John Bradshaw - Ephesus
Welcome to Turkey. People have been living here longer than almost anywhere else on the planet. It's played an important role throughout history. Ancient ruins dot this storied land. The Trojan War took place here. Alexander the Great conquered a large part of what was then called Anatolia in 334 AD on his way to conquering the Medo-Persian Empire. And after Greece moved off center stage, the Roman Empire governed this part of the world.
Turkey is a beautiful country. It borders eight different nations, spans two continents, Europe and Asia, and sits between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean. But its importance isn't just limited to world history. Turkey has an extraordinarily rich Christian history. The book of Colossians was written to believers in Turkey. Antioch, where believers were first called Christians, was here. It was also home to seven of the most important churches in the history of Christianity: the seven churches of the book of Revelation. "What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea".
The letters to the seven churches are all brief. The letter to Thyatira is only 12 verses, less than 300 words; the letter to Smyrna, only four verses. But however short, these letters endure, and they were placed in the last book of the Bible with good reason. And the reason I say they are among the most important churches ever is because Jesus addressed these churches personally, prompting the Apostle John to write letters to the churches in behalf of Jesus Himself, letters which speak to us today, as we're going to learn. Each of the letters to the seven churches contains several things in common. To each of them there is an introduction of Jesus. For example, to the church of Smyrna, He's the one who was "the first and the last," who "was dead, and is alive".
To Sardis, Jesus is the one who has "the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars". To all of the churches, Jesus says, "I know your works". To most of them there's a rebuke or a reproof, and then to all of them there's a promise. For example, to the church at Philadelphia, Jesus says, "I will make [you to be] a pillar in the temple of my God". To Laodicea, He says, "I will grant [you] to sit with me [in] my throne". Now, the first of the seven churches is one that's very well known: Ephesus.
Back in John's time, Ephesus was one of the largest cities in the Roman province of Asia Minor, and it was a bustling center of pagan worship. Originally located on the shores of the Aegean Sea, 2,000 years of war, earthquakes, and the harbor being clogged with silt has left the site of old Ephesus three miles inland from the sea. However, the ruins that remain clue us in on how incredible this city once was. Here's how a poet from the second century BC described the grandeur of the Ephesian temples and monuments: "I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labor of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, 'Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'"
When you're standing in the old city, it's easy to understand what the poet was talking about. There are some absolutely remarkable ruins here. There's the temple built by Domitian, a Roman emperor in the first century; the fountain of Domitian; the third-largest library in the Roman Empire, where thousands of scrolls were held; ruins of gymnasiums close to 2,000 years old; a relief of the goddess Nike, the goddess of victory; the Nymphaeum, an impressive building constructed to honor nature spirits called nymphs. Ephesus hosted gladiator fights and wild animal fights during the third and fourth centuries, long after the time of John. Many historians say Christians were persecuted in this place. Of course, this isn't the only time the church of Ephesus appears in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote an epistle, that's a letter, to the church here about 20 years before Revelation was written.
So, clearly, this was an important place. Paul wrote to the Ephesians of conversion, of how God changes the life. It was to the Ephesians that he explained people are saved by grace through faith, the inference being, by grace alone through faith alone. He wrote to the Ephesians of righteousness by faith, of being strengthened inwardly by the Holy Spirit, of Christ dwelling in the heart by faith, of knowing the love of Christ and being filled with "the fullness of God". He wrote to them about baptism and spiritual gifts and manifesting the character of Christ. And it was to the Ephesians that he wrote about the armor of God: "the shield of faith," "the helmet of salvation," "the sword of the Spirit," which he said was "the word of God". When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he specifically addressed both slaves and slave owners, as Ephesus was a very significant slave trading center.
Years later, when John wrote to the church of Ephesus back in Revelation, chapter 2, he had this to say: "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.'" Notice, this letter starts with an assurance: This comes to you from the One "who holds the seven stars in His right hand". We're told in chapter 1 that those stars represent the angels, or the messengers, of the seven churches. Then: This is from the One "who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands," which chapter 1 said are the seven churches. Jesus says He's intimately acquainted with them and with what they're going through. That's reassurance. He goes on: "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". That's good, isn't it? Sure it is. But there was something missing, something serious missing. We'll find out what that was, and we'll go to the site of a riot, that almost cost the Apostle Paul his life, in just a moment.
