Ephesus: Pastors and Wolves. Revelation 2:1; Acts 15-20
Revelation chapters two through three consist of seven letters to seven congregations in the western part of modern Turkey or what was then Asia-Minor. These short epistles are really designed not so much to teach doctrine and to encourage application, as we see in other epistles of the New Testament, but they are designed to present a critical evaluation of the spiritual progress of each of these congregations. As a result they each follow a certain pattern. They begin with a commission, an address to the local congregation at the beginning of each epistle. Then there is a reference to a particular aspect of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ in His present ministry as the Priest-Judge over the church. These citations all relate to something in the vision that John saw of the Lord Jesus Christ while he was on the island of Patmos, with one exception. One of the epistles has additional information. Then there is a commendation in all but two of them. Two of the churches are so messed up in their application of doctrine, they are operating on so much human viewpoint they are no different from the pagan culture around them. Except for those two the others all have a commendation and praise for their spiritual advance. The fourth section of each of these epistles contains a condemnation. There are also two of these congregations that have no condemnation. This is a warning concerning a spiritual flaw in the congregation and their application of doctrine. The fifth part of the epistle contains a correction, a challenge to repent, meaning to change their thinking with consequent change in behavior, and in some case to remember the doctrine they have been taught or remember the way they have applied doctrine in the past, and there is a prescription to recovery. The sixth section is a call, which is a command to listen and to apply the doctrines that are contained in these passages so that they will get back in terms of their reorientation to application of doctrine. Then there is a challenge in each of these epistles which is a personal promise of reward.
The orientation of these epistles is going to challenge us with reference to our own personal sense of our eternal destiny. Each of these seven epistles orients itself to what will happen at the judgment seat of Christ. At the judgment seat of Christ there are going to be believers who have persevered and pressed on in the spiritual life, and have advanced to spiritual maturity and will receive rewards. On the other hand, there are believers who are going to fail. There are believers who are just going to be glad they are saved and then they are going to continue to live as if they weren't saved. There are believers who perhaps are going to spend a couple of years learning some things about the Word and then they are going to fall by the wayside. They are going to lose rewards at the judgment seat of Christ and there will be shame as well at that time. In these epistles we see different kinds of privileges and different kinds of rewards that will be available to those believers who press on to spiritual maturity.
This is going to be a rugged study for a lot of us because it is a real challenge when we get into talking about rewards and about the fact that there will be distinctions among believers when we get to heaven and at the judgment seat of Christ, and that there are going to be distinctions when we go into the Millennial kingdom and distinctions in eternity, based on things that we do now. So the decisions that we make now are going to determine who we are and what we do in the Millennial kingdom and in eternity.
We now look at the first epistle the congregational evaluation report "To the angel of the church of Ephesus." The "angel" represents a literal angel who in the function of the appeal trial of Satan is an officer of the court who is keeping records of each congregation. Where this is leading us is to see that there is a congregational corporate witness in the angelic conflict. Not only are we held accountable in terms of our own lives—individually we have a role as a testimony or witness in the angelic conflict—but there is a corporate witness of the congregation.
In Acts 15:40 Paul departs on his second missionary journey. He took Silas with him and he revisited the cities of Lystra and Derby in the south central part of what we would call Turkey today (Acts 16:3). After that time he picks up Timothy as his traveling companion and he heads towards Asia-Minor. Paul wants to go into the area around Ephesus and take the gospel but the Scripture specifically states in Acts 16:6 that the Holy Spirit prohibited Paul from preaching the Word in Asia. So he decided to head north and north-east towards Bithynia, and again the Holy Spirit blocks him. So he is being forced by the Holy Spirit in the direction of Troas and what is modern Constantinople. It is at that point at Troas that Paul has the Macedonian vision and call, and recognizes that God is leading him to take the gospel to Europe. He went to Philippi and then in Acts 17:17 down through 18:18 Paul is traveling to various cities in Greece. In Athens at Mars Hill Paul challenges the Athenians that these aren't gods at all, and he points to an altar to "the unknown god" and says this is the God I'm going to proclaim to you. He tells them that all of their religion is false and that he was going to tell them about the true God. From there he went down to Corinth. Then he caught a ship home. He has made a vow and he is going to go back to Jerusalem. He made a brief stop at Ephesus and this was his first time in Asia and he briefly goes to the synagogue where he enters into some discussions with the Jews there. At that point there was no Christian community, no church in Ephesus. He went to Jerusalem, went to Antioch and gave a missions report, and during this time he has left Silas and Timothy in Corinth. The next time we see Timothy he is in Ephesus, but at this point at the end of the second missionary journey Timothy is in Corinth. Aqpollos comes along. He is a classically-trained Greek who was from Alexandria. He just understands the Old Testament and he shows up in Ephesus. He is preaching an Old Testament gospel and Priscilla and Aquila, the couple who had worked with Paul in his tent making business, straightened Apollos out in terms of the gospel. Then Apollos goes to Corinth and he pastors and teaches in Corinth for a while. While Apollos is still in Corinth Paul leaves on his third missionary journey and he goes to Ephesus. Finally he has a ministry in Asia and in Acts 19:10 we are told that he was there for at least two years. We are not told that he pastored a church but he definitely had a training school there where he trained a number of people like Timothy and Titus and a whole host of young men, and they are going out to all of these various cities and leading people to the Lord and establishing congregations. It is these congregations that later become the focus of the first part of Revelation.
