When Love Grows Cold: A Profile of the Ephesian Church
Near the end of his second missionary campaign (ca. A.D. 52), Paul, in company with his working companions, Aquila and Priscilla, came to the city of Ephesus.
This magnificent metropolis of some two hundred to three hundred thousand souls was the capital of provincial Asia, located in west Asia Minor, just off the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. Here the apostle reasoned with the Jews in their synagogue. After a while, he sailed for Jerusalem, leaving behind Aquila and Priscilla.
Obviously some converts were made, for later on, after the incident involving Apollos, the missionary team, in company with “the brethren,” encouraged the Alexandrian brother to go westward to Achaia. They even wrote a letter of commendation on his behalf (Acts 18:27).
After Paul embarked on his third missionary journey (ca. A.D. 53; see Acts 18:23ff), he eventually came back to Ephesus (Acts 19:1). He there encountered a dozen men who had been taught the “preparatory” gospel advocated by John the Baptizer.
After they were corrected regarding their doctrinal misconceptions, these men were immersed by the authority of Christ for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). They were then members of Christ’s church.
Whether the remnant of Christians mentioned earlier (Acts 18:27) were still in Ephesus, Luke does not reveal. At any rate, there was a church here from this point onward.
Paul labored in this great city for the following three years (cf. Acts 19:8, 10, 22; 20:31). His discourse to the church’s elders (Acts 20:18-35) is a striking commentary on the level of dedication the apostle pursued in developing their spiritual growth.
The Letter to the Ephesians
During his first Roman incarceration (Acts 28:16ff; ca. A.D. 61-63), Paul wrote a letter that (in most Greek manuscripts) begins: “To the saints that are at Ephesus” (Eph. 1:1).
There is some controversy about the matter. Without going into detail, two principal views are entertained by conservative writers.
- Some believe the epistle was intended as a circular letter for various churches in provincial Asia, but since it likely was disseminated from Ephesus, that name became attached to the document (Thiessen 1955, 243-244).
- Others suspect the letter was written to and for the Christians in Ephesus, but Paul framed it in a rather generic format that would make it adaptable to neighboring churches, perhaps “daughter” congregations that resulted from Ephesian evangelism (Hiebert 1977, 260ff).
Radical critics doubt that Paul even penned the document. Carl Holladay contends that “there are enough structural, stylistic, and theological differences from Paul to raise substantial questions about its Pauline authorship” (2005, 412).
The book of Ephesians has two major divisions.
In chapters one through three, there is emphasis upon God’s eternal plan for human redemption, as implemented by his Son, Jesus Christ, and manifested through the church (cf. Eph. 3:8-12).
Then, in chapters four through six, there is practical instruction for godly living. These saints were to be united (Eph. 4:1-16), holy (Eph. 4:17-32), loving (Eph. 5:1-6), separated from ungodliness (Eph. 5:7-14), wise (Eph. 5:15-6:9), and vigilant (Eph. 6:10-20).
The letter makes it clear that it is important as to what one believes, and how he behaves.
But we are not finished. There is space to be filled—between the Epistle to the Ephesians and Jesus’ note to this church more than thirty years later.
An Ominous Prophecy
It is interesting that in his epistle to the Ephesians, there is no hint of trouble festering in the congregation.
Hiebert observed that the purpose of the document “was not polemical” as evidenced by “the fact that it contains no definitely controversial elements” (266). Harold Hoehner stated that “no particular problem is raised in the book” (1983, 614).
On the other hand, one cannot but recall the prophecy uttered by Paul in his final recorded meeting with the elders of the Ephesian church:
Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops, to feed the church of God which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30).
Were we to never read another inspired line regarding the church at Ephesus, we would know that rough times were ahead for this community of believers.
Paul’s Letters to Timothy
The apostle Paul penned two letters to his young friend, Timothy. Data in both epistles reveal that Timothy was living at Ephesus at the time.
In the first letter the apostle encourages his friend to “tarry” (establish residence) in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3). Then in 2 Timothy 4:7, there appears to be an idiom known as the epistolary aorist, i.e., a statement written in anticipation of the arrival of the second letter, to be conveyed by Tychicus to Timothy in Ephesus.
One can gather, therefore, evidence from these two letters as to the nature of potential trouble brewing in the Ephesian church. The following points are worthy of reflection. (Note: For a greater expansion of these matters, see my commentary, Before I Die: Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus).
A different doctrine
Some were inclined to teach a “different doctrine” from the pure gospel. There was the temptation to give heed to “fables” and “endless genealogies,” i.e., theories without historical bases, along with fictional tales, likely pertaining to Jewish ancestors. Such ideas merely generated useless controversies.
Some already had swerved aside as a result of the empty speeches of those who professed to be teachers of the law, but who were void of understanding. Some who claim to know the most, in reality know the least (1 Tim. 1:3-7).
Warnings about false teachers
The importance of holding tightly to “faith and a good conscience” was paramount, but some, notably Hymenaeus (cf. 2 Tim. 2:17; 18-20) and Alexander, had thrust these from themselves and had “made shipwreck” concerning the faith.
Paul had “delivered unto Satan” (i.e., exercised a disciplinary process; cf. 1 Cor. 5:5) these rebels so that they might be taught the danger of their blasphemy.
Is it possible that the Ephesian brethren had been “selective” in their disciplinary procedures? Did they censure “false apostles” and the Nicolaitans, but let others slide?
Gender roles affected
There was a problem in the Ephesian church that was female-oriented.
Clearly some women wanted leadership status, which Paul forbade upon the ground of the divine order of gender roles as first revealed in creation events, as well as man and woman’s initial responsibilities in the human rebellion (1 Tim. 2:8-15).
