“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” -Revelation 2:1-7
John begins transcribing this first letter from Jesus to the Church of Ephesus, the Ephesians, his home congregation. In this letter, out of all seven letters, is contained the highest praise and the lightest rebuke. Theirs also is the most magnificent image of the promise as they continue in faith in the finished work of Christ: to be granted to eat from the lost Tree of Life itself.
Cultic emperor worship flourished in Ephesus. A temple was dedicated to Vespasian and his two sons who ruled after him, Titus and Domitian. Domitian ruled during the time that John wrote Revelation. The historian Eusebius reports that the Ephesian Christians were sorely persecuted, especially during the reign of Domitian–his reign was characterized by terror–especially in the latter years.
In spite of such great persecution, the Ephesian Christians were known for their piety and steadfast faith. Ignatius, an early Christian pastor and great confessor of the faith who died a martyr’s death in Rome, wrote to the Ephesians as he was transported to the Coliseum. In his letter, Ignatius commends them for their faith and love of Christ. This takes place after the book of Revelation has already been written and circulated.
As Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians commends them for their faith, so also does Jesus’ letter to them some years prior. “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
However, where Ignatius commends them for their love of Christ, Jesus had to rebuke and correct them for abandoning their first love. For this reason, we may, with some degree of probability, assume that what this “abandoned first love” is that Jesus speaks of is nothing less than their love for Him, the One who first loved them. Again, this is not absolutely certain as Scripture is simply silent as to the exact details of their sin, this “love they had at first.”
What we can be sure of is that, by the time Ignatius was rolling by on his way to martyrdom, God’s Holy Spirit, through this letter in the book of Revelation, worked repentance and faith in them to the point that they could now be commended, not only for their faith but also their love. The Word did the work He had set out to do. His Word which proceeded from His mouth did not return to Him void but accomplished what He willed.
To this Word, under great persecution, the Church of Ephesus clung fiercely. They depended on it with their lives and defended it to the death from every threat. The Lord remarks on this in His letter, saying, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.”
The Ephesians were vexed continually by false apostles and teachers, claiming to speak for God in the name of God. During the time of the apostles, it may have seemed an impossible task to discern true apostles from the false ones. However, the Ephesians would not let go with their death grip on the Word, and so comparing the words of these so-called apostles to the Word of God, they were able to weigh their words carefully against the Scriptures and found these imposters to be found wanting in the balance.
The Ephesian litmus test for the authenticity of an apostle is no different from ours today. We also have a strong and powerful defense to thwart the lies of Satan, brought by his agents disguised as servants of righteousness. (see 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
The licentious Nicolaitans also threatened the Church of Ephesus. According to Irenaeus, another pastor from early church history, the Nicolaitans were an antinomian sect who taught that grace gave them license to enjoy sensual sin. At the time that Revelation was written, the Nicolaitans had significant influence in Ephesus as well as Pergamum. However, according to Eusebius, their antinomian influence was short lived.
Both Scripture and church history teach us that, through the Law, God calls His saints to repentance. Through the Gospel, brings them to faith. The Law exposes sin, causing contrition and sorrow over sin, but is powerless to do any more. Contrition alone does not make one a Christian. But it is faith in the promise—hope granted to us solely due to the promises fulfilled in Christ and gifted freely to us—which makes a sinner into a saint.
The promise of “paradise” and the “tree of life” to those who conquer beckons the reader of this last book of the Bible all the way back to the first book of Holy Scripture, to paradise lost, to the Garden of Eden. At the same time, it points the reader forward to the new heavens and the new earth, to paradise restored, in the culmination of the great hope that lies within us through faith.
When Jesus says He will grant this to the one who conquers to eat of this tree, we may be tempted to look at this as works righteousness, as our part to play in our salvation. However, it is nothing of the sort. Jesus, the One who has conquered, the-already-Conquerer, is our victory. This “conquering” spoken of is nothing less than what John speaks of when he writes in his first epistle, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:4–5).
Here, then, we can see clearly, as Scripture interprets Scripture, that our victory, our conquering anything that grants us a bite from the fruit of the tree of life, is not our works, but it is God’s work of bringing us by the Holy Spirit to penitent faith and trust in Jesus Christ. He is the Victory. Faith is the gifted channel which delivers endless and eternal gifts. Then we can also say, with Paul, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57).
Perhaps, with an eternal mindset, we can, at last, begin to understand in a proper light the passage so misunderstood by us today which says, “In all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37). He is the Conqueror and the Victory. In Christ, the victory is won. Everything is already done. Everything has been prepared. It’s handed to you freely and without cost, though it cost Him everything.
If you’re wondering whether or not you’ll ever get to sink your teeth into the delicious fruit of the tree of life, the right question to be asking yourself is not, “Am I a conqueror?” The right question is, “Am I forgiven for all my failing to conquer?” The answer is always yes in Christ. There, hanging on that tree of death on Calvary, hung all your sin and shame, and became for you the fruit of the tree of life. Drink deep of that sweet nectar of the fruit of the tree of life, your victory in Christ!
Until next time, may the grace and peace of Christ be with you all.