This church is in mortal danger. Let me explain why. Those of us who were here last week heard Ian speaking on Revelation 1, and John’s vision of the Risen Jesus. We can remind ourselves of what happens at the end of that by taking a look at p1234 in the pew Bibles. Let me read from verse 17:
When I [that is John] saw him [that is the Risen Christ in his glory], I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.”
And then what happens is that the Lord Jesus dictates to John seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor – roughly what is now Turkey, and John’s home territory. We have the content of those letters in chapters 2 and 3, and over the next few Sunday evenings we’re going to be working through them one by one.
This evening we’re looking at the first of these seven letters. And to maintain the theme of ‘sevens’ I’ve got seven questions that I want to use to interrogate this letter to help us to be clear about its meaning and its implications. You can see those seven questions on the sheet that you were given. They’ll also come up on the screen as we go through, along with my answers in sub-headings that you might like to jot down on that sheet. So:
First, WHO IS THIS LETTER TO?
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:…
Writing to the angel of the church means writing to the church – it’s the members of the church who are directly addressed in what follows. So the simple answer to the question is that this letter is written to the church in Ephesus.
The apostle Paul had spent three dramatic years there building up the fledgling church – read Acts 19-20 for that. Later on Timothy, lead the church, and we have Paul’s letters to Timothy when he was in Ephesus in the New Testament. The apostle John himself, who writes Revelation, in later years apparently became the leader of the Ephesian church. So they had a powerful teaching ministry over the years.
And Ephesus was a powerful city. It was a regional capital with a population of about 250,000 – the same as Newcastle, at a time when populations generally were tiny in comparison to today. So this is a major city. It was a port city, on a river, a few miles from the sea, and fiercely proud of its independence and identity. It boasted, I quote, “a major stadium, marketplace, and theatre”. Sounds more and more like Newcastle to me. Apparently they always wore t-shirts in mid-winter as well.
But it’s not enough to say that this is a letter to the church in Ephesus. It is also a letter to all churches, in all places and all times. Revelation is full of sevens. Seven represents completeness – just as seven days make a whole week. The seven churches to whom these seven letters are written are intended to be representative of all churches. And this letter was never intended only for Ephesus. This is a word of Christ to the whole church.
So that means, in particular, that this is a letter to us. Each of the seven letters addresses a church facing different issues and with different strengths and weaknesses. We need to hear all of them. Some will be more particularly relevant than others. And if the cap fits, wear it. We have to decide for ourselves whether this applies particularly to us. But we need to be careful to do one thing as we apply criticism to this or any church that we belong to: we have to include ourselves. We have to say, ‘that applies to us’ – not ‘that applies to them’.
Secondly, WHO IS THIS LETTER FROM?
We’ve already seen that this is a letter from the risen Christ himself. It’s his voice that John hears saying:
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write…”
So this is Jesus – once dead, now risen, alive and ruling the universe – talking to us. I once heard someone imagining what it might be like if Jesus – the real Jesus – came back temporarily to earth and it was announced that he would be the main speaker at, say, Spring Harvest, or an event at the Metro Arena. Everyone would want to be there. It would be packed out. Fulsome introductions over, Jesus steps forward to the microphone. A hush descends. You could hear a pin drop as everyone hangs on his words. What will he say? And Jesus starts to speak. And he says: “I’m back just for a short time and I simply want to say this. Everything I want to say to you is in here.” And he raises a small book – evidently a Bible – in his hand. “This is where you can hear my voice at any time,” he continues. “Do what I say. Now I am going away again. One day I will return for good.” And then he steps away from the microphone and walks off and it’s all over in less than a minute.
This letter is from Jesus. This is his voice. As verse 7 says:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
And 2.1 goes on:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.
We saw last week that in 1.20 Jesus spells out what that means:
The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and seven lampstands are the seven churches.
This is a letter from the one who holds the stars. Jesus holding the seven stars is effectively an image of Jesus holding in his hand the churches. Jesus holds JPC in his hand. What’s the significance of that? Three things, I think.
It means he knows us. So he goes on in verse 2: “I know your deeds…” When you hold something in our hand, you can look at it closely. Jesus has a view about us. He sees us up close.
