Love letters are exciting to get aren’t they? They are good for the soul of both the writer and the recipient. One gets the privilege of sharing their heart, their deepest feelings and their desire, while the other gets the thrill of being able to read the words and know that they are the object of such affection and longing. I remember exchanging email with my wife while I was in the slums of Argentina. Each day, there was a sense of anticipation about what Jen might say to me, and each day I longed to get to share with her what I was doing, how I was feeling and how I longed to see her again.
Today, we get to embark on a 7-week journey through the love letters of Jesus Christ to his church. The second and third chapters of Revelation are composed of a series of 7 letters written to 7 churches. For those who have read the 2nd and 3rd chapters, most walk away with a sense of discouragement. I mean, nearly all the letters address some major fault occurring in the church, and we are going to talk about these faults and what they mean for the modern day church, but I don’t want us to see these rebukes as negative. Rather, I want us to approach these letters with new eyes. Let’s approach these letters as love letters written by Christ to his bride, the church. If we can do this, we will see that these are letters that relay Christ’s heart for the church – for her beauty and health, her cleansing and her vibrant witness. They are letters that lay out his greatest desires and his concerns for his bride.
Though each of these seven letters begins with an address to a specific church, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus [or Smyrna, or Pergamum, etc] write:” (Rv 2:1, 8, 12), they all conclude with words for the entire church, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rv 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22). Therefore, the contents of the letters, the encouragements and the warnings and chastisements are for all churches, in all times. Let us not forget, over the next seven weeks to ask whether Christ’s encouragements are also for us, individually and corporately, it we are doing the same things, nor should we forget to ask whether his rebukes are for us, individually and corporately, if we are doing the same things.
Another common trait each of these seven letters shares is a signature of sorts. Just as a set of lovers will sign the letter, “yours truly” or “with all my love” or some other way, so also Jesus in his love letter to each church signs it with a unique description of his character which is meant to encourage the church. Today’s letter is signed with these words “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Rv. 2:1).
The one who encourages and rebukes the church holds her fast in his hand. They are his people. They are his church. They are his bride, never to be forsaken for he loses none placed in his hands, and so the words, which he speaks, including the rebuke, are words that are meant to bring her life, hope and a future. And not only does he hold her; but he walks among the churches. The one speaking is present in the life of the church and in her witness. For Jesus says, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). The one who writes to the Ephesians is also the one who is writing to us!
So what words of encouragement does our risen and glorious Christ speak to his church? Jesus has 7 things that he is very pleased with in the Ephesian church. First, they labor for the gospel. I know your deeds, your hard work (Rv 2:2). They have been hard working soldiers in the service of the King. They are contending for Christ in the midst of an apostate and idolatrous city. Ephesus was the home of Artemis the goddess. Ephesus was the city where a great uproar and riot had started because of Paul’s preaching and Demetrius the silversmith had caused the early church quite a bit of trouble (Acts 19). But these believers have been laboring; they are working hard to make sure that the truth of the God is being proclaimed.
And as you can guess, the second thing Jesus rejoices over is that the Christians were persevering though their proclamation was met with trial, and trouble and difficulty. Twice, Jesus mentions their perseverance in the midst of difficulty as a mark of their steadfastness. These folks are engaged in the harvest of souls and the proclamation of truth in difficult circumstances.
Now before we move, our church must sit up and take note of what pleases the Savior. He loves those who labor for the kingdom. Remember, the fields are ripe for harvest (Jn 4:35). (Matt. 9:38) Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Would our Lord say that we are a laboring church? We definitely labor to keep the building maintained and to do some acts of service in our community. We labor to teach friendship and gems, but are each of us laboring for the gospel in our society? Would Jesus declare that we are persevering and enduring hardship for his name and the sake of the gospel? Friends, Proclaiming the messiah to the world is our call, our prerogative, and our joy. And I struggle with it as much as you! I struggle to preach Christ in every situation and at every opportunity. Just this week I missed some great opportunities to correct my doctor’s misconceptions of the church. It was easier to side step the issue than to expose myself to possible persecution. But that is not how I want to live. I want my God to tell me, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance…You have persevered and endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary (Rv 2:1, 3). Well done good and faithful servant…Come and share your Master’s happiness (Mt 25:21).” So let us cry out to God to give us a burning zeal and desire to labor for the kingdom and the name of Christ.
