In chapters 2 and 3, John's vision is a communique from the heavenlies to seven Messianic assemblies. This can be interpreted as words from the Groom (Tipheret, the heavenly Yeshua) to His bride (Malkut), the community of Israel in exile, with the Shekinah among them. The bride is to be chaste and the criteria for determining this is her following the Torah (i.e., Ephesians 5:26-27).
In this part of the study (2:1-7), we devote a considerable amount of attention to the first of the seven assemblies, the one at Ephesus. There are a number of themes discussed in this complex section, including:
The Seven Assemblies
As we will see in the next two chapters, Yeshua has separate messages for seven congregations. These seven messages are sent through seven angelic messengers. This can be interpreted to mean that the messages have a more universal significance, as the number "seven" is often used in Hebrew literature to be an incomplete structure that represents a greater number or deeper meaning.1
For example, the following verse from the Midrash Rabbah (concerning the Mount Sinai experience in the book of Exodus), shows that the Lord's voice was actually seven voices, which in turn went to seven heavenly messengers, or "archangels" (similar to what we have in this chapter of Revelation). The message then goes to the "the seventy nations" of the world. This is similar to what is seen in Acts, chapter 2.
This teaching does not limit God to "only" having seven voices. The number seven acts as a representation:
These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly... with a great voice, and it went on no more (Deut.V, 19). R. Johanan said: It was one voice that divided itself into seven voices, and these into seventy languages. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: [It was the voice] from which all the subsequent prophets received their prophecy. The Sages said: It had no echo. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: How is it possible to say, The voice of the Lord is with power (Ps. XXIX, 4)? Do we not know that no creature can withstand the voice of an angel, as it says, His body also was like the beryl... and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude (Dan.X, 6). Was it then necessary for the Holy One, blessed be He, of whom it says, Do not I fill heaven and earth? (Jer. XXIII, 24) to speak with power? The meaning, however, of The voice of the Lord is with power is that it was with the power of all voices.
The number seven is also associated with the number of people called to read from the Torah on Shabbat, they being representative of the total body. The people who read, represent the "seven voices of God":
The celestial holiness is thus diffused through the whole, especially on the day of Sabbath. On that day seven persons are called up to take part in the public reading of the Law, corresponding to the seven voices.
The Zohar denotes a similar concept, referring to "seven zones of earth," each having ten divisions within it, (thus creating the "seventy nations"), presided over by seventy angels.2
The number "seven" as a representation of a larger body (in similar fashion to these seven assemblies) can also be seen in the Talmud, which speaks of "seven types of Pharisees," (not all of them being good, as is also true of these seven Messianic assemblies):
Character of the Seven Assemblies
These seven messianic assemblies in chapters 2 and 3 (erroneously called "churches" - see previous comments in notes to 1:1-6), would likely have been congregations started by some of the original disciples. The pattern followed would have been similar to that we see of Paul's, going first to the Jews at the city's synagogue (as well as gentiles who were pursuing the faith of Israel). Our Romans study deals with this topic in detail.
Typically, the disciples encountered a combination of acceptance and rejection of the message of Messiah Yeshua, from the local Jews, whereupon the message would then go out to the gentiles. As the congregations in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are a fair distance from Jerusalem, they were probably a mix of Jewish and gentile believers, some quite possibly with a high percentage of gentiles.
With the foresight of what is written in chapters 4-20 (having to do with the seven year Tribulation of the end times), it can be suggested that the "advice" being dispensed to the seven congregations is meant not only for them, but for a future time period. As ,mentioned earlier, this is similar to the last words of Moses, who addressed the people before him, but spoke of them as being in the last days.
Salutations, Rebukes, Praises and Promises
Each of the seven assemblies receives some combination of either; salutation, rebuke, praise or promise. As might be expected, there are reasons for these distinctions made between these. We will explore these as we examine each individual assembly.
There is an important concept to introduce here (that will be elaborated upon as we move forward), that being, midah k'neged midah. (Literally "measure for measure" - e.g., the [God's] punishment is properly suited to the "crime.") As these congregations are guilty of varying offenses, we can expect to see different types of warnings and punishments.
As stated in Talmud:
1 To the messenger of the Ephesian assembly write:
This is the only one of the seven assemblies that we have additional reference to in Scripture, namely the book of Ephesians. Naturally, this is a good place to look for help in interpreting some of what Yeshua is saying here in Revelation, especially with regard to the rebuke of verses 4 and 5.
