Revelation (Part 39): Churches—Ephesus
As John sees Jesus in 1:12–16, just as OT prophets did during their visions, he collapses before him in worship. And just as the OT messenger often did (Dan 10:8–10), the messenger here (Jesus) reaches out to touch him, giving him strength and encouragement. Jesus tells John not to be afraid, which portends the purpose of the church messages. Jesus then describes himself further, which should calm both John’s immediate fear and the churches’ fears throughout this current age—Jesus is the First and the Last; Jesus is the Living One; Jesus was dead, but now alive forever; and Jesus holds the keys of death and Hades. These statements show Jesus to be God the Redeemer. The first two descriptions are OT names of God. God called himself the First and the Last (Isaiah 44:6). And “Living One” is the very definition of God’s name Yahweh. The second two descriptions showcase Jesus as the Redeemer. He was dead but is now alive forever, which describes the atonement mission. And he holds the keys of death and Hades—not as jailor to keep someone in—but as Redeemer to let us out.
It is because Jesus is God the Redeemer that he tells John to write what he sees. Verse 19 is not a threefold division of the book into past, present, and future. The first command to write what you have seen is meant for John to record the vision of this book. Jesus then breaks those visions down into two categories: what is, which speaks of this age (indeed most of the book); and what will be, which speaks of the age to come (the victory of everlasting love relationship with God, showcased in chapter 22). Rather than an outline of the book, this command to write, then, holds the purpose of the book: because of the hope of the glory to come, hold fast to that hope through this troubling age of gathering (building the church—the kingdom and community of God).
Jesus reveals that the seven stars are the angels of the churches and the seven lampstands are the churches. We find that the letters in chapters 2 and 3 are addressed to the angels of the churches. Who are these angels? Why are the books not addressed to the actual churches but rather to angels?
The Greek aggelos (translated angel) means messenger. To give reason for this word in the address, some scholars wonder whether the angel is merely the spirit of the church. After all, angels are spirit beings, so perhaps these angels are merely collective spirits of the people of the churches. But it would seem that simply calling them a church addresses the collective spirit.
Other scholars, drawing on the meaning of angel as messenger, believe the angel is the pastor of the church. But this would seem to interject an intercessory hierarchy among followers of Christ.
Other scholars have some other ideas, but I believe the best understanding is that these angels are simply angels—messengers of God delivering these messages to the hearts—the spiritual understanding—of the people of God. A quick look back at the OT shows us time and again that spiritual understanding was delivered to prophets through angels. Daniel himself (upon whom John draws for so much imagery) shows message delivery by angels numerous times (Daniel 7:16; 8:13; 8:15–17; 9:21; 10;5, 10). And this is consistent with the delivery pattern of God throughout the Bible: God delivers his message to an angel (or Christ) who, in turn, delivers the message to a prophet (or the people). The intent, I believe, is to show the message’s uniqueness, importance, and completeness through the involvement of all the spiritual world of God’s domain to all the physical world of God’s domain.
And so, Revelation holds that pattern. The very first verse shows us this pattern: “The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place. He sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John.” And constantly through the book we find the heavenly message delivered through the use of angels (Rev 7:13; 10:8; 11:1; 14:6–9; 17:1; 17:7; 19:9; 21:9; 22:6). God uses angels even now to communicate his message to our hearts. And this is the reason for addressing the message to the churches. The messages are not merely notes written for happenstance reading. These are messages intended by God for the spiritual awareness of the hearts of his people, and so they are delivered through heavenly means to our awareness. That’s the whole purpose for angels. Even the fallen angels—demons—function the same. They carry a message (an ungodly one) to the minds of people to lead them astray. It is the same function although intent on different ends.
With the beginning of chapter 2, we begin the first church message. This first one is to the church in Ephesus. At the start of each message, Jesus gives some description of himself related to the message. For Ephesus he calls himself the one who holds the seven stars and walks among the lampstands, indicating that this message is to their hearts from Immanuel—God among them. We’ll find out more of the direct correlation to the Ephesians as we discuss later their failure in abandoning their first love.
But most messages first have something good for which Christ commends the church. For the Ephesians, it was their work and endurance in testing false doctrine and false teachers. They examined false teaching well and were able to identify it and expel it (although it was an ongoing task).
But Jesus then mentions the church’s failure: they abandoned their first love. The first love spoken of was not love for Christ or God. In their jealous hold of true doctrine, they kept the faith. But the first love refers to that love which Christ commanded the NT church as we read in the Gospel of John, chapter 13, verse 34. There Jesus told the disciples that he was giving a new command—to love one another. Although the OT law was founded on that very principle (Matthew 22:37–40), it was not until the atonement and the possibility of forgiven and transformed lives that the spiritual understanding necessary for such love was possible. But the Ephesians seemed to have lost it. So intent were they on challenging false doctrines and false teachers that anger, clamor, strife, and mean-spiritedness marked their community life. They had abandoned the love that had defined them as the community of God.
