In Rev 2:5 the Lord Jesus Christ’s threatens to close a church that had works, separation from sin and intolerance to heresy, but not love. To the Lord Jesus Christ, whatever else a church may have, it must have love. That church was the church at Ephesus, and we will examine that church’s predicament under three headings. First the decline of the church at Ephesus will be considered by examining the scriptures. Secondly after gaining a clearer understanding of the problem, reasons for its occurrence will be considered. Finally, Christ’s solution and the hope He presents to the church will be discussed.
The Decline of the Church at Ephesus
Acts 20:17- 37 contains Paul’s charge to the elders at Ephesus, given in about 56 AD, while Revelation 2:1 – 7, written perhaps between AD 90 and AD 96 , tells us how the church was progressing some 35 years later. Paul met the Ephesian elders towards the end of his third missionary journey, prior to his imprisonment that commenced in Jerusalem. This clearly reveals the pattern of behaviour Paul wanted from the elders.
Acts 20:17 – 37 – Paul’s Charge To The Elders At Ephesus
Paul had taught the church at Ephesus through his pattern of life, and not just through his doctrine. Paul could say to the Ephesian elders,
“You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you” Acts 20:18
He had been with them three years (v 31), and could hold his life out as an example to them. He could tell the Philippian church to follow his example (Phil 3:17). The apostle lived out his faith, and called people to follow both his life and doctrine.
Paul had set an example in his teaching, his love, his faithfulness and his generosity. Paul had eagerly taught what was useful to them, both publicly and from house to house (v 20). He had declared repentance to all (v 21), and was innocent of men’s blood having taught the whole council of God (v26,27). But Paul was also a man who deeply felt for those around him. He had served among them with humility and tears (v 19). In the face of the threat of evil men distorting the truth, coming in as savage wolves to destroy the flock, Paul warned the Ephesian church with tears during his three years teaching ministry (v31). Such was Paul’s concern for the flock. Yet the apostle also shed tears over the lost, (Phil 3:18,19). The apostle did not cold-heartedly defend the truth, he deeply cared about those he taught.
Paul was also an example of faithfulness to his God given commission, and of generosity to the church. To Paul, the greatest concern was to finish the task given to him by the Lord Jesus Christ, which was to preach the gospel (v 24). This mattered more to him than his life (v 24). This was an important statement, as he also reminds the Ephesian elders of their God given task as elders, calling them to stay faithful to their commission. Paul was also generous towards the church in material matters. He had not only supplied his own needs, but also supplied the needs of others (v 34), remembering the Lord’s teaching that it was more blessed to give than to receive (v 35).
During his time with the elders, Paul also reminds them of their duties, and reminds them of the important reasons for their position. The elders are to watch over themselves and the flock of God who He bought with his own blood (v 28). There is real danger to guard against, as false teachers seeking disciples will come. These false teachers will come as wolves without any thought for the flock (v 29). Deceivers would even arise from among the church at Ephesus (v 30).
So after about 35 years, how did the church at Ephesus progress?
Revelation 2:1 – 7
How Christ introduces himself to each church in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 is important. To the church at Ephesus He presents Himself as the one who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks amongst the seven lampstands. The seven stars are the seven angels or messengers to the churches, while the lampstands are the seven churches (Rev 1:20). Both Brooks  and Ramsey  take the stars as being the messengers who bring God’s word to the church, i.e. the pastors or the elders at each church. Thus what Christ is saying, is that He is the one who moves amongst the churches and sustains them, especially their leadership.
The Lord finds much to commend the church for. Their works that have been difficult, but they have persevered onwards (v 2). Staying faithful to Paul’s charge to be on their guard concerning false teachers, they have exposed them (v 2), and have laboured on not growing weary (v 3). This also involved rejecting the practices of the Nicolaitans (v 6).
Yet in the church there is a flaw serious enough to end its existence, with the Lord Jesus Christ being the one who will bring about this end. They have lost their first love (v 4). The love they had once had when they had first received the truth concerning Christ, had disappeared. Yet our Lord is very gracious to us, He points out the fatal flaw in the church, and gives the solution to their problem (v 5), and holds out the promise that to those who overcome eternal life will be given (v 7)
Analysis of the Problem in the Church at Ephesus
The church at Ephesus had truth, but not love. Brooks brings out the point that while loss of love for the brethren is included in the censure, it is invariably a symptom of a greater problem: lack of love for Christ . They had followed Paul in his example of teaching and faithfulness to a God given commission. Yet they had not followed Paul in his love for Christ and his deep concern for those around him, both the believer and the unbeliever.
