Rev. 2.1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands:
- These churches were in such different states as to purity of doctrine and the power of godliness, that the words of Christ to them will always suit the cases of other churches, and professors. Christ knows and observes their state; though in heaven, yet he walks in the midst of his churches on earth, observing what is wrong in them, and what they want. The church of Ephesus is commended for diligence in duty. Christ keeps an account of every hour’s work his servants do for him, and their labour shall not be in vain in the Lord. But it is not enough that we are diligent; there must be bearing patience, and there must be waiting patience. And though we must show all meekness to all men, yet we must show just zeal against their sins. The sin Christ charged this church with, is, not the having left and forsaken the object of love, but having lost the fervent degree of it that at first appeared. Christ is displeased with his people, when he sees them grow remiss and cold toward him. Surely this mention in Scripture, of Christians forsaking their first love, reproves those who speak of it with carelessness, and thus try to excuse indifference and sloth in themselves and others; our Saviour considers this indifference as sinful. They must repent: they must be grieved and ashamed for their sinful declining, and humbly confess it in the sight of God. They must endeavor to recover their first zeal, tenderness, and seriousness, and must pray as earnestly, and watch as diligently, as when they first set out in the ways of God. If the presence of Christ’s grace and Spirit is slighted, we may expect the presence of his displeasure. Encouraging mention is made of what was good among them. Indifference as to truth and error, good and evil, may be called charity and meekness, but it is not so; and it is displeasing to Christ. The Christian life is warfare against sin, Satan, the world, and the flesh. We must never yield to our spiritual enemies, and then we shall have a glorious triumph and reward. All who persevere shall derive from Christ, as the Tree of life, perfection and confirmation in holiness and happiness, not in the earthly paradise, but in the heavenly. This is a figurative expression, taken from the account of the garden of Eden, denoting the pure, satisfactory, and eternal joys of heaven; and the looking forward to them in this world, by faith, communion with Christ, and the consolations of the Holy Spirit. Believers, take your wrestling life here, and expect and look for a quiet life hereafter; but not till then: the word of God never promises quietness and complete freedom from conflict here.
- The words of reflects the expression “thus says,” which in the OT could introduce either a word from God (e.g., Amos 1:6, 9, 11) or a royal edict (e.g., 2 Chron. 36:23).
2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. 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.
- The speaker’s knowledge includes awareness of their activity, of their discernment of evil, and of their patient suffering. Their “deeds,” their “hard work” (GK G3160), and their “perseverance” (GK G5705) are underlined by the phrase “you have . . . endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary”
3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.
- the love you had at first. One interpretation is that Ephesus had lost its early love for Christ. Another interpretation is that Ephesian believers had lost love for one another and needed to revive the compassionate works you did at first. Many interpreters think both are in view, since love for Christ and love for one another are related (cf. Mark 12:29–31; 1 John 4:20)
5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
- Remove your lampstand means that both in the near future and when Christ returns, they would lose their status as a church and Christ would treat them like apostate Israel.
- The speaker’s command further exposes the problem and offers a way to correct the fault. The imperatives are instructive: “Remember . . . repent . . . do.” The Ephesians are to reflect on their earlier works of fervent love, to ponder how far they have fallen from their former devotion and enthusiasm, to humbly “repent” (GK G3566) before God, and to do their former works motivated by love. These imperatives are all part of a single action designed to keep the Ephesians from the judgment of Christ, which would effectively remove them as his representatives in the world.
- How many churches today stand at this same crossroads? Do we sense the importance to Christ of not only honoring his name by our true confession but also of reflecting his life by our loving relationship to others? This threat of loss of light bearing applies equally to the other four churches to whom a similar exhortation to “repent” is given (Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea).
6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
- Christ adds a further commendation concerning the Ephesians’ hatred of the practices of the Nicolaitans (cf. 2:15)—a hatred directed at the practices of these people, not the people themselves (cf. Ps 139:21). It is difficult to determine exactly who the Nicolaitans were and what they taught. Etymologically the name means “to conquer the people.” Did they call themselves by this name, or is it a derogatory title Christ applied to them? The close association of the name with the Balaamites in vv. 14-15 (see comments) may suggest either identity with this group or similarity to their teachings. Information about the Nicolaitans is limited, ambiguous, and based on John’s references here in Revelation. Irenaeus claims that John wrote his Gospel to thwart the teaching of the Gnostic Cerinthus whose error was similar to the earlier offshoot of the same kind of teaching known as Nicolaitanism. Eusebius mentions that the Nicolaitans lasted only a short time. Seeing the sect as a heresy would agree with the references in vv. 14, 20, which warn against mixing Christian faith with idolatry and cult prostitution. The Nicolaitans claimed to have insight into the divine or, more probably, into the demonic. They lived immoral lives, which allowed them to become part of the syncretism of pagan society and to participate in the Roman civil religion. Others understand the Nicolaitans as Christians who still showed devotion to the emperor by burning incense to his image.
