As I have stated in the introduction to Revelation, it seems to me that much of what we understand about The Seven (the seven churches of the Revelation), is founded in outdated, and often complicated, conventional wisdom. It is quite clear that God intended that everyone understands the Revelation. So, you will have to forgive me if what follows appears to be too simplistic for you.
The church at Ephesus, like the other six churches mentioned in Revelation, represents a very real church from the end of the first century AD. It also represents a period of time of around seventy years between AD 30 and AD 100 in church history. This particular age in church history is often referred to as the Apostolic Age, mainly because the original disciples of Y’shua (Jesus) who were to become known as apostles, were still involved in the day to day preaching of the gospel and establishing groups of believers into churches.
I have felt so inclined to go further than the standard wisdom and suggest that there is more that is represented in The Seven than a mere consecutive timeline. I suggest that The Seven also represent seven types of churches that have all been present throughout church history, and seven kinds of believers that we can still find in those seven types of church.
The church at Ephesus we believe and generally accept was started by the apostle Paul in approximately AD 55. He stayed at Ephesus for around three years in order to establish the type of church that Y’shua desired. I want you to imagine what it would have been like at that time. Twenty five years after the death and resurrection of Y’shua and a man like Paul rolls into town preaching a message of the forgiveness of all your sins in exchange only for believing in the name of Y’shua. Imagine hearing this former zealot of Judaism explaining the mysteries of the Old testament and making them come alive. Imagine not only experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit, but so much so that you simply believed, without reservation, such would His influence be. Imagine every time Paul and his fellow disciples taught, you were to see miracles and things that your mind couldn’t comprehend. No wonder the gospel spread like wild fire at this time.
And we know from the Revelation that Ephesus had clearly been caught up by the message they had heard. They had build upon the foundation of Y’shua, the chief Cornerstone, and lived lives of not only faith but deeds too. But something had happened to lead them astray. By the time Y’shua told the last apostle, John, to write to them with His warning, they had fallen from a great height.
The letter starts off, as do all seven letters, addressed to the angel of the church of Ephesus. I want you to imagine that each church that is established by God, is assigned a guardian angel. This is not some metaphor. This is a heavenly being that we cannot see, unless they chose to reveal themselves. This is a being with power and strength beyond anything that the human body could summon. This is a being whose entire purpose is to serve and glorify the Living God. Y’shua writes to the angel because He wants the angel to understand His purpose with a view to helping the people of the church at Ephesus to fulfil God’s will. The angel will never intervene with a human’s sovereign will. He will simply stand there to make sure that God’s will is carried out and to protect the people of the church at Ephesus from other spiritual beings, whose purpose is wholly to lead them astray.
So that the angel is sure who the message is from, Y’shua validates Himself with evidence that only the angel could know, for sure, to be true. We can read that validation and believe it to be true because we believe what God says. But, only a heavenly being who had seen the risen glorified Christ could actually know that.
Y’shua says to the angel:
“These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands:” [Revelation 2:1b NKJV]
Remember who is saying this. This is spoken by Y’shua who was, who is, and who is to come. We need to understand that He wasn’t simply talking about seven churches that once were. Those seven churches are all but gone now. Y’shua was talking to the entire age of the churches and everything that they represent. If He were only talking of seven churches in what is now modern day Turkey, He surely would have had more than seven stars in His right hand. He would have had thousands of stars each representing an angel assigned to a single body of believers. Y’shua was saying that He has in His hand everything that these seven churches represent – all those things that are now understood, as well as all the things that are still to be revealed.
Once He has finished identifying Himself to the angel, He turns His attention to the congregation. He has heard their prayers. He knows their pleadings. Just imagine this church back in AD 95 when the letters were written. Perhaps they were facing trouble. Perhaps it seemed that their prayers were going unanswered. What do we do when we think God isn’t answering our prayers? We remind Him of the same sorts of things that Y’shua recognises and credits to His scales on the favourable side.
” I know your works, your labour, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have preserved and have patience, and have laboured for My name’s sake and have not become weary.” [verses 2 & 3]
Now imagine what their prayer must have sounded like in order to illicit such a response:
“Lord, have mercy on us, and hear our prayers. We have worked long and hard for your purposes. We have fought against those who are evil, and we have exposed as liars some claiming to be Your apostles. How long before you answer our prayers? How long must we work in this way? Help us O’ Lord. Have mercy on us.”
