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THE CHURCH IN EPHESUS
Scripture Reading: Rev. 2:1-7
The church in Ephesus is prophetic concerning the condition of the first stage of the church after the apostles. The apostolic age was prior to A.D. 96. After A.D. 96 the apostolic age apparently was over, and many wrong things began to creep in. Since Revelation is a book of prophecy, the names in the book are also prophetic. Ephesus in Greek means "desirable.'' The church which continued after the apostolic church was still desirable.
"I know your works and your labor and your endurance'' (Rev. 2:2a). The pronoun your in Revelation 2 and 3 is singular in number. Among the seven churches, five are rebuked, one receives no rebuke and no praise, and only one is praised. Ephesus is one among those which are rebuked. But the Lord first tells the messenger of Ephesus about the spiritual reality. Some think the Lord attempts to say something good before He rebukes so that the one being rebuked will not feel so bad, as if the Lord is being diplomatic. But this is not so with the Lord. Rather, the Lord points out the spiritual reality in the church. There is something called the spiritual reality which exists regardless of the outward condition. Although the Israelites were worthless in the sight of men, God said through Balaam that He did not behold iniquity in Jacob (Num. 23:21). It is not that God does not look; rather, He looks but sees nothing wrong. It is not that the eyes of God can see better than ours, but that God sees the spiritual reality.
It is not difficult for us to see that the condition of the church today is desolate. Sometimes we think a certain brother or sister is just as desolate. But if the children of God are enlightened by the Lord, they will see that their many weaknesses and failures are lies. If the spiritual reality is true, then these are all lies. Consider a little child who runs out to the street and returns covered with mud. Although he is filthy when he enters the house, I say that he is clean and beautiful. It is true that his body is covered with dirt, but the dirt does not grow out of him. Once he is washed, he will be clean again. Each child of God must see that even before he is washed, he is good. The dirtiness is a lie; his reality is good. Today the church does not look as glorious as God says, but today the church is glorious. If you have spiritual insight, though the church is not washed, you can still see that she is good. For this reason you can also thank God continually for the church. Today the church is glorious, not having spot or wrinkle or any such things (Eph. 5:25-27). No spot means sinless, and no wrinkle means not aged, always maintaining her freshness before the Lord. God says the church in Ephesus is good; it is her spiritual reality that is good.
"And you have tried those who call themselves apostles and are not, and have found them to be false'' (Rev. 2:2b). The Lord says something about trying the apostles, which proves that after the apostolic age there are still apostles in the church. If there were only twelve apostles, then all they would have to ask is whether or not the professed apostle was John. If he was not John, then he would not be an apostle, because by that time all the other eleven apostles had passed away and only John was left. The necessity for the apostles to be tried proves that there were still more apostles after the twelve apostles.
"But I have one thing against you, that you have left your first love'' (v. 4). The word "first'' in Greek is proten. It refers not only to primacy in time but also in nature. In Luke 15 the father gave the best robe to the prodigal son to put on; the word "best'' is also proten.
"But if not, I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place, unless you repent'' (Rev. 2:5b). The churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are not only churches in prophecy but also churches that were actually in seven localities in Asia. Remarkably, history tells us that for more than a thousand years, there has been no church in Ephesus. The lampstand has been removed; even her outward appearance has been removed. Now there are churches in Corinth, Rome, and so forth, but none in Ephesus. Because she did not repent, the lampstand was removed.
