One Small Problem?
Scripture: Revelation 2:1–5
One Small Problem?Revelation 2:1-5
Sunday, August 19, 2001
Pastor Randy Smith
As we conclude our series entitled "Distinctives of a NT Church," I thought it appropriate to spend our final two weeks examining two biblical churches as a whole that summarize and epitomize the specific components we've studied the past 10 weeks. Throughout the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit has given us both positive and negative examples of God-honoring churches. Next week I plan to illustrate positively from the model church in Thessalonica. However, this morning I intend to present a negative example, a church that failed miserably in her calling. You ask, why dwell on the negative?
He was a member of the gold metal 1984 Olympic team. He was fresh out of college in North Carolina and recently drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the third overall pick. The man's name is Michael Jordan. It was an exciting time for the young athlete. However, the Olympic coach was Bobby Knight, the tyrannical and recently terminated coach from Indiana University. Bobby Knight liked to yell and at times even get physical with his players. The mild-mannered Jordan was asked, "How do you exist under the oppressive leadership of Bobby Knight?" His response, "I listen for what he reprimands others for doing, and then I don't make the same mistakes myself."
That is our intent this morning. That's why we are examining a negative example. Let's listen to see how God reprimands other churches and then refuse to make the same mistakes ourselves. The study of history is profitable; it teaches us the consequences of poor decisions. So this morning, let's learn from someone else's mistakes.
Well, where should we go? Unfortunately, there are many negative examples of a New Testament church in the Scriptures. Let me show you a few we could examine. Open your Bibles to Revelation 3, beginning in verse 1. The church at Sardis was known as the lifeless church. "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars, says this: 'I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, (their reputation doesn't fool God) but you are dead. (Their outer appearance was nothing more than a facade.) Wake up, (from your spiritual slumber) and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. (They had fallen far short of fulfilling their obligations as believers.) Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. (The consequence and condition for refusing to repent…) If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you. (Not a reference to His second coming, but rather a stinging indictment and intention to afflict harm and destruction upon this church.)" (Rev. 3:1-3). This is a sermon screaming to be preached; yet it will have to wait for another Lord's Day.
Maybe we should study the church at Laodicea (the lukewarm church), another negative example. Let your eyes roam down to verse 14. "And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen (signifies certainty), the faithful and true Witness (signifies accuracy), the Beginning of the creation of God (signifies supremacy), says this: 'I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot (there is a welcomed place for water at those temperatures). So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. (Just as we have no taste for lukewarm water, the Lord has no taste for false converts and hypocrites.)" (Rev. 3:14-16).
This would be another good example for which we could learn much. But, this morning I chose to examine the church at Ephesus. That church appeared to be vibrant, but struggled with "one small problem." Yet that "one small problem" was so serious, the Lord threatened to end her existence as a New Testament church. The objective this morning is to identify that problem and examine our own hearts to see if we are making the same mistake ourselves.
1. CHRIST'S CONTROL (VERSE 1)
Lets begin with our first point, "Christ's Control." Allow me to read from Revelation 2:1. "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this." In our first verse, we are encountering some heavy symbolic and apocalyptic images. But let's begin with what's clear; the exhortation is written to the church in Ephesus.
Let me briefly take you to the ancient city of Ephesus. During biblical times, Ephesus was the most important seaport in Asia. Due to its location, the majority of trade and travel passed through the city of Ephesus. And like many other metropolitan cities, Ephesus was notoriously known as a gathering place for criminals and widespread immorality. As a matter of fact, immoral activities were looked upon as sacred and prostitutes were viewed as priestesses. Capturing the landscape was the Temple of Artemis, four times the size of the Parthenon and identified as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Ephesus is described in Acts 19:35 by its own people as the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of the image which fell down from heaven. Earlier in verse 26, Artemis is described as the great goddess in whom all of Asia and the whole world worship. It was to this immoral, hostile and pagan city that God sent the Apostle Paul and his delegates to evangelize in A.D. 52 where they spent three years ministering with the gospel.
Despite the depravity a remarkable thing took place. The book of Acts records the birth of a church in Ephesus, and it is confirmed by the 6th word in Revelation 2:1. In Greek the word for church is ekklesia. The word is a compound of ek (out of) and kaleo (to call). The church was called out of paganism to embrace a special relationship to God. 40+ years after Paul's initial witness, the church still existed in the pagan city of Ephesus as we read about her now in the Book of Revelation.