Y’shua’s response starts by telling them what is to their credit. If you imagine an old fashioned scale with a simple balance action. In one side, the plus side, He places their good attributes; their works, their labours, their intolerance to evil, their discernment, their perseverance, and their faithfulness. Their good fruit, if you like. But Y’shua is just. He is completely fair. He has to be, that is His very nature, so He can’t credit to one side of the scales, if there are negatives or bad fruit that belong on the other side of the scale. Of course, our prayers will rarely include drawing attention to our bad fruit. Unlike Y’shua, whose very nature is truth, our very nature is untruth.
So, because He is just, Y’shua has no choice but to address the issues He has against the Ephesians:
“Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place – unless you repent.” [verse 4 & 5]
In reading this carefully, we can see that there is only a single item that Y’shua holds against them. This single item, however, is clearly enough to balance the scales back to zero, as we shall see shortly. But, let’s first look at the thing that Y’shua had against them.
Y’shua tells the church at Ephesus that they have left their first love. What does this really mean? It is commonly accepted that it shows that they no longer love Y’shua as much as they did when they first believed, hence the reference to the height from which they have fallen. But, it must be more than just loving Him less, because He tells them that they have left their first love. This must be a reference to the Ephesians being unfaithful to Y’shua.
When we first believe, we are often overwhelmed with a desire to get on and do God’s work. Often a chance will represent itself for some people and you can witness what you might describes as someone who is ‘on fire for God’. I think that when Paul first started preaching in Ephesus, this is what happened. Certainly from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians there is evident that this church not only practiced brotherly love, but that they fully grasped the mysteries of the church when Paul explained it to them. This church was on fire for God, and did works accordingly. In the book of Acts, during his audience with Agrippa, Paul states the purpose of the gospel he preached:
“Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance.” [Acts 26:19-20 NKJV]
If this is what Paul preached at Ephesus, then they knew what was required of them, as we should know – to repent, to turn to God, and then to do works in line with repentance. It appears that the Ephesians had stopped doing what they did at first – that is, works befitting their repentance, and so Y’shua urges them to start over: ‘repent and do the first works’. In other words, you guys have got a bit far ahead of yourselves, time to go back to basics. Repent.
And Y’shua doesn’t stop there. He warns them that if they don’t repent, He will come quickly and remove their lampstand. We know because Y’shua tells us, that the lampstand is the church itself. Many have speculated that without the lampstand we offer no light to the world. This may be true but the true meaning of the lampstand isn’t hidden. It should be clear.
Everything of the Law of Moses, or Torah, all points to something significant either as a symbolic metaphor or as a foreshadowing of something to come. With the lampstands, which were first instructed by God for Moses to make after leaving Egypt and the giving of the Law, we can see that they represent the light that God’s Word brings to us. Even today, in order to empathise this point in Judaism, the lighting of the menorah (the seven branched lampstand), there is a ritual that points to this fact. The middle lamp represents God’s Word, and is lit first. All other lamps are then lit from that flame, showing that only God’s Word provides true illumination.
We can see this clearly in the text of Psalm 119, which talks of both the journey of life and the part that God’s Word plays in that journey.
“Your Word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” [Psalm 119:105 NKJV]
We know that since the coming of Y’shua, that God’s Word was ‘made flesh’ (see John chapter one). This meant that there was no longer a need for an earthly representation of what Y’shua describes in the heavenly realms in Revelation chapter one. There is no longer a tabernacle, nor a temple in which the lampstand can sit. Y’shua tells us that He currently stands amongst the heavenly representation of that, and that on earth the lampstand is the church. So, when Y’shua warns the Ephesians that if they don’t repent, He will remove their lampstand, He is, in fact, saying to them that He, as the Word of God, will no longer provide the light of God for their journey. More so, without the lampstand, they cease to be a church at all, just a group of people with something in common.
Some warning. I imagine that when this was read out to them, they all fell to the fall, pleading with God for forgiveness. I just wonder if the same message was read to today’s equivalent of the church at Ephesus, would it illicit the same response?
Thankfully, for the Ephesians and for us, Y’shua is just and true. He continues:
“But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolatians, which I also hate.” [verse 6]
And, once more the balance of the scales swings back in their favour. This means that hating the deeds of the Nicolatians must have a considerable amount of gravity to it; enough to swing the balance of the scales…providing they repent and do the works they did at first.
There is some debate about just who the Nicolatians were, and what their deeds and teaching (see the letter to the church at Pergamum) entailed. Some speculation suggests that they were originally led by Nicholas, one of the seven chosen in Acts chapter six. There is some evidence to back this up. However, the details matter little because the point that is being made by Y’shua that there are some within churches who teach that they are superior and permitted because of their superiority to commit immoral and idolatrous acts, as part of worshipping God. God disagrees. He hates their deeds, and their teaching (Revelation 2:6 & 15).
