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Chapter 18: The Letter to the Church in Ephesus

These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that walketh in the midst of the seven golden lamps.

I know thy works, and thy toil and patience, and that thou canst not bear evil men, and didst try them which call themselves apostles, and they are not, and didst find them false; and thou hast patience and didst bear for my name’s sake, and has not grown weary. But I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the Churches.

To him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.

The message to the Church in Ephesus comes from Him “that holdest the seven stars in His right hand, that walketh in the midst of the seven golden lamps.” If we review the openings of the other six letters, none could so appropriately be used to the Church in Ephesus as this description. The only exordium which could for a moment be compared in suitability with it is the opening of the Sardian letter, “he that hath the Seven Spirits of God and the Seven Stars.” The second part in that case is almost identical with part of the Ephesian exordium, but the first part is different.

The similarity between the Ephesian and Sardian letters is not confined to the opening address, but can be traced throughout. If Ephesus was the practical centre and leading city of Asia at that time, though not the official capital of the Province, Sardis was the ancient capital of Lydia, and the historical centre of the Asian cities; the tone and spirit of the history of the two Churches had been to a certain degree analogous; and therefore a resemblance in the letters was natural. The Author of the letters assumes much the same character in addressing these two cities, emphasising in both cases his relation with all the Seven Churches. The capital of a country stands for the whole, and he who addresses the practical capital may well lay stress upon his relation to all the other cities of the country. But the similarities and differences between these two letters can be discussed more satisfactorily when we take up the Sardian letter and have both before us.

Ephesus, as in practical importance the leading city of the Province Asia, might be said in a sense to be the centre, to be in the midst of the Seven Churches; and the Divine figure that addresses her appropriately holds in His hand the Seven Stars, which “are the Seven Churches.” The leading city can stand for the whole Province, as the Province can stand for the whole Church; and that was so customary and usual as to need no explanation or justification. To the Christians, Ephesus and Asia were almost convertible terms; Ephesus stood for Asia, Asia was Ephesus. Hence in the list of Equivalent names compiled by some later scribe, the explanation is formally given, No. 40, “Asia” means the city Ephesus.

As to the holding of the seven stars, Mr. Anderson Scott, in his admirable little edition, published in the Century Bible, remarks that “in the image before the eye of the Seer the seven stars probably appear as a chain of glittering jewels hanging from the hand of Christ.” This image suits excellently the description which we have given already of the Seven Churches as situated on the circling road that goes forth from Ephesus, traverses them all in succession and returns to its point of origin in the representative city of the Province. The analogy from pagan art quoted in chapter 19 shows readily this figure would be understood by the Asian readers.

After the initial address, the letter begins, according to the usual plan, with the statement that the Author has full knowledge of the character and fortunes of the Church. He knows what the Ephesians have done.

The past history of the Ephesian Church had been one of labour and achievement, enduring and energetic. Above all it had been distinguished by its insight into the true character of those who came to it with the appearance of Apostles. It lay on the great highway of the world, visited by many Christian travellers, some coming to it for its own sake, others merely on their way to a more distant destination. Especially, those who were travelling to and from Rome for the most part passed through Ephesus: hence it was already, or shortly afterwards became, known as the highway of the martyrs, “the passage-way of those who are slain unto God,” as Ignatius called it a few years later, i.e., the place through which must pass those who were on their way to Rome to amuse the urban population by their death in the amphitheatre. Occasionally, it is true, they were conducted to Rome by a different road. Ignatius, for example, did not pass through Ephesus, but was taken along the overland route, for some reason unknown to us. The reason did not lie in the season of the year, for he was at Smyrna on 7th August, and probably reached Rome on 17th October, an open time for navigation. But Ignatius knew, though he himself was led by another route, that the ordinary path of death for Eastern martyrs was by land to Ephesus and thence by sea to Rome.

Among the travellers there came to Ephesus, or passed through it, many who claimed to be teachers; but the Ephesian Church tested them all; and, when they were false, unerringly detected them and unhesitatingly rejected them.

The recital of the past history and the services of the Church occupies a much greater proportion of the Ephesian letter than of any other of the Seven. The writer dwells upon this topic with emphatic appreciation. After describing the special kind of work in which the Ephesians had been most active and useful, he returns again to praise their career of patience and steadfastness, and describes their motive—“for my name’s sake”—which enhances their merit. The best counsel, the full and sufficient standard of excellence for the Ephesians, is to do as they did of old. Others may have to improve; but Ephesians are urged not to fall short of their ancient standard of action.

