To the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things said he that holds the seven stars in his right hand…
Ephesus was a notable place in the days of St. John. It and Corinth, on either side of the AEgean, and between which there was a regular traffic, have been likened to the Liverpool and New York of our day, on either side of the Atlantic. Ephesus was large, populous, wealthy, the capital of the province and the centre of the religious worship of the great Diana, whose magnificent temple was accounted one of the wonders of the world. Nor is the place less notable in sacred history than in secular. The great names of SS. John and Paul, of Timothy and Apollos, are intimately associated with it; and the history of the planting of the Church there, given in Acts 18:19 and 19., is full of interest. It was the chief of the seven Churches to which St. John was bidden to write. We have previously spoken of the title which in this letter the Lord takes to himself, and will therefore come at once to the contents of the letter itself. Noting -
I. THE COMMENDATION SO GREAT AND HIGH THAT IS GIVEN TO THIS CHURCH. It is indeed a great thing to have such commendation bestowed on any Church or individual Christian. Happy they or he who deserves it. The Church at Ephesus is commended for:
1. Their works. "I know thy works." No idle, listless people were they, but active, alert, open eyed to note and enter where the kingdom of Christ might gain new subjects. The Lord locked down upon them with approval, and here tells them, "I know thy works."
2. Their labour. Twice is this mentioned (vers. 2, 3), and it denotes the Divine delight in the quality as well as the quantity of their works. It was strenuous, whole hearted, earnest. Too many who work for the Lord do so as if with but one hand, or even with one finger. It is the merest shred of their activity that they give to the Lord's work. But here it was as "with both hands earnestly." And they did this though it involved:
3. Their suffering. Thou "hast borne" (ver. 3). It means that they were not allowed to labour as they did unmolested. There would be plenty, as we know there were, from all manner of motives, to raise opposition and to resent what they so little liked, indeed hated. Cruel, fierce, relentless, unjust, the sufferings might be and were that their enemies inflicted, and which they had borne; but these did not daunt, dismay, or deter them from going right on. For next:
4. Their patience is commended. Generals in the armies of earth value highly what is called elan in their troops - the dash and rush and enthusiasm with which the brave fellows spring to the attack; but they value yet more "staying power" - that which depends more on dogged pertinacity and enduring courage than on aught beside. And there is the like of this in the spiritual warfare. High, eager courage at the outset, hearts filled with enthusiasm, - yes, these are good; but better still is what will ever be needed, and that is the grace of patience, the power to endure and not to faint. Thrice is this great and indispensable grace commended in this epistle, as if the Lord would show in how high esteem he held it. Oh for this power to labour on and not weary in well doing, to be patient and faint not! For one who has this there are many who will set out and set out well, but they soon get hindered and turn aside or stop altogether, and some even turn back to the world they had professed to leave. Blessed, then, is this grace of patience.
5. Their holy intolerance. There is an intolerance, and there is far too much of it, which is the fruit of conceit, of spiritual pride, of abject narrowness, of gross ignorance, and blind bigotry. They in whom it is found are perhaps amongst the very chiefest enemies of the Church of God, although they loudly boast to belong to its very elect. The intolerance of such is never holy. But, on the other hand, there is a tolerance which is a mere giving in to wickedness because we have not enough zeal for God and righteousness to withstand it. Such people boast of their broadness, but it is far too much of what Carlyle once called it when indignantly repudiating some of its teachings, "None of your heaven-and-hell amalgamation societies for me!" Of such people it could never have been said, as is here said of the Ephesian Church, "Thou canst not bear them which are evil." They would have palliated and explained and found some plausible pretext for even the most evil deeds. Now, in righteous contrast to these, the Ephesian Church would have no compromise with evil. That which is told in Acts 19. indicates this admirable quality in them. They brought their costly books of magic and burnt them - not selling them, or giving them away, or shutting them up, but getting right rid of them altogether, though so much might have been urged for milder measures. But these books, contaminated as they were with the foulness of idolatry, burning, they believed, was best for them, and burnt they were. It was a prelude to that after excellence of character which is here commended of the Lord. Under the ban of this righteous wrath two sets of persons deservedly came, both being generally described as "them that are evil."
