I have never met anyone who likes performance reviews, either giving them or receiving them. It seems to me that we tend to think of the final judgment as the ultimate performance review. We may accept that it is necessary, but we do not look forward to it, and we would normally choose to think about it as little as possible.
But imagine for a moment what it would be like if you received a performance review from the person who loved you most. Would that not change your perspective, your attitude toward the review?
In a way, the seven letters to the churches in Revelation, letters from Jesus Christ, are like the ultimate performance review. But rather than being the final judgment at the end of time, these performance reviews are brought forward into the present, in hopes that each church might improve their performance before it is too late. And these performance reviews come from the highest authority possible—Jesus Christ—who is also the one who loves these individual Christian leaders and their congregations the most.
So, I invite you to listen to this first performance review with that background in mind. As you listen, ask yourself: “Does any of this apply to me? Does it apply to my church? Do I see myself in this letter? What might Jesus be saying to me, right now, right where I am?”
Listen for God’s word to you from Revelation 2:1-7…
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Each one of these letters, that we are going to read and discuss over the next seven Sundays, have a similar structure. Thus, as we look at one letter each Sunday, I want to talk with you about (1) the Context, (2) the Characteristic of Christ, (3) the Commendation, (4) the Critique, (5) the Counsel, and (6) the Confirming Word in each letter.
First, the context…Ephesus is near the western coast of Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. I visited there in 1984. We learned that Ephesus was one of the greatest cities of the Roman Empire and has some of the most complete Roman ruins of any city outside of Rome. The day our tour group was there, our pastor, Hap Brahams, talked about how the Church in Ephesus began, and how a riot erupted in response to Paul’s preaching of the Gospel, a riot that took place in the 25,000 seat Roman amphitheater where we were sitting. We were actually able to walk down one of the ancient Roman roads in Ephesus, with ruins of the city on either side of us, and the ancient Library of Celsus at the end of the road. The Temple of Artemis (the Greek name for the Roman goddess Diana) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The population of Ephesus in the first century has been estimated at approximately 250,000. Ephesus was the local capital, the most important city in the whole of western Asia Minor in the first century.
You can read about the beginning of the Church in Ephesus in Acts 18 and 19. Forty years before Revelation was written, Paul spent three years in Ephesus. He stayed longer in Ephesus than anywhere else on his missionary journeys. Paul may have written 1 Corinthians while he was in Ephesus and he started the church there. Another famous Christian teacher in Ephesus was Apollos. Paul’s protégé, Timothy, served as the Bishop of Ephesus long before Revelation was written. Timothy was probably at Ephesus when Paul wrote his pastoral letters to him.
John, the apostle and disciple of Jesus, was held by many in the early church to be the author of Revelation. It was also believed that the Apostle John lived in Ephesus, and that Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived with him. The site of her home became a place of pilgrimage long after her death. This may also explain where Luke, the author of the Gospel and Acts, got his infancy narrative about Jesus. He may have interviewed Mary during his travels with Paul in Asia Minor. John may have written his Gospel, three letters, and the book of Revelation in Ephesus.
When you keep this context in mind while reading Jesus’ letter to the Church at Ephesus, you realize that even the world’s most important church has problems. Even this church that had the best teachers possible had problems. Maybe in a back handed sort of way, this can be an encouragement to us. And, as we will see in a few weeks, the seemingly smallest church, with the fewest resources, and maybe the most struggle, receives nothing but praise and a word of hope from Jesus. Does this not tell us something? Does it not tell us that Jesus’ evaluation of the state of the Church (Big C) in our own day, may not correspond at all to a worldly evaluation?
From a worldly standpoint, churches are evaluated according to the three B’s: buildings, bucks, and bodies. It is interesting to note that none of the seven churches in Asia Minor had buildings as we do today. Wherever they met, it was either outdoors or in someone’s home, it was a temporary location. The first century church did not have much in terms of bucks or bodies either, at least by today’s standards. So, let’s be prepared for the words of Jesus to give us a fresh perspective on Church, not conditioned by the things we tend to think important.
Chief Characteristic of Christ Applied
In each of the letters to the seven churches, one of the characteristics of Christ, described in chapter 1, is applied to each of the churches. The characteristic applied to Ephesus is that Jesus holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. Jesus reminds the Church in Ephesus that he is walking in their midst and he is holding their pastor in his hand. What an encouragement that is! I believe the same is true for us today. Jesus is walking in our midst; he is not a distant or absent Landlord kind of God. Jesus is God with us. And he holds the pastors, the messengers, of his churches in his hand.
In every performance review I have ever received, the reviewer begins with a commendation. He or she will start with the positive then move to the negative. I don’t know about you, but that procedure has a very definite effect upon me. I tend not to hear the positive because I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. And very often, all that I will remember from a review is the negative things that were said about me.
I imagine most people feel the same way. And I think I know why. I believe it is part of our fallen nature as human beings that we focus on the negative, sometimes so much that we cannot hear, or we easily forget, the positive.
But like the song says, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-between.”
Let me urge you to really hear, and take on board, the positive things that Jesus says to each of the churches. Let us remember how much Jesus loves us. And if we remember that, then when we get to the critique, perhaps even in the critique we can see the flip side, which is actually a positive thing that Jesus wants to say to us.
So, here goes, here is the first Commendation (not Condemnation) of Christ to the Church in Ephesus…
Jesus says to them, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary.”
The church at Ephesus rejected evil, persevered, had patience and hard work. The word for perseverance is an interesting one in Greek. It is “hupomone” and it means steadfast endurance.
