The letter to Ephesus
Reading Revelation 2:1-7
What if the Lord Jesus sent a letter written especially for us in this congregation? How would you feel about such a letter? Would you want me to read it aloud? Remember, this letter is from the Lord who knows each of us – knows the good and the bad and the ugly, knows us better than we know ourselves. His letter will spell out his personal evaluation of how we’re doing as a church, along with ways he wants us to change. Are we open to such a letter?
Last week we considered the Glorious vision that is given of the lord of the church – clothed in majesty, crowned with Holiness, burning with righteous judgement, coming to judge the world, his word having absolute authority, over all things, in his hands he holds his church, His word is either life or death – this is the writer of this letter – this is the Lord of the church – what if this Lord wrote a letter to this congregation, what would it say?
Seven letters to seven churches, each letter focusing on the issues facing a specific church around 90 AD. But these letters continue to speak to the worldwide church of Jesus Christ in every age. Near the end of each letter we find these words: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” What that means is by the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus Christ speaks through these letters to every church in every time and place – including us at East Hull Presbyterian today – if we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying.
Have you noticed how sometimes it’s easier to hear what the Spirit is saying to someone else than it is to hear what he’s saying to you? Sometimes we catch ourselves thinking, “I do hope so-and-so heard that sermon. He/she really needs it.” But let me urge you: don’t listen for what the Spirit is saying to others. Listen rather for what the Lord Jesus Christ is saying to you.
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
The ancient city of Ephesus was a major centre of commerce and politics and religion. The church there was established around 52 AD, and it had known some great pastors. The apostle Paul was there for two and a half years. After Paul came Timothy, and after Timothy came the apostle John, who, as we saw last week, is now exiled on the island of Patmos where he has this vision and records Christ’s words to the churches.
The letter begins, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” Stars? Lampstands? These stand for the churches themselves. The church is a light shining in a darkened world. And Jesus “walks among the lampstands.” That means he is intimately acquainted with what’s going on in the churches. Remember what he promised: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” He knows their strengths and he knows their struggles. And he holds them in his right hand. Remember how Jesus promised he would hold his people in his grip and “no one will snatch them out of my hand.” So the One who sends this letter knows his people and speaks the truth in love to them. And as we’ll see, in this letter he commends them, he critiques them, and he corrects them. That’s the outline, if you’re taking notes: commendation, criticism, correction.
I know your works, your labour, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; 3 and you have persevered and have patience, and have laboured for My name's sake and have not become weary.
'I know your works'. These words should cause each of us to sit up – they are words that are used to each of the seven churches – think about them for a moment - the omniscient, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-being God says to each of them: 'I know your works'.
Think about this - the Lord of glory knows all about your works? He knows all about this church's works, He is the Judge. Now look at their works: 'thy works', specifically that speaks of their service, they were a serving church, 'and your labour'.
That Greek word for 'labour' there means 'exercise to the point of exhaustion' In other words, you couldn't just settle into the back seat of this church - no offence to the folks in the back seat tonight - and decide that you'll not be committed in any involvement, that wasn't an option in Ephesus. Everyone worked to the sweat of their brow This is a disciplined, energetic, hard working congregation. There were no passive members, no pew-warmers. They all pitched in. Every person was engaged in some aspect of the ministry. They worshiped fervently, studied Scripture seriously, prayed intensely, and gave generously. They taught their children, cared for the needy, and shared their faith with their neighbours.
Their works, their labour and 'their patience' is commended by the Lord. They served, they were sacrificial in their labour, and they were steadfast in their patience. That speaks of endurance, stickability, their Christian faith was not a flash in the pan experience that was here today and gone tomorrow, it was something that endured.
that you cannot bear those who are evil – They were careful in who they allowed to join the church, to preach and teach in the church – they held firm to the word of God and held back the error of false teaching and pressures of society for them to compromise the truth. The commendation to the Ephesians was: they didn't take things at face value, they tried these false apostles and found them out to be liars and false teachers, false prophets, false evangelists. So we are getting a picture painted for us by the Holy Spirit that these Ephesian Christians did not take their Christian faith lightly, they understood the great demands that were upon them as believers in the Lord Jesus.