"But this you have, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate'' (v. 6). Nicolaitans cannot be found in church history. Since Revelation is a book of prophecy, we must look into the meaning of the word. Nicolait in Greek is composed of two words. Nikao means "conquer'' or "above others.'' Laos means "common people,'' "secular people,'' or "laity.'' So nicolait means "conquering the common people,'' "climbing above the laity.'' Nicolaitans, then, refers to a group of people who esteem themselves higher than the common believers. The Lord is above; the common believers are below. The Nicolaitans are below the Lord yet above the common believers. The Lord hates the behavior of the Nicolaitans. The conduct of climbing over and above the common believers as a mediatorial class is what the Lord detests; it is something to be hated. But at that time there was only the behavior; it had not yet become a teaching
In the New Testament there is a fundamental principle: All of the children of God are priests of God. In Exodus 19:5-6 God called unto the people of Israel, saying, "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.'' God ordained in the beginning that the whole nation be priests, but the incident of worshipping the golden calf occurred not long after. Moses broke the tables of law and said, "Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto me....And slay every man his brother'' (32:26-27). At that time the Levites came to stand on the Lord's side, and as a result, three thousand Israelites were slain on that day (v. 28). Henceforth, only the Levites could be priests; the kingdom of priests became a tribe of priests. The rest of the people of Israel could not be priests, and they had to depend on the Levites to be the priests on their behalf. The priestly class in the Old Testament was a mediatorial class. However, in the New Testament, Peter said, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people acquired for a possession'' (1 Pet. 2:9). We, the whole church, are priests; this goes back to the condition in the beginning. Revelation 1:5-6 says that as many as are washed in the blood are priests. The priests are in charge of God's business; every believer is in charge of God's business. There should not be a mediatorial class in the church. The church has only one High Priest, the Lord Jesus.
Before a change took place in the church, all the believers took care of the Lord's business. But after the apostles, this condition began to change; men began to lose interest in the matter of serving the Lord. When the Roman Catholic Church began (in the time of Pergamos), there were few who were saved but many who were baptized; thus, unbelievers filled the church. Then there appeared a group of "clergy.'' Since there were members who were not spiritual, what could they do? Asking them to put down the account books and pick up the Bible to preach would not be fitting. So a group of people was sought out to take special care of spiritual affairs while the rest did secular work. Thus, the "clergy'' was produced contrary to God's desire. God desires that all who do secular work should also take care of spiritual affairs.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the dispensing of the bread, the laying on of hands, baptizing, etc., are all performed by the Catholic priests; even weddings and funerals must be undertaken by the "clergy.'' In the Protestant church there are pastors. For illness, call the doctor; for lawsuits, call the lawyer; for spiritual affairs, call the pastor. What about us? We can devote ourselves to secular work without distraction. But please remember, in Taoism the Taoist priests chant the liturgy for people; in Judaism the priests manage the things of God for men. However, in the church, there should not be any mediatorial class, because we ourselves are all priests.
It is for this reason that we have been crying out concerning the "universal priesthood'' for twenty years. Abel could offer a sacrifice; so could Noah. In the beginning the people of Israel could all offer sacrifices; but later, because of the incident of the golden calf, they could not offer sacrifices themselves. God says that every believer can come directly to God. But now there are the mediatorial people in the church. Today there are Nicolaitans in the church; therefore, Christianity has become Judaism.
The Lord is pleased with those who reject the mediatorial class. If you have been washed by the blood, you have a direct share in spiritual affairs. The church can only be founded on this ground; otherwise, it is Judaism. Therefore, we are not just fighting the matter of sects, but we are fighting for the privilege of the blood. Today there are three main categories of churches in the world: one is the world church, that is, the Roman Catholic Church; one is the state church, such as the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church; and one is the independent church, such as the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, etc. In the Roman Catholic Church there is the (Catholic) priestly system, in the Anglican Church there is the clerical system, and in the independent churches there is the pastoral system. All we see is a mediatorial class which undertakes spiritual affairs. But the church God wants to establish is one in which He can place the whole gospel without the mediatorial class. If there is anything present that does not conform to the whole gospel, then that is not the church.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches'' (Rev. 2:7a). The Lord speaks in this same way to all the seven churches, showing that not only the church at Ephesus should hear, but all the churches must hear.
"To him who overcomes, to him I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God'' (v. 7b). God's original intention for man was that he eat of the fruit of the tree of life. Now God says that we can come directly to Him and do according to His original intention. The question is not what the tree of life is; rather, the question is whether we are willing to follow God's initial intention to eat of the fruit of the tree of life in the garden of God. Only the overcomers can eat. Whoever returns to the original intention and demand of God is an overcomer.