Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 4

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

The Letter to Ephesus (2:1-7)


Ephesus was one of the prominent cities of the ancient world and may have even been the greatest in all of Asia Minor. The famous temple of Artemis was located there, as well as two temples devoted to emperor worship (see Acts 19:17-41). Religious syncretism proliferated and there was much superstition. No doubt this strongly pagan environment contributed to making life difficult for Christians, much as it does for us in our Ephesus today.


(1) The letter, as we have seen, is addressed to “the angel of the church in Ephesus.” Clearly, the prophetic message is for the church itself. The words about to be spoken are those of the “one like a son of man,” the same one who has been identified with similar characteristics as the Ancient of Days. He is the risen Christ who is present in the midst of the churches.

The formulaic introduction, “these are the words,” found in all the letters is very close to the prophetic pronouncement in the Old Testament (“thus says the Lord”) and not only reminds us of the prophetic character of these seven letters, but also of the whole of the Apocalypse. Each letter concludes with a formulaic exhortation: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”

(2-3) We have a recurring affirmation (see the other six letters) of the exalted Christ’s knowledge of what is going on among his people, one of the most important motifs in each letter and especially applicable to us today. Christ is with his people. He knows what’s happening in their midst, both corporately and individually. He knows their deeds; he knows of their hard work and perseverance to hold on to true faith in him.

In addition, the passage compliments the Christians in Ephesus for their steadfastness in difficult times. These are all characteristics of the Christian life—there are certainly others, but in this context these are emphasized. Christians at Ephesus had succeeded in not accepting evil men and in testing those who claimed to be apostles, but were charlatans. It is a pity we are not as careful today.

(4) The Ephesians are charged nevertheless, with forsaking their “first love.” ‘First love’ in this context primarily refers to a love for one another. However, this lack of love for one another may be rooted in a loss of love for God. Perhaps, the Christians in Ephesus overemphasized good works and some non-essentials of God’s redemption in Christ, thereby creating an atmosphere of back-biting and suspicion in which their love for one another could no longer be practiced. They may have fallen into some form of dogmatic orthodoxy, which helped them in regard to not tolerating the evil men and false apostles, but it left no room for Jesus’ teaching in John 13:35, “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Without this others-directed love, what they supposed was orthodoxy fell far short of its goal.

(5) Christ exhorts the believers to first of all ‘remember’ where they used to be. In other words, ‘You used to love one another and God, but now you’ve created a situation where neither can take place.’

We too should consider this: how often do we set up situations and atmospheres where it is next to impossible to love God and one another? Whether it is personal issues related to pride, arrogance, or some other manifestation of sin, there is a call to focus on redemption and learn in a deeper way the meaning and relevance of Christ’s salvific work. A redeemed memory is crucial to living out our faith for the sake of Christ and for others. How important it is to remember well!

The second exhortation is to repent. This motif surfaces again and again in the letters. Notice carefully the directive is not just repent, but repent and do the things you did at first. The church is called to action. If there is no repentance the church will be removed from its place with Christ and the other lampstands. The danger of immediate judgement is stressed, but at this point it is not yet a certainty. Repent and do are crucial imperatives for this church to embody. The possibility of the church regaining its ‘first love’ is very real, though this can only be recovered by remembering, repenting, and doing.

(6) Verse 5 is followed by a commendation for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans, just as Christ does. The Nicolaitans were most likely a libertarian sect who compromised with the pagan society around them. This gives us another indication of the high level of syncretism at Ephesus and the pressure the Christians there faced.

(7) This is an exhortation to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, but it is Christ who is speaking. The verse seems to imply the word of Christ is the word of the Spirit. Christ is not identical with the Spirit, but he speaks to the churches through the Spirit. The relation between the two here is very similar to that in John 16:12-15.

The next phrase, “to everyone who conquers,” should not fix our attention solely on the individual overcomer, but on Christ himself who through his sacrifice makes the victory possible. His victory gives the believer the potential to persist in faith and persevere in hope to the end. All who overcome are granted the “right to eat of from the tree of life” (representing everlasting life and renewal in this context). “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”