7 Letter to 7 Churches in Revelation: Ephesus
Call to Worship: The book of Revelation is challenging and intriguing. It is full of strange and often scary imagery, confusing numbers, time references, and apocalyptic events. It’s a biblical book that fascinates while also prompting lots of questions. The new sermon series we start today is drawn from the book of Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. In these chapters, Jesus himself is speaking to 7 real churches of the 1st century. With powerful language he shares words of commendation and concern. The messages He shares have a timeless relevance, words of encouragement and warning that we do well to take to heart and put into practice still today. Over the next 7 weeks, we’ll look at each of these 7 letters, studying what Jesus says, reflecting on what His words of warning and encouragement mean for us at Christ the King today. We open the series, focusing on Jesus’ letter to the church in Ephesus, a church that though it was doing the right things, their passion and warmth in doing these things weren’t what they used to be. Out pure and passionate concern, Jesus calls his people, both then and now: to live in love and do so with the passion and zeal that they felt when they first came to faith.
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Revelation 2:1-7 ~ Sunday, Sep. 8, 2019
Suppose the Lord Jesus were to visit us today and stand in this pulpit. What would he say to Christ the King Lutheran Church? What would he say to "the church in Palm Coast”? Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) He would surely share many of the same sort of things he said to 7 congregations in Asia a little over 1900 years ago. Those words are recorded in the second and third chapters of the bible book of Revelation. In each of these letters he closes by saying, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Why does he say that? He’s indicating that these special letters written to specific congregations with their particular problems and needs, also have a timeless relevance. These are messages that our Savior is inviting, urging us to apply to our own lives and to our life together as Christ the King Lutheran Church.
That’s what we’re aiming to do over the next seven weeks as we study each of these letters. The first letter, the one we’re studying today, was originally written to the congregation in the city of Ephesus. Jesus instructed the Apostle John: "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." The one who holds the seven stars and walks among the lampstands is Jesus himself.
The seven stars are described earlier in Revelation as the angels/messengers/pastors of the churches. That Jesus holds faithful pastors in his powerful right hand is comforting and compelling to God’s people. The 7 golden lampstands are the seven churches to whom these letters were written. When Jesus says that he "walks among the seven golden lampstands", he is fulfilling the special promise he made to us about when we congregate for worship and ministry work: "Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them" (Matthew 18:20). What a comfort it is for us to know that Jesus takes such a personal interest in—that he even walks among us—Christ the King church today!
When Jesus says he walks among his churches, he’s also saying that he knows personally what is going on in that congregation. So what was going on in the Ephesian church? Jesus begins by commending them: "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."
Twice Jesus mentions their perseverance. This was not a church that was easily discouraged, not a congregation that would try to avoid hardships or take the easy way out. There had been plenty of opportunities. The hardships had been severe enough and had been lengthy enough that they could very easily have “grown weary,” could very easily have pleaded fatigue. But they didn’t. Though we are separated from the believers at this church in Ephesus by 20 centuries, we too know what its like to encounter problems, challenges, and difficulties and the temptation to grow weary and give up. This past year has been a challenging one for our campus, yet by God’s grace Christ the King Lutheran Church and School are still doing ministry today. And you’re here too. Not because anyone is forcing you, but because of a spirit of perseverance in you, a spirit that is committed to the ministry Jesus has given us here. That spirit shows itself in a willingness to work not only to keep this ministry alive, but to do what we can to help it thrive by working hard and working together! And for that Jesus would commend us as he commended the congregation at Ephesus.
There are many things that threaten the life and vitality of a congregation. But there is only one that preserves spiritual life and promotes spiritual vitality: pure biblical teaching. Forty years earlier (ca. 55 AD), when the Apostle Paul left Ephesus, he warned the leaders of this congregation: "I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from 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) Some time afterwards John instructed, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit [we might say “teacher” or “preacher”], but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…” (1 John 4:1)
From Jesus’ words in Revelation 2 to this congregation, it’s evident that the Ephesians had done just that. Jesus commends their standing firm against the "practices of the Nicolaitans." We don’t know much about the Nicolaitans, but from Jesus’ words it seems they promoted the idea that you could be saved yet still live in open rebellion against God’s standards of love. That sort of spirit still circulates among Christian churches and church bodies today, promoting the idea that even people who reject Christ as Savior can successfully find another way into a right relationship with God or that those who profess Christ as Savior are free to ignore God’s standards of what constitutes godly love.
While the Nicolaitan spirit and the culture of Ephesus promoted an “anything goes because only (not even?) God can judge me” lifestyle, the true Christians in the congregation at Ephesus were not deceived. They would rather face the scorn of the world than reject the truths of God's Word. In this way the faithful in the church at Ephesus give us much to emulate when it comes to upholding the truth of God’s Word and taking a firm on God’s Word as we face the pressures and influences of our own culture that pursues progress by transgressing God’s protections!
While Jesus praises the Ephesian congregation, he also communicates a serious concern, one that we also need to hear and apply to our individual lives as well as our life together as a Christian community: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” The Ephesian church who was very much against the false teaching of the Nicolaitans, was also a congregation that was in danger of leaving behind their love for Jesus too. Though they stood on the truth of God’s Word, somewhere along the way they left behind their love for Jesus that had fueled and fired their lives. Notice Jesus doesn’t say they lost their first love. He says they left it.