It also means he owns us. What he holds in his hand is his own possession. It’s not on loan. It’s no one else’s. He bought it at the price of his own blood. This is his church.
And it means that he protects us. As Jesus says in another context (this is John 10.28):
My sheep listen to voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.
This is also a letter from the one who walks among the lampstands. The lampstands are the churches. In other words, Jesus is with us. He is not just a distant power. He’s not even over at the Metro Arena. He is actually with us, by his Spirit. As he promises in Matthew 19.20:
For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
That’s not all comfort, because it means accountability and scrutiny for this church. Jesus is no absentee landlord who has no idea what’s going on in that rented student house – at least until the end of the summer term when he gets back what’s left of it. (An unfair example, I know, as I’m sure the vast majority of students are exemplary tenants – of course including you and your friends). Jesus is in the thick of all that goes on here, all the time. We just don’t see him.
But as well as accountability, the presence of Jesus means assistance. He helps us. He guides us. He gives us the power to do what he wants us to do – not via some long cable from heaven, but from right beside us, taking our hands and putting an arm around our shoulders.
The observant among you might have noticed from sermon illustrations that I’m reading a biography of Lord Nelson (the one on top of the column in Trafalgar Square). Just before the Battle of Trafalgar, the British fleet had been on a long and tedious blockade of the enemy. But then the word spread that Admiral Nelson had arrived to take command. The impact of his presence was immediate. One of the captains wrote: “Lord Nelson has arrived. A sort of general joy is the consequence.”
There was a sense that now at last things would begin to move, and there would be action. Nelson gathered his captains and spelled out what they were going to do. It was, he wrote, ‘like an electric shock’ going through the whole company. They were invigorated and inspired. They knew what they were doing. They were instantly confident of victory, now that Nelson was with them.
No mere admiral, but Jesus himself walks among us. He holds us in his hand. That is who this letter is from. This is his voice. What, then, does he say? That brings us to the next question:
Thirdly, WHAT PLEASES CHRIST ABOUT THIS CHURCH?
What is in their favour? This is nerve-racking for them, no doubt – but verses 2 and 3 spell it out:
I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
There are four things here that they do right. If and when Jesus sees any of these things in this church and in us, he is pleased. He reckons them in our favour.
First, they work hard. “I know… your hard work,” he says. They are busy in service. They’re not lazy or idle. They don’t spend all their time on leisure activities that give them pleasure but that are useless to anyone else. When a job needs doing, you can rely on someone in the church to step up and the job gets done. When appeals go out for volunteers to do all the hard slog of making a holiday club or a youth camp go well, the lists get filled quickly. And hard work pleases Jesus.
Secondly, they find out false teachers. Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop who was martyred in the early second century. On his way to Rome where he was to be, literally, thrown to the lions, he wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus. We still have it. At one point he comments on what he has heard about them. He says: "truth is the guiding principle of your lives, and heresy is so far from gaining a foothold among you that any speaker who goes beyond the simple truth about Jesus Christ is refused a hearing."
No one who adds to or subtracts from the plain teaching of the Bible is invited to preach, or to speak on weekends away, or to do evangelistic talks at this church in Ephesus. False teachers are named and shamed – or at least refused a hearing. And that pleases Jesus.
Thirdly, they persevere even under pressure. They live in a hostile pagan environment. Ephesus was famous for its temple of Diana. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, four times the size of the Parthenon that still sits so impressively atop the Acropolis in Athens. It dominated the city and was the largest Greek temple ever built. Maybe they faced ever more anti-Christian legislation and in the great amphitheatre theatrical productions that were abusive of their faith. But whatever the difficulties, they never gave up. Like a marathon runner who, with his body screaming at him to stop, at every moment has the option to step off the track and rest, but who keeps on and on, so the Christians in Ephesus just kept on with the ministry, no matter what. Nothing would deter them. And Jesus was pleased with that.
