The letters to the Seven Churches in the book of Revelation started as a circular letter to that group of churches in Asia Minor. They found their way into the New Testament because their relevance was not limited to the churches they were addressed to, or only to churches in the first century. God speaks to Christians as clearly half way around the world and almost 2000 years later. They are God’s words to His church.
‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.
Last week we meditated on the vision of the Risen Christ which the apostle John received late in His life in exile on the island of Patmos. It reveals the Risen Jesus walking among the seven lampstands which represent the seven churches. Indeed Christ holds the life of the seven churches in the palm of His hand. These letters are the Words of the Risen Ascended Glorified Lord. The Letters speak like a sharp two-edged sword into the heart of the life of each church. And each letter asks us today, is your church like that? If the cap fits …
In this first letter to the Church at Ephesus we can find 3 examples to follow, 1 sin to avoid and 3 commands to obey.
THREE AREAS FOR PRAISE
2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, 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.
2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance.
We know that the Christian life should be full of joy. Sometimes we forget that it also demands hard work. Christians put huge amounts of time and effort into their daily work and some into their hobbies as well. If only we were to put as much hard work into our prayer and our worship and our discipleship and our evangelism. The Christian road is a hard uphill climb, if we are doing it right! Thanks to God’s grace, the church at Ephesus was not lacking in hard work.
I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.
In these days of pluralism and pressure to tolerate other religions, it is as important as it was in the Early Church to know the truth and hold fast to the truth. We need to be a church who believe what we preach and preach what we believe. The Church at Ephesus was such a church.
6 But you have this in your favour: you hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
The Nicolaitans were a group who were trying to compromise with pagan religions in the world around. They adopted their pagan beliefs and also their pagan immorality. The Church at Ephesus rightly refused to compromise in beliefs or in morality – and neither should we.
3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
As Spurgeon put it, “By perseverance the snail reached the ark.” God calls us time and time again to say, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish,” in whatever good work He has called us to do. The prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake puts it like this.
‘O Lord God, when thou givest to Thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same unto the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory; through His for the finishing of Thy work laid down His life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.’
That is perseverance. The Church at Ephesus, founded by Paul, led at one time by Timothy, were doing well. Hard work. Sound doctrine. Perseverance. All good things. But even all together they were not enough in God’s eyes. Because Among all these good things, one vital ingredient had gone missing.
YOU HAVE FORSAKEN YOUR FIRST LOVE
4 Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken the love you had at first.
“You do not love as you did at first.” The Church at Ephesus was founded on Love. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul praised them for their love. And Paul prayed that they would know and experience more and more of God’s love.
Ephesians 3:17 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, 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.
But Paul had written to the church at Ephesus early in the 60s AD. Revelation was probably written in the 90s AD while the church was suffering great persecution under the Roman Emperor Domitian. And in those 30 years the Christians had lost their first love. This probably had two sides to it. They had lost their love for God. And they had lost their love for other people.
LOVE FOR GOD
We say we love God. But how much does that love actually show in our praying and our worship? Like starry-eyed lovers beginning a relationship, new Christians often show so much exuberant and unreserved devotion. But as the years go by, us more mature Christians can become more inhibited. That is understandable of course. Decades of hard work wear us out. Years of doing battle with false doctrine wear us down. Persevering to the end is painful and exhausting. Especially if it is the case that we end up doing all these things in our own strength instead of in God’s strength we are bound to get weary and it is almost inevitable that our love for God will fade. We lose our first love. There is another word which means loving God less than we used to. I hesitate to use it. That word is “backsliding”. But the truth is, if our love for God is not still growing then we are probably not just standing still. We are probably sliding back. Be honest – do we really love God as much as we used to? And these things are just as true for our love for other people as well.
LOVE FOR OTHER PEOPLE
Loving other people with God’s kind of love is hard work. Loving other people as Christ has loved us. Forgiving other people as God has forgiven us. Love in pastoral caring. Love in welcoming. Love in sharing the gospel. “All you need is love. Love is all you need” Sounds so easy – but that was the Beatles not the Bible. Loving other people is not easy.
1 Corinthians 13 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
That is God’s kind of love. It is not easy. It is exhausting. No wonder the Ephesians had lost their first love, love for God and love for each other. But what can Christians do if we have lost our first love? What’s the way back to enthusiasm and passion and being on fire for God?
THREE COMMANDS TO OBEY
5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.
In other words, take stock. Take a good long look at where we are now.
Consider how far you have fallen! We should think back to the early days in our Christian lives. To times in the past when we have been closer to God. When we loved God with a passion. Times when we really did love other people as God has loved us!
Repentance means a change of mind. Seeing things the way God sees them. Acknowledging our shortcomings and failures. And seeking God’s strength to change and live a new life.
Repent and do the things you did at first.
DO THE THINGS YOU DID AT FIRST
Look back at the high spots of our love for God and for each other. Then use that as the baseline – the starting point – the bare minimum we will offer to God in the future. Loving God and loving other people as much as we used to – and then more!
Remember – repent – do! Three commands which are as much for any of us as they were for the Church in Ephesus.
And these challenges come with a warning and they come with a promise.
If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
This is not a warning to individual Christians. This is not a threat that Christians can lose their salvation. But it is a solemn warning that congregations and churches and even denominations can lose touch with God. And if that happens, then even whole churches can come under the judgment of God and miss out on His blessing. Which is why it is so important not to lose our first love! But along with the warning, comes a wonderful promise.
7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
This promise is for all Christians in every age, and even for us today. To all who are victorious through hard work, sound doctrine and perseverance. Above all for all who are victorious through love.
To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Or in other words, “if the cap fits.”
A PRAYER FOR REFLECTION AND RESPONSE
Merciful God, I confess to you now that I have sinned.
I confess the sins that no one knows
and the sins that everyone knows;
the sins that are a burden to me
and the sins that do not bother me
because I have got used to them.
We confess our sins as a church.
We have not loved one another as Christ has loved us.
We have not given ourselves in love and service for the world
as Christ gave Himself for us.
Father, forgive us.
Send the Holy Spirit to us, that He may give us power
to live in the way that, by your mercy, you have called us to live.
I confess that I have lived superficially.
I have pushed to the back of my mind the questions that trouble me.
I have not found time to face the emotions that disturb me.
I have hidden from life behind habit, activity and entertainments.
I have avoided You, God, even as you came after me.
In my relationships I have given less than my whole self,
and have been closed to receiving from others
what they wished to give me of themselves.
I have responded to needs for justice with a hard heart.
I have allowed imagination and sympathy to wither.
Routine has been my ally and honesty my dread.
Lord God, we have shut ourselves up.
Come after us again, knock once more, that we may open up to meet others, rediscover ourselves, know your love, and live again.