If you have ever moved to a new community and had to select a new church home, you know how difficult it is to examine and evaluate a church and its ministry. Imposing buildings may house dying or dead congregations, while modest structures might belong to vibrant assemblies on the march for the Lord. The church we think is “rich” may turn out to be poor in God’s sight (Rev. 3:17), while the “poor” church is actually rich (Rev. 2:9).
Only the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, can accurately inspect each church and know its true condition because He sees the internals, not only the externals (Rev. 2:23b). In these special messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor the Lord gave each assembly an “X ray” of its condition. They are commended for their strengths and warned about their flaws. But He intended for all the churches to read these messages and benefit from them. (Note the plural “churches” in Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22.)
The Lord was also speaking to individuals, and this is where you and I come in. “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Churches are made up of individuals and it is individuals who determine the spiritual life of the assembly. Before Christ judges the world, He must judge His own people (Ezek. 9:6; 1 Peter 4:17). A purified church need never fear the attacks of Satan or men. As we go over these messages, we must apply them personally as we examine our own hearts.
I. Ephesus, the Loveless Church (Rev. 2:1–7)
The Ephesian assembly had enjoyed some “stellar” leadership—Paul, Timothy, and the Apostle John himself—but the Lord reminded them He was in control of the ministry, placing the “stars” where He pleased. How easy it is for a church to become proud and forget pastors and teachers are God’s gifts (Eph. 4:11) who may be taken away at any time. Some churches need to be cautioned to worship the Lord and not their pastor!
1. Approval (vv. 2–3, 6)
This was a serving church, busy doing the works of the Lord. No doubt their weekly schedule was filled with activities. It was also a sacrificing church, for the word labor means “toil to the point of exhaustion.” The Ephesian Christians paid a price to serve the Lord. They were a steadfast assembly, for the word perseverance carries the meaning of “endurance under trial.” They kept going when the going was tough.
The Ephesian church was a separated people, for they carefully examined the visiting ministers (2 John 7–11) to see if they were genuine. Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that false teachers would come in from the outside, and even arise from within the church (Acts 20:28–31) and John had instructed them to “try the spirits” (1 John 4:1–6). Indeed, Satan has his false ministers, and the church must be constantly alert to detect them and reject them (2 Cor. 11:1–4, 12–15).
The Christians at Ephesus separated themselves not only from false doctrine, but also from false deeds. Jesus commended the church for hating the wicked practices of the Nicolaitans. This was a sect who “lorded it over” the church and robbed the people of their liberty in Christ (3 John 9–11). They initiated what we know today as “clergy” and “laity,” a false division that is taught nowhere in the New Testament. All God’s people are “kings and priests” (1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6), and have equal access to the Father through the blood of Christ (Heb. 10:19). We will meet this dangerous sect again when we study the message to the church at Pergamos.
The believers at Ephesus were a suffering people who patiently bore their burdens and toiled without fainting. And they did all of this for His name’s sake! As we examine this congregation up until this point, you may conclude they are just about perfect. However, the One among the lamp stands saw into their hearts and He had a different diagnosis.
2. Accusation (v. 4)
This busy, separated, sacrificing church really suffered from “heart trouble”—they had abandoned their first love! They displayed “works … labor … and patience”, but these qualities were not motivated by a love for Christ (compare with 1 Thes. 1:3). What we do for the Lord is important, but so is our motive for doing it!
What is this “first love” they had forsaken? It is the devotion to Christ that so often characterizes the new believer: fervent, personal, uninhibited, excited, and openly displayed. It is the “honeymoon love” of the husband and wife (Jer. 2:1–2). While it is true that mature married love deepens and grows richer, it is also true that it should never lose the excitement and wonder of those “honeymoon days.” When a husband and wife begin to take each other for granted and life becomes routine, then the marriage is in danger.
Just think of it: it is possible to serve, sacrifice, and suffer “for My name’s sake” and yet not really love Jesus Christ! The Ephesian believers were so busy maintaining their separation that they were neglecting adoration. Labor is no substitute for love; neither is purity a substitute for passion. The church must have both if it is to please Him. But the Ephesian church had fallen and was not living up to its heavenly position in Christ (Rev. 2:5). It is only as we love Christ fervently that we can serve Him faithfully.
