Misplaced love can be as problematic as no love at all.
There are three things you need to know about the seven churches of Revelation.
First of all, they were actual churches that existed at the time John wrote the Book of Revelation. You can visit the ruins of those cities even today.
Second, the seven churches have a symbolic significance. When John wrote the Book, more churches existed than the seven showcased here. These therefore seem to have been deliberately chosen to represent something larger than themselves.
The number seven actually is a symbolic number in the Bible, and the first time we encounter it is in the Book of Genesis, where we find that seven days make one complete creation week. After this precedent, seven is often used as a number pertaining to completion. It is reasonable to conjecture that the seven churches also illustrate completion—a 2,000 year complete snapshot of church history. In fact, church history itself seems to follow the upward and downward trends described in these churches.
Third, timeless principles abound in these short letters to the churches relevant to Christians everywhere in every church in every era. Remember the refrain in chapters two and three: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Whoever will listen in any place or time period will benefit from the admonitions and promises of each letter.
The heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, tends to these lampstands night and day to keep them shining, because throughout history the churches have entered particular periods when their light sputtered, or grew dim.
His most primary concern is our love relationship with Him.
In this simple matter, we often need help finding our way.
The Apostle Paul founded the church in Ephesus in 54 A.D. This was before organized Christianity with its ceremonies, liturgies, and real estate. Christians had little else but Jesus, and so they had nothing to love except Him. But John wrote this book as late as 90 A.D., when Ephesus had been “married” to Jesus for 36 years.
How was the marriage doing?
As if in answer, Jesus showed up.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands'” (Rev. 2:1)
He had exactly what the church needed in His hand: the seven stars.
Stars are for navigation, like the way sailors used them to navigate on dark seas, and how in the Bible, the wise men found Jesus by means of the Bethlehem star. Finding our way is important. But in Revelation 1:20, we’re told the seven stars are the seven angels of the churches. How does one navigate a spiritual pathway by angels? No such instructions are given anywhere in Scripture. Even when angels appear with directions for people in the Bible, we get the impression it is an unanticipated event, certainly not something regular or widespread. And while we’re at it, why would Christ need to tell John to write a letter to an angel?
Maybe it throws us off when we see the word “angel” and we immediately associate it with a supernatural being. Certainly The Book of Revelation is full of heavenly angels. However the Greek word for angel, (angelos), simply means “messenger.” A number of good classical commentaries embrace the idea of human messengers here, since the Bible seems to support it, like when the prophet Haggai is called a messenger (Hag. 1:13), or when people who lead others to righteousness are called stars (Dan. 12:3).
All of this could indicate an individual in the church or in an era of the church who is receptive to the messages from John and who faithfully passes it on to others (although it does not automatically mean church leadership, and certainly not some self-promoting oracle). Since these stars, if human, are embedded in the life of the church, they would provide an immediate check when the church goes astray.
A few years ago our church had a marriage workshop in a rural area of Ohio. The administrator sent us printed instructions, and told us not to trust our GPS. Apparently if you did, you’d end up in a corn field. The administrator assumed we would get lost using our own tools, and we wouldn’t even know we were lost until we were driving through somebody’s barn. Her directions worked a lot better than our cell phones.
You’re probably aware of the Lord’s navigational arrangement in the ministries of Augustine, or Martin Luther, or Jonathan Edwards or George Whitfield. All the reformers, confessors, martyrs, evangelists, teachers, or church fathers have had a navigational effect upon the church at large. And don’t forget the churches have stars unknown to the public as well (since “star” in this context doesn’t mean celebrity).
Why can’t we get by with just the Bible and the Holy Spirit? Because the Bible doesn’t provide exact details for all possible applications, and for some of us, especially when we’re in bad moods and bogged down in subjectivity, we easily misinterpret the Spirit. But God has provided a third aspect of navigational help—people whose lives and words provide clarity for us. Community is important, and we need to learn to listen. It seems the more we follow our own GPS devices, the worse things become.
Why specifically did the Ephesians need navigational help?
First they needed clarity, as we do, about how they had wandered.
Jesus says in verses 2-3, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my namesake, and you have not grown weary.”
This church had a serious resume—zeal, commitment, doctrinal discernment, dislike of evil—and the Lord Jesus was fair in acknowledging it. Then He said in verse 4, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” This first love refers to the believers’ love for Christ. They had started with a certain kind of pure simple affection for their Savior. Then all the works, activities, and religious interests eclipsed that love. In a certain ironic sense, Christianity can eclipse Christ.
