The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay
Chapter 18: The Letter to the Church in Ephesus
These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that
walketh in the midst of the seven golden lamps.
I know thy works, and thy toil and patience, and that thou canst not bear evil men, and
didst try them which call themselves apostles, and they are not, and didst find them
false; and thou hast patience and didst bear for my name's sake, and has not grown weary.
But I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love. Remember therefore
from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I come to thee,
and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent. But this thou hast,
that thou hatest the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the Churches.
To him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the
Paradise of God.
The message to the Church in Ephesus comes from Him "that holdest the seven
stars in His right hand, that walketh in the midst of the seven golden lamps." If
we review the openings of the other six letters, none could so appropriately be used to
the Church in Ephesus as this description. The only exordium which could for a moment be
compared in suitability with it is the opening of the Sardian letter, "he that
hath the Seven Spirits of God and the Seven Stars." The second part in that case
is almost identical with part of the Ephesian exordium, but the first part is different.
The similarity between the Ephesian and Sardian letters is not confined to the opening
address, but can be traced throughout. If Ephesus was the practical centre and leading
city of Asia at that time, though not the official capital of the Province, Sardis was the
ancient capital of Lydia, and the historical centre of the Asian cities; the tone and
spirit of the history of the two Churches had been to a certain degree analogous; and
therefore a resemblance in the letters was natural. The Author of the letters assumes much
the same character in addressing these two cities, emphasising in both cases his relation
with all the Seven Churches. The capital of a country stands for the whole, and he who
addresses the practical capital may well lay stress upon his relation to all the other
cities of the country. But the similarities and differences between these two letters can
be discussed more satisfactorily when we take up the Sardian letter and have both before
Ephesus, as in practical importance the leading city of the Province Asia, might be
said in a sense to be the centre, to be in the midst of the Seven Churches; and the Divine
figure that addresses her appropriately holds in His hand the Seven Stars, which "are
the Seven Churches." The leading city can stand for the whole Province, as the
Province can stand for the whole Church; and that was so customary and usual as to need no
explanation or justification. To the Christians, Ephesus and Asia were almost convertible
terms; Ephesus stood for Asia, Asia was Ephesus. Hence in the list of Equivalent names
compiled by some later scribe, the explanation is formally given, No. 40, "Asia"
means the city Ephesus.
As to the holding of the seven stars, Mr. Anderson Scott, in his admirable little
edition, published in the Century Bible, remarks that "in the image before the eye of
the Seer the seven stars probably appear as a chain of glittering jewels hanging from the
hand of Christ." This image suits excellently the description which we have given
already of the Seven Churches as situated on the circling road that goes forth from
Ephesus, traverses them all in succession and returns to its point of origin in the
representative city of the Province. The analogy from pagan art quoted in chapter 19 shows
readily this figure would be understood by the Asian readers.
After the initial address, the letter begins, according to the usual plan, with the
statement that the Author has full knowledge of the character and fortunes of the Church.
He knows what the Ephesians have done.
The past history of the Ephesian Church had been one of labour and achievement,
enduring and energetic. Above all it had been distinguished by its insight into the true
character of those who came to it with the appearance of Apostles. It lay on the great
highway of the world, visited by many Christian travellers, some coming to it for its own
sake, others merely on their way to a more distant destination. Especially, those who were
travelling to and from Rome for the most part passed through Ephesus: hence it was
already, or shortly afterwards became, known as the highway of the martyrs, "the
passage-way of those who are slain unto God," as Ignatius called it a few years
later, i.e., the place through which must pass those who were on their way to Rome to
amuse the urban population by their death in the amphitheatre. Occasionally, it is true,
they were conducted to Rome by a different road. Ignatius, for example, did not pass
through Ephesus, but was taken along the overland route, for some reason unknown to us.
The reason did not lie in the season of the year, for he was at Smyrna on 7th August, and
probably reached Rome on 17th October, an open time for navigation. But Ignatius knew,
though he himself was led by another route, that the ordinary path of death for Eastern
martyrs was by land to Ephesus and thence by sea to Rome.
Among the travellers there came to Ephesus, or passed through it, many who claimed to
be teachers; but the Ephesian Church tested them all; and, when they were false,
unerringly detected them and unhesitatingly rejected them.
The recital of the past history and the services of the Church occupies a much greater
proportion of the Ephesian letter than of any other of the Seven. The writer dwells upon
this topic with emphatic appreciation. After describing the special kind of work in which
the Ephesians had been most active and useful, he returns again to praise their career of
patience and steadfastness, and describes their motive--"for my name's sake"--which
enhances their merit. The best counsel, the full and sufficient standard of excellence for
the Ephesians, is to do as they did of old. Others may have to improve; but Ephesians are
urged not to fall short of their ancient standard of action.
