Ephesus: The Decline of the Church

THE ADDRESSES TO THE CHURCHES
(Chapters 3-11)

(Rev. ii. 1 - 7.)
It is not in any wise as being the metropolitan church of Asia that we find Ephesus first addressed. This, which has been the thought of many, has assuredly no countenance from the Word. The Church of God, which is Christ’s body, is not composed of churches, but of members, united together by that blessed Spirit which unites all to Christ the Head. Hence, the "churches," or "assemblies," are only local gatherings of so many Christians as find themselves, in the providence of God, actually together. Each of these is, according to Scripture, the Church in that place, as the true text reads invariably in these two chapters. This expanded would be, as in the epistle to the Corinthians, the "Church of God" in such or such a place. The place adds nothing to this title, nor one gathering of its members superior or inferior in privilege or responsibility to any other. It is true that the Church of God is not only designated as the body of Christ in Scripture, but also as the House of God - the place of His abode. But here, again, it is the Church at large that is so. There are not bodies of Christ, but "one body." just so there are not houses of God, but "the house." In each place, the local assembly represents the Church at large, as being indeed the local Church, - what of the Church at large is in that place. And this may vary, from time to time, in numbers, spirituality, and many other ways: and thus there will be peculiar local responsibilities, differences, and privileges, as is recognized in the chapters before us; but the standing in each the same.

No doubt we must not forget, as indeed we are not allowed to forget, the immense difference between profession and reality. A dead Sardis could not be in reality of the body of Christ at all. But this is nevertheless what the Church means, if it means any thing according to Scripture. The professing church is this, or it is a lie; and how solemn a lie! No, the reason why Ephesus stands at the head of those addressed here is of another nature. It is to be found, not in any external supremacy over the rest, but in its original spiritual eminency, and as the church to which the truth as to the Church had been first of all committed, and this, not as to its order upon earth, but as to its heavenly character. The Ephesians had been addressed by Paul, as now at a much later date they are by the Lord Himself; and it is in comparing the tenor of these two epistles that we find the significance of its being Ephesus, and no other, with which we here begin. The epistle to the Ephesians is that which carries us up to the height of Christian position, quickened out of death in trespasses and sins as following the course of a world governed by Satan, - and quickened with Christ, raised up together, and seated together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. This is individual, true of all believers, if there were no Church at all; but God has done more, and as united to Christ by His Spirit, we are members of His body, the fullness of Him who filleth all in all. Both as body of Christ and habitation of God, the apostle develops the doctrine of the Church in this epistle; while in the fifth chapter he carries us back to the beginning, and shows us once more the Church under the type of Eve, espoused to Him who will yet present her to Himself a glorious Church.

These are the truths, given to all saints, no doubt, but of which the Ephesian disciples were counted worthy to be the first recipients. And the apostle could write to them in this way as "faithful" ones, communicating what the spiritual state at Corinth or Galatia or among the Hebrews would have hindered his making known to them (I Cor. iii. i, Heb. v. 11 - 14). If Corinth headed a list of churches declined from first love, we should not marvel; but can we fail to realize the significance of its being Ephesus, the special custodian of the truth of the Church itself, in its heavenly reality?

The style of the address is, at the very outset, a sign of distance, as unusual as full of significance on the part of the Lord toward His people. There can be no proper question that the churches are themselves addressed, for this is directly stated at the conclusion of each epistle: "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." Yet the Lord’s words are, "To the angel of the church" in each case, and to this the style of the address fully corresponds. The responsibility of every thing that is wrong is ascribed to the angel; it is he that has them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, or of the Nicolaitanes; it is he that suffers the woman Jezebel; it is he who is threatened with the removal of his candlestick. It is quite plain that he represents the church in some way, and it is urged that the word "angel" has this force of a representative wherever it does not stand for the heavenly beings so called, who though higher naturally in the scale of creation, yet minister to the heirs of salvation.

