To the church in Ephesus: Love matters, too

Sermon for Midweek of Oculi

+  Revelation 2:1-7  +

At the end of the first century AD, Christian churches everywhere were surrounded by pagans and by a depraved society, increasingly persecuted by the government and by other religions, with more and more false teachers around claiming to have the true apostolic doctrine, always under attack from the evil one, always tempted, always in danger, always bearing the weight of the sinful flesh and of the cross. Churches everywhere were struggling in one way or another. In many ways, the Church then is no different from the Church now.

So before the last apostle, the Apostle John, died, the Lord Jesus spoke one final Word to His Church until He returns again in glory at the end of the age. One final Word that would help His Church on earth to weather all the storms of the coming centuries, one final piece of the Scripture puzzle by which He would continue to rebuke, correct, admonish and encourage His dear Christians of all ages. Jesus spoke to John the words contained in the Book of Revelation, words that were addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor, but words that were meant for the whole Church to hear. Of those words of Revelation, one short letter was addressed to each of the seven churches. Together, those seven letters address all the needs that Christian churches in the future would face.

We have before us the letter to the church that was in Ephesus, and there we see plenty of application to our church, too.

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:

Just a few verses earlier, Jesus Himself identified these stars and lampstands for us. The seven stars are the seven angels, the seven messengers, the seven bishops or pastors of the seven churches. And the seven golden lampstands are the seven churches.

See where the pastors are in relation to Jesus? He holds them in His right hand. They are solemnly charged with the task of caring for Christ’s Church on earth by means of His Word and His Sacraments. They are the voice of Christ to His people and must be regarded as such, and they must give an account to the One who holds them in His right hand.

See where Jesus is in relation to the churches? Even though we don’t see Him, He’s walking back and forth among the seven golden lampstands. Even though we don’t see Him, Jesus is true to His promise that wherever two or three come together in his name, there He is in the midst of them. Here He is in our midst. He knows what’s going on in our church and in the life of each member. What a comfort that is when we’re afflicted! What a warning that is when we wander away from Him!

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; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.

Jesus is speaking directly to the pastor here using singular forms of “you” and “your.” Jesus expects from and praises in His pastors the qualities He mentions here: hard work in the ministry, labor, patience, no tolerance for those who are evil, testing and exposing the false teachers, perseverance, patience, serving for the sake of Christ’s name, and not growing weary.

But what Jesus says to the pastor also has implications for the flock he shepherds, and we can assume that the members were on the same page as their pastor in all these things, agreeing with the doctrine he taught, helping and supporting him in fighting for the truth and persevering under trial; helping and supporting him as he carried out his ministry, as he warned those who sinned and excommunicated the impenitent; and as He comforted and absolved the penitent.

Jesus adds this later, this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

We know little about the Nicolaitans, except that they lived lives of unrestrained indulgence: in food and in sex. Things that God’s Law condemns, they counted as adiaphora, things that Christians could engage in if they wanted to. Sounds like what our country has turned into, even what many so-called Christian churches have turned into.  The pastor and the church in Ephesus were rightly appalled by the unrestrained wickedness of those people. They hated it, just as Jesus also hates it. Remember this passage when false teachers falsely portray Jesus as so “loving” that He permits all kinds of deviant behavior.

So all these things, Jesus expects from the preachers of the Word, and also from the hearers of the Word. He sees when His people are being faithful in their vocations, when they are working hard for His kingdom and when they are enduring hardship and trials with patience. He commends His people for hating the evil deeds of the wicked. He commends His people for being intolerant of evil people and for being strict when it comes to doctrinal correctness.

Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

Thirty years earlier, when the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, here’s what he said about their love: “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.” The Ephesians’ love for their fellow believers, both in Ephesus and in all the world, had been a well-known fact in the 60’s AD. But by the 90’s AD, their pastor’s love, and, presumably, the love of the congregation as a whole, had grown cold. They had forsaken it. They had become cold-hearted toward other Christians, and perhaps also toward the poor and needy.

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.

Jesus is serious about doctrine. He’s also serious about His pastors and His people loving one another from the heart. Love means that the well-being of your fellow believers comes before your own, and that sometimes means saying the hard thing, practicing unpleasant discipline, even jeopardizing your relationship with them because their souls matter more than their friendship. Love means living for the good of your fellow believer, even if it’s not good for you. Love means you spend your day figuring out how you can be a blessing to your church and then carrying it out, rather than waiting for your church to be a blessing to you. That’s love.

Is that you? Is that how Jesus would describe you? Remember, he walks among the lampstands. He sees, both the actions of the hand and the motivations of the heart. It’s a common occurrence for Christians to fall down in this regard.

So hear the voice of Christ calling out, “Repent!” Admit that your heart, apart from Christ, is a loveless place, a selfish place. And if that lovelessness has gained the upper hand in your heart and has spilled over into your actions and your words, then admit that, too, and repent before it’s too late, before this church is removed by Jesus from its place.

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.” 

It’s not too late! The voice of Jesus still calls out in this preaching of the Word. Do you hear Christ calling you to diagnose your lovelessness and to mourn over it? Then mourn! Do you hear His promise of forgiveness and eternal life in the paradise of God to him who overcomes by faith in Christ, who shed His blood for these sins? Then trust! Do you hear His call to return to the works of deep and devoted love that mark Christ and the followers of Christ? Then return to them! Hear what the Spirit says to the churches, and you will be eternally blessed. Amen.

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