Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamos: Part 1

Revelation 2:1‑17  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 8
Ephesus is a name of note in the history of the church, and amongst the other churches of Asia. God wrought special miracles there by the hand of Paul; so that from his body were brought unto the sick, handkerchiefs or aprons, and the dis-eases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them. From Ephesus all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks. The church there was highly privileged, enjoying for three years continuously the ministry of the great apostle of the Gentiles, the man who had been in the third heaven (Acts 19:10; 20:3110And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19:10)
31Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. (Acts 20:31)
; 2 Cor. 12:22I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. (2 Corinthians 12:2)), and only in the Epistle to the Ephesians does Scripture give, in its full height, the doctrine of the church, To the elders of Ephesus, Paul delivered his weighty final charge, in which he warned them of what would take place after his departure; not only grievous wolves entering in among the flock, but of their own selves men arising speaking ‘perverted things.'
The Lord, too, in the address to Ephesus, assumes a general character, which might apply to any or all of the churches. “To the angel of the assembly in Ephesus write: These things says he that holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lamps.”
This is appropriate to the first of the seven churches, which, in some respects, is representative of the church in general, while in several of the following epistles the Lord takes a special character corresponding to the state of the particular church. Here He holds the seven stars in His right hand. It is salutary to remember this. All who exercise subordinate rule and ministry in the church are in the right hand of Christ. They may have no human ordination, but if truly Christ's servants, the blessing of the flock is to recognize them and show a sympathetic attitude toward their labors. “We beg you, brethren, to know those who labor among you, and take the lead among you in the Lord, and admonish you, and to regard them exceedingly in love on account of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12, 1312And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; 13And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves. (1 Thessalonians 5:12‑13)). What a steadying influence too it has, to remember that Christ walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: His feet like fine brass as burning in a furnace. Yes! there is One always walking about, so to say, amongst us, treading out, with feet of burning judgment, all sin and evil.
The warnings of Paul in Acts 20. to the Ephesian elders, do not appear to have failed of effect. For here, in the Epistle to Ephesus, the Lord specially commends the assembly's faithfulness in these respects: “I know thy works and [thy] labor and thine endurance, and that thou canst not bear evil [men]; and thou hast tried them who say they are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars” (Rev. 2:22I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: (Revelation 2:2)). Works and labor are not exactly synonymous. Works are definite acts done; labor the exertion which produces them. The work may give but a small indication of the labor it required. A long journey on a cold night—inconvenient and perhaps painful—may be taken for only a small work at the end. The Lord assures us that He knows the work and the labor.
The Lord commends, infereritially, what had been their early fervor; but it was a fervor which they were allowing to wane: “Thou... endurest and hast borne for my name's sake, and hast not wearied: but I have against thee that thou hast left thy first love. Remember, therefore, whence thou hast fallen, and repent and do the first works; but if not, I am coming to thee, and will remove thy lamp out of its place, except thou shalt repent” (vers. 3 5). There is only one thing against Ephesus: “Thou hast left thy first love.” But that is the root of declension, either in a church or an individual. A sin into which a Christian may fall, is merely the outward tact; there had been failures in secret before the outward transgression was allowed to appear. But independently of this, it is precious to know that the Lord values the saints' heart-devotion. At Ephesus there was a great deal that was most excellent, and which the Lord does not fail to acknowledge. He knew their works, their labor and endurance; their abhorrence of evil men; their intelligent and faithful rejection of those who claimed apostolic office or position; but all this would not suffice, if love to Himself were deficient or declining. Note, then, as deeply significant, that at the outset of the church's history, there is discovered, declining love to Christ, the root and starting-point of all failure and sin.
