The Epistle to the Church of EPHESUS

Revelation 2:1-7

In the previous chapter, we were led to make some preliminary and general observations regarding the Epistles to the Seven Churches of Asia. As we now proceed to the consideration of three of these, let us be solemnized by the reflection, whose utterances they are—not those of John (the scribe, instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven, though he was), but the living words of John's great Master and Lord—words communicated by the divine teaching and resistless energy of the Spirit of all Truth. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the Churches."

The first Epistle is that to the metropolitan city of the province at that time; and for many years afterwards, one of the world's greatest capitals. Any one who has had the melancholy pleasure, as the writer has done, of treading the ruins of EPHESUS, can understand, even amid present desolation, how it rose to its proud pre-eminence—what that now pestiferous swamp, with its reeds and morasses, must have been, when it formed a spacious harbor for the merchantmen of the Aegean Sea; the unrivaled temple of Diana, a glittering mass of white marble from the adjoining quarries of Mount Prion, crowning its upper end. On a height overlooking these, amid the semi-circular seats of its great theater, a view is still commanded of the entire ancient site, reaching far out to the sea.

One can still re-people the present solitude with the once busy life—fancy the coasting-vessel, which more than once rounded the Island of Samos, bearing on its deck the great Apostle of the Gentiles to the city most tenderly associated with his life and labors. Here, for three years, Paul was engaged in unremitting toil—bodily and mental. Here he encountered the most virulent of persecution. But here, too, he had left behind him the most indubitable proofs of his earnest ministry; for he tells us, "By the space of three years, I ceased not to warn every one day and night with tears." From the language employed in his Epistle to the Ephesians, we can indeed draw no decisive inference, as there are strong grounds for surmising that that Epistle was rather a circular letter addressed to the Churches of the province, than to the individual Church of Ephesus. But even if the latter were no more than merely included in this most deeply spiritual encyclical, it shows that the Apostle's sacred lessons had there taken congenial root. It is an Epistle which could only have been understood and appreciated by those "blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ," and who had been enabled to comprehend, as none other of His converts had, "the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of the love of Christ!"

This Church of glowing zeal and fervor he had afterwards committed to the special charge of his spiritual son, Timothy. And if we can add yet one other to its holy memories, it was when this city of Paul's loving Epistle received in its midst the loving and beloved Apostle John, bearing along with him, according to tradition, the most honored of women—the aged mother of his and her Lord. Someway amid these thorny and tangled thickets of Mount Prion in Ephesus, the dust of the Apostle of Patmos is said to rest. There, as he lived to glorify, so there he waits, to welcome his Savior at His second coming.

Be that as it may, to this 'eye of Asia', as it was proudly called—the civil and ecclesiastical center of Asia, the first of these seven inspired messages was sent by the Great Bishop of souls. He who was seen in the vision simply "in the midst of the golden candlesticks," announces Himself, by a notable variation of phrase, as "walking" in their midst—going about to and fro—from church to church, from congregation to congregation—we may add from soul to soul.

"Walking"—a term suggestive of His unresting, wakeful vigilance. His under-shepherds may sleep, but He that keeps Israel does not slumber—He neither slumbers nor sleeps. If these candlesticks were left to faithless man, how often would the flickering flame languish and die! But He is the true "Watchman of the house"—the sleepless Keeper of the temple courts. Blessed be God, no church, no individual, is dependent on pastor or minister! The presence and sustaining grace of Christ are the secret of all life and light! We are "kept by the power of God." It is because the great God is in the bush, that, though burning, it is never consumed.

The Omniscient Savior now enjoins John to put on record the grounds of His commendation. He begins with the lights of the picture before filling in the contrasting dark background. The subjects of approval, as we might have expected, are not few, in the case of a Church which, at all events in its earlier life, had proved itself worthy of being made the depositary of such rare means and privileges. "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, 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." All this bespeaks a gigantic and prolonged struggle; just such a fierce struggle as we might have looked for with the multitudinous adversaries in that city, where cultured Greek, and subtle Oriental, and libertine Roman, and intolerant Jew, combined with the native and bigoted votaries of Diana in uncompromising hostility to the faith of Jesus.

The Elders of Ephesus, when they met Paul at Miletus, had been forewarned by him in his touching address, of the grievous wolves that were before long to assail that faithful fold. His anticipations had been too faithfully verified. With ravening fury they had descended; but though, in the simile of a greater than Paul, the wolf had come, it had failed to scatter the sheep. He whom they had taken as their Shepherd, whose cause and religion they had boldly espoused, had noted their "labor" (their toiling, oppressive labor, as the word means); their "patience" under threat, and persecution, and violence; their "intolerance" alike of doctrinal defection and inconsistent conduct—"You cannot bear those who are evil;" their rigid and impartial discipline, exercised in the case of all false teachers and false brethren who were sneakily bringing in damnable heresies, which, under the semblance of human wisdom, were undermining the foundations of the faith. Amid scorn, and ridicule, and worldly loss—with martyr-heroism and martyr-patience, they were firmly enduring all for His name's sake! What a noble eulogy! What more could be said on His part? What more can be lacking on theirs? It almost seems as if the supreme Judge of all had in a miniature court averted the great Judgment-scene, and pronounced His unqualified "Well done!" on their good and faithful service.

