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The Church of Ephesus, Part 2



Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God. Revelation 2:4–7.


The church at Ephesus had done a valiant job of defending the faith. In many ways they were an example to the church at large throughout the Christian era. The doctrines of the faith will always be attacked by Satan in an attempt to misdirect or otherwise water down the truths of the gospel so as to deny people the opportunity to be saved from sin or to live holy lives.

For 2000 years the church has fought against false teachings ranging from the most serious as denying the Incarnation of Christ to the most absurd as to certain definitions of symbols in the Book of Revelation. Not only have the false teachings driven people away from the truth, the battles over the absurd have done much to discourage and disappoint souls that expected better from the church that claims to be the body of Christ.

The church at Ephesus had been so involved in defending the truth that they forgot something far more important. Sadly, Christ informs them “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”


Criticism of the Ephesian Church


The Glorified Christ’s criticism of the Ephesian church indicates that they became so engrossed in their battle against error that the people left their first love. Some other versions will perhaps help us to recognize the seriousness of what is meant by leaving the first love.


The Living Bible, “You don’t love me as at first.”

Contemporary English Version, “You don’t have as much love as you used to.”

Revised Standard Version, “You have abandoned the love you had at first.”

The Message, “You walked away from your first love.”


The love from which they walked away was not a love for the truth—they were staunch defenders of the faith—it was their love for Christ, their Savior.

There is much in the NT that admonishes us to defend the faith from any and all errors.


But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. (Titus 3:9)


Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. (2 Timothy 2:15–16)


Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. (Colossians 2:8–10)


In these few verses we see the evolution of error from the Judaizing of Christians to what Paul calls philosophy, which is actually the first incursion of Gnosticism into the teachings of the church.

Nevertheless, there is a tendency to get so embroiled in devising arguments and counter arguments that we begin to love the battle and substitute that love for the love of the Savior. Jesus said, “You cannot be the slave of two masters! You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than the other”. (CEV)

There is just something people like about defending their doctrines against others. People that study theology have to be careful about this—but so do people that have never opened a theology text book. We believe so strongly that our point of view is the only correct one and that people that believe differently are wrong and perhaps not even saved. Our evangelism becomes converting people to our particular view on a doctrine rather than bringing people to Christ. In essence, we like our doctrine more than we like Christ and we are devoted to it thinking we are devoted to Christ.


Remember From Where You Have Fallen


Before Jesus calls the church to repentance He tells them to remember from where they have fallen. This is a call to return to what can be called the first love. We often think of this as renewing our love for Jesus and disavowing our feelings for the things of the world. While this is a good thing, this definition does not seem to fit the circumstance Jesus talks about. What Jesus said in John 13:34–35 appears to address the situation Jesus is criticizing.


A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.


Jesus set the definition of love by the example of His love for His disciples. The first love is not only love that sets Jesus first; it is also love that follows the example of Christ’s love. His love in us is the love that unreservedly loves those that are disciples of Jesus; those that are saved from sin and truly members of His body, the church. How does Jesus love His disciples? He laid down His life for them—for us—to redeem us from the clutches of sin and the doom of spiritual death. Having set the example for us, Jesus says in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends”. He goes on to say in the next verse, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you”; and He has commanded us to love one another—to love all the redeemed even if they are not part of our fellowship or have exactly the same doctrinal positions as we have.

Jesus gave us the reason why He believes love for one another is so important: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another”. All people will not know we are Jesus’ disciples just because we identify with the Church of God or adhere to Wesleyan-Arminian theology. Just telling people we are Christians is not even enough to prove our discipleship. What proves our discipleship is when we can lay down our lives—can we say, set aside our differences—and accept other saved people, people saved from sin and endeavoring to live for God, as real brethren in Christ. The unregenerate world looking on would take notice and think there is really something in this being a Christian. A sinner could think, “If those people can love each other with their differences, maybe they would love me.”


They Loved Doctrine More Than They Loved Christ


The church at Ephesus had fallen because they loved doctrine more than they loved Christ and this hindered their reaching the unregenerate world with the gospel. Jesus called them to repentance; that is, to have a change of mind.

As Christians we must accept the fact that there will be differences of opinion and understanding among the vast multitude of people that are genuinely saved from sin and living for Christ. We must purge our thinking that the kingdom of God is a homogeneous collection of people that see eye to eye. There are reasons why people see many things relating to doctrine and the church differently, but we do not have the time or desire to explore those differences in our study. There has always been the expectation of exclusiveness in the church—not just in the Church of God, the Churches of Christ, or any particular denominational group. That expectation of exclusiveness is the very thing Jesus ruled out when He commanded us as I have loved you, that you also love one another.

Jesus warned the Ephesians that if they did not repent, change their thinking and disposition with regard to loving one another, He would come and remove their lampstand. Remember, Jesus is walking in the midst of the lampstand, the church, and He can see everything for what it is, not what we say it is. The Ephesian’s zeal for correct doctrine was actually destroying their ability to be the church.


For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. For in fact the body is not one member but many. If the foot should say, Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body. (1 Corinthians 12:13–15)


Their zeal for correct doctrine was ripping off a foot, cutting off a hand, and poking out an eye. It was not building the body; it was tearing it down. The same Paul that wrote 1 Corinthians also wrote Galatians 5:15, “But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another”. It sounds as if they were not loving one another as Jesus commanded.