3. Admonition (vv. 5–7)
Our “first love” can be restored only if we follow the three instructions Christ gave. First, we must remember (literally “keep on remembering”) what we have lost and cultivate a desire to regain that close communion once again. Then, we must repent—change our minds—and confess our sins to the Lord (1 John 1:9). Third, we must repeat the things we did at first, which suggests restoring the original fellowship that was broken by our sin and neglect. For the believer, this means prayer, Bible reading and meditation, obedient service, and worship.
In spite of the privileges the church of Ephesus had enjoyed, it was in danger of losing its light! The church that loses its love will soon lose its light, no matter how doctrinally sound it may be. “I will come” is not referring to the Lord’s return, but to His coming judgment then and there. The glorious city of Ephesus is today a heap of stones and no light is shining there.
Revelation 2:7 makes it clear that individual believers within the church may be true to the Lord, no matter what the majority is doing. In these seven messages the “overcomers” are not a “spiritual elite,” but rather the true believers whose faith has given them victory (1 John 5:4–5). Sinful man was banned from the tree of life (Gen. 3:22–24), but in Christ we have eternal abundant life (John 3:16; 10:10). We enjoy this blessing now and we will enjoy it in greater measure in eternity (Rev. 22:1–5).
The church of Ephesus was the “loveless church,” made up of careless believers who neglected their love for Christ. Are we guilty of the same neglect?
II. Smyrna, the Persecuted Church (Rev. 2:8–11)
The name Smyrna means “bitter” and is related to the word myrrh. The Christians at Smyrna were experiencing the bitterness of suffering, but their faithful testimony was like myrrh or sweet perfume to God. The assembly at Smyrna was persecuted for the faith, which explains why the Lord emphasized His death and resurrection as He opened His message. No matter what experiences God’s people may have, their Lord identifies with them.
1. Approval (v. 9)
The church at Smyrna was not having an easy time of it! The church in this city struggled against two hostile forces: a Jewish population strongly opposed to Christianity, and a non-Jewish population that was loyal to Rome and supported emperor worship. The members were persecuted because they refused to compromise and worship the emperor. Smyrna was an important center of the Roman imperial cult, and anyone refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord would certainly be excluded from the society.
The believers in Smyrna suffered affliction and poverty. The word affliction means “pressure” or “crushing weight.” It resembles the persecution of God’s people in Egyptian slavery (Exod. 3:9; 4:31) and their exile in Babylon (Deut. 4:25–31; 28:47–68). As a result of affliction, these Christians were reduced to unemployment and poverty. The word used here for poverty means “abject poverty, possessing absolutely nothing.”
But they were rich! What a comfort it was for the Christians at Smyrna to know that Christ knew all about their sufferings: “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” They lived for eternal values that would never change, riches that could never be taken away. “As poor, yet making rich” (2 Cor. 6:10; 8:9). Their suffering for Christ only increased their riches.
2. Admonition (vv. 10–11)
No words of accusation were given to the congregation in Smyrna! They may not have enjoyed the approval of men, but they certainly received the praise of God. Jesus commended the church for its faith in suffering and gave solemn words of admonition as they faced increased suffering: “Don’t be afraid!” More suffering was in store for the Smyrnians at the hands of the devil. The word devil means “slanderer,” “accuser,” or “adversary.” In the Old Testament the devil is like a public prosecutor (Job 1–2; Zech. 3). In the New Testament, he is the source of all falsehood and deception. God is allowing Satan to test the faith of Christians, providing the opportunity for them to show their commitment to suffer for Christ.
Jesus assured the church He knew the devil’s plans and He was in complete control of the situation. Some of the believers would be imprisoned and tried as traitors to Rome, yet their tribulation would not be long. Their affliction was to last only for “ten days.” In the Bible, ten days signifies “a brief time” (Gen. 24:55; Acts 25:6). The important thing was faithfulness, standing true to Christ no matter what the government might threaten to do.
The Lord reinforced the promise given by James (James 1:12) and assured His people there was nothing to fear. The “crown of life” was the winner’s crown awarded at the annual athletic games. Smyrna was a key participant in the games, so this promise would be especially meaningful to believers living there. Because they had trusted Him, they were overcomers—victors in the race of faith (Heb. 12:1–3)—and, as overcomers, they had nothing to fear. Even if they were martyred, they would be ushered into glory, wearing crowns! They would never face the awful judgment of the second death, which is the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14; 21:8).
It costs to be a dedicated Christian, in some places more than others. As end-time pressures increase, persecution will also increase; and God’s people need to be ready (1 Peter 4:12). The world may call us “poor Christians,” but in God’s sight we are rich!
In Part 2, we will look at Christ’s message to the next two churches.