Friday, 13 May 2016 20:00

13. Church in Ephesus, starting down a dangerous road * Revelation 2:1-7, Part 1

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1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things says he that holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands;

2 I know your works, and your labor, and your patience, and how you can not bear them who are evil: and you have tried them who say they are apostles, and are not, and have found them liars:

3 And have endured, and have patience, and for my name's sake have labored, and have not fainted.

4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love.

5 Remember therefore from where you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto you quickly, and will remove your lampstand out of its place, except you repent.

6 But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

7 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches; To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.

 

We will divide the letter to Ephesus in two. Part 1 will be dealing with a historic overview of Ephesus, and also with what the Bible tells us about this church. On Part 2, we will be looking at every aspect of the formatted letter.

 

PART 1

 

*** Historical setting ***: Ephesus was about 60 miles from Patmos, and was the most important city of the Roman Empire besides Rome. It was the capital of Asia Minor. The name of the city means “Desirable”. Ephesus was a very modern metropolis, and had one of the best harbors of the region. It also had a very large library (Library of Celsus), and an impressive theater that could sit 25,000 people (the Odeum). Historians estimate a population of up to 225,000 residents. Some of the amenities available were: water system throughout the city (advanced aqueduct system), indoor plumbing, heated pools in bath houses with heated floors, public restrooms with a type of flushing mechanism, cooling system (a form of air conditioner) for the most expensive homes, and more. The city was a powerful commercial and intellectual center. Perhaps the most important hallmark of the city was the temple of the pagan goddess of fertility Artemis of Ephesus (or Diana), who was worshiped throughout Asia (Acts 19:27). It is said that the temple of Artemis offered the right of asylum. That meant that any criminal reaching its perimeter of the temple before being arrested would be safe. Therefore, not only was the temple a deposit of extremely valuable artifacts, it was also the place of choice for outlaws. The temple of Artemis was not the only pagan temple. They also had a temple of Julius Caesar, a temple of Augustus, and a temple of Domitian. Pagan worship was very prominent in Ephesian culture. A number of citizens were involved in sorcery (Acts 19:19), and local businesses took advantage of such pagan beliefs and turned them into a strong source of income (Acts 19:23-27). Any threats to the trade associated with pagan worship would affect the overall economy of the city.

*** Biblical view ***: It is in the middle of this extremely pagan society that we find the church in Ephesus. On his brief first visit to Ephesus, when he was traveling from Corinth to Antioch, Paul went directly to the synagogue and preached to the Jews there. This first encounter was very positive, and they asked Paul to stay longer. Paul was unable to stay, but promised to return (Acts 18:21). He left his friends Aquila and Priscilla in charge of continuing the ministry. They were the starting point of the church in Ephesus, and the church met at their home (1 Corinthians 16:19). Aquila and Priscilla were also the ones who taught a Jesus-believing Jewish preacher named Apollos the complete picture of Christ’s gospel (Acts 18:24-28). Eventually, Paul did return to Ephesus. He spent over two years there, preaching to Jews and Greeks (Acts 19:10) and strengthening the church. When the Jews in the synagogue would not listen anymore, Paul moved his lessons to a lecture hall where he discussed the Word of God daily (Acts 19:9). Paul’s ministry was flourishing and soon the city had a bonfire of sorcery books that were worth a fortune (Acts 19:19). The growth of Christianity started to affect the local economy, and a silversmith named Demetrius brought together other trade members to discuss the decrease and impending crisis on the sale of Artemis souvenirs and shrines, and potential discrediting of their goddess (Acts 19:23-27). This debate grew to the point where they had to move it to the Odeum, and even then it almost reached a level where they could be accused of rioting. The confusion of the assembly had to be controlled by the city clerk (Acts 19:32-41).

Some time later, while in prison, Paul wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus, which today is the book of Ephesians in the Bible. In this letter, he tells them about the joy of unity and of relationships. This makes sense since the congregation in Ephesus was a mix of “Jews and Greeks”. Paul also commended their "faith in the Lord Jesus and [their] love for all God’s people” (Ephesians 1:15). In that letter, Paul wrote an important prayer, which was also a message to the Ephesians. Part of this prayer was very specific, and addressed the issue later described by John. We read in Ephesians 3:17-19: "And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Then, in Ephesians 5:6-7, Paul warns the church: "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.” Paul ends the letter to the Ephesians by saying: "Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.” (Ephesians 6:23-24).

In his later letter to Timothy, Paul feels the need to advise the church on a pressing issue. 1 Timothy 1:3-7 has a key message from Paul regarding the state of the church in Ephesus, and Paul is calling Timothy to help the Ephesian church: "As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm." Paul was concerned with the false teachers now coming from within the church. False ideas and behaviors began to permeate the congregation. He could be talking about the Nicolaitans, the group mentioned in Revelation 1:6.

