“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
Revelation 2:1-7 ESV
With all of its apocalyptic visions, it can be all too easy to forget that Revelation is a letter. Written by the apostle John while exiled on the island of Patmos, the original recipients of this epistle were “the seven churches that are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4). Although the whole of the letter is addressed to the churches together, chapters 2 and 3 provide seven personal messages from Christ to each of the churches. The first and largest city of the seven churches should be familiar to us after spending so much time studying Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, for it is the very same city: Ephesus. Since Revelation was likely written a couple of decades after Paul’s prison epistles, this message to the Ephesians here in Revelation 2:1-7 is a unique opportunity to consider Jesus’ own evaluation of the church after receiving Paul’s epistle.
I KNOW YOUR WORKS // VERSES 1-3
In my favorite scene from The Magician’s Nephew, a boy named Digory is standing in the newly created land of Narnia by the great lion Aslan, and he fearfully asks Aslan for something to cure his dying mother back home.
“But please, please—won’t you—can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.
“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”
It is significant that each of the seven messages in Revelation 2-3 begin with Jesus saying, “I know…” A deep comfort can be found in walking through a time of suffering with someone else who knows similar suffering. However, even the closest of circumstances will still be different; thus, it is virtually impossible to be truly empathetic of another person’s trials. For instance, my aunt’s father recently passed away from cancer, and while my wife (whose father also died from cancer) can certainly relate to her sorrow, the two circumstances are nevertheless distinct, as are my wife and my aunt. The most that we can do for others who are suffering is to try our best to understanding, to love them deeply, and to help in whatever ways we can. We cannot, however, truly know the thoughts and emotions of another person.
But Jesus is another story. As God, He is omniscient and knows our own hearts better than we do ourselves. Praying like David did for God to search our hearts is a prayer for our own benefit, since He requires no act of investigation. All of our thoughts and intentions lay constantly before Him, even the ones that we are able to successfully hide from ourselves. Yet as man, Jesus is also able to perfectly sympathize with our weaknesses. As the author of Hebrews states, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Let us, therefore, take comfort that Jesus alone is fully and deeply utter these two remarkable words to each of us: “I know…”
Jesus then follows these words with His all-knowing evaluation of the church of Ephesus, and initially we find this moving commendation: I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. I agree with Matthew Henry that we can draw from these two verses three points of approval for the Ephesians.
They were devoted to sound doctrine, holding “firm to the trustworthy word as taught” and rebuking “those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). They rightly tested the false apostles who attempted to lure them into error. They were diligent to ensure that no wolf crept into the flock of God, which Paul had warned the Ephesian elders of in Acts 20:29. This sort of doctrinal vigilance, however, required more than relying solely upon the elders to guard the apostolic teaching; instead, the entire church needed to behave as the Bereans did, receiving “the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In verse 6, Jesus mentions a specific heretical group, the Nicolaitans, whose works the Ephesians rightly hated. Whatever this particular brand of heresy might have been, the believers of Ephesus despised the sinful fruits that it produced and were steadfast in rejecting it.
They were devoted to patient endurance for the gospel. Persecution of Christians was an ongoing (although, thankfully not constant) staple of life in the Roman Empire until Constantine formally legalized Christianity. From John’s exile on Patmos and many other indications found throughout the letter, Revelation was penned during a time of particular pressure upon Christians to renounce Christ as Lord. Twice in the center of the epistle, John interrupts his description of the visions to issue “a call for the endurance” of the saints (13:10; 14:12). The Ephesians were doing this very thing. They were patiently bearing the reproach that came alongside being called a Christian.
Finally, they were devoted to good works. Biblically, “good works are only such as God hath commanded in His holy Word,” as one confession reads. This means that they were devoted to diligently obeying the Scriptures. They not only possessed a knowledge of proper doctrine; they were also living according to it. For practical examples of what this might have looked like, we only need to recall Paul’s walk and household commands chapters 4-5 of Ephesians. They were evidently walking in unity and love toward one another, forgiving one another, and displaying the transformation of the gospel within their own homes.
All in all, these are commendations that any Christian would be delighted to hear coming from the lips of our Lord. Indeed, we can almost line them up with the three segments of our study of Ephesians. They were zealous in holding onto the glorious doctrines as we saw in Kingdom Come (Ephesians 1-3). They were standing firm in endurance for the faith while the enemy hurled his fiery darts their way, as in Kingdom War (Ephesians 6:10-24). They were walking in a manner worthy of their great calling in Christ by toiling and not growing weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13), as we studied in Kingdom Life (Ephesians 4:1-6:9). Thus, they were living out the powerfully inspired words that the apostle Paul had written to them.
