Read the previous post in this series here.
Chapter 2 begins the seven letters to the seven churches. Again, seven is a symbol for completeness, which suggests that the Book of Revelation is intended to be read by all of the churches in addition to being read by these seven. I believe I mentioned before that these seven cities are mentioned in the order in which they occur on a road; the idea is that the letter (i.e., the Book of Revelation) would spend some time in each city before moving on to the next.
The seven letters have a very tight structure with the same elements repeated in each letter. The letters more or less follow the covenant pattern found in the Old Testament with a preamble, prologue, stipulation, witnesses, and blessings/cursings. Additionally, each letter contains part (but only part) of the description of Jesus Christ from chapter 1 and the descriptor is always in some way relevant to the condition of the church. (More on this as we encounter it in each letter.) Further, the letters are in a chiastic structure according to the state of each church: the church mentioned in the middle (Thyatira, see 2:18) is in the worst spiritual state while the first and last churches mentioned (Ephesus and Laodicea) are in the best (relatively speaking!).
1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
Ephesus was the most important city in Asia Minor at the time.
“These things sayeth he” is a formula found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) used to introduce the words of Yahweh. So, using that phrase and then restating part of the imagery applied to Jesus Christ in chapter 1 is another effort to align Jesus Christ with the God of the Old Testament.
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
Another translation for “labour” is ‘hard work.’
This verse hints at terrible discord and apostasy in Ephesus if they have had to try and excommunicate those who claimed to be apostles but were lying (ouch).
I’m thinking that the reason the phrase “who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” was used in v1 to describe Christ is that they needed to know that He was in their midst and was aware of the difficult situation within their community. There are few feelings worse than knowing that someone is getting away with lying and I think it would have been reassuring for them to know that Christ, always in their midst, knew the truth.
3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my nameâ€™s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
Add the word “hardships” after the word “borne.” “Fainted” means “gotten weary.” Again, they would have been comforted to know that Christ was aware of what they had gone through.
4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
If verse 4 is related to verse 2, it may be that suspicion of false apostles (which was good and necessary) has led to a general suspiciousness of each other and therefore a decrease in love for each other. This is speculative, but interesting. I’d pay good money to know exactly what it means that they “left their first love.” Is it love of God (which might imply general backsliding or apostasy or sin)? Or love of man (which might be tied to the suspicion about the false apostles)? Or something else entirely?
5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
The first phrase means, roughly, remember the height from which you have fallen.
“The first works” means ‘the things that you did in the beginning.’
Removing the candlestick means that the entire church is removed from the presence of Christ (who, remember, is in the midst of the seven churches, so that’s probably another reason that imagery was used here was to set up this referent). It is interesting that that “first love” (whatever it was) is necessary for the church to retain its place in Christ’s presence.
6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
The first phrase means “this you have in your favor.” The Nicolaitans were pagan assimilationists. Let me say a little about this. The pagan cults were not only religions but also combined some elements of the modern labor union and benevolent society (not to mention butcher and funeral home). To refuse to participate in the local cult often meant being locked out of the job market, as it were. So being a pagan assimilator isn’t just about religious beliefs but also about economic and social needs. This is a very difficult thing they are being praised for doing (or, technically, not doing).
7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
The phrase “he that hath an ear, let him hear” is used by Jesus (see Mark 4:9) and seems to summon up Isaiah 6:9-10. The idea is that not everyone hearing these letters read to him/her will actually hear what they really mean. This is a hint that the Book of Revelation isn’t a straightforward text (which, if it were, would suggest that a literal reading would be best and that anyone who heard it would hear it) but rather that it will teach us in a different way–a way that will require close and careful attention.
Note that the Spirit is saying something to the “churches” (plural) even though we are in the middle of one letter to one church. That plural implies that the content of each letter is relevant in a general way to all seven (and, by symbolic suggestion, all) churches.
“Will I give to eat” can be translated as ‘will I give the right to eat.’ The promise made here–the right to eat of the tree of life–implies that the person will be returned to a prelapsarian (man, I love that word) state. Which is another way of saying that those who overcome will be returned to the presence of God.
8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;
Smyrna had a strong allegiance to Rome and a large Jewish population.
9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
The phrase “thy works” is not in the best ancient manuscripts. Another translation for “tribulation” is “affliction.”
10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
The ten days of tribulation is unlikely to be a literal reference but rather meant to evoke Daniel 1:12-15, with the connotation that the tribulation will be a time of testing and trial from which they will emerge victorious if they cling to their faith. (And, as is usually the case with OT references in Revelation, there is a subversive political tinge to the citation: note that Daniel and his friends are, in Daniel 1:12-15, violating the conventions of the conquering culture and keeping with their own. Given the large Jewish population in Smyrna, using Daniel as an example is particularly potent and comparing the evil Romans to the evil Babylonians all the moreso.)
There is some local color in this verse: the crown probably isn’t a royal crown but an athlete’s crown of laurels with reference to the games held in Smyrna. There was also a circle of buildings commonly called the “crown of Smyrna.”
11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
“Of” means “by,” so we should read “hurt by the second death.” The “not” is doubly emphatic.
Summary thought: I’ll have to hold off on most of this until all seven letters are on the table, but for now note that both letters end with promises for those who overcome and that those promises are grounded in the story of the creation/fall (v7: eating of the tree of life in the midst of the garden; v11: not being hurt by the second death).