Apostle John was well aware of the love of Lord Jesus for him and he declared this fact in his Gospel five times. For witnessing the Word of God and salvation through Lord Jesus to others, he also, like other disciples, suffered untold sufferings. He was put in boiling oil but suffered no loss and was finally exiled to Patmos Island. The book of ‘Revelation of Jesus Christ’ is an account of the revelations that he was given by the Lord about His second coming and also the letters to seven churches of that time.
Why were those seven Churches chosen? The church per se was established by the Lord on Easter Sunday after His resurrection, when He visited the disciples and ‘He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit’ (John 20:19-23). Then He sent them authorizing them to even forgive the sins of others. The church at Jerusalem was recognized by all believers as the Mother Church. On the Day of Pentecost when Apostle Peter preached his first sermon people from 13 different regions ‘both Jews and proselytes’, new converts to Judaism, heard him and three thousand joined the disciples (Acts 2:9-15 & 41). Once the opposition and persecution started, they all spread out to their own areas and the Gospel message reached all areas. The church at Rome also established for Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in around AD 53. Legend has it that Apostle John was put in boiling oil but suffered no harm and was then exiled to Patmos Island as punishment for preaching the Gospel at Ephesus, where he was the Bishop and Timothy, Apostle Paul’s nominee was the pastor.
The Book of Revelation was written around AD 93 by Apostle John at Patmos Island and the seven churches were selected as an example. The seven letters were not individual pieces but formed a one composite book to be read by all. Being part of the ‘Book of Revelation’, these letters are also about the future and relate to each and every church of today, till Lord Jesus’ second coming. The letters reflect the atmosphere of the cities in which the churches were and the ecclesia being from the local community, both Jews and gentiles, the local cultural effects would be visible in the church. The letters warn about this local ethos and to be vigilant against the same. The letters have not only warned but turned out to be prophetic in nature. The two churches that received the most criticism, Sardis and Laodicea, are the cities now completely uninhabited. The two that were fully praised by the Lord, Smyrna and Philadelphia, held out the longest against the Turkish conquerors. The church of Ephesus was threatened with removal from its place in the letter and the city was relocated to a site about three kilometers from where it was during those days
Lord Jesus has identified a believer as ‘salt of the earth’ to ensure preservation of the moral values of society (Matthew 5:13-16). He also termed us as ‘light of the world’, with a command, ‘let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven’. Any individual believer and the church are supposed to make disciples and that is through preaching the Gospel message as well as by setting a personal example of holy and righteous living to urge others to be curious to adopt the same practices. The letters to the seven churches are caution pointers for the same and we can gauge our own spiritual state by looking at these letters.
Important points of the letters – All seven letters follow a specific format with the first point being about Lord Jesus’ kingship and authority over the church; second, the individual church’s past record of faithfulness or disobedience; third, warnings to repent or be prepared to face action and finally, promises of blessings for faithful obedience to face and overcome the situation prevailing. We shall see these letters one by one, starting with the Church at Ephesus.
Letter to Church of Ephesus – Ephesus was the second most important city in the Roman Empire and center for trade and learning. It was the main junction for movement from West to East. The temple to Artemis (Diana to the Romans), the goddess of fertility and ‘wild nature of its worship’ was one of the ‘seven wonders’ of that time. The temple treasury was used as a bank to deposit their wealth by the merchants, kings and even cities. Apostle Paul stayed in Ephesus for three years and appointed Timothy as the leader of the church with a warning to confront ‘false teachers. Acquilla and Priscilla, close associates of Apostle Paul, served there.
The letter is addressed to ‘the angel of the church’ and the Greek word ‘angelos’ means messenger. Some consider the heavenly angel tasked by God to be head over each church as the recipient but a human agent is not needed for this communication to an angel. The ‘angel’ is supposed to be the Pastor leader of the church serving as representative shepherd of God for the congregation and they are answerable to God for this. It is from the One ‘who holds seven stars in His right hand and walks in the midst of the golden lampstands’ explaining His authority over the church.
The assessed state of the church was that they were hard working for the kingdom; steadfast and persevering; resisting sin and critically examining claims of false apostles in the community; enduring hardships without becoming weary. Apostle Paul had warned the Ephesians, ‘For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves’ (Acts 20:29-31). The congregation did not forget Apostle Paul’s warning. The ‘savage wolves’ or false apostle were dishonest workers disguising themselves like the seven sons of Sceva, the Jewish high priest. Satan disguises himself as ‘angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14) and his agents do likewise to mislead believers.
