A Study of Revelation 2:4-5
by Al Maxey
I receive a great many requests from the readers of these Reflections for special studies from God's inspired Word. I have an entire file folder filled with these requests, and want to assure you that I will make an effort to do an in-depth study on every legitimate request sent to me. I only ask the patience of those readers who have written; I will respond .... it just may take some time. One such request for a more detailed study comes from a brother in Texas, who wrote, "I know you have plenty on your plate, but would you consider commenting on the statement in Revelation: 'I will remove your candlestick.' Thanks, and may God continue to bless your efforts."
Revelation 2:5 (KJV)
Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen,
and repent, and do the first works; or else I will
come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy
candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
In the above warning by Jesus to a congregation in need of spiritual refocusing, the KJV speaks of the possible removal of a candlestick. In England, in the 17th century, it was normal practice to light a "candle" and place it on a "candlestick." This was NOT the case in ancient Palestine, however. They used oil lamps, which were then placed on lampstands. Throughout the NT writings the KJV translators changed "lamps" and "lampstands" to "candles" and "candlesticks." Most newer, more accurate, translations have corrected this inaccuracy, including the New King James Version. The actual Greek word employed here is luchnia, which W.E. Vine states "is mistranslated 'candlestick' in every occurrence in the Authorized Version" (Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). This word appears twelve times in the New Covenant writings (seven of which are in Revelation). It simply means "lampstand." "We regard this word as every way more congruous than 'candlestick.' Candlesticks are not only a modern and mean article of furniture, but they were never used in the temple or tabernacle at all, and they suggest anything but the sacred and elevated idea that is here intended" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22).
Perhaps the reader noticed the KJV employs the word "his" in the statement, "I will remove thy candlestick out of HIS place, except thou repent." This seems to reflect the theological perspective of a few that the "candlestick" was representative of the local Bishop over the church. Thus, this translation appears to be suggesting the church in Ephesus would be punished for its failure to repent by having their Bishop relocated to another diocese. Very, very few biblical scholars adopt this interpretation. Indeed, it is not even based on an accurate rendering of the Greek. The pronoun translated "his" by the KJV translators is actually feminine in form, rather than masculine. The New King James Version, by the way, corrects this theological imposition upon the text.
Most feel the figure employed by Jesus -- a golden lampstand -- represents a congregation of His people (Revelation 1:20 --- "the seven lampstands are the seven churches"), and has its antecedents in the prophecy of Zechariah (4:2, 11) and the golden lamps and lampstand of the Jewish sanctuary (Exodus 25:31-40). We may also find an allusion to the statement of Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14-15). The people of God are to be lamps placed upon a lampstand so that they may "give light to all." A lamp covered, rather than clearly visible, is completely ineffective. We are to be "the light of the world" and must, therefore, be clearly on display to those engulfed in darkness (Matthew 5:14, 16). A congregation whose light is hidden runs the real risk of having that lampstand removed. This is the warning of our Lord to the believers in Ephesus.
That Which The Lord Commends
In many ways, the saints in Ephesus were doing a fine work for the Lord. Indeed, Jesus commends them in several key areas. From all outward appearances, one might think this was the ideal community of believers. He speaks of their many "deeds" and their "toil" on His behalf (Rev. 2:2). The second of these terms is the Greek word kopos, which signifies "wearisome, exhausting labor; to work to the point of collapse." William Barclay notes, "It is the kind of toil which takes everything of mind and sinew that a man can put into it. The Christian way is not for the man who fears to break sweat" (The Revelation of John, vol. 1, p. 62). "The church in Ephesus was not just a working church that fulfilled a minimum of responsibility, but one that toiled: worked unto weariness. It was not, as many churches are today, merely content with keeping house for the Lord, with its activity virtually limited to church-going. Its members knew what it was to suffer actual fatigue in their work for Christ" (James M. Tolle, The Seven Churches of Asia, p. 27).
Our Lord also commends them for their "perseverance" (vs. 2). This is the Greek word hupomone, which means "to bear up under; to patiently endure; to persevere; to remain in the face of toil, suffering, trouble, affliction, persecution instead of fleeing" (Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 845-846). Jesus uses this word twice with reference to the saints in Ephesus (Rev. 2:2 and again in vs. 3). "It means staying when the burden is heavy; it means holding one's own in the face of every difficulty" (Ray Summers, Worthy Is The Lamb, p. 110). "Hupomone is not the patience which sits down and passively bears things, the patience which allows a tide of troubles to sweep over its bowed head. The word would be better translated triumphant fortitude. It is what has been called 'masculine constancy under trial,' that triumphant fortitude which can transmute suffering into glory" (William Barclay, Letters To The Seven Churches, p. 20). This Greek word signifies "the characteristic of a man who is unswerved from his deliberate purpose and loyalty to faith and piety by even the greatest trials and sufferings" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, p. 644). The Ephesians were a band of believers who "endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary" (Rev. 2:3).