And yet this prolonged eulogy—this full catalogue of well-earned praise, is followed with a "nevertheless." "Nevertheless, I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love." The first ardor of their early love had cooled. It was only a few brief years since Paul's Epistle was sent, but its phraseology would need to be sadly altered and modified now. Their Lord's saying on Mount Olivet had a mournful fulfillment regarding their collective body, whatever might be the individual exceptions—"The love of many shall wax cold." He speaks of them as "fallen"—fallen from a high eminence—like once-soaring eagles, now with wings collapsed, struggling in the dust, their noble plumage soiled and ruffled—their glory gone!

Does not this righteous upbraiding come home in solemn, searching truthfulness to many churches, many congregations, many hearts? Where is the fire and fervor and devotion of your first love? Is God's word by His old prophet a bygone memory—"I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your espousals?" Has the love of the world, or the love of sin, has neglect of prayer and of the means of grace, dulled and deadened spiritual life—so that there are no kindlings of soul, as once there were at the mention of the name and the love of Jesus? Has a mechanical, formal orthodoxy taken the place of the life of faith and the life of devotion?

What is to be done? Is the dull torpor, the mournful deterioration to be perpetuated? Is the lamp to be allowed to flicker and dim and die away in the darkness, without an effort to resuscitate the flame? No! the Lord's loyalty in rebuking us, is only to prepare the way for a gracious challenge—"Remember therefore from where you are fallen, and repent and do the first works." However great or ignominious the fall, it is never too late to rise and redeem the neglected past. "Turn! turn!" He seems to say, "that you die not." And turn not by rekindling a mere fitful glow of ardent emotion, but by doing "the first works"—the true tests and exponents of a genuine revival of that love which has suffered so sad a decay.

The opportunity, however, may be short. If the season of grace and repentance be allowed to pass unimproved—"I will come unto you quickly, and will remove your candlestick (or lamp) out of his place." The one glimmering, unfaithful candle is only taking up room in the temple-court, which another would better supply. It is like the barren fig-tree of the parable, drinking in to its worthless stem and branches the summer rains, and dews, and sunshine which would have nurtured abundant fruit in others. In either case, the defaulter must be removed, for needlessly occupying temple-space or cumbering productive ground.

Oh! it is a solemn thought, alike regarding churches and individuals, that it is only by reason of the Lord's marvelous patience and tolerance they are preserved. The hour of mercy is on the wing. "Except you repent" trembles on the lips of the infinitely forbearing One. His Spirit will not always strive. If His patience be tampered with and abused—if a church, instead of going from strength to strength, degenerates from weakness to weakness—the long-deferred sentence must go forth! How did it fare with Ephesus? Alas! she knew not the time of her visitation. The grievous wolves completed the havoc of the fold—the waning love gradually lessened—the once-bright candle was quenched in darkness!

And where is the queenly city and her loyal, God-loving church now? The place that once knew them, knows them no more—the pen of desolation has written on every fragment of her moldering ruins, "I will remove your candlestick out of his place!"

The Divine Savior, after recurring once more to a redeeming feature in the case and character of the Ephesian Christians—their determined stand against the licentious creed and practice of the Nicolaitanes or Baalamites, concludes with the first of the beautiful cluster of figurative promises—"To him who overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." In wrath He remembers mercy. Judgment is His strange work. He who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, and who stays His rough wind in the day of His east wind, always mingles reproof with kindness. He wills not the death of the sinner, but rather that he would turn from his wickedness and live.

In that apostate Church there were doubtless a few still faithful—still glowing with the old fervor of pristine love—a few olive berries still on the top of the wintry boughs. It is to such He addresses the closing promise—to those who would hold fast their faith and patience to the end, He would give to eat of the tree of life in the celestial Paradise. In the earliest chapters of Bible story, we have a glimpse of that Tree of life within the earthly Eden; but its gates close and the mysterious object vanishes from our sight. But a more ravishing Eden and Paradise is revealed above, where sin dare not enter, where no cherubic sword guards the way. There, is this Tree with its perennial fruits, wafting immortal fragrance and distilling immortal balm—the symbol and emblem and guarantee to the glorified of the perpetuity of their bliss.

