First Love - Revelation 2:1-7
Recently I came across some old school reports from my first year at Primary School which make very interesting reading. For instance, Mathematics: 'Nathan enjoys the number activities, but his written work is rather uncontrolled as yet.' Art: 'Nathan finds it very difficult to control his paint brush but he has some interesting ideas for his paintings.' Games: 'Nathan is a nimble runner and is learning how to catch a ball. He is quite agile and he manages to keep pace with bigger boys on cross country runs.' Scripture: 'Nathan enjoys the scripture stories and he can usually answer the questions afterwards.'
This evening we are beginning a new series looking at Revelation 2-3 which are the letters of Jesus to the seven churches. And these letters have the feeling of an end of term report. Jesus is assessing each church and giving them a report of how they are doing. Many have things to commend them, and many have things they need to work on. And all the churches have wonderful promises that Jesus gives to them if they persevere. But the trouble with studying just these chapters in Revelation is that we are tempted to read them in isolation from the rest of the letter. These are the easy bits and we just concentrate on them. But unless we understand why this book is here in the NT then we will we not fully understand what Jesus is saying in these letters and we'll miss the force of what he is saying to us through them.
Now I guess for many people, the book of Revelation is uncharted territory. We paddle in chapters 1-5, and possibly 21-22 but that's about it. But whilst John, the author, does use a style of writing that may be unfamiliar to us, yet the topics he deals with should be very familiar. Because what John is doing is reminding these seven churches, in what is now modern Turkey, of the fundamental truths of the gospel, and he's urging them to stand firm in the face of persecution. You see Revelation is simply a long letter. You'll notice in 1 v 4, that John addresses the churches in a familiar way. 'John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia.' And John receives a revelation from the risen Lord Jesus to pass on to these churches. 1 v 19 tells us what the letter is about. Jesus says to John: 'Write therefore what you now have seen, what is now and what will take place.' The letter concerns the present and the future. It's about how to live as a Christian between the first coming of Jesus and the second coming of Jesus, in the present if you like, and also it's about our future hope when Jesus returns. And the message Jesus gives us through John is that Jesus is the King and has claimed the victory over sin death and evil. He is the All Conquering King of kings. And one day he will return to wrap up human history. And nothing can stop this great King from continuing his work in the world through his people and bringing it to completion. So Revelation is a great book to read. It reminds us that whilst the world looks a chaotic and evil place, yet God is in control and he is working to bring about his purposes, and the victory through his Son is assured.
And that's why John begins in chapter 1 with a magnificent vision of Jesus. Jesus is the First and Last, the Living One, the one who holds the keys to death and Hades. And at the start of each of the seven letters to the churches John gives a greeting from Jesus couched in the terms of the vision of Jesus in chapter 1. So in the letter to Ephesus, Jesus is the one in 2 v 1 who holds the seven stars and who walks among the seven lampstands. This Jesus is the one who is present in the midst of his people. For John tells us in 1 v 20 that the lampstands represent the church and the stars are angels of the churches. So the Jesus who is so magnificently revealed in chapter 1 as the King of kings and Lord of lords is the same Jesus who is Lord of each of these struggling congregations in chapters 2-3 which would have come as a great encouragement to these congregations.
So as we begin to study these letters, we find real churches with real Christians struggling with real issues. This is a book written for people like you and me in a world opposed to Jesus. And after writing his letters, Jesus will then give his time in the rest of the book to show us about the present difficulties and the future hope. And whilst Jesus is addressing a particular issue at a particular time in these opening letters, yet it is also clear that he is speaking to all Christians who would follow in years to come. For Jesus tells us in 1 v 3 that there is blessing for all who read this revelation and obey it. And at the end of every letter, Jesus says 'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.' The Spirit of Jesus is speaking not just for the Ephesians' benefit or the Smyrnans' benefit. It's for ours too. So we need to listen carefully as we look at these letters. And I can assure you that whether were in Ephesus or Pergamum or Laodicea, there will be challenges for all of us. So let's turn to these letters and hear what God is saying to his churches. Now the structure of the letters are all pretty much the same, with a few variants. After a greeting, Jesus gives an encouragement, a warning, a command and then a promise. And we begin today with Ephesus. And we could sum up Jesus' message to Ephesus as 'You're Committed but Cold.' So we'll look at the letter under four headings, four lessons for us living 20 centuries later.
