A Missional Reading of the Letter to Ephesus

Throughout the book of Revelation, John reminds the church that her central task is holding firmly to and bearing faithfully the testimony of Jesus. They are to be the light to world, and through their Spirit empowered endeavors, God would bring the nations into his blessing. Add this to the missional impact of the books canonical placement and the reader can see how crucial the theme of God’s mission and the church’s participation in it is to the book. With this background the reader is in a better place to fully understand the missional nature of Jesus’ words to the seven churches.

Each of these short letters, which serve as short introductions to the book as a whole, contributes uniquely to the missional theme of the Apocalypse, and it is these contributions that will be the focus of the next few (seven) posts.

Ephesus is the first of the churches to be addressed. Yamauchi contends that Ephesus was the fourth most important city in the world at the time of John’s writing, only behind Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch in significance, boasting a population of about 250,000 people, and making it the most significant city in Asia Minor, as the title ‘Supreme Metropolis’ indicates. Ephesus’ was at the juncture of three major trade routes, served as the de facto capital city for Asia, and was an important center for trade and banking. Once an important harbor city, the shore now lies more than six miles from the edge of the city – a product of the silting at the mouth of the Cayster River that was a constant problem for the city of Ephesus.

While the city certainly included a Jewish community that enjoyed special privileges, as they did throughout the Asia Minor, the city’s pride in their pagan religion dovetailed with its civic pride in ways that would have made life as a religious non-conformist very trying – for the Jews and the Christians. The city was religiously zealous (see Acts 19) and was home to several important temples, including temples to two emperors, Augustus and Domitian. In fact, Ephesus had the privileged status of being νεωκόρος, “temple warden”, to the imperial cult of Domitian. Most notably though was the Artemision, or temple to the goddess Artemis (Roman Diana). The temple to Artemis was a massive structure, making it one of wonders of the ancient word, and employed thousands of priests and priestesses, many in the role of cult-prostitutes.

The church in Ephesus was likely established by Aquila and Priscila with the aid of Apollos (Acts 18) and later shepherded by Timothy. Ephesus had served as a strategic base of ministry for Paul and his traveling band of evangelists/church-planters for two years, and the city’s importance as a crossroads of travel, commerce, and politics positioned the church there to continue her role as mission outpost for Asia into the future.

Yet, the church was not without issues. From the biblical record, one could safely infer that the church struggled to find unity as Paul lays such a heavy emphasis on unity and oneness in Christ in his epistle. Also, false teaching had become a significant issue threatening the church by the time Paul wrote his letters to Timothy.

These internal concerns and external pressures continued to plague the Ephesian church at the time of John’s exile on Patmos and threatened to undermine the church’s effectiveness in her missional calling. Jesus’ words to this church reflect a deep concern that this church takes her task of being a witness seriously and bring the fullness of her life into alignment with that purpose.

The letter begins, as every subsequent letter will, with the command to write to “angel of the church” followed by the city name. In this letter to the Ephesians, Jesus identifies himself as the one “who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” This self-identification offers comfort and warning to the church. It is a comfort in that Jesus knows them intimately, is ever present in their midst, and holds them in his hand. Ladd points out that the word used in 2:1 for “hold”, κρατέω, is stronger than the word in 1:16, ἔχων, “indicating a firm grasp, indicating that Christ holds his churches firmly in his hand, that they should not be snatched away.”

Yet this is also a warning, for Jesus is in their midst watching them, observing how they live, aware of their successes and their failures. This awareness is made evident in the next verse when Jesus declares that he knows their works (or deeds). This is certainly more than just a passing knowledge of individual acts, good or bad, but denotes the “overall manner of life.” This overall manner of life includes their relentless hard work and endurance in the face of exhaustion, abiding hostility of the surrounding culture, and specifically the ongoing struggle against false teachers.

