The Sin of the Ephesians
Contained within the book of Revelation, chapters two and three, are Jesus’ instructions to the seven churches. These churches were literal churches in the Apostle John’s day, but they also represent the spiritual conditions of the church throughout the ages to this present time. While the spiritual conditions illustrated for us in these chapters are representative of the individual spiritual state of the believers in those churches, (and many can operate in one church body simultaneously) we are also being shown a portrait of the church’s descent into the prophesied apostasy (II Thessalonians 2:3).
In the book of Acts we see the church portrayed for us in her zealous infancy, and in the book of Revelation we watch her pitiful descent into the liberal church of Sardis and the lukewarm, complacent church of Laodicea, with Philadelphia’s remaining faithful remnant sandwiched in between.
Every ending has to have a beginning, so in order to understand how the church began her descent into apostasy; we need to return to the gates of the Lord’s church at Ephesus.
We suddenly find ourselves part of that thriving congregation. On the surface it seems we are doing everything right. We are extremely busy and involved in a variety of church activities. We are bound and determined to rid ourselves of the false apostles in our midst. Maintaining sound doctrine is a priority. We abhor evil and find ourselves campaigning against it at every opportunity. We have become zealous spiritual policemen, fighting to maintain the highest standards of holiness in ourselves and in others.
We have assembled ourselves for worship, eagerly waiting to hear the word that has been sent to us from the Apostle John. Our pastor unfolds the parchment and begins to read the message that the Lord Jesus has given to us through the Apostle.
The pastor clears his throat and begins to read. “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things says He that holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know your works, and your labor, and your patience, and how you can not bear them which are evil: and you have tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and have found them liars: And have borne, and have patience, and for my name's sake have labored, and have not fainted.”
The pastor looks up from his reading and grins at us all and we return his exuberant expression. It seems we are all doing pretty well. Several members of the congregation nod at each other knowingly.
The pastor returns his gaze to the paper and resumes. The jovial tone of his voice suddenly becomes somewhat more somber as he reads, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come to you quickly, and will remove your candlestick (church) out of this place, except you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:1-6).
At least the Lord shares with us a mutual aversion of the Nicolaitanes, those compromised perpetrators of false doctrine within the church, but we all have been issued a warning at the same time. We could lose our church if we don’t return to our “first love.”
We have been told that these are “works” that we have descended from. It was something that we used to do. One of the deacons asks, “Does He say exactly what those first works are that we’re supposed to be doing?”
The pastor studies the letter carefully, turning around in his hands as if he is searching for some secret code. “No,” he replies, and he is disturbed. As pastor of this congregation there is something vitally important that he has neglected to impart to his flock.
The Lord has not been that specific with us, but He has given us some clues and as is His custom we are expected to seek and then we will find. So we will leave the congregation in their perplexity for a moment and return to the book of Acts which chronicles the beginning of the Christian church, because we have been told to “remember.”
We find ourselves beholding the instant when one hundred and twenty believers were all struck at the same time by spiritual lightening. We watch it explode into the forest of men with a fiery zeal that knew nothing else but to proclaim that Jesus died and rose from the dead to save us from our sins and give us eternal life. The resulting flames of this proclamation added three thousand souls to the Lord’s bonfire in one day, and His church was born. - Acts 2:41
Surrounding this holy first century apostolic conflagration, was the rubble of the world around them; a world filled with pagan idolatry, and heinous religious practices. Idols were worshipped through sex acts with temple prostitutes. Homosexuality was encouraged in the military. The government was in complete control and demanded worship of its Caesars.
The Apostles and the other believers, who had been ignited by the flames of God’s Holy Spirit, were Jews, an oppressed minority within this kingdom of oppressive evil. Suddenly filled with a holy power sent to them by the God of the universe through the Messiah Jesus, the apostles used this power for only one purpose. They were not interested in reforming their government; they were focused on reforming hearts through the proclamation of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Out of all those pagan religions theirs was the only Truth - the Messiah had been crucified and had risen from the dead to bestow eternal life on all who would believe. They had their marching orders from Above. They were to bring souls into the kingdom of God, and disciple those souls into living replicas of their Lord who had given His life to eliminate the sins of mankind. These were the “works” of the first century church. The “first love” of those believers was to obey their God and fulfill their heavenly commission of expanding the Kingdom of their Lord with multitudes of the souls He loved and died for.
The apostles and the believers of that first anointing had been translated into a different world and they no longer called the earth their home. They had been given the tangible reality of a Life that had been resurrected from the dead, verifying the existence of a heavenly realm where death had no power. They had been made citizens of a better world, a heavenly kingdom. They viewed themselves as ambassadors from that domain sent to represent the One who had sent them to proclaim the wonderful news of God’s love to those who remained trapped within the confines of a world that has been designed to fail without God.
As we behold the church being born within the pages of the book of Acts, we become filled with a fiery zeal ourselves and realize that there is nothing on this earth more important than that heavenly proclamation.
Now that we understand, we hurry back to the gates of Ephesus eager to share what we have discovered only to find that the gates to that church are no longer there. The church that held so much promise had been removed and disbanded, just like our Lord had told them would happen if they failed to heed His warning. Apparently they had returned to business as usual and without the Gospel as its purpose, there is really no reason for the church to exist. The first work of the church became secondary to other issues, and no matter how worthy those issues are, they are not the primary reason for the church’s existence.
Sadly, we watch her decent as she begins to marry foreign wives, embracing man-inspired doctrines above the words of our Lord, (Pergamos) paving the way for the Jezebel sprit of compromise to infiltrate the congregations (Thyatira) resulting in liberal doctrines where Jesus is no longer proclaimed as the only Way to the Father, jeopardizing the salvation of multitudes (Sardis). The ensuing complacency (Laodicea) cannot bear the discomfort of maintaining an unpopular cause to a world that has become more important to her than her Lord that died to free her from the bondages of this life that she seems to prefer.
We watch the Philadelphian remnant, the spiritual descendant of Smyrna’s faithful martyrs, sadly walk among these ruins. There amid the dying ashes she retrieves a Book, long forgotten and mis-used. She retrieves it for her own and embraces the Gospel as if she is discovering it for the first time. As she reads, the ashes at her feet begin to burn red again. There is hope.
Remember, and do the first works.
Related features -
Seven Flames - The Spiritual Conditions of the Seven Churches
The Three Pillars of the First Century Christian Church
Copyright 2012 by H.D. Shively