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Ephesus was the site of the first congregation that Jesus addressed in the Apocalypse, and the New Testament tells us more about the history of this church than about any of the others. Planted by Paul during a brief visit, this congregation was nurtured by Paul’s co-laborers Priscilla and Aquila, then by the eloquent expositor Apollos (Acts 18:19–28). Paul subsequently returned to Ephesus for an extended (three-year) period of ministry, marked by the victory of Christ’s gospel and Spirit over demonic powers and the entrenched commercial interests surrounding the city’s world-famous temple of Artemis (19:1–41). Later, bidding farewell to the Ephesian elders, Paul summoned them to be vigilant to protect God’s sheep from “fierce wolves” and false shepherds (20:29–30). Writing from prison even later, Paul summoned this church to “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” a maturity that would enable them to stand firm against “human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13–14). The apostle insisted that the church exercise theological discernment: “Let no one deceive you with empty words” (5:6).
Now in His revelation to John, the Lord of the church identifies Himself as the one who “holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 2:1), ruling His churches and indwelling them by His Spirit, as they hold high the gospel’s light in a spiritually benighted world.
As He walks among His churches, much of what Jesus sees at Ephesus attracts His approval. The church has taken to heart Paul’s warnings about predators from without and home-grown deceivers from within, so Jesus commends the church for its theological discernment in exposing fraudulent apostles (v. 2) and refusing to tolerate the Nicolaitans, whose behavior Christ Himself hates (v. 6). The perspectives of the Nicolaitans were no doubt well-known to first-century churches, but today we must be tentative in describing their error. From Jesus’ rebuke to the church at Pergamum (which, unlike the Ephesian church, condoned their teaching) we infer that the Nicolaitans, like Balaam long before, lured God’s people into sexual immorality and idolatrous feasts (vv. 14–15).
The Ephesians’ refusal to tolerate the Nicolaitans’ practices may be related to another quality for which Christ commends them: for the sake of Jesus’ name, they had endured suffering, being marginalized in a city where economic life was driven by flourishing religious tourism and banking industries, both associated with the temple of Artemis, and by Ephesus’ celebrity as a center of occultic arts (see Acts 19:19–41). To withdraw from the pagan celebrations of Ephesus’ trade guilds and its celebrated landmark was to risk financial ruin, but these Christians were “enduring patiently and bearing up for [His] name’s sake” (Rev. 2:3).
Yet Jesus also found a flaw in this “valiant for truth” congregation: “you have abandoned the love you had at first” (v. 4). Some have thought that the “first love” from which Ephesus had fallen was its devotion to Christ Himself. However, unlike the compromising churches at Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea, the Ephesian church could not be faulted for flirting with Christ’s rivals, nor for cooling zeal for their King. It makes better sense to conclude that “the love you had at first,” which had waned, was their love for one another. Paul had taught this church that their health as the body of Christ was dependent on “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). But it seems that the key qualification — “in love” — had been overlooked in their zealous defense of the truth. Their words were faithful to the Word, but they were failing to “do the works [they] did at first” (Rev. 2:5).
Keeping a firm grip on both poles — truth and love — is a constant challenge for redeemed sinners who swing like pendulums from one extreme to another. Too often, churches and their leaders either stand for biblical truth vigorously but lovelessly or else they preserve apparent unity and love at the expense of truth. Of course, when the truth of the gospel truly grasps our hearts, love for others must result; and, by the same token, the love that delights Jesus grows only in the rich soil of fidelity to God’s truth. Jesus’ sobering threat to remove the Ephesians’ lampstand — to snuff out this truth-loving congregation’s witness to truth amid its pagan community — shows how seriously He regards His summons to blend doctrinal fidelity to the Bible with sacrificial love for the saints.
Yet His last word is not threat but promise. Speaking not just to one church but to all, He makes a promise to “the one who conquers.” Thus, to “conquer” the Evil One is to combine commitment to Christ’s truth with fervent love for His family. To such conquerors the stricken but conquering Seed of the woman will open God’s paradise, giving fruit from the tree of life to those who speak truth in love (2:7).