The Declining Church

Revelation 2:1-7 Exodus 25:31-40

Each letter begins with reference to chapter 1 vision of Christ, not only identifying the person of the author but also his role relationship with the church. Generally follows commendation (except for Laodicea), criticism identifying area of need (none for Smyrna or Philadelphia), instruction re: addressing the need, and final promise. Letters are individual, divinely crafted for specific church in particular circumstances – no different from Paul’s letters, other epistles. In same way, contain principles that apply to believers, the church, in all ages.

One more characteristic of each letter: begin with “These things says…”, 8 times in NT, 7 here in letters to churches. Phrase found about 350 times in LXX, with nearly 320 of them having “the Lord” (Heb יהוה, Yahweh) as subject. Indicative of Christ executing his prophetic office in and to the church – prophet the one who brings God’s message with God’s authority, in this case, to God’s people,

…in the form of instruction, admonition and exhortation, glorious promises, or stern rebukes. It was their duty to protest against mere formalism, to stress moral duty, to urge the necessity of spiritual service, and to promote the interests of truth and righteousness. If the people departed from the path of duty, they had to call them back to the law and to the testimony, and to announce the coming terror of the Lord upon the wicked. But their work was also intimately related to the promise, the gracious promises of God for the future: It was their privilege to picture the glorious things which God had in store for His people. Berkhof, Systematic Theology

Now the letter: What was Ephesus like?

Founded in 11th century BC, was capital of province of Asia from 27 BC to 297 AD. Chief tourist attraction – Temple of Diana, one of Seven Wonders of Ancient World, funded by Croesus (king of Lydia, capital was Sardis) and completed in 560 BC, destroyed 356 BC and rebuilt. 200′ x 400′, 128 columns 60′ tall, (38 x 64, 15 WRFBC units inside) thought to be largest building in existence and completely overshadowing other wonders by its magnificence and opulence.

Other sights – Library with nearly 12,000 scrolls, theater with seating for 25,000, marketplace surrounded by stoas (covered sidewalks), a great number of baths and gymnasiums. Population estimated 400,000-500,000 at end of 1st century.

Ephesus at intersection of major trade routes – by land into Asia, by sea to rest of world, world-class harbor accessible to largest ships. Temple of Diana (Artemis) served as museum to display statues and paintings of great artists, also because of strength of structure used as a bank. Temple was significant religious, financial and cultural center.

Ephesians also worshipped Cybele, “Mother Earth”, aka Gaia; practiced much syncretism in religion carrying elements of earth-worship over into that of Artemis. Diana (Roman) Artemis (Greek) goddess of wild animals & hunt, fertility, twin sister of Apollo.

Apostle Paul spent short time in Ephesus on 2nd missionary journey, ministered for 2 years on 3rd journey. During that stay, by aid of Holy Spirit Paul’s ministry had significant impact on Diana-worship – provoked riot! Very possible that Ephesus was “mother church” responsible for planting the other six, 100 mile radius. As founding church, would be logical first stop in a circular letter; each church had their own letter, all churches would benefit from reading all letters (plus remainder of the epistle) in same way we benefit today.

A. Characteristics of Christ v.1

Holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. cf. Rev.1:12-13,16,20

The Christ revealed in Revelation is in his state of exaltation, not humiliation. Here in letter to Ephesus he is represented as the glorified Lord of the Church.

holds: tender, loving, watchful care of churches directed and applied through pastoral leadership

walks: present (really, literally, spiritually) and active in his church; near, attentive and informed of their condition and need; actively involved in providing necessary resources for church to grow in size, influence, strength – leaven that permeated the entire quantity of flour (Matt. 13:33) as the church permeates the world

confirming to early church and to us: Christ is truly keeping his promises – “I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20) and, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18)

B. Commendation v.2-3,6

Deeds, hard work, patience – diligent

had been swimming against the tide of opinion, against the majority. Ephesus a culturally difficult place to be the church – how does the church compete with all there is to see, hear and do in a world city? Had worked hard, not expecting instant results, doing what they believed was right, trying to do church right.