Before moving onto Jesus’ rebuke of the Ephesians, it is worth asking ourselves: Is Christ able to make such commendations to us as a church? And since every congregation is inherently a collection of individuals, could Jesus say the same things of you personally? Are you zealous in guarding against false teaching? Do you patiently endure suffering for Christ’s sake? Is your faith in Christ evident through your good works?
BUT I HAVE THIS AGAINST YOU // VERSE 4
In addition to His words of commendation, Jesus states, But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Here again we return to the poignancy of Jesus knowing the Ephesians because this rebuke could only come from the Omniscient One. The believers of Ephesus were excelling in the external components of religion. They were living the faith, guarding the faith, and suffering for the faith. Yet as the LORD said to Samuel long ago, “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). As the Great Physician, Christ saw their ailment before the symptoms of its existence had begun to manifest. Their illness certainly would, given time, reveal itself, yet Jesus points out the tumor in its early stage, when it is most easily treated.
Yet notice the exact wording of the Lord’s rebuke, “you have abandoned the love you had at first.” They had not ceased to love entirely; they only abandoned their first love, their original love. Their love had lost its passion. Thomas Watson describes this as
Their fervor is cooled and abated. What they do is so little, that it cannot be called violence. They serve God—but are not fervent in spirit. They do not abandon duty—but they grow dead in duty. They have “left their first love,” Rev. ii. 4. It is with them as a fire when it is going out; or as the sun when it is going down. Like epileptics, before they were in a paroxysm, or hot fit of zeal; but now that the cold fit has taken them, they are formal and frozen in piety. Time was when they called “the Sabbath a delight,” Isaiah. lviii. 13. How were their hearts raised in duty! How diligently did they seek him whom their soul loved! But now the case is altered; their piety languishes, and even vanishes. Time was when they were in an agony, and did send forth strong cries in prayer. Now the chariot wheels are pulled off, and the spirit of prayer is much abated.
Yet how does such an assessment fit together with Paul’s closing benediction, “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible”, in Ephesians 6:24? How does love incorruptible wane? How does it grow cold? As we noted, our love is corruptible without a doubt. It is even certainly corrupted! Our love for Christ can only be incorruptible when it is given to us from Christ Himself. Indeed, there is no contradiction between these texts. The love of Christ remains forever incorruptible, but their own love faded because they abandoned His exceedingly great love. They were beginning to wander away from the tree of life, and already their blood began to run cold. Their love, their toil, their patience, their endurance was insufficient and, yes, sinful precisely because it was their love, their toil, their patience, their endurance. They left Christ as the foundation of living water and were bearing for the sake of Jesus’ name in their own strength, hewing for themselves “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). They were corrupting from the inside out because they had abandoned Christ’s incorruptible love.
WHEN CONQUERING MEANS RETREATING // VERSES 5-7
Mercifully, Jesus does not leave them with only a deeply penetrating rebuke. He gives them their path to restoration, alongside a warning against continued neglect and a promise to those who conquer. We should take care not to set their repentance against Jesus’ initial commendations. Although we often associate repentance with behavioral change, their repentance needed to be of the heart because their sin was of the heart. Their outward behavior was the not the problem; it was their inward motive. Thus, Jesus is not summoning them here to cease defending the doctrines of the faith or enduring for His name’s sake. In college, I committed such a folly. After finally building a habit of daily reading the Bible, I was convicted of the little time I spent in prayer. I responded to this conviction by replacing my time in the Word with a time of prayer… you know, only for a season. Such a thought was like someone giving away their car because they want to walk more. My time in prayer did not increase, and I had abandoned my newly formed habit. It would be similar folly for the Ephesians to forsake their toil and endurance in order to repent of their abandoned love.
Instead, our Lord summons them to remember therefore from where you have fallen, repent, and do the works you did at first. Their way forward is found by moving backward. Their sin had set them in the wrong direction, and they could only make progress through retracing their steps back to the beginning. Their hearts needed to remember again the simple truth that their minds certainly could recite on command:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.Ephesians 2:4-9
They no doubt defended the supremacy of Christ, but they needed to taste again and see “the breadth and length and height and depth” of His love (3:18). They suffered for His name, but they needed to stand in awe again at the “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (1:7-8). They must have proclaimed His love to each other, but they needed to drown again in “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8). They needed to repent, to turn back, to fall upon the foundation of their faith once more.
A notable story of the theologian Karl Barth says that during question-and-answer time at a lecture in the States he was asked if he can summarize his theology in one sentence. He then responded by saying, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” We can only enter the kingdom of God by becoming like a child. Like a child, we must remember that God loves to make the simplest of truths deeper than creation’s primordial waters. The conquerors of heaven are those who retreat into the arms of their heavenly Father. Their war cry will echo through all eternity, “We are weak, but He is strong.”
 Acts 20:29: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;”
 The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 16:1
 Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm, 55-56.