In Acts 19 we get a description of what took place while Paul was in Ephesus. Luke describes three basic events. First of all there is the case of the mis-baptized Baptists. These are the disciples of John the Baptist who were still teaching a baptism of repentance to enter the kingdom of God. They had not heard about Jesus and so Paul gives them the gospel, they become saved, and then Paul baptizes them with believer's baptism. Then there was the episode of the Jewish exorcists who tried to cast out demons by using the formula that Paul used in the name of Jesus. The demons beat up on them. The result of it is that Paul casts out a demon and this is such a testimony to the people in Ephesus that hundreds of people trust the Lord. As a result of that—the background was that they were involved in idolatry and paganism, and to some degree demonism—they have probably the first book-burning in history. They bring all of their occult manuals and books and burn it all up, indicating that they have made a complete break with their past. It is at the same time as the third episode which has to do with the riot of the silversmiths.
What happened was that Paul came into town and was publicly denouncing that idols are no gods at all. There had been a Jewish presence in Ephesus from at least 325 BC, but they had not publicly condemned idolatry. They had condemned it in their synagogues but they were not going out into the street and teaching that these gods were not gods at all. Paul is doing that. Biblical Christianity is always going to develop a confrontation with the human viewpoint culture that surrounds it. What we see here is that when we are teaching and espousing the principles of biblical Christianity it is a head to head confrontation with the culture. It impacts the culture economically and morally, and as a result of that what we see is that the human viewpoint pagans of the surrounding culture react to that. They are hostile to the Word of God. Romans chapter one tells us that they are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, and this generates a reaction of hostility and anger and resentment towards those who are espousing the truth. The more the culture gets away from our Judeo-Christian roots, the more that we move away from a theistic world view, the more our culture comes into a head to head confrontation with biblical Christianity. So if we as believers are trying to apply Scripture in whatever area of life we are in we are going to meet resistance. Just before the riot occurs in Ephesus Paul sent Timothy and Erastus up to Macedonia. Then Paul left after the riot to go to Macedonia and Greece. Timothy is with him. He returns to Ephesus by ship, taking with him Luke, Timothy and a number of others. Who is pasturing the believers in Ephesus? It is not Paul and it is not Timothy. The point is that when we look at Acts chapter 20 we realize that there had to be other pastors. In Acts 20:21-30 Paul stops at Miletus. He doesn't want to take the time to go to Ephesus but he called for the elders of Ephesus to come and meet with him. He was going to give them some teaching, some instruction. In verse 28 we are told that he addresses the elders. The word for "elder" is the Greek word PRESBUTEROS [presbuteroj]. This refers to the pastors in Ephesus, and it is in the plural so there is more than one. "Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he has purchased with his own blood." So there are numerous men who are in this leadership position over the church in Ephesus. This is the use of the word "church" where it refers to numerous congregations in one singular noun. There is the use of three words together here—elder, bishop, and pastor—indicating it is one office, looking at what that individual does from three different perspectives.
Paul warns them. Acts 20:29, "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock." In other words, false teachers will come in. Verse 30, "Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember…" In the Ephesian letter in Revelation chapter two these are key words. They are told to remember. What are they praised for? They are praised for the fact that they could not bear false teaching and they detested all of those who claimed they were apostles but weren't. So there is a warning from Paul in Acts 20 that sets a certain characteristics among this congregation in Ephesus that began to dominate their church life. They were so concerned with doctrine, it was so overblown, that somehow they forgot that doctrine is a means to an end. Doctrine is a means to our relationship with the Lord, the means to our relationship with the Lord; it is not an end in and of itself. So what happens is that they will be condemned because they have lost their first love. This is the challenge that Paul ends with in his prayer for the elders here: "And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified." It is Revelation chapter two that focuses on this whole concept of inheritance.