A message given by Pastor Greg in 1997.
(Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New American StandardVersion.)
I'd like to share something with you this morning that the Lord has brought to my mind frequently over the past few months. It's something that we've discussed together in a Bible study group. I believe that it's an issue that's relevant to Christians wherever they are gathered together.
This particular issue is mentioned in Revelation 2:1-7. It's found in a section in which the Lord Jesus Himself - in His resurrected and ascended glory - speaks a few words of both encouragement and rebuke to His precious churches.
Some people have said that they wish that the Lord Jesus would have written a New Testament letter to some church, just like Paul or John or Peter had. Well, He has. In fact, He has written seven letters to seven different historic churches. They are all found in the second and third chapters of Revelation. This one that I'd like to read to you now, is the first of Jesus' seven letters - this one being to the church in the ancient city of Ephesus. In it, Jesus dictates a letter to the apostle John, saying;
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: "I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure 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. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place - unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God" (Revelation 2:1-7).
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I'd like to tell you about the first time God really impacted my wife and I with this passage. We had set an evening aside for fasting and prayer for the church and its ministry. We wanted to know if there was anything lacking in us, anything displeasing to the Lord in our lives, anything that needed to change. And while praying together, the Lord led us to this portion of Scripture. It hit us both with great force as God's answer to our question. We asked each other, "Are we guilty of this? Have we left our 'first love'?" I asked of myself, "Have I - as the pastor - allowed this 'first love' to somehow to have become neglected or forsaken?
I have always thought of our church as a very good church. I love my church family with all my heart. But I admitted that this passage says that even if a church is a very good church - a church that is busy, growing, sacrificial, dedicated, and doing things for the kingdom of Jesus Christ - if such a church, as Jesus says here, has "left its first love," it will lose its usefulness to Him. I repeat: this passage teaches us that if even a good church has left its "first love" for Christ, it will lose its usefulness to Him. He Himself will not delay. He will come to it and remove it from a place of witness to the world.
Can you imagine anything more serious to a church than what this passage says? Let's look at it in more detail.
1. SUCH A CHURCH CAN BE FAITHFUL IN EVERYTHING ELSE IT DOES FOR THE LORD JESUS (vv. 1-3, 6).
First, I want you to notice how marvelous this ancient church in Ephesus was. I think that any one of us would be honored to be a member of such a church. In fact, Jesus Himself says He knew of all its outstanding qualities. He speaks no words of condemnation for any of the many fine things this church did.
First, He knew their deeds. It wasn't a church full of passive Christians. It was a church that got things done. It was recognized by the Lord Himself as a very active church.
Second, He knew their toil. Jesus used a word that refers to hard, toilsome, bothersome work. They not only got things done; but they got things done that were hard and burdensome to do; things that weren't any fun to do; things that demanded much from them.
Third, He knew their perseverance. It was a church that faced trials and struggles and hardships; and yet it endured. Its people didn't lose heart or quit or give up. It was a tough church.
Fourth, He knew of their faithfulness to the truth. Some men apparently gained access to this church claiming to be 'apostles'; men who would come in among them and propose to be teaching truth from God. But these Ephesian Christians had put those teachers to the test when it came to their teaching - and they found that they weren't sent from God at all. Jesus knew that these were false teachers; and when the church at Ephesus tested these teachers in respect to the doctrines of the faith, they too knew them to be false teachers.
The apostle Paul once warned the church in Ephesus that such false teachers would attempt to creep into the church. He told a gathering of Ephesian pastors back in Acts 20:28-31;
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 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, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears (Acts 20:28-31).
And now we see that, in Jesus' words to the church in Ephesus, it happened just as they'd been warned. Jesus says that He knew about these Ephesian Christians - that they had found these false teachers out and had rejected them.
Fifth, He knew of their faithfulness in suffering persecution. He said, "You have perseverance and have endured for my name's sake . . ." It was for the name of Jesus that they suffered. And yet, as Jesus said, "You have not grown weary." They didn't lose heart because of their claim to Jesus and His claim on them. They didn't give up - even under the fiery trials of persecution.
Lastly, Jesus commended it for being a church that hated sin. It hated the deeds of group called the Nicolaitans - a heretical group that advocated immoral behavior1 and that had sought to influence the church in Ephesus. So Jesus says to them that they had this going for them: "that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." He didn't commend them because they hated the Nicolaitans; but that they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans.
It may not be 'politically correct' in the eyes of the world; but sometimes, a church is marked with honor by the things it hates. It was a church that was "intolerant" of sin. Jesus said He knew this about them: "that you cannot endure evil men." This church hated the things it should hate - the things that Jesus hated. It did not endure the sort of people that it should not endure.
What a powerful church! What a steadfast church! When I read of this church and its good and commendable qualities, I long for our church to be like it. And in many ways it is! I only long for it to be more so; don't you?
