Ephesus (33-64 A.D.)
Ephesus, with its beautiful man-made harbor, was the Gateway between East and West. In 53 A.D. Paul preached there (Acts 18:19) toward the end of his second missionary journey, as he was returning to church headquarters in Antioch (Acts 18:22).
Ephesus was known for its great temple of Artemis, considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world. It was 425 x 220 feet with 127 marble columns, each 60 feet high. The temple was located on the very spot where, according to the town clerk in Paul’s day, her image had fallen to the earth from heaven (Acts 19:35). Scholars suggest that a meteor may have fallen to the earth at that location.
The original temple had burned to the ground on July 20 or 21 of 356 B.C., on the birthdate of Alexander the Great. The popular explanation was that Artemis had been out of the temple at that time in order to observe the birth of Alexander, and during her absence the temple burned down.
The temple was rebuilt over a period of 220 years. Hence, the temple observed by the Apostle Paul many years later was Artemis’ second temple, which was far greater than the original one. Visitors arriving by ship could look to the top of the mountain and see the great statue looking down to observe every ship that arrived in Ephesus.
There were many schools of philosophy, gymnasiums, and, of course, the Great Theater. Its wealth gave its inhabitants the highest living standard in Asia Minor. It was ranked fourth among the greatest cities of the Roman Empire after Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch.
The grandeur of the Harbor Gate, the spacious Harbor Boulevard made of white marble and lined with colonnades leading to the Great Theater on the hill, and the variety of languages being spoken on the streets must have impressed Paul and his companions as they entered the city with their mission to preach the word of God.
The top of the Harbor Boulevard in front of the Great Theater intersected a cross street, where one could choose one’s activity. Turning right on Marble Street led to a school of philosophy. Turning left on Plateia Street led to the great Stadium and, farther on, to the Temple of Artemis. The conjunction of those streets gave men a choice of entertainment, education, or gladiator bloodshed (at the Stadium).
Ephesus was also a major government center, since the proconsul lived there. Ephesus was also the start of the postal route along the famous Roman road. In fact, the order of the seven churches in the book of Revelation is the actual order of cities on the postal route that circled around back to its starting point in Ephesus.
The diversity of cultures, philosophies, and religions in the city gave Christianity a safe haven in this city known for its tolerance. Paul was not the first Christian to come to Ephesus, for we know from Acts 18:24 that he was preceded by Apollos, a preacher from Alexandria, Egypt, who had come while knowing only “the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). Later, Priscilla and Aquila, who had been evicted from Rome by the emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2), went to Corinth, where they met the Apostle Paul during his second missionary journey. They accompanied Paul as far as Ephesus, where they went ashore while Paul continued his journey to Caesarea.
While in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos teaching in the synagogue. They took him aside and updated him on events of Jesus’ crucifixion and the baptism of the Holy Spirit, so that he would know the full gospel of Christ.
Even so, Paul was probably the first apostle to nurture a group of believers into an organized assembly, or “church.” Paul arrived in 53 A.D. John is said to have arrived after Paul’s execution in 67 A.D., when he assumed the leadership role over the seven churches that Paul had established.
John, along with the community of believers, lived outside of the city limits on a hill known as Mount Ayasuluk, overlooking the Temple of Artemis. Living outside the city afforded some privacy for visiting Christian leaders. It provided an extra measure of toleration in a city full of pagan temples.
The First Flaw of the Church
The actual messages to the seven churches are recorded in Revelation 2 and 3. The first is to the church in Ephesus, where John himself ministered during the last half of his life. Did he personally deliver these message to the churches? We are not told. We only know that he received this message while he was at Patmos. It is likely that he sent individual messages to the churches while he was yet in exile.
The first church age began in 33 A.D. on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1) and ended in 64 A.D. when Nero began to persecute the church. When the persecutions began, the church entered its Smyrna phase. Smyrna means “bitter” and is associated with myrrh, an oil that was used to embalm the dead.
For the most part, the Ephesus phase of church history saw persecution only by the Jews, who viewed Christianity as a heretical sect of Judaism. During these years, the Roman government usually protected the Christians from excessive persecution.
Ephesus means “Desirable.” Its name contributes to the revelation of prophecy, when we correlate this to the first Old Covenant church—the Moses Church. Though the nation of Israel was not perfect when it came out of Egypt, nonetheless, the people had witnessed God’s deliverance at Passover and again at the Red Sea. Hence, it was at its height of faith, even though the Moses church often wanted to stone Moses and to return to their bondage in Egypt.