Jesus further commends them for their stand for Truth --- "You cannot tolerate wicked men; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false" (Rev. 2:2). Paul had specifically warned the Elders at Ephesus that such "evil men" would arise among them (see Acts 20:28-31a). The church in Ephesus obviously heeded this warning. There were those who came in among them claiming to be apostles; the Ephesians examined them carefully ("put them to the test"), discovered them to be false, and rejected them. The Nicolaitan heresy was also unable to gain a foothold here at this time --- "You hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" (Rev. 2:6). These were disciples who put into practice the command of 1 John 4:1 -- "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world." Paul told these brethren decades earlier, "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them" (Ephesians 5:11). They were doing just that!
"These believers were not only competent but militant in their stand against false teaching" (Hal Lindsey, There's A New World Coming, p. 46). "They could not bear in their midst the company of evil men who were morally or ethically base in their character. This attitude toward evil men is commendable; if they will not be transformed, let them be transferred!" (Homer Hailey, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 121). "It is worthy of special attention that this church is praised for its intolerance" (William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, p. 77). About fifteen years after the Revelation was given to John (96 A.D.), Ignatius wrote in praise of their continued intolerance of false teaching and wicked men --- "I have heard of some who have passed by you, having perverse doctrine; whom you did not suffer to sow among you, but stopped up your ears, that ye might not receive those things that were sown by them" (Epistle to the Ephesians 2:10).
That Which The Lord Condemns
So, what was the problem in Ephesus? Why was this seemingly ideal congregation of believers given such a stern warning by our Lord? Why was their very existence as one of His "light bearers" in jeopardy? Jesus tells them that unless they repent, He will remove their lampstand out of its place. Repent of what?! The Lord indicates, in vs. 5, that they have "fallen." But, from where? From what? The answer is found in the following statement:
Revelation 2:4 (NASB)
But I have this against you,
that you have left your first love.
The above statement is variously phrased in the differing translations and versions on the market. The KJV, NKJV and ASV agree with the above rendering ("you have left your first love"). Others have: "You have left the love you had at first" (NWT) ..... "You have abandoned the love you had at first" (RSV) ..... "You have lost/turned aside from your early love" (NEB, NAB) ..... "You no longer love Me as you did at first/in the beginning" (LB, TEV, SEB, Williams) ..... "You do not love as you did at first" (Phillips) ..... "You have forsaken your first love" (NIV, McCord) ..... "You have left (abandoned) the love you had at first -- you have deserted Me, your first love" (Amplified) ..... "You don't have as much love as you used to" (CEV) ..... "You walked away from your first love" (The Message).
The Greek word aphiemi, which appears in the above verse, means "to depart from, forsake, leave behind." This verb appears in the aorist tense in this passage, which indicates they had departed from this love at some point in their past. A couple of things should be considered here: (1) Who or what was this "first love," and who or what was its object? (2) What was the cause of their losing it? As to the first concern, it can be quickly seen from the various translations cited that there is a diversity of opinion among scholars as to the nature and object of this love. Although many views exist, the two major positions are as follows:
Love For CHRIST --- The original Greek text does not have the word "Me" in the phrase, although, as one can see above, some have added it, assuming the object of the love to be Jesus. Some commentators "see the 'first love' as a reference to their inner devotion to Christ that characterized their earlier commitment, like the love of a newly wedded bride for her husband" (John R.W. Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church, p. 27). God told His people that He remembered fondly "the devotion of your youth, and the love of your betrothals" (Jeremiah 2:2). Some feel this love, from which the Ephesians had fallen, had been replaced by a mere sense of duty. They continued to work zealously, even tirelessly, for Christ, but without love in their hearts. Paul's remarks in 1 Cor. 13:1-3 would be appropriate here.
Love For ONE ANOTHER --- "The majority of commentators take the 'first love' to refer to the original Christian love the Ephesians had for one another" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 434). In Ephesians 1:15 Paul had praised this "first love," referring to it as "your love for all the saints." This had apparently waned over the years, however. "This first fine rapture of love for the brotherhood is gone" (William Barclay, The Revelation of John, vol. 1, p. 64). My own personal conviction is that this is the love from which these brethren have fallen, and for which the Lord calls them to repentance; they have forsaken that love for one another.