2 These things saith he who is holding the seven stars in his right hand, who is walking in the midst of the seven lamp-stands -- the golden
Yeshua refers to Himself specifically in the same terms seen earlier in Revelation 1:12-19. In that previous section, the one with the seven stars in the midst of the seven menorahs, was also the one coming in harsh judgment for those in opposition to God. His description of being in the midst of the Menorahs, reinforces the theme of groom and bride, as the Menorah is symbolic of the Shekinah and faithful remnant of Israel. This detail will be important as we analyze this section.
4 But I
have against thee: That thy first love thou didst leave!
The warning against the assembly at Ephesus is a very stern one -- removal of their menorah from its place. This would be equivalent to the punishment of being "cut off" from the assembly of Israel, (known as kareth, with the implication of premature death), as found in the Torah.
As the Shekinah resides with the assembly of Israel (see previous studies on the Shekinah), removal of the menorah is equivalent to separation from the Shekinah, and possibly not entering the eternal Sabbath (i.e., Hebrews 4:2).
Three questions we will attempt to answer, regarding the Ephesian congregation, are:
As mentioned, the book of Ephesians gives us some insight, and it is to there that we turn to help interpret these words of Yeshua in this chapter of Revelation. In chapter 1 of Ephesians, Paul speaks of both; a) a mystery, and b) Yeshua gathering all things in heaven and earth together. This verse is in the midst of 1:3-14, which is in the form of a Hebrew b'rakah (benediction)2.
Recall that in the salutation to the Ephesians assembly (Revelation 2:1), Yeshua speaks of Himself as the one with the stars and lamp-stands. The stars are a representation of the heavens and that which is in heaven (angelic beings). The lampstand (menorah) represents the Shekinah and those faithful to God ("the Bride"), as Paul alludes to in Ephesians 1:10 above.
As mentioned in our background files, the various heavenly and earthly realms are connected to the letters of the 4-letter name of God (YHVH) and the one who will unify this name at the end of the age. This "mystery" that Paul speaks of, is hidden in the various kabbalistic texts that we have previously cited, and is identified as either; the angel Bo'el, Metatron or Messiah.
Paul continues to explain that this salvation is "unto the praise (honor) of His glory." Both terms, honor (i.e., the "honorable name" of God) and "His glory," are associated with the Shekinah (the "honorable name of God" and "glory of God"), as discussed earlier in this study.
The next clues that we find regarding our "three questions," are in chapter 2 of Ephesians:
Paul is addressing a very gentile congregation at Ephesus, (or at least the gentile faction of the congregation). He tells them that they were among those who walked according to the world, and were not in the faith of Israel and its Torah (covenants of promise). He reminds them that they were once strangers to this. Conversely, those gentiles who now came to God through Yeshua are not part of some new (i.e., Christian) faith, but are entering (as gentiles), into the existing faith of Israel and its Torah. God and His Torah did not change with the coming of Yeshua.
Paul continues to remind the gentiles at Ephesus that their salvation and relationship to God is founded upon the faith of Israel -- its Torah, as well as its Hebrew prophets, Hebrew Messiah and Hebrew people. As we will discuss shortly, it is important to recall that the Shekinah resides ("in exile") with the children of Israel in exile from the Land. Paul identifies the faith community they were once alien to (2:12 above), as being the household of God:
Part of the "mystery" that Paul was revealing in Ephesians was that the gentiles could become part of the same existing body ("fellow heirs" with the Jews within the faith of Israel that God had already established). Note Paul does not preach a "new body" for gentiles, but they are now of the same body, that being the faith community of Israel with its Torah, etc:
Paul gave thanks that he could teach these gentiles about their salvation within the faith of Israel, as the "unsearchable riches of Messiah" that he speaks of are found in the teachings of this existing faith:
The next key verse is Ephesians 3:17 (below). Paul's prayer for the Ephesian gentile's faith, speaks to their "being rooted and grounded in love." This "love" is not baseless emotionalism, but is established in a view of their faith which is "rooted and grounded" in the Torah, prophets, Messiah and Hebrew people, as he already mentioned earlier in his letter (2:19-22 above):
Paul called upon these gentiles at Ephesus to walk as they were called:
This "walk" (halakha), of the Ephesians is within the ONE FAITH that they were now part of (i.e., Ephesians 2:11-13), which is the faith of Israel as given in the Torah:
Note the elements that Paul brings forth from the above verses:
Yeshua Himself made clear that there is one faith, based in the Torah of Israel, and that this did not change to any degree:
Paul, in his Romans letter, made clear that faith in Yeshua did not do away with the Torah (the basis of the faith of Israel), but confirmed it:
This faith of Israel, which the Ephesian gentiles were now part of, is what they were to hold to. This was to be based solidly in Torah so that they would not be "tossed to and from" in any non-Torah doctrine. This is what Paul wanted them to be aware of:
By examining the letter of Ephesians, it can be shown that although those in the assembly at Ephesus were heeding many of God's commandments (verses 2 and 3), their first love, made up of the understanding that they as gentiles were welcomed into a relationship with God, that was rooted in the Hebrew faith of Israel, had escaped them.
