What if out of the blue you received a misdirected email that read:
Dear Ann, Thanks for having us over the other night. Your Chicken Marsala was fantastic. I do hope that Missy is feeling better. Anyway, we heard from Paul and he told us more about what’s happening in Atlanta. It’s worse than I told you. The curious thing is that Paul doesn’t sound too concerned. Keep us in your prayers. Hugs and Kisses, Sissy,
As we read the wayward email some things are clear while others remain a mystery. We know they had some kind of get together and they had Chicken Marsala. Missy isn’t feeling well but we don’t know who Missy is. Something is happening in Atlanta which is troubling and Paul, whom they both know, is in the middle of it. In order to make sense of things, we might try to read between the lines, applying our own experiences to fill in the missing parts. Reading Jesus’ letters to the seven churches of Asia is kind of like reading a misdirected email. There is much that is understood between the sender and the recipient that needs no explanation. While we aren’t as clueless as we are with Sissy’s email to Ann, there are still some blanks that we can only wonder about.
To the church at Ephesus Jesus said, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. ‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. ‘Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’” (Revelation 2:1–7, NASB95) As we go through the seven letters we will look at Jesus’ commendation, correction, and promise to each one.
Jesus commends the Ephesian church for their steadfastness. They grasped the plow and never let go even when the ground was rocky and unyielding. Jesus talks about their perseverance, endurance, their toil, and labor, especially in the area of guarding the flock. At a tearful gathering in Miletus Paul warned the Ephesian elders, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” (Acts 20:28–31, NASB95) Based on Jesus’ letter it appears that they took the Apostle Paul’s warning to heart. They guarded against many outside influences that warred against their faith. For instance, we know that idol worship, specifically of Artemis, was strong in Ephesus. There was also witchcraft (Acts 19:18-19) along with a strong and somewhat belligerent Jewish community. Sometime later a group called the Nicolaitans came around. To be honest, we don’t know much about them, but they come up twice in the seven letters. All we know so far is that Jesus hated what they were doing. There were also inside dangers. Folks came around claiming to be apostles and followers of Jesus which were really wolves seeking to “fleece the flock”. I wonder if the Ephesians felt like they were under surrounded and under siege.
Jesus also corrected the Ephesians. Somewhere along the line, they had left their first love and the deeds they did earlier in their walk with Jesus. Perhaps a siege mentality that focused on survival crept in and pulled them away from their first love. Or perhaps their hearts grew calloused and numb through the wear and tear of battle. Like the hands of the farmer that works the plow. Jesus was clear that their love and their deeds had changed and that He was grieved to the point of removing them from fellowship. There are two main schools of thought concerning Jesus’ warning. One maintains that Jesus meant their love for one another, something that Paul commended them for in his letter, “For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints,” (Ephesians 1:15, NASB95) Another school of thought puts Jesus’ words into the context of the love between a man and woman. In modern-day vernacular – their fire had gone out and they were just going through the motions. Either way, the problem was serious enough to merit the warning of losing their place among the churches unless they turned from the way they were going.
The promise that Jesus gave the overcomers at Ephesus was that they would be granted the right to eat from the Tree of Life. This Tree of Life is not a picture of the earth’s biodiversity. Neither is it some mystical understanding of the cycle of death and life. Jesus is specifically referencing the second tree in the Garden of Eden. The first tree was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which Adam and Eve were told not to eat from but did anyway. The Tree of Life also stood in the Garden of Eden and now stands in heaven. Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden, in part, so that they could not eat of its fruit and live forever in their broken condition. (see Genesis 3:22-24) It is important to remember that Adam and Eve’s sin broke humanity’s relationship with God. Jesus’ primary mission was to restore that relationship. I believe that Jesus’ promise to the overcomers unlocks His letter to the Ephesians for us.
The lesson I see in Jesus’ letter to the Ephesian church for us is all about relationships. The Ephesians had done well at guarding right teaching and doctrine (orthodoxy) but somewhere along the way they forgot or walked away from right doing (orthopraxy). In other words, they became religious. The form and function of doing church had replaced the realities of being the church. We too can fall prey to the same problem. We can get so caught up in doing that we forget that following Jesus is all about being. We, in essence, walk away from the harder road of real connection, real relationship, with God and choose the easier way of living off of a checklist. Now, Jesus did not tell the Ephesians to stop doing those things he commended them for, but he wanted them done with a heart of love. We should guard our hearts and test those who teach in Jesus’ name (including this website). But, we must also guard our hearts against the complacency of doing out of habit along with guarding against the hardness, callousness, and numbness that comes from battle. Defensive walls have their place, however, Jesus never called us to stay behind them in fear or to stand atop them in judgment. Jesus has ordered us instead to extend His kingdom of love, light, and life anywhere in our world that brokenness, darkness, and death remain.