1) An Example to Follow (Vv 1-3, 6)
2) A Warning to Heed (V 4)
3) A Challenge to Take Up (V 5)
4) A Promise to Receive (V 7)
1) An Example to Follow (Vv 1-3, 6)
So first then we find an example to follow. Now Ephesus was not an easy place to be a Christian. It was the key commercial, legal and religious centre in the Roman province of Asia Minor, in Western Turkey. It was a proud, cosmopolitan and successful city, and if you didn't toe the line, then you'd face problems. When Paul established a church there, he faced serious opposition and a spell in prison. But a church had been established and Jesus encourages them by praising them in three areas in which they were doing well.
a) Disciplined- First they were disciplined. Verse 2: 'I know your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance.' Now in every letter Jesus begins by saying 'I know.' As the Lord of the church, Jesus knows exactly what is going on. He knows what is good, and what is bad. And it's a knowledge that should both encourage us, and urge to do better. But here there is much good. The Ephesian Christians were hard working and they persevered in their work. We know for instance that they were diligent in evangelism and church planting. Several churches up the Lycus valley had been founded probably using Ephesus as a base, in Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis. No doubt they also had all the groups necessary in a thrithing city centre church. Toddler groups, Homegroups, student work, Men at the Tavern, women's work, Exploring Christianity at the local baths. They were hard working and persevering. And Jesus gave them an A* on their report.
b) Discerning- But they were also discerning. Verse 2 again: '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.' Paul had warned the church in Ephesus that they would have to face false teaching and sure enough it happened. But these Ephesians Christians were discerning. They tested the claims of those had came along to teach them. And any who were found wanting they rejected. They got out their Bibles and tested everything they heard. They didn't fall for any old rubbish however impressive their credentials. They weren't taken in by the first chap with a posh Roman accent and a freshly pressed toga. These guys were discerning. They tested everything they received against the Scriptures. And if there was anything that was blatantly wrong, then they gave it short shrift. Verse 6: 'You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.' We don't know much about them, though we'll come back to them in a few weeks time, because they were also in Pergamum. Suffice to say that their teaching and lifestyle were so blatantly anti Christian, that the Ephesians hated their practices. Something Jesus himself says he hates. They hate everything they did and stood for. These Christians were discerning.
And this quality is something we Christians today need to learn from. We often think that just because a man is a good communicator and wears a sharp suit and carries a big Bible he must be OK. But don't be deceived by outward impressions. No doubt these false apostles in verse 3 would have looked and sounded impressive. You would have to have had courage to oppose them. But they did, because what they taught was wrong. All too often Christians today are taken in by sub Christian teaching because they are not discerning. Rather we need to take a leaf out of the Ephesians' book and be discerning. Test everything by the Scriptures. And I'd even say test everything you hear from this pulpit. Just because you know us and see us each week, does not mean you should not be discerning. Sometimes we will make mistakes. We're only human. That's not to say we write people off before we've heard them. We need to hear what people are saying, but if they teach falsehood, however subtle it may be, then we must not tolerate such men. And sometimes our reaction will be very strong, hating the practices and teachings of such men. For our Lord says the same thing. Discernment. That's what we need, and it got Ephesus an A*.
As I was preparing this talk I was reminded of some tapes I bought a few years ago on Revelation by a well respected and extremely able Christian pastor. During the 1980's and 90's he was perhaps the most gifted preacher in Britain, some would say the world. He had written many books and was a frequent conference speaker. And yet all of a sudden one day he chucked the whole thing in and revealed his whole life was a fraud. Because for a number of years he'd been seeing another man. And the reason no-one had spotted it? One of the reasons was that very few had dared to ask him the tough questions and he'd hidden it very well. Be discerning even of those most gifted and respected of Christian leaders. Don't distrust or fail to support your leaders, but do be discerning of those who teach God's word, and of any who claim some authority and message from God. Don't be gullible, be discerning.
c) Devoted- But there's a third thing Jesus commends these Ephesians for, another A* on their report. And that is their devotion. Verse 3: 'You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.' They kept going even in suffering. So discipline, discernment, and devotion. Three qualities these Christians had and were doing well in. There was no laziness in their service. No compromise in their confession. Could Jesus say the same of you and me? An example to follow.
