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"Don't Leave Your First Love!"
Wednesday AM Bible Study
February 11, 2009
With this morning's passage, we begin to study the section of Revelation that our Lord described as "the things which are" (1:19)—that is, the Lord's seven letters to the seven churches of Asia (see 1:11, 19-20).
How should these seven letters be viewed? Some have seen them strictly as letters to seven individual churches—which, of course, they are. But the statement common to the end of each of the letters—"He who has an ear, let him her what the Spirit says to the churches"—suggests that they describe lessons that are to be embraced by all churches. Jack MacArthur writes, "The selection of the seven churches was governed by the fact that each church was in some way illustrative of the conditions common in local churches of that time, as well as throughout later history. These messages, therefore, embody admonition suitable for churches in many types of spiritual need" (Expositional Commentary on Revelation, p. 37). In addition, some view the seven churches as representing different phases of the church's development throughout its history on earth. Henry Morris writes, "History has, indeed, shown such a general development through the years, and it is reasonable that the sequential development of the respective exhortations in these messages should be arranged by the Lord in the same sequence" (The Revelation Record, p. 48).
This morning, we begin with a look at the Lord's letter to the church in Ephesus—which, interestingly enough, is the first of the cities that Paul visited in his ministry to Asia Minor.
I. BACKGROUND ON EPHESUS.
A. Ephesus was a significant city in the days of John. It had the distinction within the Roman empire of being a “free city”. This meant that it was politically free, for the most part, to be self-governing. It was, in fact, a city in which the emperor would often come to try legal cases of importance to the whole empire. It was also commercially prosperous city, because three major trade routes converged on it. It had a huge stadium, a large market place, and a theater built on a mountain side that overlooked the harbor—a theater that could seat as many as 25,000 people.
B. The great pride of the city was the Temple of Artemis (sometimes called Diana). It was 425 feet long, 220 feet wide and 60 feet high; and was recognized as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It had 127 marble pillars, 36 of which were overlaid with gold and jewels. It housed the statue of the Diana—an ugly, black, squat little representation of a fertility goddess that was nevertheless held in reverence by the citizens of the city. They believed that the image fell down from heaven (and if you'd seen it, you'd appreciate why heaven would have wanted to dropped it!). Much of the economy of the city centered on the worship of this goddess Diana. The manufacture of idols and the employment of temple prostitutes brought money into the city from around the world. In addition, the temple itself was recognized as place where anyone who was being prosecuted for a crime could find safe asylum; and so, in addition to its characteristic immorality, it was also haven for all sorts of criminals and trouble-makers. Much background regarding the worship of Diana is found in Acts 19.
C. In the providence of God, a church of believers was established in this city. And as the city was important, so was this congregation. Ephesus was a key city with respect to perhaps as many as eight New Testament letters. The Letter to The Ephesians (though not clearly written to the people of this church; because the phrase “at Ephesus” doesn’t appear in the original Greek in Ephesians 1:1) came to bear the name of this city, and was no doubt read by the people of this church. 1 and 2 Timothy were also written to its pastor. Because John ministered for many years in Ephesus, its believed that the Gospel of John, and his first, second and third letters were all written to this church—in addition to this letter now before us. What’s more, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus. (Acts 20 also contains Paul's words to the pastors of Ephesus.)
II. JESUS' INTRODUCTION (v. 1).
A. The letter—as is true of all the letters—was directed to the "angel" of the church of Ephesus. This is referring to the pastor, or leading elder, of the church. This name is borrowed from the synagogue system, in which the leading elder was often referred to as its "angel" or "messenger". Jesus' word is to those appointed with the task of overseeing His church (see Acts 20:28).
B. Note how Jesus identifies Himself by some of those things which were revealed to John about Him. He is called "He who holds the seven stars in His right hand"; which speaks of His abiding care for and possession of the leaders of His church. He is also called the One "who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands"; which speaks of His intimate involvement in His church. Jesus is deeply concerned about His churches; and so, is deeply concerned that they be right with Him.
