Jesus addresses the church of Ephesus first from the seven churches in the region. This is one of the churches from which we can glean lots of history right out of the Biblical texts. In Acts 19 Luke records the origins of the Ephesus church. Some “disciples” where discovered in Ephesus who knew nothing of the Holy Spirit. After some teaching these 12 or so men received baptism in Jesus name and they received the Holy Spirit. After three months teaching in the synagogue, Paul spent two years discussing the kingdom of God daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. The ministry in Ephesus was accompanied by miracles, spiritual confrontations, and with public acts of mass repentance regarding the systems of sorcery and of idolatry. The Ephesus ministry had its share of conflict; in fact in 1 Corinthians 15:32 Paul says that he had fought wild beasts there. Though we do not know the occasion of the event we can surmise that the emergence of the Gospel and the church in Ephesus, casts a wide net of influence. Luke shows us that the economics of Ephesus were beginning to change because of the number of people who had come to Christ and had abandoned idol worship. The tradesmen of Artemis raised a ruckus to protest against Paul and the Way until the city cleark read them the riot act and dispersed the crowd. Paul soon left for Macedonia.
At the next appearance of the church of Ephesus Paul stops in at Miletus, south of Ephesus and sent for the elders of the church to meet him. The account in Acts 20 is extraordinary to me because of the urgent and emotionally raw appeal Paul makes to these elders for their continued devotion to Jesus and to their oversight of the church. He warns them that “savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
The next appearance of Ephesus is the letter known by the name Ephesians. There are extensive studies done regarding the authorship and the destination of the letter. If it truly is to the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus we are confronted with a church for whom things are still going well. Paul, writing from prison, is intent on setting out a condensed view of their life sitting with Christ and forming their identity in Him, walking with Christ and forming a life of relationships shaped by Him, and standing with Christ and forming a stance toward the world that engages in the spiritual battle.
But when we get to 1& 2 Timothy, we are confronted with a church that is in trouble. Timothy it appears may want to quit the job pastoring a troubled and divided church. There has been a leadership catastrophe. Paul writes,
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” Paul goes on to encourage Timothy to hold to a Gospel of grace in Christ as illustrated by his own life and then goes on to even identify some who have abandoned this Gospel and good fight. “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to the faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”
The letters of 1st Timothy and 2nd Timothy are filled with prescriptions of how to Timothy is to maintain his own vibrant faith in Jesus Christ and to lead the church out the mess they are in theologically and relationally. The prescriptions involved extensive instruction on the reformation of leadership in the Ephesian church and encouragement to Timothy to not be drawn into bickering, false teaching, greed, power struggles, or any compromised position on the Gospel. Paul writes, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. Grace be with you.” 1 Timothy 6:20-21
When we get to Revelation Jesus indicates that the church has persevered and endured hardships for his name. He references the leadership crisis that they had weathered: “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” However, this journey through catastrophe has taken a toll on the very spirit and vibrancy of their faith and relationships. Jesus says, “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.”
It is not enough when pastoring or leading a church to lead through crisis and problems, or to teach for sincere and true understandings of the faith. Church leadership is ultimately about calling people into vibrant, loving, caring, trusting relationship with Jesus Christ and each other. This “first love” that Jesus reminds them of captures the idea of tender yet zealous appreciation and devotion. It is action accompanied with deep feeling. Notice, Jesus says, “Remember…repent, and do the things you did at first.”
What was there “at first,” for the Ephesian believers? What had love for Jesus and each other generated? Let’s look again at Acts 19 and 20. Here is a list of what I observe in their lives: Yieldedness to the Holy Spirit, daily dialogue about the Kingdom of God, a desire to engage those who don’t believe in the Gospel, kindness toward the sick, sacrificial repentance and abandonment of the deeds and trappings of darkness, a shift in their economic habits, distictiveness in Christ shared across diversity of cultures and backgrounds, high value for the people of God, attentiveness to the needs of the church, emotionally openness and love.
These activities and attitudes are commended by Jesus indirectly. However, it is the direct commendation of Jesus to which we must pay the most attention–first love–trusting that repentence from a reduced love for Him and His Church will generate the action that overcomes deathliness and enters into the promised life of God. I believe that by calling and shepherding the followers of Jesus into deep and vibrant love for Him, we can create systems of relationships in the church that cooperate with the wind of the Spirit to draw more and more people to the grace-filled and prevailing life of Jesus and His Kingdom.