At the end of this confrontational and convicting passage, the Lord adds a comment which at first may seem puzzling and strange. "But you have this in your favor," He says. "You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." What did Jesus mean?
Today there is some controversy as to who these "Nicolaitans" were. They are mentioned again in the letter to the church at Pergamum. I believe the Lord deliberately mentions the Ephesians' abhorrence of the practices of the Nicolaitans because this is the starting point for the recovery of the Ephesian church. Their spiritual fire has not entirely gone out yet, and Jesus points out to them that a coal still glows and may yet be fanned into flame. Here, in this one important respect, some of the fire of their first love remains: they hate the practices of the Nicolaitans.
As best we can tell from Scripture and the traditions of the early church fathers, the Nicolaitans were probably a sect that combined some aspects of the Christian faith with dictatorial leadership and loose sexual practices. They believed you could be Christian while your sex life reflected the unrestrained practices of the world.
In Revelation 2:6, our Lord says, in effect, "Return to your first love but retain your abhorrence of such practices, which I also hate. That is how to fan this remaining vestige of your first love into a brilliant flame once again. Start here — and return to the place you once were."
6 Yet you have this [in your favor and to your credit]: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans [what they are doing as corrupters of the people], which I Myself also detest. AMP
When we look at this letter from the viewpoint of church history, we see that many churches began to lose their first love in the period immediately following the death of the apostles. The "Ephesian" period of church history covers the years from A.D. 70, when the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed, to about A.D. 160, the middle of the second century. During that time, there were literally hundreds of churches that drifted away from a warm, accepting, compassionate ministry to the world, and toward a hard, formal, unloving institutional religion. The church became rife with conflict and theological arguments. Formalism and ritualism were on the rise.
In many ways, the dangerous drift of that period has come to characterize many churches in our own age. Instead of a loving, awe-inspired relationship with Jesus, we see critical spirits, religious ambition, and contentiousness abounding. Human endeavor, human dogma, and human achievement have superseded a pure love relationship with the living Lord.
So our Lord's message to the Ephesian church assumes as great (if not greater) urgency in our own darkening age.
2:7 "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God."
"He who has an ear, let him hear. . . ." Do we have an ear to hear what God is saying to us? Are you and I really listening to this urgent message from the Spirit of God?
If we do, if we take the steps to remember, repent, and return to our first love, if we overcome and persevere in the original wondering love we first experienced when we gave ourselves to Jesus, then God will give us the right to eat from the Tree of Life.
Imagine it! The Tree of Life which was removed from us by sin in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, is now being offered to us again in the book of Revelation. In the concluding book of the Bible, the Word of God comes full circle.
As we shall later explore in detail, the Tree of Life appears in Revelation 22, when the new heaven and the new earth appear, with the Tree of Life in the midst of the New Jerusalem. The twelve fruits of the Tree of Life — one fruit for each month — are the food of the people of the city. You might even call it a "Fruit of the Month Club."
The Tree of Life is a symbol of our Lord Jesus. He feeds us and sustains us, and we draw our strength from Him. That is what He says to us in these verses. Feed on the Tree of Life. Listen to His words and obey them, and soon you will find that your spiritual life is flourishing. You will find yourself growing strong and resilient, even amid the pressures and struggles that come your way.
As a people, we "Ephesian" Christians are prone to drift from our first love. One hymn-writer put it this way: