Intro: Have you changed as you have aged? We would all have to say yes – physically, emotionally, and maybe even spiritually. What about churches – do they change as they age?
Where can we go to find a description or evaluation of any of the churches of the first century (NT churches)? The book of Acts for sure, but those are mostly of the beginning. What about later on? How did those churches do in the long run?
The seven churches addressed in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation represent the types of churches that are generally present throughout the N.T. They, no doubt, had similar people, assets and problems. Five of the seven churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia being the exceptions) were rebuked for tolerating sin in their midst, not an uncommon occurrence in churches since. The words we find here could be easily reproduced in our own time and addressed to many churches that we may know – even this one.
- Each of the seven addresses commences with, “I know thy works.”
- Each contains a promise, “To him that overcomes.”
- Each ends with “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches.“
Our focus this evening is on the oldest church of the 7. It was from the evangelistic efforts of Ephesus that these other congregations came to be. It is only fitting that Jesus would evaluate them first. By the time of this letter, four decades had passed since the Ephesian church’s tumultuous birth. The apostle Paul was gone, as were many of the first generation of believers converted under his ministry. This church had experienced changes. How had these changes affected the body?
Read Revelation 2:1-7 – “To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: 2 “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; 3 and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. 4 Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. 6 But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”‘
I. Who is Speaking: Revelation 2:1 – The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands. We will begin our study of these verses with the identification of the One who is speaking to the church of Ephesus. Although he is not named personally, we can easily recognize Him as the Christ.
A. Jesus’ self-description is taken from John’s vision in Rev 1:13-18 – 3 and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. 14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; 15 His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; 16 He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. 17 And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. 18 I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.
1. As Jesus walked among the lampstands (churches) he held the stars (authority) of those churches in His right hand. He had every right to evaluate and bring judgment upon these congregations because they belong to Him.
2. There is also in this a picture of Jesus’ love and concern for these churches. He walks among them to protect them – give them the oil they need to continue burning – trim the wick to make them brighter.
II. What He Commends: What did Jesus see at Ephesus that pleased Him? Revelation 2:2-6 – I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary… Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (2:2-3, 6)
A. The word for “know” her is oida which indicates full knowledge – Jesus does not have to come to know – He already knows everything about this church – and us!
B. What did Jesus see that was right about this church?
1. Deeds (toil) – these words indicate that this was a working church.
a. “toil” (kopos) means labor to the point of sweat and exhaustion. They were willing to work hard for Christ. They were no doubt teaching the lost and edifying one another as Paul had done when he was among them.
2. Perseverance – (hupomone) is patience in trying circumstances. Its synonym “makrothumia” emphasized patience with trying people, but this word denotes the ability to survive difficult times – the opposition of the enemy. MacArthur says this… “a courageous acceptance of hardship, suffering, and loss. This commendation indicates that, despite their difficult circumstances, the Ephesian believers remained faithful to their Lord.
3. Intolerance – The Lord says that this church “could not tolerate evil men”. Following the example of Paul they held to a high standard of morality and doctrine. They were sensitive to sin in the lives of the members. Paul had earlier warned them not to give the devil a place to stand (Eph. 4:27) and they were practicing that effectively.
4. Discernment – They were willing to put their teachers to the test. They were aware of the danger of false teachers and false apostles. We noticed earlier that Paul warned the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20 about the coming influence of false teachers. “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert.”
a. In his second epistle, John warned of the “many deceivers [who] have gone out into the world”(2 John 7) and cautioned believers, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring [true biblical] teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting” (2 John 10).
b. The early church father Ignatius, writing not long after John penned the book of Revelation, also commended the Ephesians for their vigilance: “You heed nobody beyond what he has to say truthfully about Jesus Christ… I have heard that some strangers came your way with a wicked teaching. But you did not let them sow it among you. You stopped up your ears to prevent admitting what they disseminated” (Ephesians 6.2; 9.1; cited in Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 89, 90).
5. Hate – in vs. 6 Jesus adds the specific commendation that this church hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. It might surprise us to see hate being commended. But God hates all sin and expects His people to hate it as well. We can not get comfortable with immorality or become desensitized to the sin we see around us.
a. We know very little for sure about the Nicolaitans (they are mentioned later in the letter to Pergamum). It seems to refer to an apostate who led others to commit immorality.
1) Merrill Tenney says… the teaching of the Nicolaitans was an exaggeration of the doctrine of Christian liberty which attempted an ethical compromise with heathenism“
2) Irenaeus wrote of the Nicolaitans that they “lived lives of unrestrained indulgence”
3) Clement of Alexandria added that the Nicolaitans “abandon themselves to pleasure like goats… leading a life of self-indulgence” (cited in Barclay, The Revelation of John, 1:67). The Ephesian church was not taken in by this heresy.