For the final part of the letter to the church at Ephesus, Y’shua switches back to speaking in spiritual terms:
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” [verse 7]
Just as the initial part of the letter was so that the angel would know for sure that it is Y’shua speaking, He again confirms it is still He who speaks be revealing things that are invisible to us. You will note that the phrase ‘he who has an ear, let him hear…’ is used by Y’shua in some of the parables He used during His earthly ministry. This shows that not only is He providing His spiritual, heavenly credentials, He is talking directly to the churches. Notice also that churches is plural. This means that He is talking to anyone in all the churches who has ears to hear what His Spirit is saying.
When His disciples asked Him why He spoke in parables, His response was that to some His message had been decided in advance to be made known, but to others it was to remain hidden. The same principle is being applied here. Y’shua is speaking to those who hear and understand what He is saying, and not to those who fail to understand. The promises He offers as rewards for overcoming all the obstacles, and to remain faithful to Him and His words, are spiritual rewards that we can’t yet see. They are open to all in all of the churches who can hear His voice and understand what He is saying. These rewards are designed to be the things we hope for – our prize for overcoming until the end.
If you are still in any doubt about the seriousness of Y’shua’s reprimand and warnings to the churches, you need only read further on in Revelation to see the fate of those who don’t remain true to Him and His Word. Try re-reading the parables in the book of Matthew to see what comes of those who have no oil for the lamps. Even some of those who claim they did works in His name were turned away at the door.
So, the letter to the church at Ephesus was clearly a warning to a church situated in what was Asia Minor, and is now modern day Turkey. The church no longer exists, which means that for Y’shua to include the letter in a vision concerning the End of Days, that there must be a greater significance or deeper meaning to it.
Many scholars point to Ephesus as representing the first age of church history between AD 30 and AD 100. This may well be true but the trouble I have with the consecutive view of such a timeline, is that if the church at Thyatira represents the Papal Age of the church, why didn’t it die out with the Reformation? I think there is much more to it than just a consecutive timeline.
It would seem that there are seven ages of history that each church could represent but what if the thinking was different? What does a different understanding do to the idea?
That Paul and others were responsible for establishing these seven churches mentioned in Revelation during this first Apostolic Age. Imagine that Y’shua’s intention was for each to be a different type of church, that would all start back then and finish around or during what is called Jacob’s Trouble, or the Great Tribulation. As if each one had a different spirit to it. And then imagine that within each church there were basically seven kinds of believers and they, like the seven types of churches, could all been seen in the good and bad fruits of the original seven churches. Are you still with me?
If Ephesus represents not only the start of church history but also a type of church and a kind of believer, what might that look like today? After all, the Revelation is clearly for the reading and understanding in today and every other day.
Ephesus as a church today would be a church that started well, with great intentions and love for God. Their works and deeds would have been exactly what you would expect from a church on fire for God, and they wouldn’t tolerate false teaching whatsoever. But lately, the lustre seems to have worn off. They have stopped doing those things they first did and started losing their way. They have, perhaps, been unfaithful to the teaching of Y’shua, in favour of something that sounds like the gospel, but is more about maintaining their institution, and less about the light of the Word of God. They find at prayer meetings that they are crying out to God and asking why He isn’t answering their prayers, why He seems to have deserted them. Repentance is the last thing on their minds – after all, anyone can see the great works they once did. Surely that is enough for God? At least they haven’t fallen into idolatry or sexual immorality. Surely that counts for something God? Sadly, without repentance, God won’t listen. He has taken the lampstand away, and in its place is a book by some sun-kissed preacher with a global TV ministry. How the mighty have fallen.
And Ephesus as a believer could appear in any type of the seven churches. You will be able to spot them. They are the ones with great stories of their past when God was moving in their lives. They haven’t had that experience for a long time and they simply don’t understand why. They long to get it back but the suffering and hardship of their labours have left them a little mad at God. Their hearts have forgotten the warmth of being on fire for God and they can’t see that repentance is the only way back to true fellowship. Because God no longer illuminates His Word for them with His Holy Spirit, they flirt on the edge of accepted doctrine, looking for answers in dark, empty books. The emptiness inside haunts them. It is a space that only Y’shua can fill, but the fear of failure keeps them away from Him.
The message of Ephesus for today is for all who fall into those possible representations (there are probably more too), that it still isn’t too late. Repent, before it is.