church faced from without. Ephesus was a very important city in Asia Minor. It was a city of wealth and learning. But it was a pagan city, very much devoted to the worship of the Greek goddess, Artemus. There was a very famous temple dedicated to the worship of Artemis located in Ephesus. People from all over the world come to worship there. The temple was very wealthy and very powerful. It was a major source of revenue for the city. Indeed Christians living in this city would have faced trouble fro two reasons. One ,they would have refused to participate in the worship of this false goddess, and two, they, through their preaching and teaching, would have encouraging many to turn from their idolatry to the worship of the one true God.

Acts 19:23ff. helps us to understand the kind of trouble that the Ephesians faced. There we read about the trouble that Paul, along with his traveling companions, Gaius and Aristarcus had in Ephesus in the earliest days of the church. There was a man named “Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, [which, we are told,] brought no little business to the craftsmen” (Acts 19:24, ESV). He gathered other businessmen from the city and reasoned with them, saying,

“Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship” (Acts 19:25–27, ESV).

The rest of the story makes it clear that they wished to do the Christians harm.

So you see that the Christians were treated poorly from the start in Ephesus. I’m sure the trouble continued. They were indeed a countercultural force in the city. They would have been constantly opposed by the broader culture as they labored to advance the cause of Christ in that place. There were pressured from without.

But evidently the pressure also came from within. There were some in the midst of them that claimed to be apostles, but were not. Certainly these men were not claiming to be a part of the inner band of Christ’s apostles – there were only 12 of them and they were well known. These must have claimed to have been part of the broader group of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection and to have been sent him. Indeed there were hundreds of those. It would have much easier for someone to claim to have been a part of that group. Indeed if they were were they would have possess a certain kind of authority within the early church. But these were not.

Can you image the toil though? Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to be hard pressed from without and from within in this way? I hope that you say, “yes, I can imagine it! More than that I can relate!”

Friends, our culture is no less idolatrous. True, most Americans do not have the same passion for making figurines to bow down to (some do), but Americans have grown particularly fond of making God into their own image in the mind and heart. This too is idolatry. And the church is threatened from within as well. It is not uncommon for people to claim to be apostles even today, and thus to speak with apostolic authority. It is not uncommon for professing Christians to say, “God told me this or that” as if they were prophets. It is not uncommon for the truth of the scripture to be twisted and distorted by those who have made themselves to be teachers within Christ’s church. Indeed, we too are pressed hard from without and from within.

Two, notice that the Ephesians were commended for their diligence.

In verse 2 we hear Christ say, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance…” (Revelation 2:2, ESV). In verse 3 Christ continues saying,  “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:3, ESV).

The words “patient endurance” in verse 2, and “enduring patiently” in verse 3 come from the same Greek word which means to “bear up under difficult circumstances—‘endurance, being able to endure.’” Notice the repetition in verse 3. Christ also commends the Ephesians for “bearing up for [his] name’s sake, and… not [growing] weary.”

Christ leaves no doubt that Ephesians were indeed strong when it came to their persistence, their ability to endure difficulty, their steadfastness. I picture a rugged and resolute people. I picture a disciplined church – a consistent church, not easily moved or shaken. May this be true of us.

Three, notice that they were diligent, not in all things, but specifically in the area of guarding truth.

There is a play on words here in this text. In verse 3 the Ephesians are commended for “bearing up” for the sake of Christ’s name (this we have already seen).  But in verse 2 they are commended for the fact that they would not “bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2, ESV). It is the same word both in the English and the Greek.  The Ephesians would “bear up” under anything for the sake of Christ’s name. They would endure patiently. They would suffer long under persecution and stand resolutely in the face of opposition. But there was something that they would not “bear with”, namely, evil men in their midst. These they would not put up with for long.

The Ephesians put people to the test. The word “tested” in verse 2 means “to try to learn the nature or character of someone or something by submitting such to thorough and extensive testing—‘to test, to examine, to put to the test, examination, testing.’”  This the Ephesians did. And for this Christ commended them.