In this lapsed condition, the call is to-(1) “Remember whence thou art fallen,” and (2) “Repent, and do the first works.” This definite and emphatic call has been remarkably disregarded. At the Reformation there was no recognition of the status from which the church had fallen. There was the revolt of even natural conscience against iniquities of the so-called church; there was recovery of salvation by faith, and of right to the use of the Scriptures; but no serious inquiry as to the original status of the church, or as to scriptural practice in the church. The Lord's Supper in its true simplicity and beauty was not restored. The place and office of the Holy Spirit in meetings and worship were not seen; and instead of the Spirit's power and guidance, a substitute—humanly invented liturgies were continued; and in place of a free exercise of the Holy Spirit's gifts in the body of Christ, a humanly appointed clergy was still permitted. So also in subsequent movements since the Reformation, resulting in the numerous denominations now existing; there has been in some, most blessed evangelizing zeal; in others a rallying for one doctrine or ordinance or another; but not any going back to the point from which the church had departed; no solemn calling to mind whence it had fallen, no studying it out from the Scriptures; and by consequence, no repentance and doing the first works. This is deeply important for the church today—and indeed, for any case of repentance—to go back, and not stop short of the topmost point of departure.
Failing repentance, the lamp will be removed. This is announced at the beginning of the church's departure. The word “quickly” in the fifth verse of the Authorized Version is not authentic; the removal of the lamp is certain, but the judgment may be delayed, and has been long delayed; it is not until Laodicea that the dead profession is spued out of Christ's mouth. Repentance, however, as a matter of fact, not having taken place, the sentence is certain, THE LAMP OF CHRISTIANITY WILL BE REMOVED FROM CHRISTENDOM.
In the Ephesian epistle, two evils are seen as intruding into the church, but not yet allowed. One is the early appearance of clerical assumption, and the Lord commends resistance to the claim: “Thou hast tried them who say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.” No-where in scripture is there any authority for the continuance of apostles, or any provision for succession to the apostolic, function or office. The office was temporary, to lay doctrinally the foundation of the church, and an apostle must be a witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 1:2222Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. (Acts 1:22)). True ministry, according to Scripture, in the power of the Holy Ghost, is indeed blessed, and is provided for, for the Holy Spirit remains with the church to the end (John 14:1616And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; (John 14:16)). But office and gift are two distinct things, and there is no authority upon earth now to appoint to an office in the church, either apostle, bishop or elder, or deacon.
The other of the two evils is Nicolaitanism. And what, it may be asked, is Nicolaitanism? An elaborate explanation has been proposed, based solely on a supposed etymology of the word Nicolaitan; Nike- in Greek being victory, and laos, the people. Hence it has been assumed that Nicolaitanism meant an overcoming of the people; and this is taken to be the rise and prevalence of clerical authority. But this derivation, even supposing it to be actual, and not more than a fancy attached to a mere name, would just as well bear the meaning of a victory by the people over some one else, as a victory by some one else over the people. The explanation, however, is based upon a fallacious theory; ‘a name in Scripture,' it is alleged, ‘is always significant.' That it is SOMETIMES so, that it may be so, would be within the mark of sober interpretation; but to adopt it as a universal rule, would give a precarious scope to imagination, and certainly tend to unsound exegesis.
That Nicolaitanism can scarcely mean clericalism seems palpable from the fact that clericalism has already been dealt with in plain language in this same epistle (verse 2). And when so treated, the tone used towards each subject is so different as scarcely to permit of their being the same. The rejection of clericalism is very simply and moderately commended, but the utterance about Nicolaitanism is exceedingly strong, and it closes the judgment upon Ephesus: “I will remove thy lamp out of its place except thou repent. BUT THIS THOU HAST THAT THOU HATEST THE WORKS OF THE NICOLAITANS, WHICH I ALSO HATE.” We are not told what the works were. Another has said, “This strong expression in the mouth of our Lord, unquestionably points at deeds of abomination and impurity.” Ephesus, at all events, was faithful as to the solemn evil, whatever it was; they had the mind of Christ about it—there was no apathy; they “hated” the works of the Nicolaitans, and the Lord hated them too. How intense is God's hatred of unholiness! Respecting Nicolaitans, we shall find more in the Epistle to Pergamum. In this epistle, the promise is: “To him that overcomes, I will give to him to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” In the earthly paradise, man never ate of the tree of life, but was, after he had sinned, sent out of the garden to till the ground; and cherubim and a flaming sword kept the way of the tree of life But what man forfeited, and never tasted in the earthly paradise, is, in the paradise of God, the beatific food of the overcomer (chap. 2:7).
