The “angel” at Ephesus was commended for rejecting false apostles but chastised for losing his “first love” – Revelation 2:1-7.
The first three letters form a distinct literary unit, which is indicated by the order of the concluding exhortation and promise at the end of each for “he who overcomes.” Each of them ends with the exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” followed by the promise to overcomers. This sequence is reversed in the final four letters.
Although each letter is addressed to the “angel” of its church, the exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying “to the churches” shows the contents are intended for the entire church, or at least, for all seven of the “churches of Asia.” The promises made to “overcoming” saints find fulfillment in “New Jerusalem” at the end of the book.
Ephesus was the largest city in the province of Asia, as well as its chief seaport and commercial center. Many of the major trade routes across Asia Minor began in the city. Its most prominent feature was the Temple of Artemis or Diana, one of the so-called “Seven Wonders” of the ancient world.
The city was designated the “temple warden of Asia” (Neokoros), the provincial center for the cult of the emperor. It featured temples dedicated to the emperor and Roma, the patron goddess of Rome (dea Roma).+
The Apostle Paul established the first church at Ephesus around A.D. 52. For a time, it was his base of operations for evangelizing the surrounding region. From it, “all they who dwell in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews, and Greeks” – (Acts 18:19-21, 19:1-10).
- (Revelation 2:1-7) – “To the angel of the assembly in Ephesus, write: These things says he that holds the seven stars in his right hand, he that walks in the midst of the seven lamps of gold: I know your works, and your labor, and endurance, and that you cannot bear bad men, and you have tried them who were affirming themselves to be apostles and they were not, and have found them false, and you have endurance and have borne for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. Nevertheless, I have against you that you left your first love. Remember, therefore, whence you have fallen, and repent, and do your first works; otherwise, I am coming to you and will remove your lamp out of its place, except you repent. But this you have, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying unto the churches. To him that overcomes, I will give to him to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
“I know your works.” Everything that occurred within and about the church was known by the Risen Christ; nothing was hidden from his eyes. He possessed the “seven stars” and walked among the “seven golden lampstands,” and thereby, he cared for and tended to the needs of his people at Ephesus.
Previously, Revelation described the priestly figure who “held seven stars” in his right hand, which represented the “seven angels” of the churches. A different and stronger verb is used in the present clause, krateô or “grasp”; that is, Jesus was grasping the “stars” tightly in his hand – (Revelation 1:16).
In the first chapter, John saw the priestly figure “among the lampstands,” but here, he is “walking among” them. The Greek verb is a progressive present, an ongoing activity. The image is derived from the regulations for the Day of Atonement when the high priest, before ministering in the sanctuary, put on “the holy tunic of linen and drawers of linen, and with a band of linen.” So, likewise, John saw the figure “like a son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about at the breasts with a golden girdle.” Thus, Jesus is the “high priest” of his people who mediates on their behalf in the Tabernacle – (Leviticus 16:1-18).
He praised the “angel” of the assembly for his “works.” Jesus is the Judge who will hold all men accountable, especially at the “Great White Throne of Judgment,” where the dead will be judged according to their works. When he returns, he will “render to each man according to his works” – (Revelation 20:12-13, 22:12).
“Works, Labor, Endurance.” All three nouns occur together also in the fourteenth chapter with its promise to overcoming “saints.” “Endurance” means persevering for Jesus, especially in testimony and when suffering for his sake:
- (Revelation 14:12-13) – “Here is the endurance of the saints, they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus. And I heard the voice from heaven saying, Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth: yea, declares the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; for their works follow with them.”
“Endurance” translates the Greek noun hupomoné (Strong’s – #G5281), a prominent theme in the book. For example, John was the “brother and fellow-participant with you in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus” – (Revelation 1:9).
The “angel” was commended because he “tried and exposed them who affirm themselves apostles but are liars.” The text does not identify the false apostles or their teachings. Jesus also commended the “angel” for hating the teachings of the ‘Nicolaitans.’ The context suggests the “false apostles” were leaders of that group, although a direct connection is not made. At the final judgment, “liars” are a class of men who are cast into the “Lake of Fire,” which presumably, includes these “false apostles” – (Revelation 18:20, 21:8).
“Liar” translates the Greek noun pseudés, meaning “false.” It is the same word prefixed in Greek to “false prophet.” Just as the “Great Harlot, Babylon,” persecuted the “holy prophets and apostles,” so, also, the “Dragon” promoted his counterfeit prophets and apostles in the “churches of Asia” – (Revelation 13:11-15, 16:13, 19:20, 20:10).
Later, the “false prophet,” the “beast from the earth,” deceived men so that they rendered homage to the “beast from the sea.” He did so by performing “great signs” and applying economic pressure on all who refused to submit. Similarly, the false “apostles” at Ephesus encouraged believers to compromise with the surrounding pagan culture, especially with its political and religious demands – (Revelation 13:11-18).
The “angel” left his “first love.” The object of this “love” is not specified, whether God, Jesus, or other men. In the broader context, most likely, this refer to the loss of love for God and zeal for maintaining the congregation’s commitment to Jesus, which would be reflected in any compromises with the pagan culture in Ephesus. The summons to return to one’s “first love” echoes the primary purpose of Ancient Israel:
- “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God is one Yahweh; and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” – (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
Additionally, the “angel” was faulted for not continuing to perform his “first works,” which suggests the significance of his lost “first love.” He had lost his zeal for his “labor” and “endurance,” If he did not “repent and do the first works,” Jesus would remove his “lampstand.” That the “angel” was accountable for his failings suggests he was human and not an angelic being. After all, the Greek term rendered “angel” means “messenger,” and can apply to humans as well as to supernatural beings.
He was commended for his “hatred” of the “Nicolaitans.” The teachings of the group are not described. ‘Nicolaitan’ is a compound of the Greek nouns niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”), and it may denote “victory people,” “victory over people,” or “he who conquers people.” The latter sense is the likeliest considering the later descriptions of the “beast” that “conquered” the saints (nikaō). Furthermore, the “beast from the sea” had authority over “people” or laos – (Revelation 13:7-10).
“Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” The same phrase is repeated at the end of each letter. The reference to the “churches” extends the application of the exhortation to all seven congregations in Asia, if not to all churches throughout the earth.
The letter concludes with the promise that overcomers will “eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.” In the first place, the clause alludes to the “tree of life” from the Book of Genesis – (Genesis 2:9).
In the second place, here, “tree” translates the Greek noun xulon. The common word for a living “tree” was dendron, but xulon referred to deadwood from felled trees. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it refers to the “tree” on which Jesus was “hanged.” Thus the term points to the death of Jesus on the Cross to represent the symbolic significance of the “tree of life” in Revelation – (Matthew 26:47, 26:55, Acts 5:30, 16:24, Galatians 3:13, 1 Peter 2:24).
In the third place, the “tree of life” links the exhortation to “New Jerusalem,” where the tree is found. Access to what Adam lost will be restored in the “new heavens and new earth,” and the original “curse” will be reversed:
- (Revelation 22:1-3) – “And he pointed out to me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, issuing forth out of the throne of God and of the Lamb… And on this side of the river and on that was A TREE OF LIFE, bearing twelve crops of fruit every several months, yielding its fruit; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations, And NO CURSE shall there be any longer.” – (Also, Revelation 22:14).
The letter to Ephesus has set the pattern for the six to follow. After listing some of his attributes from the image of the “one like a son of man,” Jesus commends the “angel” from each congregation for his areas of faithfulness, assuming he has done anything worth commending, then corrects him for his failures, exhorts him to “overcome,” and finally, gives promises to all “overcoming” saints that will be received in “New Jerusalem.”