C. Notice all that was going right:
1. They were a working church.
2. They were disciplined and discerning in doctrine.
3. They had endured hardship without growing weary.
4. They were persevering through troubles.
III. What He Rebukes: Rev 2:4 – Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Despite the good things that Jesus has said about this church, this is a serious flaw. In the first chapter of his letter to this church Paul says he had heard of their great love for all the saints. That was 30 years before. Things had changed in Ephesus. What does it mean for a church to leave its first love?
A. They had allowed their love for Jesus to grow cold. What brought them to Christ no longer motivated in their activities. Even though their works were right and they were even willing to bear reproach to uphold the truth, they lacked the essential reason God had provided.
1. We cannot but consider Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians about the primary place of love. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 – 13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
2. It is possible to do the right things for the wrong reason. Serving God has a necessary emotional component. WHY becomes a harder question to ask than WHAT or HOW.
a. example: A person who begins teaching a Bible class or giving to a ministry out of a love and zeal for Christ, later only stays with this work because no one else will take the job.
b. Christians who attend worship out of an obligation to family, or because others would be upset – but they do not do it out of love anymore.
3. Marriages can continue to exist, even after the love has grown cold. The activities are mechanical and unfulfilling. So churches can prove to be sound in doctrinal matters, but dead and cold in their love for God and each other.
4. A loveless obedience is a real threat among those who strive to do the right things, and do not tolerate evil. One author offers this observation: “Every virtue carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. It seems probable that desire for sound teaching and the resulting forthright action taken to exclude all imposters had created a climate of suspicion in which brotherly love could no longer exist… Good works and pure doctrine are not adequate substitutes for that rich relationship of mutual love shared by persons who have just experienced the redemptive love of God. “
5. We must stand against evil and desire sound teaching. But we must defend the faith before the unbelieving world, with “meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15). We must oppose a brother who teaches error, yet our stand must be taken “in a spirit of gentleness; looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
IV. What He Commands: Revelation 2:5 – 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent.
A. Remember: It is noteworthy that Jesus’ solution starts with the command to remember. When the love goes out of a marriage, the counselor may ask the couple to remember why they married each other in the first place – recall the emotion, the commitment, the willing sacrifice. What was good about the person?
1. What is good about Jesus? God wants us to remember, so we do not lose our love.
B. Repent: They needed to repent in a deliberate rejection of their sins, because to fail to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength is sin. (Matt 22:36-38). Without a willingness to humbly repent, there is not hope of recovery from such a critical error. (Some churches may need to call for a day of fasting, prayer and repentance, as Ezra did with Israel)
C. Do the first works: Finally, they needed to demonstrate the genuineness of their repentance and do the deeds they did at first. They needed to recapture the richness of Bible study, devotion to prayer, and passion for worship that had once characterized them. The church’s cold love for God may have become evident in their disregard for each other. Start serving each other again. Put first things first.
V. What He Promises: Rev 2:5 – …or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. vs. 7 – To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”‘
A. As critical as their sin was, it was not too late. If they repent God will forgive. If they do not repent, Jesus will come quickly and remove their candlestick.
1. This coming of Jesus is not His second coming, but a coming judgment on this church. Although we are accountable as individuals, a church can lose its candlestick (lampstand). What does that mean?
2. First we recognize that this is something that only Jesus could do. The candlestick (lampstand) from the image of chapter 1, represents the place of the church in the mission to reflect the light of God to the world. It represents the church’s place with Jesus.
3. A church can lose its lampstand while it yet exists. Burton Coffman says… This does not refer to any total destruction of a church or of a city, but to the removal of the impenitent from any effective status as a lampstand of the truth in Jesus Christ. Many a church has continued to enjoy life on earth long after their utility as an effective instrument of spreading the gospel of Christ has perished. Such churches have indeed had their “candlestick” removed. This promise emphasizes again that it is Jesus who holds the sovereignty. Our life as a church exists in His mind, not ours. We may be listed in every directory, but missing from the book of life.
B. vs. 7 seems to point to the last judgment. Notice that this promise is personal and individual. To each one who overcomes, he will be able to eat from the tree of life.
Conclusion: Where will this church be in 30 years? Will we still be here? A few things are certain:
- we will experience change,
- Satan will not quit trying to destroy us
- If we do not abandon Him, God will see us through whatever comes.
He is our first love. We must not leave Him.