A note about all the letters
The letters to the seven churches are "prophetic letters," a sort of writing that appeared earlier in the Bible (2 Chron. 21:12-15; Jer. 29) and concern various peoples (Isa. 13-23,- Jer. 46-51,- Ezek.. 25-32,- Amos 1-2). ‘Thus says," is the standard biblical prophetic formula (e.g., Acts 21:11, hundreds of times in the Old Testament prophets)
1. Each letter is a prophetic word from Jesus (e.g., Rev. 2:1) through the Spirit (e.g., 2:7), who is inspiring John. Each letter follows a similar pattern, balancing praise and correction. The Marks of a Great Church are those which are praised by God and have been corrected by his Word.
• To the angel of the church, write:
• Jesus (in glory) says:
• I know (offers some praise)
• But I have this against you (offers some correction)
• The one who has ears must pay attention to what the Spirit says
2. Each church is called to hear "what the Spirit says to the churches" (note the plural).
There is a sense in which each church receives the letter appropriate to it. The message to each church resembles what we know of the cities in which the churches existed.
Yet each church also receives the entire book of Revelation. Each church must "hear," each church is also summoned to "overcome” and “conquer," especially if believers appear as God’s end-time army (14:3-4). Each church shares the hope promised to the other churches.
The basic principle for applying these letters to ourselves is: If the shoe fits, wear it.
3. Each church’s response matters
The two cities that are now completely uninhabited belong to two of the churches most severely rebuked (Sardis and Laodicea) –
The two cities that held out longest before the Turkish conquest are the only two churches fully praised (Smyrna and Philadelphia),
The city of Ephesus was later literally moved to a site about two miles from where it was in John’s day, just as the church was threatened with removal from its place (2:5).
The church, no matter how powerless in a given society, does have a spiritual impact! Just as the presence of the righteous in Sodom was the only factor that could have restrained judgment (Gen. 18:20-32), the fate of a culture may depend ultimately on the behaviour of the believers in that culture!
Given the high degree of assimilation of Christians to our culture’s values – more time spent on entertainment than on witness, more money spent on our comfort than on human need – the prognosis for the society as a whole is not good.
When pagans claimed that Rome fell because of its conversion to Christianity, Augustine responded that it fell rather because its sins were piled as high as heaven and because the commitment of most of its Christian population remained too shallow to restrain God’s wrath.
Naturally we recognise that not all suffering reflects judgment – but some does, especially on the societal level. Is Western Christianity genuinely different enough from our cultures to delay God’s judgment on our societies?
Letter to Ephesus
Christians in Ephesus, found themselves surrounded by symbols of civil religion (13:12-15).
Augustus had allowed Ephesus to build two temples in his honour, and Domitian had named Ephesus "guardian" of the imperial cult, making it the foremost centre of the imperial cult in Roman Asia.
Ephesus, in fact, hosted a new cult of the emperors that had opened only five years before Revelation was written. Ephesus was known for the worship of Artemis (Acts 19:23-40) and the practice of magic (19:13-19). It also had a large Jewish community (19:8-9). We can only guess the identity of the Nicolaitans. The most reasonable guess is that they condoned immorality and the eating of food offered to idols (2.14-15).
A great church
The presence of false teachers in Ephesus is hardly surprising (Acts 20:29- 30; 1 Tim. 1:3-7),- but Revelation 2:2 indicates that the church appears to have improved in discernment since Paul’s day (2 Tim. 1.15). The Ephesian church tested their prophets.
As relativism increases in our culture, discernment and backbone to stand against error become both increasingly unpopular and increasingly vital. Our postmodern culture encourages the sharing of diverse beliefs but it also forbids us to try to convert anyone as if we have absolute truth "yet this is precisely what Christians aim to do."
…with room to improve
Yet all that the Ephesian Christians are doing right is not sufficient to excuse what they are doing wrong. The fatal flaw in their behaviour is their lack of love:
Some suggest diminished love for God (cf. 12:11),-
More understand the phrase as love for one another (as likely in 2:19, Eph 1:15; Col. 1:4; 2 Thess 1:3).
For the church in Ephesus, "overcoming" or "conquering" (2:7) requires more than the vigilance of theology; it requires the internal unity of love. The reward of such overcoming is eating "from the tree of Life.
The same church that rightly "hated" the works of the Nicolaitans (2:6) wrongly abandoned their earlier commitment to "love" (2:4).
"hate the sin but love the sinner."
Some churches die from lack of outreach, lack of planning for the rising generation, or lack of courtesy to visitors – some churches, like the church in Ephesus, may risk simply killing themselves off by how they treat others.
Like many Christians today, they may have neglected the adage that we should "hate the sin but love the sinner." Today, in fact, our hatred of what we disapprove has sometimes carried beyond sin and those who commit it. Not all doctrines are at the heart of the gospel, not all errors are properly labelled heresy, and not all disagreements are worth fighting about.
Many of the churches most firmly committed to the truth of the gospel are also those churches that have drawn boundaries too tightly on secondary issues.
Jim Packer: "many can smell unsound doctrine a mile away, and yet the fruit of personal experience of God often proves rare among us.”’
Even when we are dealing with clear cases of sin and error, does not Scripture call us to offer correction with love and grace (Luke 15:1-2,- 2 Tim. 1:24-26)?
Lack of love is one of the offenses for which a lampstand can be moved from its place (2:5), through which a church can ultimately cease to exist as a church.
A serious danger
We simply dismiss this church as having any relevance for us. Dismissing the church in Ephesus is like reading the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) and saying, "Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!" We need to hear the w
arning this church presents to us.