Why does Jesus begin this way with each church? Because they need to “see” Christ first, before they serve Him. In other words, before your service has any meaning you must know the One whom you are serving.
We are going to a city that was the most important city in the region: the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was located in what is now the country of Turkey. It was a city renowned for architecture, political and economic power. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame was that it was the location of the great temple of Artemis. Ephesus was the city to be in.
Now on his 2nd missionary journey the Apostle Paul entered this city and established the first church Ephesus had ever seen. It became a strong church, well established. It was the leading church out of the 7 churches. We can be sure of this for 2 reasons. First, they are the first church Jesus addresses. In the Bible, whoever is listed first is typically the first ranking. Second, according to Acts 19 Paul came to Ephesus first, and then from Ephesus the word of God spread to other areas. These other six churches in Revelation were probably started because of Ephesus.
Let us stop off at Ephesus and see now what our Lord wanted them know.
#1: Lampstands (v1)
Notice first that Jesus identifies Himself in a special way in verse 1, “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.”
This is very fascinating to read. Each church receives a message from Jesus, and each message begins with Jesus identifying Himself in a different way. Now if you look closely, you will see that the way Jesus identifies Himself to these churches is the way He appeared to John in chapter 1. John saw Jesus walking among the 7 lampstands holding 7 stars in His right hand, and, that is how Jesus identifies Himself to the Ephesians. Then, in chapter 1, Jesus said to John in verse 17 and 18, “I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!” And that is how Jesus identifies Himself to the next church, Smyrna in chapter 2 verse 8, “These are the words of Him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” And the pattern goes on like that for all the churches.
Why does Jesus begin this way with each church? Because they need to “see” Christ first, before they serve Him. In other words, before your service has any meaning you must know the One whom you are serving. This is the pattern throughout Scripture. Before God gives people any commands He shows them who He is first. Take the Ephesians for instance. You will remember that the book of Ephesians is 6 chapters long. However, in the first 3 chapters you will not find one single command for Christian living. Instead you will only find a magnificent description of who Christ is and what He has done. It is only after we understand who Christ is, that is we “see” Him in chapters 1-3, do we then read in chapters 4-6 how we are supposed to live. It is in the last 3 chapters of the book that we read many directives for God-honoring living. Here is the lesson: Our service to Christ must come from our seeing Him. And it would be equally important to say this: our service is only worthy when we see Him for all He is worth. For, to serve Him without knowing Him is nothing more than hollow religion and rules. Service is always to a Person, not to an impersonal code of conduct.
But I want us to learn something about the way Jesus identifies Himself to Ephesus, as the one who walks among the lampstands and holding the 7 stars in His right hand.
First, Jesus is there. Jesus is not absent. He is pictured here as in the midst of His churches. The lampstands we learn in chapter 1 refer to the churches. What we see here is that Jesus is not ignorant of where His churches are and what they are doing. He sees His Church, hears His Church, and knows His Church. There this omnipresence about Him here, like there is nowhere we can be without Him. The Psalmist said in Psalm 139:7-10, “Where can I go from Your Spirit, where can I go from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there you hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” What do we see in Revelation but Jesus holding in His hand the 7 stars of the 7 churches.
He said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church”, and, therefore, He is attentive with all His perception to the state of His church. This picture of Jesus among the lampstands is a promise to us that He is always near, always “at hand”. He is a God whose pleasure is in being close by. What was the very last sentence in the Gospel of Matthew? Jesus said, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” We are never alone.
#2: Labor (v2, 3, 6)
Notice secondly the Labor. The church of Ephesus was commended for its labor. Lets look at verses 2, 3, and 6 to see what their labor was exactly that Jesus Christ praised them for. “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but ar not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
Let us notice 3 types of labor.
First, they seemed to be very active in doing good deeds. The first thing Jesus says in verse 2 is, “I know your deeds…” Good deeds are an essential part of the Christian life. Good deeds can never save anyone, they are for those who are already saved. As a matter of fact, 30 years earlier when the Ephesian church received another letter, from the Apostle Paul, he told them in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” In other words, good deeds do not result in salvation, but, rather, salvation results in good deeds. Paul said in Titus 3:14, “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good.” Ephesus was a place where people were doing just that.
Application: Do good deeds because you know you are saved, not because you hope to be saved by them. That’s what Philippians 2:12 means when it says
“work out your salvation…” Let the grace of God towards you create a thankful heart and therefore a motivation to serve Him with your heart.
The 2nd kind of labor we can notice is their discernment. Notice what the end of verse 2 says, “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” Ephesus was a church that was 2nd to none in matters of doctrine and discernment. Do you know the difference between doctrine and discernment? Doctrine refers to the teachings of Scripture, the teachings of spiritual truth. Ephesus studied Scripture and they knew the Bible. They knew God’s truth.
