Notes (NET Translation)
2:1 To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write the following: This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has a firm grasp on the seven stars in his right hand – the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
The seven letters in chapters 2-3 are still part of the revelation from Christ. Each letter begins with the formula: “To the angel of the church in . . . write the following.” Recall from our discussion on 1:20 that the identity of the angel is disputed among scholars but that we decided it is probably a way of personifying the spirit of the church addressed. Each of the letters then continues with the phrase “This is the solemn pronouncement” and provides a description of Christ. When combined these two phrases sound similar to the pronouncements of the OT prophets but in this passage Christ takes the place of Yahweh.
In this verse “the one” clearly refers back to the description of Christ in 1:13, 16. Ephesus, one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire, may have been home to the “mother church” of Asia Minor. The description of Christ given here reminds them that it is Christ who is sovereign over the churches.
2:2 I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false.
“Works” (erga) refers to the whole spiritual walk of the church and not just to good deeds. “Labor” refers to hard work, in this case, not tolerating evil and testing so-called apostles. The “evil” in question is moral or spiritual evil. To “test” means to critically examine a person’s claims. The false apostles, who were prophesied by Paul (Acts 20:29-30), claimed to be from God but were not. The church in Ephesus was known as a church that would not tolerate false teachers into at least the early second century (Ignatius, Eph 7:1; 9:1).
2:3 I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary.
The Ephesians have been through trying times but have persisted. They were suffering for the sake of Christ’s name, meaning for the advancement of all that gives expression to Christ’s character (Mounce loc. 1641-2). This suffering need not have involved physical violence. Despite this they have remained watchful for false teachers.
2:4 But I have this against you: You have departed from your first love!
The phrase “I have this against you” (echo kata sou) expresses divine displeasure and warns of judgment if the situation is not rectified. The “first love” most likely refers to the love they had when the church was founded. It is a false dichotomy to ask whether this is love towards God or love towards mankind for love towards God and mankind are linked together (Mt 22:37-39; Mk 12:29-31; Lk 10:27). You cannot love one without loving the other (1 Jn 2:9-10; 4:16, 20-21). Perhaps the Ephesians’ love diminished because of ongoing arguments with the false apostles. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy must go hand-in-hand.
2:5 Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place – that is, if you do not repent.
The term “remember” (mnēmoneue) means not just to bring to mind but to act on. The “deeds you did at first” refers to their “first love” mentioned in the previous verse. A failure to repent would result in them no longer being a church before God. “The presence of Christ departs when well-intentioned people, zealous to find the right way, depart from the ultimate way, which is love” (Metzger 32).
This particular warning has created no end of trouble for later believers, who for the most part perceive the punishment to far exceed the crime. But that says more about us than it does about the author of the Johannine literature, since he perceived the whole of the Christian faith to be a matter of experiencing God’s love for us through Christ and then returning that love to him by loving others. From his perspective, to fail at this point is to fail exceedingly—if not altogether—which is why for him the “punishment” is precisely in keeping with the “crime.” And “love” for John is not simply a matter of attitude toward others; the only love worthy of the name from his perspective lies in their doing the things you did at first. Thus the only correct response to their current failure is to “repent.” (Fee 27)
Ignatius suggests that they heeded Christ’s warning (Eph 1.1; 9.1; 11:2).
2:6 But you do have this going for you: You hate what the Nicolaitans practice – practices I also hate.
The Nicolaitans are only mentioned in the NT in Rev 2:6, 15 and are hard to identify with any precision (attempts by later Church Fathers to identify the group are of questionable value). The name implies they were followers of someone named Nicolaus (some early Christians thought it was the Nicolaus of Antioch mentioned in Acts 6:5 but most modern commentators believe this was merely a guess). In 2:15 they seem to be linked with the followers of “Balaam” (2:14) who are guilty of eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality (contrary to the teachings in Acts 15:20, 29). Therefore, the Nicolaitans may have been known for some form of syncretism or libertinism.
2:7 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
Each letter calls on the readers to listen and obey (“hear”). This statement is similar to that spoken by Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 11:15; 13:9; 24:15; Mk 4:9, 23; 8:18; Lk 8:8; 14:35). “Each congregation is addressed individually, but not privately, since all the messages are available for all the congregations to read” (Koester 56). Note that the Spirit speaks to the churches (plural). “What we are to do with these seven [letters] is to ask, To what extent does this situation fit our church? How can we maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses seen in these churches?” (Osborne 105).
The letters also call on the readers to “conquer” so that they may attain an eschatological reward (21:7). “The overcomers [conquerors] in Revelation are not those who have conquered an earthly foe by force, but those who have remained faithful to Christ to the very end. The victory they achieve is analogous to the victory of Christ on the cross” (Mounce 1688-1690). To eat from the tree of life is to gain eternal life in the age to come (22:2-4).
But there is probably also a local reference, which first-century Ephesian Christians would detect. The Artemisium of Ephesus contained a tree-shrine which functioned as a place of asylum, enclosed within a boundary wall. ‘Paradise’ is derived from a Persian word meaning ‘enclosure’, ‘garden’ or royal park. What the victorious among God’s people are offered is a far greater sanctuary than the temple ‘paradise’ of Ephesian Artemis. Indeed, there may even be a hint here of how the battle has been won, for the tree of life would evoke in the Christian mind the cross of Christ, the means by which victory is assured (e.g. Acts 5:30; 10:39; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24). (Boxall 51–52)
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Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.
Brown, Raymond Edward, ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Pearson P T R, 1991.
Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.
Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.