So also the first decades of the New Covenant church (the Ephesus era) were led by apostles and believers who had witnessed Christ’s death and resurrection at Passover of 33 A.D. Jesus Christ had come as their “Moses” on the 1480th Passover since the original feast when Israel left Egypt. The number 1480 is the numeric value of christos (Greek for “Christ”). Moses prophesied of His coming in Deut. 18:18, and this is applied to Jesus in Acts 3:22.
Ephesus, then, was the “desirable” church—the church that God desired, or favored. Even so, it was somewhat flawed, even as the Moses church had been flawed in earlier times. But before studying the strengths and weaknesses of the church in Ephesus, we need to see another prophetic connection.
Ephesus, the First Saul Church
King Saul was a prophetic type of the church as a whole. Saul had a legitimate anointing under Samuel, but because he was not of Judah, he did not have the lawful right to rule the House of Israel (Gen. 49:10). He was crowned king because the people “desired” a king too soon. His name, Saul, means “asked for, desired.” The people asked for a king, and God gave them the man whose name prophesied of their desire.
God gave them a man of the tribe of Benjamin, because the line of Judah was still being cleansed of its sin between Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38). It took ten generations for this cleansing to be complete (Deut. 23:2). David was the tenth generation, but he was not even born until Saul had reigned for ten years. So God chose Saul as a temporary king. Though he was the best in the land from a fleshly view (1 Sam. 9:2), he could never fulfill the calling of Judah.
The underlying problem was the heart of the people themselves. Saul was a mere reflection of the people’s heart and will. They got what they asked for. They were given the desire of their rebellious hearts. God explained the problem in 1 Sam. 8:7,
7 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.
No doubt most of the people would have disagreed with this assessment, for they did not know their own hearts. They saw no conflict between serving God and having an earthly king. So Saul was crowned king on the day of “wheat harvest,” which, in years to come, would be called by the Greek term, Pentecost, or “fiftieth day.” It was the fiftieth day from the wave sheaf offering (Lev. 23:16). The people offered the first-fruits of barley on the first day, and wheat on the fiftieth day. After each first-fruits offering the people were able to return home and harvest their crop.
At Saul’s coronation, Samuel told the people in 1 Sam. 12:17, 18,
17 Is it not the wheat harvest today? I will call to the Lord, that He may send thunder and rain. Then you will know and see that your wickedness is great which you have done in the sight of the Lord by asking for yourselves a king. 18 So Samuel called to the Lord, and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day, and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel.
Rain was rare at the time of wheat harvest (Prov. 26:1). The rain that fell on the day of Saul’s coronation was a type of the Holy Spirit that was to be poured out later on the day of Pentecost (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:16, 17). Its purpose was to show the believers that they had done wickedly in desiring an earthly king to rule over them. Nonetheless, Samuel admonished and warned the people, telling them in 1 Sam. 12:24, 25,
24 Only fear the Lord and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you. 25 But if you still do wickedly, both you and your king shall be swept away.
This warning applies equally to the New Covenant church, because Saul was a type of the church under Pentecost. Not understanding this, the Roman church has misunderstood Jesus’ words to Peter in Matt. 16:18. When Jesus said that “the gates of hell will not overpower it,” that is, the church, they assume this means the church that was established at Pentecost in Acts 2. They know nothing of the feast of Tabernacles, nor of the church of the overcomers. Hence, they place their faith in “Saul,” rather than in “David,” and do not realize that Saul’s rule was destined to be temporary. The rule of the Roman pontiff, along with all denominational rulers, must give way to Christ and the overcomers in order to move forward into the age of Tabernacles that lies ahead.
All of this relates directly to the church of Ephesus, for it is not only the Moses church, but it is also the beginning of the Saul church. The first year or two of Saul’s reign was quite good (1 Sam. 13:1 KJV). Then the rebellion began to manifest openly. Saul was impatient and took it upon himself to offer the sacrifice (1 Sam. 13:9), which he was not called to do. As a result, Samuel told Saul, “now your kingdom shall not endure” (1 Sam. 13:14).
The root problem was that the church under Saul’s rule had rejected God as king and wanted to be ruled by a man who would act as their intermediary. This is the spirit of denominationalism, where earthly organizations claim to be “the true church.” They claim that membership in the earthly organization is equivalent to membership in the heavenly assembly.
