In Revelation 1, John tells how he saw the glorious Risen Jesus. And then the Lord Jesus dictated to John seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor – roughly what is now Turkey, and John's home territory. I want us to look at two of those letters – one now and one tomorrow. Today it's the first of them, the Letter to Ephesus. Tomorrow we'll look at the fourth, the Letter to Thyatira.
To maintain the theme of 'sevens' I've got seven simple questions. They're there on the outline. So:
First, Who Is This Letter To?
"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: …"
It's clear that writing to the angel effectively means writing to the church – because it's the members of the church who are directly addressed in what follows. So this letter is to the church in Ephesus.
The apostle Paul had spent three dramatic years there building up the fledgling church. Later on, Timothy lead the church. 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 there over the years.
But this is also a letter to all churches, in all places and all times. These seven churches are representative of all churches. 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. As we apply the criticisms in these letters, we need to be careful, to make sure that we include ourselves in the heart-searching.
Secondly, Who Is This Letter From?
We've already seen that this is a letter from the risen Christ himself. This is Jesus – once dead, now risen, alive and ruling the universe – talking to us. And Revelation 2.1 says these are:
"The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands."
In Revelation 1.20 Jesus spells out what that means:
"… the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches."
This is a letter from the one who holds the stars – effectively an image of Jesus holding in his hand the churches. Jesus holds the local churches to which we belong in his hand. Indeed, he holds the Church of England 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 works …" When you hold something in your 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. He bought it at the price of his own blood. It is his church.
And it means that he protects us. As Jesus says in another context (this is John 10.27-28):
"My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them … and no one will 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.
That's not all comfort – though it is that. It means accountability and scrutiny for the church. Jesus is in the thick of all that goes on in the church, all the time. We just don't see him.
Just before the Battle of Trafalgar, the British fleet had been on a long and enervating blockade of the enemy. But then the word spread that Admiral Nelson had arrived to take command. The impact of his presence was immediate. There was joy. 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. They knew what they were doing. They were instantly confident of victory, now that Nelson was with them.
Jesus is with us. He holds us in his hand. He walks among us. He leads us. This is his voice.
Thirdly, What Pleases Christ About This Church?
What's in their favour? This is nerve-racking for them, no doubt – but verses 2 and 3 spell it out:
"I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my names's sake, and you have not grown weary."
And also in verse 6:
"Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate."
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 toil," he says. They're busy in service. They're not lazy or idle. Contending for the faith in a tough context is hard graft, but they put in the wearying hours. And hard work pleases Jesus.
- Secondly, they find out false teachers.
"… you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false."
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's heard about them. He says (I quote):
"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."
At a church like this, no one who adds to or subtracts from the plain teaching of the Bible is invited to preach, or to take confirmations, or to teach. False teachers are refused a hearing. And that pleases Jesus.
- Thirdly, they persevere even under pressure. "I know your … patient endurance," Jesus says. They lived in a hostile pagan environment. But they never gave up. Like a marathon runner whose body screams at him to stop, and who at every moment has the option to step off the track, but who keeps on and on, so the Christians in Ephesus just kept on going. 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.
"Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate."
The one thing that's clear about the Nicolaitans is that they encouraged, condoned and practised 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.
This is a sound, hard-working and long-term persevering church. It has that in its favour. And maybe we identify with that. But it's not enough. So – next question:
Fourthly, What Angers Christ About This Church?
We've had the good news. Now for the bad. Verse 4:
"But I have this against you …"
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 says: "But I have this against you…." What is it?
"But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first."
Notice two things. First, this is something they've done. Love isn't something that happens to us. It's something we do.
So secondly, they are to blame for this loss of love. They're not passive victims of a receding tide of emotion about which they can do nothing. The husband of thirty years who's just left his wife says: 'It's not my fault that I don't love my wife any more. It just happened. That's the way it goes.' No. They have abandoned their first love. This must refer to love for God primarily. Indeed, love for Jesus himself. 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 away killing and in danger of being killed. 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, he wrote to a friend asking him to let it be known to Fanny that he never wanted to see her again. And he never did. He abandoned his first love. He did it. It didn't happen to him. And he was to blame.
That kind of thing angers Jesus. And it's not just a matter of everything being OK with this church except for one issue that needs sorting. Remove love from a church and all the rest is useless. 1 Corinthians 13.2:
"… if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing."
But Jesus, tough as he is, has not stopped loving. This isn't 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 therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first."
He's not asking them to do anything difficult. 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 therefore from where 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.
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 – 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 use to be like that. Remember when Christian living was fuelled by your fascination with Jesus. You pay attention to the one you love. You listen. You talk. You eagerly read that newly arrived letter. You act in the best interests of the one you love. Those Ephesian Christians needed to stop, and ponder, and remember. Maybe we do too.
Then, secondly, Jesus tells them to return to their earlier ways of thinking. They had to turn round their thinking, and put Jesus back centre stage.
And then, thirdly, he tells them to repeat what they used to get right. That doesn't mean stopping all they're doing right already, or 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 living 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 it flows from love. The threat is there in the second half of verse 5:
"If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent."
We've already seen 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 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, as the Church of England knows only too well.
So unless a church is continually renewed through the three Rs of recalling, returning, and repeating, so that love is reborn, it will die. That is a word to us. If our love both 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.
That's the threat. But:
Seventhly, What Does Christ Promise This Church?
It's there right at the end of the letter (verse 7):
"To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of 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, presumably because in the end paradise is populated one by one. And it's reminiscent of that wonderful moment when the thief dying on the cross beside Jesus looks over to him, sees him 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, '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 each of us:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."