Question: "What was Jesus' message to the church in Ephesus in Revelation?"
Answer: Revelation 2 begins a series of brief letters to seven churches that existed during the apostle John’s time in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Each of these messages includes information apropos to each church, and from these messages we can draw lessons applicable to our own lives today. The first letter is to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a city on the western coast of Asia Minor, near the mouth of the Cayster River. The city was famous for its temple of Diana (or Artemis, Acts 19:27), and pilgrims came to Ephesus from all over the Mediterranean world to worship the goddess.
The first thing to note in this letter to the Ephesian church is that the message is from the Lord Jesus Christ: “To the angel [or messenger] of the church in Ephesus . . .” (Revelation 2:1). This is not John’s message to the Ephesian believers; it is a message from the Lord, the One “who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” The lampstands are the churches themselves, set as lights in a dark world; the stars are the pastors of the churches, held in God’s hand.
Jesus affirms the Ephesians’ positive actions: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, 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” (Revelation 2:2-3). The Ephesian church was a hard-working group of believers full of fortitude. Also to their credit, they were gate-keepers of the truth and did not compromise with evildoers, and they showed patient endurance in bearing up under hardship.
However, Jesus also notes their shortcoming: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (Revelation 2:4). They were hard-working, but they no longer had the same passion for Christ as when they first believed. Their work was no longer motivated by love.
Jesus called the Ephesians to repent: “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:5). In this case, the corrective was to remember the heights of their former love, repent (change their mind about their current status), and return to their previous way of doing things. It was time for revival in the church.
Jesus warns His church of impending judgment if they did not repent: “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:5b). In other words, their punishment would be the disbanding or destruction of the Ephesian church. The light in Ephesus would go out.
Jesus adds another commendation concerning doctrinal purity: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6). We don’t know much about the Nicolaitans and their doctrine, except that it was heretical. Irenaeus, an early church father in Lyons (modern-day France), wrote that the Nicolaitans promoted fornication and a compromising position on eating food sacrificed to idols, leading many into an unrestrained, carnal lifestyle.
Jesus then promises a blessing to those who heed the word: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). The “tree of life” and the “paradise of God” refer to the new heavens and new earth, discussed in Revelation 21–22. Those who conquer, or the “overcomers,” are simply believers (1 John 5:4-5). The Ephesian believers could look forward to the future glory of eternity with the Lord.
Like the Ephesian church, we can easily fall prey to a cold, mechanical observance of religion. Like the Ephesians, many tend to focus solely on doctrinal purity and hard work, to the exclusion of true love for Christ. As this letter shows, no amount of zeal for the truth or moral rectitude can replace a heart full of love for Jesus (see John 14:21, 23; 1 Corinthians 16:22).