Someone wisely commented that the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Jesus told a parable about seeds sprouting up quickly, but then withering from the heat of the sun, or trampled on by people, or chocked by weeds (see Luke 8:5-15). We have idioms that warn against burning the candle at both ends, or being a flash in the pan. These idioms illustrate the difficulty of being committed, and consistent, over the long-haul. How many times have we excitedly started something, only to lose interest a few days (or weeks, or months, or years) later? How many times does that describe our relationship with Jesus?
Following Jesus is a marathon race, not a 100-yard sprint. Many believers start out fast, but then, just as fast, burn out, get tired, or become apathetic. Keenly aware of this possibility caused the Apostle Paul to write, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
The first church John wrote a letter to in Revelation was the Church at Ephesus. They were a strong church, a church that was fully committed to following Jesus. But a church that was in danger of burning out; of becoming apathetic; of losing their “first love” (v. 4). Radical churches produce radical disciples, and radical disciples keep their love for Jesus at a fever pitch.
The City of Ephesus
The city of Ephesus was a great sea-port of the ancient world. From Ephesus, three major trade routes (like modern day interstates) carried goods throughout Asia Minor (the Middle East) and the Roman Empire. In commerce and wealth, few cities surpassed Ephesus. It was the most important city in Western Turkey. It was also home to more than 250,000 people; the third largest city in the Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria.
The Apostle Paul visited Ephesus on his third missionary journey (54-58 A.D.). Luke records, “Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus” (Acts 19:1). In other words, he walked to Ephesus instead of traveling by boat. Luke continues, “(Paul) found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said to him, ‘No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ And they said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men” (Acts 19:2-7). Imagine that! In a city of a quarter of a million people, there were only twelve followers of Jesus!
For the next three months, the Apostle preached in the local synagogue. But after much opposition, he stopped preaching in the synagogue and began having daily discussions “in the lecture hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9), a public hall that could be rented. Luke writes, “This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them” (Acts 19:10-12). The church in Ephesus was birthed out of signs and wonders. Under Paul’s leadership, the church in Ephesus grew exponentially.
But along with the fast growth came multiple conflicts. One Jewish priest, named “Sceva,” who had seven associate priests under him, known as the “Seven sons of Sceva” (Acts 19:14) imitated Paul, trying to cast out demons. One day, while attempting this, the demon spoke back to them, saying, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” (Acts 19:15). Then, the demon-possessed man “overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding” (Acts 19:16).
On another occasion, the local metal workers union, led by “Demetrius,” caused a riot because Paul’s preaching and deliverance ministry was hurting their idol making business (see Acts 19:21-27). The glory of Ephesus was their “temple of the great Artemis” (Acts 19:35). This temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. For the Ephesians, Artemis was a fertility goddess, and her image—a black, squat, repulsive figure, covered with many breasts, with a club in one hand and a trident in the other—was the most sacred thing in the world.
The Temple of Artemis served as a sort of bank for the wealthy. In addition to their offerings, the citizens of Ephesus, would deposit their valuables in the middle of the temple for safe-keeping. Also, the temple served as an asylum for criminals. In other words, if a man had committed a crime, if he could reach the middle of the temple before he was arrested, he was safe. Once reaching the temple, as long as he (or she) stayed within one bowshot (about 200 yards) of the temple, he (or she) could not be arrested or charged with their crime. You can imagine that the area surrounding the Temple was filled with the worst types of criminals in the ancient world.
The Letter from John
Into this wicked, secular, materialistic city, a powerful church grew. Church history recounts that by 300 A.D., those twelve believers grew to almost 95% of all Ephesians professing to be followers of Jesus Christ. This commercial, wealthy, wicked, pagan city, that only had twelve believers when Paul arrived around 58 A.D., became the center of Christianity in Asia Minor for 300 years. But within ten years of her formation, they were at a crossroads. The church was on the verge of losing her first love. John’s letter is a warning to them.
John writes, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. 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. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:1-3).
All seven letters to the seven churches follow a similar outline of, first, a picture of Christ, followed by compliment, critique, challenge, and promise. To the Ephesians, John pictures Christ by reminding them that Jesus is in the middle of their fellowship, holding their pastor(s) in His right hand. Jesus knows what is going on, and nothing about their circumstances has caught Him off-guard.
The church is then complimented for their hard work, strong stand against wickedness, perseverance, faithful teachings, rejection of false teachers, and endurance through hardships. We got a glimpse of all of this in Acts 19. Maybe the greatest thing about the church in Ephesus is that through it all, the believers accomplished these things without growing weary. High praise for a church in a difficult city.