Who called this church into existence by quickening the dark hearts of those committed to such deviant sins? Who sustained and nourished this church for the first 40 years of her existence? The answer is found in verse 1, namely, Jesus Christ. "The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands." These verses teach that Jesus Christ: exhibits absolute control over His church, delivers strong protection for His church, exercises divine authority over His church, and displays a vital concern for His church. Basically, Christ is the Architect, Owner, Protector, Sustainer, Head and Guide of the church. Just as He walked among the seven golden lamp stands (or seven churches of Asia Minor), He is presently and personally in the midst of each local church. Just as He was intimately involved in the affairs of the Ephesian church 1,900 years ago, He is intimately involved in the affairs of The Grace Tabernacle today. Jesus Christ controls His church. The institution belongs to Him. This should serve as a great comfort, but also as a sober warning in knowing to whom we are accountable.
2. CHRIST'S COMMENDATION (VERSES 2-3)
From "Christ's Control," allow us to move to "Christ's Commendation" of the Ephesian church in verses 2-3. He begins by saying, "I know your deeds." That is the overarching statement to describe His omniscient awareness regarding the Ephesians' multiple spiritual achievements that follow. And based on the verb translated "I know" (oida), Jesus Christ had an absolute and complete knowledge of the affairs of the church. Nothing made it past His watchful eye. The specific affairs follow in these two verses.
First the church is commended regarding their "toil" (NIV-hard work). The Greek word is kopos which literally means "wearisome labor" or (my favorite explanation) "working to the point of exhaustion." Merrill Tenney defined the word as "grueling toil, something accomplished by a hard struggle." Let's stop right there. Does that describe your labor personally or the church's labor corporately in service for the Lord? Are we laboring to the point of exhaustion for Jesus Christ? The Ephesian church was! Well that's the active side…
On the passive side, the church was commended for their perseverance, their patient enduring, their pressing on in the midst of hard labor and persecution and setbacks. I think William Barclay captured the virtue well. He said it is "the courageous gallantry which accepts suffering and hardship and loss and turns them into grace and glory." The church worked hard, the church persevered. The church also did not endure evil men.
Your Impatience with Evil Men
It's ironic that, immediately after being commended for their patience and perseverance, they were commended for their lack of patience in regards to evil. "Endure" means to bear or carry. Far from the Ephesians accepting anything, they refused to compromise with that which was morally bad and theologically evil. Even in a city famous for their sexual immorality and idol worship, the church refused to tolerate unrepentant members in their flock.
Your Testing False Apostles
In the fourth subpoint, they also tested false apostles. I believe this group would be one subsection in the category of evil men. Specifically, they tested those who called themselves apostles. Now naturally, nobody posed as one of the original 12, but these men probably claimed to be additional apostles to the likening of Paul and James. They claimed to have authority, possibly demonstrated by false-miracles. However, the Ephesian church heeded Paul's warning some 40 years earlier to their forefathers in Acts 20 to keep watch for the savage wolves that arise from within and without the flock. The text specifically says they "tested" them by examining the fruit of their teaching and the conduct of their lifestyle. I think of 1 John 4:1, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world." These false apostles were found not only to be self-deceived, but also deceivers of the truth. The Ephesian church would not stand for error. That spirit won great praise from the Lord.
It's amazing that in a day and age when the highest virtue was tolerance, this church was doubly praised in the last two points for their intolerance. What a far cry from today's teaching that commands us to embrace and tolerate ungodly actions and lifestyles.
Your Perseverance and Endurance for the Name of Christ
Finally, subpoint 5. Verse 3 again speaks of their perseverance and endurance, but adds an interesting phrase, "For My name's sake." This was the motivation for their labor. Let me put it this way. Who on the face of this planet doesn't experience pain and hardships and sufferings and hard work. It's one thing to endure and persevere through these trials for our sake; it's another to persevere and endure for the sake of Jesus Christ. And it's easy to conclude that the pain the Ephesian church experienced was primarily due to their desire to express bold obedience to Christ. Yet they endured the pain for the sake of Christ. Two very clear points of application: an obedient Christian lifestyle will bring hardship and persecution. Yet blessed is the man or woman who endures the spiritual hardship and persecution for the sake of Christ, glorifying Him in the process.
Verse 3 closes by saying, "and have not grown weary". Despite all the church had endured, they never entertained the thought of giving up. Robert Thomas said in his massive commentary on Revelation, "They labored to the point of weariness, without weariness setting in."
Now, up to this point you might be somewhat bewildered. Earlier I said we'd be studying a negative example. From what I have mentioned thus far, this Ephesian church appears to be the farthest thing in the world from a negative example. Rather it appears that this flock was a model New Testament church. I mean, if the Lord had an issue with them, what might He say about us?