What is Jesus saying? How can a Christian congregation stand for God’s truth yet leave behind their love for God’s Son? Maybe think of it this way: Do you remember your first day on your first really big job? You were so excited that you finally landed the job you wanted. You were really going to work hard. You were going to be more honest and faithful and more willing to go the extra mile than anyone else. How happy you were to get up in the morning and go to work!
But then the days and months added up to years. The work was often hard and it was even harder to keep your enthusiasm. Other workers came in late when you never did. They criticized you for trying to do a good job because your good work exposed the lackluster performance they were putting in. Yet it seemed like the boss never really noticed how hard you worked. Little by little, your first love for your new job wore off, until you finally started thinking that maybe there was a better job out there somewhere. Along the way you left behind the love you once had!
Now dear friends, apply that to your faith in Jesus. The question is not whether you have ever fallen in love with Jesus, but whether you will stay in love with Jesus. Maybe you’re as active as ever in doing all kinds of work for Jesus Christ, but why are you doing what you’re doing? Jesus is sifting your heart to see whether your commitment to serve is coming from a sense of delight in him or sense of duty to follow through on doing what you said you would do. He’s checking because it is possible to serve, sacrifice, and suffer “for [Jesus’] name’s sake” and yet not really love Jesus Christ! The Ephesian believers were so busy maintaining their separation that they were neglecting adoration. Labor is no substitute for love; neither is purity a substitute for passion. The church must have both if it is to please Him. Do you? Do we?
To the extent that Jesus sees this in us, he says to us what he said to the Ephesians: "Remember the heights from which you’ve fallen” (vs. 5). The key word is remember. Those of you who are married: Do you remember what it was like when you first met your spouse and you started sharing with them and it was all so exciting and the feeling in the pit of your stomach said: This is someone special. Now remember what it was like when you first learned how much Jesus loved you, when you first saw the cross and realized that his sacrifice and his suffering was done out of his amazing love for us. “Remember the impact my love and my sacrifice had on the weight of guilt your heart was bearing?” Jesus asks. “Remember how unburdened my forgiving love caused you to feel? Remember how free your heart felt? Remember how you freely responded with attitudes and actions that were expressions of your deep love and appreciation for me? Do that again!” Jesus is saying! When we love someone, we adore that person. We’re eager to spend time with them. We want to do things with them and do everything we can to please that person. Does that describe your love for Jesus? If not, remember when it did!
And then: Repent! That’s a change of heart, being sorry for those sins of taking Jesus for granted combined with appreciation for what Jesus willingly went to the cross and grave to do for you. The forgiveness that originally warmed your heart toward him, it’s that same forgiveness that will fuel your passion for him once again.
The same peace of conscience that set you free to joyfully, gladly, willingly serve him, its that same peace that prompts you to practice what Jesus preaches when he says: “Do the things you did at first.” What were you doing when you were on fire for the Lord? “I was going to church regularly.” Do that again, Jesus is saying. “I was spending time in God’s Word on my own each day.” Yes, do that again, Jesus urges. “I was reflecting daily on God’s wonderful love for me and telling other people about Jesus and how he’s done all these things for them too.” Do that again, Jesus calls!
So did the church at Ephesus listen to Jesus and repent? At the time of this letter, 95 AD, Ephesus was the most important and wealthy city in all what is modern-day Turkey. It had a population of 250,000 people, a thriving seaport, a prosperous business district. Today, though, the lampstand of God's grace has been removed from its place. Today, there is no church in Ephesus. In fact, there is no Ephesus. The river silted up over the centuries and led to the city's decay. No one lives there now. Two miles away is a small insignificant village. Though Christ promises his Church will endure until the end of time, he doesn’t guarantee that every Christian congregation will survive. Thousands of churches disappear every year throughout the world. Christ has removed many, many lampstands over the centuries because they’ve left behind their first love. The church that loses its love will soon lose its light, no matter how staunchly it stands for true teaching. Lovelessness has a way of choking and strangling a church’s spiritual life to death.
Christ the King isn’t immune. So Jesus urgently pleads with us: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” God graciously grant us ears that hear and hearts that listen! God grant each of us a richer measure of his Spirit so that we keep on doing what Jesus commends without growing weary and giving up when the going is rough and the work is thankless! God move us to repent of any ways in which we’ve been doing the right things but doing them with a less than loving heart! Where our passion for the Lord is flickering, Jesus refresh our love to more vibrantly fuel our ministry and drive our service! Jesus’ ears our open to our requests and he answers our prayers. That’s what he’s doing as he closes this letter with this energizing incentive: “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” (Rev. 2:7). In Christ, this victory is yours. Though Jesus faced rebellion, resistance, even rejection, he didn’t let any of that lessen his passion for you and all that he needed to do to rescue you. And take heart, for his mercies and his forgiveness are new every morning! Renewed and strengthened through his forgiving love, may our hearts, our lips, our lives echo the love expressed in one of our hymns: Ah, my best and kindest Friend, You will love me to the end. Let me love you more and more, Always better than before. Amen.