Once upon a time, a beautiful lampstand stood in a great house on the Mediterranean coast. The lampstand was made of pure gold and had seven branches, each bearing an oil-filled wick lamp. The lampstand filled the house with a golden aura, and was a source of joy and wonder to all who chanced upon its extraordinary splendour.
But one day the lampstand disappeared. To this day, no one knows how such a valuable object came to be misplaced, or precisely who was responsible for this costly blunder. However, most people agree that the disappearance of the lampstand coincided with the demise of the great house.
January 25th, 1998. Ephesus, Turkey.
The elderly man alighted from the dolmuş minibus deep in thought. Buffeted by the strong westerly blowing from the Aegean Sea, the man pulled his coat tight and set out for the ruins of the once great city of Ephesus. He spent the next few hours wandering around the site, marvelling at the prowess of the ancient Greeks and Romans who built the city.
The temple of Artemis, considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world; the imposing facade of the Library of Celsus; an amphitheatre carved into the flank of Mt. Pion capable of holding 24,000 spectators; the colonnaded harbour street, leading to the chief port on the Aegean.
As the man surveyed the relics of a world that no longer existed, a question kept nagging at the periphery of his consciousness: “Is this what Jesus meant when he warned the church in Ephesus that unless they repented, he would remove their lampstand from its place?” (Rev 2.5).
The book of Revelation was written toward the end of the First Century A.D., when Ephesus was in the twilight of its cultural and economic efflorescence. Once the most important trading hub of the Mediterranean, the crossroads between East and West, second only to Rome in terms of importance and size, Ephesus was now a dying city. The harbour had silted up, and commerce was declining. The city was increasingly dependent on the trade associated with the cult of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting (Acts 19.24-27).
What of the church in Ephesus? In his message to John the revelator, Jesus commended the believers for adhering to sound doctrine and distinguishing between true and false teachers. At the same time, Jesus censured the believers for abandoning the love that they had originally shown toward one another. In their zeal for doctrinal purity, the Ephesians had become legalistic and judgmental, and had lost sight of the nature and character of God.
In conclusion, Jesus gave the church an ultimatum: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else …” The “or else” is the truly frightening part. “Or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place.” To appreciate the severity of this threat, we need to understand what the lampstand signified in the community of God’s people.
The glory and power of His presence
The menorah, or seven-branched lampstand, was one of the main pieces of furniture in the Tabernacle of Moses (Ex 25.31-37). It stood in the holy place opposite the table of showbread, in front of the altar of incense. Each branch of the lampstand was surmounted by a small cup or basin of oil. The oil-filled wicks burned continuously, symbolizing the light of God’s presence among His people.
The prophet Zechariah took the symbology of the lampstand a step further, likening the restored nation of Israel to a menorah, aflame with the Spirit of God (Zech 4.1-6). God promised Zerubbabel, the governor of Jerusalem, that the temple would be rebuilt with the help of the Holy Spirit rather than material wealth or military power.
Under the new covenant, the lampstand represents a Spirit-filled church; a place in which God dwells by His Spirit (Eph 2.21-22; 5.18). This is the church’s raison de’être. As Robert Mounce observed, “The purpose of the church is to bear the light of the divine presence in a darkened world. Failing this, its reason for existence has disappeared.” (The Book of Revelation, NICNT).
To utilise another metaphor, if salt loses its flavour, it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men (Mat 5.13). In other words, if the church ceases to fulfill its designated purpose, it forfeits its right to existence. It is good for nothing. And as a result, it will be trampled underfoot.
When Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple (the thick curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies) was torn in two from top to bottom, signifying the departure of the presence of God. As Jesus predicted, the temple was left desolate (Matt 23.38). A mere 40 years later, the temple was destroyed by the Romans — literally not one stone was left standing upon another (Matt 24.2). All that remains today is part of the retaining wall buttressing the Temple Mount.
The lesson is clear: if God leaves the house, then it is only a matter of time before someone razes it to the ground. If Jesus withdraws from the midst of his people, then it is only a matter of time before someone removes the lampstand from its place.
“If you stay on fire, I’ll keep you in the Land”
On June 20th, 1971, the American revivalist, Ruth Heflin, experienced a visitation of God. In a few moments her life was turned upside down. She knew that she would live in Jerusalem and be part of God’s plan for the city and her people. In the fall of 1972, Ruth moved to Jerusalem with a small group of young people from Ashland, Virginia, and began holding praise and worship services four nights a week on Mount Zion at St Peter en Gallicantu, a Roman Catholic church built over the traditional site of Caiaphas’ house.
And so began Mount Zion Fellowship, a prophetic praise and worship ministry that for more than three decades spanned the world and impacted dozens of nations with the glory and presence of God.
Living in Israel in the latter part of the 20th century was not easy — spiritually, politically, or economically. But against all the odds, Ruth Heflin and her team not only survived; they thrived.
Ruth once told me that not long after they had moved to Israel, God spoke to them and said, “If you stay on fire, I’ll keep you in the Land.” They did, and He did! And therein lies the secret of spiritual longevity.
The apostle Paul said it best in his letter to the church that he had founded in Ephesus: “Ever be filled and stimulated with the Holy Spirit!” (Eph 5.18).