************ Sermon on Revelation 2:1-7 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 21, 2007
"Ephesus: Hates But Does Not Love"
I Letters for Today
A A couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting of Classis Central California of the Christian Reformed Church. I know there are times when those meetings can be very, very boring. So, I usually bring along a supply of reading materials. I was sitting there and yes, it got boring. So, I started to read a report to the churches.
The writer sounded so smug, so self-righteous, as if he had all the answers to the problems that plague the churches. He was quick to condemn, quick to accuse, quick to lay blame, as he looked at the different churches. He also praised all the things that he liked. Listen to just some of the things I read:
-the churches find themselves in a hostile spiritual environment
-the churches are very diverse in theology and practice
-some of the churches preach the Gospel of Success, Wealth, and Prosperity
-some of the churches are extremely wealthy while others struggle with poverty
-some of the churches are self-reliant while others always seem to have their hands out
-some of the churches have adopted practices and styles that blur the lines between the church and the world
-some of the churches have compromised their faith
-some of the churches are remarkably tolerant
-some of the churches maintain doctrinal purity and faithfulness to the Gospel
-some of the churches are large and growing and others are small and struggling
-some of the churches seem cold and unfriendly while others are very welcoming and loving
-some of the churches have ministry upon ministry and staff member upon staff member yet have no real spiritual vitality
This pretty well sums up the churches we know, doesn't it?!
But now a confession on my part. The writer was not speaking about the churches of Classis Central California of the Christian Reformed Church or about the churches of America – though it sure sounds like it. The writer was not even speaking about churches of the 21st century. The writer is Jesus; the churches are those of Asia Minor; the document is Jesus' letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor; and, the time is the first century.
B Our day, our time, and our churches sound exactly the same as what John faced. We need to realize that this is God's intention, God's plan. The Lord of the church, the one "like a son of man," wants us to see ourselves in His letters to the seven churches. Notice how each letter is ended: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." Did you catch the last word – "churches"? Even though each letter is addressed to a specific church the content of the letters is meant for each of the seven churches. John's intention is that they read each other's mail – don't forget, these are letters sent out by John through the Roman mail system.
The seven letters are not just meant for the seven churches. Remember how seven is the number of completion, of fullness? So, the seven churches represent all the churches of all places and all times and all ages. The letters, in other words, are addressed to Trinity United Reformed Church, First Christian Reformed Church, First Assembly of God, Neighborhood Church, Gateway, Savior's Community, Grace Community, the Christian Reformed Church of Myanmar and Nigeria and Japan, and so on.
C As we go through each of the seven letters we need to keep asking ourselves – is Jesus talking about them or is He talking about us?
Consider the church at Ephesus. Their members know their Bibles, they know their theology, they know the Catechism, they know the great truths of the Reformation – Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, the Bible alone. They know what a heretic looks like and sounds like. You aren't going to fool them with some off the wall teaching. But there is something lacking in their love. Is Jesus talking about them or about us?
Think about the church in Smyrna. They are a small, poor, and struggling church. They face afflictions, slander, persecution. Their faith is constantly being put to the test. They are hated by a world that wants to crush them because they are faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. Is Jesus talking about them or about us?
What about the church at Pergamum? They live in the heart of darkness. One of their number was martyred for his faith. But, this is a church that believes in toleration, in accommodation, in compromise in order to live and work and do business and earn a living in the community. They are willing to accept other lifestyles. Is Jesus talking about them or about us?
Thyatira. This church is growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. However, she is tolerant and accommodating of sin and heresy. Is Jesus talking about them or about us?
Sardis. This church is really alive and growing. This church has programs and ministries galore. It keeps adding staff. They have activities every night of the week. There is something for every age group. This is the church that other churches want to be like. They host seminars for the other churches. They are cool, slick, professional. They use the latest technology. They have day-care, a walk-in clinic, prayer rooms. Attendance has never been better; it is filled to the rafters every Sunday with chairs in the aisles. In reality, however, what looks so alive on the outside is a morgue or a funeral home on the inside. Is Jesus talking about them or about us?
Philadelphia. A church of little strength, little influence, little growth. It is an island of faith surrounded by a sea of unbelief. Their pastor is an unknown. The church growth people look down their noses at this little congregation. Is Jesus talking about them or about us?
