Revelation 2:1-7 – Ephesus

The Turkish archaeological site of Ephesus was...
Ephesus today

2:1  “To the angel of the assembly in Ephesus, a name which according to many scholars means “beloved.”  Ephesus was the capital of the province of Asia, and had a population of nearly a quarter of a million people.  It had a marvelous natural harbor that made it a favored port-of-call for ships from every nation bordering the Mediterranean.  This harbor eventually filled with silt brought by the river because of the clear-cutting of the nearby woods, which led to the decline and ruin of the city.  It was also known for the temple of Artemis, or Diana, which was one of the original Seven Wonders of the World.  Paul spent about three years there before being forced out by a riot started by the local silversmiths, who found their living selling shrines of Artemis to be threatened by the new faith (Acts 19).  Later, Timothy was stationed there as the elder of that church.  According to early Church tradition, the Apostle John spent his final years in Ephesus, where he wrote his Gospel account and epistles.  One commentator has observed, “So many people became converts to Christ that almost overnight the church became one of the most powerful influences in the city and soon one of the most famous churches in the world” (Halley’s, p. 916).  It is not too much to say that Ephesus represented the heart of the first-century Ekklesia’s ministry to the Gentiles.

Yeshua commands John to write:  “He who holds the seven stars in his right hand, he who walks among the seven golden menorahs, representing all of the sects of His followers that would appear in the coming centuries, says these things:

2:2  “I know your works the first commendation given to any assembly that merits it, and your toil and perseverance, and that you can’t tolerate evil men, the haughty and conceited (Psa. 101:5), or anyone who is called a brother who is a sexual sinner, or covetous, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner (1Co. 5:11), and have tested those who call themselves emissaries, for you listened to the warning of the Apostle Paul, “I know that after my departure, vicious wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock.  Men will arise from among your own selves, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.  Therefore watch, remembering that for a period of three years I didn’t cease to admonish everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:29-31).  And having tested them, found that they are not true Apostles at all, and found them false. 

2:3  You have perseverance showing that you are the good soil, these are such as in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, hold it tightly, and bring forth fruit with preserverence (Luke 8:15) and are laboring (kekopiakas) to the point of exhaustion for my name’s sake, and have not grown weary, (kekuekas) have not fainted or fallen sick.

2:4  But I have this against you, that you left your first love.  “First” (proten) can mean first in time, or first in quality; here, the latter meaning is clear.

Yeshua Himself, when asked to name the greatest commandment, said, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the first and great commandment.  A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole Torah and the Prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mat. 22:37-40).  His brother Jacob called the command to love our neighbor the royal law, according to the Scripture (Jas. 2:8).  Likewise, Paul uses the word “love” fifteen times in the epistle to the Ephesians alone, and of this love wrote to the Corinthians,

If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing.  If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.  Love is patient and is kind; love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will be done away with. Where there are various languages, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be done away with.  (1Co. 13:1-8)

How then were they leaving their first love?  It was not a growing emotional coldness, but a fall from the urgency of obedience.  Yeshua Himself said, “If you love me, keep my commandments. . .  One who has my commandments, and keeps them, that person is one who loves me. One who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will reveal myself to him” (John 14:15, 21).  And lest we think that the commandment of Yeshua is somehow a different commandment than that given by the Eternal One, John wrote, By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments.  For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not burdensome (1Jn. 5:2-3).

That love expressed in our obedience and actions is intended, our Master goes on to make clear when He says, 2:5  Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the first works; not that works save, but that works are the natural fruit of salvation and love joined together.  When the Ephesians began to follow Messiah and after His judgment for the misuse of His Name was demonstrated against the sons of Sceva, Fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Yeshua was magnified. Many also of those who had believed came, confessing, and declaring their deeds. Many of those who practiced magical arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. They counted their price, and found it to be fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing and becoming mighty (Acts 19:17-20).  Just a century later, the fathers of the Church objected to the keeping of the commandments:

For we too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you—namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter XVIII)

So hardened was the Gentile Church becoming against the commandments of the Eternal One written in the Torah that their best apologists did not even recognize the words of Messiah Himself.  For where Justin says that the Sabbath was given in punishment for the hardness of the Jewish heart, Yeshua says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

They must repent again, He warns them, or else I am coming to you swiftly, and will move your lampstand out of its place, unless you repent.  This curious threat, not repeated to any other assembly, must be understood in the light of the menorah, so to speak.

The Seven Assemblies, read right-to-left

Hebrew, like all languages originating east of Jerusalem, is written right to left, not left to right as with those west of Jerusalem.  Therefore, when we visualize these seven lampstands, Ephesus would be the lamp on the right.  In the Tabernacle, in which the menorah was set opposite the table on the side of the tabernacle toward the south (Exo. 26:35), the rightmost lamp was closest to the Holy of Holies, which lay to the west.  Now it so happens that in the forty years before the destruction of the Second Temple, the following signs were observed:

Forty years before the destruction of the sanctuary, the lot did not come up in the right hand, and the thread of crimson never turned white, and the westernmost light never shone, and the doors of the courtyard would open by themselves, until Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai rebuked them. He said, “Temple, Temple, why will you yourself give the alarm [that you are going to be destroyed? You don’t have to, because] I know that in the end you are destined to be destroyed. For Zechariah b. Eido has already prophesied concerning you: ‘Open your doors, Lebanon, that fire may devour your cedars’ (Zec. 11: 1).  (b.Yoma 39b, see our commentary on this passage in A Response to Rabbi Singer re: Yoma 39b)

The ruins of love lost

Just as the westmost light of the menorah of the Temple, which was closest to the Holy of Holies, went out as a warning to the priests—those who were supposed to be closest to the Holiness of Hashem—that they too were about to be put out, so Ephesus, which had received so many Apostles and their disciples, and had been prepared for them by those discipled into John’s immersion (Acts 19:3), and which represents the Ekklesia closest to the Most Holy Servant of the Eternal—Yeshua the Messiah—is threatened with the same loss of its light, if it does not repent.

2:6  But this you have, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate most likely an untranslated compound Greek word, from nikao, which means to conquer or overthrow or have victory against (seen in the name of the Greek goddess Nike, whose name graces hundreds of millions of sneakers in America today) and laos, which means the laity, the common people.  In other words, the Nicolaitans are those who “overthrow the laity,” those who espoused a special elite to rule over the “lesser” believers.  Irenaeus, writing in the second century, refers to John refuting the error of Cerinthus, which had been held “a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that ‘knowledge’ falsely so called . . .”[1]  In other words, these heretics were an early Gnostic sect. 

2:7  He who has an ear, let him hear and obey what the Spirit says to the assemblies. To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life in contrast to the tree of the personal and intimate knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17), which is in the Paradise, the orchard or garden, of my God, even as Yeshua told the thief on the cross besides His who trusted in Him, “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  Paul tells us that he himself (whether in the body, I don’t know, or whether out of the body, I don’t know; God knows) was caught up into the third heaven . . . into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter (2Co. 2:2, 4).  This very Paradise is that which John himself will see beginning in chapter 4.

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.11.1

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