“Nevertheless I have this against you,
that you have left your first love.”
The best way for me to show you that these seven letters do, indeed, reveal to us an outline of church history from the time of the Apostles until the coming Rapture is to simply jump right in with the first letter. The letter to the church at Ephesus.
But before I do I want to give you a quick introduction on how the Lord systematically lays out the design of each letter. For example, in each letter there are seven design elements from the Lord.
First, there is the name of the church and the meaning of that name.
Two, there is the particular name or title of Christ that is different for each church.
Third, there is the good news or the commendation Jesus has for the particular church (and not all have something good said about them).
Fourth, there is the bad news or concerns or criticism He has for each church (and again, not all have something bad said about them). We can call these two steps the Lord’s report card to the churches. In some of the letters, to Smyrna and Philadelphia, the Lord only has good things to say about a particular church. To others, Sardis and Laodicea, He only has bad things to say. To the rest, there is a combination of good and bad news.
Fifth, there is the exhortation or words from Christ about what needs to be corrected in each church.
Sixth, there is a particular promise to the overcomer that varies for each church.
Seventh, there is a unique closing phrase for each church: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Note, that is churches, plural. We are to hear what the Spirit says to all the churches and not just to the particular church addressed in each letter. You will also note that in some of the letters, the first three for example, the closing statement is found in the body of the letter. But in the last four it is found at the end, almost like a postscript. This is not an accident. It is by design and has great prophetic meaning that we will discuss when we get to the letter to the church at Thyatira. Also, if these seven letters were listed in any other order than they are in the scripture, the prophetic timeline would not work. You will see God’s amazing hand in the design and placement of each of these letters.
One final comment, since we know that there are at least four levels of interpretations of these letters: (1) as a letter written to a local church dealing with situations unique to that congregation at the time it was written, (2) as a letter written to all churches in general throughout time for their encouragement and admonition, (3) as a personal letter written to each of us for our personal growth in the Lord, and (4) as a prophetic picture of church history given to us in advance— I will only focus on the fourth level of interpretation for each letter.
So, with that beginning, let’s take a look at the Lord’s letter to the church at Ephesus.
The Letter to the Church at Ephesus
The period of church history covered by the letter is defined as the Apostolic age and runs from about 30-100AD. It is the time when the church was at its infancy, full of missionary zeal, coming to grips with its doctrines and practices, and facing persecution that would only grow more intense over the next century. It was also the time where the church was led by the Apostles and when the inspired scriptures were written and circulated. Much heresy was being confronted by the early church, especially Gnosticism, that is clearly addressed and refuted in John’s letters. But as history has shown us, the early church was growing weary and lax in their stand for the truth they once enthusiastically proclaimed. By the end of the first century all the disciples, save John, had met a martyr’s death. Paul was beheaded in Rome. Peter crucified. Nero blamed his burning of Rome on the Christians and the lions of the Coliseum gorged themselves on the flesh of the struggling church. It was a bad time to be a Christian and it was only going to get worse. In addition, Rome had tired of the rebellious Jews and destroyed Jerusalem in 70AD, sending the nation of Israel into another exile that would last until May 14, 1948, when once again God miraculously brought His people back into their land.
To this church and to this time in church history the letter to Ephesus was written.
Church Name – Ephesus means darling or beloved or desired one. It was a term of endearment. It was a church founded by Paul at the end of his second missionary journey (Acts 18:19-20) and was known by its commitment to fervent evangelism.
Description of Jesus – The letter begins with Jesus being described as “He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 2:1). We know from Revelation 1:20 that the stars and lampstands represent the churches themselves. In other words, Jesus is telling them, and us, that He is among the churches and His power is available to all of them. They are not left alone.
The Good Words – Then Christ’s good words, His commendation, to the church is as follows:
“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars, and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Rev. 2:2-3, 6).
First, the church at Ephesus was a church doing what God had called them to do. They were a working church, an enduring church, a church that was not lazy or centered on itself, like many churches today. You can see this by the accounts of the church in the Acts (18-20) and because the Lord knew and commented on their work, labor, perseverance and patience.
Second, Ephesus was a church that was separated from the world. They understood clearly that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33) and that they were to be “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:16). How do we know this? Because Jesus said that they “cannot bear those who are evil.”
Third, they were a church that valued purity and genuineness in their leadership and refused to let Satan creep into their fellowship under the cover of darkness as false apostles. There were no tares in their wheat field. Jesus commended them of the fact that they “tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars.” Even without the advantage of having a completed Bible, the church at Ephesus was committed to sound doctrine in their dealings with church leadership. In fact, this was the very warning Paul gave the elders at Ephesus in Acts 20:25-31.
Finally, they hated the things that the Lord hates. The word Nicolaitans comes from two Greek words: niko, meaning “to conquer, overthrow” and laos, meaning “the people or the laity.” The followers of Nicolai had two serious heretical views that the church at Ephesus and the Lord both hated. One, they indulged in gross sensuality and sin due to their radical separation of the physical and spiritual natures. They practiced what we today would call postmodern compartmentalism, where we place all our fleshly desires in one compartment and our life as a follower of Jesus in another compartment and then make sure our Jesus compartment never influences our flesh compartment. In essence, it is a denial of absolute truth. And therefore, with no absolute truth, each part of someone’s life can have a changing truth of its own.