The word "angel" means, as every one knows, simply "messenger," and is applied to the spirits of heaven as God’s messengers to men. But it is plain that the messenger does represent, so far as his errand is concerned, the one who sends him. "He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth Me; and he that receiveth Me receiveth Him that sent Me." Thus this meaning of the word is easily derived from its original one.

However, the representative character of the angel here is plain. It is natural enough that the advocates of episcopal or presbyterian order should find, as they do with equal facility, the bishop or the pastor in this representative-angel. In Scripture elsewhere it is impossible to find either of these things, largely as they are now believed in, and therefore as impossible, if we cleave to Scripture, to read them in here. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers we read of as gifts to the Church at large, though a Peter might especially address himself to the circumcision as a Paul to the Gentiles. But where have we the apostle of this place or that? Just as little have we the pastor of this church or of that. Bishops and deacons, it is true, we do find with a local office; still, never the bishop of an assembly, but the bishops; with whom it is allowed that the elders were identical.* "They ordained them elders in every church" (Acts xiv. 23). The one representative of each assembly supposed to be signified by the angel cannot be found in Scripture elsewhere.

Ephesus had its bishop-elders long before this, as we see in Acts xx. Its diocesan bishop at the time when this was written tradition makes the apostle John himself! He, then, cannot be the angel to whom he is told to write, nor will the search be more successful in other directions. All that can be truly urged is that this address to the angel is in accord with what we know to have been the state of things a century or so after the time of Revelation.

And this is quite in accord with its sad significance.

We have epistles to individuals, as to Timothy and Titus, never to the church through these. We have the epistle to the saints in Christ at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons, not to the bishops and deacons for the church. The constant method of address is to the church as such; and suppose here the "angel" were to stand for the bishops of Ephesus, how evident would it make the contrast between the first epistle (perhaps of thirty-odd years back,) and this second one. No more the direct address of familiar intimacy, (though now from the very lips of the priestly Mediator. Yet His love has not changed; the change, then, has been in His people The strange style is from One whom they have treated as a stranger.

Sadly it tells of the close of the old intercourse which he who seeks will find as invited to, if it were Laodicea, "I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." Turn to the Acts, and see how free, how tender, how as a thing of course - which deepens, not lessens, the wonder of it, - this intercourse can be. Or look back even to Genesis, if you will, and learn how truly God’s last thought is His first thought. It is man who has driven back these approaches upon God’s part, and forced Him into the cloud and darkness. The Church has but repeated the old history, though now, because the Light has come, the darkness is more strange and terrible.

But it is important to ask, Has He for our sins, then, given up His Church to this? and does the "angel" speak of distance maintained on His part toward even one, the least of all His saints? With whom, as with the angel, does He still speak face to face? Is it with an official class who interpret Him to those beneath them? Does the sun, as in winter-time, no longer reach the valley-bottoms, but only gild the tops of the hills with light? or is it to some gifted men that Christ reveals Himself, who, as planets, shed the little of His radiance they can reflect on others? Ah, no; it is not men of gift, still less an official class, who are indicated by the angel. The heart of those who know their Lord shall answer, It is not. No; nor, alas! is it any longer the church as a whole either; very far from that! Read the superscription "to the angel" in the light of the subscription, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches," and you will find that still the question of who are nearest Christ is answered by another, who has ears and eyes and heart for Him. He still speaks as of old to those who as of old listen. His ways, His attitude, His heart, can know no change. The stars that shine in His firmament are the overcomers of the darkness, not of the world now merely, but of the church, - planets that know their orbit and are held by their centre, and shine by the light of Him who shines on them. "The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches." If to the opened ear Christ speaks, it is plain that the responsibility of hearing is as much as ever that of all. None are released from it. And yet it is not to the mass that He can speak any more, or the overcoming would not be in the church, as it clearly is. Already it is the few that listen, and the constraint in the Lord’s manner is but the indication of His sense of this.

