Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Ephesus was named the provincial capital by Augustus Caesar in 29 BCE and an imperial cult center dedicated to Roma and Divus Julius was established in the city and later followed by a temple dedicated to Augustus. Ephesus was the first city to build a temple to the Emperor Domitian though it was renamed for Vespasian after the death of the unpopular Emperor (the Roman Senate wanted to rid themselves of Domitian’s legacy). Its remains are still visible today, built 89-91 CE. A 50×100 meter two-story structure, Ephesus thought it a great honor to be the first city to honor the Emperor (neokoros, a Temple guardian) as a provincial center of the imperial cult for Domitian. As a center of Imperial civil religion Ephesus stressed its allegiance to the Emperor (a statue of Domitian stood in the Sabastoi Temple) as well as to Greco-Roman deities through multiple temples. One could not live in Ephesus without the constant reminder of how religion pervasively shaped daily life (from coinage to festive processions) and was, in effect, a civil religion for the culture.
The interconnection between commerce, religion and public fidelity to the gods is part of the story in Acts 19 when a mob demonstrated at the theatre because Paul’s new faith was diminishing the devotion of Ephesus to the goddess Diana (Artemis). The theatre could hold 25,000 people and the mob was only quieted after hours of demonstration and the pleading of officials. This illustrates the kind of excitement that civil religion could generate in a Roman city.
Addressor: “who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” Jesus addresses the angel as a representative of the church–all usages of the English “you” are singular.
The significance of the “seven stars” should not be underestimated. Domitian minted a coin in memory of his dead son. The inscription read: “the divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian.” The image of the son is encircled by seven stars as he sits upon a globe.
In other words, it is Christ rather than the Emperor who holds the stars in his hand. He speaks as one whose authority is unquestioned and one who “walks” among the churches. This is the language of living God dwelling among Israel (Leviticus 26:11-12). Christ dwells among his people.
Commendations: Ephesus is commended for multiple positives.
- good works and toil (difficult labor)
- patient endurance and “bearing up” without growing weary
- tested false “apostles”
- intolerant of evil (e.g., they “hate” the works of the Nicolaitans)
We might summarize this list under two headings. First, though the Ephesian church was suffering under the pressures of living in a hostile culture, they persevered in good works. Twice John describes their “patient endurance” (hupomone) which means that they have stood up under the pressure. Instead of giving up, they continued their hard work (kopon). Their ministries were ongoing and laborious.
Second, they have resisted the pressures to abandon the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of their faith. They “hate” the works of the Nicolaitans, as does Christ, and they did not accept the message of some itinerant teachers who claimed to be apostles. The Ephesian church was discerning. They recognized the error of both.
Whatever the exact problem the Nicolaitans (probably sexual immorality and idolatry as we will see in future oracles) and false apostles exemplified, Ephesus is commended for its intolerance. I don’t think we should read “hate” as a kind of maliciousness but rather as an ethical resistance to immorality. This is no commendation for malice, abuse, or violence, but a commendation for commitment to the values of the kingdom of God in opposition to what might subvert those values.
The Nicolaitans are identified as an independent group in Ephesus. They have been excluded from the Christian community there and the Christians are commended for it. Ignatius alluded to groups against which the church must guard itself (cf. Ephesians 7:1). The struggle in Ephesus against such groups has been a long one from Paul’s warnings (Acts 20:28-31) to Timothy’s struggles with insidious teachings (1 Timothy 6:3-5). The church, it appears from Revelation 2, had remained faithful in their teaching and their works.
Problem: “you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
It is difficult to know how to interpret what it means to “abandon” or “leave behind” your “first love” or the “love you had at first.” We do not have much in the way of context to identify the specific problem. Love, however, is the key. Given the orthodoxy and orthopraxy for which they are commended, some think their teachings and practices had lost a sense of loving fervor and had degenerated into a kind of formality. They lost their “love.” Perhaps they failed to love each other as tensions rose in discerning false teaching and external pressures. Perhaps it is about whom they love. In other words, perhaps they had lost their focus in terms of loving Christ. Whatever the case their faithful teaching and works were insufficient. The church also needed “love.” Multiple positives do not balance out a loss of “love.”
Warning: Remember and repent.
There are two imperatives in the text: remember and repent. The church is to regain its original vision and return to their original (“at the first”) practices (works). Presumably this means, in some sense, an infusion of “love” in their practices and communal life.
True to the prophetic genre, the call to repent is significant to the future of the community. The explicit warning is that Jesus will “come” and remove the lampstand from his presence if they do not repent. It is, in effect, a casting out of the church. Though their orthodoxy and orthopraxy is laudable, their lost “love” (should it continue) means that they can no longer expect the comforting presence of the Lord. In that situation, the Lord’s coming is neither redemptive nor eschatological (“end-time”)–it is the present loss of Christ’s presence. They would be cast from his presence when their lampstand is removed.
Admonition: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Are you listening? Do you hear me? The Spirit of God is speaking through the oracle in order to form the church, but the church must listen and respond to effect the kind of spiritual formation envisioned by the oracle. Other “churches” are also overhearing the message to Ephesus–it is not for them alone but for all believers.
Promise: “I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
The promise anticipates the eschatological picture of Revelation 21-22. The “tree of life” is located in the Garden of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22:2 (cf. 22:14, 19). Here the oracle locates the “tree of life” in “Paradise” which means “garden.” This is a clear allusion to the Garden of Eden in Genesis, but it is not a longing for a return to the Garden of Eden. Rather , it is a promise of entrance into the eschatological Garden in the New Jerusalem. The promise is a peaceful and satisfying life. No matter what the Empire threatens, Jesus will give to life to the one who “overcomes.”
The term “conquer” or “overcome” is an important one in Revelation. The promised is conditioned on “overcoming.” The verb is nikao which we know in our culture as Nike (or, victory). To overcome is to gain the victory; it is to successfully persevere or patiently endure as a faithful witness.
Oster (Seven Congregations, 109-113) calls attention to the pervasive symbolism of the goddess Nike (Latin, Victoria) present in the Greco-Roman world. While the term certainly embraced the idea of martyrdom (cf. 4 Maccabees 1:11), Oster suggests that the larger Greco-Roman spirituality of victory is a more important backdrop. The goddess was the source of success, wealth, health, power, and victorious battles. She handed the victors of athletic contests their laurel wreath. Those who wanted victory (wanted to “overcome”) sought her blessings. [Nike is here pictured holding a wreath–from a monument in Ephesus.] But for the church at Ephesus “overcoming” is resisting cultural assimilation; it is resisting the cultural turn to the goddess Nike. To “overcome” is faithful witness whether it leads to martyrdom or not. The victory wreath does not come from Nike but from the Lord Jesus. To “overcome” is to persevere in faith.
In the case of Ephesus, victory lies in returning to their beginnings and renewing their “love” while maintaining their orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Resisting cultural assimilation and syncretism, they will share in the victory of the one who has himself overcome (Revelation 5:5).