Ephesus and Smyrna

There’s an old hymn tune entitled ‘Church Triumphant’. It’s a great tune (often sung to the words ‘I know that my redeemer lives’) but I wonder at that title. We’re about to meet seven churches and their dominant characteristics are hardly triumphant. But as we will see there is an ultimate victory to be secured.

Revelation is written to these seven churches. We see this from verse 4 of chapter 1: “To the seven churches in the province of Asia” – the letter comes from John, but the message contained therein is from God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (1: 4-5). Before Revelation gets into its main message there is a specific message for each of the churches in chapters 2 and 3.

First some general observations on these specific messages for the churches: the churches were real. There are seven real places listed, each one in what we know today as western Turkey. Whilst these messages were intended for these specific churches, there can be little doubt that the messages apply to churches down through the ages:  there are characteristics in each that are of universal to us all. There is a third dimension to these messages and that is that they appear to describe the progression of the church over history from the early church to the present day – the similarities are striking and we will pick these up as we study each church in turn. The general picture for each church is one of striving and difficulty: there is loss of love, persecution, bad doctrine, tolerance of evil, lethargy, little strength and indifference – hardly triumphant churches! Yet in spite of this, believers will ultimately be victorious. We need to listen: to” have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. Do you have ears to hear? Are you ready to listen to what the Spirit has to say to us?

The format of each message follows a similar pattern : 1)Identification of the speaker (Jesus) by one of the symbols associated with him in the first chapter,  2) What the Lord knows about each church, 3) an admonition, or reprimand, 4) an encouragement and 5) a call to listen with a promise to those who are victorious.

  1.  Ephesus – first love lost

Ephesus is addressed by the one who holds the seven stars in his hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. Ephesus was an important port and commercial centre in the ancient world – the church was started by Paul himself and had the privilege of a specific letter from him.  

Jesus knew about their hard work and perseverance: features of the church age. The church had little time for imposters and wicked people – this was a church that knew what was right and was apparently doing what was right. They were putting up with difficulty and were not giving up. These are all great attributes but there was a significant problem in Ephesus – what is held against them is that they have forsaken their first love.  It seems that this church were doing all of the right things, they were hard working and sought out and removed false apostles – they had all of their doctrine sorted out and settled, they had a right view of God and of their purpose in the world, but over time they had cultivated a love for order and form rather than a love for God. I can see this being a very easy trap for us to fall into too. We could talk all day about ‘statements of belief’ we could argue about this doctrine or that, but we often fail to love the one who died for us. The church in Ephesus was asked to think about how they had been in the past and see how far they had fallen. If you ever look at a clock you can never really see the hands moving – but how quickly they seem to move around the dial! So it is with attitudes, tiny changes take place, a compromise here a drift to formality there and in no time at all huge and damaging changes can take place. Look how far you’ve fallen Ephesians! Have we drifted in ever so imperceptible steps away from our first love?

All is not lost. Having realised how far they had drifted from their first love there was an opportunity to repent: a change of mind, a turning around. This is a radical step in the other direction. It takes a clear recognition of the direction of drift as well as a decision of the will to change direction. ‘Repent and do the things you did at first’. We sometimes work under the mistaken belief that love is some sort of spontaneous feeling that we either have or don’t have, but on the contrary love is under an active control of the will. ‘Do the things you used to do’ says Jesus. Change direction: rediscover your first love.

Failure to change is not without danger: you will lose your lampstand if you don’t. The light will go out. The witness to the world will cease. Churches that lose their first love perhaps become inward looking and become so obsessed with ‘doing it right’ that they do nothing at all.

One final commendation comes in verse 6: ‘But you have this in your favour: you hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate’. There is some debate as to exactly what the practices of the Nicolaitans were, but it seems a sensible view that we can understand from the word itself. ‘Nicolaitans’ means conqueror of the laity (or ordinary people). I heard one tome of  a ‘lay person’ being asked to speak at a meeting which was usually run by men in ‘full time’ Christian positions, paid pastors, vicars, ministers and such like. Usually 3 or 4 of the group would attend this meeting – none attended that day, it seemed that there was some resistance to an ‘ordinary’ person playing a part. This is the sort of thing but in a much more extreme form that the Ephesians had rejected – we will see this problem arose later in one of the other churches (Pergamum).

