We explore a central truth in The Book of Revelation. God is in complete control. Yet, in his infinite wisdom, he has allowed us a role in his great narrative. The balance of stewardship and submission are essential in every believer’s journey. Tim guides us through patterns within Revelation that show us how to steward our role well without trying to take the reins away from God and control circumstances ourselves.
We’ll continue in Revelation. We have made the point that this book is pretty simple and that it makes a very clear point; and it says this is the revelation Jesus gave to his apostle John to give on to the churches, and it’s to his servants. Jesus gave this revelation to his servants so that they could hear, understand, and do. And what he wants us to do is be good witnesses. That’s the formula of the book. It’s pretty simple.
God has everything in control
In the course of giving us this simple message he’s going to tell us a lot of things that are not so simple having to do with the end of the age.
But, the overall message is also still very simple, and that is, God’s already got it ordered. It’s in control. The outcome will be his. However, how we play the role that we have to play is yet to be determined.
The pattern of the letters to the churches
Starting with Ephesus, I’m going to do Ephesus twice. We’ve already done the seven churches from the standpoint of the historical eras that they can represent, and I gave you a model for that. Now I’m going to go through Ephesus to show you the pattern that every one of these letters takes, then I’ll go back and actually talk about Ephesus.
Revelations 2:1. To the angel of the church of Ephesus write— every one of these letters starts with a memo kind of a format. To: all office employees. And so it’s to the messenger of the church of Ephesus.
And then it’s from. The next thing’s from. —These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands.”
It doesn’t just say from Jesus. It’s from some characteristic, some description of Jesus. It would be like if you had a memo that went out and said To: all office employees, From: the person who can fire you all. He’s making a point of this is a position that I hold.
And the way he describes himself is going to have a correlation to the way the message in the letter is constructed. It’s going to have a parallel.
I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.
This is the next part. We’ve got the to, from, and then the commendation. And this commendation is in all the letters save one. There’s one church that doesn’t get a commendation. So the first thing he tells them is, hey, you’re doing some really good things. To, From, Commendation.
The next thing is an exhortation. You have these issues that you need to work on. And two churches do not get an exhortation, they don’t get a but-you-need-to-work-on-this, but five of them do.
Then he says to the Ephesians, Nevertheless—So you’ve done all these good things. Nevertheless, I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place.
So you’ve got a to, from, a commendation, an exhortation, and then a consequence of some kind. Or an exhortation to do something or else. So, you need to remember and do the first works, here, or I will….That’s the pattern.
Then in this case, he says, But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which is out of the normal pattern, but I’ll talk about that in a second.
And then he ends with listen, understand, and do. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.
Listen to what the Spirit says
So listen. Listen to what the Spirit says. It’s interesting, he always says listen to what the Spirit says. Now, typically, what he’ll say is, there is to this church. Then he’ll talk in the plural, the church is doing this, and the church is doing that. And he’ll make some specific references to a group within the group. But it’s still plural. And then he comes down to the end and he says everybody listen to what the Spirit says, which is interesting because it’s from Jesus.
So it says to church, from Jesus, listen to the Spirit. That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? Because Jesus is speaking, but the Spirit is the teacher. So it’s got an external message, but, really, the internal understanding comes from the Spirit.
But this overcomer—to him who is an overcomer—is singular. So he talks to the church as a whole, and then he brings it down to an individual application to each person in the church and to us.
We can learn from the overall, and we need to play our part in the overall because that’s our job as believers in the body is to serve the rest of the body; but ultimately we can only make a choice for us. And so he talks about overcomes. And each case, all seven letters, he says, “to him who overcomes I will”—and then makes a promise of some sort.
In this pattern, I think it’s important—since what God is doing here is giving us an exhortation of listen, understand, do—there’s a rationale he’s giving in every one of these letters. And when he says to the overcomer I will give, since he’s talking singular, this is a particularly important message for us to understand because he’s speaking directly to us, not just about this era or about this kind of church.
What is an overcomer? I want to nail this down before I go back and actually dive into the church at Ephesus. Well, overcomer is a translation of a word in Greek, nikao. It’s root is nike which is the Greek God of tennis shoes. Victory. The Greek goddess of victory. If you’ve ever seen an image of Nike, Nike always has wings. Why does Nike always have wings? Victory is fleeting! It’s always flying from one thing to the next.
Nike is victory. Nikao is one who is victorious. I want to show you other uses in Revelation of nikao, and I think this will give you a really good feel for this word. Because God is going to ask us to do some difficult things, and what he’s telling us is, “It’s worth it.”
