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Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Revelation Letters to the Seven Churches: Ephesus

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 2: 1 – 7 Ephesus

The letters to the seven churches of Asia all follow the same pattern:
1.            Each is addressed to “the angel of XXX”
2.            From – a graphic description of Jesus drawn from John’s vision of the Son of Man.
3.            I see your… or I know of your… The Greek used here emphases the clarity with which Jesus sees
everything that happens. (Robertson, 297)
4.            but, I have this against you…
5.            A Challenge:
6.            A Threat:
7.            A Reward:

Ephesus, which means “Desired One,” was, in the first century, an important city with a long history. It was located at the mouth of the river Cayster and was the first stop along the trade routes through Asia Minor. Acts chapters 19 – 20 tell us that the city of Ephesus was well known throughout the world as “the Guardian of the Temple of Artemis (or Diana – the goddess of fertility and “nature in the wild”),” and that the residents were heavily involved in magic. In addition to this, Ephesus had a temple devoted specifically to the worship of the Roman Emperors. It was a cultural center boasting such attractions as art, science, and gladiators. The main street, Arcadian Way, ran from the harbor to the theater (which could seat 24,500 people) and on the way one could stop at the gymnasium, the public baths, the public library, and the brothel. It was also the city of John the Baptizers followers (Acts 19: 1 -7) and, according to Irenaeus, the Apostle John’s home. (Irenaeus, 3.3.4)

Ephesus was also a center of Jewish occultism: there the Apostle Paul during his three year stay, met the seven sons of Sceva. They were itinerant Jewish exorcists who used spells and incantations to try to drive out demons. There were many others in Ephesus who also practiced magic and had large collections of occult books.

In this hot-bed of religious quackery the Ephesian church toiled and persevered. In his message to the church of Ephesus, Paul warned them that “fierce wolves” would come into the church to destroy the gospel of truth. But of all of Paul’s epistles, his letter to Ephesus was the only one that contained no word of doctrinal correction. The Ephesian Christians had maintained in the name of Christ, something that must have been difficult to do in the swirling confusion of religious ideas of Ephesus.

The Greek word for “Church” is ekklesia which literally means “those who are called-out.” The Ephesians had been called out of the pagan idolatry and sorcery of their neighbors. They had tried those who claimed to be apostles but were false. A few years later, Ignatius would praise the Christians of Ephesus for stopping their ears to false doctrine (Ignatius, 9.1)

But for all their good work and perseverance in truth, the Ephesians had one complaint against them: they had left their first love. Apparently in their zeal for proper doctrine, they had calloused their hearts against others. They were no longer motivated by love for their fellow man. They had fallen into a sort of spiritual apathy. In their desire to be separate from (“called-out” from) the wickedness of their neighbors, they had forgotten how to love their neighbors. The challenge to the Christians of Ephesus was to remember the heights from which they had fallen, to repent for their lack of love and to do the deeds they had done at first. Love is more than just a sentimental feeling – love is an action. Love demands action.

If they will not repent, Christ warns them, he will come to them in judgment – to remove their lampstand from its place. The church is to be the light of the world, but if the church refuses to shine that light into the darkness of the world, Jesus will come to take it away.

Still, Christ commends them for their steadfastness. “You hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” The second century bishop St. Irenaeus says that the Nicolaitans are “the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the deaconate by the apostles (Acts 6:5). They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence…teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” (Irenaeus, 1.26.3)

It’s sometimes questioned whether or not Irenaeus was correct in identifying the cult as followers of Nicolas, but it is evident that the Nicolaitans and the followers of “Baalam” in Pergamum (2:14) are participants in the same group. (2:14 – 15) (but perhaps Balaam doesn't deserve such a bad reputation, after all...

Nicolaitan and Balaam both mean the same thing in Greek and Hebrew respectively: “Overcomer of the people” or “Conqueror of the people” They apparently were overcoming the people with an exceedingly liberal approach to the faith. They flouted the ethical constraints of Christianity, allowing adultery and idolatry as acceptable practices. (Numbers 22 – 24; 31; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11)

The Ephesians are commended for “hating” the Nicolaitans just as Christ hated them. This seems harsh, and “unchristian,” but the word “hate” doesn’t involve personal animosity. “What is meant here is akin to the wrath of God Who hates sin and sinners insofar as they are attached to sin but does desire their repentance and longs to forgive them. In the same way, people may speak about hating sin but not the sinner." (Ford, 387) Perhaps the Christians in Ephesus had fallen from their first love by moving from hating the sin to hating the sinner as well.

The Christians there are encouraged to Overcome (nikao) those who would overcome them (the Nicolaitans.) “And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” ‘It’s not a matter of victory or failure – Christ has already won the victory. It’s a matter of victory or treason (Chilton, 99).”

It is curious to note that these words to the church at Ephesus were described as coming from “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” – that is Jesus, (2:1). But in verse 7 those who have ears to hear are admonished to hear what “the Spirit” has to say to the churches.  Is this to be understood as a equating of Jesus with the Holy Spirit?  Maybe not.  In the non-canonical apocalyptic work, The Ascension of Isaiah, Isaiah was taken up to the seventh heaven where he saw the glorified Christ and another “Glorious One” who looked very much like Christ.  When Isaiah asked who this second figure was told, "Worship Him, for He is the angel of the Holy Spirit, who speaketh in thee and the rest of the righteous.” (Ascension, 9:36).  “Apparently, as in Revelation, the spirit of inspiration and prophecy is different from but intimately connected with Christ.  By indirection John may be claiming the Spirit as his source of inspiration, since the promises he offers are made in the name of Christ and the Spirit (Rist, 382).”

To the one who overcomes Christ promises the privilege of eating from the Tree of Life in the Paradise of His God. There were two special trees in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. The fruit of the Tree of Life would have given immortality to Adam and Eve had God allowed them to remain in the Garden. (Genesis 2:9) But to those who overcome, the flaming sword of the cherubim would be removed and the saints allowed to enjoy the fruit and its benefits.

In one sense, the cross of Christ is the Tree of life. The Cross has long been used in Christian art as a symbol of Tree of Life, and there is the suggestion that Christ was actually crucified on a living tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24). The reward that is promised to the overcomer is the privilege of enjoying the presence of Christ and the eternal life that he gives.

Chilton, David, The Days of Vengeance: an Exposition of the Book of Revelation Dominion Press, Ft. Worth TX, 1987.

Ford, J. Massyngberde, Revelation: Anchor Bible Vol. 38, Doubleday, Garden City NY, 1975.

Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians
Irenaeus Against Heresies
Rist, Martin, “Revelation: Exegesis” in Volume XII of The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 1957.

Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures in the New Testament vol. 6 Broadman Press, Nashville TN, 1933.

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