(1) Pretended apostles. Renan and those who with him accentuate so strongly the undoubted differences that there were between Christians of the Pauline and the Petrine types, affirm that by "those who say they are apostles, and are not," John meant Paul. But they seem to forget that it is added that the Ephesian Church had "found these pretended apostles false." If, then, Paul was one, it is strange that, instead of finding him out as false, the Ephesian Church and its bishops - in the scene at Miletus - should have cherished the most tender affection and reverence for him; and that Polycarp, one of St. John's most distinguished disciples, should speak of Paul, as he does, as "the blessed and glorious Paul." No; it was not such as Paul that St. John meant, but wolves in sheep's clothing, base, bad men, lured by the bait of the influence and power which they saw the true apostles had, and pretended to be such in order that they might make gain for themselves. But it could not have been very difficult to detect such as these, and, being put to the test, they were cast out for what they were. Woe to the Church that tolerates, knowingly, impostors in her midst! that lets them remain amongst the true, though they be false!
(2) The Nicolaitans (see Exposition). They were practically antinomians. The sect flourishes still. Nicolaitans are everywhere, because everywhere there are men who will profess, believe, and do almost anything by which they think they may escape the hard necessity of obeying the moral laws of Christ. Well is it for the Church, well is it forevery one of us, to allow no pretence whatsoever to palliate evil deeds. Even the grace of God may be turned into lasciviousness, and it seems impossible to keep men back from presumptuous sins - sins, that is, for which they find, or think they find, encouragement in the doctrines of God's great mercy, and the all-atoning efficacy of our Saviour's death. But the Lord hates the deeds of such men, and may he help us to hate them too. The Church at Ephesus hated them, and are especially commended of the Lord for that they did so. But now the Lord says to them, "One thing thou lackest." Surely if ever there was a Church that seemed able to ask, without fear of an unfavourable reply, "What lack we yet?" this Church was such a one; but now, behold, the Lord turns from commendation to -
II. THE CENSURE. "I have... because thou hast left thy first love" (ver. 4). And this censure is very grave. It speaks of the conduct it condemns as:
1. A grievous fall. "Remember... whence thou art fallen." That which they had left and lost had lifted them high in the Divine love, had made them exceeding precious in his sight. But now all was changed. The Lord looked not on them now as he once did; they had "with shame to take a lower place."
2. A calling for prompt and practical repent. once. They were to "repent" and "do" their "first works."
3. Terrible in its consequences if there were not this repentance (ver. 5). Let Gibbon tell how, after more than a thousand years had passed - such was the Lord's long suffering - the dreadful threat was fulfilled, and the light of the lamp of gold that represented Ephesus was, with all the rest, faithful Smyrna and Philadelphia alone excepted, finally quenched. Then "the captivity or ruin of the seven Churches of Asia was consummated; and the barbarous lords of Ionia and Lydia still trample on the monuments of classic and Christian antiquity. In the loss of Ephesus, the Christians deplored the fall of the first angel, the extinction of the first candlestick of the Revelation; the desolation is complete; and the temple of Diana or the church of Mary will equally elude the search of the curious traveller. The circus and three stately theatres of Laodicea are now peopled with wolves and foxes; Sardis is reduced to a miserable village; the god of Mahomet, without a rival or a son, is invoked in the mosques of Thyatira and Pergamos; and the populousness of Smyrna is supported by a foreign trade of the Franks and Armenians. Philadelphia alone has been saved by prophecy or courage. At a distance from the sea, forgotten by the emperors, encompassed on all sides by the Turks, her valiant citizens defended their religion and freedom above four score years; and at length capitulated with the proudest of the Ottomans. Among the Greek colonies and Churches of Asia, Philadelphia is still erect, a column in a scene of ruins; a pleasing example that the paths of honour and safety may sometimes be the same" (ch. 64.). But this grave censure, and the awful consequences that ultimately ensued, lend urgency to the inquiry as to -
III. THE SAD CHURCH CONDITION THE CENSURE INDICATES. Probably it pointed:
