Imagine a prosperous and heavily populated city. One renowned for its culture and art. A center of commerce that is extremely wealthy. One known for religious tolerance, which allowed the Church of God to do a work there.
In this city, a Christian man is walking home after Sabbath services and observing the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life. He wonders how such a beautiful place could be so corrupt. False religion is widespread and openly practiced. He thinks of all the money wasted on extravagant places of worship that are seemingly on every corner.
The man’s thoughts shift to recent events in the Church. “Destroyers” had infiltrated the Church, introducing new doctrines and dividing brethren into disagreeing groups. Both false teachers and false apostles had stood up and led many members astray. These small groups were slowly taking on many of the characteristics of the world the man saw around him.
While this could describe a modern city, it is actually a picture of Ephesus at the turn of the first century. This city was located off the Aegean Sea and had a population of around 300,000. It was home to the temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Around AD 70, the New Testament Church Headquarters was moved to this city, and the congregation there typed the first of seven Church eras described in Revelation 2-3.
Although these events occurred hundreds of years ago, the circumstances from that time mirror events that have happened in recent decades. The “Ephesian era” of the Church reveals many lessons Christians can apply today.
The first Church era, which lasted until approximately AD 98, is referred to as the “Apostolic Era.” Christ inspired John to write about this era when the aging apostle was imprisoned on the Island of Patmos: “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things says He that holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know your works, and your labor, and your patience, and how you cannot bear them which are evil: and you have tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and have found them liars: and have borne, and have patience, and for My name’s sake have labored, and have not fainted.
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto you quickly, and will remove your candlestick out of his place, except you repent.
“But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches; To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:1-7).
While this passage may seem difficult to understand, when placed in proper historical and biblical context, it reveals much about the trials that every Christian faces.
To fully understand this era, it is necessary to read what other sections of the Bible say about it.
Christ commended the congregation at Ephesus for their works, which He had assigned them. These included: (1) carrying Christ’s gospel of the kingdom of God to the world for a witness (Matt. 24:14), and (2) feeding the flock so members could grow in spiritual knowledge and righteous character (John 21:16-17).
The explosive increase during the first phase is best summarized by this brief description in Acts 12:24, “…the word of God grew and multiplied.”
Another commendation Jesus gave the Ephesians is recorded in Revelation 2:6: “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
The word Nicolaitan can mean “destroyer of the people.” They promoted lawlessness, especially regarding fornication. Apparently, they had infiltrated the Church and infused their pagan doctrines into God’s feast days, leading many Christians astray. Despite their teachings, there were still brethren in Ephesus who held fast to the truth.
The apostle Paul stayed in this city for a prolonged period. “But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great door and effectual is opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (I Cor. 16:8-9).
As the Ephesian congregation grew, so did its notoriety. Its rising profile in the city led to many adversaries, notably a silversmith who made figurines of Diana, the goddess of the city (Acts 19:24-27). At one point, this craftsman even riled a crowd against those worshipping the true God.
The Church witnessed many miracles and endured constant persecution. Almost all of the apostles were thrown in prison, beaten and ultimately killed. Only the apostle John survived to old age.
Christ pointed out how much hardship and labor this era had patiently endured for the work and His namesake. “And have borne, and have patience, and for My name’s sake have labored, and have not fainted” (Rev. 2:3). A few during this time never gave up or grew weary. Instead, they patiently weathered all trials.
But for others, the persecution and infiltration of “destroyers” took a toll. Their “first love” wore off and they began to feel as though God’s way of life was routine. The Church endured an apostasy, and only a remnant remained faithful.
Because of this, Jesus sharply warned them to “repent and do the first works” and regain their first love: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto you quickly, and will remove your candlestick out of his place, except you repent” (Rev. 2:4-5). Those who were part of the Church became spiritually fatigued and no longer had their hearts completely in God’s Work.
Although the first era began with an abundance of love, excitement and zeal, it ended in apostasy. With this in mind, the parallels between the Ephesian Church era, and that of the Church today, become unmistakably clear.
In I Corinthians, Christians are instructed to learn from the past: “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (10:11). While “these things” is specifically referring to what happened in Old Testament times, the scripture can also apply to gleaning lessons from Church history. “Admonition” in this passage means “calling attention to,” for a “rebuke or warning.”
Reread the description of Ephesus in Revelation 2 with this in mind:
Today, “evil men and seducers…wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (II Tim. 3:13). Are you diligently studying your Bible to be able to “try” the ideas of those who appear godly and speak smooth things, but are really liars?
We are soon to be “hated of all nations” (Matt. 24:9) for being true Christians. Think of the persecution this will bring upon us! Have you set your mind and put your faith in God that you will be able to weather persecution from co-workers, friends, family members and spouses?
Ongoing, intense persecution in an ever-darkening age will lead to many no longer wholeheartedly doing God’s Work. Notice Matthew 24:12: “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”
These are just some of the lessons from the Ephesian era. But there are many more. Read slowly through the rest of the verses in Revelation 2, imagining how the events at Ephesus mirror today.
In the midst of any trial or intense persecution, take to heart Christ’s encouraging words to Ephesus: “He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches; to him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).
With patience and diligent hard work, we can endure suffering and persecution.
We can overcome the tendency to let down, and continue to maintain zeal and love for the brethren and the Work—and effectively claim Christ’s promises given to all Christians since the Ephesian era.