During Lent, we are reminded day by day and week by week of the importance of endurance—of being in this race for the long haul. In the prayer of St. Ephraim, we ask for God to give us the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love. These four characteristics, it seems, were both lacking and demonstrated in the first church whom the risen Lord addresses in Revelation 2 (verses 1 through 7):
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 evil men but have tested those who call themselves apostles but 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 then from what 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 him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
Consider the Lord’s commendation, and His correction: they are “enduring patiently” and they hate the “works of the Nicolaitans,” which involved fornication, so presumably they were chaste. So, two of the four characteristics were displayed by this congregation. However, He says, the Church is also characterized by those who have abandoned “the love you had at first,” and so it must “repent”. He is calling them to a deeper, fuller love, and to the humility of repentance. With all four characteristics in place, they will be able to “conquer” and will be given the promised reward. With only endurance and chastity in place, and without love and humility, the congregation risks being “right” in the externals, but out of harmony with Christ at its heart. They have rejected the false teachings and the resultant immoral actions of those called the Nicolaitans, knowing that even prominent teachers can go wrong. (Just a side-note here: there was debate concerning the origin of this group from the earliest times. Some said, and some continue to say, that the Nicolaitans were spawned, sadly, by the deacon Nicholas, who was himself in error with regards to sexual matters; others say that the group wrongly interpreted something Nicholas said in a prophetic way regarding his own beautiful wife, and so went heretical, based on a wrong interpretation of the deacon’s teaching. Others question that beginning entirely, and say that the group should be understood by its name—“Victory to the People,” kind of an ancient “Power to the People” movement, where desires of the flesh could be satisfied, without thought of consequences. Whatever their origin, they were one of the earliest heresies, and the Ephesians rightly rejected them.) This Church was orthodox: it had the right teachings, the right actions, the right discipline—but all this will come to nothing unless they live in the love of Christ, and unless they learn to humbly repent where it is called for.
So far I have mostly spoken about “they” and “them.” What I find intriguing, though, is that the Lord addresses the church by means of its “angel,” and uses the singular pronoun for “you” (in Old English, the “thee” and “thou”) throughout these words, not the plural. He is speaking to them as a single unit, as those whose lives are so intertwined with each other that they are one. What hurts one harms the rest; what exalts one exalts the rest. Jesus begins by addressing “the angel of the church” and ends by calling us to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. It is a matter of one for all, and all for one. Not only are we interconnected with each other in the local congregation, but that congregation is called to heed the words addressed to all the others, and all the congregations are connected with the unseen world of God’s angels, who care for them.
We live, of course, in a very individualistic age, and find this kind of corporate thinking difficult to grasp imaginatively. It strikes us as very odd, for example, that the second generation of Hebrews after the sojourn in Egypt, and after their wandering in the desert, spoke to Moses when he reminded them of God’s work in the desert with their fathers, in this way: “Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today” (Deut. 5:3). Of course, God DID make the covenant with their fathers at Sinai. But their fathers did not see the Promised Land, the second generation did; and they also envisaged themselves as being with their fathers at Sinai, even though they had not been born yet. They claimed the covenant that God had made with Israel for their OWN. That kind of instinctive grasp of a corporate identity is long gone for us today, as great-great-grandchildren of the Enlightenment. Each of us thinks most naturally of his or her own thoughts, own feelings, own perceptions, own relationship with God.
But one of the things that the Word of God does for us is to correct our instincts, and our— can I use the word? — “worldview.” Of course, each one of us matters specifically to God. We see that implied in Jesus’ words, “to the one who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life.” But each one of us is also at one with those with whom we live and worship, with the entire Church—past, present, and future—and somehow also linked to the unseen world of bright spirits who see God’s face in worship. As the book of Hebrews describes our position in Christ, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” All that is true of each and all of us who are in Christ.
And it was true of the church in Ephesus. Jesus does not despair of their coldness, but calls them to repentance, commending them for their rejection of heresy, but reminding them that there is more to being Christian than believing the right things and acting the right way. For He KNOWS them. Christ our God has an intimate knowledge of each of us, and of the churches where we are members. Perhaps we think too easily about the omniscience of God, as though it were only a precept to hold in our minds. But if we do a study of what God KNOWS in the Bible, our hearts will also be warmed. Just in the story of Exodus alone, we find a God who speaks to Moses, and KNOWS all about him and his people. He tells Moses, I know their sufferings (Ex 3:7). When Moses is concerned about how he will do what God is asking, God explains that he also knows the mind of the enemy: “I know the king of Egypt won’t let you go unless compelled to do so” (3:19). When Moses is feeling inadequate, God gives him a helper, saying, “I know Aaron can speak well” (4:14). And to the Hebrews as a whole, he says, “I know you by name” (33:12). God’s knowledge of the Ephesians, of our own church, of each of us, is just that practical and intimate. It is deeper than the knowledge of a wife for her husband of 50 years. It is more passionate than the ardor of a new groom for his beloved. It is wiser than the knowledge of a mother who has had 8 children, and has a little transgressor before her, telling her fibs. It is more empathetic than a physician who himself has had cancer, and is putting forward a treatment plan for his patient—though, of course, Jesus assumed our weaknesses without ever sinning.
God the Son KNOWS this Church (and ours), knows its strengths and weaknesses, walks closely with it, and holds in his right hand, the hand of his favor, the guardian angel of which it might not even be aware, who intercedes for all of its members before God’s throne. We learn much about our Savior in listening to His words to the Ephesians—He is not only all-knowing, but He upholds even the angels, and hates sin and heresy, while calling for repentance. Just as it is not God’s will that any should perish, it is not His will that any lampstand should be removed. Instead, He calls for them to see things as they are, to listen to His words of encouragement and warning, and to turn back to the love that they once had. That love is the necessary complement to their endurance and their rejection of what is false.
We are going to see the same pattern in each of Jesus’ words to the angels of the churches: an address reminding them of His character (in this case, His closeness to them and His knowledge of their situation); a confirmation of their strengths; a warning and call to repentance where necessary; a closing command, given not just to that church but to all God’s people; and finally a promise.
The promise given to Ephesus is tantalizing. If they are victorious over their sin which He has detailed (that is, their lack of love), the very tree of life will be opened to them. That is the tree from which our first ancestors were banished because they did not endure, did not hold to truth, and loved something else more than God. It is also, say the forefathers, the tree upon which our Lord Jesus was crucified, and it bears all the fruit we need for our nourishment and our healing. The One who sends a guardian angel to us, who walks in our midst, who came among us, and died as one of us, says to us, as He said to the thief on the cross, “you shall be with me in paradise,” where you will never again hunger or fear for your life. That nourishment, of course, has begun already, for we receive it every time we hear and take to heart the words of our Savior, and we taste it ahead every time we are fed by His body and his blood. He comes to renew each one of us, and to renew his Church. He is the One for all, so that we can be all for One, for Him— and for each other!