"Without brotherly love a church must become extinct" (Dr. Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John, p. 450). "The fervor of their original love -- their 'love for all the saints' (Eph. 1:15) -- had waned. And nothing -- no amount of good works or sound doctrine -- can take the place of agape in a Christian community. Unless there was a change of heart, that church's days were numbered; its lampstand would be removed" (The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 1683). Brother Homer Hailey, in his commentary, notes: "The lampstand's purpose or place was to uphold and dispense light, but without the motivation of true love it fails in its purpose and therefore no longer has a right to exist" (p. 123). "Our Lord Jesus does not desire the prolonged continuance of a Church whose love is on the decline. A cold Church does not and cannot represent Jesus in the world; it is no longer accomplishing the object for which Churches are formed, and therefore there is no reason why it should continue" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22). Jesus declared, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). "The one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the light" (1 John 2:9-10). We are to lift high the light of love, but if our "love light" is hidden, then we are not fulfilling our function as lampstands, and we are in danger of having our lampstand removed.
The question is put to each of us, both individually and collectively, by The Expositor's Bible Commentary: "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 reflecting His life by our loving relationship to others?" (vol. 12, p. 435). We must never abandon brotherly love. To do so is potentially fatal. So, why did the saints in Ephesus fall away from this love? What happened?!
Position One --- Assuming our Lord's reprimand has reference to lack of love for Him, the cause may well be that they had lost focus. Perhaps they had become so intent upon their many works, labors, duties and "religion" that they had lost sight of JESUS. As The Expositor's Bible Commentary so correctly observes, "Loving devotion to Christ can be lost in the midst of active service" (vol. 12, p. 434). "Their religion had become a lifeless, mechanical, ritualistic thing, to be done out of a sense of cold duty, rather than of glorious privilege motivated by love" (James M. Tolle, p. 31).
"Day after day they went through the right routines, said the right words, dished out the right spiritual platitudes --- and shriveled a little more inside! As their love for Christ began to wane, they more and more served out of a sense of duty. In their own estimation, their acceptance by the Lord depended on their performance for Him. This opened the door to legalism. Jesus tells the Ephesians to remember that love is the only acceptable motivation for Christian living. He urges them to repent of their loveless Christian duty and to get off their 'works trip,' returning instead to the love which they had when they first came to know Him, when they were flushed with the wonder and excitement of their new relationship with Him" (Hal Lindsey, p. 46-47).
Position Two --- Assuming our Lord's reprimand refers to the second position enumerated above (lack of love one for another), the cause may well be that in their zeal for orthodoxy they had lost the ability to love those with whom they differed. "Perhaps their zeal for orthodoxy in exposing false apostles had developed into a hypocritical, censorious spirit. This would remind us of those in the church today who have developed an unloving, suspicious, fault-finding, hypocritical keeper-of-the-orthodoxy complex" (James M. Tolle, p. 31). "Certainly no amount of orthodoxy can make up for a failure to love one another" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 434).
"The zeal in opposing the false teachers might naturally lead to divisions and a slackening of love toward some of the brethren" (Dr. Isbon T. Beckwith, p. 450). "The loyal spirit of defense of the truth had bred an attitude of spite toward those in error. It should be remembered that the essence of the gospel is God's love for erring humanity. Any attempt to make the gospel effective which distorts this central fact is a distortion of the gospel itself" (J.W. Roberts, The Living Word Commentary: The Revelation to John, p. 38-39). "It may be that the church at Ephesus was so busy heresy hunting that it had lost the atmosphere of brotherly love. It may be that a hard, censorious, critical, fault-finding, stern self-righteousness had banished the spirit of love. H.B. Swete writes on this passage: 'Patience and unremitting toil in His cause are not all that Christ requires, and, indeed, are of little value, if love be absent!' Strict orthodoxy can cost too much if it has to be bought at the price of love" (William Barclay, Letters to the Seven Churches, p. 21).
"In the first days the members of the church at Ephesus had really loved each other; dissension had never reared its head; the heart was ready to kindle and the hand was ready to help. But something had gone wrong. It may well be that heresy-hunting had killed love, and orthodoxy had been achieved at the price of fellowship. When that happens, orthodoxy has cost too much. All the orthodoxy in the world will never take the place of love" (William Barclay, The Revelation of John, vol. 1, p. 64).
Some of God's people today, both individually and congregationally, are in imminent danger of a divine visitation from the Great Physician for the purpose of a lampectomy. The light of their love has grown dim. Preoccupied with legislating law and hunting heretics, they have lost sight of their true purpose for being. In so doing, their very being is threatened. Brethren, it is time to refocus. It is time to tap back into the oil of the Holy Spirit, trim our wicks of that which is useless, and begin shining brightly once more .... letting a world engulfed in darkness behold the beauty of LOVE as evidenced in God's grace. "May you prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:15).