2) A Warning to Heed (V 4)
But for all the good there was in the church, there was one serious flaw. And that brings us to our second lesson from Ephesus. A warning to heed. Verse 4: 'Yet I have this against you: You have forsaken your first love.' This comes as a bolt out the blue doesn't it? Surely after all the good points of verses 1-3 Jesus couldn't have anything against this church. They were disciplined and hard working. They were discerning and sound. They were devoted, even to the point of suffering. But yet Jesus says of them: 'You have forsaken your first love.' Now I don't think Jesus means that they have walked out on him, that they have deliberately turned away from Christ. If that were the case, then I don't think Jesus would be commending them. Instead he'd be attacking them for their rampant idolatry. Rather what he is saying is that they are not doing something they once did. In the next verse he tells them that they need to 'do they things they did at first.' It seems as if the love they first had for Christ had waned. They are still outwardly performing and doing well, but their hearts as not as on fire with love for God as before. Don Carson, who recently spoke here a few months ago, puts it this way: 'Now they maintain the work and the faithfulness and the discernment, but they are no longer driven by a transparent and [heartfelt] love for God and for eon another as brothers and sisters in Christ.' They have forsaken their first love. Their love has grown cold. They are committed but cold, faithful but frigid. And it's most likely that their slow cooling of their love for Christ had led to a slow cooling of their love for another. For love for God leads to a love for one another. The two go hand in hand. And Ephesus Parish Church had lost their first love. It's like a marriage relationship which starts off so well. A couple are in love and delight in each other, and yet almost unseen, the relationship begins to cool. The couple do things together, sleep together, plan for the children together and work out their finances together, but they have lost their first love. Slowly the love they first had has waned. And these Ephesians had fallen into the same trap.
A few years ago, the local newspaper in Oxford, the Oxford Mail, published a true story about a certain Mr Appleby who was travelling with his wife and they had stopped at a service station on the M40. They'd stopped to go to the loo. The husband had come out first, forgotten his wife was with him, got into their car and drove away. The wife then emerged, found the husband gone and, assuming he'd been kidnapped or something equally dramatic, she alerted the police. They spotted him pulled-over on the hard shoulder 20 miles or so up the M40. The article ends: 'When police inquired how he had noticed his mistake, Mr Appleby replied: 'I asked my wife to unwrap me a toffee, and when there was no reply I realised I'd left her behind.''
Well it doesn't say much for their relationship does it? And Jesus says of Ephesus: You have forsaken your first love. So how could that be? Surely we say, it's not possible to be such a successful church and still be accused of forsaking your first love. Well yes it is possible, and we need to beware lest we too fall into this trap. Think of the three things they were commended for. They were commended for their discipline and hard work. And yet how easy it is to be busy in Christian things and yet to have a heart that is in reality cold. You come to church, you go to Homegroup, you attend all the student activities, you might possibly be leader and give talks. But your heart is cold. That fervency and love you had for God and his people has cooled and waned. You don't deny him, but you don't love him as you once did. They were commended for their discernment. But maybe such a zeal to be sound and to root out heresy had made the church suspicious of one another. It brought about an atmosphere not of wise discernment, but of distrustful suspicion. Maybe you know your Bible well, you've got a reputation for spotting where others are wrong. But your love for Christ and his people has waned. They were commended for their devotion, but suffering can easily lead people to resentment, and a cooling down in their relationship to Christ. Yes it is possible. We can lose our first love if we are not careful.