In other words, what we have at Ephesus is the early stage of a non-Hebrew (and eventually anti-Torah) faith, much like what we see today in Christianity, which presents itself as the superior replacement to the faith of Israel.
For example, in an appendix to a popular version of the King James Bible, regarding the book of Hebrews, it says:
The same commentary regarding the book of Galatians states:
(See our article, Not Subject to the Law of God? in the YashaNet library, for more on the subject of Christianity and its view of Torah.)
Yeshua's warning of "being cut off," is similar to what Paul warned another gentile group in Rome concerning their relationship to Israel:
(See our Romans study for more about gentile's relationship to Torah.)
Returning to our three questions:
What is their "first love?" - The love of their being included in the faith of Israel, with its Torah, prophets, Messiah, people and Shekinah.
Were did they fall from? They had been raised up out of a pagan gentile existence into the Hebrew faith of Israel (Eph. 2:11-13), and thus into a relationship with the God of Israel, via the Ruach haKodesh (i.e., Shekinah - see notes below on midah k'neged midah).
What are their "first works?" Recognition and appreciation for the root of their faith, based on the covenant of Torah (Ephesians 2:11-13).
Yeshua's threat to remove the congregation from its place (or conversely, to remove the Shekinah from them), is directed toward the entire assembly, possibly indicating a prevalent attitude. The Zohar indicates that the groom, the Holy One blessed be He (Tipheret/Messiah), has the authority to separate the Shekinah from the people, though His desire is for Her (called the "Matrona," His bride) to abode with the people:
A HISTORICAL NOTE
What is of particular historical significance is the punishment these predominantly gentile communities of believers received when they abandoned their "first love" and developed the various branches of early gentile Christianity. Quite a number of gentile Christian sects evolved in the early centuries. As early as the year 187, the Christian Bishop Iraneus counted twenty different varieties of Christianity. By the year 384, Epiphanius counted eighty.5 (Thus falling into the trap Paul warned about in Ephesians 4:14.)
Because they no longer considered themselves part of Judaism, these Christian groups opened themselves up to "legal persecution" from the Roman empire. This occured because new religions were not tolerated by the Romans. Rome, going back to the original Caesar, had given Judaism the right to exist as a collegia, within the Empire, due to it being an ancient religion, predating the Romans.6
As early as the beginning of the second century, we see legal cases against "Christians," such as one documented around the year 112, by Pliny the Younger, Roman governer of Bithynia (in modern-day Turkey). Pliny noted that those identifying themeselves as "Christians" were distinguishing themselves from Judaism, thus giving him the legal right to execute them for nothing more than being part of an illegal group.7
Had these gentiles remained faithful to the covenants of Israel, they would have at least avoided legal prosecution on the part of the Romans. Historically, they were therefore not persecuted by the Roman government, for the "sake of the Messiah," but for walking away from Him, as he warns here in His comments to the assembly at Ephesus, and as Paul warned those in Roman chapter 11.
One can only speculate what would have happened to Torah-based faith in Yeshua over the centuries if this had not happened.
