Monday, September 04, 2023

Chapter 3 of "The Glorious Victory: An Exposition of Revelation" (by George van Popta)

Chapter 3

Revelation 2:1-7

The Lord Jesus Christ speaks to his church about loyalty, love and life
1. He commends the church for its loyalty
2. He warns the church about a lack of love
3. He promises the church eternal life

As we continue reading the book of Revelation, a letter from the ascended and glorified Christ to the church of all ages, we come across a series of short letters addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor. Chapters two and three contain these brief letters.

These seven churches existed when John received his vision. They were the first recipients of Revelation; however, just as the book of Revelation is for the church of all ages and places, so the seven letters are for the church of all ages and places. The individual letters, although originally meant for specific congregations of more than 1900 years ago, contain instruction for the church today. This is not because we can make a direct identification between, for example, Ephesus and a contemporary congregation; rather, they speak to us because every congregation of every age is like the church of Ephesus, having similar strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, in each of the seven letters Christ said, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The message is not only for that particular church, but for all the churches of Christ.

A few introductory remarks about the structure of these letters are in order. In general, they all have the same basic arrangement. First the Lord Jesus Christ called himself by a certain name that recalled some aspect of the vision John had of Christ in chapter 1. Then the Lord mentioned the specific situation of the church, both positive and negative aspects. Next Christ gave a relevant message of encouragement or of warning, or of both. Finally, he uttered a promise for those who overcome in triumph against sin and temptation.

While there is this basic structure to each of the seven letters, each has its own specific message for the church of yesterday and of today.

Commendation for loyalty

The Lord began each letter by referring to himself with a specific name drawn from John’s original vision of the exalted Christ related in chapter 1. These self-designations of Christ are important for understanding the message of the various letters.

In the letter to the church at Ephesus, the Lord called himself, “He who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.”

From the last verse of Revelation 1, we learned that the seven “stars” are the angels of the seven churches. The word “angel” means “messenger.” We should think of the church itself as a messenger of God with a message for the world.

He also called himself, “The one who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” From 1:20 we learn that the seven lampstands are the seven churches. They represent the churches of Christ as they are visible in the world. The Lord Jesus is walking among these churches, carefully watching their activities and their struggles. He intimately knows their strengths and weaknesses and how they are viewed by the world.

Both stars and lamps give light. They have that in common. If you are far away from the city and look upward on a moonless night, you will see the amazing sight of the heavens, full of stars. Stars also give direction. One who knows the night sky well can find his way home using the stars as a guide.

A lampstand also gives light. Of course it is not the lampstand that gives light but the lamp placed upon the lampstand. When a light is put on it, the light will fill the room.

The Lord Jesus addressed this guiding and revealing light, the church as it was heard and seen in the world.


Loyal to God, the church pierced the darkness of the world with its message and lifestyle. The church was not light in itself; rather, it was light only through its relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. The church drew its light from him. In chapter 1, John saw a vision of Christ whose face was like the sun shining in full strength. Have you ever tried to look at the sun? I think everyone tries it at least once. When the sun is shining in full strength, it is impossible to look at it for more than a split second. Involuntarily, you will close your eyes and you will see spots for a good half minute.

That is what it was like for John. He had one glimpse of the bright shining face of Jesus Christ and he fell to the ground as though dead.

The Lord imparted that powerful and awesome light to his church. As Christ was the light of God that came into the dark world revealing sin and showing the way to the Father, so the church of Ephesus, enlightened by Christ, shone the light of God into the darkness of the city and showed the better way. The light of the gospel that shone from the church was an awesome power.

 Ephesus was one of the more important cities in the province of Asia Minor, with a population of about 300,000. It was a harbour city intersected by three major trade routes. Thus it was a centre of trade and commerce, but more importantly, it was a religious centre.

Emperor worship was firmly established in Ephesus. This worship had begun in earnest with Caesar Augustus and had flourished under succeeding emperors. Emperor worship was a way of life in the Roman Empire, and Ephesus had its temple and altars dedicated to Caesar.

But Ephesus was especially famous for its temple of the goddess Artemis. Just as Jerusalem had been the home of the temple of the Lord, so Ephesus was home to the temple of Artemis. In Acts 19:35, the city clerk of Ephesus is quoted as saying that the city of Ephesus was the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image which had fallen from heaven.