The best commentary on this is found in the letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians, with
its profound and frank admiration, which might seem almost to be exaggerated were it not
justified by the language of St. John. The Syrian bishop wrote as one who felt that he was
honoured in associating with the envoys from the Ephesian Church and in being
"permitted by letter to bear it company, and to rejoice with it." Ignatius shows
clearly in his letter the reasons for his admiration. The characteristics which he praises
in the Ephesian Church are the same as those which St. John mentions. And yet they are so
expressed as to exclude the idea that he remembered the words of this letter and either
consciously or unconsciously used them: "I ought to be trained for the contest by you
in faith, in admonition, in endurance, in long suffering," sect. 3: "for ye all
live according to truth and no heresy hath a home among you; nay, ye do not so much as
listen to any one if he speak of ought else save concerning Jesus Christ in truth,"
sect. 6: "as indeed ye are not deceived," sect. 8: "I have learned that
certain persons passed through you from Syria, bringing evil doctrine; whom ye suffered
not to sow seed in you, for ye stopped your ears," sect. 9: "you were ever of
one mind with the Apostles in the power of Jesus Christ," sect. 11.
The ideas are the same; but they are scattered about through Ignatius' letter, and not
concentrated in one place. Moreover the words are almost entirely different. The only
important words common to those passages of Ignatius and the letter which we are studying
are "endurance," which almost forced itself on any writer, and
"Apostles"; but Ignatius speaks of the true Apostles, St. John of the false. The
idea of testing, which is prominent in St. John, is never explicitly mentioned by
Ignatius, and yet it is implied and presupposed in the passages quoted from sections 6, 8,
9. But he was interested only in the result, the successful championing of truth, whereas
St. John was necessarily interested quite as much in the way by which the Ephesians
attained the result.
The probability, then, is that Ignatius was not familiar with the Ephesian letter of
St. John. He could hardly have kept so remote from the expression of this letter, if it
had been clear and fresh in his memory. Hence his testimony may be taken as entirely
independent of the Revelation, and as showing that the reputation of Ephesus in the
Christian world about the beginning of the second century had not grown weaker or less
brilliant in the short interval since St. John wrote.
But, while nothing is required of the Ephesians except that they should continue to
show their old character, yet a return to their earlier spirit was urgently necessary. The
fault of the Ephesian Church was that it no longer showed the same spirit: the intense
enthusiasm which characterised the young Church had grown cooler with advancing age. That
was the serious danger that lay before them; and it is the common experience in every
reform movement, in every religion that spreads itself by proselytising. The history of
Mohammedanism shows it on a large scale. No religion has ever exercised a more rapid and
almost magical influence over barbarous races than Islam has often done, elevating them at
once to a distinctly higher level of spiritual and intellectual life than they had been
capable of even understanding before. But in the case of almost every Mohammedanised race,
after the first burst of enthusiastic religion, under the immediate stimulus of the great
moral ideas that Mohammed taught, has been exhausted, its subsequent history presents a
spectacle of stagnation and retrogression.
The problem in this and in every other such case is how to find any means of exercising
a continuous stimulus, which shall maintain the first enthusiasm. Something is needed, and
the writer of this letter perhaps was thinking of some such stimulus in the words that
follow, containing a threat as to what shall be done to Ephesus if it continues to
degenerate, and fails to reinvigorate its former earnest enthusiasm. But a less serious
penalty is threatened in this case than in some of the other letters--not destruction, nor
rejection, not even the extirpation of the weak or erring portion of the Church, but only
"I come in displeasure at thee, and will move thy lamp, the Church, out of its
Some commentators regard the threat as equivalent to a decree of destruction, and point
to the fact that the site is a desert and the Church extinct as a proof that the threat
has been fulfilled. But it seems impossible to accept this view. It is wrong method to
disregard the plain meaning, which is not destruction but change; and equally so to appeal
to present facts as proving that destruction must have been meant by this figurative
Equally unsatisfactory is another interpretation, that Ephesus shall be degraded from
its place of honour, which implies an unconscious assumption that Ephesus already occupied
its later position of metropolitan authority in the Asian Church. As yet Ephesus had no
principate in the Church, except what it derived from its own character and conduct: while
its character continued, its influence must continue; if its character degenerated, its
influence must disappear. Ephesus has always remained the titular head of the Asian
Church; and the Bishop of Ephesus still bears that dignity, though he no longer resides at
Ephesus, but at Magnesia ad Sipylum. For many centuries, however, Smyrna has been
in practice a much more important See than Ephesus.
The natural meaning must be taken. The threat is so expressed that it must be
understood of a change in local position: "I will move thy Church out of its place."