The best commentary on this is found in the letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians, with its profound and frank admiration, which might seem almost to be exaggerated were it not justified by the language of St. John. The Syrian bishop wrote as one who felt that he was honoured in associating with the envoys from the Ephesian Church and in being “permitted by letter to bear it company, and to rejoice with it.” Ignatius shows clearly in his letter the reasons for his admiration. The characteristics which he praises in the Ephesian Church are the same as those which St. John mentions. And yet they are so expressed as to exclude the idea that he remembered the words of this letter and either consciously or unconsciously used them: “I ought to be trained for the contest by you in faith, in admonition, in endurance, in long suffering,” sect. 3: “for ye all live according to truth and no heresy hath a home among you; nay, ye do not so much as listen to any one if he speak of ought else save concerning Jesus Christ in truth,” sect. 6: “as indeed ye are not deceived,” sect. 8: “I have learned that certain persons passed through you from Syria, bringing evil doctrine; whom ye suffered not to sow seed in you, for ye stopped your ears,” sect. 9: “you were ever of one mind with the Apostles in the power of Jesus Christ,” sect. 11.

The ideas are the same; but they are scattered about through Ignatius’ letter, and not concentrated in one place. Moreover the words are almost entirely different. The only important words common to those passages of Ignatius and the letter which we are studying are “endurance,” which almost forced itself on any writer, and “Apostles”; but Ignatius speaks of the true Apostles, St. John of the false. The idea of testing, which is prominent in St. John, is never explicitly mentioned by Ignatius, and yet it is implied and presupposed in the passages quoted from sections 6, 8, 9. But he was interested only in the result, the successful championing of truth, whereas St. John was necessarily interested quite as much in the way by which the Ephesians attained the result.

The probability, then, is that Ignatius was not familiar with the Ephesian letter of St. John. He could hardly have kept so remote from the expression of this letter, if it had been clear and fresh in his memory. Hence his testimony may be taken as entirely independent of the Revelation, and as showing that the reputation of Ephesus in the Christian world about the beginning of the second century had not grown weaker or less brilliant in the short interval since St. John wrote.

But, while nothing is required of the Ephesians except that they should continue to show their old character, yet a return to their earlier spirit was urgently necessary. The fault of the Ephesian Church was that it no longer showed the same spirit: the intense enthusiasm which characterised the young Church had grown cooler with advancing age. That was the serious danger that lay before them; and it is the common experience in every reform movement, in every religion that spreads itself by proselytising. The history of Mohammedanism shows it on a large scale. No religion has ever exercised a more rapid and almost magical influence over barbarous races than Islam has often done, elevating them at once to a distinctly higher level of spiritual and intellectual life than they had been capable of even understanding before. But in the case of almost every Mohammedanised race, after the first burst of enthusiastic religion, under the immediate stimulus of the great moral ideas that Mohammed taught, has been exhausted, its subsequent history presents a spectacle of stagnation and retrogression.

The problem in this and in every other such case is how to find any means of exercising a continuous stimulus, which shall maintain the first enthusiasm. Something is needed, and the writer of this letter perhaps was thinking of some such stimulus in the words that follow, containing a threat as to what shall be done to Ephesus if it continues to degenerate, and fails to reinvigorate its former earnest enthusiasm. But a less serious penalty is threatened in this case than in some of the other letters—not destruction, nor rejection, not even the extirpation of the weak or erring portion of the Church, but only “I come in displeasure at thee, and will move thy lamp, the Church, out of its place.”

Some commentators regard the threat as equivalent to a decree of destruction, and point to the fact that the site is a desert and the Church extinct as a proof that the threat has been fulfilled. But it seems impossible to accept this view. It is wrong method to disregard the plain meaning, which is not destruction but change; and equally so to appeal to present facts as proving that destruction must have been meant by this figurative expression.

Equally unsatisfactory is another interpretation, that Ephesus shall be degraded from its place of honour, which implies an unconscious assumption that Ephesus already occupied its later position of metropolitan authority in the Asian Church. As yet Ephesus had no principate in the Church, except what it derived from its own character and conduct: while its character continued, its influence must continue; if its character degenerated, its influence must disappear. Ephesus has always remained the titular head of the Asian Church; and the Bishop of Ephesus still bears that dignity, though he no longer resides at Ephesus, but at Magnesia ad Sipylum. For many centuries, however, Smyrna has been in practice a much more important See than Ephesus.

The natural meaning must be taken. The threat is so expressed that it must be understood of a change in local position: “I will move thy Church out of its place.”