An example of their strong stand against wickedness, and rejection false teachers is that they hated “the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6). Who were these people? In Acts 6:5, one of the seven deacons chosen was “Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.” Early church father, Irenaeus says that Nicolas was a pagan that converted to Judaism, then converted to Christianity, but later became a heretic, starting the movement known as the Nicolaitans. The heresy taught by this group is known as antinomianism, the belief that you can live your life any way you please as long as you confess Jesus. Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describes this as cheap-grace. Antinomianism is the opposite of legalism.
The letters critique is brief but bold: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (Revelation 2:4). There are two ways to apply what John is saying. Both are valid and still practical for us today. First, the church was guilty of no longer being a loving church. In other words, in their desire to be doctrinally pure they had become overly judgmental; and in their busyness of doing good in the community, they had forgotten the most important commandment to love one another.
Oh, how dangerous this still is today! We need to remember the words of Paul, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). More important than our doctrine, more important than our ministries, more important than our standards and convictions, is that people far from God know we love them and will accept them. Our church should be a welcoming place, a place where everyone is welcome, and where everyone is loved, so that everyone can hear about the grace and forgiveness found in Jesus Christ. If we don’t have love, nothing else really matters!
Second, the church was guilty of losing their enthusiasm for Christ. In other words, the honeymoon period of following Jesus was over. Now, they did what they did more out of obligation then gratitude and thankfulness. The believers in Ephesus had become so busy doing good that their love for Christ had grown cold.
Oh, how dangerous this still is today! Here is a truth we must never forget: More important than our work for Christ is our walk with Christ. No matter how much good a person or church, does, if their love for Christ fades, so does their testimony, influence, and effectiveness. To keep this from happening, John challenges the church to “Remember the height from which you have fallen!” (Revelation 2:5). Most of the challenges to the churches in Revelation are steeped in the local culture of that particular city. In Ephesus, the great goddess, Artemis, was said to have fallen from heaven (see Acts 19:35). But greater than anything this false goddess could do for us (which in actuality is nothing), Jesus did by forgiving us our sins. We must never forget how far God has brought us, and how much farther we still have to go. There is no other God but God, and there is no other salvation but through Jesus Christ.
The challenge continues: “Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:5). We have to turn away from our busyness, and from simply going through the motions, and return to serving God and worshiping Him out of our love for Him. What follows is a warning if we don’t repent and return to our first love: “If you don’t repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:6). Regardless of what a church has going for it, and regardless of how many programs and ministries they have, if that church loses their love for people and for Jesus, that church’s influence in the city becomes minimal. Nothing is more important than loving God, by loving people!
The letter to Ephesus ends with this promise: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). Once again, this is a nod to the culture of Ephesus. The Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, “was built with 127 immense pillars designed to look like an eternal forest. In the center of the temple, an opening in the roof allowed light to shine down on a garden. This sacred garden, called the Paradeisos (Greek for ‘paradise’), was supposedly where Artemis had fallen to earth. Inside the Paradeisos was a sacred tree that the locals believed Artemis originated from.” It was to this tree, it was believed, if criminals reached and touched before being arrested, they could not be charged with a crime. John is telling the church, Artemis might get you a reprieve from your punishment, but only Jesus can forgive you of your sins and give you eternal life. Jesus is greater than any god or goddess, including Artemis.
Some people go to church because it is the culturally expedient thing to do. If you want to be a good person you will attend church (on occasion) throw in your tithes (on occasion), and every once in a while, (like once a quarter) participate in a “serving Saturday.” It’s what’s expected. It’s your duty. Some people go through the motions of following Jesus, without ever experiencing real life change. Others, had a true encounter early on, but have since forgotten what that was like, and are now just falling in line, doing what needs to be done.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! Radical churches produce radical disciples and radical disciples act out of their love for Jesus and what He has done for them. Radical disciples know the cost of their salvation. Radical disciples cultivate their love for Jesus because they have never forgotten how much Jesus loves them. It is His love for them that motivate their love for Him, and gives them the desire (and power) to work hard, stand strong, persevere, remain faithful, and endure hardships. Really radical stuff!
Are you radical?
Are you tired?
Has your enthusiasm diminished?
If you answered yes, remember what Jesus has done for you. Repent of your apathy, and return to your love for Him.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
If believers in Ephesus could live out their faith, so can we in Franklin, Tennessee.
 William Barclay, Letters to the Seven Churches (2001). Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY (p. 5).
 Dr. Jonathan Welton, Understanding the Seven Churches of Revelation (2015). Welton Academy, Rochester, NY, pp. 61-62.