Surely in this milder denunciation we may see a proof that the evil in Ephesus was
curable. The loss of enthusiasm which affected that Church was different in kind from the
lukewarmness that affected Laodicea, and should be treated in a different way. The
half-heartedness of the Laodiceans was deadly, and those who were so affected were
hopeless, and should be irrevocably and inexorably rejected. But the cooling of the first
Ephesian enthusiasm was a failing that lies in human nature. The failing can be corrected,
the enthusiasm may be revived; and, if the Ephesians cannot revive it among themselves by
their own strength, their Church shall be moved out of its place.
The interpretation of Grotius comes near the truth: "I will cause thy population
to flee away to another place." We do not know whether the form in which he expresses
his interpretation is due to the belief current in the country that the Christian people
of Ephesus fled to the mountains and settled in a village four hours distant, called
Kirkindje, which their descendants still consider to be the representative of the ancient
Ephesus. But if Grotius had that fact in view, his interpretation does not quite hit the
mark. The writer of the Seven Letters was not thinking of an arbitrary fact of that kind,
which might befall any city, and was in no way characteristic of the real deep-seated
nature of one city more than of another. He had his eye fixed on the broad permanent
character of Ephesian scenery and surroundings, and his thought moved in accord with the
nature of the locality, and expressed itself in a form that applied to Ephesus and to no
other of the Seven Churches.
There is one characteristic that belongs to Ephesus, distinctive and unique among the
cities of the Seven Churches: it is change. In most ancient sites one is struck by the
immutability of nature and the mutability of all human additions to nature. In Ephesus it
is the shifting character of the natural conditions on which the city depends for
prosperity that strikes every careful observer and every student either of history or of
nature. The scenery and the site have varied from century to century. Where there was
water there is now land: what was a populated city in one period ceased to be so in
another, and has again become the centre of life for the valley: where at one time there
was only bare hillside or the gardens of a city some miles distant, at another time there
was a vast city crowded with inhabitants, and this has again relapsed into its earlier
condition: the harbour in which St. John and St. Paul landed has become a mere marsh, and
the theatre where the excited crowd met and shouted to Diana, desolate and ruinous as it
is, has been more permanent than the harbour. The relation of sea and land has changed in
quite unusual fashion: the broad level valley was once a great inlet of the sea, at the
head of which was the oldest Ephesus, beside the Temple of the Goddess, near where the
modern village stands. But the sea receded and the land emerged from it. The city followed
the sea, and changed from place to place to maintain its importance as the only harbour of
All those facts were familiar to the Ephesians; they are recorded for us by Strabo,
Pliny, and Herodotus, but Ephesian belief and record are the foundation for the statements
of those writers. A threat of removing the Church from its place would be inevitably
understood by the Ephesians as a denunciation of another change in the site of the city,
and must have been so intended by the writer. Ephesus and its Church should be taken up,
and moved away to a new spot, where it might begin afresh on a new career with a better
spirit. But it would be still Ephesus, as it had always hitherto been amid all changes.
Such was the meaning that the Ephesians must have taken from the letter; but no other
of the Seven Cities would have found those words so clear and significant. Others would
have wondered what they might mean, as the commentators are still wondering and debating.
To the Ephesians the words would seem natural and plain.
But after this threat the letter returns to the dominant note. The Ephesian Church was
still, as it had been from the beginning, guarding the way, testing all new teachers, and
rejecting with sure judgment the unworthy. In the question which beyond all others seemed
to the writer the critical problem of the day the Ephesians agreed with him, and hated the
works of the Nicolaitans. In two other letters that party in the early Church is more
fully described. In the Ephesian letter the Nicolaitans are only named.
The promise contained in the perorations of the Seven Letters is different in every
case, and is evidently adapted in each instance to suit the general tone of the letter and
the character and needs of the city. To the Ephesian who overcometh, the promise is that
he shall eat of the tree of life, which is in the Garden of God. Life is promised both to
Smyrna and to Ephesus; yet how differently is it expressed in the two cases. Smyrna must
suffer, and would be faithful unto death, but it shall not be hurt of the second death.
Ephesus had been falling from its original high level of enthusiasm; it needed to be
quickened and reinvigorated, and none of the promises made to the other Churches would
suit its need; but the fruit of the tree of life is the infallible cure, the tree whose
very leaves were for the healing of the nations, the tree in which every true Christian
acquires a right of participation (22:2,14). The expression is, of course, symbolical; and
its real meaning can hardly be specified. It would be vain to ask what St. John had
precisely in his mind; but it might be a more hopeful task to inquire what meaning the
Asian readers would take from the phrase. It is a Jewish expression; but the Asian readers
would take it in the way in which many Jewish ideas seem to have become efficacious in the
Province, viz., in a sort of syncretism of Jewish and native Asian thought.