1. To a slackening in those qualities for which they had been commended. And the moral atmosphere of a place like Ephesus could not but try them very severely. Even Timothy had to be warned against yielding to the sensuality of the place, and also against that rigorous asceticism to which tempted ones often resort as a sure defence against such sin. But the needs be that there must have been for such exhortation shows how strong the stream of evil tendency was in the place, and how difficult to continuously maintain that firm stand which in the first ardours of the Christian life they had taken and for a long while been faithful to. And undoubtedly this is how, in our own day, this leaving of our first love shows itself. What sincere Christian heart is there that has not once and again been pierced as he has remembered how true this censure is for himself? That sad but well known hymn of the saintly Cowper, "Oh for a closer walk with God!" is but one continued comment on this all too common sin. And so common has it become that we now almost expect that there will be this slackening of zeal when the first novelty of discipleship has passed away. The "goodness" of such will be, we all but assume, "as a morning cloud and as the early dew that goeth away." And the present all but impossible practice of personal and private pastoral dealing with individual souls lets this condition of things go on with all too much facility. But he who is faithful with himself will mark with sorrow the decline of his own spiritual life. When he has to drag himself to duty; when prayer and worship and work for Christ are turned from, in heart if not in act; when there is no longer any glow or fervour of feeling Christwards; when temptation, once resisted and spurned, now approaches and solicits, and is suffered so to do; - all these, and others like them, are symptoms, sure and sad enough, that the Lord has this against him, that he has left his first love. And this fact shows itself also:
2. In the altered spirit in which work is done. And this, we expect, was the gravamen of the charge as it referred to the Ephesian Church. We are not told that they had left off their works. But it was possible for them to continue and even to increase them, and yet this censure to be deserved. For it is the motive at which the Lord looks. Ere ever he would restore the recreant Peter to his apostleship, thrice over was the question asked, "Lovest thou me?" as if the Lord would teach him and all of us that love to himself is the one indispensable qualification of all acceptable service. And if from any one out of a multitude of other motives - mixed, and maybe mean, manifold certainly, as they are sure to be - the works we do are done, for all acceptance with Christ they might as well, and sometimes better, have been left undone. You may work and labour, suffer and be patient under it, hate many evil things and persons, and yet there be scarce one shred of love to Christ in it all (cf. 1 Corinthians 13.). It is well, indeed, for us to ask ourselves not merely what we do, but why? The answer to that might lead to some strange self revelations, but they would be salutary too. Without doubt they would be if they led us to listen to -
IV. CHRIST'S ENCOURAGING CALL TO COME BACK TO HIMSELF. For he does not close this letter without such call, which may "he who hath ears to hear" hear indeed. In what was said on the common characteristics of these letters, it was noted how they all taught that all might overcome. Victory was possible to all; none need despair. And this lies in these last words of the letter. It said to the Church at Ephesus, "You need no longer yield to that which draws you away from me; you can resist, you can overcome, and so return to me whom you have left." Such is the force of the words, "to him that overcometh." And then, that the possible may become the actual, Christ holds out the prize of victory, the recompense of their return to their first love (ver. 7). The promise seems to point back and on. Back to the primeval Paradise from which our first parents and all their descendants were shut out, lest they should eat of the tree of life. Now it is promised that that prohibition shall be withdrawn, the flaming sword of the cherubim "which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life," shall be sheathed, and access granted once more. But the Paradise shall not be the primeval one, but the heavenly, "the Paradise of my God" - so the Lord speaks of it. Far more, then, than all that has been lost shall be theirs if they repent and return, and so win the victory and overcome. The temptations to which they were exposed were forever clamouring that they should seize upon the sensual pleasures of this short life, and fill it up with them, such as they were. But the Lord's promise holds out to them the prize of a pure and perfect and perpetual life in the presence of God, and amid the pleasures forevermore which are in the Paradise of God. And that prize is held out to us as to them, and if it work in us our Lord's will and purpose, it will lead to that diligent culture of the soul, by constant and fervent prayer, and by the cherishing of all spiritual affections, and by yielding to all the Christward drawings of which once and again we are conscious; and so the soul's first love left and lost shall be found again; though it was as dead, yet shall it be alive once more. - S.C.
Parallel VersesKJV: Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
WEB: "To the angel of the assembly in Ephesus write: "He who holds the seven stars in his right hand, he who walks among the seven golden lampstands says these things: