To the angel of the church of Ephesus write,
‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: 2 “I know your works, your labor, your [b]patience, and that you cannot [c]bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; 3 and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. 4 Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. 6 But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
7 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”- Revelation 2:1-7
Looking at the verse, The seven stars are the angels (referring to the pastors) of each of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches. Jesus is the
head of the church and the pastors are His messengers.
Considering people like Paul, Timothy, and John who were once the Apostles, leaders and pastors of this church at Ephesus. It’s reminding all believers that God is in charge. To know
that Jesus holds the seven stars or angels in His right hand and walks in the midst of the golden
lampstands is encouraging as Jesus is in the midst of every church. The verse in Revelation is like a summary of how the church has performed. There were the good things and bad things. The good things such as they have zero tolerance for things which are evil. The bad thing is that they have forgotten their first love. What has made the church forgot about their first love?
Lets look at the background of the city of Ephesus. It lies on the ruins of a once thriving city. It is near the sea and it is a good place. Lets talk about Ephesus being a world class commercial center in the ancient world. The city of Ephesus has earned many titles over the years. It was deemed to be the most important commercial center in the Roman province of Asia, the most important Greek city, and the most influential trading center in the Mediterranean region. It has a large and prosperous sea port, so traders from all over the known world would park their ships in Ephesus and would bring their goods into the city for trade. In many ways, it is like the roles that Singapore and Hong Kong play today. Because of the trades, Ephesus quickly became a rich town and also very cosmopolitan. People from all over the world lived here, including the Jews, Gentiles and Persians. So, it was a very happening city, and the heart ofthis buzzling city was the Agora. Every morning there would be goods from all over the known ancient world being imported and sold in this place. Standing here, you would smell the fragrances of mixed spices and perfumes, you would find exotic products and specialties from all over the world. There is also a great library and threatre at Ephesus. The religion they had was “Imperial cult.”
One challenge for early Christians was inscribed right at the entrance to the Agora. This was the
inscription on the entrance near the Celsus library, and it has the inscription “To Caesar Augustus, who is god”. This would no doubt be very offensive to the Christians, because we believe that there is only one true God, and it’s not Caesar. But where did such inscription come from? It was part of what’s known as the Imperial Cult. The Roman Emperor had a custom to claim themselves as “god”. It is to unite the country. Those who do not proclaim the emperor as “god” will be persecuted. During those times, they have to burn incense and drop it in the incense burner. They also have to give offerings. Both actions to pledge loyalty to the Roman Emperor and to “worship” him;. They also have to bow as well.
On top of the Imperial Cult, another major upsetting issue for the Christians was the cult of the
goddess Artemis. Remember earlier I mentioned that apart from commerce, Ephesus was also
famous for its religion. It was once the center for the worship of the mother goddess of fertility in the Roman Empire. To the Greeks, she was known as Artermis, and to the Romans as goddess Diana. Diana is such a beautiful name, and you might think that Diana would be a beautiful goddess. To the contrary, this was what she looked like – the image of goddess Diana was actually a somewhat ugly looking character who was covered with many breasts that symbolize life and fertility. Temple Artemis is a very big temple and attracted a lot of visitors which is a source of income for the city of Ephesus. A standard worship service in the Artemis Temple often consisted of the burning of incense and the playing of flute music. As Artemis was the goddess of fertility, you would also find many temple prostitutes here, and many of their religious events ended in orgies and rampant sexual immorality. In fact, the worship of Artemis even pervaded beyond the Artemis temple, and sneaked into almost every aspect of life in Ephesus. People will come to the temple will also make financial transactions which the temple will take a cut of the transition. People who wants to children would come touch a tree outside the temple. It is a gigantic tree. All these religious activities affect the daily life of the city of Ephesus.
Apostle Paul visited Ephesus and planted the first church there during his third missionary journey at around 52 AD (Acts 18-19). He then pastored the church for 3 years, longer than any other churches he planted. During those years, Paul would teach at open meeting places every day from 11am in the morning till 4pm in the evening, focusing on weeding out false doctrines and pagan practices in the city of Ephesus. When Paul first started his teaching, not everyone welcomed him, because his message was hurting the businesses of the silversmiths. The silversmiths’ livelihoods were dependent on trading silver items that featured Goddess Artemis, so we can imagine how Paul could cause their businesses to plummet. According to the records in Acts 19, they started a riot and eventually caused an uproar against Christians, and a large crowd marched to the theatre, chanting for two hours straight, “Great is Artemis or Diana of the Ephesians!” But that did not stop the advance of the Gospel. And eventually, Paul planted churches with sound doctrines in Ephesus that are governed by good elders.
Then a few years later at around 57 AD., Paul left Ephesus and appointed Timothy to be the next pastor (1 Tim 1). We know that Paul wrote a letter to encourage Timothy not to let anyone despise him of his youth, but to set a good example in the way he lived his life as a Christ follower. (1 Tim 4), and the letter of 1 Timothy was in the context of Timothy’s mission in Ephesus. Then, a few years later, at around 62 AD, Paul wrote a letter to the Ephesians commending their good faith and love. If we study the book of Ephesians carefully, we would learn that the Ephesians had done well as a church. However, one serious issue that they were facing in those days were the rampant demonic activities. During those days, there were oracles who would speak for gods and goddesses, perform miracles that were driven by the underworld, and cast spells and curses on enemies. And this was why Paul reminded them in Ephesian 6, to “put on the whole armor of God, for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of darkness in high places.”5 On top of the demonic activities, there were also some false teachings floating around in the early church. One example was the Nicolaitans that were mentioned by Jesus in Revelation. The Nicolaitans were a sect in the early church, a group of heretics who separated from Paul’s teaching. They believe that as the body was not important and the only thing that was valuable was the soul. Therefore, in essence, whatever is done to the body cannot damage the soul, so anyone could eat meat offered to idols and even participate in sexual immorality. This idea was of course very damaging to the church, but thanks to the works of many good pastors and elders in the early church, the Christians of Ephesus did a good job in rejecting those false teachings, and Jesus commended them for that by saying, “And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars … this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” And by weeding out all these issues, Christianity had eventually become the dominant religion of the region.
I trust that you had an insightful experience touring around the ancient city of Ephesus. After learning a bit more about the background context, let us revisit the key message in today’s scripture, which is to remember and return to our first love. The key question is “How?”. Jesus actually provided His counsel in His letter to Ephesus, He said “Remember therefore from where you have fallen, repent and do the first works”. The first works comprises three main areas, and they all begin with the same word – LOVE: Love God, Love One Another, and Love Sharing the Gospel.
First, we have to remember our love for God. The church of Ephesus had done many remarkable things for the church during the first century, but they eventually became too busy with managing their laws and regulations, expanding the church, and rebuking the false doctrines, that they lost sight of what is most important – God! If we prioritize our traditions, goals, and ambitions over our love for God, then we might end up like the Pharisees – legalistic and dry. And in order to return to our first love, it all boils down to one practical thing – priorities.
Four years ago, a famous Hollywood star, Denzel Washington, went down to a university to give a speech during the Commencement of a cohort, and the first three words that came out of his mouth were “Put God first”.. He also tell us that our glories are like flowers, bloomed then withered, “naked we came, naked we’ll return”. So let us focus on the things that are everlasting in the kingdom of God, and not be overwhelmed accumulating earthly praises, prizes and possessions which are only temporary.
Yet, very often, it is easy to lose sight of what is most important, especially when we are busy. Like the church of Ephesus, they started off so well but then became so busy with their work that Jesus had to tell them to remember their first love. They probably started with a humble size, a handful of faithful followers when Paul first planted the church, and as the congregation grew in size, the members became elders, the church grew in popularity and power, and eventually becoming the dominant religion in the city; and when their possessions and responsibilities became so great, they lost sight of their first love. Some of us might also be in a phase of change right now, perhaps some has just graduated, I know some just started a new career, some just gotten a promotion, some are entering into a new and exciting stage in life, but in every step of our lives, let us never lose sight of Jesus, our first love. Because remember this, each time when we are at our lowest moments, God has always been there with us. So, now if we are doing well today, if we are blessed, or if we are prospering like the city of Ephesus, then let me say this reminder to all of us including myself, remember our first love, always return to God, and do the first works.
Put God first – that includes all of our time with God: in prayer, in worship, in thanksgiving, in reading the scripture and in meditating on His Word. We must spend time with God. Sometimes, when we read through the bible, we may see parts that we have already known, and we may have a tendency to skip it because we have read it before. But let me ask you this: Have you ever had a nutritious meal placed in front of you, that you know it is very good for your health, and it’s very delicious and it’s your favorite dish, and when that dish is served in front of you, have you ever tell yourself, “Oh I have tried this before, so I don’t need to eat today”. You don’t do that, do you? We will still eat even when we have had it many times before, because our physical body constantly needs nutrients from food, and likewise our spiritual body also needs nutrients from God’s word. So like the need to eat and the need to breathe, let us consistently commune with God. Do it daily. Go to Him first thing in the morning. I have heard a story of a man who push his slippers under his bed every night before he goes to sleep, so that the next morning when he wakes up, he will have to get on his knees to reach them, and while he is down on his knees, he will thank God for His mercy that is new every morning. So let us all put God first today, and return to our first love. Let our prayer, our worship, our quiet time with God be our number one priority, so that we will be grounded and not go astray. This has to be the first step if we want to return to our first love – love God.