Every image or idea in this letter finds a parallel or an illustration in Jewish
thought and literature. Yet it cannot be said with truth that the letter is exclusively
Jewish in tone. There is nothing in it which would seem strange or foreign to the Hellenic
or Hellenised people for whom the book was in the first instance written. Even the tree of
life carried no un-Hellenic connotation to Ephesian readers. The tree was as significant a
symbol of life-giving Divine power to the Asian Greeks as to the Jews, though in a
different way. Trees had been worshipped as the home of the Divine nature and power from
time immemorial, and were still so worshipped, in Asia Minor as in the ancient world
generally. On some sacred tree the prosperity and safety of a family or tribe or city was
often believed to depend. When the sacred olive-tree on the Acropolis of Athens put forth
a new shoot after the city had been burned by the Persians, the people knew that the
safety of the State was assured. The belief was widely entertained that the life of a man
was connected with some tree, and returned into that tree when he died. The tree which
grew on a grave was often thought to be penetrated with the spirit and life of the buried
man; and an old Athenian law punished with death any one that had cut a holm-oak growing
in a sepulchral ground, i.e. heroon. Sacred trees are introduced in Figure 4chapter 6, Figure 23chapter 21 and Figure 14Achapter 17.
It will probably seem to many persons an unworthy and even irrational procedure to
trace any connection between the superstitious veneration of sacred trees and the
symbolism of St. John. But it was shown in chapter 13 that although Ignatius abhorred
paganism, and though the memory of his pagan days caused a lasting sense of shame in his
mind, yet he could compare the life of a Christian congregation to the procession at a
pagan festival, and could use symbolism derived from the pagan mysteries to shadow forth
the deepest thoughts of Christianity. In all those cases the same process takes place: the
religious ideas of the pagans are renovated in a Christian form, ennobled and
spiritualised. The tree of life in the Revelation was in the mind of the Ephesians a
Christianisation of the sacred tree in the pagan religion and folklore: it was a symbolic
expression which was full of meaning to the Asian Christians, because to them the tree had
always been the seat of Divine life and the intermediary between Divine and human nature.
The problem which was constantly present to the ancient mind in thinking of the relation
of man to God appears here: how can the gulf that divides human nature from the Divine
nature be bridged over? how can God come into effective relation to man? In the holy tree
the Divine life is bringing itself closer to man. He who can eat of the tree of life is
feeding on the Divine power and nature, is strengthening himself with the body and the
blood of Christ. The idea was full of power to the Asian readers.
But to us the "tree of life" carries in itself little meaning. It seems to us
at first little more than a metaphor in this passage, and in Revelation 22 it appears to
us to be a mere detail in a rather fanciful and highly poetical allegory. A considerable
effort is needed before we can even begin dimly to appreciate the power which this idea
had in the minds of Ephesian readers: we have to recreate the thoughts and mind of that
time, before we can understand their conception of the "tree of life."
Accordingly, although the "tree of life" is different from any expression
that occurs, so far as known, in Greek literature, it contains nothing that would seem
strange or exotic to Greeks or Asians. And every other idea in the letter would seem
equally natural, and would appeal to equally familiar beliefs and habits of life. While we
need not doubt that the writer took the "tree of life" from his own Jewish
sphere of thought, yet he certainly avoids in all these letters anything that is
distinctly anti-Hellenic in expression. So far as the Seven Letters are concerned, he is
in advance of, not in hostility to, the best side of Hellenic thought and education.
Thus ends the letter. It is a distinctly laudatory one, when it is examined phrase by
phrase: it shows admiration and full appreciation of a great career and a noble history.
Yet it does not leave a pleasant impression of the Ephesian Church; and there is a lack of
cordial and sympathetic spirit in it. The writer seems not to have loved the Ephesians as
he did the Smyrnaeans and Philadelphians. He respected and esteemed them. He felt that
they possessed every great quality except a loving enthusiasm. But when, in order to
finish with a word of praise, he seeks for some definite laudable fact in their conduct at
the present moment, the one thing which he finds to say is that they hated those whom he
hated. Their disapproval and their hatred were correctly apportioned: in sympathy and love
they were deficient. A common hatred is a poor and ephemeral ground of unanimity.
The Ephesians stand before us in the pathway of the world, at the door by which the
West visited the East, and from which the East looked out upon the West, as a dignified
people worthy of their great position, who had lived through a noble history in the past,
and were on the whole not unworthy of it in the present, who maintained their high
tradition--and yet one thing was lacking, the power of loving and of making themselves