Text: Revelation 2:1-7
Over the next eight weeks or so we are going to be looking at the letters to the churches in Revelation. You heard the set up for this in the first scripture reading today. John had a vision of Jesus and in that vision Jesus spoke a message to seven different prominent churches in early church. This was a generation or two after the life and ministry of Jesus. Churches had been established across the Greek and Roman world. Paul had written the epistles in the New Testament to a number of them. And this is set slightly later than that. In fact, our first letter is to the Church in Ephesus, one whose founding is described in Acts and to whom an epistle (Ephesians) was written. There were also several letters to Timothy, one of its first pastors. And we’ll see even 40-50 years into its existence, the church in Ephesus continued to struggle with similar things as in its early days.
So in this series I want to look at the messages to these early churches. I think that’s valuable from a historical and biblical perspective, to know what things the early church struggled with and what needed to be prioritized. It’s valuable to look at these for our own church life together, to consider what we struggle with and what needs to be prioritized. And finally, since the church isn’t a building or even a location, but people – specifically you and me – I think these letters are valuable to consider what we struggle with and what needs to be prioritized as individual followers of Jesus.
Each letter follows a similar five-fold pattern:
1. Description of Jesus: the description has some correlation to what’s going on in that church.
2. I know you: describes something good about the church (if there is something)
3. I have this against you: describes an area of sin or shortcoming
4. Consequences: the result of not addressing the sin or shortcoming
5. If you hear and overcome: the path to repentance and restoration
We’ll look at that each week for the church in Revelation and then look for application to ourselves.
Who is Jesus? (v.1)
Jesus begins his message to Ephesus with this introduction: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this…” (v.1) In other words, Jesus is Lord of the Church… not only Ephesus, but the whole Church. He is speaking, he knows what’s going on, he is the righteous judge, so listen up!
I Know You (vv.2-3)
What does he have to say? “I know you…” “I know you; I know your deeds and your toil and your perseverance… you are some hard workers; I know your work, how hard you work, and how hard you work at working hard!” What is it they work so hard at? They cannot tolerate evil men, and they test those who would teach falsely and find them to be false.
And then it is noted some more how hard they work at this and persevere in it. It’s the Truth that they have latched on to, and they have made it the #1 thing for them. If you asked them what it means to be the Church, they would answer, “Truth!” They are diligent and careful and test all things against the Word and Spirit and they will not stand for any falsehood.
And they are right for doing so. They are right according to Scripture and they are right in keeping with what Paul urged their parents and grandparents to do a generation earlier. Except… that’s not all he said. They have worked exceedingly hard at one-half of a whole. It’s like learning how to swing a tennis racquet but never using a ball. And they have practiced and practiced and practiced the swing over and over and have it down. But no ball; no game; no tennis.
And note that Jesus didn’t say, “Well done; you’ve really excelled at truth.” He simply says, “I know you, about your truth.”
I Have This Against You (v.4)
Jesus continues, “But I have this against you… you have left your first love.” Let’s consider what “first love” might mean.
Broadly, it sounds like the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the first and greatest of the Commandments. This may well be what is in view.
More specifically, I believe it refers to the love they had “at first.” To understand that love I would return to Ephesians, the letter written to this same community a generation earlier. In chapter four, in the midst of the section about how the grace of God in Jesus Christ builds the church together in unity in order to build them out into mission, Paul writes this – listen for ‘love’:
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Did you hear it? “Walk worthy of your Christian calling… showing tolerance for one another in love.” I believe this, too, is the “first love” that the Ephesians have lost. They have so focused on truth that they have forgotten the love that unites and binds in Christ. It’s interesting that the word “tolerate” is found here and in Revelation. They know how to not tolerate evil people, but they have forgotten how to show tolerance for one another in love.
What they have persevered in doing is not supporting or “carrying” (perhaps even ‘enabling’) evil people. What they have forgotten is how to “endure” or “bear” with one another for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. Something has been lost in the Ephesian church, and it flows out of Christian grace and love.
So when Jesus continues and says, “Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first… or else!” I look to again to that same passage in Ephesians, where we can read about what deeds they were doing at first. There I read about living out the faith with “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, and being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (vv. 2-3)
That is what has been lost and that is what Jesus says they must rediscover as their first love.
Hear me clearly; I am not saying that truth is not important. I think that’s why Jesus circles around and does hold up the rejection of the Nicolaitans, a pagan false teaching of the day that involved worship of idols. Truth is important. It is entirely possible to distort love by forgetting the truth, so that one takes on a “do whatever you want” attitude, saying that “God will look the other way.” The truth is that God is a pure and holy God, piercingly righteous and true. But just as surely as people can forget truth and err, so they can forget love and err, and the letter to the church in Ephesus shows just how grave that error can be.
Jesus doesn’t commend their diligent pursuit of truth and tell them just to loosen up a little. If they don’t remember and REPENT and rediscover the love they had and showed at first then they do not have a place in His Kingdom. That’s how critical love is in the Christian Church.
This is a hard word for lovers of truth. Ironically, it is a word of truth for lovers of truth; and it is one filled with grace, for it summons us to repentance and rediscovery of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then, to those who overcome cold truth alone, repent, and rediscover that first love – of truth and others – they will eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. The alternatives are a church whose light goes out or a church that lives and participates in the life of God.
For Those With Ears to Hear
To further explain, listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew. And listen to the context: he is talking about the future, as the end draws near. It’s the same kind of context for which Revelation is written.
Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:11-14)
Did you hear that? When lawlessness is increased, love will grow cold. But it is precisely that Christ-filled love that will cause Gospel truth to penetrate into a lawless world. Pure, cold truth will not do it alone, but faith lived out as love – embodied and incarnated in our lives. That is our testimony to the nations, to the culture around us.
The purpose of truth is not to “win” or feel morally superior, but as God’s loving best, offered in love to the world. It is Good News worth sharing, not to be hoarded among the faithful or used to whip the unfaithful. Rather, the Gospel of love and truth is to be lived out one conversation, one encounter, one life at a time in the places you live and move and interact.
Where have you lost the balance between truth and love? What would it look like to restore that balance in your own life?
I won’t connect all the dots for you today. You are smart enough to do that. I believe this teaching has great application for our witness as Presbyterians, as members of the Good Shepherd family, and as individual believers trying to live out our faith in an increasingly polarized culture in dire need of some hope and help.
As Jesus said, “For those with ears to hear.” Amen.