We receive verification of this idea in the other Scripture of the NT directly related to the Ephesians. The first passage is in Acts 20. There Paul is headed back from his last missionary journey to Jerusalem. He is in a hurry but stops at Miletus (close to Ephesus) and sends for the Ephesian elders. Acts 20 records his talk with them. And his talk hits two important points. The first is that they must watch for “savage wolves” bringing “deviant doctrines”—an activity in which they seem to have excelled. But Paul also, at the beginning and end of the short discourse, encouraged them to follow his example and minister in love. Apparently they failed in that because after Paul returns to Jerusalem, he is arrested and winds up in prison in Rome where he writes a letter to the Ephesians specifically about their failure on this issue.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians concerns the conflicts between the Christian Jews and the Christian Gentiles of that church. Paul reminds them of their position in Christ—how Christ is our peace, who “made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14). Paul urges them, for four chapters, to walk not as the world but as the transformed in Christ. They should put away “all bitterness, anger, and wrath, shouting and slander” (4:31). And then Paul urges, particularly in chapter 5, that they should abandoned selfishness (verses 1–14) and rather give of themselves (love) each other. Filled with the Spirit, they should speak “to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music from your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, SUBMITTING TO ONE ANOTHER in the fear of Christ” (5:19–21; emphasis added). Paul highlights examples of interacting people who should—as Christians—give of themselves to each other. Wives are to submit their selfish concerns for the concerns of their husbands. Husbands should abandon selfish concerns and, as Christ gave himself for the church, give themselves for their wives. Slaves should submit to their masters, AND masters should submit in Christian love to their slaves, considering their well-being. All these examples are wrapped up back in Galatians 3:27–28 when Paul says: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The idea that Paul pushes was summed up in Eph 5:21: “Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” We cannot be a community of love together if either factions or individuals seek authority. The community works only as we-ALL-submit to each other in the fear of Christ. The Ephesians had forgotten that; they had abandoned their first love.
We get further confirmation of this issue in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Timothy was an elder in Ephesus. In chapter 2, Paul reminds Timothy that our one mediator, Christ, GAVE HIMSELF a ransom for all. He then goes on to urge the men of the church to pray lifting up holy hands without anger or argument. The very gesture of lifting up your hands as you pray indicates a giving up of self and a dependency on God. That attitude of outstretched arms to God cannot be done in sincerity as you bear anger and discontent with the members of God’s very community of love.
And Paul says that likewise the women are to bear the same attitude. Their adornment should be in “good works” (2:10)—giving of themselves.
The end of chapter 2 speaks to this same issue. In verse 12, Paul says that women should not “teach oude to have authority over a man.” The Greek oude is not “and” or “or,” but rather a word that leads from the first part to the second part. For example, in Matthew 6:20, Jesus says to store treasure in heaven “where thieves don’t break in and (oude) steal.” Here Jesus is not mentioning two separate acts of the thief—one, breaking in and, two, stealing. The point of the thief breaking in is to steal. The phrase could be stated: “where thieves don’t break in in order to steal,” or “specifically to steal.” It is the same in Galatians 2:5 where Paul says, “But we did not give up and submit to these people for (oude) even an hour.” Paul is not identifying two separate incidents, but means Paul’s “not giving up” is connected specifically to the “for even an hour.” So also should 1 Timothy 2:12 be understood as “I do not allow a woman to teach in order (or specifically) to have authority over a man.” Why is this so? Should we assume it is because Paul wants the men in authority? No! That would be opposed to all that Paul has been teaching the Ephesians. Woman were taking the authority in the Ephesian church mimicking the false religion of Ephesus in which worship of the goddess Artemis was led primarily by women priests. Paul calls out this ought not to occur in the church. Women shouldn’t have the authority in the Christian church, but neither should the men. The authority is all Christ’s (Matthew 28:18), and we—ALL—are called to submit “ourselves to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21).
So from our review of messages to the Ephesians, we find confirmation of exactly Christ’s point in the first Revelation church letter. The Ephesians, although clinging to true atonement doctrine, had abandoned their first love, not embracing each other with open arms of selflessness as Christ (and Paul) had taught. We find that very attitude present in our churches today. Certain evangelical groups argue fervently for doctrine but forgetting the primary command from our authority Christ: love one another. It is our relationship to Christ—and by that our relationship to each other—that holds immense importance. Christianity is relationship. The doctrine is what supports that relationship. If we disregard relationship in favor of arguing doctrine, we have already lost.
In the letter, Jesus goes on to praise their hatred of the practices of the Nicolaitans. We don’t know exactly who these people are, so possibly they weren’t a defined group except by their characteristics. The word Nicolaitans comes from two Greek words: nikos meaning to conquer and laos meaning people. The idea, then, is one of people who desire to rule over others. God did not establish a hierarchy of spiritual authority in his church. We all may boldly approach the throne with Christ as our only mediator.
The letter ends, as they all do, with an admonition that those who have an ear should listen. It is the same formula as Christ used in Matthew 13:9. The idea is that if you love God, you will listen to that which will bring you into closer relationship.
To those who overcome is promised the right to eat of the tree of life. The tree of life (although a real tree in the Garden) is a metaphor for relationship with God. We have eternal life with God now (John 3:16). But the tree symbolizes that ultimate purpose of creation and redemption: the fullness of everlasting love relationship. As we follow Christ in love, we have that relationship.