Revelation Chapter 2 (Ephesus and Smyrna)

REVELATION 2:1-11 (Ephesus and Smyrna)

Mike: July 9, 2009

Scripture text for this study: Revelation 2:1-11

Some of the following notes are taken from commentaries by John MacArthur and David Guzik, director of Calvary Chapel Bible College in Siegen, Germany. Both MacArthur and Guzik are Dispensational Futurists (None of us in this Bible study group hold to this position, however). The following is the source information for their materials:

[1] MacArthur, Dr. John. NASB MacArthur Study Bible. World Publishing, 2006, pp. 1963-1965.
[2] Guzik, David. David Guzik’s Commentaries on the Bible: Revelation 2.

[Notes from Adam are in blue font, and represent the preterist position.]

Introduction: According to David Guzik, the letters to the 7 churches share a similar structure, and these two are no exception:

[1] An address to a particular congregation
[2] An introduction of Jesus
[3] A statement and a verdict from Jesus regarding the condition of the church
[4] A command from Jesus to the church
[5] A general exhortation to all Christians
[6] A promise of reward

A. Letter to the Church in Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7)

In the second half of the first century, Ephesus had a population of about 250,000. It was the largest and most important city in the Roman province of Asia. It was also devoted to the cult of Artemis (Diana), and its temple to the goddess Diana was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (Steve Gregg, Revelation: Four Views (A Parallel Commentary, p. 64). David Guzik writes,

Ephesus was a famous city in the ancient world, with an equally famous church. Ephesus was the city where Paul ministered for three years (Acts 19:1, Acts 10, Acts 20:31). It was the city where Aquilla and Priscilla, with Apollos ministered (Acts 18:24-28). It was the city where Paul’s close associate Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3) ministered. And according to strong and consistent church historical traditions, the Apostle John himself ministered there.

Verse 1: David Guzik suggests that “this angel may be the pastor of the church at Ephesus, or an angelic being ‘looking in’ on the workings of the church at Ephesus.” In any case, says Guzik, “the letter isn’t written just to the representative, but to the whole church.”

According to John MacArthur, the 7 stars are the messengers who represent the 7 churches. Christ holds them in his hand, which means that He controls the church and its leaders. The seven lampstands, says MacArthur, were portable, gold, and “held small oil lamps. Each lampstand represented a church from which the light of life shone. Throughout scripture 7 is the number of completeness, so these 7 lampstands are representative of all the churches.”

Verses 2-3: The text says, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance…” Jesus lets them know He knows what’s going on in their church, and it’s not a mystery to him. “There may be sin or corruption hidden in a congregation, but it’s not hidden to Jesus.” He also knows what the church is doing right. They work hard for the Lord and have patient endurance.

Jesus commended the believers in Ephesus for testing and exposing false apostles. Unfortunately, those who test in this way today are often accused of “touching the Lord’s anointed” (as if some are anointed, and others are not), having a critical/religious spirit, being negative, etc. Guzik adds, “The Ephesian church also pursued doctrinal purity.” In Acts chapter 20:29-31 Paul warned them about those who would try to draw them away from the faith. The Ephesians took this warning seriously. Guzik quotes from Charles Spurgeon:

This was grand of them: it showed a backbone of truth. I wish some of the churches of this age had a little of this holy decision about them ; for nowadays, if a man be clever, he may preach the vilest lie that was ever vomited from the mouth of hell, and it may go down with some.

Verse 4: David Guzik remarks, “Despite all the good in the Ephesian church, there is something seriously wrong. They have left- not lost– their first love. They once had a love that they don’t have anymore.” Again Guzik quotes from Spurgeon, who says,

The distinction between leaving and losing is important. Something can be lost quite by accident, but leaving is a deliberate act, though it may not happen suddenly. As well, when we lose something we don’t know where to find it, but when we leave something, we know where to find it.

Verse 5: Jesus’ command to the believers in Ephesus is three-fold: [1] Remember [2] Repent [2] Do (“the works you did at first”). David Guzik remarks, “When the Prodigal Son was in the pigpen, the first step in restoration was remembering what life was like back in his father’s home (Luke 16:17-19). This is always the first step in getting back to where we should be with the Lord.” Jesus then tells them in no uncertain terms what will take place if they fail to respond: “If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Steve Gregg remarks (p. 65),

The warning that Christ will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place (v. 5) can hardly refer to His Second Coming and almost certainly speaks of the total extinction of the church in that location. Indeed, today there is no city or church in the Turkish location that was once Ephesus. Islam has been established in this region which Paul had once thoroughly evangelized (Acts 19:10). How different might the history of that region have been had the church continued to practice its first love (Eph. 1:15)?

Steve Gregg notes that at least their faithfulness to doctrinal truth continued for some time: “In the second century, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, commended this church for its loyalty to the truth that had effectively prevented any false sect from gaining a hearing among its members” (p. 64). David Guzik notes how the removal of a congregation’s lampstand can apply today: “When their lampstand is removed, they may continue as an organization, but no longer as a true church of Jesus Christ. It will be the church of Ichabod, where the glory has departed (1 Samuel 4:21).”