Love One Another
Next, to return to our first love, another essential aspect is to love one another. Why is this significant? Why can’t we just love God and be indifferent to everyone else, wouldn’t that be easy? Just minding our own business and making sure we are fine ourselves? But that is not the way in the kingdom of God. I believe that one of the most important things that God wants us to learn during our time on earth is to learn to love one another, even to those who are unlovable. This is a prerequisite for us to do the works of God. God loves people, in fact, God so loved the world that He sent His only son to die and redeem us. And if we love God, we will love one another. That’s why Paul also writes to the Ephesians saying “Therefore I urge you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Always be humble, be gentle, and be patient with each other, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. (Eph 4:1-3)”
But how can we achieve these things? Within the same chapter Paul actually went on to provide a list of very practical guidance to the Ephesians, something which is still applicable to us today. Let me read from the Letter to Ephesians and I will let the word of God speak for itself.
(Eph 4: 23-32, NLT) Let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy. So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body. And do not sin by letting anger control you. Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil. If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need. Do not use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.
I believe there is at least 1 thing in that passage that you and I have to reflect on today. Like the scripture says, let the Spirit renew our thoughts and attitudes, so that we may repent, and return to our first love. Let us therefore love one another always, so that while we are doing the works of God, we will not go astray. Let’s recap, to return to our first love, first is to love God, and second to love one another. Finally, we have to extend our love to those who have not been saved, which brings me to my last point, Love Sharing the Gospel.
Love Sharing the Gospel
In our journey with God, I’m sure that there are times when we would feel far away from God. And I understand that it can be very hard, and sometimes, very lonely when we can’t hear Him. Perhaps some of us today may feel that we are no longer as close to God as we were when we first came to know Him when we would pray fervently and commune with God every day, and that we no longer feel the same passion for God as before. If this is who you are, I too have similar experiences, and I want to share with you a key takeaway that I have learnt over the years, and it is this: Whenever you feel that you are getting further away from God, go and share the gospel, share the love of God, to someone who has not known the Lord, and you will find the Lord right beside you as you do so.
Let me tell you a story. When I was in school, I had this class called Business Information Technology, and I remembered it teaches one how to use a software called Microsoft Excel (and I just had a sneaky feeling that it was not the most popular class in school). And I remembered I wasn’t very good at it at first as there were many complicated steps, but somehow, I managed to finish the in-class activity slightly faster than the classmate who sat beside me, and seeing that he was struggling with something that I had already figured out, I offered to show him how it was done. Then the classmate on my other side also asked me to show her. After which, I turned around and helped those who sat behind me, and this happened a few times in class. Soon, I started to see a small queue in front of me. Everyone came with a slightly different issue and somehow, I became the “Excel expert” in class. I didn’t even like Excel at first but I do now. And I probably started off roughly from the same level as everyone else, and it is only through teaching others that I ended up mastering the skill, and my interest grew. Teaching somehow forces us to look at things from multiple perspectives, and just because I completed the first task slightly ahead of others, I became the “expert” who can share the knowledge with everyone in class. Now, here is the exciting truth: If you are watching this right now, then YOU, are now that person in your class who finished the task sooner than your friends, you are now the one who has found Jesus before many other people in your life, and you are now the one who can bring the Gospel and all the blessings of God into the lives of those who have not known Jesus. And when we introduce someone new to the faith, we will find ourselves going right back to our first love. That love of God that we are sharing with others, is the same experience that made us fall in love in the first place. As I am sharing with you right now I too feel the passion for the Love of God renewed in me, because I know God loves me and God loves all of you. The more we share it, the deeper we will fall in love with God and His Gospel. Therefore, if we constantly preach about His love, share our testimonies and thanksgivings with others, and make it part of our lifestyle, I am confident that we will never stray from our first love.
Here’s the application for us this week. Prepare a testimony on how you have come to know the Lord, or one memorable thing which God has done for you and share it with someone. Remember how God has carried you through, He can do the same for the one whom you share with. That is the nature of God and I’m certain of it.
Finally, I would like to end off by quoting Jesus’ last piece of counsel to the church of Ephesus. He said, “to those of you who overcome, I will give the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” We have seen all the good things that the early Christians were denied in Ephesus, which included career opportunities, social status, social gatherings, recognitions, and a life full of pleasures. Imagine living under those circumstances as outcasts of their society, where believers are totally deprived of the world’s luxury and great opportunities in Ephesus. Perhaps you too have missed certain opportunities in your lives because you are a Christian. Yet, Jesus encouraged them by saying, if they return to their first love and overcome those challenges, they will eat from the true “eternal tree of life”, and unlike the pagans who were deceived to touch the tree of life outside the Artemis’ Temple for good health, Jesus assured them that His people who have overcome would eat from the best, the Eternal Tree of Life, in the paradise of God”. Hallelujah. May the good Lord bless you abundantly.