In effect, such claims to power give men the power of granting salvation to others by approving them for membership. Conversely, denominational leaders also claim the power to exclude men from heaven by their power of excommunication.
However, the true church is under the sole power of God to approve or disapprove membership (Heb. 12:22, 23). Members “are enrolled in heaven,” and any earthly membership rolls are secondary and meaningless if they conflict with the heavenly record.
By understanding the story of King Saul, along with the story of Moses, we may know the background of types and shadows that show us why there was divine criticism of the church in Ephesus. The church had left its first love. It had followed the example of the people who had desired to be ruled by men directly and God only indirectly. This set the example for the other churches that was then followed throughout church history.
Revelation 2:1 says,
1 To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this:
“The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand” is Jesus Christ. He is the true Ruler of the church. He is the true High Priest “who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” Unlike Saul, Jesus Christ is the High Priest of the Order of Melchizedek, having both civil and priestly authority as a King-Priest. Saul had pretended to be of that order by offering the sacrifice, but Samuel denied him that position. As a Pentecostal King, crowned by a rebellious people, Saul was not given the Melchizedek priesthood. Only the overcomers (foreshadowed by David) are Melchizedek priests under their great High Priest.
Revelation 2:2 continues,
2 I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.
The church had done many good things. The church had good discernment in those days, so that they could distinguish between those who were genuine apostles and those who were not. This implies that there were more than just twelve apostles (eleven plus Paul, who ultimately replaced Judas). The twelve were obvious, although some disputed Paul’s apostolic authority. Yet Ephesus had confirmed Paul and others as well.
The Greek word apostolos, “apostle,” refers first to one who is sent. However, in Greek culture it had a broader meaning. Rick Renner tells us:
“During the time of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes (384-322 BC), the word apostolos was a naval term that described an admiral, the fleet of ships that traveled with him, and the specialized crew who accompanied and assisted the admiral. The fleet would be sent out to sea on a mission to locate territories where civilization was nonexistent. Once an uncivilized region was identified… they would begin the process of transforming a strange land into a replica of life as they believed it should be. Their purpose was total colonization of the uncivilized territory….
“The word apostolos was so closely associated with the idea of traveling that it eventually became synonymous with the idea of a passport or a travel document.
“If a person wanted to exit a country, he had to possess a travel document that was essentially an export license, an exit visa, or a passport. This legal document was called an apostolos—the same word translated ‘apostle.’ This document guaranteed the right of passage and the ability to move freely from one place to another” (A Light in Darkness, Vol. 1, p. 294).
Christians used the term in much the same way, although their apostles were sent out to bring Kingdom Civilization to the world. It was a new culture based upon the right of Jesus Christ to rule and upon the moral order written in the divine law, the prophets, and the gospels.
A true apostle was identified by his faithfulness to this purpose. If he labored to bring the church into a foreign culture or civilization, he was a false apostle, a mere admiral working for Rome or Greece.
Leaving One’s First Love
The core problem of Ephesus was that they had left their first love. Many have speculated as to the meaning of this statement. G. Campbell Morgan understood that this was a reference to the church being an unfaithful wife. Indeed, that is certainly true. But to really understand this, Scripture gives us two prophetic stories: the first in the time of Moses, and the second in the time of Saul.
With Saul we see how the people had rejected God (Christ) as their king, as a woman may also reject her husband. Perhaps more specifically, the “woman” had desired another man, preferring his word over that of her Husband. The “Saul” problem we have already discussed. The problem in Moses’ day is seen in Exodus 20, when God desired the church to meet Him in the mount after giving the Ten Commandments. The people’s reaction is given in Exodus 20:18, 19,
18 And all the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. 19 Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself, and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”
This was a marriage ceremony, for the prophets later tell us that God was married to Israel (Jer. 3:14 KJV). In fact, the entire prophecy of Hosea pictured God’s marriage to Israel. Yet at their very wedding ceremony, with Moses as the minister of that marriage covenant, the people’s fear of God was stronger than their love. They refused to consummate the wedding on the Mount, even though Moses urged them to meet with God. Exodus 20:20, 21 continues,
20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” 21 So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.
The people wanted Moses to stand between them and God. Rather than hear the voice of God directly, they wanted Moses to hear God’s word and then tell them what God said. So it is with the denominational spirit, where men prefer to listen to men telling them what God said. Fearing God’s righteous nature, and thinking of themselves as sinners, they believe that the only way to survive is to maintain an indirect relationship with God.
