It had the feel of New York and yet there was nothing new about Ephesus. The city was founded 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. By the time the Apostle Paul made his way to Ephesus on his missionary journey, Ephesus was the fourth largest city in the world with a population of 250,000 people.
Ephesus was known for its commerce which began each day as soon as the sun came up in the morning. There were people from all over the world arriving and setting sail all throughout the day as ships docked and set sail from Ephesus into the Aegean Sea. The city sat at the mouth of the mighty Cayster River which made Ephesus a major trade route in Asia Minor.
Business wasn’t the only order of the day, religion was huge. As a matter of fact religion was big business. One of the main money-makers in the city was also one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis, the Greek goddess of fertility. The temple was built in Ephesus about 550 B.C. and many businesses were started in connection with the temple.
In Acts 19, after Paul had been preaching in Ephesus for awhile, some of the merchants felt threatened because people were converting from goddess worship to Christianity. In Acts 19:23-31 we can read about the uproar that was caused by Paul’s preaching.
23About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the craftsmen. 25He called them together, along with the workmen in related trades, and said: ‘Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. 26And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all. 27There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.’ 28When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ 29Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theater. 30Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. (Acts 19:23-31 NIV)
As you can see, Paul ran into major opposition in Ephesus and yet the cosmopolitan setting excited Paul so much that he stayed there for three years, from 53-55 A.D. God used Paul to establish a church and yet those who sought to live their life for the glory of God alone found life in Ephesus difficult. The followers of Jesus were a religious minority and pagan worship was rampant. A new religion began to take a firm hold on the city when Emperor Domitian’s ego began to spin out of control. Domitian loved to refer to himself as “dominus et dues: Lord and God.”
Some time in the mid 80’s Domitian had a temple built in Ephesus in his honor. The new temple became a focal point for emperor worship throughout the region. It measured 165 feet by 330 feet and had a huge statue of Domitian that stood 23 feet tall with his fist raised in the air.
Domitian not only honored himself as “Lord and God,” but he began to apply pressure on those who would not worship him. He laid heavy taxes on those who fell out of favor and he executed “atheists,” those who wouldn’t acknowledge his deity. Domitian’s cousin, Flavius Clemens, a high ranking official in the empire, and his wife, Domitilla, were very close to Domitian until they converted to Christianity. Domitian had Flavius Clemens executed in 95 A.D. and Domitilla was exiled to an island in the Mediterranean Sea.
The book of Revelation was written about the same year that Flavius Clemens was executed. Emperor worship was pressing down upon those who wouldn’t bow their knee to anyone other than Jesus. Christians were coming under more and more pressure to compromise their faith. With all of this going on the faithful arrived in church one morning to learn that they had received a letter. As the reader stood to deliver the message their ears were tuned in to the Word of God. Turn with me to Revelation 1:1-8 and let’s join the congregation at Ephesus as they listened to these powerful words.
1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who testifies to everything he saw–that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. 4John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father; to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. 7 Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:1-8 NIV)
What a powerful experience it must have been for the folks who showed up at First Church in Ephesus on that Sunday morning so long ago! It is my prayer that studying this section of Revelation will be a powerful experience for us as well. Let’s dig in.
In the Greek New Testament the first three verses of chapter 1 are one long sentence. We covered this section of Revelation in our introduction last week so let’s begin by taking a look at verse 4.
4John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, (Revelation 1:4 NIV)
John is writing to the “seven churches in the province of Asia.” In chapters 2-3 we will get to take a look at each of the specific letters written to these seven churches. This part of Revelation is the salutation of the letter and in the salutation we read, “grace and peace to you.” The grace and peace are not from John, but from God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. We need to recognize that the order of these words, “grace and peace,” is no accident. Peace only flows from the grace that God gives us. There is no lasting peace in this life apart from the grace of Almighty God. G.K. Beale wrote,
The Christian readers need grace to persevere in their faith in the midst of tribulation, especially pressures to compromise. And in the midst of such external turmoil they need the inner ‘peace’ that only the external God who is sovereign over the vicissitudes of space-time history can give. (G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, p.187)
It wasn’t just the people in the seven churches of Asia that needed the grace and peace of Almighty God. Paul wrote to the church in Rome and said,
7To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7 NIV)
Paul wrote to the brothers and sisters in Corinth and he encouraged them in their troubles with these words.