One other word that the Lord uses to describe these Christians at Ephesus – Perseverance. They persevered in the face of trial and persecution – have you heard of a man called John Wesley. Are you familiar with his work for the Lord? Let me list some of the things he writes in his diary –
Sunday morning, May 5, preached in St. Ann's, was asked not to come back anymore. Sunday p.m., May 5, preached at St. John's, deacons said, "Get out and stay out." Sunday a.m., May 12, preached at St. Jude's, can't go back there either. Sunday p.m., May 12, preached at St. George's, kicked out again. Sunday a.m., May 19, preached at St. somebody else's, deacons called special meeting and said I couldn't return. Sunday p.m., May 19, preached on the street, kicked off the street. Sunday a.m., May 26, preached in meadow, chased out of meadow as a bull was turned loose during the services. Sunday a.m., June 2, preached out at the edge of town, kicked off the highway. Sunday p.m., June 2, afternoon service, preached in a pasture, 10,000 people came to hear me.
Like Wesley, the church of Ephesus persevered.
All well and good – but there was a serious problem
Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. V4. Who would ever have expected it? I doubt none of us would have, other than the Lord Jesus Christ who, remember, has these eyes of fire. With omniscient vision He was able to see what no one else could see. Now if love was measured by activity, the Ephesians would have been the most loving church in existence, but you see it's not. Activity is not the same as love.
What is your first love? Some say that it refers to their love for Christ, they have lost their love and devotion to the Lord Jesus. Others that it speaks of their love for one another', Still others see it as meaning their love for mankind in general. It is very hard to pinpoint exactly which one of those three it would be, but then there are others who say: 'This is not speaking of a love of first importance, but rather a love that is first in point of time'. A love that incorporates all three of these loves - the love for the Lord, the love for one another, and the love for mankind in general. J. B. Phillips translates it: 'You do not love as you did at first', this, I believe, is the sense of this verse. You do not love the Lord Jesus, love one another, love all mankind, as you did at first. To put it in our terms, if I could, what is being said to Ephesus is: the honeymoon period of your early love in the first days of your Christian faith is now over - for the Lord, for one another, for the lost world.
Someone told me today an illustration that encapsulates this well. When a man, or woman for that matter, is first married, maybe they won't go out the front door without kissing goodbye to their spouse - but after one year, two years, or I don't know how many years, some are just content shouting down from the study or shouting down from the bedroom making the beds or reading a book: 'Bye bye, see you later'. What has happened is that they have become taken up with the place rather than the person. What a picture of this church: they had got taken up with the place or with the practice, but the first love that they had in the beginning for the person of the Lord Jesus, and for each other, and for a lost world, had disappeared. This first love that John is speaking about is marked by first love as we have it in a romantic sense, the first ardour, and fervency, and constancy of our love.
We see this in the Israelites of the Old Testament, because after Jehovah delivered them from Egyptian bondage and they were redeemed by the blood of the lamb, we read in Jer.2:2 Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, 'Thus says the LORD: "I remember you, The kindness of your youth, The love of your betrothal, When you went after Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown. - In other words, when you were first delivered from Egyptian bondage God said to Israel: 'I remember the love you had for Me, like the love of one who was to be married to their betrothed'. Well, in Israel something tragic happened, and in Jer.2:13 we read these words For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, And hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.. In other words, they were providing for their own satisfaction, they had grown to love something else more than the Lord. We should not love anything at the expense of loving God! We should love all our loved ones more, but we should love Christ infinitely more! It's hard, and yet according to Christ's criticism of Ephesus it's necessary.
What about you? Is this letter for you? Have you lost your first love? Has the fire and the passion, and the fervency and the ardour gone?
This first love that John is speaking about is marked by first love as we have it in a romantic sense, the first ardour, and fervency, and constancy of our love...
Remember therefore from where you have fallen; - a generation earlier, when Paul the apostle wrote the epistle to the Ephesians, we see that they were commended for their love. Eph.1:15-16 Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: 'I'm rejoicing because I've heard of the great love you have'.
