By Nathaniel K. Haney
THE FIRST CHURCH JESUS CHRIST ADDRESSED: Ephesus
Revelation 2:1 says, “Unto the angel (pastor) of the church of Ephesus write; These things . . .” This church represented, from a historical standpoint, the First Church, which was the church of Acts, and ended with the last living apostle, which was John. The first period began on the Day of Pentecost and extended to A.D. 96. The city of Ephesus was about forty miles south of Smyrna. It was situated on the Cayster River not far from the Aegean Sea. It was also the meeting place of several important highways that brought many people from all over Asia to Ephesus. These highways played a very important role in bringing people to worship the goddess Diana. The Ephesians were distinguished from people in other cities because of their refinement and luxuries, much of which was a result of the silversmith trade and the shipping industry. The manner in which these people conducted their lifestyle was the envy of others, as well as the fact this was the city where the goddess Diana’s temple was located. Although it had great wealth, it was a spiritual hellhole.
Ephesus was also the principal seat of idolatry in the world at that time. It was here that darkness met light face-to-face, and paganism made its struggle to survive. To the heathen, Christianity was looked upon as a strange religion because there were no idols or temples for the immoral rituals of prostitution and other forms of wicked practices. Instead, they worshipped an invisible God and lived a life that was very pure. The Apostle Paul was the founder of this church (Acts 19:1-6). He stayed there longer than any other place, and he set out to destroy idolatry by the power of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. From this city the whole world was shaken. This lets us know that no matter what the church faces, it can conquer by the power of Jesus Christ.
The name Ephesus means desired or desirable one. This church was full of zeal and had a burning love for Christ at its beginning. In one aspect, they had a great desire for our Lord Jesus Christ, but, with time, God had to call them to renew their first love. This was a time when the apostles boldly proclaimed the Name of Jesus. Many signs and wonders accompanied the Early Church. These mighty works attracted the attention of the multitudes and opened their hearts with faith toward Jesus Christ.
During this time, the Apostle Paul made his many missionary journeys as the Gospel was spread across the world. The Apostolic Age was God’s desire for the church. Revelation 2:3 says, “. . . for my name’s sake host labored . . .” The Early Church revered the Name of Jesus and baptized all their converts in that Name. However, even during this time there is evidence of apostasy already creeping into the church. The leaven of evil had already begun to work. The church began to cool off and became indifferent to the Spirit, yet God was not through with them. Following is a quick overview of the letter to the Ephesus church, which reveals the heartbeat of God:
Revelation 2:2: “I know thy works, and thy labour . . .” This was a working church. There was no compromise in that they did not tolerate evil and wanted quality more than quantity.
Revelation 2:3: ” . . . and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured . . .” We know the Early Church was strong for Jesus’ Name. In fact, everyone preached this doctrine in the Early Church period. This is where the battle has always been.
Revelation 2:4: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” Whenever a church loses its first love, it enters into a dangerous place. It is at this point that apostasy begins to enter in. It is possible to become spiritual Marthas instead of Marys, so caught up with God’s work that we forget to sit at His feet and fellowship with Him.
Revelation 2:5: “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; . . .” The church must always look back to the Book of Acts to get a true view of God’s desire for it to do the first works.
Revelation 2:6: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.” They were commended for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitanes. Nikao means to conquer. Laos means the people. This forms the root of the word Nicolaitanes, which reaches its arm into many modem churches where the priest divides and sets the clergy apart and aloof from the laity, not as shepherds who fulfill the five-fold ministry, but as lords over God’s heritage.
Revelation 2:7: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith . . . To him that overcometh . . .” These words are to every church, and only those who hear will be worthy to sit with Him on His throne.
THE SECOND CHURCH THE LORD JESUS ADDRESSED: Smyrna
Revelation 2:8 says, “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write . . .” This was the suffering church, which, in its historical setting, covered the period from A.D. 96 to 316. We must always remember that apart from its representing a certain period of church history, it was also a very active church of the first century. They, along with all local churches from Jerusalem to Rome, held to the central doctrines of One God manifest in Jesus Christ; Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection as propitiation for sin; repentance of sin; water baptism by immersion in the Name of Jesus for the remission of sin; and the receiving of the Holy Ghost with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues. These they believed and obeyed.
Smyrna was about 50 miles from Ephesus. Although there was wealth in this city, it was primarily among the merchants and Jews. Most of the Christians were servants who worked for others and were often severely persecuted. Many members of this church were poor in earthly goods. They had not yet received the teaching and training about God’s financial blessing through the doctrine of sowing and reaping that other churches, like the Corinthians and Philippians, had been taught so as to rise above the level of poverty that many lived in. They had the same abilities to prosper through the giving of tithes and offerings in faith believing, as God would have given the increase. Although Smyrna was poor in earthly goods, which did not affect them in any adverse way, but, in fact, in some respects helped them stay focused on eternal values, therefore they were extremely wealthy in heavenly treasures. This, of course, is the greatest wealth to have.