Listen, understand, and do. Now you’ve heard me say this many times. There are only three things in life we get to control: Everything else is not in our control. We get to control who we trust. We get to control the perspective we choose to have. And we get to control the actions we take. Much of our anxiety comes about because we’re trying to control things we can’t control like other people’s choices.
So, what God is doing is giving us a perspective that if we will adopt this perspective, we will have a much more functional life because he’s telling us what a true perspective is.
We were talking last night about substance abuse. And the person we were talking with at the table said, “You know, it’s hard for me to get my mind around why substance abuse. I have a hard time understanding that. But I have to understand; I have to realize that to them, it is rational.”
That is absolutely accurate. Anytime someone is taking an action of some sort, it is rational. People don’t make irrational choices. It’s rational because it fits the perspective they’ve adopted. If that perspective is untrue, then it will be a destructive path that they take. But it will be rational based on their perspective.
God is giving us a true perspective here and giving us the opportunity to hear, understand, and do.
One of the things we want to understand is what it means to be an overcomer, and why this is such a big deal. He says it seven times. Be an overcomer. If you’re an overcomer, this will happen.
So let’s look at Revelation 5:5. But one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed—nikao—has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.”
See Jesus has overcome. He’s won. He’s won the right to open these scrolls.
Let’s look at Revelation 6:2. And I looked, and behold, a white horse—this is the horseman of the apocalypse.
Revelation 6:1. Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals; and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a voice like thunder, “Come and see.” And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. Nikao. Conquering, overcoming, prevailing.
Let’s look at 11:7. This is all just in Revelation, the use of this word. When they finished their testimony, the beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit will make war against them, overcome them, and kill them. Nikao them.
So to subdue someone such that they die: nikao. You have a fight; the other person dies. That’s nikao.
Verse 18. Their bodies will line the street in the great city. See these are believers being killed.
Let’s look at 12:11. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb—nikao, overcame. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.
So this is believers dying, but they are the ones winning. Satan overcomes them with physical death, but they overcome him with spiritual life and the testimony that they have. So, victory, again.
15:2. And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast—nikao, victory—over his image and over his mark. So nikao, victory, winning.
Revelations 17:14. These will make war with the Lamb, and the lamb will overcome them—– them. The Lamb will win. The Lamb will defeat them.
How to win at life
You see the idea here? This is winning and losing. How many people in here fill out a bracket and then don’t care whether your team wins or not? Just completely don’t care. How many people in here play a board game and want to lose? Winning is built in to us. We like to win.
One of the main reasons people struggle with materialism is that in our society accumulation of stuff is considered winning, even though it’s stuff you have to maintain and don’t use. And it’s bothersome. It gets in your way and creates clutter, and you wonder why do we have this stuff? That’s because it’s winning in our society. It’s a wrong perspective, but that’s the perspective we get.
So, this is how to win at life. Jesus is writing this letter to his servants. Now he doesn’t say here’s how to become a servant or here’s how to remain a servant. Servants are servants. Some servants win. Some servants don’t win. So that’s what we’re talking about here: winning at life. Having a life that you look back on and say, “that was a victorious life”. Or a life that you look back on and say, “I really wasted my opportunity.”
I played basketball. I was good enough to start on my high school basketball team, mostly because I happened to be tall. I look back on my life, and I think, you know, I could have really been good if I would have worked at it. But I didn’t. I was too lazy. I just worked enough to get to that point.
Well, it’s not something I have a tremendous amount of regret at because I realize my genetics made me tall, but I kind of know what really, really good looks like now, and I wasn’t going to get there. But I wasted an opportunity to learn something through that. Learn some discipline. Learn other things.
I think that’s a little microcosm of what we’re going to go through when we get to the judgment seat of Christ, which we’ll talk more about.
The church at Ephesus
So let’s go back through Ephesians. We’ve got the salutation, to, from, commendation, exhortation, and then the consequence, and then this reward. What’s the reward? They’re all going to fit together.
So to the angel, the messenger, the person who’s going to give the message at the church of Ephesus write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands. (Revelations 2:1)
Why does Jesus use that particular description? I think it’s because these things are witnesses. The lampstand is something that shows light at night.
We had the privilege of going to the ruins of Ephesus. It’s really cool because Ephesus was a port city, import-export. And the seacoast moved. The harbor silted up and the coast moved. So that location didn’t have any use for them anymore, so they just moved the city.
