We are now focused on the seven letters to the seven churches. Remember, these are letters from Jesus, through John, to churches comprised of many second generation believers.
Two of the seven churches get nothing but encouragement and praise from Jesus. One of the churches gets only correction and no praise at all. But the other four churches get mixed reviews. Jesus approves of some things and he disapproves of others. I sometimes think if my life were to be captured by one of these letters, it would one of these four churches.
All seven letters are filled with grace and mercy, pleading with the churches to wake up. One thing to keep in mind is that even with the two most positive letters, no church is perfect. Shocking, right? But some of these churches are so messed up, their very existence is threatened.
Before we get to the first letter, let's briefly revisit the context. Revelation
“Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it be! Amen.
In other words, when Christ returns, unbelievers will mourn the judgment that results from their having rejected him. And that prospect goes for some in the church, as well. Jesus knows their hearts and their deeds. And while the purpose of the church is to bear the light of the divine presence in a darkened world, if they don't, then their reason for existence has disappeared.
The first letter is to Ephesus. This is one of the good news/bad news letter.
Let's set the geographical scene. As you docked your ship in the port at Ephesus, you would proceed up a magnificent thirty-five foot wide avenue. This magnificent avenue would be lined with columns leading you from the harbor to the city center. More than 250,000 people called Ephesus home.
John was exiled on the island of Patmos, about 60 miles from Ephesus. Ephesus was nicknamed Luminasia, or "The Light of Asia." As a financial and cultural and commercial center of the region, all roads led into Ephesus. It was also called the "Market to Asia." So Ephesus was a pretty big deal. Diverse, multi-cultural, and economically thriving.
In spite of the surrounding pagan culture, Ephesus had been a spiritually strong church. They were founded on solid, Biblically-sound, Christ-honoring principles. They had outstanding leaders and teachers. As Acts 18 describes it, after starting the church at Ephesus, Paul left it in the very capable hands of Aquila and Priscilla. They are now but a faded memory.
First, the words of commendation:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary."
- Revelation 2:2-3
Who wouldn't want to get that letter from Jesus, right? These are faithful people in a flourishing church in a challenging environment.
Let's break down these commendations:
I know your works = the word used for works means the kind of labor that hurts backs and stresses muscles. Used metaphorically it indicates they were far from spiritually lazy. They gave their all to letting the light shine in their church and community.
How you cannot bear with those who are evil = They had taken Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7:15 to heart: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves." Paul, mirroring Jesus' teaching, warned them of this very thing in his departing words. And they still are on guard against false teaching. That is always a good thing.
Not only were they not spiritually lazy, they were also not easily discouraged. "I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake," Jesus said to them. The word translated as patiently literally means "to remain under." There was no grim resignation to the evil of the culture that surrounded them. There was no giving in to false teachers. They were not beaten down or cast out. They endured.
Here's something you might want to write down:
THEIR DEEDS WERE HONORABLE, GOD-GLORIFYING DEEDS.
What a wonderful church. Not lazy…not looking for instant gratification… more interested in the hard work of the gospel rather than finding their best life ever.
Think for a moment about how we are called to God-glorifying deeds. With each other and our community, we are called to love people and help people and spread kindness wherever we go. Simply be a loving presence in other people's lives. Check this out:
Now, I don’t know anything about this guy's spiritual life, but I know kindness when I see it. God is calling us and equipping us to be that kind of presence in other people's lives. You get the example. We are called to outdo each other in God-glorifying deeds. Amen?
Let's next jump to verse six. That's another commendation:
Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
It is a fascinating transition. They are loving and faithful and patient and kind, and oh, by the way, Jesus said, it's also good that you hate the things I hate.
I remember once, decades ago, I quoted Romans 12:9 by simply saying, "As it is said, 'hate what is evil; cling to what is good.'" I made the mistake of assuming everyone would know I was quoting the Bible. I don't make that mistake anymore. Anyway, I got a letter from a couple chastising me for using the word "hate." They raised their children on the belief that "hate" was a four-letter word, and it bothered them to hear it in church. So, God handed me a teachable moment. I very politely responded with the Bible chapter and verse as well as the observation that I have no problem saying I hate evil. Because I really do. Because it is evil.
So, who were these Nicolaitans?
They were false teachers. The name, Nicolaitans, was a combination of the
Greek words for "victory" and "people." It conveyed the sense of a movement that held power over people. The Nicolaitans had so compromised with the pagan culture that their wickedness consumed spiritually dull people. Not a bad thing to hate.
And the infiltration of false teaching into the church wasn't isolated or unusual. Here's what happened in Acts 20:29-31:
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
That spirit of wickedness is at work in the church today. From liberal churches to the prosperity gospel, we need sound Biblical teaching and understanding in order to combat such evil.
These verses are evidence of what a great church Ephesus was. It was a beautiful thing for them to hear from Jesus that he was pleased with their endurance. That part was all good.
But then we get to verse four:
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.
Here's something else you might want to write down:
The Expression Includes Both Love of God and Love of Humanity.
That describes the trap they had fallen into. They began a slide into doctrinal purity to the point where all they were left with was dutiful coldness. We can understand the danger of that. I have seen it. We're so hardcore pursuing the truth we forget to love. And what happens is, when love for God cools, harmony within the Body of Christ is harmed as well as is a warm affection for the community. The Bible says, "They will know us by our love."
Their initial love…their passion for Christ had cooled. When that love cools, apathy is ready to move in. And when apathy moves in, guess what happens? Love for something other than Christ fills the space. And that means eventual compromise with the corrupted and corrupting culture. And all of that leads away from Jesus.
Make no mistake. When the heart grows cold, you're in danger. It is so serious that, in verse five, Jesus said, "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first."
Go back to loving people. Love each other. Love your community. Remember what it was like when you first knew that Jesus Christ was your Lord and Savior. Remember when you knew you were delivered from sin and death and hell. Get back to loving people.
Last month, I heard from two different people, both neither members nor regular attenders of Covenant Church, who were at our Christmas Eve service. I asked for their feedback on the service. They both said they felt a warmth and love…a comfortableness. How precious when the Body of Christ is warm and loving.
We can stand firmly in the truth and love each other and our neighbors. It is always a both/and proposition. Sadly, the church at Ephesus had turned it into a either/or. But that's never the choice. Never the choice. Return to your first love.
I love the grace and mercy in the end of this letter. Repent. "Are you listening," Jesus said. "Are you listening?" There's time to turn back to your first love.
And what sweet words those are for us, as well. It's never too late. Love conquers all to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13. Return to the way you first loved, Jesus said, and be assured that heaven is yours. How good is that? Even when we mess up…when we stray…Jesus calls us back to himself and to our place in heaven.
As verse seven explains it:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
The overcomer is the one who remains faithful to Christ to the very end. And the paradise promised is the paradise restored, of perfect fellowship with the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit in heaven. Who would turn their back on that?
Lord, we're so grateful that you've given us your Word. It is rich and powerful. It changes us. It leads us to understand our world. And like this letter to Ephesus, it also convicts us. Deliver us, Lord, from the loss of our first love. Keep us true to Christ. Burn away any coldness in us. We love you, Lord, and we want to love you more. We want to love you with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We want to spend every waking moment in the wonders of your love. Ignite our hearts with the joy of salvation. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.