7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
- the one who conquers. Victory is the objective in a Christian’s spiritual warfare. The Lion of Judah conquered as a slain Lamb, redeeming people for God from every nation (5:5, 9). Believers who hold to their testimony conquer the dragon (12:11) and the beast (15:2). tree of life. Access to this tree in Eden, and the eternal life it promised to the pure, was banned after humanity’s fall (Gen. 3:22–24). It reappears in the new Jerusalem, its roots watered by living water from God’s throne, its fruit a constant source of nourishment, and its leaves bringing healing to the city’s inhabitants, whose names appear in the Lamb’s book of life
- On the general exhortation and the meaning of “overcomes” (GK G3771), see introductory comments on 2:1-3:22. The overcomer is promised access to the “tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” The “tree of life” is first mentioned in Ge 2:9 as one of the many trees given to Adam and Eve for food and was off-limits after their fall into sin (Ge 3:22, 24). It is last mentioned in Rev 22:2, 19, where it conveys symbolically the truth of eternal life. Those at Ephesus who truly follow Christ in deep devotion and thus experience the real victory of Christ will share the gift of eternal life that he alone gives.
- Rabbinic and Jewish apocalyptic works mention that the glorious age of the Messiah would be a restoration to Edenic conditions before the Fall (see also Isa 51:3; Eze 36:35; cf. Eze 28:13; 31:8-9). Jewish thought joined the concepts of the renewed city of God, the tree of life, and the paradise of God. “Paradise” (GK G4137) is a Persian loan word meaning “a park” or “a garden.” The LXX uses it to translate the Hebrew expression the “garden” of Eden (Ge 2:8-10). John seems to reinterpret the Jewish idea of Paradise. Jesus Christ is the restorer of the lost Paradise (22:1-4, 14), and he gives access to the tree of life. Paradise means to be in fellowship with him rather than the idea of a hidden paradise with its fantastic sensual delights.
8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.
- Smyrna lay forty miles almost due north of Ephesus. The city was exceptionally beautiful and large and ranked with Ephesus and Pergamum as “First of Asia.” Known as the birthplace of Homer, it was also an important seaport that commanded the mouth of the Hermus River. Smyrna was a wealthy city where learning, especially in the sciences and medicine, flourished. It repeatedly sided with Rome in different periods of her history, and thus earned special privileges as a free city.
- Smyrna was also a center of the emperor worship, having won the privilege from the Roman Senate in A.D. 23 (over eleven other cities) of building the first temple in honor of Tiberius. Under Domitian (A.D. 81–96) emperor worship became compulsory for every Roman citizen on threat of death. Such an act was probably considered more as an expression of political loyalty than religious worship, and all a citizen had to do was burn a pinch of incense and say “Caesar is Lord.” Yet most Christians, with their confession “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Ro 10:9), refused to do this. Perhaps nowhere was life for a Christian more perilous than in this city of zealous emperor worship. There was a modern-day parallel to this predicament when the Japanese occupied Korea in 1937–40 and ordered Christians to worship at their Shinto shrines. Many Christians refused and were imprisoned and tortured. Concerning the founding of the Smyrna church, we have no information other than in this letter.
- The speaker identifies himself as “him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (cf. comments on 1:17-18). The “First and Last” might remind those suffering persecution and rejection from their countrymen (vv. 9-10) that the one they belonged to is the Lord of history and the Creator. He is in control regardless of appearances of evil. This term may allude by contrast to Smyrna’s claim to be the “first” of Asia in beauty and emperor loyalty, whereas Christians at Smyrna were concerned with him who was truly first in everything.
- He who is “the First and the Last” is also the one “who died and came to life again.” To a congregation where imprisonment and death impended, the prisoner who died and came back to life again was offering the crown of life and protection from the second death (vv. 8, 10-11).
9 I know your afflictions and your poverty — yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
- your poverty (but you are rich). Physically poor, the Smyrnan believers were spiritually rich (cf. James 2:5), whereas the Laodiceans thought themselves affluent but in Jesus’ eyes were bankrupt (Rev. 3:17). The church’s opponents may say that they are Jews, but they have no legitimate claim to that name (John 8:39–44; Rom. 2:12–29). Quite to the contrary, they belong to the synagogue of Satan. The NT defines God’s people in relation to Jesus, not their genealogy.
- The speaker’s knowledge is threefold:
- (1) He knows their “afflictions” (GK G2568—a word translated “persecution” in v. 10).