Laodicea. A wealthy city and a wealthy church. This church is attractive, self-reliant, and sophisticated. However, she is also lukewarm, cold, wretched, blind, and pitiful. Don't get too excited about your faith in this church. Don't get too excited about Jesus in this church. Concentrate, instead, on being comfortable and living a comfortable life. Don't make any waves and don't rock the boat – certainly not about matters of faith and principle. True and living faith has been pushed outside of the church. Jesus has been pushed out of this church. Neither have been missed. Is Jesus talking about them or is He talking about us?
These may be the seven letters of Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor but these are also the seven letters of Jesus to all churches of all places and all times and all ages. Their struggles then are our struggles now. Their weaknesses then are our weaknesses now. The temptations they faced then are the same temptations we face now. So be assured of this: Jesus is speaking to us.
Like us, some of these churches have been wounded and need healing. Like us, some of these churches are diseased and need diagnoses. Like us, some of these churches have been deceived and need firm correction. Like us, some of these churches are struggling and need encouragement. So, Jesus is speaking to us.
II The Introduction
A The first letter is written to the angel of the church in Ephesus. Ephesus is mentioned first because geographically Ephesus is closest to the island of Patmos (the island to which John has been exiled).
Ephesus was prosperous, rich, and wealthy. The temple of Artemis (also called Diana), the goddess of fertility, added to the wealth of Ephesus. This temple was massive. It was 420 feet long, 240 feet wide, and 60 feet high. It had almost 120 columns supporting it. The size, magnificence, and beauty of the temple made it one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Pilgrims came from all over the world to Ephesus to do homage to Artemis. As part of their worship, they would deposit money at the temple. Money was not only deposited here, but it was loaned out as well. Eventually the temple became one of the primary banking institutions of Asia Minor.
We all know that the Apostle Paul founded the church in Ephesus. Paul visited the city of Ephesus near the end of his second missionary journey, and on his third missionary journey he spent three years in Ephesus – the longest he spent in any one location.
The Apostle John would later reside in the city of Ephesus as well. John was, therefore, quite familiar with the church of Ephesus.
B In chapter 1 we read John's portrait of the risen and glorified Christ. And, we hear Jesus' self-portrait. In both portraits Jesus is so awesome and magnificent and glorious. In each one of the seven letters Jesus identifies Himself using part of the portrait painted in chapter 1. Notice how Jesus identifies himself at the start of His letter to Ephesus:
(Rev 2:1) These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands ... (cf Revelation 1:12,16)
Jesus reminds John of His power and might – He "holds" the seven stars, which means they are in His control and He is more than able to carry out the threats contained in the letter. Jesus reminds John that He lives in and with the church – He "walks" among the churches, which means He is present in their midst, He is concerned for them, and cares for them. He is no stranger to Ephesus; He knows exactly what He is talking about when He dissects the church. So, these are the words of the Christ Who is the head of the church and loves her very much.
Did you catch what Jesus calls His church? Jesus says the church is a lampstand. This is true not only for Ephesus but also for the other six churches of Asia Minor that He writes; in fact, it is true for all the churches of Asia Minor; it is true for the more than 200 churches of Visalia; it is true for Trinity United Reformed Church. The church is a lampstand. That's what we are. We are lampstands. This means we are neither the light nor the lamp itself. It is Christ Who is the light and the lamp. And we, we are lampstands. A lampstand, of course, is a place upon which a lamp is set so it can give light to everyone in the room. It is the church's job, then, to hold up the light of Christ.
III The Evaluation
A Christ, Who lives in and with the church, has both positive and negative words to say about the lampstand known as the Ephesian church.
First the words of praise. Listen to what Jesus says in verses 2-3:
(Rev 2:2-3) I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. (3) You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Do you know what this tells me? This church has taken seriously the last words they have heard from the lips of the Apostle Paul. Acts 20 contains the story of Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders. As he left them, Paul said this:
(Acts 20:28-31) Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. (29) I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. (30) Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. (31) So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.They had, indeed, guarded the church from the wolves. The church did not tolerate wicked men. They had tested those who claimed to be apostles, but were not, and found them false. They endured hardships for the name of Christ and did not become weary.