No wife who loves her husband wants an indirect relationship with him. Distant relationships are for those driven by fear, not by love.
But Jesus is the God of the Old Testament. He is Yahweh who came in the flesh. When He came to do His work on earth, He became the true Mediator between God and man. It was wrong for the Israelites to want Moses to mediate between them and God, but it was right to have Jesus as the Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus said in John 14:6, “no man comes to the Father, but through Me.”
There is no Scripture demanding that any man must go through a man or an organization in order to come to the Father—or even to Jesus. So let us return to our first love as overcomers. Let Jesus be our true desire, placing all others in a relationship of secondary importance.
Revelation 2:5 says,
5 Remember, therefore, from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent.
Here the Spirit of the Lord gives the church a very sober warning. They were to remember from where they had fallen. Fallen from where? From the place where they had left their first love (vs. 4).
The Old Testament patterns show that they had rejected Christ’s direct rule, desiring a man to rule over them. First they desired Moses to hear God and to tell them what God said (Exodus 20:19); later, they desired to have a man rule them as king (1 Sam. 8:5). Leaving their first love was starting a Christian denomination, which put distance between God and the people.
The purpose of a church or a preacher is to point people to Christ, not to point to men or organizations. It is not to recruit members for an earthly organization, but to lead people to Christ, so that they may be enrolled in the assembly in heaven (Heb. 12:22). There is nothing inherently evil about earthly organizations, as long as they do not steal the affections of the bride of Christ by causing the people to leave their first love. The problem comes when people’s faith shifts from Christ to the church and its leadership.
Somehow the church in Ephesus had strayed into denomina-tionalism in their honor of men. Perhaps the people already honored John himself more than they should. It is interesting to see that John was writing to his own church, wherein he was the undisputed leader as the main apostle to all of the seven churches. The problem, no doubt, was not in John, but in the people themselves, who had inadvertently put John in Christ’s place. With John giving them the word of God, they no longer felt the need to seek the word from Christ Himself.
Later, the rest of the church would begin doing the same. As time passed, the church began to forbid men to hear God’s voice for themselves. The purpose of church organizations is to teach people to hear God for themselves. The purpose of gatherings was to allow the people to share what God had revealed to them during the previous week, so that the group might discern and make any corrections where necessary. 1 Cor. 14:26-29 says,
26 What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification [i.e., building up or strengthening the church]. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 And let two or three prophets speak, and the others pass judgment [discern, bear witness or not].
When gatherings became too large, instead of splitting into smaller house groups, the leaders began meeting in large buildings. In such a setting fewer and fewer people were able to participate or share with others as Paul had instructed. This was when the church became an organization or a building. This was when the people began to depend upon a man to hear God on their behalf, for it no longer seemed necessary to hear God for one’s self. As it evolved further, the leadership, believing that it had all necessary truth, began to suppress other revelation (along with carnal ideas), and eventually forbade the laity the right to hear God for themselves. This was enforced by excommunication and ultimately by death and even by torture. All was done in the name of Unity.
It all began with a simple shift in loyalty from God to men. Men thought they could serve two masters—and indeed, this was possible, as long as God took precedence and the leader truly followed God with his whole heart. But as Israel learned many years earlier, they wanted a king “like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5), and that is what they got. The church too desired a leader “like all the nations,” and so they were given the desire of their hearts.
Removing the Lampstand
The solution was to remember—to go back to the point of departure—from where they had fallen. The church was to go back to the original point of deception, where the carnal mind conceived its desire for a man (other than Jesus Himself) to rule over them. The Spirit of the Lord issued a call for the church to repent and go back to the way things were earlier.
If they did not repent, God said, “I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place” (Rev. 2:5). What does this mean?
The metaphor refers to the lampstand in the sanctuary in Jerusalem, which the Romans had removed earlier in 70 A.D. It is pictured on the Arch of Titus as part of the booty taken to Rome when the temple was destroyed. But this happened only because God had first removed their spiritual lampstand from the temple in heaven on account of the sin of Jerusalem. Things happen in the spirit before they happen on earth.
For Ephesus to receive such a warning was no doubt very sobering to the church. In fact, the Spirit of the Lord which issued this warning apparently did not interpret Matt. 16:18 in the way that the church did in years to come.