See also our Romans Study Background Notes for additional historical information, as well as the article, Not Subject to the Law of God? in the YashaNet library.Midah K'neged Midah
Earlier, we mentioned the concept of midah k'neged midah, that of "measured punishment." An example of this from the Torah would be where the Egyptians who killed the firstborn of Israel by drowning them, found their own firstborn slain, and later themselves were drowned when the seas closed up on them in their pursuit of departing Israel. Also, the evil prophetess Jezebel had Naboth killed. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) states that the dogs licked the blood of Naboth. Jezebel's body was later consumed by dogs.
The offense of the Ephesians, in the text of Revelation, seems at first glance to not warrant such a stern punishment (Yeshua "cutting them off"). After all, they simply have "lost their first love." Why is this so serious? Why this specific punishment? Why does the punishment come directly from Yeshua (i.e., Tipheret)?
As shown in our background material, the tenth and last of the Sephirot is Malkut, also called Kingdom. In Kabbalistic teachings, this Sephirot is associated with the Shekinah, who (separated from the rest of of the Sephirot, the "Godhead"), abides among the people of God here on earth. The Shekinah (with the faithful remnant of Israel and the gentiles who join them), is also viewed as the "bride" that will one day be united with Tipheret, the groom. On that day, the Lord's Name (i.e., all the Sephirot) will be One (Zechariah 14:9).
There is a kabbalistic principle that although there are many sins against God, (i.e., against the different Sephirot), the sin against the bride (Malkut/Shekinah), is especially grievous to Tipheret, as such sin serves to separate Him (the groom) from His bride. Such separation causes "disunity" to the Godhead, which is contrary to God's statements of His unity (i.e., Deuteronomy 6:4, Zechariah 14:9). Such sin is contrary to what happens when people obey God, which serves to unite the bride to the groom (i.e., usher in the Kingdom of heaven, and unify the Name of God).
There is a close relationship between the Shekinah and the Ruach haKodesh, the Holy Spirit. Both represent the "presence of God" in this physical world, and both are "given" to us by Tipheret/Yeshua. (e.g. John 15:26, 16:7, and the quotation from Soncino Zohar, Shemoth, Section 2, Page 133b, above.)
The following section of the Zohar shows an affinity between the Spirit stemming from the Sephirah of Binah/Understanding (the "mother" - see previous section on Da'at and the Ruach haKodesh), and the Spirit stemming from Malkut/Kingdom (the "daughter"). The theme of "anguish of Spirit" can be seen here, and is similar to that of "quenching the spirit" (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and is given as the reason the children of Israel could not "hearken unto Moses." Also interesting is the comment that the Spirit from Binah was not in manifestation at that time:
Based on the above, a sin against the Shekinah may also be considered as a sin against the Ruach haKodesh and vice-versa. Kabbalistic literature refers to Binah as the "upper mother" and to Malkut as the "lower mother," establishing a further connection between the two.Kareth
As mentioned earlier, the idea of being "cut off" (kareth), was comparable to a premature death sentence. Let us review several instances where sin resulting in some type of "premature" death is mentioned in Scripture:
What do these have in common?
Paul made allusion to this relationship in one of his letters:
Thus, all of the sins above were in some form, "sins against the Bride." Bear in mind Yeshua's stern statement concerning blaspheming the Ruach haKodesh (i.e., Shekinah):
Note that Yeshua's strong words in Matthew 12:31 come on the heels of the Pharisees condemnation of His actions on the Sabbath, and His offering of the Kingdom (Malkut). Yeshua accused them of, "shutting up the Kingdom against men" (Matthew 23:13). Thus, they too were "sinning against the bride" (bride = Shekinah = kingdom), and He condemned them as a wicked generation.
With this understanding, we can begin to see why the sin of the Ephesians grieves Yeshua so much. In turning against their "first love" they turn against their foundation, rooted in the people of Israel, among whom the Shekinah resides. In effect, they turn against His beloved bride.
By "cutting off" this relationship to Israel, they cut the Shekinah away from Tipheret (and therefore the rest of the Godhead). Thus, by the principle of midah k'neged midah, the penalty for "cutting off" the bride from the groom, is for they themselves to be "cut off" -- by the groom Himself. As they interrupted the "divine flow of life" that passes through Malkut/Shekinah to Israel and the world, their lives will similarly be "interrupted."
