In Revelation 1, we learn that Jesus appeared to John on the isle of Patmos in order to reveal to the seven churches in Asia Minor things that were soon to take place. Before describing the vision, however, Jesus sends specific warnings and commendations to each of the seven churches (chs. 2–3).
Undoubtedly, these church-specific messages address issues of particular relevance to each individual church. Yet, we dare not think that each message is for only the congregation identified. Each message exhorts the reader to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). As one commentator has noted, each church is invited to read the other churches’ mail, as it were. What Jesus says to one church He is saying to all the churches, and not only to the seven churches in Asia Minor but to all churches throughout history. Any individual congregation that is part of the church universal can find itself guilty of the sins mentioned in Revelation 2–3 or worthy of the praise given in those chapters.
Jesus addresses the church in Ephesus first among the seven churches in Revelation (2:1–7). Ephesus was the closest city to Patmos, so it would have been the first destination to which a messenger would carry the message of Revelation. It was also the largest and most important city in Asia Minor at the time, a commercial and religious hub because it was the location of the great Temple of Artemis or Diana, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This city was rife with false religious teaching, so the church there would have to have been discerning in order not to be led astray. Verses 2–3 indicate that the church in Ephesus enjoyed such discernment, weighing and rejecting much error. For this Jesus praises the church.
Still, not all was well with the church in Ephesus. That church had “abandoned the love” it had at first, and it needed to repent or Jesus would remove its lampstand—take away its status as a true church (vv. 4–5). What love had the church in Ephesus abandoned? Most likely, commentators argue, is love for people. However, we cannot separate love for people absolutely from love for Jesus. True love for one entails true love for the other (1 John 4:20–21). Apparently, the church of Ephesus had let a noble concern for true doctrine make it overly critical and unloving, unwilling to minister to people the love of Christ. The same can happen to us if we are not careful. We must pursue both truth and love.