Now not only did Paul commend them for their love, but he commanded them to grow in their love. Eph.4:1-3 I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, 2 with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, 3 endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Now the Lord is saying to Ephesus: 'Remember therefore from where you have fallen', and that word 'fallen' is in the perfect tense, and it gives the sense of a tragic error of completeness - they had completely fallen from the heights that they had risen to! These Ephesians that the Lord Jesus is now speaking to are the second generation Christians to the first-generation ones that Paul wrote to, isn't that very interesting? Thirty or so years had passed since Paul ministered to the Ephesians - and, oh yes, these new Ephesians that the Lord is speaking to were serving the Lord in the manner that they had been taught by their forefathers, but they had lost the first love of the first generation Christians!
Remember, I bought you with a price – my life for yours on the cross – not to get a hired hand who works for me, but a lover whose heart delights in me and whose life is transformed by me and whose whole being reflects me to the world.”
How easy it is to become busy in the church or in Bible Study Fellowship or in some mission activity, and yet lose our love for Jesus Christ. But it happens, doesn’t it? Doing the work of the church while losing your love for the Lord of the church. That’s what I mean by the “Ephesus-syndrome,” and lots of very religious people suffer from it.
Repent from where you are fallen! Remember the heights, and repent is the second command. That is in the Greek aorist tense, which means 'a sharp break', now, change your mind completely about the way you think about your sin, and the way you think about the Lord.
Repeat – Do the first works, - the works you did at first, the works that were motivated by your love - there's a lesson! Service must never be out of mere duty, though there are things expected of us as Christians, service must always be motivated by love
Remove - or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place - not a command, it's a threat: the Greek is in the present tense, which means this - 'I am coming'. The Lord was approaching this church, and He is teaching the Ephesians that a church can continue only for so long on a loveless course. Now it's not speaking that they would lose their salvation or anything like that, that's an impossibility if you're truly saved - but what the Lord is saying is: 'You will cease to exist, I will remove your lampstand'. It's not just speaking that their testimony wouldn't be there any longer and they would be a cold church - no, no, no. It's not saying, 'I'm going to blow the flames out of the light of your witness', it says, 'I'm going to remove the lampstand'.
Every Christian will go through times of spiritual dryness and deadness. Our enthusiasm for our work, our intimacy in marriage, our enjoyment of friends – they all go up and down. It’s only Christians who think their faith should always be on the up side. But the fact is, people of faith always go through periodic valleys and low times when our faith seems lifeless.
When that happens – and it will – Jesus advises us to use our memories. Don’t worry about what you’re feeling or not feeling right now. Remember the things you did at first when your faith was vital and growing. And then repent: start doing them again. Start doing them. It’s interesting how often feelings of love follow actions of love.
“Do the things you did at first,” says Jesus. What kind of things? :
A regular quiet time – a time in the morning to read Scripture, apply the Word of God to my life, and pray about my deepest concerns.
Reading books that builds me up.
Memorizing a great hymn, and singing it to myself while I’m out on a walk or stuck in traffic or waiting for an appointment:
Turning weekly worship from a dull routine to something I’m really into – really singing and thinking about praise, really praying from the heart, really listening to the Word.
That’s all part of what it means for me to “repent and do the things you did at first” – getting to a place where the Lord can reignite the joy of that first love. What about you? What comes to your mind?
Remember what the church is - The church is a lampstand. Its place and task is to show forth the light which is Christ. A church without love fails completely to show forth the light of Christ; in fact, without love a church cannot show forth the light of Christ – it is simply not possible.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (v7).
What has the Spirit said? That the Lord praises us when we work hard for the gospel and kingdom, when we are doctrinally pure, when we live holy lives. But the Spirit also tells us that the Lord wants us to be filled with love – love for God, love for each other, love for our fellow man.
This message of the Lord is not only for Ephesus or the other six churches of Asia Minor. This message is for all those in whom the Spirit works and lives; this message is for the church of all ages – including us.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (v7).