Revelation 1:20 – The word “mystery” does not mean a mystery in our sense of the term. It means something which is meaningless to the outsider but meaningful to the one who possesses the key (Mark 4:11ff). Here as in the Mark passage, Jesus goes on to give the inner meaning of the seven stars and the seven lamp stands; they stand for the seven Churches.
One of the great titles of the Believer is that he is the light of the world (Matthew 5:14; Philippians 2:15). It is not the Churches that produce the light; the giver of light is Jesus; and the Churches the vessels within which the light shines. The Believer’s light is always a borrowed light. The seven stars are “angels” of the churches. The Greek word used here has two meanings. It means an angel; but more often, it means a messenger.
Some have taught that messengers of all the Churches have assembled to receive a message from John and take it back to their congregations. Others have taught that these messengers were the bishops of the Congregations and that they gathered to meet John or that he is directing these letters to them. In favor of this theory, we can consider Malachi 2:7, where the messenger is the priest. The title could very easily be transferred to the bishops of the Churches. They are the messengers of the Lord to their Churches and to them John speaks.
Still another theory is that the messengers are guardian angels. In Hebrew thought, every nation had its presiding angel (Daniel 10:13, 20, 21). Michael, for instance, was held to be the guardian angel of Israel (Daniel 12:1). People, too, had their guardian angels. When Rhoda came with the news that Peter had escaped from prison, they would not believe her and said it was his angel (Acts 12:15). Jesus himself spoke of the angels who guard a little child (Matthew 18:10). If we take it in this sense, the difficulty is that then the guardian angels of the Churches are being rebuked for the sins of the Churches. The best theory I believe is that this is a letter of warning to the Bishops or pastors of these congregations.
Revelation 2:1 Though the one speaking to John is not named, the description makes it obvious that He is the glorious Lord who has already been described Revelation 1:9-20, the exalted Jesus. The phrases “the One who holds the seven stars in His right hand” and “the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands” are taken from the description of Messiah in Revelation 1:13,16.
Jesus identifies Himself to each of the first five churches by using phrases from that vision (Revelation 2:8 with Revelation 1:18; 2:12 with Revelation 1:16; 2:18 with Revelation 1:14-15; 3:1 with Revelation 1:16). That reinforces the truth that He is the author of the letters; they are His direct word, through the angel sent to John, to those local congregations and to churches like them in years beyond.
Revelation 2:1 says that Jesus is addressing the church at Ephesus, but He is in the midst of all the churches. This means that Revelation is for all the Lord’s servants and followers. He gave the Revelation so that all believers could know the things that are to take place in the end time. But why is the letter addressed to only seven churches in Asia? Why was it not addressed to all the churches down through the centuries?
The seven churches represent the types of churches that are generally present throughout the entire church age. Five of the seven churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia being the exceptions) were rebuked for tolerating sin in their midst which has occurred in most churches since. The problems in those five churches ranged in severity from fading love at Ephesus to total apostasy at Laodicea. Any church in any age could have a mixture of the sins that plagued these five churches.
The messages to the seven churches were given for personal application. Jesus expects us-all churches and all believers-to apply the messages to our own situation. He expects us to search our hearts and to heed the messages given to these churches. Jesus may have addressed the Ephesian church first because it was first on the postal route; it was also the most prominent church of the seven. It was the mother church out of whose ministry the other six were founded (Acts 19:10). The contents of this first letter form the pattern for the other six.
First, let’s consider the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was the most important city along the coast of Asia Minor. The city had been founded not only because of its port but because it was on one of the main highways of Asia Minor. Its attraction was magnified by the rich, fertile land that covered the inland area. It was a great commercial city because of its strategic location. Although not its capital (Pergamum was the province’s official capital), Ephesus was the most important city in Asia Minor. (Since the Roman governor resided there, it could be argued that Ephesus was the de-facto capital).
Its population in New Testament times has been estimated at between 250,000 and 500,000 people. The city’s theater, still standing today, was the place where Paul and his companions Gaius and Aristarchus were dragged (Acts 19:29), before an estimated 25,000 people. Ephesus was a free city (self-governing, within limits), and no Roman troops were garrisoned there. However, in the middle of the first century, the harbor had silted up so badly that trade declined dramatically from the days of its glory in the time of Paul.
The church in Ephesus had a small beginning. When Paul visited Ephesus, he found only twelve believers in the city. They had been won to the Lord by the immature but impressive preacher Apollos. As a result they had been misinformed on the presence of the Holy Spirit; they seemed to lack a consciousness of the Spirit in the life of the believer and the awareness that He had already been sent into the world (Acts 19:1-7).
After Paul’s instruction to these twelve, he began to teach in the synagogue. He taught for three months. But the Jews were hardened and refused to believe. They resisted and fought against the message. Therefore, Paul moved the church into the school of a philosopher, Tyrannus. There he preached about the promised Messiah, Jesus, for two years. During this time it is said that the church was instrumental in sending the Word throughout all Asia: “So all they which dwelt in Asia heard the Word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks (Acts 19:10). Timothy served as pastor of the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) as well as Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16, 18) and Tychicus (2 Timothy 4:12).
Finally, according to the testimony of the early church, the apostle John spent the last decades of his life at Ephesus, from which he likely wrote his three epistles in which he calls himself ” the elder ” (cf. 2 John 1; 3 John 1). He was no doubt leading the Ephesian church when he was arrested and exiled to Patmos. But Ephesus was most famous as the center of the worship of the goddess Artemis (Diana)—a point of great civic pride (Acts 19:27,35).
Diana was the goddess who had a misshapen head and many breasts and focused on the pleasures of the flesh. The worshipping pilgrims found their satisfaction in prostitution with a host of priestesses.
A great trade of silversmiths had developed over the years, and tourist commercialism boomed year-round. This accounts for the guild of silversmiths finding the crowds an easy mark for arousing opposition against Paul (Acts 19:24). As the years went by, the great harbor silted up more and more, and the natural harbor of Smyrna, which lay close by, became a more suitable port and began to take away more and more of the commercial traffic of Ephesus. As a result Ephesus became a dying city, living on its past reputation as a religious and philosophical center. The great city of Ephesus had a disease, sensual unrighteousness which corrupted the people.
The Lord worked special miracles by Paul in Ephesus and the church witnessed some amazing things. From all evidence, the spectacular was necessary in order to get through to the people. As always, God did everything He could to reach a people. These experiences show the great love and movement of God toward man (see Acts 19:11-20). In viewing these accounts, we must keep the background of the city in mind. Ephesus was a hot bed of Oriental magic and superstition. The people were an emotional and sensual lot, easily moved to feelings. They were a devoted people, an expressive people, a loving people, and equally a lovable people (Revelation 2:1-7, esp. Revelation 2:4).
As Paul preached and God worked miracles, many believed and the church grew mightily. The believers gave great evidence of changed lives by living for Christ right in the middle of an immoral and pagan society. On one occasion, the church demonstrated its new found faith by building a great bonfire and setting aflame all of its pagan and magical literature.