Surely in this milder denunciation we may see a proof that the evil in Ephesus was curable. The loss of enthusiasm which affected that Church was different in kind from the lukewarmness that affected Laodicea, and should be treated in a different way. The half-heartedness of the Laodiceans was deadly, and those who were so affected were hopeless, and should be irrevocably and inexorably rejected. But the cooling of the first Ephesian enthusiasm was a failing that lies in human nature. The failing can be corrected, the enthusiasm may be revived; and, if the Ephesians cannot revive it among themselves by their own strength, their Church shall be moved out of its place.

The interpretation of Grotius comes near the truth: “I will cause thy population to flee away to another place.” We do not know whether the form in which he expresses his interpretation is due to the belief current in the country that the Christian people of Ephesus fled to the mountains and settled in a village four hours distant, called Kirkindje, which their descendants still consider to be the representative of the ancient Ephesus. But if Grotius had that fact in view, his interpretation does not quite hit the mark. The writer of the Seven Letters was not thinking of an arbitrary fact of that kind, which might befall any city, and was in no way characteristic of the real deep-seated nature of one city more than of another. He had his eye fixed on the broad permanent character of Ephesian scenery and surroundings, and his thought moved in accord with the nature of the locality, and expressed itself in a form that applied to Ephesus and to no other of the Seven Churches.

There is one characteristic that belongs to Ephesus, distinctive and unique among the cities of the Seven Churches: it is change. In most ancient sites one is struck by the immutability of nature and the mutability of all human additions to nature. In Ephesus it is the shifting character of the natural conditions on which the city depends for prosperity that strikes every careful observer and every student either of history or of nature. The scenery and the site have varied from century to century. Where there was water there is now land: what was a populated city in one period ceased to be so in another, and has again become the centre of life for the valley: where at one time there was only bare hillside or the gardens of a city some miles distant, at another time there was a vast city crowded with inhabitants, and this has again relapsed into its earlier condition: the harbour in which St. John and St. Paul landed has become a mere marsh, and the theatre where the excited crowd met and shouted to Diana, desolate and ruinous as it is, has been more permanent than the harbour. The relation of sea and land has changed in quite unusual fashion: the broad level valley was once a great inlet of the sea, at the head of which was the oldest Ephesus, beside the Temple of the Goddess, near where the modern village stands. But the sea receded and the land emerged from it. The city followed the sea, and changed from place to place to maintain its importance as the only harbour of the valley.

All those facts were familiar to the Ephesians; they are recorded for us by Strabo, Pliny, and Herodotus, but Ephesian belief and record are the foundation for the statements of those writers. A threat of removing the Church from its place would be inevitably understood by the Ephesians as a denunciation of another change in the site of the city, and must have been so intended by the writer. Ephesus and its Church should be taken up, and moved away to a new spot, where it might begin afresh on a new career with a better spirit. But it would be still Ephesus, as it had always hitherto been amid all changes.

Such was the meaning that the Ephesians must have taken from the letter; but no other of the Seven Cities would have found those words so clear and significant. Others would have wondered what they might mean, as the commentators are still wondering and debating. To the Ephesians the words would seem natural and plain.

But after this threat the letter returns to the dominant note. The Ephesian Church was still, as it had been from the beginning, guarding the way, testing all new teachers, and rejecting with sure judgment the unworthy. In the question which beyond all others seemed to the writer the critical problem of the day the Ephesians agreed with him, and hated the works of the Nicolaitans. In two other letters that party in the early Church is more fully described. In the Ephesian letter the Nicolaitans are only named.

The promise contained in the perorations of the Seven Letters is different in every case, and is evidently adapted in each instance to suit the general tone of the letter and the character and needs of the city. To the Ephesian who overcometh, the promise is that he shall eat of the tree of life, which is in the Garden of God. Life is promised both to Smyrna and to Ephesus; yet how differently is it expressed in the two cases. Smyrna must suffer, and would be faithful unto death, but it shall not be hurt of the second death. Ephesus had been falling from its original high level of enthusiasm; it needed to be quickened and reinvigorated, and none of the promises made to the other Churches would suit its need; but the fruit of the tree of life is the infallible cure, the tree whose very leaves were for the healing of the nations, the tree in which every true Christian acquires a right of participation (22:2, 14). The expression is, of course, symbolical; and its real meaning can hardly be specified. It would be vain to ask what St. John had precisely in his mind; but it might be a more hopeful task to inquire what meaning the Asian readers would take from the phrase. It is a Jewish expression; but the Asian readers would take it in the way in which many Jewish ideas seem to have become efficacious in the Province, viz., in a sort of syncretism of Jewish and native Asian thought.

