The 7 and the First Church: Ephesus
We start chapter 2 by looking at why 7 churches and the first church of the 7, Ephesus. The 7 could be because they make a nice loop on a map, they could have been linked to Roman districts. They were actual Christian communities and perhaps John had visited them. They weren't the biggest churches of the time (i.e. why not Jeruselum or Antioch?). Were they chosen separately from their issues and their circumstances, or was that the reason they were chosen? As I've previously mentioned, the number 7 plays prominently in the book and points back to the Hebrew metaphor for completeness. I personally like that these 7 represent the whole church, then and through time. There is something nice about us being included in this letter and not having to extrapolate too much to find meaning. The concept of these 7 literal churches in Asia Minor being a 'historic prophetic' representation of the body of Christ throughout time can also be included in our interpretation, however, for me, this is really taking the interpretation a little bit too far.
Each letter is addressed to the 'messenger' of the church, although this is translated as 'angel' in most bibles. The word 'angelos' is used in Luke 9:52 to describe human messengers as well as elsewhere for angelic beings, it is not specific.
Each letter then follows a similar pattern, usually including praise and rebuke. Jesus is portrayed in glory, usually from the description found in 1:13-18. The words 'I know' precede the words of praise, while the words, 'but I have this against' signal the criticism to follow.
So, we begin with Ephesus. Now Ephesus was a big and preposterous city, in fact, it was the 3rd largest in the Roman Empire at the time. It was a big Imperial cult centre, that is it had 2 temples dedicated to Caesar Augustus. Emperor Domitian had just named Ephesus "guardian" of the imperial cult and it has just held the Olympic games. On top of this, it also had other temples, including to the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis, plus it had a large Jewish community. The Christian community was small and definitely a minority at this stage, however the apostle Paul had spent 2 and a half years at the church, followed by Timothy, so this was a significant church.
The church was doing some things really well, they received lots of praise. Jesus knew of their deeds, their hard work, they were busy. They were praised for not tolerating wicked, that is sinful, people and in fact had spotted a false apostle who had entered their community. Not sure if this is directly linked to the Nicolaitans mentioned in the text, whether this was a group that had followed this false apostle, but they had endured hardships, yet had not grown weary.
However, it wasn't all good news and the charge against them was quite severe. So severe that Jesus told them to stop what they were doing, to change their heart, to repent, otherwise their lampstand would be removed and the church would no longer exist. This must be serious, and we too must take this seriously. They were charged with abandoning their first love.
This first love could be the love they had for God, or for people. They were so busy doing things that their first love had fallen away. If they were a church today, they would be a big and busy church, doing ministry, music, outreach, meeting throughout the week, teaching, and running programs and activities every day of the week. Busy, busy busy, but no love. While it doesn't specifically say what their first love is, I believe it all starts with our love for God. Hebrews 6:10 says:
God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.
It all starts with our love for Christ. From this, we are then able to help, (and continue to help), people. If you are helping people without the love for Christ, it's just busyness. 1 Corinthians 13:2 tells us:
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Having the wrong heart and the wrong motivations leads to rebuke and not praise. The world is busy, hectic, and often chaotic, are we to mimic this? Or are we to come back to our first love, our love of Christ. With this love in our hearts, we can then do good deeds. Good deeds do not make Jesus love us, He already does. From this love and this true source of motivation, we can then go on and help, support, and love others.
A church that has lost its love for Christ would cease to be a church. How would we see this in reality? A lack of outreach perhaps, unable to see past the existing community, a lack of planning for the next generation coming through, or a lack of courtesy to visitors. All key indicators, but also a natural result of becoming comfortable as a group of believers. Let's not fall away from our first love: Jesus Christ.
Let's finish on a challenge. The church in Ephesus was praised for identifying a false apostle, and for the correction of wicked people, not in judgement of others, but in discipline, through correcting disobedience. How do we do that as a loving community? Could we do that in our church? If we have a hunger for finding the lost and bringing them to meet Jesus, what happens when we have a lot of immature Christians in our midst? They might need the support of a loving community to help them walk in the light, but what happens if they fall? Would we encourage and correct in love? Continuously showing our love for Christ through the forgiveness of others, while never relenting on the call for repentance. Could we do this?
I'll leave you with Luke 15:1-2:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”