Does not tolerate wicked men – discerning

labored to develop an understanding of right doctrine; made sure their confession of faith was comprehensive and correct. Had not only a systematic theology but a systematic checklist: do you affirm this? Check. Do you deny that? Check. Made sure only those who fully agreed with their doctrinal position were allowed into membership and fellowship.

Endures hardships – determined

had a reputation for being Christians – endured much for My name’s sake. Determined to follow Christ whatever the cost, not hide their Christianity or call it something else so as to avoid hardship. Showed no signs of becoming battle-weary, were committed to staying the course without compromise.

Hates the practices of the Nicolaitans – distinct

stood their ground against syncretism and resulting drift. Resisted attempts at persusasion – “Oh, you can do …..and still be a Christian. You can add this to your belief system, no problem.” In resisting pressure to join in culturally acceptable activities, church at Ephesus drew attention to their distinctness, their counter-cultural character and beliefs.

C. Criticism v.4

Has forsaken her first love. Have love for pure doctrine, pure membership – all good, but maybe better expressed as passion for those things. Were surrounded by people and institutions that challenged their belief system, worldview, at nearly every level. Constant challenge requires constant evaluation in order to avoid drift into error; can after prolonged period change how circumstances are viewed – siege mentality, war veterans, etc.

Where Ephesus had declined to from previous way of thinking and acting – had become a head religion more than a heart religion, had lost effectiveness as light in the world. In beginning had mind and heart to see God’s kingdom grow, probably through church planting. Then over time lost that fire to bring the Gospel to others, to bring others to the Gospel.

They perhaps reached the point Christianity has in this country – known better for what it stands against than what it stands for. They put maintaining the truth ahead of bringing people to the truth. Had worked so hard at building walls to guard the truth they forgot to put doors and windows in – windows to let the light out into the world, doors through which to welcome those seeking more light. Was as difficult to get into the church and the fellowship as to get on an airplane – ID, scanner, wand, pat-down, TSA agents.

D. Instruction v.5

Remember your first love; repent; do the works you did at first.

At the first you had a love for the doctrines of grace and those who needed to hear them and be changed by them. Remember how hard you worked to bring others into the fellowship, to influence them for good, to persuade them of Gospel truth. A passion for doctrinal purity is good but keep it in it’s proper place – where it doesn’t hinder but rather supports the proclamation of a pure Gospel.

The checklist and passion for precise doctrine has a place – when evaluating preaching and teaching resources, whether people or media. It can make for good discussion, even debate among those who are more mature in the faith; but use discretion for when to bring out the clipboard. Remember: the truth is offensive to many people but be sure it’s the message and not the messenger who is causing offense.

E. Promise v.7

I will remove your lampstand – unless

Your job is to be a light to the world, not just the four walls and the frozen chosen. If you don’t get back on track, letting your light shine among men, unbelieving men, immature men, confused men, hurting men, I’ll take your lampstand so you won’t waste what light you have.

As the Lord of the Church, Christ has the right and the authority to remove a church from existence when it no longer serves the purpose for which he established it. He will do that by removing his presence and his blessing from it when it fails to be faithful to him. Consider the many buildings that dot the countryside which once proclaimed the Gospel, strayed from it, and are now falling into ruins or used for other purposes.

Will eat from the tree of life.

If Genesis represents Paradise Lost, Revelation represents Paradise Regained. The story of The Fall ends with our first parents expelled from the Garden and cherubim as well as a flaming sword guarding the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-24). That was done explicitly so that mankind would be prevented from eating of the tree of life.

Yet the Lord of the Church promises to the one who overcomes, who perseveres until the end the privilege of free access to the tree of life. For this to occur restoration must take place – that which mankind lost in the fall, righteousness and true holiness, will be fully restored. The same is true for the created order, the effects of the Curse being removed and “creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.” (Rom. 8:21 NET)

Free access to the tree of life means free access to God’s very presence; remember where the original tree of life was, what Adam’s daily experience was – communion face to face with God himself. It’s not necessary to read all of Revelation to find out what is in store, we’re told right from the beginning on the authority of no less than the ascended Lord Jesus by the Holy Spirit that he’s still on track to achieve his goal for us – complete redemption. May God grant us his preserving grace that we may maintain our first love and be counted overcomers along with the saints of Ephesus.


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