2. BUT IF SUCH A CHURCH NEGLECTS ITS 'FIRST LOVE', IT LOSES ITS USEFULNESS TO THE LORD JESUS (v. 4).
Even with all these wonderful things going for it, the church in Ephesus received a shockingly strong word of disapproval from the Master. He said, "I have this against you, that you have left your first love." Because of its having "left" or "forsaken" or "abandoned" its first love2 - in spite of all the other wonderful things it was doing - that church received a stern warning from Jesus to either repent or suffer loss. If it failed to repent of the sin of neglecting its first love, Jesus warned that He Himself would come to them and personally "remove" their "lampstand out of its place."
What was this all-important "first love" that the Ephesian church had left? In answering that question, I believe that we need to go back to Acts 19, and look at the time when the Gospel of Jesus Christ first came to the city of Ephesus.
When we look at that passage, we read of the "extraordinary miracles" that God was performing through the Apostle Paul there. The Bible says that, as the news was spreading about the miraculous things God was doing, and of the Gospel of Jesus that Paul was preaching,
... fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified. Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of all; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing (Acts 19:17a-20).
If you were to read this story and ask what their "first love" was, you would have to answer that it was none other than that intense, all-consuming love of the Lord Jesus for His having saved them from sin.
Have you ever watched those police and rescue programs on television; and seen one of those episodes in which an emergency worker saves someone's life from a fire or flood or some other disaster? Often they show a meeting between the rescuer and the man or woman they saved. That rescued person knew nothing about that rescuer; but as soon as they meet, the rescued person displays an immediate, powerful love for them. They don't know much about that rescue worker personally; but they don't need to. All they know is that they saved them; and so they love them.
It's the same with Jesus, our Rescuer from our sins. Many people admire Jesus as a great teacher, or as a religious leader, or as an example of compassion. But there's no intense love for Him in those things. But when you realize that you are lost and condemned in sin - destined for the righteous wrath of God; and you trust Jesus sacrifice on the cross for sinners, and He saves you from your state of lostness, then you love Him.
These Ephesians loved Jesus because He saved them from their sins; and they so came to trust Him, that they abandoned everything else they used to trust in. No more magic arts! No more occultic practices! No more secret crafts! No more 'good luck' charms! No more witchcraft! From then on, they placed their full love and trust in Jesus and in Him alone - His saving grace, His power and His word exclusively! They gave their lives over to Him and served Him as the great object of their love.
And over time, they kept on sacrificing for Him; kept on suffering for Him; kept on toiling and laboring for Him; kept on persevering for Him; . . . but in all this "keeping on", they began to neglect Him! They were doing all the right things; but in the process, they lost that intense, exclusive love for Christ that they once had. In fact, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates it this way: "... I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first".
I remember something that Dr. Mitchell once told us during his Spiritual Life course at Multnomah Bible College. It wasn't intended to be scholarly course; instead it was wonderful opportunity to just sit and listen to Dr. Mitchell talk about the Savior he loved so much. And one day, he told us all; "Young men and young women - Jesus doesn't want your service if He can't have you. He doesn't need your service; but He wants you." That's so true; isn't it? He doesn't want our help. He wants our hearts.
I myself have known some professing Christians who are active, hard-working, persevering, devoted completely to the doctrines of the faith, and who test all things against the standard of the Scriptures. They were willing to suffer for the truth, and they hated sin. Yet, as best I could tell, it had come to be pretty much an external matter with them. There was not a whole lot in the way of an intense love for Christ Himself for His having saved them from their sins anymore. There was lots of practical action for Christ on the outside, but little passionate love for Christ on the inside. If I may put it this way, "Christianity" had come to replace Christ as their first love. How easy it is for us to let this happen!!
The Lord Jesus had the Ephesian Christians' acts of service - and excellent acts of service they were! But He no longer had their hearts. They had left their first love; and so their excellent works could not prevent their lampstand from being removed out of its place.
And notice how seriously Jesus treats this matter; to threaten to come to this church and remove its lampstand out of its place!
What is meant by the "lampstand" being removed from out of its "place"? Jesus used the analogy of a "lampstand" once before, in His "Sermon on the Mount". He told His disciples there;
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
Jesus' precious church is His light to the world. A lampstand isn't the light; it simply holds the light up so it can shine and emit its rays throughout the house. That's important to notice. I don't believe Jesus is saying that Christian people who had left their first love would cease to be His people. Rather, I believe Jesus is warning that a church that has left its first love would lose its witness to the world. He Himself will remove its lampstand from that place in which it can shine the light of the Gospel to the world. All its hard work and fine qualities will be for nothing. Because of having left its first love, it will have lost the greatest privilege that could ever be had in the world - the privilege of being His witness on earth. What a tragic loss that would be!
And it's this terrible possible loss that disturbs me so. I want our church to enjoy the awesome privilege of shining the light of the Gospel to the world! I don't want our church to lose its usefulness to the Master! I don't want our church to be removed from a place of witness - neither now or at any time in the future!
3. SUCH A CHURCH, HOWEVER, CAN BE RESTORED TO USEFULNESS (vv. 5, 7).What then can we do? In the midst of this stern rebuke from Jesus to this church that was doing all the right things, but that had left its first love, Jesus tells us what to do. There are three things He calls us to.
