What would Jesus say to your church if he were to return today? For the church of Ephesus, there was no need for speculation as Jesus spoke to them through the Apostle John in the book of Revelation. On the exterior, the Ephesian believers appeared to be flawless. However, they had a profound heart issue bubbling beneath the surface. We find that Christ commends their hard work and doctrinal purity, yet also rebukes them for their lack of love. This is particularly relevant for the church today where our own tendency towards theology and works may overshadow our love. We’ll come to see that truth in doctrine is necessary, but true doctrine always comes from God and leads to a love for one another.
Our passage in Revelation 2:1-7 begins by introducing us to the problematic church, followed by Christ’s commendation, critique and consolation to them. The letter starts with: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Revelation 2:1). The immediate context of Revelation 1:10-20 informs us that the seven lampstands represent the seven churches and seven stars represent the angels (or leaders) of those churches. The speaker is identified as the Lord Jesus Christ, who walks among the churches and holds authority over its leaders. The content of the message also communicates to us that this letter isn’t only addressed to the angel, but rather the whole church of Ephesus.
Jesus directly acknowledges the Ephesian believers, commending them for their faithful work and steadfast endurance. He assures them, declaring “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, 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” (Revelation 2:2-3). The church of Ephesus was no small gathering. Acts 19 records how Paul ministered there for three years, training them with the gospel and labouring alongside them in love. It makes sense that such a prominent congregation would’ve excelled at recognising false teaching and casting out evildoers. In addition to defending the integrity of the gospel, they have also continued to bear fruit in good deeds. Jesus praises their tireless perseverance in resisting the pressure of apostasy posed by persecution and suffering. To their credit, the Ephesian believers exhibited a genuine zeal for doctrinal purity that was matched by their godly labour.
However, Jesus’ diagnosis reveals a much deeper issue had overcome the church. He explains “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place“ (Revelation 2:4-5). It’s clear that the Ephesians had departed from the love they initially held for the gospel. Moreover, their relationship with Christ had drastically faded compared to their original passion and fervour. When the Christian life is no longer motivated by love, it devolves into empty religious observance. Despite the harsh criticism, this isn’t given to the Ephesians as condemnation – it is a call to repentance! The purpose of Christ’s urgent warning is to spur the church to turn from their ways and escape the oncoming judgement. As the head of the body, Christ is the one who powerfully sustains the church and he will not hesitate to cut off the disobedient.
Christ’s final words to them serve as an encouraging consolation and promise to the remaining faithful ones. The letter ends with: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:6-7). Most significantly, Jesus turns their attention to the future blessings upon those who do overcome their coldness of heart; the promised reward of eternal life and fellowship with God in the new creation.
It would be naive for us to assume that the loveless condition that befell the Ephesian church is an issue of the past. I suspect that believers today are still susceptible to drifting away from our first love for God. Whether it’s a misplaced love that idolises theology or abundant service with an empty heart, these are spiritual issues still troubling the modern church. This is particularly noticeable amongst younger believers who discover Reformed theology and weaponize it to attack anyone who thinks otherwise. The typical symptoms of these ‘cage-stage’ Calvinists are typically their vigilance for correct doctrine, disregard for gentleness and dedication to winning theological arguments. In his book ‘Humble Calvinism’, Jeff Medders comments that “an arrogant and argumentative Calvinist is just a Pharisee with a fresh coat of paint”. The solution to this cannot be found through knowing more theology, serving in more ministries or chasing emotional experiences, the so-called ‘spiritual highs’. Just like the church of Ephesus, we need to see the gospel again with fresh eyes and remember our first love.
As we study the words of Christ to the church of Ephesus, we need to remember that they are not purely informative but fundamentally transformative. The exhortations in Revelation show us that while having true doctrine is important, this commitment to doctrine should always stem from the love of Christ and lead to love for one another.
Doctrinal Purity does Matter!
One remarkable aspect of Jesus’ response is how he affirms the Ephesians for not tolerating false teachings, a struggle amongst the other churches. Perhaps now more than ever we need to safeguard orthodox biblical teaching from erroneous liberalism or prosperity theology. There is nothing wrong with refuting incorrect doctrine but this must be done in a manner of love and kindness. Paul instructs Timothy that “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). Our acts of teaching, correcting and rebuking from the Bible must never be to bolster our own pride but rather to build up one another in love. Pray that we might display godly humility as we handle God’s truth.
Doctrine Comes from Love
The Christian life is so much more than knowing the right things and doing the right things, it is also about loving the right things. The Ephesians had practically mastered the first two categories, yet neglected the most important one. As stated in 1 John 4:6-7, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love”. Furthermore, he continues to emphasise that God’s love is most vividly demonstrated through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Their lack of love only highlights their insufficient understanding of who God truly is. No amount of theological knowledge can replace a genuine relationship with God, evidenced by love. Pray that we might fix our eyes on Jesus who set down his life for us in love.
Doctrine Leads to Love
Our vertical relationship with God should always flow out in love through our horizontal relationships with one another. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he urges them to “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). While we were enemies to God, Christ reconciled us to himself by his blood. Christians of all people are able to be quick to forgive, knowing that we’ve been forgiven of all our sins. Moreover, a greater comprehension of theology should drive us towards evangelism and fellowship. Knowing the doctrines of grace ought to motivate us all the more towards showing grace to one another. Pray that we might reflect the grace that we have been shown in Christ by our love for one another.
Paul prayed for the Ephesian believers to be established in love so that they might “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18). We see this through Jesus’ encouragement to the church of Ephesus but also through his call for their repentance. They needed to reclaim their first love again, and persist in the work of the gospel. For many of us, this may mean honest examination of where our love really lies. Only then will our doctrine help us better appreciate the love of God and better live out our love for one another.
- Medders. J.A (2019) Humble Calvinism.