May 15th, 2017

Churches that don’t love cannot shine light into the darkness.

Revelation 2:1-7


A city of firsts

The city of Ephesus may not mean much to you, but it would if you lived in the first century. Ephesus was a leading city, a crossroads for commerce and culture. Unlike many other ancient cities (Rome and Jerusalem, for example), no modern city was built on the ancient ruins. This has made it much easier for archaeologists to uncover and study the remains. We know Ephesus was a city of firsts.

First in importance. There’s a reason why Ephesus is first among the cities Jesus writes to in Revelation 2 and 3, and why the Apostle Paul’s circular letter to the area is called “Ephesians.” The population of Ephesus was significant (some say about 250,000), but it was also a business hub and tourist destination.

First in architecture. A second century poet (Antipater of Sidon) compiled a list of the seven wonders of the ancient world, including the hanging gardens of Babylon and the pyramids in Egypt. He said, however, that when he saw the temple to Artemis in Ephesus, “those other marvels lost their brilliancy.” Erected of marble, its footprint roughly corresponded to an NFL football field, and it stood about 40 feet high.

First in idolatry. In addition to the temple of Artemis (aka Diana) There were numerous statues and temples to Egyptian, Roman, and Greek gods, including Nike, the goddess of victory. A primary reason Ephesus lies in ruins today is that when the Christians came to power, these idolatrous structures were razed.

First in entertainment. The Great Theater sat 25,000 for plays and other public gatherings. When the Apostle Paul brought the gospel to Ephesus, enraged merchants whose livelihood was at stake gathered in this theater in a near-riot.

First in sin. Some of the idols and artifacts uncovered in Ephesus would be considered lewd by modern standards. The city seems to have been obsessed by sex. A large brothel in a prominent part of the city had numerous facilities for hygiene. Artemis, the city’s number one deity, was the goddess of fertility (aka sex).

First in loyalty. The city had numerous buildings erected to honor various Roman rulers. When Domitian became emperor in AD 81, and then became the first emperor to insist that he be addressed as “Lord and God,” the Ephesians didn’t object. They built him a temple. The Christians, of course, refused to worship a man by that title, and this led to the empire-wide persecution of Christians that, in turn, led to the writing of Revelation.

All of that is about the city, of course. Revelation 2:1-7 is not written to the city. It’s written to the church in Ephesus. Of course, they were associated with the city. For a long time, it was a matter of pride to be “the church in Ephesus.” It’s sort of like being “the church in New York City” or “the church in Las Vegas.” There’s something about being that church that makes you feel like your church is more significant.

Revelation 2:1-7 is written to the community of believers in the city of firsts. It’s written during a time of intense suffering when people are dying or being discriminated against or being exiled because they belong to Jesus. This church is suffering, and they’re not used to it. What do you suppose Jesus will say to a suffering church?

Verse by verse

            1 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.

Each of the letters is addressed to the “angel” of that church. Is this a supernatural being, like a guardian angel, assigned to the church? Many writers think so. I disagree. Why would Jesus need a human being (John) as an intermediary to send a message to one of his angels? The word “angel” can mean “messenger,” and it’s my view that John is to send envoys from the Lord to each church.

Each of the letters also identifies one or more characteristics of Jesus, usually from the vision in chapter 1. There John had seen a vision of Jesus in his majesty, wisdom, authority, strength, and sovereignty – in other words, in his heavenly glory. But this Jesus who “holds the seven stars in his right hand” (completely in charge) also “walks among the seven golden lampstands” (the churches). He’s right there with his suffering church. He’s always with his churches.

Remember: Jesus in his glory is always present with his churches.

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.

The last time the Apostle Paul had met with the elders of the church at Ephesus, he had warned them: “After I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from among your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:29-31).

Across three decades-plus since Paul’s warning, that had happened, but the elders had heeded Paul’s warning. Surrounded by a culture of idolatry and immorality, they had stood strong for what is true and right. Even when persecution came, they endured. They are models of spiritual strength, holding to the truth.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

Verse 4 is almost shocking after verses 2 and 3. What could possibly be wrong with a church that stands strong for what is true and right against such enormous pressure? In spite of that affirmation, Jesus says, “I hold this against you.” Isn’t Jesus supposed to forgive us? Doesn’t he see us as if we’d never sinned? Isn’t he our advocate before the Father, because he paid for all our sins?

All that is true, but remember, this is not written to individuals. This is written to a church, to a community. What’s in view here is not whether they as individuals are saved. The issue is whether their lampstand will keep shining.

I don’t like the recent update of the New International Version for verses 4-5. Let me give you a more literal translation –

But I have against you that you have abandoned your first love. Therefore keep remembering from where you fell, and repent, and do the first works.

The emphasis is on “first love” and “first works.” Jesus wants them as a body to remember their start as a church and repent of how far they have fallen. They live in a proud city that likes to be in first place. Their church was at the top in a city that was at the top. For good reasons! When Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, he said he had not stopped giving thanks for them because of their “faith in the Lord Jesus” and “their love for all the saints” (Ephesians 1:15). They had a reputation for truth and love. Now they were still a church of strong truth but they were no longer a church of love.

Jesus warns them: “If you do not repent, I will come and remove your lampstand.” Churches that don’t love cannot shine light into the darkness.

 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

It seems odd to follow a verse advocating love with a verse advocating hate. But there are things believers must hate or we don’t really love. Jesus reminds the church in Ephesus that learning to love again doesn’t mean they affirm all ideas and practices.

