The first “letter” written within the book of Revelation is the letter to the church in Ephesus. Many scholars have pointed out that the order of the seven churches comes in the order the postal delivery route traveled in the first century. The letter begins in Ephesus, for that is where the letter is most likely penned. This is where the apostle John ended up being stationed as the “Pastor to Asia,” and Church tradition holds that he lived here with Mary (the mother of Jesus).
Ephesus was written about by some as “the head of the snake” in reference to the Christian movement. While many people speak of Antioch being the headquarters of Christianity, this was only a reality for a small period of time. As this early movement exploded throughout the world of biblical Asia and Asia Minor, Ephesus (the second largest city in the Roman empire) was centrally located and became the likely port city for the movement to call its home. Because of this, one of the battles Ephesus constantly had to fight was that of false apostles, false teaching, and all kinds of bad orthopraxy.
This appears to be something they handled quite well, at least if the letter to Ephesus is any indication. Let’s look at that now.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
You can see John mentions more than once their faithfulness and endurance in the realm of not tolerating wicked people, of testing things for the act of discernment. John also references the Nicolaitans. From what we know in history, our best understanding of the Nicolaitans is that they were a group of people who proposed full engagement with the pagan Roman culture. Probably influenced by the same Gnostic heresies the New Testament writers are often battling, these false believers had proposed that one could engage the pagan practices in the flesh, while keeping their spirit pure and totally devoted to God.
In a sense, it would be like somebody crossing their fingers behind their back while they offer incense to pagan gods. The explanation goes something like this: “I’m not truly worshipping those gods. God knows what’s in my heart.” And what is so damning for many of us is how much we find that thinking prevalent in our own lives and hearts — if we are willing to look closely.
There are many other details in the letter to Ephesus we simply don’t have clear ideas on from history. It is the wrong church letter to teach the greater principles about the methodology of John in Revelation, so we’ll keep moving in order to see those principles more clearly. However, rest assured that we won’t be leaving the overall discussion about Ephesus, but only the letter in chapter two. Since Ephesus was the place where the letter was penned, we will find its culture and imagery come up over and over again as we study.
Don’t fret. We’ll return to Ephesus in good time.