Verse 6: Jesus commended the Ephesian believers for hating the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hated. David Guzik adds these details:

But who are the Nicolaitans and what were their deeds? The doctrine of the Nicolaitans is also condemned in Revelation 2:15, and in that passage is related to immorality and idolatry. Irenaeus (writing in the late second century) described what he knew of the Nicolaitans: “The Nicolaitans are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles [Acts 6:5]. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrifice to idols.” (Against Heresies, book 1, chapter 26. From the Ante Nicean Fathers Volume 1, page 352)

Steve Gregg (pp. 64-65) adds that “some modern commentators (e.g. F.F. Bruce) suggest that Nicolas was a disciple of the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus,” and that “their teaching is compared, in verse 15, with that of Balaam, who advocated sinful license in idolatrous practices and sexual immorality.” Guzik also points out that meaning can be derived from the root words which make up the word “Nicolaitans”:

Nikao-laos means literally “to conquer the people.” Based on this, some point to presumptuous claims of apostolic authority and to the heart that sets up hierarchies and separates the “clergy” from the “laity.” Perhaps the Nicolaitans fulfilled all these aspects, being both an idolatrous immorality and a presumptuous, hierarchical, “hidden mysteries” system typical of Gnosticism. The Nicolaitans, like all deceivers which come from the body of Christ, claimed “not that they were destroying Christianity, but that they were presenting an improved and modernized version of it” (Barclay).

B. Letter to the Church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11)

David Guzik notes, “The name Smyrna comes from the word myrrh, a sweet smelling perfume used in embalming dead bodies.” He adds that Smyrna was a large, beautiful city. It was a center of learning and culture, and claimed to be the “glory of Asia.” It was a rich city and a great trade city. “We also know from history that it was a city deeply committed to idolatry and the worship of the Roman Emperor,” adds Guzik.

Smyrna was the second largest city in Provincial Asia during the second half of the first century. According to Steve Gregg (p. 66), it’s the only city among the seven cities John wrote to which still exists today. It’s known today as Izmir. In the second century, Polycarp was the bishop of this church.

Verse 8: Jesus calls Himself “the first and the last, who died and came to life.” Guzik comments,

Jesus chose this title from His initial appearance to John (Revelation 1:11, 1:17) to speak of His eternal character. The First and the Last are titles that belong only to the LORD, Yahweh, according to Isaiah 41:4, 44:6, and 48:12… Jesus chose this title from His initial appearance to John (Revelation 1:18) to remind the Christians in Smyrna that they serve the risen Lord, victorious over death. Death could not hold Jesus, and it cannot hold His people.

Verse 9: Jesus assures the believers in Smyrna that He knows their tribulation and poverty. Guzik says,

According to history, Smyrna was a prosperous city. Yet the Christians there were poor. “The word used for ‘poverty’ is the word for abject poverty. They were not just poor” (Walvoord). The Christians of Smyrna knew poverty because they were robbed and fired from jobs in persecution for the gospel. Early Christians joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] goods, knowing that [they] have an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven (Hebrews 10:34).

Jesus says something very interesting to the believers in Smyrna: “I know…the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” This seems to be further evidence that Revelation was written prior to 70 AD, when Jerusalem was destroyed and Jewish persecution of Christians was effectively stunted. Steve Gregg remarks (p. 67):

As in the case of the Philadelphian church (3:9), the troublers of the church in Smyrna were those who say they are Jews and are not (v. 9)—in other words, unbelieving Jews, whom Jesus here considers to be a synagogue of Satan (c.f. John 8:44). Smyrna had the largest Jewish population of any Asian city. If this was written prior to A.D. 70, then it was a period in which the main adversaries of Christianity were the Jews. The church there was understandably harassed more than most.

Verse 10: Does the slander of the Jews in verse 9 provide the context for the “ten days” of testing, suffering, and tribulation the believers there were about to suffer? Steve Gregg believes so (p. 67):

Since the persecution is said to be instigated by the devil, and since the Jews of Smyrna were a synagogue of Satan (v. 9), it is probable that the persecution here, as elsewhere, was brought about by the local Jewish community (cf. Matt. 23:34; Acts 13:45; 14:19; 17:5, 13; I Thess. 2:14-16).


Our study of Revelation 2 continues at this next post.

All of our Revelation chapter-by-chapter studies, and any other posts related to the book of Revelation, can be found here.

4 thoughts on “Revelation Chapter 2 (Ephesus and Smyrna)

  1. Thank you for your labors!
    I am trying to put all of the pieces together; please tell me what I’m missing here: Our Lord Jesus, while on earth, gave many warnings to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem so they would know when to flee to the wilderness. His wrath was to be poured out on the unbelieving Jews, right? So what of the believers outside of Jerusalem (Smyrna, Thyatira, etc)? Why were there no warnings for these poor folk? Why, in these letters to the seven churches, does He not tell them, too, to flee to the wilderness?
    Instead, in these letters to the seven churches (it seems to me) that the believers are being told what their reward will be if they overcome, i.e. endure the horrors of Roman persecution.
    I know that I’m missing something.
    Thank you in advance!


    • Hi. Thank you for your good question. I used to assume that Nero’s persecution spread throughout the Roman Empire, including all of Asia Minor, Israel, and much more. However, as I’ve dug deeper more recently it seems that the Neronic persecution was limited to the metropolitan area of the city of Rome. I can’t find any evidence that it covered Asia Minor where the seven churches were located.

      I think the believers were urged to flee Jerusalem, not so much because the Romans were coming, but because it was to fall under the control of the Jewish Zealots. In 66 AD the Zealots slaughtered the Roman garrison in Jerusalem and also the one at Masada. From August 66 AD until April 70 AD the Romans did not have any access to Jerusalem, except for Cestius Gallus’ failed attempt to put down the rebellion there in November 66 AD. During the next 3.5 years it was actually the Zealots who controlled access into and out of Jerusalem, often slaughtering anyone who wouldn’t go along with their war agenda. That, of course, would have included the Christians. Many Christians did flee earlier on, but apparently not all of them did.

      The cities of Asia Minor were not subjected to the Zealots in this way. They also didn’t rebel against Rome, and therefore weren’t subject to an eventual Roman siege as Jerusalem was.

      Does this help? Blessings to you.


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