It may seem strange, however, that if the "angel" stands for these who listen to Christ’s voice, He should hold them responsible, as we have already seen, for all the evil in the church with which they are connected. How, it may be asked, can He thus burden with the sins of the whole the few who we an ear to hear? The responsibility of an official class is more readily recognized than of those who may be, however spiritual, the feeblest possible to accomplish any change in the condition of around them. But this is not the question. is true we are powerless to alter the general The ebb-tide of ruin can be stemmed by no effort of ours, and this feebleness of ours may seem an available plea to withdraw us from responsibility as to it. But not so teaches the word of the Lord. Our associations are here distinctly recognised as part of our general condition. We are to "depart from evil," not be unequally yoked with believers, purge ourselves from vessels to dishonour, and follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, to those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart. For association with evil we are therefore never responsible. It may be said that such principles, carried fully out, would involve a very narrow path and a wholesale giving up of spheres of usefulness. But be it so or be it not so, it is not ours to choose. Our path is defined for us. "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams; for rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness as iniquity and idolatry."

Yes, "rebellion"! How gladly would we call an obedience limited by our own wills by some lighter name than that! Yet what else, in truth, was that which brought out Saul’s true character, and lost the kingdom to him and to his seed forever? What he left undone was a mere trifle to what he did. And the sheep and oxen had been spared to sacrifice to the Lord. What fairer excuse have people now to offer for much disobedience - evil plausibly intended to bring forth good? And how hard is it to understand that while we may obey in much that in fact costs us little, the true test of obedience is just in that in which we are called to renounce our wills and our wisdom, perhaps to forfeit the esteem and companionship of others, by doing what has only the Word of God to justify it and must wait for eternity to find right appreciation! But now to listen to His word to Ephesus, who "holdeth the stars in His right hand, and walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks." The one point of the address is plain, and it is left to stand in sufficient, solemn, decisive contrast with all else that is unmingled commendation. Works, labour, patience, abhorrence of that which is evil, trying fearlessly those who put forth the highest claims, bearing for Christ’s name’s sake, and not fainting, - all this, put in the balance with one solemn charge: "Thou hast left thy first love." And this follows: "Repent, and do the first works, or else I will come unto thee, and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent."

Let us look at these things more closely. Their interest for us is of the deepest, for upon this one root of evil has grown all that has ever been in the Church’s long decline through the centuries which have intervened between that day and this. And this it is which, as we see, brings about her removal from the place of witness for Christ on earth This it is too which is the secret of decline in every individual Christian. For us all, it should rouse the earnest, heart searching inquiry "Is it I?" For, if it can be truly said of any of us, "Thou hast left thy first love," it is vain for us to think that other things can be really judged. The single eye is wanted even to see them with. We must get back to this, or there is no real recovery. Two masters, the Lord says Himself, we cannot serve.

How much there was He could commend at Ephesus! "I know thy works" is commendation clearly. But not only had they works, they laboured. Do you think there are really so many of whom it couId be said, they labour? We have recognized, what is so precious to understand, that we have our different spheres of service, and that there is no mere secular work, if really done for Christ. But to labour is to work with energy - to  "toil," as the Revision gives it. How many of us toil for Christ?

Then they had patience - endurance. Many begin well, like the Galatians, but in the face of unforeseen difficulties give way. It is the mark of divine work that it endures. Human energy quickly spends itself: faith draws upon a stock that never decreases. It was true faith that wrought in these Ephesian saints. Patience, too, is apt to degenerate into a toleration, more or less, of evil. Finding it on every hand, and no where perfection, the very contact with it is apt to dull the spiritual sense. Charity would fain put also the mildest construction upon every thing. We are bidden to "take forth the precious from the vile," but we learn to tolerate the vile because of the precious. We become liberal where we have no right. The Lord praises the Ephesians for the opposite conduct: "Thou canst not bear them which are evil." And where there was the very highest assumption, they did not fear to test it: "Thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars."