For verse 4 does not ask the question 'what are you doing?' but 'why are you doing it?' What is motivating your service? Is it love or duty. True Christian service springs first and foremost from a love for God which in itself is a response to his love for us. Jesus wants your love not just your duty. A dog can dutifully serve his master, but it cannot love him. And nor should we drive this false division between doctrine and love. Sometimes you hear people say of different churches, well this is a sound Bible teaching church, but this other one is really loving. That is an unbiblical division. For where a church loves their Savoir, then they will have a genuine desire to do what he says and stick to what he says. For Jesus said 'If you love me, you will obey what I command.' But the reverse is not necessarily the case. Obedience does not always spring from love. And it's a danger of successful churches. We can rest on our laurels that we are keen to teach the truth, that we seek to tell others, that we seek to plant churches. But what would Jesus says to us? What would he say to you and me? Have you lost your first love? Heed the warning.
3) A Challenge to Take Up (V 5)
But Jesus will not leave it there. This church in Ephesus was given a way back. There is a chance of a fresh start. It's not too late to get things sorted out with God. And that brings us to our third point. A challenge to take up. See what Jesus says to this church in verse 5: 'Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.' What this church, and what anyone who finds themselves in this position must not do is ignore the situation. We must act. And Jesus tells the church to remember, repent and act. They must remember. Remember, says Jesus, the height from which you have fallen. Remember what it was like when you first started in the Christian life. He's not telling us to go back to immaturity, but to recapture that zeal of our first love. So often it's easy to live off spiritual capital. There's a danger of living off past glories. Just because we were keen six months ago, or six years ago, or even six decades ago, does not mean we are keen now. Just as we should ask ourselves not what are we doing but why are we doing it, so we should also ask not what was my love for God like a few years ago, but what is my love for him like now. Today is what counts. For today's decisions are tomorrow's consequences. Where we are in relationship with God today is what counts. So remember. But also repent. Come back to God and begin afresh with him. Confess your cooling love for him and others and come back to him. And then act. Do the things you did at first. Jesus does not say do more things. These Ephesians were good at doing things. But they need to do what they did at first. It's quality, not quantity that God desires. It's service motivated by a transparent love for God and his people.
And if not? What awaits this church and us if we fail to act? Verse 5: 'If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.' The fact is that Jesus threatens judgement. In fact, the words 'I will come' are actually in the present tense. Jesus actually says: 'I am coming.' He's on his way, so we better act. If you remember the lampstand stands for the church itself. So Jesus can only be saying that unless they get their act together and recover their first love, then the church will cease to exist. That is how serious it is. It may take a few generations, but die it will. Where there is no love for God which is worked out in love for others, then only death awaits that church. And all down Christian history, churches have died, lampstands have been removed from places. And it doesn't matter how sound or faithful or hard working we are. If we've lost our first love, then we must repent or face judgement. And each of us needs to take up the challenge. We need to examine ourselves and if need be repent. To come back to God and ask him to fire our hearts again. It's interesting that one of the prayers that Paul prays for the Ephesians in chapter 3 of his letter, goes like this: 'I pray that you being rooted and established in love may have power, together with all the saints, [that is, the whole church] to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.' A Christian who is praying that regularly for themselves will go a long way to keeping their first love. So hear the challenge and remember, repent and act.
4) A Promise to Receive (V 7)
But having given encouragement, warning and challenge, Jesus finishes with a promise, a promise to receive. Verse 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 fact is that we cannot overcome by ourselves, but we can trust the one who has dealt with sin and evil once for all, Jesus whose death for us on the cross allows us to taste new life and friendship with God as it was meant to be. And ever since the first humans rebelled against God in the garden of Eden, the tree of life was barred to humans. But now there is a way back, through Jesus. And he who keeps trusting in him, he who remains faithful to the end will taste the fruit of that tree. We have a great future to look forward to when we trust in Jesus and remain faithful. We will share in the paradise of God. And all these promises at the end of the seven letters are taken from chapters 21-22 of Revelation. There we find a beautiful picture of God with his people forever in heaven. This is Eden restored. Paradise regained. The road will be long and hard, but he will keep us as we seek to trust him. And that is a great promise to hold on to.
You see at the end of the day, the reason Jesus gives us warnings such as tonight's passage is because he loves us. And we will show our love for him by listening to what he has to say. For he who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Follow the example, heed the warning, take up the challenge and receive the promise. And with such a wonderful future to look forward, there is no better incentive to love and serve God with joy and delight.
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