Summary: What can we learn today from the Church at Ephesus, one of the seven churches in Revaltion2 -3 ?
Many people are frightened by the book of Revelation, because it seems to be unintelligible. I hope that, if not tonight, by the end of this sermon series at Advent, you’ll see that not only is it reasonably easy, with some careful background reading (which I’ve done on your behalf), for Revelation to be intelligible, but that it’s also highly pertinent to the church and the world today. If you like crosswords, understanding some of Revelation is like solving a complex clue and seeing how all the parts fit together.
So, we begin looking at seven letters to seven churches with this part from chapter two of Revelation, a letter to the church in Ephesus. We have another one of those that we know as the letter to the Ephesians. It’s no surprise that the first of these letters in Revelation was to Ephesus. Ephesus was a hugely important commercial centre in the ancient world, situated at a confluence of roads and river. It was also a politically and judicially important city, and a city of religious importance. There are seven churches chosen because they represent all parts of the then known world, and seven was the perfect number to ancient peoples, so these letters were written to the whole church throughout the world.
We start off by hearing that Christ is the one who holds the seven stars in his hands and who walks among seven lamp-stands. These both represent the seven churches. The word in the Greek used for hold – and again reading this English we loose 90% of the subtleties – means to hold the whole of an object within the palm of one’s hand, rather like I might hold ping pong ball in my hand. So, God is holding the whole church in his hand. It’s not any one church, but the whole totality of the church, that God holds in his hand. Further, he walks among the seven lamp-stands, that is to say that Christ is present in every church. So long as we think of our church, our denomination, our tradition, we’re missing the point. Christ holds all the churches in the palm of his hand, and walks among every church.
Now, what can we tell about the Church at Ephesus?
Firstly, it’s a church full of energy. In verse two we hear about their works, their labour, their patience. In more detail, they didn’t just work, they worked until dropped. Ephesus wasn’t a place for passengers, those sat around, it was filled with people sweating and toiling for God in the Church. They weren’t just patience, they had incredible fortitude. When Beethoven’s terrible deafness descended on him, and blotted out lovely sounds that were his world, he said, “I will take life by the throat”. This is the energetic church of Ephesus.
Secondly, it’s a church that has preserved orthodox faith. It has made great efforts to discern between true and false, to test who was speaking the truth. The way that they tested this orthodoxy was by likeness to Christ, the only way to test a teacher.
So, they had energy in plenty and had been careful to preserve orthodoxy, but what was missing was love. If you like, they kept the letter of all the rules, but the spirit of them had passed them by completely. They were so busy with all their energy and their testing of people’s orthodoxy, that they’d forgotten about Christian love.
Why might this calamitous situation have arisen? Perhaps they were so busy heresy-hunting that they had simply forgotten what love meant, what love was about. If you like, this is the McCarthy situation, spending so much time and energy on something peripheral, that you miss the point completely. Strict orthodoxy can cost too much if it’s bought at the price of love.
An alternative idea is that they had passed their first enthusiasm if faith. They had been Christians for long enough for the novelty to have worn off. What might have happened is the old story. The institution took over. They became so concerned with the institution of the church that they forgot about Jesus and his message of love. The institution took over from the purpose for which it was there. These are two possibilities to account for their lack of love.
John, the author, reminds them that they continually need to repent. We often think repent means being sorry for things we’ve done, to feel regret or penitence about something. The Greek word, however, has a slightly different meaning: to change your mind; to decide to do something different from what you had been going to do. John reminds the church in Ephesus that it needs to continually stay close and his message, to repent. The penalty for not doing that is that the lamp-stand will be removed from its place. That is, a church that has ceased to shine for Christ has no purpose in the world.