Summary: Jesus' message to the church at Ephesus reminds us of the need to love Jesus and each other.
There were once two newlyweds on their honeymoon. They were taking a train ride cross country. The bride was becoming a little self conscious about all the fanfare of being a new married couple. She just wanted some quiet time alone with her new husband, so she came up with a plan.
She said to her husband, “Oh John! In the next town let’s pretend we are an old married couple that has been together for a long time. Can we do this my love?” The husband scratched his head perplexed and confused, because he didn’t want to look like he wasn’t considerate of his new bride. But going along with her request with a smile as big as a sunrise, he spoke out to his bride with a boyish grin. “OK honey… when we get off the train at the next stop YOU CARRY the suitcases.”
This morning we’re going to look at a picture of a church that had become a lot like many married couples who have advanced well beyond the honeymoon stage and who no longer exhibit that spark that was present when they first fell in love. But before we do that, let’s take a moment to set the stage.
Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation consist of a series of seven messages from Jesus to seven different churches. In a sense, this section of Revelation almost seems out of place. We expect to go from the magnificent vision of Jesus in chapter 1 to the vision of heaven in chapters 4 and 5 and then on to the visions of the events of the end times through chapter 19 and finally on to the Millennial reign and the new heavens and the new earth in chapters 19-22. In fact, chapters 2 and 3 seem so out of place to some so-called “Bible scholars” that they speculate that these two chapters weren’t even part of what Jesus revealed to John and that they were added in much later by another editor.
But since the gospel is never just for individuals, but for a body of people who live together in community, we shouldn’t really be surprised that the church appears at this point in the Revelation. Because that is where everything else we see in Revelation has to be lived out on a day-to-day basis. And because these churches consist of sinful humans, they are far from perfect. In general, we are introduced to churches that are not purely good nor are they purely evil. They are just real. As Eugene Peterson observes:
The churches of the Revelation show us that churches are not Victorian parlors where everything is always picked up and ready for guests. They are messy family rooms…Things are out of order, to be sure, but that is what happens to churches that are lived in. They are not show rooms. They are living rooms, and if the persons living in them are sinners, there are going to be clothes scattered about, handprints on the woodwork, and mud on the carpet. [Reversed Thunder, p. 54]
With a couple of notable exceptions, these seven churches are addressed by Jesus using a common format for each of the seven messages. Because that structure is so critical to our proper understanding of the messages, I’m going to take a little extra time this morning to explain it.
Structure of the messages to the seven churches:
Jesus begins by identifying the local church body to whom He is addressing the message. As we’ve pointed out previously, these were seven actual bodies of Christ followers that existed in what is now Western Turkey in the first century AD. They were not the only churches in that area, but as we saw earlier, Jesus chooses these seven for both practical and theological reasons.
Since the number seven represents completeness, there is a sense in which these seven churches together represent the universal church in its entirety. That seems to be confirmed at the end of each message when Jesus commands His audience to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches [plural].” So there is a sense in which all seven messages apply to every local body of believers. But at the same time, Jesus addresses specific issues in each local body to reinforce the concept that each local body is responsible for serving Him in a specific and unique manner.
Some commentators, based primarily on the notes in a commonly available study Bible, have take the position that these seven churches represent seven ages, or dispensations, within the church age that began on the day of Pentecost. Under that teaching, the church at Ephesus represents the apostolic church of the first century and Laodicea represents the apostate church that will exist just prior to the return of Jesus.