1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia: 2Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. (2 Corinthians 1:1-4 NIV)
God’s willingness to pour out His grace and peace upon the hearts of His people didn’t stop in the first century. He offers His grace and peace to us today. He knows the troubles we face in life, the heartache that takes hold and squeezes the life out of us like a python, the persecution faced by those who take their stand for the King and His Kingdom. God knows and He gives us His grace so that we might experience His peace in perplexing times.
John says that this grace and peace are from “him who is, and who was, and who is to come.” This phrase used by John is a paraphrase of Exodus 3:14-15 where Moses asks God,
13Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 14God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.'” 15God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:14-15 NIV)
God said, “Tell them YHWH sent you!” The Hebrew word, “YHWH” is God’s personal name. It means, “I am” or “I will be.” The Jews wouldn’t even say the name of God because it was too holy for mortal lips to speak. John takes the name of God and paraphrases it by saying, “Him who is, and who was, and who is to come.”
Grace and peace come also from “the seven spirits before his throne.” Now what does that mean? Some say that John is referring to the seven archangels of Jewish tradition that are listed in 1 Enoch 20:1-8. The “seven spirits of God” are listed in three other places in the book of Revelation: (3:1; 4:5; 5:6). I have to believe that the number “7” is important for us to consider at this point. In biblical studies numbers mean things and the number 7 is the number of fullness, perfection, or completion. You will begin to notice the importance of seven as we go through our study of Revelation. The perfect empowerment of the Spirit sends grace and peace to His people in Asia. The fullness of the Spirit is the driving force behind the Church’s ability to stand strong in the face of persecution. It is not self-determination, nor power, but the Spirit of Almighty God who invigorates and strengthens us to live for the Lord in troubling times. (Zechariah 4:2-7)
It is also interesting to notice that the placement of the Spirit in the listing of the Trinity seems a little odd doesn’t it? Whenever we read about the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Bible, the Son always precedes the Spirit. Not here. Why is that? I think it has to do with the fact that the next four verses of the letter shine the spotlight on Jesus. Jesus is the focus of this section of the first chapter. Let’s read together beginning in verse 5.
5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. (Revelation 1:5-6 NIV)
Grace and peace are showered upon the churches from the Trinity: God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus, the One who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth, the One who loves us, the One who has freed us from our sins by His blood, the One who has made us to be a kingdom, the One who has called us to be priests to serve God! As I have studied this seven-fold description of Jesus this past week I have been driven to my knees.
Stop and think with me for a minute about those who heard this for the very first time, those young people in Pergamum, slaves in Smyrna, the Christian merchants in Ephesus, “empty nesters” in Thyatira, aristocrats in Laodicea, the brothers in Philadelphia, and sisters in Sardis. Domitian may be a brutal, maniacal, megalomaniac, but he will answer to the Ruler of all the kings and emperors of all the earth! Domitian’s reign will end, but Jesus will reign forevermore, He is the firstborn from the dead–His reign will never end. John says, “You may be suffering under the dominance of the Roman Empire, but hold fast, don’t give up because your citizenship is of another Kingdom!” Can you imagine how backs must have straightened, chests must have swelled, and hearts must have raced that morning in church?
I think it is interesting that “Faithful witness” is listed first among the seven descriptions of Jesus. How important this is for you and me! Jesus’ words are true, we can count on them, there is no need to question if He is telling us the truth or not–He is the faithful witness. We see this important attribute of our Savior over and over again throughout Scripture. Let me show you a couple of places in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 3:14, when the Laodicean believers received their letter, they read,
14 To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. (Revelation 3:14 NIV)
John had a glorious vision in Revelation 19 where he saw Heaven standing open and a Rider on a white horse. Take a look at verses 11-19 with me.
11I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (Revelation 19:11-16 NIV)
Jesus’ words are true. His words can be trusted. You and I both know that truth and trust are two huge aspects of relationships. If you have someone in your life that you care for and love and yet they have lied to you in the past, then you are hesitant to believe them. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love them; it just means that you don’t take seriously what they say to you because of the lies they have told in the past. On the other hand, if you have someone in your life that has never lied to you then you know that person is someone you can count on. If they say they will do something you know they will do it. If they say they will be there then you know that you don’t have to wonder if they will show up.