It is like an old marriage of fifty years, where the husband would never think of cheating, would never even flirt. He does his chores without being nagged. He always remembers Valentine’s day, birthdays, anniversaries. He’s learned to let little annoyances go, and not fight over them. Looked at from a distance, you’d say he had a textbook marriage. But if you could look down into his heart like the Lord does ours, maybe you’d see the initial affection for his wife had disappeared. Years of marriage has shaped him and conditioned him. Now if he loves anything, it’s his routine, and he loves it like an old leather chair that fits his every contour. You could say he loves his wife too, but not in the affectionate way he did at the beginning.
All of this is to say, Guard your heart. You’ll find a lot of things in the Christian life fulfilling, including service. I find service addicting, especially the sense of making an eternal difference, blessing others, and being downright productive. However, you can also cultivate a Messianic complex (It all depends on me to save the world!), a lust for self-fulfillment (My ministry feels so good to me!), and an appetite for the limelight (I’m popular!). You’ll find yourself prioritizing good things, but ironically drifting away from the very One you allege to serve.
It starts off with loving Jesus so much that you can’t help but love the poor. Or loving Jesus so much you have to sing or have to write, or preach, teach, or start any of a hundred ministries. So far, so good. But then a slow, invisible switch occurs. You begin to care for that thing more, and prioritize it to the point that Jesus seems like the fond memory of someone who started you on this course, but whom you left on the train station platform a long time back. Meanwhile, that Christian work, estranged from Christ, begins to feel like a hollow taskmaster, and you fantasize about ways to escape it.
What do we do then?
Verse 5 says, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first.” Jesus didn’t tell the Ephesians to stop doing the things they were doing. Some Christians attempt to fix their stale condition by throwing out their service. The truth is, I’ve never seen anyone clear their plate of spiritual commitments without refilling it—and often with involvements that make their state even worse. No, their service was not the enemy; their loss of affection for Christ was. He called them to remember their previous affection, to bring it back and once more let it drive their works as they had in the beginning. They should add, not subtract.
Then he says, “If not I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent.” In essence, He was saying, If you don’t shine, I’ll put your lampstand out in the garage. When a lamp doesn’t give light, you might be able to use it for other things, like to block a door open, but it has become useless in its intended primary function. Ours is to bear the testimony that we and Christ are in an affectionate loving relationship with each other.
In verse 6 he says, “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Jesus was still being fair, and He has a habit of convicting and then affirming. Even though their love had become feeble and clouded with other things, at least they hated what He hated. That’s important in a relationship. If you love all the things your spouse hates, it makes for a lot of difficulty.
You may wonder who are the Nicolaitans. No one really knows, although there have been plenty of theories. Some commentators have tried to figure it out by interpreting the meaning of the word itself–Niko, meaning to overcome, and laos, meaning common people. From the look of it, the Nicolaitans might have been those who dominated, overcame, the common believers, and “hogged the ball” of ministry, forcing the other saints to ride the bench.
Jesus died to make us all a priesthood. Not some of us. It’s easy to understand why He would hate any influence that would lead us to be uninvolved. The Ephesians however, seemed to have been thoroughly engaged in the work of ministry, which to the Lord’s reckoning was a definite plus. I don’t know if this Nicolaitan theory is the specific intended meaning here, so in the meantime, I’ll just say it’s simply good to hate those works the Lord hates.
Then there’s the call in verse 7: “He who has an ear let him hear what the spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of Life, which is in the paradise of God.” Whoever conquered the problem of lost love for Christ and regained it was promised an outcome—a fresh, soul-empowering, spirit-nourishing experience both currently, and then later in the kingdom of God.
I’ve gotten confused a number of times over the years while deeply involved in Christian work. Ministry became a hill to die on, as I fought those who served together with me, and they fought me back. In that toxic environment, the order of the day consisted of out-strategizing the other guy, looking better, and neutralizing the competition. It was service without love, un-Christ like attitudes, convictions drained of life, and a Bible borrowed to prove things. All in His name. The glorious Christ in the midst of the lampstands became part of the background scenery, as “the ministry” assumed center stage.
Thankfully, I still had a Bible that made a case against such shenanigans. I had the Spirit checking me and grieving my actions. I also had stars—simple godly believers—whose examples flew in the face of my attitudes and modeled a better way. I was able to remember and return. Every time I came back to a simple love of Jesus, I feasted like nobody’s business. It was as though I had parked under the tree of life, and then gorged on its fruit. Without fail on each occasion of repentance, Jesus kept His promise. Revivals came that changed me forever.
Never assume that since you’re lost in some kind of ministry maze, it’s over.
Remember. Repent. Come back to the simple Christ.
A feast awaits you.