I tremble for the churches in our day who refuse to test their members and who refuse to test those who teach in their midst. “Judge not, that you be not judged”, they say (Matthew 7:1, ESV). This verse they misinterpret while ignoring the clear teaching of Paul when he says,

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you’” (1 Corinthians 5:9–13, ESV).

The Ephesians were faithful in this. And for this – the testing and putting away of the evil person – they were commended by Christ.

Specifically they “tested those who [called] themselves apostles and [were] not, and found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2, ESV). It is not hard to imagine how this played out. Undoubtably men came to the church in Ephesus seeking to obtain a position of prominence. The Ephesian church was an important one in the early days of the church. Timothy pastored there. Paul would frequent the church on occasion. John the Apostle lived there for many years. It was a prominent place. And prominent places tend to attract those who desire positions of prominence. You can imagine them coming to Ephesus saying, “I am an apostle of Christ – I was an eyewitness to the resurrection – I was commissioned by him.” The Ephesians were not gullible. They put the men to the test investigating their claims, examine their teaching, and observing their way of life. They found many to be “false”. They were found to be liars uttering falsehoods and were not received.

It appears that Timothy, who was one of the early pastors of the church in Ephesus, prepared the church well to thrive in this reguard. In 1 Timothy 1:3, which was written in about A.D. 62, Paul wrote to young Timothy saying,

“I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, [to] remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3–4, ESV).

It would seem that Timothy accomplished this task. 30 years later, when the book of Revelation was written, the Ephesian church was still faithful to test men in regard to their doctrine.

We should also remember the charge that Paul gave to the elders of the church in Ephesus while passing through on one of his missionary journeys. He gathered them together and warned them, saying,

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:28–32, ESV).

It would seem to me that the Ephesian elders fulfilled their calling. They cared for the church of God well, protecting them from wolves – that is, from those who teach twisted things. And they must have also been faithful to raise up the next generation to do the same thing, for indeed the saints at Ephesus were found faithful in 90 A.D. when Revelation was written. A study of church history reveals that Ephesus was a bastion for truth well into the second century. That is quite a legacy.

Not only did they test those who claimed to be apostles, but were not, they also “[hated] the works of the Nicolaitans, which [Christ said] I also hate” (Revelation 2:6, ESV). There is a kind of hatred that is sinful. It is wrong what God loves. It is wrong to hate what God does not hate. But it is right to hate what God hates. In this instance the Ephesians hated – the word means “to dislike strongly…to detest” – the works of the Nicolaitans.

We don’t know much about these Nicolaitans. I’ll say more about them when they are mentioned again in Revelation 2:15 in the letter to Pergamum. There they are associated with “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14, ESV). The story of Balaam and Balak is too long for me to tell now. It is recorded for us in Numbers 22 through 25 if you care to read it. For now it will suffice to say that, in one way or another, these Nicolaitans were guilty of tempting the people of God to compromise in regard to idolatry and sexual immorality – not surprising given the religious climate in the city of Ephesus. The Ephesians would have none of it. They “[hated] the works of the Nicolaitans, which [Christ] also [hated]” (Revelation 2:6, ESV).

Friends, do you see that a healthy church is one that labors tirelessly to guard sound doctrine. The Ephesians were a positive example in this, and they are to be imitated. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

A Healthy Church Is One That Labors In Their Love For One Another 

Secondly, notice that a healthy church is one that labors in their love for one another. We learn this, not by hearing a commendation, but a rebuke, for was at this point that the Ephesians had failed.

Look with me at verse 4 where Christ says, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4, ESV).

What does this mean? What does “the love you had at first” refer to? Some say that the Ephesians are rebuked for loosing their love for Christ. Really there is no evidence for that. They are not guilty of idolatry as Pergamum was. They are concerned to maintain the proper worship of God and of Christ. Their works seem to be indicative of a love for Christ. It should be recognized that the text does not mean, “you have left your first, as in, supreme, love” but rather, “you have lost the love that you had at first”. In other words, “at first you loved, but you have abandoned that.” If the text meant “you have left your supreme love” then I would agree that it would have to be a reference to their love for Christ, for he is to be our supreme love, but that is not what the text says.