The Third and fourth and fifth things our Lord is pleased with revolve around the fact that the Ephesian Christians can’t tolerate wicked and evil people and test them and ultimate pronounce judgment upon those who don’t conform to the teaching of the gospel. This church has been putting into practice what the apostle John wrote in 1Jn 4:1 – “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” They received Paul’s words of warning in all seriousness: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).
This church has been exposing the fruitless deeds of darkness (Eph 5:11) and they have been striving not to be “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14). I believe they have done this in two ways, neither of which are mentioned in our passage but which John outlines in his epistles:
First they probably tested doctrinal truth. 1John 2:22 declares that those who are false “deny that Jesus is the Christ” and 1John 4:2 elaborates on that by stating, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is form God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. Falsehood and deception in the church often begins in a denial of God incarnating into the world as the savior of humanity. These Ephesians were laboring to proclaim this message and suffering for their belief in it. They were testing all who came their way and refusing to tolerate any doctrinal aberration.
And the second way these false apostles, teachers and prophets could be discerned was by their life. Again, John’s epistles contain a wealth of instruction on recognizing the true and false disciple of Christ by their life or conduct. Love is the hallmark of the disciple. Love. These false teachers either failed to hold to true doctrine or they failed to love, and more than likely it was both that were missing from their life. As the epistles declare, “he who does with a is righteous is righteous” (1Jn 3:7) “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother (1Jn 3:10).
Again before we move on, Let me ask if we are a people who test spirits? Are we familiar enough with the word of God that we can discern truth from error in our churches, our leaders and ourselves? Are we judging by doctrine exclusively or by lifestyle solely, or do we realize that both must be wed – doctrine and life, faith and deeds? Are we willing to declare to those in error the error of their ways whether they are friends, children or the leaders of the church, or have we fallen into an unholy acceptance of a sub par faith because we want to be liked…? Oh Christ wants and indeed deserves and demands a church that is holy and pure in doctrine and in life.
The sixth thing they have going is a hatred of idolatry. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate (Rv 2:6). I am not going to go into the Nicolaitan’s today, for we will be returning to them in a later letter. But let me simply say, that the Nicolaitan teaching seems to have welded aspects of idol worship and fornication with Christian liberty.
So far we have covered 6 wonderful qualities of the church in Ephesus. They Labor for the gospel, and they persevere and endure under trial. They test the spirits and the message proclaimed by comparing it to solid doctrine and a holy life. Those who fail wither test, they refuse to tolerate and appropriately discern as being not of Christ, and they hate idolatry. The last point of beauty in this church is her unending energy. [You] have not grown weary. (Rv 2:3) As Isaiah 40:31 declares, “but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” This church has put its hope in the Lord and they are experiencing his unending vitality and energy. They are strong and able and eager to keep on testifying to the truth.
There is strength to be found in the Lord. Surely these Christians wanted the persecution to stop. Surely they wanted a Christian culture that would embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior. Surely they wanted to see the answers to their prayers for friends and family to come to faith. Surely they wanted truth to reign in every area of life. And yet, when their prayers weren’t answered immediately, they didn’t give up, as you or I would probably do. They didn’t stop working to preach the Gospel. They didn’t stop working to proclaim Christ crucified, buried, resurrected and ascended. They didn’t stop, but rather they had an enduring energy.