It is worthy of notice—as showing the connection between these Epistles to the seven Churches and the second (and in some respects distinct) part of the Book of Revelation—that the figurative promises of the one have a remarkable correspondence in the other. Indeed, these figurative sayings in the seven Epistles have their amplest fulfillment and interpretation in the subsequent glowing visions of the millennial state and heavenly glory. As an old commentator says, "The first thing promised in the seven Epistles is the last and highest in the fulfillment." In the closing gorgeous vision of the water of life, "on either side of the river was the tree of life, which bore twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." Whatever was forfeited in the Fall will be more than compensated in Redemption. "Behold!" says He who sits on the throne, "I will make all things new!"

And what is the great practical lesson, on a review of this searching and solemn letter? Is it not to prompt the question—How does it stand with us as churches? How does it stand with us as individuals? Have we forgotten the vows of our early heart-dedication? Are the symptoms of decay and declension too painfully visible among us? Is the spiritual death-chill upon us? Has the cable been cut which anchored us to the living Rock, and are we drifting farther and farther out to the great sea of darkness?

Again we ask, "What is to be done?" Is it to be abandonment? despair? No! Let us return and "do the first works" before we become castaways forever! Let us search out the peculiar sins which have caused the terrible departure and quenched the first love—whether it be worldliness, or pride, or sensuality—or, like these Nicolaitanes, turning the grace of God into a license for sin—a boasting profession with an inconsistent or immoral life—whatever has enfeebled the moral courage, and left a miserable, heartless outward form as all the remains of the once-loving soul and devoted purpose. "To him who overcomes," the Divine Head—Himself the mightiest of conquerors; reminds His people of toil and struggle, as the condition of victory.

Nor let us fritter the solemn individual application away, as if the reference had no bearing on ourselves, and was restricted to that martyr age—to amphitheaters and arenas of blood—to Domitian's dungeons and Nero's lions. The conflict, though imperceptible, is often to the spiritual nature, deadliest in a time of peace—when there is nothing to rouse from the slumber of self-security and sleepiness—when we are apt, by base worldly concessions and sinful compliances and self-indulgences; by arrogance and pride; by grasping covetousness and portentous forms of greed; by lax doctrines and immoral life; to deny and dishonor the name and cause of our Great Master.

By those who prefer (for there is a contrast intended) eating the debilitating fruits from the tree of guilty pleasure, there will be gathered none of the fruits of the tree of life in the midst of the Paradise of God. That tree is the reward of conquest, and toil, and self-sacrifice to the fighting Christian—not to the coward and selfish children of Ephraim, who, though appearing in soldier-armor, "carrying bows," have turned faint in the day of battle. On the other hand, nobly fighting and striving, the fruit of the tree (Christ's grace and strength) will be imparted even now, to give nourishment, and vigor, and needful support in all time of our tribulation.

But as it is to churches in their collective capacity to which the Divine Redeemer here specially speaks, neither let us lose the solemn distinctive lesson by dwindling it down in an application to individuals alone. As surely as Ephesus—the home of apostles and martyrs, with her bright sisterhood of Christian cities, was weighed in the balance and found lacking, and has been swept with the broom of destruction—so surely will Britain and America be dealt with if she allows herself to be a traitor to the most gigantic spiritual trust ever bequeathed to a great people.

All churches are on their trial. Well for us if we get guiding-light from these beacons of the past—if we carefully hearken to the cautionary word. The Great Head who moves in the midst of His candlesticks will never be without a Church! He will never be stripped of faithful witnesses to His name and cause. His Churches may be transferred—but they can never, like the candle of the wicked, be put out. The place of the faithless will be transferred to the faithful. If we refuse to shine for Him, others will—if these should hold their peace, the stones will cry out!

Christ indeed may not—and from His utterances in these Epistles will not—be unmindful of a Church's good deeds in the past. Her historic recollections, her struggles, her martyrdoms, are engraved on the palms of His hands—the kindness of her youth, the love of her espousals. But neither let us trust to the possession of mere ancestral fame and prestige. It will not save us when we cease to fulfill our mission, and we become guiltily oblivious of those great truths and great principles for which our fathers suffered.

"Remember from where you have fallen!" Remember! It is a word of rebuke; but it is a word of quickening and revival also. It is designed by Him to recall to us, as to Ephesus, these grand legacies of holier and better times. It is the sharp blast of a trumpet to stir within us the memories of the departed—calling upon us to rekindle the torch dropped from their hands, and which is now, we fear, smoldering amid error of doctrine and laxity of life. "Remember therefore from where you are fallen, and repent and do the first works!"

Be this our reply, in the might of Him who walks amid the candlesticks, "Quicken us, and we will call upon Your name." "Turn us again to Yourself, O God. Make Your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved!"