A Contextual Study of Revelation 2:1-7
1 To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Context is key. I’d argue that this is the golden rule of Bible study. Things can get dicey when verses are ripped out of context. Confidence can be lost. Foundations can begin to erode. This is exactly what happens when people lift up Revelation 2:1–7 as a proof-text for the false notion that a believer can lose their salvation. We must not ignore this passage’s historical and grammatical setting, which God was so gracious to sovereignly orchestrate. Let’s use this opportunity to do a small contextual study in which we will put this text back in its place, and dispel any chance that it might be damaging to the steadfast joy and assurance that the Father desires for his children.
In Christ’s letter to the Ephesian church, recorded by the Apostle John in Revelation 2:1–7, Jesus offers the church in Ephesus both praise and rebuke. He praises them for continuing on in good works. The Ephesians showed fortitude since the establishment of their church. They weathered many storms of temptation from the world, especially considering that their city is a cesspool for sexual immorality and idol worship. They proved to be faithful to the teaching that they heard, as they were willing to label some as false apostles. And they contended for the name of Christ against the Nicolaitans, who were most likely wife-swappers and sexual idolaters. Jesus praised them for all of these deeds.
But Jesus also had this against them, “that you have left your first love.” What was this first love? I book of Ephesians gives us more context. Paul had heard of the Ephesian’s faith in Christ and their love for each other, and Paul’s prayer for them is that they would be rooted and grounded in love. From this, I think it’s clear that the love the Ephesian church had abandoned was the love of Christ and love for his people. Over time their deeds had kept going strong, but their affections waned down to a flicker.
In our zeal, we can read this passage and be too quick to try and directly apply it to our own life. It’s true of most of us that we go through stretches where it’s harder to be passionate about Christ and his people. We have ups and downs. It’s also true of many of us that our daily walk with Jesus looks quite different than it did when we were brand new believers.
The danger here is to play the comparison game and measure yourself up to Christ’s threat to take away the Ephesian lampstand. We may think something like, “Man, I sure feel like I don’t have the energy that I used to when I was a new believer. I used to spend every spare minute with other believers, and I was talking about Christ with every person I came in contact with. It feels like it used to be so much easier. Maybe I’ve lost my first love. I guess I’d better repent, or Christ will take away my lampstand.”
The Immediate Context
When we read the Bible, it’s important for us to know the immediate context of the passage that we’re reading. What genre is the book (historical narrative, poetry, letter, apocalyptic, etc.)? Who is the author? Who is the author’s intended audience (a specific nation, a specific church, a Jewish crowd, a Gentile crowd, etc.)? These types of questions can help us understand the passage and preserve the integrity of the author’s setting and reason for writing. God has sovereignly inspired and preserved his Word for future generations to have, but that doesn’t mean that we can scrap the fact that each book was written for a specific time, in a specific place, to a specific audience, for a specific reason.
The book of Revelation is highly symbolic and heavily utilizes imagery from the Old Testament. The book includes the content of a series of visions that Jesus gave to the Apostle John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos. John was to record what he saw and have the writings delivered to the churches.
In the first chapter of Revelation, we unearth two keys for today’s study. First, Jesus is giving John messages to send to seven churches located in Asia. So in chapters 2 and 3, we read Christ’s messages to the individual churches. These are also recorded in scripture for the instruction of all future churches. Second, we see that Jesus uses the image of a lampstand to symbolize a local church. In typical Revelation fashion, the number seven is used over and over again to symbolize fullness. So the seven individual churches symbolize the church as a whole.
By understanding the context of these letters to the churches, we understand that Jesus is communicating messages to local congregations in their time in history, and he is providing instruction of the church as a whole. In his letter to the Ephesians, he is not dealing with them on the level of individual persons, but as a congregation of people. This means that his threat isn’t, “Individual believer, repent of your lack of love or I will take away your salvation.” Rather, it’s, “Congregation, get back on track or I will take away your lampstand, and you won’t be a church anymore.” It’s so easy for us to read this passage, key in on the word “repentance,” and immediately import our understanding of individual repentance leading to faith in Christ. But that isn’t what Jesus is addressing here.
This passage teaches us a number of truths. Jesus can deal with churches as a whole. He can praise certain works they do and hate certain works they do. He upholds the existence of local churches, and he can even dissolve local churches out of discipline. But he never threatens to take an individual’s salvation away.
In fact, each of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation ends with an encouragement from Jesus. In these encouragements, Jesus exhorts individuals to keep pressing on. If they continue to cling to him in faith, they will be rewarded. The amazing thing about these rewards is that all of them are already a part of the inheritance that awaits all believers. These blessings have already been bought for us by Jesus. They are promised to overcomers or conquerors, and we are already conquerors through Christ, because he has conquered for us. Look at each one of these promises, be encouraged to press on, and find comfort knowing that they are yours in Christ.
- Ephesus: To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. (Rev 2:7)
- Smyrna: He who overcomes will never be hurt by the second death. (Rev 2:11)
- Pergamum: To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it. (Rev 2:17)
- Thyatira: And he who overcomes, and he who keeps my deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from my Father; and I will give him the morning star. (Rev 2:26-28)
- Sardis: He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments and I will never erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father and before angels. (Rev 3:5)
- Philadelphia: He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of my God, and he will never go out from it anymore. And I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God, and my new name. (Rev 3:12)
- Laodicea: He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on His throne. (Rev 3:21)
Interpreting Scripture with Scripture
Another key rule of Bible study is to interpret scripture with scripture. Difficult passages need to be held up to passages that are easily understood. An entire belief or doctrine shouldn’t be formed based on a few difficult passages, especially when just one difficult passage seems to fly in the face of an overwhelming number of clear passages!
Here is a list (not exhaustive) of scriptures that clearly communicate the truth that the salvation of a believer is secure forever in Christ.
- My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-29)
- Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1)
- What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is he who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction, or turmoil, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (Romans 8:31-35)
- In him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)
- Therefore he is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25)
In your next quiet time, I encourage you to look up these passages, examine the surrounding context, and meditate on the truths that they communicate.
Believer, God does not threaten to take your salvation away if you don’t do well enough. Jesus is able to save us to the fullest extent. Once and for all. If God was responsible for the “once” and we are responsible for the “for all,” then we are in no better of a position than where we started. Our works aren’t good enough to keep our salvation, but Christ’s are. “But by his doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). He is our whole salvation.
If you are struggling with your assurance, don’t be deceived into thinking that your own works contribute in keeping it. Look to Christ and have faith in him, who is able to save once and for all. Rest easy in his hands. Keep striving to know him and love him even more, letting your works flow from there.