Best points out they had works, but had lost the correct motive for doing those works . Paul’s commendation to the church at Thessalonica is very revealing in 1 Thess 1:3:
“remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father” 1 Thess 1:3
Here we have three of the areas that the Ephesian church was commended for, works, labour and endurance. For each of these the motive the Thessalonian church had for doing them is given. Their works were produced by faith, their labour was prompted by love, and their endurance was inspired by their hope in Christ. As Paul writes the Thessalonian church in this letter, they had both the works and the correct motives for doing these works.
The Ephesian church had lost the heart of the Christian life, love for Christ and the brethren. Love delights in truth (1 Cor 13:6), and would lead to a greater desire for it. Those who love Christ want to please Him (John 14:21). Love and obedience are intermingled. Those who love will be obedient, and those who are obedient are to have love as their motive for obedience (2 John v 6). Love must be our motive in how we relate to the believers around us. A man may have all manner of Spiritual gifts, but is nothing without love, and profits nothing if he gives all to his fellow man and yet does not have love (1 Cor 13:2,3). Love is also an important part of evangelism (John 13:34,35).
Why Did the Problem Occur?
The first point to note, is that the problem did not occur through lack of teaching. In fact quite the reverse is true, the problem occurred in spite of much teaching to love one another. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus during his first Roman imprisonment, in about AD 60 – 63 . Paul’s prayer was that the Ephesian church would know the fullness of Christ’s love for them (Eph 3:17 – 19). They were also to speak the truth in love, so that they may grow up into Christ who is their head (Eph 4:15). The final verse of this letter expresses Paul’s benediction:
“Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen.” Ephesians 6:24
He reminds them of true Christian behaviour, to love Christ with an undying love. Paul wanted the church to know Christ’s love for them, and in response, to love Christ and their fellow man.
More than all this, the apostle John, the apostle who so strongly emphasised love in his letters, ministered at Ephesus. It is encouraging that the man who originally wanted to call down fire from heaven on a village that rejected Christ, could mellow to have such a loving emphasis in his ministry. All three of John’s letters were probably written from Ephesus around AD 80 – 95 . One of the marks of true Christianity is a love for the brethren, which John repeatedly mentions in his first epistle (e.g. 1 Jn 2:9,10;3:14,4:7). This emphasis is also in his second epistle (2 Jn v 5,6). John must surely have taught the need to love each other to the church and not just in his letters.
Perhaps this lack of love was the influence of false teaching. Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that false teachers would arise from among the own people (Acts 20:30). In his first epistle, John mentions that false teachers, “antichrists”, had left the church at Ephesus (1 Jn 2:19). It may have been a false teaching, still having some influence even though the teachers had been ejected, that caused the lack of love.
It may have been the persistent trials of dealing with the false teachers that had made the hearts of some grow cold. Our Lord warned that due to the trials in the coming days and the increase in wickedness, the love of many would grow cold (Mt 24:12).
The repeated emphasis on doctrine, necessary due to dealing with false teachers, may have led to an over emphasis on truth. This emphasis on truth may have been at the expense of a heartfelt appreciation and warmth for truth, and more seriously, to the neglect of a love for Christ.
Christ’s Warning, Solution and Outstretched Hope
While truth should inspire love, truth can be held without a deep and sincere love for Christ. For this church that had truth, labour, and perseverance, but not love, Christ promises to remove it from existence (v 5). He will do it personally (v 5). Yet our Lord gives the remedy to the problem (v 5), and offers hope to those who obey (v 7).
The church is to remember the love it once had, to turn from its sinful lack of love, and to do the things it once did. Richard Brooks mentions several characteristics of a lost love for Christ identified by Octavius Winslow . These characteristics also show what a true love is:
- God becoming less of an object of desire, contemplation and of delight.
- Loss of sweet confidence and simple trust of a child before God.
- Hard thoughts of God in some of His dealings.
- Duty rather than privilege in spiritual exercises.
- A less tender walk with God (that is to say, less trembling at the thought of offending Him, and so a lighter view of sin).
- Christ becoming less glorious to the eye and less precious to the heart.
- Love to Christ’s people starting to decay.
- Our interest in the advancement and prosperity of Christ’s cause beginning to wane.
Those in the church are to remember the times when Christ was precious to them, and object of their desire, and when they willingly served Him out of an eagerness to please. The thought of sinning was once awful due to the fact that it offended the one they valued, rather than just because it was wrong. When eager and fervent devotional lives are restored, then a love for the brethren would return. To those who hear and obey Christ’s call, they will have eternal life (v 7). This is the hope presented before them. Those who hear Christ’s voice, and then repent and follow Him can regain the paradise that Adam lost.
Bible Text Copyright Statement
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 The Lamb is all the Glory, Richard Brooks, Welwyn Commentary Series, Evangelical Press.
 Revelation, James B. Ramsey, Banner of Truth.
 Diminishing Spirituality in Local Churches, W.E. Best, South Belt Grace Church.
 The Believer’s Study Bible, New King James Version, Thomas Nelson Publishers