Fourthly, they hate evil behaviour. It’s not just bad doctrine they won’t stand for. They wouldn’t stand for ungodly behaviour either. In fact it’s quite possible that they had ‘Godly Living’ in their mission statement. Verse 6:
… you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
The one thing that’s clear about the Nicolaitans is that they encouraged, condoned and practiced immoral behaviour in some form. The gory details aren’t relevant so the Holy Spirit hasn’t told us. But anyone in the Ephesian church tempted to follow the Nicolaitans down that road would have been subject to church discipline and in the end they’d either have to go or change their ways. And Jesus was pleased with that.
The good thing about a doctrinally sound, hard-working, long-term persevering church is that it’s sound, hard-working and persevering. It has that in its favour. But it’s not enough. So – next question:
Fourthly, WHAT ANGERS CHRIST ABOUT THIS CHURCH?
We’ve seen what’s in their favour – but what’s against them? We’ve had the good news. Now for the bad news. Verse 4:
Yet I hold this against you…
Can you hear Jesus saying that to us? He’s not saying that the good things aren’t good. He’s acknowledged those areas. But there are problem areas too. And there’s no hiding them from him, though we might hide them even from ourselves. But think of the thumping of the heart and the wave of shame and the downcast look and the prick of tears behind the eyes as Jesus looks directly at us and gets half way through that sentence: ‘Yet I hold this against you…’ What does he hold against us? We need to know, because we need to change. We do know what he held against the church in Ephesus:
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.
Now notice two things about this. First, this is something they have done. It’s not ‘Your first love has forsaken you’ but ‘you have forsaken your first love’. Love is not something that happens to us. It’s something we do.
And the second thing to notice follows from that. They are to blame for this loss of love. They are not passive victims of some emotional receding tide about which they can do nothing. It’s their fault that they don’t love like they used to. Admittedly that is a thought that is deeply counter-cultural in our own society, as no doubt it was in theirs. You can almost hear the husband of thirty years who’s just left his wife saying: ‘It’s not my fault that I don’t love my wife any more. It just happened. That’s the way it goes.’ No.
Yet I hold this against you [Jesus says]: You have forsaken your first love.
That’s what angers Christ. They have forsaken their first love. Love for whom? I think this must be a double love that Jesus is talking about – that is, both love for God and love for neighbour. Because the two are yoked together. Lose one and the other goes too. But primarily, this must be referring to love for God – indeed, love for Jesus himself. With absolutely no sense of the self-pity that would characterise us in such a situation, Jesus is saying: ‘You don’t love me any more. You used to. But over the years you’ve stopped.’
Lest you think that my admiration for the leadership skills of Nelson as a naval commander has blinded me to his faults, let me tell you how he treated his wife. She was never unfaithful to him. People regarded her as rather a worrier, and she always wanted Nelson at home rather than to be the other side of the world for years at a time killing, collecting one wound after another and in danger of being killed. And that’s hardly surprising. But Nelson decided that the charms of Emma Hamilton (herself a married woman) were more to his liking. And he progressively and brutally withdrew from Fanny, his wife. He did his duty by her, as he saw it – gave her plenty of money to live on. But he ceased giving anything of himself. And in the end, from his ship on the way home from another campaign, he wrote to a friend asking him to tell Fanny that he never wanted to see her again, or hear from her, or have anything more to do with her. And he never did. One time she wrote to him, wanting to be reconciled. He simply sent her letter back to her, marked ‘opened in error’. He forsook his first love. He did it. It didn’t happen to him. And he was to blame.
That kind of thing angers Jesus. He holds it against us. He held it against the church in Ephesus that they had forsaken their first love for him. And that is not a small thing. It’s not a matter of most things being OK but their being just one issue that needs sorting. This is a classic case of the strychnine in the coffee. The coffee might be fine, but add poison and it’s fatal. Remove love from a church and all the rest is useless. 1 Corinthians 13.2:
if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
But Jesus, tough as he is, has not stopped loving. This is not a word of condemnation. It’s a wake-up call. So – next question:
Fifthly, WHAT DOES CHRIST COMMAND THE CHURCH TO DO?
It’s there in the first half of verse 5:
Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.