Persecution, suffering for the faith, is the prominent point in Smyrna, and the title which the Lord takes corresponds to this. “These things, saith the First and the Last, He who became dead and lived.” The Lord thus places Himself before the distressed Smyrneans as one who had passed through the extremity of suffering. He had been through death.
Besides tribulation, they were in poverty, and Omniscience knew it all; but that is not the form in which He conveys His consolation. He shows them that He knows their sorrows in detail. It was not enough for their hearts, or His, to say that He knew them in the gross. As to Israel in bondage (Ex. 7), “I know their sorrows,” so here, it is His heart speaking to their hearts. “I know thy tribulation and thy poverty; but thou art rich; and the railing of those who say that they themselves are Jews, and are not, but a synagogue of Satan. Fear nothing of what thou art about to suffer. Behold the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee the crown of life.”
When in tribulation of any sort, it supports the Christian to know that our Lord is acquainted with all the circumstances: He takes cognizance of minor trials far short of death. How gracious of Him to say, “I know the railing of those who say they are Jews, and are not.” In our Bibles this is translated “blasphemy,” which, in English, is commonly understood to be blasphemy against God. This, however, is not the true sense. It is railing by those who claim to be Jews, against those who had gone forth to Christ without the camp. “Jews” in this epistle may be both literal and symbolic. Literal for the actual church of Smyrna, for in apostolic times Jews were bitter haters of the gospel. Symbolically, and in later times, it would represent those nominal Christians who are professedly the church of God, who claim a superior religious status, but who speak evil against those who manifest the life of Christ—and in times past have persecuted them. Contempt and railing are a sore trial to the spirit—hard to bear; and the Lord tells the Smyrneans that He knew of the railing, and lets them know His estimate of their foes they were a “synagogue of Satan.”
There is another comfort here for the soul in trial. It may seem to us that the world, or men of the world, have a victorious course before them — that the power is all in their hands. But here it is shown that the limit of suffering is prescribed: “Ye shall have tribulation ten days.” When faith apprehends this, it can be still, knowing that God is the superior; He is over all. “Be still and know that I am God.” The book of Job lifts the curtain off Satan's doings, and shows that Satan can only go as far as God allows him. “All that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand” (Job 1:1212And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:12)). Later, God saw fit to extend the trial, but never without limit. “Behold he is in thine hand, but save his life” (Job 2:66And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life. (Job 2:6)). Smyrna, however, was honored with a higher martyrdom than Job: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life.” “He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies. He that overcomes shall in nowise be injured of the second death” (ver. 11). This does not imply that any saint, however feeble, would or could become liable to the second death. Its force is simply this—that, being persecuted and about to be cast into prison, they are exhorted to be faithful unto death (verse 10), and the overcomer is reminded for his comfort that, though he may be called upon to give up his life for his faith, that would be the end of his suffering; there was no second death for him, as there would be for the persecutors. The second death is being cast into the lake of fire, consequent upon the judgment of the great white throne (Revelation 20:1414And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. (Revelation 20:14); see also Luke 12:55But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him. (Luke 12:5)).
Viewing the seven churches as symbolical of the church's career, Smyrna represents the early persecutions. Seduction by worldly temptations follows later. This is usually the way. Satan tries to destroy; this failing, he seeks to draw aside. So in the case of Israel; destruction was attempted through Pharaoh, and afterward by seducing the people in the wilderness. So, too, with the blessed Lord: Satan, through Herod, sought to take His life; afterward came the temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4, Luke 4).
In the Epistle to Ephesus, the Lord says, “I know thy works,” etc. To Smyrna He says, “I know thy tribulation and poverty,” etc., but some meddlesome person has interfered with the text by repeating in Smyrna's epistle “thy works” in the list of things which the Lord says that He knows. The same has been done in the succeeding epistle to Pergamum, but both are without authority.
Smyrna is one of two churches, the other being Philadelphia, with regard to which the Lord has no adverse comment or criticism to make.
[E. J.T.]
(To be continued)