Jesus has more good things to say about this church in verse 6 of our Scripture reading:
(Rev 2:6) But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.We do not know much about the Nicolaitans. This we do know: they taught it was okay to make compromises with the pagan culture around them, to be tolerant, to accommodate. The church at Ephesus hated even the thought of this. They were praised by the Lord for sticking to their principles, for holding fast to their convictions, for not compromising their beliefs.
As I said earlier, this was a church that knew her Bible, she knew her theology, she knew the Catechism, she knew the great truths of the Reformation – Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, the Bible alone. She knew what a heretic looks like and sounds like. You weren't going to fool this church with some off the wall teaching.
Doesn't this sound a lot like Trinity United Reformed Church? We are known in the Christian community for our doctrinal soundness. We know what we believe and why. We know what is sound teaching and we know what is heresy. It is almost as if Jesus was writing to us!
B However, this is not all that Jesus has to say. The Ephesian church also received a stern rebuke:
(Rev 2:4) Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.
Your first love. Do you remember your first love? Do you remember the first guy or girl you had a crush on? You would give almost anything to have them notice you or kiss you.
The Ephesian church had a first love – Jesus Christ. Paul prayed about this first love in his letter to Ephesus:
(Eph 3:17-19) And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, (18) may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, (19) and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.This prayer must have been answered because Paul closed his letter with these words:
(Eph 6:24) Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.The Ephesian Christians were madly in love with Jesus and for this love they were willing to do anything.
But now it is some 25 or more years later. And, says Jesus with pain and sorrow in His heart, "You have forsaken your first love" (vs 4). What a devastating charge!
Jesus says they have "forsaken" their first love. That word "forsaken" implies deliberate action on their part. Purposely – not accidentally – they have set aside, they have let go of, their first love. Love for Christ was no longer the first thing, nor the most important thing.
What happened? Do you think doctrinal purity became more important than Jesus? Do you think knowledge of the Bible became more important than knowing the Lord of the church? Do you think the great truths of the Reformation – Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, the Bible alone – began to occupy Jesus' throne?
When a church no longer is centered on Christ, when a church loves anything more than Christ, then she has forsaken her first love.
Is Jesus saying this to us? Have we forsaken our first love? Do we have anything that is more important than Jesus? Is there anything we love more than Jesus? This building? The organ or piano? Youth ministry? The pastor? A program or ministry? Prayer? Bible reading? The Catechism? The sacraments? Worship?
IV The Exhortation
A In our Scripture reading Jesus exhorts the Ephesian church to return to her first love:
(Rev 1:5) Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.The church's first love is pictured as a "height." Like any new lover, the church was flying high, it was scaling the mountain tops. But it has fallen from the "heights" of its first love. And, it has fallen quickly. "Repent," says the Lord. That word "repent" comes up twice in our passage. It means to turn around, to change direction, to turn over a new leaf.
B And then comes a warning, a terrible frightening warning: "If you do not repent," if you do not turn around, if you do not change direction, if you do not return to your "first love," says Jesus, "I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place" (vs 5). To remove the lampstand is to destroy the church. Jesus says to the church, "I will no longer walk in your midst. Your building may still exist; your people may still gather for worship; your programs may still continue on; your budget may still be paid; but I am not there!"
But now remember that this letter is addressed not only to the church of Ephesus at the end of the first century; it is addressed to all churches of all places and all times and all ages – including us. Should we lose our love for Christ, we will lose our witness to the world, and Christ will remove the lampstand from our midst. Don't think it cannot happen. Don't think we are immune. The warning is real. You need look no further than Ephesus.
Jesus does not leave His church – even if she is in the wrong – without hope. The warning is great but just as great is the promised blessing if she overcomes:
(Rev 2:7) To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
The tree of life is first mentioned in Genesis. It was set before the first man and woman as the reward for loving God above all. Adam and Eve, as you know, failed to love God above all when they disobeyed His command, were removed and barred from the Garden of Eden, and lost the right to eat from the tree of life.
Adam and Eve failed. Ephesus – and all the other churches – failed. We know we are no better. Yet Jesus promises the tree of life to those who overcome. Is this promise real?
God has provided Jesus Christ, the last Adam. He is the One Who has perfectly obeyed God and loved Him above all. His cross has become our tree of life – the tree whereby we are given life. In other words, in Christ we overcome.
May we cling to Christ. May He always be our first love. May God grant us ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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