As Jesus prepared to give messages to the 7 churches, he explained to John the symbolism of the lamps and the stars. The golden lamp stands are the 7 churches of Asia.
Jesus walks among them. He knows them and is with them. In each letter, he will say “I know”. The 7 stars are the angels of the 7 churches. They will receive the messages on behalf of the churches.
There is some debate about the angels of the churches. Some believe they are a type of guardian angel for each church. Some believe the mean human messengers. Some believe they just symbolically represent the churches. Regardless, Jesus will address each of these churches individually. He will also tell them to hear the messages to the other churches.
The letters all follow the same format. It is the form of a royal edict or proclamation. It is the edict of the real king and lord, in contrast to that of Roman emperors.
In each letter, Jesus will identify himself differently as is appropriate for the problems of each church. But he will also tell them to heed what the Spirit says to the churches, showing that these problems occur in churches of all ages and localities. All of the letters deal with the issue of witnessing for Christ in a pagan culture.
Letter to the church at Ephesus
Ephesus is probably the best known of the 7 churches, at least to the readers of the New Testament.
Acts 19 tells us of Paul coming to Ephesus and finding disciples baptized in the baptism of John the Baptist. They may have heard the gospel from Apollos before he learned the full truth from Priscilla and Aquila. Paul instructed them and they received the Holy Spirit. Paul then preached in the local synagogue for three months. When he received opposition, he moved to the hall of Tyrannous and preached every day for two years. After that, the silversmiths that made idols of Artemis rioted against Paul because he preached that man made idols were not gods. The Temple of Artemis was one of the “seven wonders of the world”.
There were also temples to the deified Roman emperors there.
Ephesus also had a big library. It was a center of occult arts.
Paul later met with the Ephesian elders as he started toward Jerusalem. Acts 20 records this. He left Timothy there to shepherd the church. Paul later wrote the church from prison in Rome (Acts 28). We call that letter “Ephesians” commonly. He also wrote letters to Timothy to deal with problems at the same church. Later, the Apostle John is thought to have lived there. This church had the best pastors imaginable.
Jesus began his word to the church in the same way God spoke through the prophets of the Old Testament. He says “the words of him”. (2:1) Remember how, in Ezekiel, we read “these things says the Lord Almighty”, or “thus says the Lord God” (Ez. 38:17) at the beginning of each prophesy. Jesus is assuming the role of God, of Yahweh, speaking a prophetic word.
Jesus identified himself to the Ephesian church as “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks among the seven lamp stands” because he will threaten to remove their lamp stand if they do not repent.
Jesus commended the Ephesian church for many things:
their patient endurance for the name of Jesus;
not growing weary;
they hated to works of the Nicolaitans (6); and
they did not bear with those who are evil, but testing false apostles.
We can see the Ephesians were discerning. They tested and resisted false apostles. They resisted the Nicolaitans, whose works Jesus hated. We do not know what the Nicolaitans believed, but it was not the gospel. With all the paganism, mysticism and pluralism swirling around them, the Ephesians maintained true doctrine from the teachings of Jesus. Paul had earlier commended them for their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love toward all the saints. (Ephesians 1:15)
This was politically incorrect for the time. Had they been willing to accept these other teachings and practices, along with Christianity, they would likely have not faced opposition. But, their insistence on one true doctrine made them subject to opposition and persecution.
But Jesus did have a strong criticism. He said they had abandoned the love they had when they were first converted. This raises the question: is it love for Christ or for each other that Jesus references?
It dos not appear that the Ephesians had lost any love for Christ. They rejected every attempt to corrupt his teaching. They held true to him despite persecution.
So, it seems Jesus refers to a loss of love for others, especially non-believers. Remember that the church is represented by lamps, shining light into the darkness.If we do not shine, the darkness takes over. If we do not proclaim the gospel to our community, we are indistinguishable from nice, unsaved people.
Jesus warned of this very thing. Matthew 24:9-12 records Jesus saying:
“They they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. Ad many false prophets will arise and lead my astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”
Jesus also said “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
It is easy, in face of persecution and false teaching, to withdraw from others and even to hate them. We may not hate them, but be indifferent to their eternal fate. But Jesus calls us to show love to others by proclaiming the gospel and performing acts of service. We must both hold to truth and love others by proclaiming it. Otherwise, we risk losing our very identity as Christ’s church.
Jesus commanded them to repent and to do the works they did at first. This was no light rebuke. We know this because Jesus said, if they failed to repent, he would come and remove their lamp stand. In other words, he would take their church away, or it would no longer be his church.
The last word to the Ephesian church is a wonderful promise: to the one who conquers, Jesus will grant to eat of the tree of life with is in the paradise of God. We conquer when we when we hold to the testimony of Jesus until then end. Jesus rewards us, as those in Ephesus, by letting us eat of the tree of life.
Remember the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. It’s fruit gave life. Mankind was banned from it after Adam sinned. But, in the new earth, the new Jerusalem, those whose names are written in the book of life again have access to it. They have eternal life in the paradise of God, the new earth. (Revelation 22:2)
Christians today need to follow the example of the Ephesian church in maintaining orthodox doctrine. We must know and understand our Bible. We face an onslaught of heresy blatant and subtle. Pluralism is urged on us. Immoral behavior is thrown in our face. Alternate religions and ways to salvation are proposed. We must be diligent to preserve the gospel.
But we must also be faithful to proclaim the gospel. Those who love Jesus proclaim him. That is the example of the church in the book of Acts.