I am not a premillennialist, so I generally find it a little unsettling to consider John’s churches in Revelation as representative of ‘church ages’ without question. I have no problem debating prophecy as it is not a matter of doctrine – to some degree. In this study, I would like to lay out a different view of them, to see if there is a better understanding of these mini-epistles.
“To the angel of the church of Ephesus write,
“These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.
Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place–unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”‘ (Revelation 2:1-7 NKJV)
Ephesus was an important city for the early spread of the Gospel, with Paul writing one letter and John relating another. Tradition tells that the Apostle John, who could very well have been the ‘angel’ of this church, led the local congregations in this area. Ephesus was still important to Christianity two decades after John, with the Church still surviving, when Ignatius of Antioch wrote to them. Further, in 431, the 3rd Ecumenical Council convened in Ephesus to condemn Nestorius.
Caesar Augustus became emperor in 27 BC. Upon his ascension to the throne he removed the government of Asia Minor from Pergamum giving it to Ephesus, which made it the most important city in the area. With this new focus on power and prosperity, her population grew rival that of Rome. Some estimates put the population of the city nearing a half a million people as the world entered the 2nd century after Christ.
The city was famed for the Temple of Artemis (Diana), who had her chief shrine there. She and her brother Apollo were said to be the children of Zeus and Leto. Artemis is often described as a virgin huntress, fearless in opposing her adversaries. At Ephesus, she seems to have been a mother goddess, a provider of fertility, and overseer of childbirth.
Worship of the Roman emperors began at Ephesus in 29 B.C., when a temple to the deified Julius Caesar and the goddess Roma was built near the city’s administrative buildings. Later, space for a cult of the emperor Augustus and the local goddess Artemis was set-aside near the chambers of the city council. Linking Augustus to Artemis impressed on people that benefits came from the divine cooperation of Rome and the Ephesians’ patron deity. The provincial temple for the Flavian emperors was dedicated in Ephesus in A.D. 89 or 90. From this time on, Ephesus boasted that it was the “temple keeper” for Artemis and the emperor.
As a strategic coastal gateway to the Eastern World, this city grew to be the second largest city in the Roman Empire, the site of a Christian shrine, and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Tradition is that Mary accompanied John coming to Ephesus at the end of her life, circa 37-45 AD. Renaissance church historians mentioned the trip, and it is said that local Christians venerated a small house near Ephesus as Mary’s. In 1967 Pope Paul VI visited the site, where a chapel now stands, and confirmed the authenticity of the legend. Also the Basilica of St. John is located near Ephesus. John is said to have lived the last years of his life here and after his death, a shrine was located over his grave.
It will be contention during this study that the Seven Churches in Revelation can be aligned with the Seven Parables in Matthew 13. It should be remembered that the Seven Parables in Matthew all concern the Kingdom of God, the Church.
Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 13:3-9 NKJV)
We may see that these churches can be understood in several ways
- Seven literal churches in these seven literal geographical cities.
- Prophetic understanding of these seven churches
- These congregations represent the Kingdom of God catholic
Ephesians is about the First Love and those that had abandoned Him. The Nicolatians – speculated, but not proved – had left Christ, the seeds of God having fallen into stony places. Both passages detail a separation among people – those of Christ and those where Christ could not take root.
The church at Ephesus had continued theses many years after the death of Paul in orthodox faith and morality, but had somehow left the love of God. Perhaps they were going through the motions, and service had become ceremonial. Although they had dismissed false Apostles, (Sometime later, even Ignatius would praise them for their resistance to heresy) they still lacked in themselves something very apostolic – love.
The lampstand, perhaps, is the gospel message and the ‘angel’ the leadership of the congregation or even the spirit of God that united the believers there to the body of Christ.
The Nicolaitans, as a sect, has been debated by Scholars and Clergy for some time. Many believe then an early gnostic sect that endorsed idolatry and immorality. We will encounter them again. In contrast to the Nicolaitans, we through this Church, are commanded to be overcomers. In Hebrew, conquering and saving are synonymous – both refer to salvation. Christ commands us to participate in this salvation, and by doing so, we may eat of the Tree of Life.