I once read an article that gave some advice on how to give constructive criticism. The article advised that when you give feedback you should not use, “This was good, BUT you did this wrong” statements. Therefore, one should not say to a young pianist, “You played that piece of music very well, but it was too fast.” The word “but” used in the same sentence effectively cancels out the previous positive statement. A better approach is to make two completely distinct statements: “You played the piano beautifully; you did a good job. Maybe next time, you may want to play it just a bit slower.” Thus, both positive and negative points are given.
In the messages Jesus brings to the seven churches, we find a similar pattern. In four of the seven churches, Jesus has something positive and something negative to say to the churches. The message to the church in Ephesus is like this. They were commended for their hard work and orthodoxy but were warned regarding their lack of love. Let’s read Revelation 2:1-7.
Ephesus was a very large and active harbor city in the ancient world that was located on three major trading routes; this made Ephesus a very prosperous city. There was also a very strong pagan religious atmosphere in Ephesus. While its official religion was Emperor worship, there was also a very large cult which worshiped the goddess Artimus, also called Diana. Acts 19 tells of a time when Paul’s preaching caused an uproar with a crowd shouting, “Great is Diana, the god of the Ephesians.”
Nonetheless, the Christian church was also very well established. Paul had spent a fair amount of time there. The Apostle John himself had lived there for some time near the end of his life.
The message is addressed to the angel of the church in Ephesus. The “angel” meant the prevailing spirit or attitude found within the people of the church. The letter comes from Christ who describes himself in two ways. He who holds seven stars, which are symbols for the seven churches, in his right hand showing that Christ has full authority over them. And he is again described as walking among the lampstands.
He continues, “I have heard Christians say, ‘We must take time for God.’ Or, ‘I get up every morning at six to pray and have fellowship with God.’ Or, ‘Between three and four is my throne time!’ God does preside from the great throne before the glassy sea and it is good to have special times focused on God... We must not fasten him to some specific place and act as though only there can we meet him. The marvelous Christ pervades our entire world.” There is a constant closeness of Christ in the church as he walks among us. Jesus is always with the Ephesians and so he knows what is good and bad about them.
II. So first, the good report is that they are persevering, and doing so in three areas.
Verse 2 says, “I know your deeds, your hard work.” These Christians were working very hard and very diligently. Some were likely busy caring for the sick and the distressed. Others were busy teaching and preaching. We too have people who are working very hard in our church. Some are teaching Sunday School or doing the work of the Council. Many are attending Bible Studies or serving in many ways. Christ says to them and to us, “I know that you are working very hard.”
The biggest challenge these Christians faced, however, was the false apostles. This false teaching was a mixture of Christianity and a very lawless view of life. These false apostles promoted a style of Christianity in which much freedom is given but little responsibility is required so they could live as they wanted. What they taught what was plainly false. These are the Nicolaitans which we will look more at later on in another sermon. The Ephesian Christians were diligent in finding these false apostles out. They tested and evaluated the teaching they heard based on what Scripture said. And they correctly determined that the content was false.
Verse 3 gives Christ’s assessment of the Ephesian church: “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” The church had been orthodox, very good and faithful and they were commended for this.
III. Yet there is also the bad report: They had forsaken their first love.
Who is the first love they have forsaken? Some believe that this lost love was their love for their fellow Christians. They were so busy working, enduring and hunting heretics that they had no time for each other. Moreover, with so many false teachers around, there may have been a prevalent attitude of skepticism and suspicion which led to a certain coldness in relationships.
Others also believe that the first love is the love for Christ. Frequently in the Old Testament, the relationship between God and his people is described in terms of human love. God loves his people as a husband loves his bride. The Bible makes it clear that our relationship to Christ is not just a head knowledge but an intimate loving relationship as well.
Quite likely, however, both loves are involved here. If love for God waivers, then love for others will be weak as well. Now that doesn’t minimize the good work that they have been doing. They still are working hard and keeping the faith, but their lacking intimate love and devotion makes the hard work ring hollow. The Ephesians were good Christians but inside there was a rather cold heart.
And so Christ urges them to come back; but if they will come back, they must do three things. They must first remember the height from which they had fallen. They must think back on the early days when their love for God was so intense. This is sometimes done in marriage counseling. An estranged couple remembering and reflecting on what drew them together in the first place can be the first step to reconciliation. Love for God includes our emotions and we must not be afraid of those feelings.
But there is also sin involved and so they must also repent of that sin. They have been falling away from loving God and that was wrong. And they must start showing love just like they did in the first place. They must consciously adore and express their love for God. This will rekindle their love shown to each other as well.
And then Jesus adds the urgent and serious warning: if they do not change as has been described, Christ will come and remove their lampstand from them. They are in real danger of losing their church because a church that does not love God and show love for others is not really a true church. The purpose of a lampstand is to spread the light. If they are not living in the love and light of Christ, they have no purpose to exist. This evidently must have made a real impact on this church. Later on in the second century, one historian remarked at how much love there was in evidence in Ephesus. They heeded this warning and rekindled their love for God and for each other.
The warning is that there must be love in the church, both for God and for each other. Jesus himself summarized God’s Law’s in Luke 10:27: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” True and personal love is an essential element in the life of the Christian.
IV. Finally, let’s be listening to what the Spirit says to the churches.
In verse 7 Jesus urges all the churches to listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying to all the churches, not just the one in Ephesus. All churches – ours included – must rekindle their true love for Christ! Then Christ adds the promise: The one who overcomes will receive a reward. The one who overcomes is the one who remains loving and faithful regardless. To those who are willing and ready to love fully and to live and die for the Lord, comes the promise to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God. In Genesis, Adam rejected the tree of life and chose instead the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now Paradise as God intended with the tree of live is restored. Those who endure to the end will again walk with God in eternal life.
So what can we hear Christ telling us from this first letter? First, let’s hear Christ commending us for persevering. I believe that Faith Church has diligently upheld God’s Word. You have made sure that what I and others teach is thoroughly Scriptural. Moreover, you as a church have been working very hard. Some of you are also enduring hardships but you are still pressing on. Be reassured today that Christ is among you and knows these things about you.
And, let’s also hear the word of admonition to keep our love fervent! It is easy for us to get so wrapped up in head knowledge, doing good things or making sure that we right that we lose our personal love for God and for each other.
But real love is both an emotional devotion and a commitment to serve. Let’s remember the special relationship that we have with our Lord Jesus Christ. Recall it; realize the height from which we may have fallen. What can we do to restore your relationship with our first love?