Every church was tried and tested with false doctrine, and Smyrna was no exception. There were those who claimed to be Jews, but in God’s eyes they were of Satan. A true Jew
is an heir by faith of the inheritance promised to Abraham, but so many people pride themselves on their fleshly inheritance, which many times is righteousness by works and is a counterfeit to real righteousness that comes through the Holy Ghost.
There were false teachers claiming to be children of God who brought much persecution to those who were following the true teaching of Jesus. Revelation 2:9 reveals there was tribulation in this church. During this time, thousands were martyred. Polycarp was a famous martyr because of his position as Bishop of Smyrna. He died in A.D. 155 by being burned alive when he refused to denounce Christ. The following is a short excerpt of what took place a few minutes before his death:
“The governor pressed him further: ‘Swear, and I will set you free: execrate Christ.” For eighty-six years,’ replied Polycarp, ‘I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong: how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ When the other persisted: ‘Swear by Caesar’s fortune,’ Polycarp retorted: ‘If you imagine that I will swear by Caesar’s fortune, as you put it, pretending not to know who I am, I will tell you plainly, I am a Christian.’ ”
His death was the forerunner of thousands to follow. “From the reign of Trajan to that of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 96161) Christianity was not recognized, yet was not severely persecuted.”
Even though there was persecution during this time, it was not as severe as during the reign of Domitian (A.D. 9095), who closed out the first century with horrible persecution. Still, there were great numbers who lost their lives. One of these martyrs was Ignatius.
“Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, was more than willing to be a martyr, and on his way to Rome wrote letters to the churches, hoping that he might not lose the honor of dying for his Lord. He was thrown to wild beasts in the Roman Amphitheatre, A.D. 108 or 110.”
Martyrdom became extremely popular. The pagan authorities relished the thought of killing the Christians. Starting about A.D. 130, there was a great escalation of persecution upon the church. There were many emperors who greatly persecuted the church. When Decius became emperor in A.D. 249, some of the fiercest persecution broke loose upon the church as never before and began to escalate. “The last, most systematic and most terrible persecution of all the series took place in the reign of Diocletian and his successors, from A.D. 303 to 310. In a series of edicts it was ordered that every copy of the Bible should be burned; that all churches . . . should be torn down; that all who would not renounce the Christian religion should lose their citizenship and be outside the protection of law. In some places the Christians were assembled in their churches, which were set on fire and burned with all the worshipers within their walls.”
When Jesus addressed the church at Smyrna, He addressed it with the words “which was dead.” In Revelation 2:8 He let them know that He was the first martyr when the princes of this world crucified Him. Jesus fully understood what they were going through. He also was despised and rejected. In those days it cost something to be a real Christian unlike many self-proclaimed Christians today. Those people at times had to worship in caves called catacombs for they could not worship openly but had to secretly meet underground. The name Smyrna means death and suffering. Truly the pages of history are stained with the blood of the martyrs. During this period of church history, Christ told the church, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer . . .” (Revelation 2:10).
Take careful notice of the following: “Ye shall have tribulation ten days” (Revelation 2:10). There were exactly ten Roman edicts issued during the second and third centuries which had as their object the wiping out of every Christian.
Christ’s promise for being faithful unto death was that He would give them a crown of life, and the second death would not hurt them (Revelation 2:11). Many of those Christians were placed in the arena as helpless foes for the gladiators to kill. Others were burned alive at the stake. Many were beheaded. Others were fed to the lions; some were placed inside of logs and sawn asunder. Some were tightly bound hand and foot, their bodies covered with honey, and placed over an anthill where the ants would slowly eat them alive. Still others were flayed, while many were roasted over an open flame or boiled in oil. The list goes on of the torturous methods that Satan concocted and carried out through the leaders of the Roman government and pagan religions of that day to annihilate the Christians. What Satan never understood was, the more blood that was shed just fanned the flames of revival, and the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church.
In all of this, we must never forget that with all those who were martyred there were those who received divine protection from God. We find an example in Acts 12 that when Herod killed James and Peter was arrested, the church began to pray, and God delivered Peter from prison and death. This church, no doubt, lived in a very powerful, consecrated place with God resulting in an abundance of miracles and healings. They were poor in earthly goods because of the lack of knowledge of the law of sowing and reaping for a financial harvest, as well as being severely persecuted, but were rich in faith. This is great breeding ground for dependence on God, which in turn produces the supernatural. Many times in my personal travels overseas to poor, third-world countries, I have seen incredible things take place from the dead being raised to crippled limbs instantly made whole. These people did not have to battle material wealth and the psychological ideas people in the developed western world countries struggle with so often, therefore they had great dependence and confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ. So, even in Satan’s most heavy persecution, you can be sure Jesus Christ was greatly exalted.
The above article, “The Church Age Begins” was written by Nathaniel K. Haney. The article was excerpted from chapter two in Haney’s book A Mystery No More.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.