It is also important to notice how it is that they are told to repent. The were to repent by “[doing] the works [they] did at first” (Revelation 2:5, ESV). The love that Christ has in mind here is not an emotion. It is not that the Ephesians fell out of love with Jesus. It is not that they one possessed an emotional fervor and have lost it. Instead, it is that they one were doing something that they, as some point, stopped doing, They were to The were to repent by “[doing] the works [they] did at first” (Revelation 2:5, ESV).

Instead seems to point to their having lost their love for one another. They were failing to love one another with brotherly and sisterly love. Love is an action, remember. And Christians are to love one another. They are to good to one another. This is the thing that they were failing to do, and they are called to repent by “[doing] the works [they] did at first” (Revelation 2:5, ESV).

Consider a few things:

One, it is not hard to imagine how this situation might have arisen at Ephesus. The church was constantly under assault from false teachers and evil men. They had to test these men. They had to examine their background, their doctrine, and their way of life. This they did. But it easy to do it in the wrong way and with the wrong spirit. It is easy develop a judgmental spirit in situations like these. But the church is called to judge in love. Even in extreme cases of discipline, the church is to discipline in love. It is true that we are to hate the dead of those who are evil, but we not the person. Certainly we are to maintain our love for one another.

Two, it is interesting to consider the letter that Paul wrote to the Ephesians in 62 A.D.. That letter says a lot about love.  Paul wrote,

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3, ESV).

Ephesians 5:1 says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1–2, ESV). I can’t help but wonder if Paul was sensing a problem in Ephesus even then. Perhaps the problem grew more acute by 90 A.D.?

Three, consider that John the Apostle spent time in Ephesus in his later years. John is known as the Apostle of love because he wrote so much about it. Could it have been that he had the saints in Ephesus in mind when wrote, “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11, ESV). And “this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 John 3:23, ESV). And “beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7, ESV). And “beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11, ESV). 1 John is not addressed to Ephesus, but perhaps he wrote with this congregation in view.

Four, consider how Jesus introduced himself to Ephesus. These are “the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Revelation 2:1, ESV). Christ holds the seven churches in his hand. Is this not a reminder of the tender love and care that Christ has for his churches? If Christ loves his churches and cares for them should we not also love and care for one another? Also, Christ introduced himself as the one that walks in the midst of the lampstands. In other words, he is present with us and knows how we are behaving toward one another. The way that Christ introduced himself would have certainly encouraged Ephesus to in fact repent and to do the works they did at first.

Five, consider how Christ threatened Ephesus. He said, “repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5, ESV). The symbol of the lampstand was to remind the churches that they were shine as lights in the world. And how is it that we churches manage to shine as lights? Remember the words of Christ in Matthew 5:14:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16, ESV).

This was precisely where the Ephesians were falling short. They were failing to love one another. They were failing to do good works towards one another and to the non-believing world. Perhaps their continuous toil and the never-ending need to test and oppose those who were false led to a hardness of heart and a judgmental spirit. Christ warned them, saying, if you will not shine as lights as I have called you to shine then I will remove your lampstand from it’s place.

May it never be said of us. May we always speak the truth but in love.

A Heathy Church Is One That Repents When Christ Rebukes

Lastly, see that a healthy church is one that repents when Christ rebukes.

We ought to repent so as to avoid Christ’s judgment. Ephesus was threatened to have their lamp stand removed. We should repent we we are confronted with the Christ’s word so as to avoid his discipline and his judgment. But we should also repent so as to taste the reward.

To Ephesus is was promised that “to the one who conquers [Christ] will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Their eyes were fixed upon the end. Their eyes were fixed upon the reward that Christ has earned. Adam, by his disobedience – by his refusal to submit to God’s will for him – lost the right to eat of the tree of life. But Christ, by his obedience – by his perfect submission to the will of God – earned for us the right to eat of that tree. May we trust in  him and follow his example, submitting to God’s will in all things.

Comments are closed.

"Him we proclaim,
warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
(Colossians 1:28, ESV)

© 2011-2022 Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church