Every image or idea in this letter finds a parallel or an illustration in Jewish thought and literature. Yet it cannot be said with truth that the letter is exclusively Jewish in tone. There is nothing in it which would seem strange or foreign to the Hellenic or Hellenised people for whom the book was in the first instance written. Even the tree of life carried no un-Hellenic connotation to Ephesian readers. The tree was as significant a symbol of life-giving Divine power to the Asian Greeks as to the Jews, though in a different way. Trees had been worshipped as the home of the Divine nature and power from time immemorial, and were still so worshipped, in Asia Minor as in the ancient world generally. On some sacred tree the prosperity and safety of a family or tribe or city was often believed to depend. When the sacred olive-tree on the Acropolis of Athens put forth a new shoot after the city had been burned by the Persians, the people knew that the safety of the State was assured. The belief was widely entertained that the life of a man was connected with some tree, and returned into that tree when he died. The tree which grew on a grave was often thought to be penetrated with the spirit and life of the buried man; and an old Athenian law punished with death any one that had cut a holm-oak growing in a sepulchral ground, i.e. heroon. Sacred trees are introduced in Figure 4 chapter 6, Figure 23 chapter 21 and Figure 14A chapter 17.

It will probably seem to many persons an unworthy and even irrational procedure to trace any connection between the superstitious veneration of sacred trees and the symbolism of St. John. But it was shown in chapter 13 that although Ignatius abhorred paganism, and though the memory of his pagan days caused a lasting sense of shame in his mind, yet he could compare the life of a Christian congregation to the procession at a pagan festival, and could use symbolism derived from the pagan mysteries to shadow forth the deepest thoughts of Christianity. In all those cases the same process takes place: the religious ideas of the pagans are renovated in a Christian form, ennobled and spiritualised. The tree of life in the Revelation was in the mind of the Ephesians a Christianisation of the sacred tree in the pagan religion and folklore: it was a symbolic expression which was full of meaning to the Asian Christians, because to them the tree had always been the seat of Divine life and the intermediary between Divine and human nature. The problem which was constantly present to the ancient mind in thinking of the relation of man to God appears here: how can the gulf that divides human nature from the Divine nature be bridged over? how can God come into effective relation to man? In the holy tree the Divine life is bringing itself closer to man. He who can eat of the tree of life is feeding on the Divine power and nature, is strengthening himself with the body and the blood of Christ. The idea was full of power to the Asian readers.

But to us the “tree of life” carries in itself little meaning. It seems to us at first little more than a metaphor in this passage, and in Revelation 22 it appears to us to be a mere detail in a rather fanciful and highly poetical allegory. A considerable effort is needed before we can even begin dimly to appreciate the power which this idea had in the minds of Ephesian readers: we have to recreate the thoughts and mind of that time, before we can understand their conception of the “tree of life.”

Accordingly, although the “tree of life” is different from any expression that occurs, so far as known, in Greek literature, it contains nothing that would seem strange or exotic to Greeks or Asians. And every other idea in the letter would seem equally natural, and would appeal to equally familiar beliefs and habits of life. While we need not doubt that the writer took the “tree of life” from his own Jewish sphere of thought, yet he certainly avoids in all these letters anything that is distinctly anti-Hellenic in expression. So far as the Seven Letters are concerned, he is in advance of, not in hostility to, the best side of Hellenic thought and education.

Thus ends the letter. It is a distinctly laudatory one, when it is examined phrase by phrase: it shows admiration and full appreciation of a great career and a noble history. Yet it does not leave a pleasant impression of the Ephesian Church; and there is a lack of cordial and sympathetic spirit in it. The writer seems not to have loved the Ephesians as he did the Smyrnaeans and Philadelphians. He respected and esteemed them. He felt that they possessed every great quality except a loving enthusiasm. But when, in order to finish with a word of praise, he seeks for some definite laudable fact in their conduct at the present moment, the one thing which he finds to say is that they hated those whom he hated. Their disapproval and their hatred were correctly apportioned: in sympathy and love they were deficient. A common hatred is a poor and ephemeral ground of unanimity.

The Ephesians stand before us in the pathway of the world, at the door by which the West visited the East, and from which the East looked out upon the West, as a dignified people worthy of their great position, who had lived through a noble history in the past, and were on the whole not unworthy of it in the present, who maintained their high tradition—and yet one thing was lacking, the power of loving and of making themselves loved.

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