The point of criticism ‘you have left your first love’. One may lose something by accident but leaving is deliberate. The first love after one is born again is for Lord Jesus and they had probably grown cold from deep within while outside all was looking great. Their doctrines and beliefs were pure but it was the mind without the heart working with little or no love for God, for each other or for the community. It is like a couple married for a long time with that spark of love missing in their relationship with everything taken for granted and no efforts made to ignite that spark. Though the church was doing much but with wrong motives for probably they were affected by their sufferings. The motive for our good works must be from our love for the LORD God through the power of the Holy Spirit and not just for ‘social causes’.
The warning – ‘Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else’. There are three immediate actions required to be done, first, remember and it is not one time but to continue remembering where you were before you fell. The Prodigal son, while in the pigpen, had to first remember what life was back, even for the servants, in his father’s house and only ten could he think of returning home. Remembering is always the first step in attempts at restoration. Second, repent and it is not about being sorry but to change direction of life, of attitude and conduct, before it is too late. It needed a sharp break with the present. Third, ‘do the first works’ or get back to the basics and these first works for all believers are; spending time in His Word, regular prayer time, joy of fellowship with other believers and efforts to witness to others about your faith. The devil is an expert in creating dissatisfaction with these first works by making believers run after new programs for growth without substance or following new ideologies or cults. Our short attention span makes us easily bored with the truest excitement, leading us to look for what appeals to the senses rather than the spirit.
The punishment – ‘or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place – unless you repent’. The seven branched lampstand (Menorah) gave light for the priests so that they could minister in the Temple’s Holy Place. The removal of the lampstand would be affected by the Lord Himself and it would mean removal of their light and His presence from their midst.
They could continue as an organization but no longer as a true church of the Lord and be the church of Ichabod (1 Samuel 4:21), like the Tabernacle without the Ark or glory of the Lord.
As a matter of encouragement to this church Lord Jesus complimented them for their hatred ‘of the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate’. Nicolaus of Antioch was a Jewish convert who preached sexual immorality and eating of things sacrificed to idols or other gods. They believed that after being saved they could continue to sin and seek forgiveness with the intention of repeating the same sins again and again. God who is love hates sin and so should we also, while making all out efforts to get back into faith.
Exhortation– ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ informs that all the seven letters are for everyone of that time, today and in the future. Are we listening to what the Word of God cautions us about or do we try to understand and live the intent/ purpose of the message? The indwelling Holy Spirit is our guide and teacher but He can be effective only in those who care to listen and to listen with intent of obedience.
The promised reward – ‘To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God’. We usually think of overcoming sin and spiritual warfare only but each church member has to gain victory over their own problem. Ephesians were to overcome their coldness of heart and lack of love. To eat from the tree of life means restoration to Eden and rolling back the effects of the curse and eternal life through the victory of The Lord on the cross. Originally ‘the Paradise’ was taken as ‘a garden of delight’ but it means ‘the place where God lives’ and the one who overcomes is assured of a place in His presence. Most of us can identify ourselves to some degree with the congregation of Ephesus and need to beware of the same.
Lessons to be learnt – Our Lord charges us to overcome those who seek to overwhelm us. And the believer does this through faith, ‘Whatever is born of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that has overcome the world, our faith’ (1 John 5:4). We overcome the devil and his agents ‘because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the Word of their testimony’ (Revelation 12:1). It is not only about victory but avoiding being a traitor by withholding testimony. This victory is not a one day or one time event but a daily activity, in which sometimes we may fall also. But we are to seek the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit for strength and guidance to get up and get going again. The Ephesians’ church was commended by Ignatius in the first century who wrote, ‘You, being full of the Holy Spirit, do nothing according to the flesh, but all things according to the Spirit. You are complete in Christ Jesus’.
All believers are required to keep focused on Lord Jesus, since we are being transformed into His image day by day towards our completeness. Lord Jesus overcame by enduring ‘such hostility from sinners against Himself’ and when we do this, we can also overcome weariness and discouragement in our souls (Hebrews 12:2-3). God the Holy Spirit leads us to the Son of God and He in turn leads us to God the Father but the devil wants us to remain focused on self and this world. As joint heirs with Lord Jesus we are made partakers of the ‘power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise/blessings’ that He has received (Revelation 5:12).
But all this cannot be given by God to someone who has conceded his rights to the devil. We have to be constantly on the watch and overcome resistance to our full commitment to the works of the Kingdom, study and meditation on the Word of God, prayer, fellowship with God and with other believers, continue to do good to others as expression of God’s love for mankind and reach out to others with the message of salvation in the Lord. We sincerely do our part and God our Father ensures our victory.
Every believer has to be on the watch for the devil is always lurking around us to ‘devour and destroy’ us and our testimony by leading us into sin. But when we remain focused on Lord Jesus and His Word, God fulfills His promise given to Joshua, ‘No one will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses so I will be with you’. God is always in and with us and ever ready to intervene in our situation when we seek Him. AS we remain steadfast in him, our victory is assured!