But more, it was true love to Christ which wrought in all this: "Thou hast patience, and hast borne for My name’s sake, and hast not wearied." Yet here it follows: "Nevertheless I have against thee," - not" somewhat," as if it were a little, - " that thou hast left thy first love." But how dreadful a dishonour to Christ is this, to lose one’s first love! It is as if at first sight He was more than He proved on longer acquaintance! Is not here the very germ of final apostasy? I do not, of course, mean that the Lord will allow any of His redeemed to be lost out of His hand. "God is faithful, who hath called us into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ;" and this faithfulness of God is our security: "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance." Nor only so; if we are born of God, we have that within us which cannot suffer us to become what we were before: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." Yet while this is true on the one side, in the child of God as identified with the divine nature by which he is such, - still, on the other side, it is no less true that in the believer also there remains yet the old nature. In him still there is that which lusts against the Spirit, and only if ye "walk in the Spirit, ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh."

Here is what makes the world to us such a battlefield. Capable, on the one hand, of enjoying all the joys of heaven; capable, on the other, of being attracted by that which lies under the power of the wicked one, - the eye affecting the heart, - day by we are solicited by that which daily lies before s and from which there is no escape. Our danger is first of all distraction, some gain to us which means loss for Christ, or that dulling of the spiritual we just now spoke of; the dust of the way is upon the glass in which Faith sees her eternal possessions. Our remedy is the presence of He who with basin and towel would refresh His pigrims, cleansing away the travel-stains that they nay have part with Him.

Here alone first love is maintained. Here, in His presence, we learn His mind. The holiness of truth is accomplished in us. What is unseen but eternal asserts its power. The illusions of the prince of this world pass from us. The glory of ‘ Christ is revealed, and the eye here also affects the heart; He becomes for us more and more the light - in which we see light, the Sun which rules the day, not only enlightening but life-giving: the light in which we walk is the "light of life." Now here, as I have said, first love cannot but be maintained. Who could be daily in His presence, ministered to by Him, having part with Him, and yet grow cool in response to His love? It is impossible. Where this is the case, intimacy has not been kept up. We have not permitted the basin and towel to do its work. Assurance of heart before Him has been replaced by an uneasy sense of unfitness for His presence, the true causes of which we have not been willing fully to face, and for which the remedy has therefore not been found. In this state there may be yet much work and labour and zeal, and true love at the bottom. Fruit may be on the tree, plentiful as ever, but not to the Master’s taste as once, not ripened in the Sun. Form and bloom and beauty may be little lacking: this was the state at Ephesus. But the Lord says, "Repent, and do the first works."

What is the test, then, of "first love"? Not "work " - activity in outward service; this they had at Ephesus: not even "labor," for this too they had: no, nor yet "endurance " - though a more manifest sign than either of divine power in the soul. Not zeal against evil, nor boldness to examine and refuse the highest pretensions; not suffering even for Christ’s name, and that unwearied. All this is good and acceptable to God, and the Ephesians had it all, and yet says the Lord, "I have against thee that thou hast left thy first love."

What, then, is the test of first love? It is in the complete satisfaction of the heart by its object. You know what power often there is in a new thing to take possession of one for the time being. And in first love, it is characteristic that it engrosses the subject of it. The Lord claims again and again the power to give this complete satisfaction of heart to His people. "He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but he that drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain of water springing up unto eternal life." "He that - cometh unto Me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst." "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture bath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."

Now this it is that will give a peculiar character to the life which nothing else will. It is of this the apostle speaks when he says, "The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, - who loved me, and gave Himself for me." It is this satisfaction with a heavenly object of which he is giving the effect when he says, "This one thing I do: forgetting the things which are behind, and reaching forth unto that which is before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." "What things were gain ‘to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea, doubt-‘less, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ."