Jesus told the church after they repent they were to do the first works. There are all kinds of thoughts on what the first works are. Perhaps the Prophet Jeremiah gives the best explanation.


Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, Thus says the LORD: I remember you, The kindness of your youth, The love of your betrothal, When you went after Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown. Israel was holiness to the LORD, The firstfruits of His increase. (Jeremiah 2:2–3)


Look back to when the gospel came to Ephesus. They had that love that received God’s word, was obedient to it, but also the love that was found in being true disciples of Jesus. The kindness of that youth reached out to the unregenerate people in the city, offering to them the gospel of salvation from sin and the holiness of a relationship with the real and true God. The object of that love was INCREASE. The Apostle Paul wrote about this to the Church at Ephesus some 30 years earlier:


. . . till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:13–16)


Certainly sound doctrine is essential in bringing people to a saving knowledge of Christ; but truth must be spoken in love and in so doing the body will increase, it will grow. “For God so loved the world” is the first principle of the gospel, and it is essential that in all that we as the church do to reach the unregenerate world that love be the hallmark of who we are and what we do.


Jesus Commended The Ephesian Church


In bringing this to the attention of the Ephesian Church, Jesus did have a word of commendation concerning their stand for sound doctrine. Let us be certain that we do not abandon sound doctrine in the face of outright heresy or hypocrisy.

Jesus commended the church in that they “hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate”. Behavior, not doctrine, is the issue here. So who were the Nicolaitans? We turn to Adam Clarke for a brief explanation.


The Nicolaitanes taught the community of wives, that adultery and fornication were things indifferent, that eating meats offered to idols was quite lawful; and mixed several pagan rites with the Christian ceremonies.


It is quite possible that at the time of the writing of Revelation the Nicolaitans might have been a sect of Gnostics infiltrating the church. Certainly Jesus was against such behavior. However, it seems we have modern-day Nicolaitans infecting the church. It is not that we have a heated battle over doctrines among churches, but that all churches, even the most conservative, have let Nicolaitan behavior become acceptable.

We may not accept the community of wives, but there has been a widespread acceptance of adultery and fornication by the church. Divorce has been rampant among those professing Christianity. We certainly accept people that have been divorced and remarried, perhaps several times, before coming to the Lord for salvation. We also accept the possibility that a Christian could be caught up in a divorce and remarried under biblical circumstances. But it is not an acceptable behavior when professed Christians marry, divorce, and remarry time and time again—something is wrong. But worse than this is that there are men and women living together without the benefit of marriage—even having children together—that profess to be Christians—and churches allowing that to happen. Fornication, homosexuality, and other sexual sins are being treated as an indifferent thing.

We may not see much mixing pagan rites with Christian ceremonies. There are people that feel celebrating Christmas and Easter fall into this category, but I think the modern application of this principle is more subtle. The purpose of the church according to Jesus is to make disciples. Today, the church is seen more as a social agency than as a place where one can find God and be instructed in right living. Looking around, there is very little evidence that people, even many church members, are interested in right living. They might like or enjoy some motivational talks; They may appreciate help in kicking a drug or alcohol habit; They might want financial help or services such as a clothes closet or food bank; But people do not want to be told their lives are wrong and that God is the only Person that can change them.

Churches that concentrate on teaching the word of God are generally shunned by people because they may not have a pre-school, Christian school, gymnasium, or all kinds of programs that perhaps free people from some God-ordained responsibilities so they can do what they want.


What The Spirit Says To The Churches


No let us notice what the Spirit says to the churches. “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”

First of all, what are we to overcome? This is not sin in general, because only Christ through the presence and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit can overcome sin. The things we must overcome are things that lie within our power, within the scope of our abilities.

The first thing Jesus mentioned was our devotion to the truth. We must comprehend and firmly grasp the truth of the faith as it is in Christ. We must overcome the error of false teachings. But at the same time, we must keep the first love. Overcoming the tendency to cut off or not fellowship Christians for mere differences of opinion or practice is contrary to the nature of the church as it is in Christ. We overcome these things in the love of Christ, not just His church, but for all souls.

The second thing is that we must overcome sinful behavior. We must have victory over our tendency for inconsistency and sin. As a church, we must not allow sin a home in our congregations; we must encourage and help people with holiness.

Christ promises us that when we overcome we will eat of the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. What is this tree of life?

The first time we see it it is a tree in the Garden of Eden, which is called Paradise. It had to be a literal tree, just as was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It had fruit, but, as with the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit had no intrinsic moral quality—it was just fruit.

After Adam and Eve sinned, God sent them out of the Garden of Eden, the paradise, and placed an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance of the Garden to keep them from approaching the tree of life. In Genesis 3:22 God gives as His reason for doing this: “lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”. From this we learn that the tree of life is associated with eternal life. What is the source of eternal or everlasting life?


For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)


He who believes in the son has everlasting life. (John 3:36)


What is the significance of the tree? This is not the literal tree that was in the Garden of Eden, but it is the tree that was used to bring eternal life.


Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”). (Galatians 3:13)


The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him. (Acts 5:30–32)


Christ Knows Our Works


Let us be diligent in defending the truth of salvation, but let us do it with love for those that need the truth. Let us overcome sin and sinful behavior. In so doing we have access to what Christ purchased for us on that tree, the cross of Calvary: eternal life.

Do you have eternal life?