Jesus commends the church for recognizing the true nature of these false teachers as evil, not simply mistaken or ill-informed, and for not bearing with them. The church held up the teaching of these would-be apostles to the light of truth and proved them and their teaching to be false. This task of identifying and purging false teaching must be seen against the backdrop of the church’s mission, for true doctrine is closely linked with the church’s calling to bear witness. If the church’s message is corrupted or diluted they have failed to bear witness faithfully. Thus, contrary to the oft-expressed sentiment that concern for doctrine is petty and only gets in the way of doing the work of the church, the church that takes mission seriously must take doctrinal purity just as seriously. The church with a compromised message is a church with diminished power, for the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). The church, from its inception, has always “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), understanding that the story and its interpretation as passed on by the apostles was vital for the ongoing existence and missional success of the church.

By Jesus’ account, the Ephesians have been diligent in guarding this deposit of truth and have not indulged the false apostles or their wayward teaching. The church is commended for enduring patiently not having grown weary in standing up for the sake of Christ’s name. Yet, Jesus has a stern admonition for the Ephesian church. They have done the hard work of keeping their doctrine pure, and have patiently endured many things; yet, they have “abandoned they love they had at first”.

What was the nature of the churches defect? The text could be read to mean that they have abandoned the love that had for one another and allowed strife to poison the relationships within the church, maybe degenerating as far as open hostility to one another or possibly settling for mere coexistence. Alternatively, it could mean that they have abandoned the initial love they had for Christ and allowed their devotion to devolve into cold, dispassionate dogmatism. Commentators can be lined up on both sides of this, and Beale offers a third option, namely “that losing their ‘first love’ was tantamount to becoming unzealous witnesses.”

To some extent it is possible to hold all three positions. Love for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ is a key indication of the genuineness of one’s love for Christ (for example, see 1 John 4:7-8). Conversely, one’s love for Christ will naturally flow out into a love for one’s siblings in Christ. In other words, love in one dimension cannot fade without also betraying or leading to a lack of love in another dimension. Moreover, the love that Christians have for one another, which is a product of their love for Christ, will be a powerful witness to the world. Jesus instructs his followers, saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The love Christians share for one another has an unquestionable missional component to it. Even when the church turns its attention and affection inwardly, she does so in such a way that she bears witness to the world that they are Christ’s, whose love is sacrificial and open to all. Jesus’ assessment of their condition is followed by a call to repentance and action – “do the works you did at first”. If not, Jesus warns the church that their very existence as a church is in jeopardy.

Again, utilizing the imagery of the lampstand, Jesus threatens to come and remove theirs from its place. Their lovelessness compromises their mission to be his witnesses, which is the very reason for their existence. When the church ceases to serve its purpose, Christ will remove it from the rolls of his churches. Beale states it well, “They will cease to exist as a church when the very function that defines the essence of their existence is no longer performed.”

After again complimenting the church on its lack of tolerance for false teachers, specifically the Nicolaitans (detailed explanation of the false teaching will come in following posts), Jesus offers words of promise to the one who conquers (νικάω).

Overcoming or conquering certainly entails persevering in belief, but the context demands more. Overcoming includes persistence in the faith – denying Christ or abandoning belief would surely disqualify someone from being a conqueror and lead to a forfeiture of what is promised. But conquering also includes, for the Ephesian church, conquering the sin that threatens their ability to be a faithful witness, namely being lackluster in love. In other churches what must be overcome is different – sometimes it is immorality or idolatry, in several it is false teaching, in some churches it is sinful accommodation to the pagan culture, and in others it is the temptation to give in under persecution.

In all, overcoming is linked to being a faithful witness, even unto death, and is thus connected to their faithfulness to their God given mission. Here in Ephesus, the overcomers are granted “to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” This is a wonderful promise which reminds the church of God’s ultimate mission to redeem and restore all things and the assured success of God’s mission. Paradise will be restored and those who have been Christ’s faithful witnesses will be granted life in it. The church’s missional faithfulness is motivated, in part, by her confidence in the ultimate success of God’s mission and his promise to bless those who have partnered with him in it.