The name Ephesus means desirable and was a fitting name for a city that was a teeming and vibrant metropolis, advantageously situated for trade and commerce. The letter to the church at Ephesus covers the period of church history directly linked to the early church when the apostles were still alive.
Each of the messages to the seven churches followed a specific formula. The message began with a commendation, a word of encouragement to uplift the church and spur them on. It progressed to reproof as Jesus pointed out to the people he loved where they were going wrong in their walk with him. Then Jesus offered them counsel, a way back from where they were to where they were supposed to be and finally he ended the message with a promise. A word of hope to those who were willing to make the choice to turn their vessel around and chart a different course.
The messages to the churches were not only meant for the church they were written to but also pointed to a specific epoch of church history. The church of Ephesus pointed to the early church, the church of the apostles when the work of the gospel was still new and conquering untouched frontiers.
The city of Ephesus was often dubbed the City of Change mostly because of the shifting character of the site on which the city was built. This idea of constant change is a good portrayal of the nature of the early church.
Writing about the environment in which the early church was birthed Roy Allan Anderson comments “...no period in history has witnessed more drastic changes in human thought...the revolutionary message Jesus brought challenged every system of thought. Nothing could impede the progress of Christianity.”
In the case of Ephesus, the message begins with praise for their tireless zeal for mission. When John wrote to the church at Ephesus, Timothy was most likely its pastor. Much like its pastor the church was unrelenting in its spread of the gospel. It was a working church, devoted to spreading the gospel and revolutionizing the world.
We could all take a page out of Ephesus’ book. To serve God with wholehearted zeal is not only commendable it’s a goal worthy of emulation. There’s something deeply fulfilling about serving God and seeing Him change people’s lives for the better. If you haven’t tried it you should. It can get extremely addictive.
In addition to their hardworking zeal, the Ephesian church had another thing going for them; they hated the deed of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans were a quasi-spiritual group within the church who believed that it was not necessary to reign in the desires of the flesh as dictated by the moral law. In many ways they were the beatniks of their day; bent on pure hedonistic pleasure as long as they didn’t really hurt anyone.
Moving on from the commendation Jesus expressed his disapproval of the spiritual state of the church. He told them that they had lost their first love. They were busy, feverishly active in their desire to serve God but their hearts were not driven by love for their savior.
We’re not told exactly what motivated them. There could have been several plausible reasons; religiosity and a love of being busy for the sake of being busy could have been among them. But one thing was for certain, they were busy because they were burning up with love for Jesus.
The message to the Ephesians should give us a moment’s pause to ask a really pertinent question; how can a church be busy for Jesus if they don’t love Him? How is it possible to be an active Christian without really being in love with Jesus?
Their devotion to God had grown cold and ritualistic. Like a marriage stuck in a rut. A relationship grown comfortable in its own skin and lacking that vital spark needed to keep it going. Interaction with each other becomes as mundane as brushing your teeth and about as exciting too.
But Jesus wanted more for His people. He still does. He doesn’t want our relationship with him to grow stale and musty. An essential but somewhat lifeless component of our daily lives. Jesus wants our relationship with him to be alive, vibrant, and buzzing with the spark of new love.
Jesus then tells the Ephesians what they need to do. Interestingly he doesn’t tell them to stop what they're doing. Activity is not really the issue, motivation is. He gives them three words; remember, repent, return.
He tells them to remember the first works. Remember what it was like when you first got to know Jesus when you first fell in love with Him when your walk with Him was vibrant and new. Remember. Sometimes it’s good to take a moment to sit down and remember why we are Christians. Why we want to walk with Jesus. Surely it isn’t because we have nothing better to hold on to? Surely it’s because we have tasted and seen for ourselves what God has to offer us and we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing better than the world can offer us.
Remember your first love experience with Jesus.
But John doesn’t leave it at that. He urges them to remember and then repent. To acknowledge that they have fallen off the wagon, wandered off track, and gotten lost in the woods. He urges them to turn around. To come back. To start again.
Knowing you’re on the wrong track and making a choice to turn around are two different things. We can know we’re wrong and yet still keep going in the wrong direction out of habit, stubbornness, or sheer stupidity.
Jesus tells the Ephesians; Remember the first works and while you're remembering turn around and come back home.
Remember. Repent. Return.
Jesus also helps them to understand the consequences of their actions. If they choose not to repent and return he tells them that they will lose their place. Every action has an equal opposite reaction. Our choices have consequences.
Something I really appreciate about the character of God is His willingness to not only explain our sins to us but also help us to understand the consequences of those sins. In Isaiah 1:18 God says “come now and let us reason together says the Lord…”
God wants to reason with us. To lay the facts before us. To tell us exactly where we are in relation to where we are supposed to be and to then help us to understand what will happen to us if we’re unwilling to retrace our steps.
When we have all the pertinent information he then steps back and gives us the space to make an informed decision.
But Jesus doesn’t just leave the Ephesians with reproof and then counsel. He also leaves them with a promise and with hope.
“To him that overcometh,” he says “will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
The Greeks at Ephesus venerated trees as objects of worship. This was true in other parts of Greece. For example, when the Persians burned Athens, the sacred olive tree on the Acropolis burned along with it. When the first shoots peeked out of the soot-blackened stump the citizens of Athens hailed it as an omen of the prosperity of the state.
When Jesus talks about the tree of life he is directing the minds of the Ephesians to something more sacred and eternal than the myths of pagan legend. He is telling them that those who follow Him have the assurance of something far more enduring than anything the world around them has to offer. He is telling them that there is a reward for the overcomer. Always remember that. In the case of the Ephesians, the reward was the promise of eating from the tree of life, the promise of heaven, and an eternity with Jesus.
The same is true of us. If we are willing to hear the reproofs of Jesus to our own hearts. To remember, repent and return we may have the assurance that there is a reward. The reward he promised the Ephesians is ours; access to the tree of life and the eternal paradise of God.
Remember. Repent. Return.