A lot of times, you know, they keep building cities on top of cities, and they have to dig down and you’ll see little excavations of a part of it that’s 10 feet or 15 feet below you or something.
Well, this is all just there. The town’s there. Some of it has been carted off someplace to build something else. Recycling is nothing new in the world. But the amphitheater there where the riot took place, and “Great is the Artemis of the Ephesians!” and all the people yelled, and they were having to protect Paul from getting trampled and stuff. That amphitheater is still there. It’s really cool.
One of the things you can see on the street that they’ll point out to you, if you get to go, is that hole in the streets where they’d put the lampstand. Because this was a Roman city, a Greco-Roman city, a Greek-Roman city, where they had indoor plumbing and street lights. So they would put these lamps in the streets and so this would light the way at night.
A star, as you know, is something the navigators sailed by. It’s something you can tell your direction by. So these messengers that Jesus holds in his hands, he’s choosing who are going to be his guides for other people. And these lampstands, he’s choosing which churches are going to be his example.
And what we’ve seen is the consequence of these people not remembering and doing the first works is he’s going to say I don’t need you as my example anymore. I don’t need you as my witness. That’s how it’s going to fit in.
So to the people at Ephesus, from the one who decides whether your lampstand is in place or not. I know your works. Verse 2. Your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.
Now, this is a very, very terrific list. To just call this the loveless church, as my particular translation does, I just don’t think is fair. I think it’s better to call this the underperforming church or the truth church because look what these people are doing: They’re standing for what’s true. Something’s evil? We stand against it.
We have a false teacher come in. You know what most people do with false teachers is accommodate them. Standing up against an authority that’s saying something that’s incorrect is a difficult thing to do. It creates division. It creates political wars.
But do you know what? Jesus commends that because we are not to put up with false teaching. And these people came in as apostles, and they found them to be liars, and they exposed them. And this is something that he commends them for. In fact, after he says nevertheless I have this against you, he makes it clear that, listen, I’m not asking you to start compromising your truth stand. Because after he chastises them, he says in verse 6, But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. You stand for what’s true! I like that. I’m going to tell you to do something else, but I’m reiterating that I want you to keep standing for what’s true.
Left their first love
What is it that he chastises them for? Verse 4. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.
There’s something here that they’re not doing. They were doing, and now they’ve backslidden, and if they don’t restore that thing, then you can’t be my witness. Even though you’re still standing for truth, there’s something else you have to do if you want to be my testimony. If you want to be the witness I want you to be. And that is to remember your first love.
Now what is this? Well, love here is the word agape. Agape is used for love, in addition to two other words. Phileo is the primary other word that’s used. And phileo is more of an affection love, a brotherly love. I have affection for you.
Agape is used two different ways. One is when you’re making a choice to do something in someone else’s best interest. Love is patient. You can only exercise patience under one circumstance. What is it? There’s a difficulty. An irritation of some kind, right? No irritation, no patience.
No one ever goes into a massage studio and says, “Look at that person just lying there patiently. What incredible patience they have.” They never say that. Why? It’s not irritating to sit there and have somebody rub on you. That’s enjoyable.
So there’s that use of agape.
And then there’s the use of agape in what you esteem. The Pharisees agaped the place of prominence, and I think that’s what we’re looking at here. You have forgotten who the main person is you’re trying to please here.
Now think about how easy this is to do. And let’s go back to the historical model where the church of Ephesus represents this period of 33-100, from the Pentecost to the last apostle. During this time period, three different letters are written that go this very point: Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews.
We could look at Galatians in particular because it kind of sums it up in one verse in Galatians 2:17 which says, paraphrasing, if you seek to justify yourself, when you’re found to be a sinner, who do you have to blame but yourself because when we’re already believers, we’re already justified before God. Why? Because Jesus did the justification for us.
When we seek to justify ourselves further, who are we seeking to justify ourselves before? If we’re seeking to justify ourselves before God, then we’re saying Jesus wasn’t enough. And if we’re seeking to justify ourselves before men, then we’re saying we care more about what people think than what God thinks. And it’s as simple as can be to slip into that.
Maybe another way to say it is, “I’m good because I’m right.” So when we stand for truth, it’s the right thing to do. But if we stand for truth so we can show we’re right and you’re wrong, we slip into the Ephesian Church. How easy is that? How many can say amen to that? Haven’t you done it many times? It’s as natural as breathing.
So what they’re doing here is sliding back from who they really ought to be agaping, which is Christ.