For example, someone’s religious life may say that Jesus is the only way to God and that the Bible is true in all matters. And, within the sphere of religion, they may passionately hold to that belief. But in a person’s entertainment life, they may believe that anything is permissible for them to watch as long as it has a “good” meaning in the end regardless of the profanity, blasphemy, gratuitous violence or nudity in the film. But, doesn’t watching this R-rated movie contradict the religious beliefs or truths held by that person? Not necessarily. You see, a post-modernist compartmentalizes their life into various segments or compartments that have their own truth or set of values and do not seem to communicate those truths among themselves. And, even if these compartments contradict each other (such as holding to the holiness of the Savior and still watching the profanity, nudity and blasphemy of an R-rated film) the person feels no tension because each segment of their life is in watertight compartments that don’t communicate with each other.
Again for example, you can go to someone’s Facebook page and see (actual example) a statement about themselves that reads: “Hey, I’m Kaetlenn, some of you guys know me as Katie. I am a Christian and proud to be one. My favorite Bible Verse is Roman 6:23. I have the most amazing family. My Favorite song is F#^&#$* Perfect by Pink!”
Really? Anybody see a problem with this? For a non-postmodern, yes. How can you claim to be proud to be a Christian and have a favorite song that is laced with profanity? You can’t. The two are inconsistent, contradictory. But for Kaetlenn, she would say, “No, I do love Jesus will all my heart (in my Jesus compartment) but I don’t see anything wrong with telling the world my favorite song is F#^&#$* Perfect by Pink (in my music compartment). I don’t see any problem with the two.” Of course you don’t. You hold to a postmodern view of Christianity and life in general.
In essence, compartmentalism leads to a schizophrenic view of Christianity that says we can embrace the Lord in any way we want and yet not have Him affect any of the other parts of our lives. Why? Because each of our compartments has its own truth… and since truth is not absolute, we find no tension with that.
And this teaching is one the Lord hates— as much today as back then. We might want to take notice of that fact.
The second heretical teaching of the Nicolaitans was trying to set up an ecclesiastical order within the church and rob it of its autonomy. For the first time the distinction between clergy and laity is promoted and it appears they wanted to establish bishops, archbishops, cardinals, popes and the like which would enslave the church to one man or a small group of men and not to the Lord Himself. And this, like postmodern compartmentalism, the Lord hates.
The Not-So-Good Words – When you see the word, nevertheless, coming from the Lord, it usually is not a good thing. And that also holds true with the church at Ephesus. The no-so-good words from the Lord are: “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4). What does this mean? Had the church walked away from God and the Gospel? Had they devalued Christ and begun worshiping idols like in the days of the Northern Kingdom? Were they now apostates, alienated from the love of God? Absolutely not. Leaving their first love meant they were focused on the eternals, sound doctrine, building the church, discipleship and all the other trappings that go with Christianity. But what was missing? Passion. Love. Fervency. Excitement. Wonder. Awe.
They were so busy doing the work of the King that they had no time for the King Himself.
In other words, the honeymoon was over and the incredible joy and giddiness of knowing the Lord of the Universe had become commonplace, second nature, almost boring. They had substituted the good for the best— and their relationship with the Lord was, at best, strained. More likely they took the Lord for granted and their “familiarity bred contempt.”
“Lord, we are doing all the things you commanded us to. So what’s the big deal?” You are doing them out of duty and not out of love. And to the One who gave His life so we can live, that is a big deal.
The Exhortation of Jesus – Jesus said that to correct this lack of love the church at Ephesus must do the following:
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen” – They were to re-examine their life with Jesus and remember what it was like when they first came to faith in Him. And if they were more in love with Him, more enamored with Him, more excited about being in His presence then than they were now… uh, “Houston, we have a problem.”
“Repent” – Admit, confess and turn away from their apathy and indifference and coldness and run back into the arms of Jesus.
“And do the first works” – Or, go back to your roots, your beginnings and do the things that pleased the Lord in the beginning and not the things that seem to please you now. After all, it is all about Christ and not about us. We are to follow His commands (John 14:15) and produce the fruits that can only come from Jesus (Mat. 7:16).
And what if we don’t? Fair question. But the Lord has a frightening answer. He says, “Or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand (symbolizing the church) from its place— unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5b). In other words, the early church, as us today, needs to repent and act like the church or Jesus will remove that church from its place of safety, influence and blessing. It was a warning to the early church to get back to the center of their faith because stormy, no bloody days or persecution were coming and their self-centered, cold, stale orthodoxy won’t be enough to see them through.
As you can see, the exhortations and warnings can fit almost any church in any church age as well as for us as individual believers. But they historically fit perfectly the early church during the first century (you will see more clearly how they all fit together as we go along). After all, it was the desired and beloved church that Christ gave His life for. It was the only church that mentions Apostles and it was a church striving to remain doctrinally pure and was working tirelessly for the Lord. But that was not enough. They had left their “first love” and needed to rekindle their love for the Lord.
Tomorrow we will look at the letter to the church at Smyrna, the persecuted church. And this is one of two churches that the Lord only has good news for. Do you wonder why? We shall find out tomorrow.