The messenger at Ephesus is commended for *rejecting false apostles, chastised for leaving his first love, and summoned to return to his first works.
In his exhortation to the “messenger” at Ephesus, Jesus begins by stressing his intimate knowledge of all the churches in Asia. He is “grasping” the seven messengers tightly in his right hand, and “walking” continuously among the seven assemblies. Therefore, he knows their “works and labor and endurance” – (Revelation 2:1-7).
Ephesus was the largest city in the province of Asia and its chief seaport and commercial center. But its most prominent feature was the Temple of Artemis or Diana, and the city was the provincial center for the worship of the emperor. It had temples dedicated to the emperor and Roma, the patron goddess of Rome. The marginalized Christian congregation would have been a tiny island of righteousness in a sea of paganism.
He praised the messenger for his “works and labor and endurance.” All three nouns occur again in the fourteenth chapter with the promise for saints who overcome. “Endurance” means persevering for Jesus, especially when suffering for his sake.
- (Revelation 14:12-13) – “Here is the endurance of the saints, they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus. And I heard the voice from heaven saying, Write, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth: yea, declares the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their works follow with them.”
That Jesus has praised the messenger for his “endurance” suggests strongly that he has suffered for his faith. And because “endurance” is linked with “works and labors” indicates he has persevered in doing the deeds that Christ expects of his servants.
Jesus commends the messenger for his faithfulness in rooting out “false apostles.” Exactly who these men were or what they taught is not stated. However, Jesus also acknowledged that the messenger “hates the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Undoubtedly, the “false apostles” were proponents of that group’s teachings.
The passage states that the messenger found these self-proclaimed apostles “false.” This represents the Greek noun pseudés, the same noun applied to the “beast from the earth,” the “false prophet” who used signs and wonders and economic sanctions to coerce men to render homage to the “beast.” The noun can also mean “liar” and is so used when warning that “all liars” will be cast into the “lake of fire,” presumably including the “false apostles” from Ephesus – (Revelation 13:11-15, 20:10, 21:8).
The teachings of the “Nicolaitans” are not described. The name is a compound of the Greek nouns niké (“victory”) and laos (“people”). It may denote “victory people,” “victory over people,” or “he who conquers people.” The latter sense is the likeliest, especially considering the later descriptions of the “beast” that “conquered” the saints (nikaō). Furthermore, the “false prophet” was given authority over “people” or laos. The name anticipates the larger assaults by the “beast” and its spokesman against the “saints” in the later visions of Revelation – (Revelation 13:7-10).
But the messenger is chastised for having left his “first love.” The object of this “love” is not specified, whether God, Jesus, or other men. However, since the messenger is summoned to repent and “do the first works,” this critique points to something he is failing to do rather than to his loss of love for the Lord.
Since the messenger has been praised for his faithfulness in resisting deceivers and enduring “for my name’s sake” without “growing weary,” the answer lies elsewhere. Moreover, his faithfulness in suffering for Jesus is another indicator that he has not lost his love for the savior.
His sin lies not in any gradual dampening of his love and zeal, but in the deliberate abandonment of his “first works.” The Greek verb rendered “left” means to “discharge, forsake, abandon, lay aside.” It points to a choice the messenger has made. And the sin is serious, for if he does not repent and return to his “first works,” Jesus will remove his “lampstand” from its place.
Unfortunately, the passage does not identify what this failure was, at least, not explicitly. Since the book of Revelation stresses the importance of not compromising the faith and maintaining faithful testimony, perhaps this rebuke points to a loss of zeal for bearing witness or the tendency to compromise the faith under pressure from the larger pagan society.
But the exhortation is not just for the messenger of Ephesus. It concludes with a summons for all the churches to “hear what the Spirit is saying.” All seven congregations are exhorted to “overcome,” and if they do, they will “eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.”
This final clause alludes to the “tree of life” from the garden of Eden. And here, “tree” translates the Greek noun xulon. The common word for a living “tree” was dendron, but xulon refers to deadwood from felled trees. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it refers to the “tree” on which Jesus was “hanged.” Thus, in the book of Revelation, the death of Jesus on the Cross represents the symbolic significance of the “tree of life” – (Genesis 2:9, Matthew 26:47, 26:55, Acts 5:30, 16:24, Galatians 3:13, 1 Peter 2:24).
The reference to the “tree of life” also provides a verbal link to the later vision of “New Jerusalem” where the tree is found. Access to what Adam lost will be restored in the “new heavens and the new earth,” and the original “curse” will be reversed. That is what awaits every saint who faithfully “overcomes” – (Revelation 22:1-3).
Repeatedly in Revelation, saints are summoned to persevere in persecution, and not to compromise their commitment to the faith regardless of what Satan or his earthly vassals do. They must “overcome” by enduring faithfully to the end, even when doing so means a martyr’s death.
The brethren overcome the Devil by “the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and because they love not their lives unto death.” The exhortation to return and “do the first works” is a call to that level of commitment, and to engage in giving faithful “testimony” before the world.