Someone once said, “Suffering colors life,” to which a Christian responded, “Well then, I propose to choose the color.” That is an example of “hupomone” in the face of suffering.
In four out of the seven churches of Asia Minor, Jesus notes both plusses and minuses. That is true of Ephesus. In two of the churches, Jesus sees only plusses. And in one of the churches, Jesus marks mainly a minus.
However, I think there is something positive to note, if not about each of these churches, then about what Jesus can dothrough each of these churches. Therefore, I have given to each of my seven sermons on the seven churches, a positive title.
My positive title for Ephesus is: The Persevering Church. I say that because the word for perseverance is used twice in regard to this church.
Along with perseverance, we see another positive quality in the Church at Ephesus. We learn from all of these letters to the seven churches that faith and faithfulness always belong together. The Church at Ephesus has faith in Jesus Christ, and they have faithfulness.
An example of Ephesian faith and faithfulness is that they hate the practices of the Nicolaitans. We don’t know much about this group. They may have been followers of one of the first deacons, Nicholas of Antioch. (So, watch out deacons!) If the Nicolaitans were around today their slogan might be: “Go with the flow!” Don’t bother standing out as different. You can accommodate yourselves to the culture around you. And to this, Jesus seems to say, “No, if you are my follower, that means you are going to be swimming upstream in this world. You are in some way, at some time, going to be going against the flow!”
We hear about these Nicolaitans in one of the later letters. We are told that they follow the way of Balaam. Balaam was the one who in the book of Numbers, in the Old Testament, tempts the Israelites to idolatry and sexual sin. That means the Nicolaitans must have been seducers of some sort. Jesus had a severe warning for those who lead others to sin. He said, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)
But the Church at Ephesus was not like the Nicolaitans. They were not leading others astray. Jesus commends the Church at Ephesus because “You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
This talk of hate may sound strange to our 21st century ears. Didn’t Jesus preach love? Yes, he did. But real love always involves hating sin while loving the sinner.
It’s like this. As parents, we all love our children. We want what is best for them and work for it with all our might. But if something comes along that destroys our children’s lives, we hate it don’t we? If our children get involved in drugs, and it is destroying their lives, it is precisely because we love our children that we hate the drugs.
The same is true of Jesus. He loves us. And it is because he loves us that he hates whatever might destroy our lives.
Speaking of love, that brings us to Jesus’ critique of the Church at Ephesus. Jesus says, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.”
The Ephesians’ love for Christ and one another was no longer fervent. They had held on to truth but let go of love. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13…
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
We can have everything else that the Bible says we should have as Christians, but if we do not have love, we have nothing.
Some Bible translations put this verse this way, “You have forsaken your first love.” Who should be our first love? Jesus. I learned a little acronym when I was a young Christian and I have found it helpful ever since: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. That’s the way to spell joy!
Thankfully, Jesus counsels the Church at Ephesus how to correct their lack of love. He says, “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
We can sum up Jesus’ counsel with three Rs: Remember, Repent, and Redo. Remember how far you have fallen. Repent, change your mind. And redo…do the things you did at first.
Many of us could probably benefit from following this same counsel. Remember how fervent you were in your love for Christ when you first became a Christian? Jesus says, change your mind, and go back to living the way you did when you first became a Christian.
If we do not do that, Jesus warns of another R…Remove. “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
Jesus says in effect, “Don’t lose your Lamp!” (And I’m not talking about our church newsletter!)
N. T. Wright says,
The one thing you don’t see today in Ephesus, or in the surrounding modern towns and villages, is an active church. To begin with this may not seem odd. But Ephesus had been one of the major centres of early Christianity. By the early second century. Christian writers were holding up Ephesus as a great example of Christian faith, life and witness. For several centuries it held a position of pre-eminence, and one of the great fifth-century church councils was held there (AD 431). Archaeologists have found a church building in the city, which may be where that council took place. But there are, to repeat, no active churches there today. If there are any Christians there, they are in hiding.
That would have been almost as unthinkable to John’s audience as it would be for us to imagine our great churches empty and in ruins, with no new Christian fellowships rising up to take their place.
This should serve as a warning to us as well. Billy Graham once said that the Church is only one generation away from extinction. What are we doing to make sure we pass on faith in Jesus to the next generation?
Confirming Word to Conquerors
Finally, Jesus gives a confirming word to conquerors: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
“The tree of life in the paradise of God” foreshadows the end of the book of Revelation. The leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. And the tree is found in the New Jerusalem.
“The tree of life” also hearkens back to the tree of life in the garden of Eden. Isn’t it amazing that God set two trees in the center of the garden? But God told Adam and Eve there was only one they could not eat of—the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They could have eaten of the tree of life and lived forever, but they chose not to do so. They chose to accentuate the negative, eliminate the positive, and they messed with Mr. In-Between—that snake in the garden. Like the Ephesians, Adam and Eve forsook their first love and paid dearly for it. But God always provides a way out of our human dead-ends. God clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins, symbolic of animal sacrifice, which points forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. Jesus is the way out of all the dead-ends of life—for Adam and Eve, for the Ephesians and for us.
Now, the Ephesian Christians are promised the tree of life, if they will but listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church and obey God by the power of that same spirit. The Christian Conqueror is the one who perseveres to the end in doing the will of Christ. It doesn’t ultimately matter how many times we fall, so long as we keep getting up each time and continue to the end of our race by the power of Christ. The name, Jesus, means “Yahweh is victorious”. So long as Jesus lives in us, we too will have victory over all the power of the Enemy.