This is the secret of happiness, who can doubt? That for which he counted all else dung and loss must have given him surpassing, supreme happiness. And happiness such as this, derived from nothing in the world, is power over the world. The back is upon it. The prize is elsewhere. The steps hasten upon a path that glows with the light of heaven. Holiness is found, as it only can be found, in heavenliness. Such was the apostle, and Christianity is nothing else to-day. Blessed be God, it is not something further to be found far on in the Christian course, -but at the beginning. It is first love which has these characteristics. In Christ Himself, at once for present need, all fullness is found, as His own words declare. "He that cometh to Me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst." It is in drinking of other streams that the old thirst comes back upon him who does so. "The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" are "all that is of the world." He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again. So the world holds its own by their very misery.

But we are not speaking of the men of the world. It is to Ephesus - to the saints there - the Lord is speaking: to those to whom the heavenly truth had been unvailed, the depositaries of it upon the earth, the representatives of the Church at large. And it is to the Church at large, through Ephesus, that this is now addressed. Can any doubt the truth of such an application? Would that it were even possible! but we have not to go beyond the New Testament itself to find the application confirmed, and to hear the prophetic announcement of still further departure even to the very end. The epistles of Paul, long before Revelation, reveal a state of things already beginning, such as it is hard to realize of those early days. In one of the very earliest comes the statement, "The mystery of iniquity doth already work," and "that day " - the day of the Lord - " shall not come, except there come a falling away first." The two epistles to the Corinthians are the next in time to those to the Thessalonians, and at Corinth there is sin such as was not named among the Gentiles, with divisions beginning, and some denying the resurrection of the dead. Next, Galatia is backsliding from Christ under the law, and receiving another gospel. Then, to the Romans he has to write, bidding them avoid those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine they have learned. His next epistles are written from a Roman prison: but here he has to say of those to whom he had written that their faith was spoken of through the whole world, "All seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ."

The epistles to Timothy may close the sorrowful picture: "At my first answer no man stood with me, but all forsook me: " Paul ends his course like His Master. Not alone at Rome: "This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia have departed from me." But now all that will be vessels of honour, fit for the Master’s use, are to purge themselves from the vessels to dishonour. Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse; and in the last days perilous times shall come, men throwing the Christian dress over their unchanged natures, having the form of godliness but denying the power thereof. From such they must turn away.

Peter, John, Jude, add each some fresh feature to the terrible picture; but we need not dwell upon it more. We see the professing church is ruined and doomed. The true-hearted are already a remnant. By the "many antichrists" then present, the latest apostle decides that it is the last time. We look beyond even the Ephesian epistle here to see the hopelessness of the thought of any general repentance. And the word abides, "I will take away thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent."

The promise to the overcomer meanwhile rings out its words of cheer, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of My God." There is to be no yielding, however the difficulties of the way increase. God’s stars shine by night as by day, and the darkness only makes them more apparent. It is no new thing, the darkness. The path of faith has been in all ages essentially alike. The incentive comes from beyond, and no sorrows of the way can mar the beauty of the paradise of God.

The tree of life in the garden of old meant clearly dependent life, which was to be ministered to Adam by its means. In himself, innocent as he was, there was no continuance apart from this. God would thus remind him of the essential mutability and dependence of the creature - a safe and wholesome lesson.

For us too, redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, and possessors of eternal life, this is still life in dependence; and herein is the secret of its eternity. It is life in Christ, in the Son who is alone essential Life. Of the fruits of this we shall partake forever. How suited an appeal to those in the state addressed in this epistle! It is failure in maintaining the place of dependence, in receiving out of His fullness in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, that is the very secret of their condition. The mind, the will, the heart, are in independence. He who keeps close to Christ overcomes. How suited, then, the encouragement to one who knows already the blessedness of this place, to look on to the time when in far other circumstances the full results of it shall be attained, - when eternally it will be ours to know the joy of that dependence which secures His ministry of love to us forever! "For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things; to whom be glory forever. Amen."