Israel itself faces judgment when it does not maintain a proper relationship with the Shekinah:
Soncino Zohar, Vayikra, Section 3, Page 75a - R. Simeon here quoted the verse: "For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp to deliver thee", etc. (Deut. XXIII, 14). This, he said, refers to the Shekinah, which is in the midst of Israel, and especially in the captivity, to protect them continually and on all sides from all other peoples, that they should not destroy them. For so it has been taught, that the enemies of Israel have no power over them until Israel weaken the might of the Shekinah in face of the Chieftains who are appointed over the other nations. Then only the latter have power over them and enact cruel decrees against them. But when they return in repentance to her she breaks the power of all those Chieftains and of the enemies of Israel and avenges them on all. Hence "thy camp shall be holy": a man must not defile himself by sin and transgress the commands of the Law. We have learnt that there are two hundred and forty-eight members in the human body, and all are defiled when he is defiled, that is, when he is minded to be defiled. We have learnt that for three things Israel are kept in captivity: because they pay scant respect to the Shekinah in their exile, because they turn their faces away from the Shekinah, and because they defile themselves in the presence of the Shekinah. 6 thou dost hate the works of the Nicolaitans ...
Neither Scripture or historical documents to date, give us a certain answer as to what the sect of Nicolaitans was involved with, that Yeshua would hate so much. One possibility is found in verses 14 and 15 of this chapter:
Speaking to the assembly at Pergamos, Yeshua says:
It may be that the sin of the Nicolaitans is that which is mentioned just before the next reference to them, as seen in verse 14. If this is the case, the sin is related to that of Balak and Balaam with the sons of Israel, as found in the book of Numbers, chapters 22-24. This involved the women of Moab seducing the men of Israel, which included acts of idolatry as part of their "offer."
Another possible explanation to the sin of the Nicolaitans has to do with the establishment of a separate "clergy" that had "special status" with God, over and above the common people (laity). This is found in the two Greek words that are combine to make the word Nicolaitin, those being; nikos, meaning "to conquer" (Strong's #3534) and laos, meaning "people" (Strong's #2992).
Some commentators have suggested that the Nicolaitans were "forerunners" of what would later be established in the Christian Church -- that being a priesthood that the rest of the people would have to go through for various aspects of their relationship with God (i.e., confession of sins, Bible interpretation, "sacraments," "last rites," etc.)
There may be some merit to this idea, as this concept of "conquering the people," in terms of dominating them with a hierarchy of clergy with special powers and privileges, can be traced to the sect of the Saducees. This group, which controlled the affairs of the Temple in Yeshua's day, taught that only the priests were able to properly interpret Torah, expiate sin and petition God.9
It is possible that, just as there were Pharisees who came to faith in Yeshua and brought with them some incorrect doctrine (i.e., Acts 15), there were also Saducees who did the same, and these formed the Nicolaitans and their doctrines found here in Revelation.7 He who is having an ear -- let him hear what the Spirit saith to the assemblies: To him who is overcoming -- I will give to him to eat of the tree of life that is in the midst of the paradise of God.
Note that the promise is made to the "assemblies," which is plural (as with each of the seven messages). Again, this would indicate the more "universal tone" of these praises and chastisements. Although a particular assembly may be addressed (as a specific composite entity), Yeshua's words can apply to all the "types" of assemblies, and to any individual within any type of assembly. (This could be compared to the various "assemblies" [schools] of the Pharisees, such as those of Hillel and Shammai, and the individual talmidim within each of these schools -- i.e, the "seven types of Pharisees.")
1. The Bahir: Translation, Introduction and Commentary, Aryeh Kaplan, Samuel Weiser, Inc., York Beach Maine, 1979, p.118
2. A hierarchy of ten angels serving under one, also applies to the disobedient angels, as is seen in Enoch 6:6-8.
2. Ketubah Netzarim: The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians,Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptural Research Institute, 1997, www.nazarene.net3. Introductions and Reading Guide, King James Bible, 1962, Zondervan Publishing house, p. 9. 4. ibid. p.10 5. Caesar and Christ, Will Durant, 1944, Simon and Schuster, New York, p. 616. 6. The Mystery of Romans, Mark Nanos, 1996, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, pp. 64-68. 7. PBS video transcript, From Jesus to Christ - http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/ 8. Ramban: Philosopher and Kabbalist, Chayim J. Henoch, Jason Aronson, Inc., London 1998, pp 211-213. 9. The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism, David S. Ariel, Jason Aronson, London, 1988, p.52.
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