The Nicolaitans were a short-lived break off group from the early church, comparable to the many cults and isms that we still see today. They start by infiltrating the existing church, trying to draw more people into their error. Eventually they tire of trying to “reform” the church and break off into their own sect.

The Nicolaitans advocated Christians believing in Jesus, but also embracing the idolatry and immorality of their culture. You can worship at Artemis’ temple, visit the brothel, and still follow Jesus! Right? Wrong! The church in Ephesus refused such twisted thinking, even “hating” that wickedness. Jesus hates it too.

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.

Each of the seven letters closes with a similar admonition to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Don’t tune this out. This is a letter to them, but it isn’t just to them. That’s why John writes to “seven churches.” The number seven is symbolic, that he is speaking to all his churches, all through time. He is speaking to us.

The promise comes to “the one who is victorious.” Literally, “to the one nike-ing.”  Remember, they had a temple to Nike, the goddess of victory. The victory here, however, is not running up and down the marble street knocking down the idols or clearing out the brothel in Jesus’ name. The victor, the overcomer, is the one who remains faithful to death. That one will eat of the tree of life, which John will describe later in the book.

A message to the suffering

What messages from this letter endure in 21st century Hickory? What might Jesus say to Corinth if this is a message to all his churches?

“I know you better than you know you.” Since this is Mother’s Day, let me phrase it with a different analogy.  Jesus is like a mother. She brought you into the world and has tracked every part of your journey through life. Your mom knew your expressions and temperament when you were in diapers, and you probably haven’t changed much.

My mom loves to tell the story of how she once asked my brother Jim, “Jimmy, who broke this vase?” Jim answered, “Ask Bobby about that.” When she came to me I told her Jimmy did it. She went back to Jim. “Why did you tell me Bobby did it?” He was honest: “I didn’t say Bobby did it; I just said to ask Bobby.” My mother knew her boys well – who was compliant (me!), who was smart and quick-witted (Jim). Moms know their children because they are always on Mom’s mind – even children they have lost. A mom never stops tracking her children. Jesus is like that.

Jesus walks among the lampstands and knows everything about his churches. He knows our advantages and he knows our struggles. He knows our past and he knows our future. Do we ever think that he would look away or become distracted by other priorities? Isaiah quotes the Lord’s response when his people think they are forgotten.

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me (Isaiah 49:15-16).

“Your success is not a promise; it’s a warning.” Here is a word to our church, specifically. We have been so blessed here at Corinth. The Lord continues to enlarge our church family. If you include the new members from two weeks ago and the Confirmands three weeks from today, we will have received almost 90 new members into our body in a 6-week period. I’m still in shock from overachieving our Capital Campaign goal of $3.5 million earlier this year. We’ve paid off more than half our debt on the West Campus – while still setting aside funds for missions.

Corinth is seen as a strong church, a growing church, a church that people tell their friends about. That’s a warning. Success doesn’t breed success. Success breeds complacency. It breeds pride. Success is the devil’s playground. “Look how far you’ve fallen,” Jesus tells the church at Ephesus. The higher you climb the farther the fall.

“Your strengths do not excuse your weaknesses.” This is true on a personal level, but this text is about the church. Jesus likes some things about our church, but some things grieve him. This is the pattern of almost every one of the seven letters, and it is why these are messages to all his churches.

It’s not just that success can be a setup for future failure, it’s that right now Jesus is trying to tell every church, “Just because you do one thing – or lots of things – well, it doesn’t mean that you have made it. I like to say, “The biggest problem with churches is that they’re just full of sinners.” It’s true. And to borrow a line from the Apostle Paul, “I’m the chief sinner.” We can never stop asking what we don’t see about ourselves.

“Suffering does not give you a pass.” This was the most startling insight for me in this week’s Scripture study. Don’t forget that Jesus is sending messages to suffering churches. I mean real suffering, North Korea kind of suffering, where it’s life-threatening to follow Jesus.

We are not surprised that Jesus encourages them by saying, “I’m here among my churches.” We are not surprised that he affirms their perseverance and hard work. They need some kind words. We are appalled that he would say to them, “But I have this against you.” Give them a break! They’ve already been through so much.

Suffering doesn’t get you a pass. Suffering gets your attention. C. S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. Suffering is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[1] It’s not necessarily that you suffer – either individually or corporately – because you’re being punished. Jesus took all your punishment. But in that suffering, he’s speaking to you.

When you’re suffering personally, you don’t get a pass for irritability or withdrawal or blame. You can be honest about your situation and feelings, but those are moments to learn better how to draw near to Christ. The same is true of collective suffering. Jesus says to the church in Ephesus, “Repent!” Turn around! Stop doing some of the things you’re doing. Yes, he says that even though they’re suffering.

“Never forget your first love.” Remember what the church meant to you when you first became a believer? Remember what this church meant to you when you first found it? In a church context, what does your “first love” mean? It means how you thought of the church at first.

You loved the people. You prioritized being with them and serving them. You gave them the benefit of the doubt. They “could do no wrong,” like your “first love” as a teenager. You knew there were flaws, but you did not allow them to distract or divide or diminish. You chose love.

Have you fallen far from that first love for the body of Christ? Have you become more critical, less willing to sacrifice time and money? Have you stopped envisioning not only ways we can be better but how you can help? Have you moved past a willingness to do the mundane as unto the Lord – to serve in the nursery, wash dishes in the kitchen, visit the shut-ins? Have you become more critical and less willing to serve?

These are Jesus’ message to all his churches – even when they are suffering. Each of these letters is an enduring reminder of what matters to him and how his churches can keep their light shining brightly. Amen.

[1] The Problem of Pain, 91.

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