III. THE COMMENDATIONS OF THE CHURCH (v. 2-3).
A. Jesus knows their works. He was aware of what the saints in that church did for Him.
B. He knew their 'labor'—here, a word that refers to hard and strenuous labor to the point of exhaustion.
C. He knew their patience. He knew what they had to endure; and that in all that they endured, they didn't abandon Him.
D. He knew that they could not bear or endure those who are evil. They didn't tolerate sin in their midst, but dealt faithfully with it.
E. He knew of their doctrinal integrity. They tested those who claimed to be apostles— but who were not; and found them to be false.
F. He knew of their perseverance. They didn't abandon the faith though it—at times—cost them dearly to follow Him.
G. He knew that they labored—again, in the sense of nearly to exhaustion—for His name's sake; but did not become weary of doing so.
IV. THE REBUKE (vv. 4-5).
A. Anyone looking at this church, with respect to the commendations it received from the Lord, would be proud to be a part of it. But there was a serious fault—so serious, in fact, that it was in great danger of having its opportunity of witness to the world taken away by the Lord. They "left" their first love. That is, they did all of these things that they did; but not in the spirit of love that once motivated them. And Jesus is not satisfied with a church doing all the right things—but not loving Him.
B. He warned that it must follow the path toward getting better. It must (1) remember from where it had fallen, (2) repent, and (3) do the first works (i.e., the works motivated by genuine love for Him). If it didn't, He would remove its lampstand from its place—which suggest that He would take away its privileged place of witness to the world. Jesus is not commended to this world by a church that doesn't work for Him out of true love to Him.
V. A SECOND COMMMENDATION (v. 6).
A. The Lord does, however, give it a second commendation. It hated the works of the Nicolatians; which our Lord said, "I also hate."
B. The third century historian Eusebius writes of the heresy of the Nicolaites “of which mention is made in the revelation of John. These boasted of Nicolaus as their founder, one of those deacons who with Stephen were appointed by the apostles to minister unto the poor. Clement of Alexandria, in the third book of Stromata, relates the following respecting him, ‘Having a beautiful wife, and being reproached after the ascension of our Lord, with jealously by the apostles, he conducted her into the midst of them, and permitted any one that wished to marry her. This they say was perfectly consistent with that expression of his, “that every one ought to abuse his own flesh”. And thus those that adopted his heresy, following both this example and expression literally, rush headlong into fornication without shame. I have ascertained, however, that Nicolaus lived with no other woman than the one to whom he was married, but that his daughters continued in the state of virginity to advanced life; that his son also remained uncorrupt. It would appear, therefore, from these facts, that the introduction of his wife into the midst of the apostles, on account of jealousy, was rather the suppression of passion. And, therefore, abstinence from those pleasures that are so eagerly pursued, was inculcated by the expression, “we ought to abuse the flesh.” For I do not think, that according to the saying of our Lord, he wished to serve two masters, the flesh and the Lord. They indeed say that Matthew thus taught to fight against and to abuse the flesh, not to give way to any thing for the sake of pleasure, and to cultivate the spirit by faith and knowledge.’ But it may suffice to have said thus much concerning those who have attempted to mutilate the truth, and which again became extinct, sooner than said” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, chpt. 29.)
C. Eusebius then goes on to quote Clement’s relation of how many of the apostles remained in a married state, against those who were setting marriage aside. It may be, then, that the original intent of Nicolaus was to present himself in a superior position over the apostles by abstaining from sexual intimacy with his wife. Paul seems to speak of such a thing in the New Testament (Col. 2:18, 21-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 1 Cor. 7:1-9). But in the end, it would appear that Nicolaus’ heretical teaching had the effect of encouraging immorality, as many apparently took his words literally.
VI. THE LORD'S CLOSING APPEAL (v. 7).
A. He calls for all those who have an ear to hear what He says "to the churches".
B. He promises that, to those who overcome—and in this context, that would refer to overcoming the tendency to work for Him without love to Him—He would give them "to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (see Revelation 22:2).
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