What would you say are the four most important cities in the world? According to the global management consulting firm A. T. Kearney—I saw this in National Geographic at my in-laws’ house a couple weeks ago—they are New York City (no shock), London, Tokyo, and Paris, with Hong Kong at #5. Now, that factors in things like cultural experience—Paris is that high in part because of the cathedrals and the museums—so if you’re thinking in terms of power, you might arrange that differently; for my part, I think they’re crazy to list Beijing down at #15, given the looming significance of China as a military and economic power. Still, if we all made our own lists and combined them all, I’d bet it wouldn’t be much longer than four.
In the Roman Empire at the end of the first century, the list was even shorter. Rome was most important, of course, but among the provincial cities, three clearly dominated: Alexandria in Egypt, Syrian Antioch, and Ephesus in Asia Minor (which covered the western part of modern-day Turkey). Asia Minor was perhaps the richest of all Roman provinces, and Ephesus was its biggest and most important city—it had a quarter-million people, which was huge in the ancient world. It was a great seaport with a superb natural harbor at the mouth of the Cayster River, and through it flowed three major trade routes between Rome and the East; this made it an extremely important commercial center, and contributed to its great wealth.
Now, I said two weeks ago that we must understand the historical and cultural context if we’re going to be able to understand Revelation. I spent some time laying out the general context—if you weren’t here that Sunday, it would help to pull up the first sermon in this series and either read it or listen to it; we also need to look at some specific things for Ephesus, because this letter—like the next six—uses the particular history and situation of the city to make its point.
First, the city had been completely destroyed twice, and each time rebuilt on a completely different site—if you wanted to mark Ephesus on a map, you’d have to ask which one, at what point in history. The great biblical scholar William M. Ramsay dubbed it “the City of Change.” At the time of this letter, there was the threat of yet another change: the silting-up of the great harbor by the Cayster River, which would destroy the city. That did eventually happen, which is why the ruins of Ephesus now sit several swampy miles from the Turkish coast.
Second, Ephesus was a city of tremendous religious importance. I noted two weeks ago the temple of Domitian that was built there—as a center of Caesar worship it was second in importance only to Rome; but that paled in significance next to the great temple of Artemis, one of the famed seven wonders of the ancient world. The donations and gifts it attracted had done as much as trade to make Ephesus rich and powerful. And of particular importance for our passage, while the temple was the largest building in the ancient world, the original shrine out of which it had grown was a tree shrine. The tree was the emblem of the presence of the goddess in her sanctuary at the heart of the vast building; it was the principal symbol of Ephesian religion. The promise of the tree of life, then, isn’t only drawing on Genesis 2, it’s also an assertion that what the Ephesians claimed for Artemis in fact belonged to God.
Besides the cultural context of this letter, we also need to note the biblical context. If you remember a couple years ago when we worked through 1 Timothy, or if you happen to have pulled those sermons up more recently, you know that I argued that Paul’s central concern in that letter is to help Timothy deal with a group of false teachers who are doing great damage to the church in Ephesus; it’s clearly an urgent situation, and everything in the letter is aimed at stopping the spread of heresy. The purpose of the letter is to keep the false teachers from leading the church completely astray from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So what do we see here? “You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” They have overcome the false teachers and held fast to the truth, even in the face of hostility and opposition from their society. Paul’s concerns are no longer an issue—the church is strong, they’re working hard, they know the truth, they’ve got it right. They are an example to the other churches.
But. “I hold this against you,” Jesus says: “You have forsaken the love you had at first.” Some commentators believe this means they had lost their love for one another—that they had spent so much time and energy fighting for the truth that their hearts had hardened; suspicion and mistrust had eaten away at their relationships with each other. Others say that this clearly refers to their love for God, though really, you can’t separate the two; if one, then the other. Gregory Beale argues that the point is that they were no longer expressing love for Christ by witnessing to him in the world; that’s too narrow, but it is an emphasis in the broader point.
We need to understand the letter as a whole in the light of verse 1. You may have registered that Christ describes himself here in language that refers back to chapter 1; this is true of all seven letters, and in each case, it ties in to the message of the letter. Here, the reference comes from 1:13 and 16: Christ is the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks among the seven golden lampstands. He has authority over the angels of the seven churches—they are in his hand, in his control—and he is present among the seven churches, watching them and watching over them. He knows what’s going on, he knows what they’re doing and not doing, and he has both the right and the power to command them to change. As well, this language reminds the Ephesians (and us) that Christ is the source of their light, and the one whose light they are called to shine. It’s about him, not about them, and not about us.
Ephesus was a proud church. Theirs was a mighty city, and they were the mother church from which the other churches of Asia Minor were planted; and unfortunately, fighting for truth against those who are servants of the lie, as Paul says in 1 Timothy, tends to breed more spiritual pride. They had been fighting these battles, and all their energy and passion had gone into the fight, and all their focus had been on the fight; and when that happens, when you pour yourself into a fight like that, it will change your heart if you’re not careful. You start off fighting for truth because you love Jesus, and after a while, you’re fighting for truth because you love truth; given long enough, you fight because you love being right, and it’s all about you.
Is that where the Ephesians were? It seems a reasonable guess. Christ begins his message to them in a way that emphasizes his primacy. This isn’t all about the Ephesians, it isn’t about them proving their supremacy or superiority by winning theological arguments; it’s about Jesus. The light of the church, the light of the stars and the lampstands, doesn’t come from the church, and it doesn’t belong to them; it comes from Jesus. Doctrinal purity is important, because our teaching is one of the glasses through which the light shines—false doctrine obscures or distorts the light—but it is not itself the light. The light is the character and goodness and love and grace of God, and though the church at Ephesus has their doctrine all in order, the light of God is nevertheless being hidden by their lack of love. Just as their city is fighting for its life against the silt that threatens to fill in its harbor, so the church is fighting for its life against the pride and harshness that had silted up its people’s hearts. If they do not repent of their sin and return to the love of Christ, they will cease to be truly a church, and he will remove them.
Now, we know from Ignatius that the Ephesian church took this warning to heart, but they still stand for us as a cautionary example. We must stand for truth, because God is truth, and false teaching can be absolutely destructive; we cannot let it slide. We must also remember what Paul wrote in Ephesians, that “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Love cannot exist without truth, but truth is not truth without love; and unfortunately, fighting with people doesn’t tend to make us love them.
As we fight for the truth, we must take care that the fight does not harden our hearts, that we do not grow proud and cold. As we stand against our former presbytery, we must be intentional about loving them, and about praying for them and for the PC(USA); and more than that, as we fight for the truth, we must take care to remember why we fight. We must never let our focus be on the battle, but only on Christ. Everything we do should be about him, not us, and for him, not us; everything we do should be out of love, because we love him and we love the people he has placed in our lives, and we want to please him.