*** The Nicolaitans ***: We see mention of a group called Nicolaitans in the writings of early Christian authors, such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus. According to them, the Nicolaitans were the followers of Nicolas of Antioch. He was a convert to judaism, and was chosen to be one of the seven deacons of the early church (Acts 6:5). Somehow, Nicolas, who was viewed as being "full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3), moved away from the truth and became the founder of heretic teachings. The church in Ephesus seemed to have, in general, rejected the teachings of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6), but the church in Pergamum seemed to have some members who supported the teachings of this group (Revelation 2:15). As we further read the message to Pergamum, we can see that the Nicolaitans are connected to the group of those “who hold the teachings of Balaam” (Revelation 2:14-15). Both groups were teaching in like manner things directly opposed to the true message of God. So let’s check the etymology of both names. Nicolas, from the Greek Nicolaos (nikaō + laos) means “conqueror of people”. And Balaam, from the Hebrew baal + am, means “to destroy” or “to swallow” people. In the church of Thyatira, we see yet another teacher who is leading God’s servants into false doctrines: Jezebel (Revelation 2:20). It is unlikely that there was a member in that church named Balaam or Jezebel. But we see Balaam and Jezebel in the Old Testament. So let’s look in the Old Testament and see what we can learn from their story, in order for us to understand the symbolism of this reference.

- Balaam: Balaam was a non-Israelite unfaithful prophet of God. He was from Pethor in Aram Naharaim, Mesopotamia (Deuteronomy 23:4). Balak, king of Moab, hired Balaam to curse the Israelites while they were camping near Moab. Through divine intervention, Balaam was not able to curse them, and for 3 times blessed the Israelites instead (Numbers 23 and Numbers 24). Balak was furious. Since he could not curse them verbally, Balaam found another way to bring a curse to Israel. 2 Peter 2:15-16 tells us that Balaam “loved the wages of wickedness”. He "enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident”, and so "a plague struck the Lord’s people” (Numbers 31:16). The Peor incident is reported in Numbers 25:1-9, when the Moabite women seduced the Israelite men. They "began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods.” (Numbers 25:1-2). Now we can better understand Revelation 2:14-15, where it talks about those “who hold the teachings of Balaam”. His teachings were about enticing God’s people to break God’s law by worshiping idols and committing adultery. In Micah 6:5 we read that God is calling His people to never forget this episode with Balaam, so we "may know the righteous acts of the Lord”.

- Jezebel: She was a Phoenician princess who married Ahab, king of northern Israel (1 Kings 16:29-33) around the time of the prophet Elijah. She worshiped Baal, and influenced her husband to abandon the true God. Ahab also started worshiping Baal (1 Kings 16:31), further promoting idolatry among the Israelites. Ahab’s actions after he turned to idolatry "did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:32-33; 1 Kings 21:25). At some point, Jezebel began killing the prophets of the Lord (1 Kings 18:4), and also threatened to kill the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:2). By deceiving, lying, and cheating, she worked to manipulate the ones around her, including her husband; and because of that, God brought disaster upon them (1 Kings 21:1-23). Now we can understand Revelation 2:20. Just as Balaam was the reason the Israelites involved themselves with idolatry and fornication, Jezebel was the reason why the Israelite king “sold himself to do evil” (1 Kings 21:25) and turned to idolatry. Ahab consequently became involved with all the rituals associated with pagan worship, and as king, led God’s people to behave the same way.

Throughout Asia Minor, the Roman Empire required that the people would pledge allegiance to the Emperor, recognizing his divinity. Also, the different trades were required to pay homage to their specific gods as part of their good business practices. It was hard being a Christian citizen or a Cristian business person and still remain separate from social pagan practices. They were faced with a choice: to remain faithful to the truth, or to pretend that social paganism doesn't affect one's spiritual life. The Nicolaitans were likely teaching the churches in Asia a modern version of Balaam and Jezebel’s pagan philosophies: compromising and adjusting the true doctrines of God in order to make dealing with their civic pagan duties more convenient and give the impression that such philosophies are not really conflicting with Gospel teachings. That in itself is an illusion, because no matter how much you twist and adapt the truth to justify wrong behavior, wrong behavior is still a sin, even when people lie to themselves in order to try and feel better about their choices.

*** Overview ***: We can see that Ephesus had its share of true prophets, incomplete preachers, and false teachers. From the establishment of the church, the members had to assess and react to what was being presented in the social and religious circles of their city. Aquila and Priscilla did this with Apollos, whose message even though true, was missing some key points. The church members also had to assess the teachings of sorcery books, and once they understood they were false, they didn’t think twice and burned them all. Timothy had to address the false teachers coming from within the church in order to restore love. This church was in serious danger of becoming just a group of people, like Paul said, who were confidently discussing things they actually didn’t know, and promoting a “meaningless talk”. By the time John started writing the letters, the Church in Ephesus had already grasped the concept of true doctrine and of how to recognize false teachers (Revelation 2:2). But it seems that Paul’s goal to restore love had not been reached (Revelation 2:4). They were not showing the "undying love” that Paul had mentioned to them before. As we can see, the love issue was not a new topic to them. They already knew that having a complete doctrine without love is the same as not having anything at all.

   
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