Artemis was a fertility goddess. If one paid homage to her, then, supposedly, he would receive good crops and many children. As all fertility cults, this one was replete with the depravity of temple prostitutes and other perversions. Immorality was common, accepted and expected in this city.

The church of Ephesus faithfully proclaimed the gospel message. In the book of Acts we read about the good news coming to Ephesus. First Aquila and Priscilla, then Apollos, then Paul, and later Timothy proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Jews and Gentiles of Ephesus. The message of hope had taken hold, and a faithful church had grown. This church was loyal to its Lord. The believers rejected the religion of emperor worship and turned away from the perverted cult of Artemis. They left all that behind and were true to Jesus Christ who, through the preaching of missionaries, had given them free and glorious salvation.

The Ephesians believers rejected, and witnessed against, the enemy outside the church. They also rebuffed the enemy inside the church. They fought against the teachings of false apostles and refused to listen to teachers who brought them something other than the pure word of God.

The Lord Christ commended them for this rejection of evil and for their loyalty to him. He said, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” The Lord Jesus had said in Matthew 7, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” His disciples would be able to identify the wolves. As Jesus said in Matthew 7, “You will know them by their fruits.”

Paul had also warned the elders of the church in Ephesus that ravenous wolves would come into their midst. In Acts 20 Paul gave his farewell words to the elders of Ephesus. In verse 29 he said, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!”

They were on their guard. They were on the lookout. When the false apostles, wolves in sheep’s clothing, had come into the sheepfold and begun to propagate false doctrine, the elders had said, “That is heresy.” They, together with the congregation, had tested what the false teachers said and discovered it was not in accord with what they had learned in the past. The church at Ephesus had discovered the teachers to be false apostles, and so the congregation had remained doctrinally loyal to the word of God.

They also rejected, even hated, the works of the Nicolaitans. We do not know very much about the Nicolaitans, who are mentioned again in the letter to Pergamum. What we do know is that they were the people of compromise. They said, “Come on, do not be so radical. Take it easy. It’s not as black and white as you make it out to be.”

The Nicolaitans were like secular Christians who come to church on Sunday but live in the thick of the world the rest of the week. They made a complete separation between the body and the soul and said that as long as the soul was pure, it did not matter what one did with the body. The typical attitude of a Nicolaitan was, “As long as my soul is okay as far as Christ is concerned, I can get drunk and gamble and party and visit the prostitutes all I want. What I believe with my soul and do with my body have nothing to do with each other.”

The coliseum in Ephesus

They tried to combine the religion of Artemis with the religion of Jesus Christ. “You can have both!” they argued. “Let Christ have your soul; let Artemis have your body!”

The loyal Christians said, “No way!” They wanted nothing to do with this unchristian way of thinking. In fact, they rejected this compromise and excommunicated those who propagated it. All those who attempted to wed the darkness of the world with the light of the church had no place in the congregation of Ephesus.

What do we think about such an attitude? Were they too radical? Were they too strict, too ultra-conservative? We should think not. Please notice that the Lord Jesus commended them for this. He said that he too hated the works of the Nicolaitans. The church was in a situation where the darkness of the world was pressing against it from the outside and the pitch-black of false doctrine and compromise was infiltrating from the inside. Such times called for decisive action, and the church was loyal to its Lord. It let the true message be heard and was not afraid to be seen doing right. The church, as angel messenger, continued to speak the truth and let the lamp shine.

In this way the church of Ephesus serves as a powerful example for the church today. Are we as loyal to Christ as they were? Do we speak out against error as this church did, or do we take the position of “live and let live”? Are we a bright shining and powerful light in a dark world? Are we as diligent in rejecting compromise with the world as our brothers and sisters in Ephesus? Are we as determined not to be mere Sunday Christians who are firmly latched into the pleasures and attitudes and values of the world the rest of the week? These are worthwhile questions.

Warning about lack of love

Although the Lord had high praise for the church at Ephesus, yet there was a fundamental problem in its life. Christ admonished the church for this and warned it that it would feel his judgment if it did not repent. In verse 4 the Lord said, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love (or, ‘the love you had at first’).”

In the commentaries there are different opinions about whether the “love” mentioned here refers to love for God or love for the brotherhood. It must refer to the latter.