- (2) He knows their “poverty” (GK G4775). This can only mean material poverty because the speaker (Christ) immediately adds, “Yet you are rich” (toward God). Why was this church so poor in such a prosperous city? We do not know. Perhaps the high esteem of emperor worship in the city produced economic sanctions against Christians who refused to participate. Sometimes, even today, a Christian’s loyalty to the Lord entails economic loss (cf. 3:17).
- (3) The risen Lord also knows “the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Trouble arose from the Jewish community. Certain Jews used malicious untruths to incite persecution of the impoverished saints in Smyrna. Even though these men claimed descent from Abraham, they were not his true descendants because they did not have faith in Christ, the “Seed” of Abraham (Gal 3:16, 29). These hostile Jews probably viewed the Jewish Christians at Smyrna as heretics of the worst sort.
- “But are of the synagogue of Satan” reveals for the first time in Revelation the ultimate source of the persecution of Christians—“Satan” (GK G4928). Many further references to this archenemy of the followers of Christ are found throughout the book (2:13; 3:9; 9:11; 12:9-10, 12; 13:4; 20:2, 7, 10). In fact, he is one of the principal actors in the apocalyptic drama. While Satan is the author of persecution and wicked men are his instruments, God remains sovereign in that he gives “the crown of life” to those who are “faithful, even to the point of death” (v. 10). “Synagogue of Satan” refers, then, to certain Jews in ancient Smyrna who, motivated by Satan, slandered the church there.
10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
- ten days … unto death. The tribulation for Smyrnan Christians will be brief (cf. Dan. 1:12–16), yet it may end not in discharge from prison but in martyrdom, an even better release (Rev. 7:14–17). The crown of life (i.e., eternal life) is the laurel wreath of victory that God promises to those who love him (1 Cor. 9:25; 2 Tim. 4:6–8; James 1:12). The one who conquers by faithfulness in the face of death is immune from the second death (see Rev. 20:4–6).
- The speaker’s command immediately follows since no word of verdict or fault is spoken of. The prospect of further and imminent suffering may have made the believers at Smyrna fearful: “Do not be afraid [lit., Stop being afraid] of what you are about to suffer.” The risen Christ reveals that some of them will be imprisoned by the devil in order to test them, and they will have ten days of persecution. Who will do this—whether Jew or pagan—is not stated. The testing will show where their true loyalty lies. For a faithful and suffering church, Christ offers further trial and suffering.
- The “ten days” may be ten actual days, or it may be an expression for an indeterminate but short period of time (cf. Ne 4:12; Da 1:12). In the Roman world, prison was usually not punitive but a prelude to trial and execution; hence the words “Be faithful, even to the point of death.”
- For those who would face martyrdom out of loyalty to Christ, there was to be a “crown of life” given by Christ himself. People at Smyrna were familiar with the term “the crown of Smyrna,” which no doubt alluded to the beautiful skyline formed around the city by the hill Pagos and the public buildings on its sloping sides. The “crown” usually referred to a garland of flowers worn chiefly in the worship of the pagan gods. Faithful servants of the city appeared on coins with laurel wreaths on their heads. As the patriots of Smyrna were faithful to Rome and to their crown city, so Christ’s people are to be faithful unto death to him who will give them the imperishable crown of life (Jas 1:12; 1Pe 5:4).
11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
- For those who overcome, the promise is that they “will not be hurt at all by the second death.” Death was a real possibility for these believers. But greater than the fear of physical death should be the fear of God’s eternal judgment (Lk 12:4-5). The “second death” is a well-known Targumic expression for the death that the wicked die in the world to come. Even though death was the outcome of Adam’s sin, in Christ there is a complete reversal for the human race (Ge 2:16-17; Ro 5:15ff.). Since the messianic believers at Smyrna were under attack by some in the Jewish community, it was reassuring indeed to hear the Lord himself say that his followers would not be harmed by the second death—i.e., the lake of fire (20:14; 21:8).
12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
- The inland city of Pergamum lay about sixty-five miles north of Smyrna along the fertile valley of the Caicus River. Pergamum held the official honor of being the provincial capital of Roman Asia, though this honor was in fact also claimed by Ephesus and Smyrna. Among its notable features were its beauty and wealth, its library of nearly two hundred thousand volumes, its famous sculpture, its temples to various gods, the three temples to the emperor cult, its great altar to Zeus, and its many palaces. The two main religions seem to have been the worship of Dionysus, the god of the royal kings (symbolized by the bull), and Asclepius, the savior god of healing (represented by the snake). The city got its name from its invention of vellum (Greek, pergamene, “from Pergamum”), a writing material made from animal skins.