Well unfortunately, the Ephesian church did have a problem. They had one problem, one small problem. They left their first love. In one brief statement Christ isolates the critical problem in the church. Read verse 4 with me, "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love."
3. CHRIST'S CONDEMNATION (VERSE 4)
From "Christ's Commendation" we move to "Christ's Condemnation." It's been said that the first generation will die for it, the second generation will live for it and the third generation will kill it. Some 40 years had passed since the church was founded; a new generation had arisen that didn't experience the love and fervor for the Lord Jesus Christ that was demonstrated by their forefathers. They slowly and gradually departed from their original position of devotion to the Savior. They put their service to the Lord ahead of their love for the Lord. They based their success merely on their outward activity, without any internal affections for Jesus. They preformed robotic service with a cool heart for Christ. They replaced a love for Jesus with a love for things of the world. They valued the blessings from the Person more important than the Person Himself.
The first commandment of the Christian life is not to do, but rather to listen, to cherish and to fall passionately in love with Jesus Christ. Warren Wiersbe said, "The local church is espoused to Christ, but there is always the danger of that love growing cold. Like Martha, we can be so busy working for Christ that we have no time to love Him. Christ is more concerned about what we do with Him than for Him. Labor is no substitute for love. To the public, the Ephesian church was successful; to Christ, it had fallen." Likewise, John Walvoord said, "Though (the church) maintained a high level of service, they were lacking in deep devotion to Christ. How the church today needs to heed this warning that orthodoxy and service are not enough; Christ wants believer's hearts as well as their hands and heads."
The grammar is interesting in verse 4. Emphasis is placed on "first love" by the word positioning in the Greek sentence. Culturally, "first love" speaks of the first fervent, chaste and pure love for a newly wed bride. The word used for love is agape, the deepest most meaningful word for love in the Greek language. It was a love that Paul called a "simple and pure devotion to Christ" in 2 Corinthians 10. However, the greatest command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might was absent in this Ephesian church.
Maybe I can capture John's intent by providing two marriage illustrations of my own. We all know that the primary purpose of marriage is to reflect the union between Christ and His church (Ephesians 5).
- Wives, how would you feel if your husband did everything for you merely out of a sense of duty: he fixed the leaky faucet, brought you flowers on Valentine's Day, and arranged dates just between the two of you every other week. But in the midst of his mechanical responsibilities, he never: listened to you, gazed into your eyes, touched you or said he loved you. Would his service mean anything? On the contrary, ladies, how would you feel if behind his service was a spirit of delight in his precious wife, joy in making her happy and love that has increased over time for his bride? Should, and does, Christ expect anything less from His bride? I constantly get confused when people talk about their "honeymoon love." What is that? And if it is what I think it is, how sad! Does that imply that the greatest love (or even greatest emotional love) for my wife will occur during the first few months of my marriage and then it's downhill from there? Shouldn't it be exactly the opposite? That my honeymoon love is only the beginning, and throughout the years of exploring each other, crying and laughing together and communicating that my love for her will grow! Should not the greatest love for my wife be at the end of my marriage, not the beginning!
Likewise, a person gets saved, and they are overfilled with joy in realizing that their sins are forgiven and their relationship with God has been reconciled. We call that their "honeymoon period." Here we go again; when the honeymoon ends will they begin to lose that zeal and passion? No! I hope not! Our love for God should grow with time as we: commune with Him through the Word and prayer, realize He can be trusted, appreciate His love and faithfulness, grow in Christlikeness, and understand more about His attributes and nature. See my point?
Ephesian church! You have left your first love! The Lord, through the prophet Jeremiah said, "Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, 'Thus says the Lord, I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, The love of your betrothals, Your following after Me in the wilderness'" (Jer. 2:2). Oh how God wants a relationship and not a religion!
But how? How does the truly redeemed individual lose his or her first love? Kris Lundgaard, in his book The Enemy Within , outlined the process well. Allow me to summarize. It's subtle. The flesh takes advantage of our natural laziness and negligence. Soon spiritual duties are laid aside one by one. We begin to think of God less and less, until we are convinced that we can get along without talking to God at all. Though not fully apostatizing, our spiritual life contains only external duties without any fear or reverence for God. Though our bodies are going through the motions, our hearts are never engaged. Oh yes, we show up at church. Yes, we tinker with a ministry once a month. Yes, we throw some of our leftovers in the offering plate. Yes, our vocabulary is seasoned with some Christian jargon. Spiritual growth ceases. Our passion for Christ eases only to be replaced with a reliance on self and the wisdom of the world. Though we may still appear to be religious and impressive to on-lookers, we have no private communion with Jesus, and our religion is worthless.