Discernment however refers to the use of Biblical truths to test things and find out if they are true or false. Discernment is the use of Biblical truth that you already know to prove whether or not what you’re hearing or reading is true or false. Ephesus had people coming into town claiming to be Apostles and claiming to speak the truth. As a matter of fact, 40 years earlier this church was told by Paul to be discerning. In Acts 20:28-31 listen to what he said to the leaders of the church [read]. Did they do what Paul said to do? Well, 40 years later when they received a word from Jesus they were commended for doing exactly what Paul told them to do.
Application #1: Test all things. Yesterday I did what is one of my favorite things to do: I went bird hunting. I love it because of the dogs. They are pointing dogs. In other words, they race around the field looking for birds, which to the human senses are impossible to find. But the dogs can smell them. And when they smell them these pointing dogs will stop dead in their tracks and point their noses right at the location of the bird. Lots of times you can barely see the bird even when you’re standing right where the dog is pointing, but, that nose is powerful and doesn’t lie. We need to be like pointers, with well trained noses, and when we catch the scent of false teachers or teachings we need to “point” it out. It takes training by the word of God to be able to distinguish truth from error, because lots of time the error likes to hide in the “cover” of truth. Blending in and hard to recognize. Let the word of God train you to tell the difference.
Application #2: Choose your teachers carefully. The Ephesians didn’t listen to every bum who rolled into town claiming to be an apostle or teacher from God. In verse 6 Jesus commends them for rejecting the teachings of the Nicolaitans. Only a couple verses later Jesus would rebuke the church of Pergamum for listening to the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans, and then rebukes the church of Thyatira for listening to “that woman Jezebel”. This means choose the preachers you listen to, the books you read, the blogs you read, carefully. Don’t just read something and put stock in it because the book came from Family Christian Bookstore. Don’t believe it because the author says they are a Christian. There are many imposters out there. You must be a Berean. What does that mean? The Bereans were the Christians from the city of Berea in Acts 17:11. It says that they tested what they heard the Apostle Paul say by comparing his sermons to the Scriptures. They weren’t taking Paul’s word for it just because he said he was an apostle. Neither did the Ephesians, and neither should we. I love what one sister said to me recently, “I’m sick of what other people say about the Bible, just give me the word of God and only the word.”
The 3rd kind of labor they had going for them was their disgust with the Nicolaitans. Verse 6 Jesus tells them they’re doing a good job by hating the practices of the Nicolaitans. Who are the Nicolaitans and what practices were they promoting? We are not sure who the Nicolaitans were, but, we may have an indication of what they taught in verse 15. In verse 15 it starts out by saying “Likewise…” In other words, what is going to be said in verse 15 is similar to what was just said in verse 14. There is a similarity between verse 14 and 15. What did verse 14 say? Read it with me, “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teachings of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.” Then verse 15 says, “Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teachings of the Nicolaitans.” The word likewise indicates that the 2 sins mentioned in verse 14 were likewise being taught by the Nicolaitans in verse 15. What were those 2 sins? Eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. If these are the things that the Nicolaitans were teaching and promoting, then notice that Jesus praises the Ephesian church for hating those practices.
It brings out the principal for us that as Christians, we are to love what God loves and hate what God hates.
Application: Christians are not supposed to tolerate everything. What does that mean? Does that mean that we are mean and nasty? No. It means that we don’t allow certain things to be taught and we don’t allow certain behaviors which are most certainly against the word of God. Notice what Jesus says there again in verse 2, “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men…” And Jesus is saying that is a good thing. But notice what Jesus says then in verse 6, “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Then notice in verse 20, while speaking to Thyatira, Jesus rebukes them and says, “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel…” We don’t tolerate everything and we don’t tolerate everyone.
In today’s world it seems that the worst kind of person is a Christian who is intolerant of certain teachings and behaviors because he is standing on God’s word. Apparently to the world an intolerant Christian is some sort of contradiction. The only real enemy today is a Christian who won’t agree everything the world around says she should agree with. People have this idea that if a Christian is intolerant of something that they are acting contrary to what a Christians is supposed to be like. It’s like a Christian is supposed to be like whatever the world around thinks a Christian should be like. But what we are like is not chartered by the world but by the word of God. And as we read the Bible we see that we are not to tolerate certain things. We love what Jesus loves and hate what Jesus hates, and Jesus is saying here that it is to their credit that the Ephesians hate what was going on with the Nicolaitans. (We’ll get to them in a moment).
Let us at EFC be commended by the Lord for our good deeds, our discernment, and our disgust with sin.