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Revelation 2:1-7

Lesson Focus

Jesus calls us to faithfully follow God’s commands in a loving manner rather than with strict legalism.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Become more familiar with the context in which Revelation was written.

  2. Understand the nature of the “spirit” that emanates from each church addressed.

  3. Be encouraged to follow God’s commands without drifting into an exclusionary legalism.

Catching up on the Story

Last week we noted that John’s Revelation is written as a prophetic apocalyptic letter to Christ’s church. Understanding the style of the letter is vital for us as we seek to grasp what Jesus, through John, is trying to communicate.

We noted that apocalyptic literature is often comprised of an epic struggle between good and evil; it names the evil and hardship in our world, uses lots of imagery that was not meant to be taken literally, and makes symbolic use of numbers ( 3.5, 7, 666, 12, 24, 144,000) but that these numbers weren’t intended to be combined or calculated to reveal end times timelines, and was written to describe past, present, and possible future realities.

While Revelation is apocalyptic in nature, it is also prophetic. In prophetic literature, we find confessions that God is the sole creator of creation, that God has made a covenant with humanity for its flourishing and salvation, that God has called Israel and the church to be God’s people who participate in God’s mission in the world, that God plans to dwell among creation after finally and fully defeating evil.

As we began to look at chapter 1, we noted that John sees a symbolic vision of Jesus dwelling among the churches. In a context where Christians often face daily persecution and temptations to conform to their world, Christ is always present. We stopped to ponder this and the hope and encouragement it should give us as we seek to be faithful and obedient servants of Christ.

T0 the Angels…

Each letter that Jesus instructs John to write to the churches begins with a similar phrase, “To the angel of the church in….” In his book, Seven Deadly Spirits, T. Scott Daniels fixates on why the letters are addressed to each church’s angels. Who or what are these angels? Are they the guardian angel of each church? Daniels doesn’t think so.

Instead, Daniels believes that the angels are the corporate spirit that emerges from each church as a collection of persons in relation to each other. In other words, the sum of the parts of each church creates a vibe, if you will, that characterizes the church. More formally, Daniels states:

Communities, like the individual persons from which they are formed, take on a kind of spirit, personality, or "life of their own" that becomes greater than the sum of their physical parts. The seven angels of the churches, to whom John writes, are neither disconnected spiritual beings nor merely a colorful way of describing nonexistent realities. Instead, the term "angel" signifies the very real ethos or communal essence that either gives life to or works at destroying the spiritual fabric of the very community that gave birth to it (Daniels, 17).

There’s a good chance you know what Daniels is talking about at an intuitive level. Have you ever walked into a place and felt its “spirit,” its “vibe?” You might feel it walking into a school or workplace. At the beginning of my first job as a youth pastor, the youth group had a spirit of competition and low-level violence. It was not a place that radiated a sense of safety and calmness. Daniels goes on to say:

I am now convinced that churches, because they are a communal body, have an essence or collective spirit that is at work either aiding or hindering the life-giving work of the Spirit of God. (Daniels, 17).

I find Daniels’ observation convincing because I’ve experienced the “spirit” of a church. I’ve also experienced the transformation of a church’s spirit. One of John’s main aims is that the churches experience transformation so they might remain or become more faithful.


We need to note one more thing before looking at each letter: John’s use of Babylon as an image of empire. If you remember, Babylon was the nation that swooped down from the north and conquered Jerusalem and Judah, carrying the best and brightest back to Babylon.

What made Israel’s stay in Babylon so different from their slavery in Egypt was that in Babylon, Israel was told to conform to the social, religious, and cultural norms of the country. In other words, Babylon wanted the Israelite exiles to give up being distinctively Jewish to become good Babylonians.

You may be asking, what has this to do with Revelation or us? Well, John uses Babylon as a stand-in for Rome. Remember, Christians were scattered across the Roman empire, and the price of being left alone, of not enduring persecution or trouble, was to settle in and become Romans. Rome wanted Christians to trade being distinctively Christian for being good Romans. Daniels says that Revelation

…gives the early church the language-the linguistic glasses if you will-to see that the goddess Roma (the spiritual embodiment of the power of Rome) will not give them the abundant life she promises; instead, like Babylon, she will lure them into a variety of compromises that will conform them to her values and rob them of the abundant and eternal life they have received and are experiencing through the Lamb (Daniels, 21).

The Letter to Ephesus

Jesus’ message to the Ephesians starts with a glowing report. The Ephesian’s hard work and patient endurance are on full display. Evildoers are not tolerated among them. Every teacher or preacher that comes their way is subjected to careful scrutiny to see if their message is true or not.

Keep in mind that there was a tremendous amount of diversity within most of the cities mentioned in Revelation. Religious pluralism was the rule, not the exception. Not only that, but the church has always had a hard time nailing down exactly what it believes, and even when it does, not everyone agrees.

Jesus continues as he compliments them on how they have sacrificed for his sake. They have not grown weary. They have been vigilant. They have been strong. They have resisted the pull of the culture around them.

But, Jesus says, they have abandoned their first love. You remember first love, right? In those early stages of relationships, couples often act overly lovingly for their spouse. Things like romantic dinners or putting the seat down on the toilet in an effort to show their love in tangible ways. After a time, however, love doesn’t fade, but maybe it gets lazy or distracted, and those types of things get left behind.

What the Ephesians are dealing with isn’t quite the same, but it’s close. Jesus reminds the Ephesians about the wonderful things they used to do in his name. They tangibly showed their love for God through love and care for their neighbors.

Somewhere along the line, they stopped doing those loving acts for their neighbors and began focusing on keeping the rules. The Ephesians started to focus on maintaining their doctrinal purity.

Jesus certainly wants the Ephesians to remain steadfast in their theology, sticking to the truth of the Good News, but good theology without loving expressions of that theology is useless.

An over-emphasis on doctrinal purity leads to an unhealthy level of boundary setting. In their quest for purity, they created boundaries that excluded anyone that didn’t believe exactly the same way as they did. They had the corner on the truth. A posture like this leads to arrogance that excludes.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that we need to erase all our boundaries. However, what we do need is to remain generous in our boundary-keeping. We need to remember that purity without love isn’t Christian.

So What?

Jesus’ main critique of the Ephesian church is that they lost their first love of loving God and caring for their neighbors when they focused too much on believing correctly. Their concentration on purity of thought distracted them from expressing their love for God in other, more tangible ways. So, a spirit of arrogance began to emanate from the church.

The antidote to their situation was not to scrap all their boundaries but to remember why they believed what they did. Jesus wants them to remember that the reason they gather is not to follow God’s commands perfectly but to be participants in God’s mission of restoration and redemption in the world.

As we continue looking at each message to the churches, we will ask ourselves if our church is similar to the church Jesus is addressing. So, this week we ask ourselves if we’ve forgotten our first love? Have we been so focused on boundary keeping and doctrinal purity that we’ve neglected to express our belief in Jesus through love for our community?

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. What does Jesus say the Ephesians are doing correctly?

  2. How important is it to test the teachings of those we follow, be it locally or on the TV or internet?

  3. What are the essential things we must believe to be followers of Jesus Christ? Make a list and then justify your answers.

  4. How much latitude should we give other Christians who do not believe exactly as we do?

  5. Does our church engage in boundary keeping so that it excludes others from joining our fellowship? If so, in what ways?

  6. How can the church today continue to hold tightly to the gospel’s truth without losing the centrality of Christian love?