Though this speaks of today, the times haven't changed. The Ephesian church went through a process similar to this almost 2,000 years ago. After all, the Ephesian church started well! Ephesians 1:15 states, "For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints." But that love which was once commended in the Ephesian Church had departed. And without love, the royal commandment, the church ceases to be a church. Let's examine our final point this morning, Christ's Correction. And a stern correction it is!
4. CHRIST'S CORRECTION (VERSE 5)
Verse 5, "Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first." The church was admonished to go back to their original place of departure. And Christ gave three instructional imperatives to prevent their coming judgment.
Memory is a powerful force. Remember Ephesians, the earlier days when love abounded, when Christ was your first love. Reflect on the joy and life and wonder and satisfaction you once experienced. How long will you wallow in your unfulfilling lifestyle? Return to Me as the Prodigal Son to find a loving Father awaiting with open arms to heal and restore. Regain your bearings; see from where you have fallen!
The next step is to repent. We discussed it a few weeks ago. Literally it means to "change the mind." Once the wrong has been determined, a clean break with the sin is expected. The loveless attitude must be renounced and rejected.
Finally, the church must repeat. If repent is the negative side of turning from evil, repeat is the positive side of turning back to righteousness. They must repeat the actions they formally did, actions that were issued from a pure devotion to Christ. Interestingly, the text does not say love as you did at first, but rather do the deeds you did at first.
Therefore, it is implied that the deeds mentioned in verses 2-3, though noticed by Christ, were unacceptable and insufficient because their heart attitude was not right before God. Though the same deeds were present, the first love was gone. Oswald Chambers once said, "Beware of anything that competes with loyalty to Jesus Christ. The greatest competitor of devotion to Jesus is service for Him." Right actions only stem from a right heart, a heart filled with a great love for Jesus.
I wish I could end this sermon on this encouraging exhortation to return to the former ways, but unfortunately the text continues, "OR ELSE!" A threat, a promise, a warning, call it what you wish. Christ's Spirit will not and cannot strive forever among unrepentant and unloving churches. Verse 5 concludes by saying, "Or else…I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place-- unless you repent."
The seven-branched lampstand was found originally in the Temple. It gave the light for the priests to see during their service. Likewise, according to verse 1, the church is a lampstand for the world. It is a light holder (or a lighthouse), an instrument by which a light can be made visible and useful. And like a lampstand, the church is to illumine dark places with the light of Christ. Christ Himself said it elsewhere (Mt. 5:14); we are the light of the world.
But unfortunately, according to text, the church can lose her capacity to bear light. Christ, the One who controls the church (verse 1), is naturally the One who can remove the church (verse 5) if she fails in her responsibilities. Remove the lampstand and the light disappears. The testimony of the church ceases to exist.
Christ will build His church, by working through churches that cooperate with His Spirit. However, for those who refuse His clear expectations, He will remove His active presence among them. Christ can recognize His own and will extinguish any church that does not fulfill His purpose for them. In spiritual judgment, Christ will remove their lampstand. Then the church is devoid of Christ just as the Temple was devoid of God. Though the building may stand, the presence of Christ is absent. It simply becomes an empty shell.
The verse closes by saying that this judgment will happen unless they repent. It will be a total destruction of the church because a loveless church cannot continue. Without love it ceases to be a church. The warning gave a glimmering of hope for the Ephesian church.
Unfortunately, the warning was not heeded but was tragically fulfilled in regards to the Ephesian church. Though the church retained its vigor for several centuries, eventually the church failed to exist. Currently, there is no church in Ephesus and the town itself is in ruin.
We have much to learn by way of example from the Ephesian church. May we beloved, never take our eyes off our first love, Jesus. May our love for Him grow stronger as we walk with Him daily. May He have the first place in all that we do personally and corporately as a church.
Like Ephesus, the city of Muynak was once a thriving city. It was a fishing port on the Aral Sea. But today, Muynak sits on the edge of a bitter, salty desert. Sand dunes are strewn with the rusted, hollow hulls of a fishing fleet that once sailed high above on the surface of Central Asia's fountain of life. Things began changing 30 years ago when Stalinist planners began diverting the Aral's water source to irrigate the world's largest cotton belt. No one, however, envisioned the environmental disaster that would result. Weather has become more extreme, the growing season has been shortened by 2 months, and 80 percent of the region's farmland has been ruined by salt storms that sweep in off the dry seabed.
What happened at Muynak parallels the history of the church of Ephesus. Once a thriving spiritual community, the Ephesian believers diverted their attention from Christ to works done in His name. They had lost sight of what was most important in their relationship with Christ, their love for Him. May that never be said of us!