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Special Series: The Revelation of Jesus Christ

Ephesus: church in danger of extinction

By James K. Bridges

With the apostle Paul's coming to Ephesus, the church got under way with 12 of John's disciples receiving the baptism in the Spirit (Acts 19). A powerful revival was launched that spread throughout the province (19:10). This was a Pentecostal revival with signs, wonders and miracles (19:11-20). Possibly, all seven of the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 were started out of this revival.

The church had strong leadership, including Priscilla, Aquila, Apollos, Timothy, Onesiphorus and Tychicus. According to Early Church testimony, the apostle John may have been leading the church when he was arrested and exiled to Patmos.

For the church of Jesus Christ to establish a beachhead in this strategic city was truly the supernatural work of the living God. To the ancient world, Ephesus would be like New York City, London or Paris to a visitor today — a city of wealth and luxury, of social, political and economic prominence. It was a center for world religions and pagan superstition. Besides famous temples dedicated to Roman emperor worship, there was the magnificent Temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

For all of the city's beauty and grandeur, Ephesus had a dark side. Heraclitus, a famous philosopher of that day, said, "No one could live in Ephesus without weeping at the immorality which he must see on every side." In the midst of this most unseemly place, the Lord established His church as He said He would (Matthew 16:18). He appeared to John with an evaluation of that church (Revelation 2:1-7).

The identification of the Author

"He who holds the seven stars" (2:1).

To each of the churches Christ identifies himself as the source of the message, and to all but two He uses portions of the vision of the Son of Man given to John.

When identifying himself, Christ draws from the specific features of the vision that speak most effectively to the present needs of the church. To the Ephesians He points out that He holds the pastors in His right hand and He walks in the midst of the churches (2:1). Even though He is speaking to the pastor and church at Ephesus, Christ makes it clear that He is Lord of all the pastors and all of the churches. The book that John was instructed to write was to be sent to them all (1:11). The word "holds" speaks of the Lord's complete control over the seven ministers and churches. He has in His grasp the whole church and not just part. We notice that He is not just in the midst of the churches, but He is walking among the churches. Although He administrates His church from His exalted heavenly position, through the Holy Spirit He is able to move about in His universal church to know exactly what the need may be. He is the Christ of the whole church.

The evaluation of the church

"I know your works" (2:2).

To each of the churches the Lord begins His evaluation by stating, "I know." He who walks in the midst of the churches will judge righteously for He "does not see as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). He who judges our deeds also judges the motives of our hearts. No one can give us a more just or accurate evaluation of our lives than our Lord Jesus Christ. The Greek word translated "know" (Revelation 2:9,13,19; 3:1,8,15) refers to complete and full knowledge, not the progressive acquisition of knowledge. The Lord has full knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of all His people.

Christ commends the Ephesians for their works (deeds), labor (toil to point of sweat and exhaustion), patience (steadfast endurance), perseverance and unwearied efforts in Christ's name       (2:2,3). They are commended for their orthodoxy, their strong doctrinal stand against false teachers and deceptive doctrines (2:2,6); however, a serious concern also surfaces.

"You have left your first love" (2:4).

What is "first love" and how do you leave it? Paul explained that "the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Romans 5:5, NKJV). According to Acts 19, the Ephesian church was begun in a powerful Pentecostal revival in which many believers were born again by the Holy Spirit and also baptized in the Holy Spirit. In this initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit, believers received their "first experience" or "first love" with the Lord Jesus Christ. These believers experienced powerful manifestations of the Spirit — the sick were healed, demons were cast out, great conviction was on the city. The name of Jesus was thus magnified and people gave up their idolatry, witchcraft and magic.

First love is an experience in the power of God that puts an overwhelming love in the believer for God, for God's work, for God's people and for the lost. When the church abandons "first love" it abandons the power of God and becomes satisfied with a form of religion. John Wesley was asked if he was concerned that the Methodist Church in America would ever cease to exist. He answered, "No." His concern, he said, was that it would exist merely "having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:5).

The church at Ephesus abandoned its "first love" for something else. In the same manner, churches throughout history and especially today have left their Pentecostal heritage for a modern form of religion. Rather than bringing people into an experience "in the Spirit," these groups rely on appealing performances.  The result is a state of euphoria in which the church is enamored with entertainment and with a form of worship that resembles Pentecostal worship. Like Ephesus, when the church abandons its first love, it will usually replace it with religious activity that has the appearance of something spiritual. While crowds are attracted, it leaves the people unchanged.

The solution to the existing condition

"Remember — repent — do the first works, or else" (2:5).

Christ's evaluation uncovers the deep spiritual needs of the church, but it does more. It reveals the danger the church was in, even though the Ephesians didn't seem to be aware of it. If the church persisted in this condition, the church would cease to exist (2:5). Our Lord brings these problems to light in order to solve them. Jesus is the answer to our problems, whatever they may be.

The Lord's solution is threefold. First, it was important for this Pentecostal church to remember the "first love" experience and recover the heights in Christ where they had been. It was when the Prodigal Son remembered his father's house that he began to make his way out of the pigpen he found himself in.

Second comes genuine repentance. To all of the churches except Smyrna and Philadelphia, Christ prescribes repentance, not as a recommendation but as a command. The only way out of a wrong direction is an about-face. Repentance is the answer for sinners — as well as for saints — who fall into sin.

Third, the church is directed to return to its "first works." Paul had taught the church at Ephesus that "we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). The church is ordained to produce good works, also identified as "first works," which are the result of our "first love" experience in Christ through the Holy Spirit. First works will reoccur when a church has returned to its first love.

The consolation promised to overcomers

To each of the seven churches Christ states, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (2:11,17,29; 3:6,13,22). The Holy Spirit is speaking to the whole church, not just one single church, and He is continuing to speak to the whole church in every generation. Had the church in Ephesus been listening to the Holy Spirit, it would have avoided the crisis that developed.

"To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life" (2:7).

The promise to the overcomers at Ephesus is to "eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (2:7). The first Adam, because of his sin, was removed from the Garden of Eden and forbidden to eat of the tree of life (Genesis 3:23,24). But the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:45), has made the tree of life available to overcomers in heaven, which is the paradise of God. Eating of the tree of life symbolizes our partaking of eternal life that each believer has in Christ Jesus. Overcomers will never have to worry about the tree of life being removed. What a promise to a church in danger of having its lamp stand removed!  

James K. Bridges is general treasurer of the Assemblies of God.

This material will be found in expanded form in an upcoming book to be published by Gospel Publishing House

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