- The speaker identifies himself as “him who has the sharp, double-edged sword” (cf. comment on 1:16; cf. Isa 49:2). In dealing with the Pergamum congregation, divided by deceptive teaching, the risen Lord will use this sword to fight against the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans (v. 16). It is interesting that Pergamum was a city to which Rome had given the rare power of capital punishment, symbolized by the sword. The Christians in Pergamum were thus reminded that though they lived under almost unlimited law, they were citizens of another kingdom—that of him who needs no other sword than that of his mouth.
13 I know where you live — where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city — where Satan lives.
- Pergamum hosted temples dedicated to “the divine Augustus and the goddess Roma” and to Asklepios (the god of healing, symbolized by serpents), and a large altar dedicated to Zeus. The worship of the emperor as a god was also strongly emphasized, even required, in the province of Asia, and it was a major problem for Christians at the time. All of this qualifies Pergamum to be called the site of Satan’s throne. Amid oppressive paganism, a believer named Antipas had sealed his testimony with his life, and Jesus shares with Antipas his own title, faithful witness (cf. 1:5).
- The speaker’s knowledge is searching: he knows that they live in a hostile and difficult place—“where Satan has his throne.” This certainly refers to Pergamum as a center for the worship of pagan gods, especially the emperor cult. The first temple in the empire established in honor of Augustus was built in A.D. 29 at Pergamum, because it was the administrative capital of Asia. It was also an idolatrous center; and to declare oneself in that place a Christian who worships the one true God and Savior, Jesus Christ, would certainly provoke hostility.
- Furthermore, the risen Lord knew their loyalty to him in all that he is revealed to be (“my name”), even when “Antipas, my faithful witness . . . was put to death in [their] city.” Nothing further is known about Antipas. The proximity of the name “Satan” before and after Antipas in v. 13 makes it virtually certain that his death was instigated by the enmity of pagans in Pergamum. He may have been the first or most notable of martyrs. Christ pays this hero of the faith a noble tribute: “faithful witness”—words that John applies to Christ himself in 1:5. Satan tries to undermine loyalty to Christ by persecution; Christ strengthens that loyalty by commending those who are true to him and by exposing those who are deceitful.
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.
- As the Israelites migrated through the wilderness, the prophet Balaam, prevented from cursing them, advised Moab’s king to seduce them into both sexual and spiritual adultery (Num. 25:1–2; 31:16). Likewise the Nicolaitans, though opposed in Ephesus, were spreading sexual and spiritual infidelity at Pergamum (see Rev. 2:6).
- The speaker’s verdict reveals that the church in Pergamum was divided. Some had followed Antipas and did not deny Christ’s name or his faith (v. 13). Others held to the teachings and practices of the Balaamites and Nicolaitans that Christ hates (2:6). Since “Balaam” can mean to “conquer the people” (i.e., the same meaning as “Nicolaitans”) and since they are mentioned together in this letter, both groups may be closely related. The deadly effects of the error are described as “eating food sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality” (cf. “Jezebel” in v. 20).
- The OT names Balaam and Jezebel serve to alert the church community to the insidious nature of the teaching that was not until now recognized as overtly evil. Since Satan’s chief method is deception, his devices are not known until they are clearly pointed out. Christ exposes error here by identifying the false teaching in Pergamum with clear-cut evil such as that of Balaam and Jezebel. Balaam, who found he could not curse the Israelites (Nu 22-24), devised a plan whereby the daughters of the Moabites seduced the Israelite men and led them to sacrifice to their god Baal-peor and worship him (Nu 25:1ff.; 31:16; cf. 2Pe 2:15; Jude 11). So through Balaam’s deception, God’s judgment fell on Israel because of fornication and idolatry. What Satan could not accomplish at Smyrna or Pergamum through intimidation, suffering, and death from outside the church, he achieved from within through unconscious subversion.
- The combination of “food sacrificed to idols” with “sexual immorality” may refer to the common practice of participating in the sacrificial meal of the pagan gods (cf. 1Co 10:19-22) and indulging in sexual intercourse with temple priestesses. It is entirely possible that some Christians at Pergamum were still participating in the holiday festivities and saw no wrong in indulging in the “harmless” table in the temples and the sexual excitement everyone else was enjoying (cf. 1Jn 5:21). This is the more normal way to understand the term “sexual immorality,” though some feel that the term refers to spiritual unfaithfulness and apostasy from Christ (cf. Isa 1:21; Eze 23:37).
15 Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
- The speaker’s command includes both a call to the whole congregation to “repent” and a special threat to the heretical members if they do not repent. Since those who did not indulge in these things tolerated the practices of other church members, they, along with the guilty, needed to repent. If those at Pergamum will not heed the word of Christ’s warning, that word from his mouth will become a “sword” to fight against the disloyal. The words “I will soon come to you” is a coming “against” the congregation in judgment (cf. v. 5), not a reference to Christ’s second coming.