First, we must remember. "Remember therefore from where you have fallen," Jesus says. He calls us to do the hard work of thinking back and searching for that time in our life when we had "left" Him - when we had forsaken that intense love for Him that we once had.
And do you know what's amazing about this? Jesus already knows when that time was. But even though He already knows, He calls us to do the work of "remembering". And unless we do, we will remain in that awful state of negligence. We will continue to do the same old things, performing the same old Christian duties, and never seeing that place where we've gone wrong, neglected Him, and left our first love - only further provoking Him to remove our lampstand from its place of witness. We must "remember".
Second, we must repent. "Repent," Jesus says. To repent is to "change our mind". It's to realize that we've gone in the wrong direction; and change our attitude about the direction we've headed. In this case, the "direction" was that of having neglected an intimate, personal and intense love for Jesus Himself. And to repent would mean that we see where in our lives we've started to neglect Him. It would mean to cease being comfortable with such neglect. It would involve searching out what sort of things we allowed in our lives to rob Him of our pure devotion and trust; change our attitude toward Him and stop neglecting Him. We must "repent".
Finally, we must do the deeds we did at first. The deeds that the Ephesians did at first were to forsake everything else and devote themselves strictly and exclusively to Jesus. In radical love for Him, they threw off everything else they trusted in and depended on, and they abandoned themselves to their wonderful Savior, and to Him alone. He became the great love of their hearts - even at great personal cost.
And would I be wrong in believing that Jesus would want our church to do the same in a new and fresh way? That even a strong, busy, active sacrificing, persevering church might need to stop and examine itself, see where its people have allowed that intense love for Jesus Himself to grow cold, and re-abandon itself to Him again? What would happen to a church if it did that? What would happen to the lives of its people?
Our church has a very long and historic ministry in our community. Am I wrong in believing that it's in serious need of a fresh love and devotion to Jesus? Would I be wrong to say that you and I need a personal restoration of that "first love"? I know I do. That "first love" is a precious thing to have ... and a terrible thing to lose.
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These are the things God has dealt with me about from this passage. It's as much a message from Jesus to our church as it was to the ancient church in Ephesus. He Himself said, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God."
I have shared how God has affected me with this passage in the hopes that we all, together, would be transformed by Jesus' warning in it. We simply don't love Jesus enough; and we need Him to change us.
There's nothing more powerful in the world - no greater light in the darkness - than a church of people in whom Jesus dwells, and who are deeply, passionately, devotedly, sacrificially in love with Him above all else as the Savior; a church that's not simply going through the motions, but that renders service whole-hearted love to Jesus.
May God make us that sort of a church! May God increase our love for the Savior.
1Eusebius, the ancient church historian, writes of the heresy of the Nicolaites "of which mention is made in the revelation of John. These boasted of Nicolaus as their founder, one of those deacons who with Stephen were appointed by the apostles to minister unto the poor. Clement of Alexandria, in the third book of Stromata, relates the following respecting him, 'Having a beautiful wife, and being reproached after the ascension of our Lord, with jealously by the apostles, he conducted her into the midst of them, and permitted any one that wished to marry her. This they say was perfectly consistent with that expression of his, "that every one ought to abuse his own flesh". And thus those that adopted his heresy, following both this example and expression literally, rush headlong into fornication without shame. I have ascertained, however, that Nicolaus lived with no other woman than the one to whom he was married, but that his daughters continued in the state of virginity to advanced life; that his son also remained uncorrupt. It would appear, therefore, from these facts, that the introduction of his wife into the midst of the apostles, on account of jealousy, was rather the suppression of passion. And, therefore, abstinence from those pleasures that are so eagerly pursued, was inculcated by the expression, "we ought to abuse the flesh." For I do not think, that according to the saying of our Lord, he wished to serve two masters, the flesh and the Lord. They indeed say that Matthew thus taught to fight against and to abuse the flesh, not to give way to any thing for the sake of pleasure, and to cultivate the spirit by faith and knowledge.' But it may suffice to have said thus much concerning those who have attempted to mutilate the truth, and which again became extinct, sooner than said" (Eusebius, Ecclesiatstical History, chpt. XXIX.)
Eusebius then goes on to quote Clement's relation of how many of the apostles remained in a married state, against those who were setting marriage aside. It may be, then, that the original intent of Nicolaus was to present himself in a superior position over the apostles by abstaining from sexual intimacy with his wife. Paul seems to speak of such a thing in the New Testament (Col. 2:18, 21-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 1 Cor. 7:1-9). But in the end, it would appear that Nicolaus' heretical teaching had the effect of encouraging immorality, as many apparently took his words literally.
2The Greek word "aphiêmi" is translated "to send away, dismiss, suffer to depart." It is used in reference to a man divorcing his wife in 1 Cor. 7:11. In this case, the meaning is that of "leaving", or as in Moulton's lexicon, "to relax, suffer to become less intense."
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