Paul’s restrictions upon female leadership earned him the undeserved appellation of being the “eternal enemy of women” (George Bernard Shaw).
A larger apostasy to come
The apostle was able to divinely see (via the Spirit) an impending apostasy at which point some would “fall away from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1-4)—a clear affirmation of the possibility of apostasy (contra Calvinism).
These apostates would give heed to “spirits” (i.e., false teachers; cf. 1 Jn. 4:1) who would seduce them away from the truth with false theories concerning demons. These religious leaders would be hypocrites whose consciences had been seared as with a hot iron, perhaps beyond feeling (cf. Eph. 4:19).
They would be given to asceticism in such matters as forbidding marriage and the abstention from meat, not to mention yielding to “profane and old wives’ fables” (1 Tim. 4:7a).
There was a master-slave conflict (1 Tim. 6:1-2), along with the persistent agitation of some who were not content to stay within the bounds of the “sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Such ones were puffed up, and in their ignorance addicted to disputes over meaningless matters, attempting even to enhance their financial resources by means of their doctrinal chicanery (1 Tim. 6:3-10).
There were quarrelsome folks who “subverted” certain disciples, not “handling aright the word of truth.” Their “babblings” were void of sacred content and produced only ungodliness.
These false teachers had “erred concerning the truth” and overthrew the faith of some, by such silly theories as the allegation that the resurrection of the dead was past already (2 Tim. 2:14-18). They probably “spiritualized” the resurrection in some fashion, as those of the modern radical preterist sect do. These errorists claim that the resurrection of the dead occurred in A.D. 70! (see also 2 Tim. 2:20-26).
There were “personal workers” of mischief. They crept into houses and took captive certain silly women who were burdened with sin and enslaved by various desires.
They professed to be diligent students, but never could come to a knowledge of the truth; rather, they withstood it.
These false teachers were “reprobate” concerning the truth (2 Timothy 3:6-9, 13; 4:1ff). (For a more detailed study of what has been called, “The Ephesian Heresy,” see Mounce 2000, lxixff.)
To frame a metaphor from the world of modern technology, let us now “fast-forward” to the concluding book of the New Testament, composed by the apostle John on the island of Patmos, and written about a third of a century after Paul’s Ephesian letter (ca. A.D. 96).
In chapters two and three, there are seven brief letters to representative congregations in provincial Asia, one of which was located in Ephesus. The review is mixed and limited.
Praise for the Ephesians
The Ephesian Christians could not “bear” evil men, specifically those who feigned apostleship but did not possess the credentials to support their arrogant claims (Rev. 2:2; cf. 2 Cor. 12:11; 11:13).
As then, so now, there are those who profess to be apostles of Christ, but are not (for instance, Mormonism).
In addition, the Ephesians hated the “works of the Nicolaitans,” which incurred the Savior’s disdain as well (Rev. 2:6). Some of the post-apostolic “fathers” contended that this sect was founded by Nicolaus of Antioch, one of the seven servants appointed to manage the care of Grecian widows (Acts 6:5b), Supposedly, Nicolaus fell away from the faith.
Others contended that the faction arose as a result of a misunderstanding of the brother’s teaching. The history is too shrouded to draw firm conclusions. The parallel reference in Revelation 2:14, coupled with the “Balaam” metaphor, may suggest an attempt to infiltrate the Ephesian church with semi-paganism and sexual looseness.
Warnings for the Ephesians
There were matters, however, that the resurrected Lord held against the Ephesians.
For instance, they had left their “first love” (Rev. 2:4). This seems to allude to the quality of love that they once embraced, but since had abandoned.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a time in Israel’s history when the Hebrews had loved the Lord as one who loves his bride-to-be; but that love faded (Jer. 2:2). Since love is the motivating drive behind obedience, how dangerous it was to have left that zealous love (cf. Jn. 14:15; Gal. 5:6).
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul, guided by the Spirit of God, had focused on love, perhaps sensing a weakness that needed strengthening.
The noun form for “love” (
agape), and the cognate verbal form (
agapao) are collectively found nineteen times in Ephesians—approximately one-sixth of the apostle’s employment of these words in all his letters combined (Hoehner, 614).
As a result of this waning love, the Ephesian family had “fallen” (Rev. 2:5a), i.e., experienced a loss of status before the Lord (Danker et al. 2000, 815). The perfect tense form suggests the state had become fixed. Concrete hardens. It is possible for love to grow “cold” (Mt. 24:12).
They thus were charged to “repent and do the first works,” i.e., the zealous works that characterized them initially. If they refused to respond to the Savior’s plea, the Lord would “move [their] candlestick out of its place” (Rev. 2:5b).
Since the “candlestick” was the church itself (Rev. 1:20b), the significance is this: they would be disowned as one of Christ’s congregations!
Can Christ disfranchise a church? Indeed he can! Those who labor under the illusion that doctrinal “orthodoxy” is paramount, but attitude is irrelevant, are a universe away from spiritual reality!
It is not difficult to discern that there were forces working in the church at Ephesus that led eventually to the sad condition sketched in Revelation 2:1-7. When love for Christ grows cold, bitter fruit inevitably follows. Not all “Ephesian” churches have passed into oblivion!
- Danker, F. W. et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Hiebert, D. Edmond. 1977. Paul’s Epistles. An Introduction to the New Testament. Vol. 2. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
- Hoehner, Harold W. 1983. Ephesians. The Bible Knowledge Commentary – New Testament. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, eds. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Holladay, Carl R. 2005. A Critical Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
- Jackson, Wayne. 2007. Before I Die – Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Mounce, William. 2000. Pastoral Epistles. Word Biblical Commentary. Bruce Metzger, ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
- Thiessen, Henry C. 1955. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.