Had they abandoned love for God, they would not have maintained so zealously and loyally purity of doctrine and holy lives but would have given up long before. The teachings of the false apostles would have taken control of the church and the congregation would have fallen into the trap of compromise espoused by the Nicolaitans.

It was precisely their love and zeal for God that gave them the energy to maintain these principles. The Lord Jesus was warning them that he knew they did not love each other like they had at first. They had abandoned the mutual love that had carried them along in the days the gospel had first broken into their lives. Love for the brotherhood had died out. The church was strong on doctrinal precision and obedience but weak on mutual and brotherly love. This is what they had forsaken.

We can imagine how it happened. The church was into its second generation, being about forty years old. The council of elders was made up of men who had been taught from their youth to be on the lookout for wolves dressed as sheep. Each member took seriously the warning of the Lord Jesus, and later of Paul, to be on the alert for false doctrine. No worldliness was allowed to enter from outside. Any false teaching that tried to rear its head from within the church was quickly squashed. This was good.


However, the people had become edgy and nervous, and another deadly attitude had taken control. Always being on the alert for false teachers had filled the Ephesian Christians with mistrust and suspicion, even for each other. When one brother stood up in a meeting to say something, the other brothers turned deaf ears, because, well, “We know what he’s going to say anyway.” When one wrote an article in the church magazine, the others said, “I’m not reading it. He never knows what he’s talking about.” 

“Come now,” said the Lord Jesus, “think about the height from which you have fallen.” He had said in John 13, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is the hallmark of Christians, mutual love. The Lord called them to repentance and back to the love they had for each other at the beginning. Without love, a church ceases to be the church. Christ warned the congregation that if they would not repent from their lovelessness, he would remove their lampstand.

As Paul said, without love, we are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Cor 13). Even though the church was thoroughly orthodox with faithful preaching and church discipline, yet it was in danger of becoming something grotesque because the congregation had abandoned love.

Return to that, said the Lord. It was critical. Regaining this love would not be done through emotional outbursts, nor by talking and theorizing about it; rather, as verse 5 says, they were to do the things they did at first. It would be a matter of deeds, of lending a helping hand to someone who needed help, of visiting that lonely person or inviting him over. The return to which the Lord called them would be seen in their being open to each other, and not prejudging or being suspicious. It would be a matter of speaking well about each other and not murdering each other with gossip and slander.

This is what it had been like when the gospel had first won over their parents. They had loved God most of all and their neighbours as themselves. The church needed to recapture this attitude. It needed to avoid not only the temptations of the world and the corrosion of false doctrine but also the emptiness of abandoned love. The church was to be doctrinally precise, loyally obedient, and filled with mutual love for the brotherhood. That is the church. Those are Christians.

Promise of eternal life

If the church were to recapture the love it had at first by doing the works of love, then the Lord would not remove the lampstand. That is the first promise the church received. If they would be faithful to their Lord and King and obey his command to love the brotherhood, then he would establish them more and more. Then the Lord would continue to allow them to be his messenger to the world.

We know from history that the church at Ephesus must have heeded the call to repent, for it continued to function for many years. In fact, in the year 431 the church even hosted an ecumenical church council.

The second promise is in the last verse of the letter. There the Lord Jesus said, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

One of the sacred symbols of the goddess Artemis was a palm tree. Many of the coins struck in Ephesus had an image of a palm tree on them in honour of Artemis. The Lord Jesus Christ gave to his church the promise of a much better tree that that of Artemis.

The last chapter of Revelation mentions once again the tree of life which will be in the paradise of God. Adam and Eve were shut out of the first paradise so that they could not eat of the tree of life after they had fallen into sin. Because the Lord Jesus has paid for that sin, and for all the sins of those who love him, we will be allowed to eat of that tree of life in the new paradise. That tree will give immortality and eternal life. That is the promise.

This blessing of the tree of life is given to “him who overcomes,” that is, to him who triumphs over lovelessness. It is given to him who remains loyal to God in the face of secularism and false doctrine, and who loves his neighbour. This promise was for every member of the congregation just as the command to regain the love which had been abandoned was for every member.

All of this–encouragement, warning, promise and command–comes to the church of today. Every congregation and every individual member of the congregation has a responsibility to make the communion of saints work as the Lord Jesus Christ created it to work. We are to be loyal to God and to show true Christian love to each other.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Scripture reading:  Acts 19:23-41
Songs:  Psalms 16, 115, 133