Many Americans who favor a strong work ethic are suspicious of people who sit and read the book of Revelation too much, or go on and on about the "battle of Armageddon" or the "second coming of Christ" or the "rapture of the church," as those who actually believe in such things. Such believers are often perceived, even in "Christian" America, as religious fanatics—unpredictable, unstable and not to be trusted. Even President Reagan was widely criticized some years ago for referring to Armageddon and the coming of Christ, not because he was being too openly Christian in a public pronouncement, but because it was suggested that he might recklessly plunge the country into nuclear war. Americans, for all their religiosity, are suspicious of those who seem "so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good," since they have traditionally valued consistency, stability and hard work. And yet these values are the first ones to emerge in the book of Revelation, specifically in the message to Ephesus!
Besides being the capital of the province of Asia, Ephesus was, from a New Testament standpoint, the most important of the cities to which John wrote. The apostle Paul found there a group that had already believed in Jesus but knew only John the Baptist's baptism (Acts 19:1-7). For three years Paul made Ephesus his home (Acts 20:31), as well as his base for evangelizing the entire Asian province (Acts 19:10). Paul wrote a letter designated in some ancient manuscripts as a letter to "the saints in Ephesus" (Eph 1:2) and in others without reference to a specific location (Eph 1:2, NIV margin). Possibly this letter, called "Ephesians," was actually a circular letter to several of the same congregations that were recipients of the book of Revelation. In any event, Ephesus was also the sphere of Timothy's ministry, according to 1 Timothy (1:3; compare 2 Tim 1:18), and the sphere of the apostle John's ministry, according to later Christian tradition (for example, Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.22.5; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.31.3; 3.39.1-7).
Whether the "John" of Revelation is the "apostle John" remembered by later writers or not, his vision places Ephesus at the head of the list of congregations to which his letter is addressed. The dominant values in the message to Ephesus are the same as those recognized and praised by Paul and others in their congregations. I know, says the risen Jesus, your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance. . . . You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary (vv. 2-3). That the deeds of the Ephesian congregation were works of love is clear from what follows: Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first (vv. 4-5).
Such language recalls Paul's words to the Thessalonians ("We continually remember . . . your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope," 1 Thess 1:3), as well as those of another New Testament letter possibly sent to Christians at Rome ("God . . . will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them" Heb 6:10; compare 10:32-36). The values accented in such texts are not so different from the values Americans like to claim as their own—love, generosity, hard work, courage and persistence. Despite its apocalyptic character, so foreign to our achievement-oriented society, the book of Revelation highlights these same values. Its work ethic is alive and well, even as the end of the world draws near.
Another value Americans respect, even when they do not practice it, is the ability to distinguish between a phoney and the real thing. The message to Ephesus acknowledges that the congregation has this ability: I know, says Jesus, that you . . . have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false (v. 2), adding that you hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate (v. 6). The one sin in the book of Revelation that stands out above all others is lying, after the manner of those who pretend to be something they are not (compare, for example, 2:9; 3:9; 14:5; 21:8; 22:15). It is unclear in the present instance who the "false apostles" were and what their message was (compare Paul's opponents in 2 Cor 11:13), but in any case the Ephesians were not deceived. A decade or two later, Ignatius of Antioch would write to them that their bishop, Onesimus, had praised them because "you all live according to truth, and no heresy dwells among you; in fact you will not even listen to anyone who does not speak about Jesus Christ in truth" (Ignatius, To the Ephesians 6.2). "I have learned," Ignatius added, "that some from elsewhere who have evil teaching stayed with you, but you did not allow them to sow it among you, and stopped your ears, so that you might not receive what they sow" (To the Ephesians 9.1).
There is no way to be certain whether or not the "false apostles" at Ephesus were the same as the Nicolaitans (v. 6), about whom we will learn more in the message to Pergamum (2:14-15). The claim to be apostles may suggest a group sent "from elsewhere" (as Ignatius put it); the word apostle (Greek apostolos) means literally "someone sent"—a missionary or a messenger. In the case of the Nicolaitans, nothing is said as to whether they were traveling messengers or a faction within the congregation itself. There is in fact no evidence that the Nicolaitans were even present in Ephesus. The reference here could simply mean that the Ephesians frowned on their activities at Pergamum (compare 2:15).
Clearly, there was much to praise at Ephesus. The view that this congregation (perhaps along with Laodicea) is the most severely condemned of the seven (Wall 1991:69) is an exaggeration. The persistence and courage of the Ephesians in the face of outside threats had not lapsed (v. 3), and their attitude toward false teaching was exemplary. The same could not be said, however, of their love toward God and their generosity toward each other (v. 4). In Matthew, Jesus had predicted that "many false prophets will appear and deceive many people" and that "the love of most will grow cold" (Mt 24:11-12). The message to Ephesus was that it was no good to avoid the first of these warnings only to fall victim to the second. Loss of your first love is not primarily the death of passion, as in a stale marriage, but the failure to maintain the commitment once made to help and serve one another. Here as everywhere in the Bible, love for God and love for one another are inseparable.
For this alone the angel at Ephesus is criticized and is told, Repent and do the things you did at first, with the stern warning, If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (v. 5). The lesson for all who value a work ethic is that such an ethic must be motivated by generosity, love and compassion, or it is worthless. The message to Ephesus is a message to Christians today as well. It is doubtful that the threat of the risen Jesus to come to you and remove your lampstand from its place was directed only to the Ephesian angel. More likely it is implicit in all seven messages, if those who "have ears" in all the churches fail to listen to what is said (v. 7). Quite simply, if they—if we—do not pay attention, we will lose our identity and cease to exist.