The lampstand in heaven could retain its position only if the church returned to its first love. But if the church on earth no longer reflected the truth that was in heaven, the lampstand would be removed, and Ephesus would lose its authority as a church. God would cast it aside, even as He had done already with the tabernacle of Shiloh, Solomon’s temple, and the second temple in Jerusalem.
These were not idle threats. Three precedents had already been set in biblical history. We do not know if the church in Ephesus actually corrected the problem, because John leaves this question unanswered. If so, it was only a temporary correction.
Revelation 2:6 says,
6 yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Historically speaking, we learn from Cormenin’s Complete History of the Popes, Vol. 1, p. 30,
“The Nicolaitans, the disciples of Carpocratus and of his son Epiphanus, taught promiscuous concubinage, and rendered themselves guilty of a great crime in so doing in the sight of God.”
Concubines are a lesser form of marriage that renders the wife a virtual slave. Biblical law recognizes two kinds of marriage, as I explained in my book, Old and New Covenant Marriage. In the Old Covenant, God’s wife (Israel) was a picture of Hagar, the slave-wife of Abram (Gal. 4:24, 25). In the New Covenant, God’s wife is pictured as Sarah, the free woman.
The Nicolaitans taught and practiced concubinage, and this became a symptom of a spiritual problem in the church itself. The early church in Ephesus did indeed hate the doctrines of the Nicolaitans, but at the same time they had left their first love. They were moving away from a direct and full marriage relationship with Christ and were moving toward an indirect relationship with Christ—which spawns slavery.
Slaves are not allowed to have a direct relationship with God. If a slave bride receives revelation, she is not allowed to act upon it without the approval of her master. The master assumes veto power over his slave. Hence, when the church (i.e., the assembly, or congregation) becomes enslaved to the church hierarchy of a denomination, it is no longer Sarah, but Hagar, and it can only bring forth an Ishmael.
The name, Nicolaitan, literally means “conquering the laity” (that is, the common people). It refers to the rise of a priestly hierarchy that usurps the place of Christ over the people. This is the Nicolaitan spirit that Jesus hates, for He desires more than anything to have a personal relationship with His bride. He does not desire a slave-bride, but one who can provide a double witness in the earth. Only a “Sarah” bride, having a New Covenant marriage relationship with Him, can fulfill His deepest desire and bring the Kingdom into the earth. Only a “Sarah” bride can bring forth the children of promise.
It is appropriate, then, that the message to the church in Ephesus would bring up the Nicolaitan problem. Its very name contains the revelation of the problem, for the essence of denominationalism is to “conquer the laity.” God wants the laity to be free, not in bondage to men. God wants the laity to have the freedom to hear God’s voice and to act upon it without fear of persecution.
The church in Ephesus apparently recognized that under the New Covenant it was not right to have concubines—or even to have multiple wives (1 Tim. 3:2). We do not know if they understood the deeper problem of Old Covenant marriages themselves, where even one wife can be treated as a bond-woman. Because the church has always lived by progressive revelation, there were many things they yet had to learn over a period of time (John 21:25). In fact, the main purpose of the Holy Spirit was to “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).
Revelation 2:7 concludes the message, saying,
7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.
The overcomers are those who have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying. This implies that the non-overcomers in the church do not have the ability to hear what God says. Let me hasten to say, however, that there are many who have the ability to hear, but yet they do not necessarily know that they hear. The word of God comes in many ways, sometimes by direct revelation, and at other times through other people, and at other times through signs. An overcomer is one who bears witness to the word of God, for it resonates within him/her.
Such overcomers are granted the right “to eat of the tree of life.” To hear the word is to eat of it. It is why the prophets were told to “eat” the book. This was a spiritual act and had nothing to do with eating paper and ink. It was an act of assimilation, because we become what we eat and assimilate.
Eating from the tree of life, then, is to be interpreted as eating the word. The word is the tree of life. On another level, Christ is the Logos, the word made flesh, whose flesh we are to eat (John 6:56). Hence, He is the embodiment of the tree of life. When Adam and Eve ate of the other tree, they were eating of knowledge, which was not bad, but yet it was not Christ. One might say that the tree of knowledge was the Bible, but it was not the word. The Bible without the word brings traditions of men, in that it lacks true revelation, and it is thus only carnal knowledge of what God said.
It is fully appropriate that the Spirit’s message to Ephesus would end with the reward of eating from the tree of life. It is only by overcoming the denominational spirit and having a direct relationship with God that one can truly “eat of the tree of life.” This is Paradise on earth, as all know who have tasted of its fruit.