Are we finding our strength in the Lord as we seek the enlargement of his kingdom? <LONG PAUSE>
Isn’t that a beautiful picture of faithfulness to the Lord? I mean given the world we live in and the state of the church today, wouldn’t it be a refreshing picture to find churches that are doctrinally strong? Wouldn’t it be a gift to find believers who endured hostility in the face of opposition and continued to stand strong without growing weary in the spiritual battle? Wouldn’t it be a joy to find churches that tested the spirits, discerned the truth and actually practiced church discipline in a way that evil wasn’t tolerated? Wouldn’t it be a joy to see the church identifying idolatry and her members refusing to participate in it? That would be a joy to my soul, just as it was a joy to Jesus’ soul. The Ephesian church has been faithful in the midst of an apostate city.
But there was one part of this church’s life which the Lord wanted his bride to take note of and to correct. There was one deficiency in her life, if you will. Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love (Rev 2:4).1 There are many interpretations of this phrase. Some see it as failing to love each other, some say it is a failure to love God, others propose that it is a love of truth more than a love of God, and some believe it to be a failure to love the unconverted. Truthfully, I think there is merit to each, though the love of truth over the love of people is a final option that seems to make the most sense to me given their penchant for testing the spirits of truth and falsehood. And unfortunately, when we love truth over loving people, then our witness in the world is compromised and our testimony of Christ is destroyed.
As Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1Cor 13:1-3). Or in this case, if I diligently guard the truth of the gospel from every error and faithfully discipline the members of the church for holiness, but have not love for people, it is useless. You see, as is often the case, much of what people do can be done without Love. All the works of the Ephesian church have been done without love. They have forgotten to love people.
In a culture where the gospel is turning father against child, friend against friend, coworker against coworker, it would be easy to stop loving and to become suspicious. In a situation where doctrines are constantly discerned as true or false and teachers are judged as legitimate or illegitimate, it would be easy to forget to love the person while you are judging their words and actions. But this wasn’t always so for the Ephesians. Paul had declared they had once been full of love, “For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you” (Eph 1:15-16).
Remember the Love you had, Jesus commands. Remember your love for the saints and start loving again, for if you don’t, then the church will cease to be a light to the world. As Jesus had declared already, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:35). Love each other. Bear with one another. Speak the truth to one another in Love. Put on the new self created to be like God and though the Ephesians passage goes on to describe being like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24), we know that righteousness and holiness is another description for Love, because God is love (1Jn 4:8). Don’t forget the first love, the love of people, for the love of truth must always be paired with a love for people.
Love people enough to tell them the gospel in a way that they will sense the grace, mercy and love of God flowing from us, and not just our judgmental hearts? Love people enough that you will live the gospel in front of them, sacrificing your life and comfort in order to testify to the person and work of our Lord? Love people enough that when you hear something that isn’t the gospel, you will correct the error in Love so that all may know that Jesus Christ came in the flesh to suffer and die for the wrath of God that all our sins, errors, angers, lies, adulteries, thievery, lusting and so forth deserve? Friends, love people enough that you would rather be wronged by a person in this body than to seek to wrong them in return? Love them enough that you will defer to others on matters that are not essential to the gospel of sin, salvation and redemption.
Friends, just as the Ephesians were being called to be a faithful church, we also are being called to be faithful. Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. And let me promise you that this is possible, for our Lord walks among the lampstand, he is present in the church and where the Lord is Love is, where the spirit of the lord is, peace is, and all of this presupposes that truth is present – the truth of God, the truth of Christ, the truth of the Spirit. And when love and truth are paired in our life, then our Lord says that we too have the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God (Rv 2:7). Oh what a beautiful way for Christ to say to his Church, “I love you!”
1 For great discussion of various options for what “first love” refers to see Osborne, Revelation, p. 115-6; Beale, Revelation, p.230-1. Beale argues for ‘first love’ to be ‘covenantal task of enduring in preaching the gospel.’ Osborne presents the idea that “first love” does not “refer to the ‘first’ or primary love but almost certainly means ‘the love you had at first…the first flush of enthusiasm and excitement in their Christian life and had settled into a cold orthodoxy with more surface strength than depth.” Is it a love for God or a love for people? It is both, but the Ephesians have lost that and have grown to love truth now more than either God or people.