Paul didn't have everything his own way while he was here. In fact, he wrote to the church at Corinth and told them that when he was in Ephesus, he "fought with beasts". Now, he didn't mean actual animals; that was the bitter opposition he was met with while he was here. Yet God worked powerfully here. In Acts 19, it states that Paul "[disputed here] daily in the school of one Tyrannus". In an auditorium near the Library of Celsus, inscriptions have been found mentioning the name of Tyrannus. So Paul preached very near this spot. Now, in that same chapter, Paul meets certain believers, he baptizes them with the Holy Spirit, and they have the miraculous ability to speak in other languages. It was in Acts 19 that people would bring handkerchiefs and so forth that had touched Paul's body and then go and place them on sick people, and they would miraculously recover from their illnesses or have demons cast out of them.
It was here that the seven sons of Sceva were overcome by evil spirits. It was also here that people burned their occult books. But it was also here that a silversmith named Demetrius realized that Paul's preaching against idolatry was costing him, and a lot of people like him, a lot of money. If people weren't worshiping idols, then they weren't buying his idols and shrines. So he caused an uproar. He said, "This Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands". He feared the Temple of Artemis, or Diana, as the Ephesians called her, might "be despised and her magnificence destroyed". And he mentioned that "all Asia and the world" worshiped her. In Acts, chapter 19, there's a story that discusses the Temple of Artemis. It's right here in Ephesus. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There was a belief, mentioned in the same chapter, that a statue of Artemis fell to the earth from heaven. Of course, that was nonsense, but it wasn't out of sync with the teachings of pagan worship.
And similar things have been taught in Christian churches. So, whipped into a frenzy by Demetrius, "The whole city was filled with confusion," the Bible says. And people flowed into the theater and shouted in unison, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians"! They kept it up for two hours. It was so wild that Paul was told to stay away from the protest in order to save his life. Order was only restored when a city official reasoned with the mob and settled them down. So this place was the home of rampant idolatry and people who were fiercely committed to that idolatry. Fascinating thing, today the temple doesn't exist, just ruins. Paul's writings, however, are still read and respected all over the world. The temple was destroyed for the final time in 262 AD, and not long after that, the empire became Christian, so that the temple was never rebuilt. Jesus commended the believers in Ephesus for differentiating between right and wrong and for refusing to tolerate certain sins and for having worked tirelessly in Christ's cause.
Now, that's a big deal because this place wasn't the Bible Belt with a Christian church on every corner. Notice, Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, not to the diocese or convention or conference or council, the church. And this was a deeply wicked place. After commending the Ephesians, Jesus says, and remember, the letters to the seven churches were messages from Jesus, He says, "Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love". Now, that ought to sober you up. He didn't say, "You've all fallen into deep apostasy". He didn't say, "I have a problem with your drug use or with your immorality". He said, "You have left your first love". It's interesting that in this first of the seven letters to the churches, Jesus goes right to the heart of what it is to be a Christian. They had left their first love. They had commendable works. Jesus spoke highly of their labor and their patience. They had a lot going for them. But there was an Achilles' heel: They had left their first love. They were careful in their adherence to the gospel message. They guarded the flock of the Lord faithfully. They kept evil practices and teachings out of their ranks. But they had left their first love. We'll find out more about that and hear an amazing promise from Jesus in just a moment.
Now, you know that you can love ice cream and love your cousin and love God, and they're a different kind of love in each case. The church in Philadelphia, that's the church of "brotherly love". The word "love" there comes from the Greek "phileo," and that's, that's "brotherly love". But that's not what Jesus is talking about here. When Jesus says they've left their first love, He uses the words "protos agape". "Protos", "first," like the word "prototype". Today we take that to mean the first model of something. "Protocol" originally meant the first page or sheet of a volume or of a manuscript. "Proto," "protos", "first". The word for "love" is the word "agape". Not love in a sensual sense and not "phileo", that's "brotherly love", instead, this is "agape"; that's "self-sacrificing love". It's the love that God has for the human family, the love which led Jesus to die on the cross. And it's the love that we may have for God, that same self-sacrificing love that leads a person to yield their life to God.
