SYNOPSIS: The messenger of the assembly at Ephesus is commended for rejecting false apostles but chastised for losing his “first love” – Revelation 2:1-7.
The first three letters to the churches of Asia form a distinct literary unit. This is indicated by the order of the concluding exhortation and the promise at the end of each message to the one who “overcomes” (i.e., the letters to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum). Each letter ends with the exhortation – “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” which is followed by a promise to the “one who overcomes.” This sequence is reversed in the final four letters addressed to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
Although each letter is addressed to the “messenger” of its church, the exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying “to the churches” demonstrates the contents of the letters are intended for the entire church. The promises made to believers who “overcome” find their fulfillment in the vision of New Jerusalem at the end of the book.
Ephesus was the largest city in the province of Asia, its chief seaport, and the commercial center of the region. Most of the major roads and trade routes across Asia Minor began in Ephesus. 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), that is, a provincial center for the imperial cult of the Emperor. It featured temples dedicated to the emperor and Roma, the patron goddess of Rome (dea Roma). Emperor Domitian had designated the city as “guardian” of the imperial cult for the entire province.
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) – “Unto the messenger of the assembly in Ephesus, write: These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that walketh in the midst of the seven lamps of gold: I know thy works, and thy labor, and endurance, and that thou canst not bear bad men, and thou hast tried them who were affirming themselves to be apostles, and they were not, and hast found them false; and thou hast endurance and hast borne for the sake of my name, and hast not grown weary. Nevertheless, I have against thee that, thy first love, thou hast left. Remember, therefore, whence thou hast fallen, and repent, and do thy first works; otherwise, I come unto thee, and will remove thy lamp out of its place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the works of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying unto the assemblies. Unto him that overcometh—I will give unto him to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” – (From the Emphasized Bible).
John was commanded to “write” to the “messenger” of the church. Everything that occurred within and about it was open before the eyes of the Risen Christ. He possessed the seven stars, walked among the seven golden lampstands, and, thereby, cared for and tended to the needs of his people.
Previously, Revelation described a priestly figure, “having” the “seven stars” in his right hand, which represented the “seven messengers” of the churches. A different and stronger verb is used in this clause – krateô, or, “grasp” (Strong’s – #G2902). That is, Jesus is grasping the “stars” or “messengers” tightly in his hand (Revelation 1:16).
In the first chapter, John saw this priestly figure “in the midst of the lampstands.” Now, Jesus describes himself as “walking among” them. The Greek verb is a progressive present; this is an ongoing activity of Jesus.
The picture is drawn from the regulations for the Day of Atonement and the activity of the high priest during the ritual. Before ministering, he put on “a holy tunic of linen and drawers of linen, and with a band of linen.” 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.” The high priest moved about the Sanctuary applying sacrificial blood to the Holy Place and, otherwise, performing his priestly functions. Thus, Jesus is the “high priest” of his people ministering on their behalf in the “Sanctuary” (Leviticus 16:1-18, Revelation 1:12-20).
Jesus praised the “messenger” of the assembly for his “works.” This is not simply an acknowledgment that he sees the man’s present efforts and hard labor. “Works” points to the Lamb as the Judge who will hold all men accountable. At the Great White Throne of Judgment, the “dead” are judged, according to their works. When Jesus 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 one more time in the fourteenth chapter of Revelation in a promise made to overcoming “saints.” Note, also, the similar use in Chapter 13. Above all in the book, “endurance” is about persevering for the Lamb 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, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; for their works follow with them.”
(Revelation 13:10) – “If any man is for captivity, into captivity he goeth: if any man is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.”
“Endurance.” This translates the Greek noun hupomoné (Strong’s #G5281), a prominent theme in the book of Revelation. Previously, John described himself as a “brother and fellow-participant with you in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9).
The “messenger” is 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. In Verse 6, Jesus commends the “messenger” for hating the teachings of the ‘Nicolaitans.’ The context may infer the “false apostles” were leaders of that group, although the passage does not make a direct connection between them.
