6) The Limits of Love (2:2,6)
Does love have its limits? Are there places it won’t go, people it won’t embrace, ideas it won’t endorse? Or is true love indiscriminate, universal, and all-inclusive? These questions are clearly and decisively answered in our Lord’s words to the church in ancient Ephesus. And his perspective is anything but politically correct!
Jesus had already commended the Ephesians for their hard work and perseverance. He now turns his attention to their orthodoxy. Far from being blinded by love, they had 20/20 discernment! They hated evil. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Whatever form evil took, whether ethical or theological, they stood resolute in their opposition. No compromise. No cutting of corners. Their love was revealed in their intolerance. Unsanctified mercy had no place in the church at Ephesus. We would do well to learn from their example.
This virtue (yes, it is a virtue) is described in vv. 2 and 6. This was their most stellar achievement. No heretical concept could ever raise its ugly head in Ephesus without being decapitated by the swift stroke of biblical truth. The orthodoxy of the Ephesian church manifested itself in three ways:
First, according to v. 2a, they refused to bear with men of evil inclination. They firmly resisted those whose lives were outwardly licentious. We’re not talking here about a momentary lapse or an inadvertent sin, but hardened and unrepentant iniquity. Had there been an inkling of conviction, a mere whisper of repentance, I trust the Ephesians would have responded with encouragement and exhortation and partnered with these people to bring them to faith in Jesus.
Second, according to v. 2b, they have tried and tested those who lay claim to being apostles. “Evil men” and false “apostles” is a two-fold reference to the same group of individuals, the former a description of their disposition and the latter of their doctrine. The precise identity of these men is left unstated, but they were probably claiming to be part of the outer circle of apostles, beyond the twelve, which included James, Silas, and Barnabas (see Acts 14:14; 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19; 1 Thess. 2:6).
Paul had warned the Ephesian elders of precisely this scenario. Upon returning to Palestine after the third missionary journey, Paul’s ship put in at Miletus some 35 miles from Ephesus. He sent for the elders and spoke to them of the emergence within their midst of heretical teachers (see Acts 20:28-31). How did they respond? They listened . . . and they tested the spirits (1 John 4:1-6). For them, heresy detected was heresy denied. As Jesus said, they refused to “bear” with such men.
But note well: they rejected them only after “testing” them. This was no knee-jerk reaction. Yes, the Ephesians were strict, but they were fair. They listened, they studied, and above all, like the Bereans (cf. Acts 17:11), they tested the teaching of these men and weighed their claims on the scales of Scripture.
Third, according to v. 6, they joined Jesus in hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans (yes, Jesus does hate certain things, and so should we). Who were the Nicolaitans? Early tradition among the church fathers (most notably Irenaeus) identifies them with Nicolas, the proselyte of Antioch who was appointed one of the first seven deacons (servants) in Acts 6:5. This, however, is highly unlikely.
They are mentioned again in 2:15 in the letter to Pergamum and by implication in 2:14 and 2:20-21. The name itself may be derived from two words which mean “victory” (nikos) and “people” (laos), thus the idea of their consumption or overpowering of the people. They were evidently licentious and antinomian and advocated an unhealthy compromise with pagan society and the idolatrous culture of Ephesus.
The “teaching” of the Nicolaitans should probably be identified with the “teaching” of Balaam (2:14-15). The similarity of language also suggests that Jezebel and her followers (2:20-24) constituted a group of Nicolaitans in Thyatira. They are all said to be guilty of enticing God’s people “to eat things sacrificed to idols” and “to commit acts of immorality” (2:14-15,20). In Revelation, to “fornicate” (porneuo) and its cognates usually are metaphorical for spiritual apostasy and idol worship (14:8; 17:1,2,4,5,15,16; 18:3,9; 19:2). When these words are used literally, they are part of vice lists (9:21; 21:8; 22:15).
The Ephesian believers, however, were not duped. Nor were they so nave as to believe that Christian charity can tolerate such false teaching. Note also the contrast: they “bear” trials and tribulations for Christ’s sake (v. 3) but they cannot “bear” the company of these evil men (vv. 2,6). They endure persecution, but not perversion.
There are many lessons here, but one in particular stands out: Jesus hates moral and theological compromise. Any appeal to grace to justify sin is repugnant to our Lord. Any attempt to rationalize immorality by citing the “liberty” we have in Christ is abhorrent to him and must be to us. True Christian love is never expressed by the tolerance of wickedness, whether it be a matter of what one believes or how one behaves.
Much is being said today about the extent of the church’s engagement with culture. To what degree should we be involved? How narrowly should we draw the boundary lines for what is permissible, on the one hand, and what is off-limits, on the other? There are no easy answers, but of one thing I’m sure. If “cultural relevancy” threatens in any way or degree to undermine your single-minded, whole-hearted devotion to Christ, end it. To the extent that being “in” the world drains you of the necessary strength to resist its temptations or diminishes the purity of your relationship with Christ, turn and walk away.
Don’t expect me or anyone else to identify on your behalf those activities or ideas or events or persons from which/whom you should withdraw. If they are not explicitly noted in Scripture (or cannot be deduced by good and necessary reason), to legislate for others what is and is not permissible would be legalism. I can only make that decision for myself.
May God grant us the discernment to identify the “Nicolaitans” of our day and the moral conviction and love to be intolerant of their destructive doctrines.