A truly excellent new release—and one I've greatly enjoyed reading—was authored by my Canadian friend, biblical scholar Jeff Weima. Dr. Weima is Professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. Diligent students of Scripture will appreciate his scholarly, well-written and insightful volume, The Sermons to the Seven Churches of Revelation: A Commentary and Guide (Baker Academic, 2021).
A top New Testament scholar, preacher, and tour guide to the lands of the New Testament offers an informed commentary on this challenging portion of Scripture with an eye toward preaching the text. Jeffrey Weima explains the meaning of the seven "sermons" of Revelation 2-3, and provides sample sermons that show how these ancient messages, despite their subtle Old Testament allusions and perplexing images, are relevant for the church today. The book includes photos, maps, and charts and is of interest to preachers, students, teachers, and Bible study groups.
Jeff and I first got to know one another in 2016, traveling around coastal Turkey in a group of professors, visiting numerous biblical and other Greco-Roman sites. (Photo of us at Miletus, L.) Since then we've continued to correspond by email and connect at academic conferences and on historical tours in the eastern Mediterranean. (Like me, Jeff enjoys leading tours in the biblical world.)
Sermons or letters?
While we are accustomed to referring to the seven letters of Jesus to the churches, Jeff demonstrates that these are really sermons. But why did Jesus need to address these faith communities? I'd like to share what I learned from Jeff about Ephesus—the first of the seven sermons.
What's going on? Why is the church both censured and praised, and what does the Spirit intend to show us? If you need a quick refresher on this sermon / letter, here is the text of Rev 2:1-7. Please take a quick look.
Recall that the message is relayed from Jesus through John to the Ephesians, and the year is about 95 AD, according to most N.T. scholars—a few decades after Paul's letter to the Ephesians. If Revelation was written during the reign of Vespasian, another serious possibility, then the document was penned in the period 69-79 AD, likely 69 AD.
Jesus praises the Ephesians for their refusal to capitulate to false doctrine. They have persevered in holding to the truth, nor are they worn down or led into compromise by false teachers (Rev 2:2-3). In fact, like the Lord, they hate false practices (Rev 2:6). The Ephesians appear to be fully orthodox. (Orthodox = following correct beliefs and practices.)
As Weima points out, this assessment also matches the view in Ignatius' letter to the Ephesians (c.107 AD—see Ign. Eph. 6:2 and 9:1).
Yet they have lost their first love (Rev 2:4). Until I read Jeff's book, I taught that, like the Laodiceans (Rev 3:16), the Ephesians no longer loved God wholeheartedly. Yet, as he points out, this is not likely. Would Jesus have commended a group (Rev 2:2-3) who no longer loved him? Besides, those who've lost their love for God usually care little about correct teaching. Such people are lax, or even indifferent, to doctrinal precision.
Rather, the Ephesians are called to do the deeds they did at first (Rev 2:5). The passage is probably not about returning to daily prayer or Bible study. Although "first love" involves how we relate to God and others, "deeds" in the N.T. usually refer to loving others, just as "good deeds" usually refer to caring for the needy.
Furthermore, in John's gospel and letters there is a consistent emphasis on loving others (e.g. John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:16; 2 John 5; 3 John 6 ). This is where the Ephesians were falling short. This is the love that the congregation had lost—with potentially catastrophic consequences (Rev 2:5)! Or, in the words of commentator Jim McGuiggan, they risked becoming "straight as a gun-barrel theologically, and spiritually just as empty” (Revelation, 48). Note also that the apostle Paul had previously encouraged the same community to aim for such love (1 Tim 1:5), and Matt 24:12 may refer to the same failure.
"While its commitment to orthodoxy is a virtue for which the Ephesian church is praised by Christ, it was also apparently a vice of this congregation. What is true of people can also be true of churches: their greatest strength can paradoxically become their greatest weakness. The Ephesian church was so preoccupied with identifying wicked people, exposing false apostles, and rejecting the sinful practices of the Nicolaitans that a spirit of suspicion and mistrust permeated their fellowship, making it impossible for them to be the caring, compassionate community that they had been in the past. In short, they were a church of loveless orthodoxy" (Sermons, pp.40-41).
I find Jeff Weima's conclusion compelling, and am grateful for the way he has changed my thinking on this and other matters. Obviously, the situation of each of the seven churches is different, and there's much to learn about Smyrna, Pergamum... Be sure to get the book if you want to better appreciate these seven sermons.
How about you and me? Here are some questions for honest reflection and response.
- Am I stronger at loving others, or at labeling them?
- Do I primarily see others through a doctrinal filter (saved / lost, or belonging to the "correct" church), or as precious persons created in the image of our loving Father?
- Do I insist that others agree with all my biblical interpretations before I feel comfortable relating to them as fellow Christians?
- Am I able to distinguish between core doctrines and peripheral ones, or for me is everything black and white, all parts of the Bible "equally important"? Just how narrow is my thinking—and my circle of fellow believers?
- Does my fellowship insist that other Christian groups agree with mine exactly—otherwise we will not associate with them, befriend them, respect them, marry them, collaborate with them, read their books, invite them to speak at our conferences, or think graciously about them?
- At the judgment day, do I imagine God will reward doctrinal correctness over loving, faithful Christian living? Is a technical grasp of doctrine really more important than faith and integrity—more valuable than patience, kindness, goodness and the other fruits of the Spirit?