Jesus’ words are true. We have history to confirm that everything He has said has been true. John also tells us that Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. He was crucified, but He lives. They killed Him, but they couldn’t keep Him down. They buried Him in a borrowed grave, but the grave couldn’t hold Him. He not only defeated Domitian, but He defeated death and stole its sting! Paul wrote to the folks in Colosse and said,
18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 3:18-20 NIV)
Because Jesus lives we will live. Death had no hold on those in John’s day who had surrendered their hearts to Jesus and death has no hold on us today. We need not fear death because Jesus has overcome death and the grave. Paul wrote to the church in Rome,
11And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. (Romans 8:11 NIV)
Just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so will He give us life, everlasting life. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and said,
14By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. (1 Corinthians 6:14 NIV)
John also tells us that Jesus is the Ruler of the kings of the earth. Roman Emperors had their day, but their day is done. The Cambodian leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, had his day of power as he killed two million of his own people, but his day is done. The German Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, the murderer of millions of Jews had his day, but his day is done. Mussolini, Stalin, Saddam Hussein–all of these evil dictators had their day, but where are they today? Their day is done, but the Son reigns and rules over all the kingdoms of the world!
Jesus rules the rulers of the world’s empires and kingdoms, but He didn’t come to power in the same way that these evil dictators acquired their power. Oh, Jesus was tempted to take a short cut, to circumvent God’s will, but lived in obedience to God’s will instead. If you will remember shortly after Jesus’ baptism He went out into the wilderness to fast and pray for forty days and nights. There in the wilderness Satan came to Jesus and tempted Him. You can read about it in Matthew 4. In verses 8-10 we read about the third temptation. Read along with me.
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:8-10 NIV)
Jesus was offered all the kingdoms of the world, but He resisted. He wouldn’t forsake the Father’s will. He lived in obedience to God and in time all the kingdoms of the world were at His feet. Oh, Jesus is God’s King my friends! He came to power by pouring out His life, not by intimidation, coercion, or terrorizing those around Him. Paul wrote about how Jesus came to power in Philippians 2:5-11.
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11 NIV)
John also tells us that Jesus loves us and has freed us. He loves us, present tense. He has freed us, past tense. On Calvary’s cross He set us free from sin’s shackles. We don’t have to succumb to sin’s temptations. We don’t have to serve as a slave to sin. We have been freed!
He has freed us and He loves us. It is interesting that the Greek word used here for “loves” is in present tense. Jesus didn’t just demonstrate His love for us on the cross, but He loves us presently, continuously, and passionately. He loves us with purpose. He has made us a Kingdom all of His own. The early Christians saw this as a fulfillment of the promise God made to His people in the Old Testament.
3Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:3-6 NIV)
Those who were suffering under the dominance of the Roman Emperor were told that they were citizens of another Kingdom. The Roman Empire would crumble in due season, but the Kingdom of God would never end! In Revelation 5:9-10 we get a glimpse into heaven where the Lamb is standing at the center of the throne. All of those gathered around the throne are singing a new song. Read along with me.
9And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. 10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10 NIV)
John wanted all of those who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire to know that they were first and foremost citizens of Heaven, servants of the Kingdom of God. He didn’t want them to cower in the face of persecution–he wanted them to serve as priests where God had planted them.
There are believers scattered all over the world, but we are members of one Kingdom: the Kingdom of God. We are more than members; we are priests called to serve wherever we have been sent. Today there are “priests,” representatives of God, serving in Mexico, America, Vietnam, Canada, France, Zimbabwe, Australia, China, and every country on the planet. There are men and women, some living in horrific settings, living under persecution and the threat of civil government, and yet called to serve. We are citizens of Heaven, servants of Almighty God! Last of all, let’s take a look at verses 7-8.
7 Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:7-8 NIV)
To all of those who are suffering He is on His way! John tells us that He is “coming with the clouds.” In Daniel 7 we see the same phrase used to describe His coming. Read along with me.
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14 NIV)
His coming is a welcomed sight to those who serve Him, those who honor Him with their lives, those whose hearts overflow with gratitude. For those who have refused Him, mocked Him, and rejected His rightful place as God’s King in each human heart–His coming will bring terror and shame.
Are you looking for His coming this morning? Maybe a better question would be, “Are you living for His coming this morning?” Living to honor His name? Living to serve in His Kingdom rather than build your own? Are you living for His glory, His honor this very day? If not then won’t you recognize your wayward ways and come to the King of glory this morning?
Britton Christian Church