Now, they had left that. There's a message for us there. You know that the book of Revelation details the last great crisis to come to the world, and we're getting closer and closer to that time. And the first message given by Jesus in the book of Revelation, the first words He speaks to a group of believers contain a warning against leaving your first love. And they didn't lose it. They left it. Even though they were ardent believers, even though they worked hard to keep heresy out of their ranks, Jesus said they'd left their first love. They had no time for the teachings of the Nicolaitans. Scholars believed the Nicolaitans fostered immorality in the church and taught their fellow Christians they didn't need to obey the law of God. Got plenty of that in the church today. But Jesus said, in spite of all of that, they'd left their first love.
Many of them were simply going through the motions of living a, a good Christians life. They were teaching the truth, and they were refuting error, all of that. They were like many husbands and wives who stay together out of convenience but simply don't really love each other anymore. It might be that you can relate to some of that. You've got the Christian label, but you're going through the motions. You believe, all right, but living in a world where there are so many attractions and distractions and inducements to sin everywhere you turn, it's like you can become sort of numb to real Christianity. Where's that first love? Jesus spoke to this when He said it's our privilege to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind".
But down here in the close of time, locked in a titanic spiritual struggle, there's an almost magnetic pull away from anything that looks like real faith in Jesus. Here in Ephesus, what sin couldn't do, a lack of focus did. While Jesus doesn't say His people dived into idol worship, they did get distracted. They lost their fire, their zeal. And there's a warning here. He says to the believers in Ephesus, "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". Simple: repentance, sorrow for sin and turning away from sin. Clearly, just going with the flow isn't God's plan A for anyone. He'll remove the lampstand. That's interesting. The lampstands or candlesticks you read about represent the churches themselves. Jesus is saying, "If you don't return to your first love, you won't be able to function as a representative church".
So, looking around, the words of Jesus have definitely been fulfilled. Clearly, in a time of spiritual crisis, real agape love for God is needed to guide a person through that time. Jesus declared, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven". That's not God being arbitrary or capricious. That's God letting us know what real Christianity is. It's about being all-in, about being committed. And, you know, on the cross Jesus demonstrated how committed to you He is. It's also a warning: that a church in a challenging place can lose their ardor, can lose their commitment. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. But in the letters to the seven churches, Jesus offers hope: "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".
It was said that Artemis and her twin brother Apollo were born in a sacred grove called a "paradeisos". Here God offers His people a place in the true paradise, not a counterfeit, not fruit from a tree that would live and then die, but the genuine article, something that would exist forever, unlike pagan idolatry, which itself is a poor and destructive imitation of what God offers. So even to a church that had begun to drift, Jesus says, "One day, through faith in me, you'll have eternal life. You'll eat from the tree of life that grew in the Garden of Eden way back at creation". Jesus gave the very direct assurance that heaven awaits, that there's a better day coming in a better land. It couldn't have been easy to live in the midst of raw paganism as a believer in Jesus, but Jesus encourages them. And He says, "Find your first love, and you have eternity to look forward to".
So what do you do if you've lost your first love? Here on the island of Patmos, John was told by Jesus exactly what you should do. Jesus said, "Repent and do the first works". Now, what would those first works be? When you first came to faith in Christ, you were excited. You read the Bible; you prayed; you shared your faith; you were consistent about corporate worship, those things. Jesus is saying, "Go back to those times and relive, recapture that fervency about your faith". Jesus would be saying, "Allow the Spirit of God to work in your life". He'd be saying, "Consider the power of the cross".
Here on Patmos, John did that. You know, John was present at Calvary when Jesus died on the cross. And here on Patmos, he had ample opportunity to relive those days and think that through in his mind, though it be many decades later. At the same time, as he thought back at the cross, he looked forward in vision to that time when Jesus would come back as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. John maintained that first love experience, and you can, too. Think of what Jesus has done in your life. Think of what He's doing right now and look forward to that time when He comes back for you, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, to gather you and the redeemed together, to take you to be with Him forever and ever.