The penultimate message to the church in Ephesus is as follows: ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’  This phrase reminds us of a similar phrase that Jesus used that has an Old Testament source. The phrase seems to mean that we can choose to listen or we can choose to put our fingers in our ears. Eventually this sort of attitude will lead to inability to hear, but ability lies with us all for a time. Perhaps this is a bit like a radio, the radio has all of the ability to tune into the radio channel of choice, but if we fail to tune in (or if we tune into something else) we will not hear. How often do we tune our lives to the things of this world, listening to the opinions and chatter of our age, but we fail to tune into God’s eternal messaging system.

True believers will have the victory. To the victorious ones there is the prospect of participation in the tree of life. This tree is mentioned in Genesis – it was its fruit that Adam and Eve ate in disobedience and it will bring benefits in the future life. Who are the victorious ones? This seems to be those who believe and are truly born again.

  • Smyrna: the persecuted church.

The picture attached to Jesus’ message to Smyrna is the ‘one who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.’ Smyrna was a persecuted and suffering church. Smyrna means bitter – the word is related to the resin myrrh. The fragrance of myrrh is released when the resin is crushed – the resin is used in the embalming process: death linked to fragrance.

In verse 10, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  The church in Smyrna were to expect an onslaught from Satan – they would be tested. The word tested carries with it the idea of proving – in the same way that gold is ‘proved’ or refined in the fire. The testing that this church would go through would bring benefits in terms of purity. This seems to be a pattern in persecuted churches: persecution removes dross.

Outwardly this church was poor, it had little physical resources, but Jesus said  – ‘yet you are rich’. The final church of the 7, Laodicea was rich and yet Jesus said that its people were ‘wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked!’ Not so Smyrna.

Jesus noted that there were some around this church who “say they are Jews and are not”. This is a curious thing to say and one wonders what it could have meant. We’ve been studying the Old Testament over many years at our church and we’ve reached the wonderful book of Esther. In this book we read of a plot to annihilate the Jews by the nasty Haman. God has chosen to use the Jews to bring about his plan to reverse the sin problem in individuals and to restore the world. Satan is opposed to God’s plan. If the Jews could be annihilated then there would be no king to sit on David’s throne and no saviour of the world. The Jews are at the centre of God’s plan. Interestingly Jesus will return to the mount of Olives, and it will be from the city of Jerusalem that he will rule the nations (take a look at Zechariah to learn more about this). Given the centrality of the Jews in God’s plan it is no surprise that attempts have been made by the evil one through Haman and others to annihilate them. But there is an alternative tactic deployed which is to redefine who the Jews are; to create imposters. This seems to be the thinking here.  It’s a device of the devil to thwart God’s plans.

The message to Smyrna ends with an assurance that the overcomers would not be hurt by the second death. Remember that those who overcome are believers. One writer (Warren Wiersbe) said ‘those who are born twice will die only once. Those who are born once will die twice.’

If we think about the ides of these Revelation churches representing the historical progression of the church we see Smyrna as correlating with the martyred church of about 100 to 300 AD. During that time about 5 million believers were martyred. Historians have identified 10 specific persecutions which may correlate with the ’10 days’ mentioned in the message. Interestingly at this time there was a rise in anti-Semitism in sectors of the church and the theologian Origen developed the idea that God’s promises to Israel could be seen as just a story describing how the church would become the sole benefactor of God’s promises for Israel. The view sounds a bit like this: “the promises to Israel no longer belong to them, we (the church) do not share the promises with them but rather they are ours, and ours alone”. It seems surprising that such a seemingly innocuous belief could be associated with the ‘synagogue of Satan’. But when we consider the importance of Israel and the Jews in God’s plans for the redemption of mankind and the overthrow of Satan’s global rule we should not be surprised that any effort to distort God’s plan is to take up a position against God himself. As John advised us at the start and end of Revelation we ought not to mess with the words of this prophecy (or any other parts of the bible for that matter!).

Next time we will look at the remaining churches in chapter 2.