He’s not asking them to do anything difficult. This is not anything they haven’t done before – even in their early days as a church. It doesn’t take great ministry skill, or long pastoral experience, or even wise judgement. It doesn’t require immense maturity or encyclopaedic knowledge of the Scriptures. He just wants them to get back to basics. Back to the three Rs. Recall. Return. Repeat.
First, he tells them to recall what they used to be like. ‘Remember the height from which you have fallen’. As far as he’s concerned, for all their hard work and sound doctrine, they used to be up on the summit and now they’re down in the depths. I suppose it’s churches – and indeed disciples – who have been around for a while who are prone to fall into this trap. This church began the second phase of its existence – with this building as its home – back in 1861. We’ve been around for while.
What does so-called Christian living turn into when you cut out its beating heart and remove the love? I suppose hard work becomes resentment-driven drudgery. Testing the doctrine of others becomes an exercise in self-righteousness, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story who proudly prayed, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men’. We become more interested in condemning others than in protecting their victims and if possible correcting and saving them. Perseverance becomes a mindless habit of hollow duty, or a stoical gritting of the teeth with no purpose other than a bloody-minded determination not to beaten.
But it didn’t used to be like that, and it doesn’t have to be. Do you remember when your Christian living was fuelled by your fascination with Jesus? It was a personal thing. A relationship of love. What was that first love like? You pay attention to the one you love. You listen. You talk. You eagerly read that newly arrived letter, and carry it around with you. You act in the best interests of the one you love. Those Ephesian Christians need to stop, and ponder, and remember. What was it once like for them? Maybe they needed to reread that letter the apostle Paul had sent to them decades before. Ephesians 1.15:
… 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…
And Paul ended that letter:
Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.
Then, secondly, Jesus tells them to return to their earlier ways of thinking. That’s what it means to repent. They had to turn round their thinking, and put Jesus, and the cross, and their love for God, and the needs of their neighbours, back in centre stage. Love had to become their driving motivation once more.
And then, thirdly, he tells them to repeat what they used to get right. That doesn’t mean stopping doing all the things they’re doing right now. It doesn’t mean somehow working up an artificial emotional response. It means correcting their motivation and giving due attention once again to their Lord, who holds them in his hand and walks among them, but whose presence they seem to have forgotten.
And the urgency of this is clear from the answer to the next question:
Sixthly, WHAT DOES CHRIST THREATEN THIS CHURCH WITH?
I wondered whether ‘threaten’ was the right word to use here, because we’re so used to threats that flow from hatred. I decided it is, because the threat is real, even though, as always with Jesus, it flows from love and a desire to see change. The threat is there in the second half of verse 5:
If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
What does that mean? We’ve already see that the lampstand is the church itself. So to threaten the church with the removal of its lampstand is to threaten the church with death if it doesn’t change. If they don’t change the church will die.
How do churches die? Some gradually, by decline. Some through internal disunity and strife – in other words, through disease. And others die by the pressure of external factors beyond their control – in other words through destruction. Whether by decline, disease, or destruction, churches are dying all the time.
In fact, unless a church is continually renewed through the three Rs of recalling, returning, and repeating, so that love is reborn over and over again, it will die. That is what Jesus warns us of. That’s a word to us. If our love for Christ and for one another and for those among whom we live is not continually reborn, we will die. We might run around like a decapitated chicken for a while before we fall over and kick our legs in the air. But we’ll still be dead inside – and in the eyes of Jesus.
That’s the threat. But:
Seventhly, WHAT DOES CHRIST PROMISE TO THIS CHURCH?
It’s there right at the end of the letter (verse 7):
To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
It’s a promise of eternal life in paradise. It’s given in terms of the individual faithful believer, note – presumably because in the end paradise is populated one by one. And it’s reminiscent of that wonderful moment when that thief dying on the cross beside Jesus looks over to him, sees Jesus hanging there on the true tree of life, and repents of his earlier hateful treatment of Jesus, and begins to love him. It’s almost too late for him – but not quite. And he says to Jesus, ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’. And Jesus promises to him: ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise’.
That’s quite a promise. A promise worth living, loving, and dying for. And one last word from Jesus to this church and to each one of us:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.