“Liar” translates the Greek noun pseudés with the basic sense, “false” (Strong’s – #G5571). This is the same stem prefixed to the term “false prophet” and a connection may be intended (pseudo-prophetés). Just as the “Great Harlot” persecuted the “holy prophets and apostles,” so the “Dragon” promotes his counterfeit prophets and apostles, including the “false prophet,” the “Beast from the earth” (Revelation 13:11-15, 16:13, 19:20, 20:10).
The function of the “false prophet” is to deceive or force men and women, the “inhabitants of the earth,” to render homage to the Beast from the sea and take its “mark.” He does this by performing “great signs” and applying economic pressure on all who refuse to submit. If there is a connection between the false “apostles” and the “false prophet,” it provides a hint at what these false “apostles” were doing – encouraging members of their congregation to compromise with the surrounding pagan culture, including its political and religious demands.
Elsewhere in Revelation, “apostles” refers to a group of servants of the Lamb persecuted by “Babylon.” The one other mention of “liars” is to a class of men to be cast into the “Lake of Fire” at the Judgment. That fate will certainly befall these “apostles,” assuming they persist in their “false” activities (Revelation 18:20, 21:8).
The “messenger” left his “first love.” The object of this “love” is not specified, whether God, things, or other human beings. Since a key theme of the book is the call to faithful perseverance, possibly, the congregation lost its determination to persevere in a hostile environment.
The “messenger” is faulted also for not continuing to perform his “first works,” and suggests the significance of his lost “first love”; he has lost or is losing his zeal for the “first works” – his “labor,” “endurance,” and exposure of false apostles. If he does not “repent and do the first works,” Jesus will remove his “lampstand.” That the “messenger” is held accountable for his failings suggest further he is human and not an angelic being.
He is commended for his “hatred” of the Nicolaitans. The teachings of that group are not described. ‘Nicolaitan’ is a compound of the Greek nouns niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”). It may denote “victory people,” “victory over people,” or, “he who conquers people.” The latter sense is likely considering the later descriptions of the “Beast” that “conquered” or “overcame” the saints (nikaō). Furthermore, the Beast had authority over “people” or laos (Revelation 13:7-10).
“He that has an ear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Similar exhortations are found elsewhere in Scripture. The phrase is repeated at or near the end of each of the seven letters. The reference to the “churches” extends the application of each letter’s exhortations and promises to all seven congregations in Asia (Revelation 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13, 3:22, 13:9).
The letter concludes with a promise – “To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.” This alludes to the “tree of life” from the Garden of Eden, and the clause is from one or more passages in the book of Genesis:
(Genesis 2:9) – “And Yahweh God, caused to spring up, out of the ground, every tree pleasant to the sight and good for food,—and the tree of life, in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
(Genesis 3:14-19) – “And to the man he said, Because thou didst hearken to the voice of thy wife, and so didst eat of the tree as to which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it, Accursed be the ground for thy sake, In pain shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.”
(Genesis 3:22-24) – “Then said Yahweh God—Lo! man hath become like one of us, in respect of knowing good and evil,—Now, therefore, lest he thrust forth his hand, and take even of the tree of life, and eat, and live to times age-abiding,—So Yahweh God put him forth from the garden of Eden,—to till the ground wherefrom he had been taken.”
In Verse 7, “tree” translates the Greek noun xulon (Strong’s – #G3586). The common noun for a living “tree” was dendron. Xulon referred to deadwood from felled trees. Several times in the New Testament it refers to the “tree” on which Jesus was “hanged.”
This scriptural background points to the death of Jesus on the Cross as the symbolic significance of the “tree of life” promised in the letter to Ephesus (Compare, Matthew 26:47, 26:55, Acts 5:30, 16:24, Galatians 3:13, 1 Peter 2:24).
The “tree of life” also links this exhortation to the city of New Jerusalem in which the tree was found. Access to what Adam lost is restored in the New Creation, and the original “curse” is 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, in the midst of the broadway thereof. And, on this side of the river and on that, was A TREE OF LIFE, bearing twelve crops of fruit every several month, yielding its fruit; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations, And NO CURSE shall there be any more; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be therein,—and his servants will render divine service unto him.”
(Revelation 22:14) – “Happy, they who are washing their robes, that their right may be unto the TREE OF LIFE and, by the gates, they may enter into the city.”