"Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first" (NIV, 2011). "You have forsaken your first love" (NIV, 1984).
Revelation 2:1-7; Key Verse: Rev 2:4
Revelation is about Jesus. Last week (6/23/13), we began our study of Revelation: "Blessed Is The One Who Reads Revelation " (Rev 1:1-20). Historically, Revelation has been regarded as the most difficult book of the Bible to read, study and understand. It is often thought that the book is primarily about prophecies of the future that would help us predict when Jesus would return. This is NOT the intent of Revelation.
Though it contains prophecies about the end times, yet Revelation is primarily about Jesus (Rev 1:1). It is about the gospel (Rev 1:5b). It is about how Jesus would return in triumph over all his enemies. It is about Jesus the Lamb once slain for our sins who will win the ultimate victory as the Lion for his bride the church--for whom he restores the kingdom of God. It is a book that helps God's people to know the reality and certainly of heaven while living in the world.
In this second sermon, Jesus begins his address to the seven churches, beginning with the church at Ephesus. In 2012, I preached 3 sermons on Revelation in Manila:
- The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1-20).
- Christian, Listen Up! (Rev 2:1-3:22)
- What Is Heaven Like? (Rev 21:1-22:5)
Each message to a church is what the Spirit says to all churches. In 2012, I gave an overview of Revelation chapters 2-3 by covering what the Son of Man spoke to all seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev 1:10-12) in one sermon. This year, the focus will be on what Jesus spoke to each church individually. (Though each church faces specific struggles, yet these letters are meant to be read and listened to by all churches because the problems Jesus addresses and the solution Jesus proposes are applicable to all churches through out history.) Each message to a particular church is what the Spirit says to all churches in general. These 7 churches of Asia Minor represent the totality of Christ's churches, scattered across the world and over time, and their problems are symptomatic of those confronting churches in all times and places.
An outline and format for what Jesus said follows a template and a pattern, which can be divided in the following ways:
- The Church (city).
- The Christ (correspondent).
- The Commendation.
- The Concern (criticism, condemnation).
- The Counsel (challenge, command).
- The Caution.
- The Consummation.
The church and the Christ. After specifying the church, the identification of the speaker in each letter repeats a characteristic of Christ introduced in Revelation chapter 1, especially the opening vision of the Son of Man (Rev 1:9-20). Christ identifies himself to each church in terms appropriate to the congregation and its struggle. For instance:
- The church at Ephesus must repent of lovelessness, lest its lampstand (church) be removed by the One who walks among the lampstands (Rev 2:1,5).
- The suffering church at Philadelphia needs to see its Savior as holding not only death's key but also David's key, giving his church "an open door that no one can shut" (Rev 3:7-8; 1:18).
The commendation and the concern (rebuke). The description of the church's situation is the heart of each letter. Introduced by the preface "I know," it shows the implication of the Son of Man's position in the middle of or "among the lampstands" (Rev 1:13). Jesus is not an absentee Ruler but one who is present with his churches. Jesus knows precisely their deeds, tribulation, poverty, love, faith, service, and perseverance. (5 of 7 Jesus begins with commendation for their faithfulness. For 3 of these 5 Jesus' commendation is balanced with rebuke or criticism, introduced by "but I have this against you." Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no rebuke and only encouragement to endure. Jesus' "I know" to Sardis and Laodicea has no commendation and introduces his negative evaluation of these churches, whose appearance belies reality. Sardis is reputed to have life but is dead. Laodicea thinks itself rich, but is poor."
The counsel (challenge, command). All 7 churches are to hear the exact same refrain: "Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches." This refrain echoes Jesus' challenge to those who heard his parables (Mk 4:9, 23).
The consummation. The promises to the victor point forward to Revelation's closing visions of the victory of the Word/Lamb and the presentation of his bride. Those who overcome (NIV 1984) or to the one who is victorious (NIV 2011) will share in Christ's iron-sceptor authority over the nations and his royal throne (Rev 19:15; 20:4, 11). He will protect them from the second death (Rev 20:6). They will have a place in the temple, the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:2-3), where they will eat from the tree of life (Rev 22:2). Purity in the face of temptation and persistence in the face of oppression are motivated by the hope of the new heavens and earth (Rev 21:1), in which we see his face (Rev 22:4) and he will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4).
Ephesus, A Loveless Church (Rev 2:1-7): Discernment Without Love
- The Church: Loveless (Rev 2:4).
- The Christ: A Faithful Friend who "holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands" (Rev 2:1).
- The Commendation: Deeds, hard work, perseverance, discernment, etc (Rev 2:2-3, 6).
- The Concern (rebuke): Lost first love (Rev 2:4).
- The Counsel: Remember, repent, return, renew (Rev 2:5a).
- The Caution: Or your church will die (Rev 2:5b).
- The Consummation (promise): "I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (Rev 2:7).
Discernment is the very quality for which Jesus commends the Ephesian church: "you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false;" "You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" (Rev 2:2, 6). Paul had urged the elders to exercise discernment, recognizing that "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" (Ac 20:29-30). Later, Paul left Timothy at Ephesus to "command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith" (1 Tim 1:3-4). Paul's encouragement and warning bore good fruit in the Ephesians. They rejected counterfeit apostles and counterfeit gospels and were intolerant of anyone, such as the Nicolaitans who compromised the truth.
Sex and idolatry. In the letter to Pergamum (Rev 2:14-15) the Nicolaitans are compared with Balaam, who after failing to pronounce a prophetic curse against Israel, recommended to King Balak of Moab a different strategy to defeat God's people: estrange them from God by luring them into immorality and idolatry (Num 25:1-2; 31:16). The Nicolaitans used these same weapons--sex and idolatry--to seduce Christians in the church. But the church at Ephesus saw through this and reacted with holy hatred.
First love. The One "who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands" (Rev 2:1) does however find a serious flaw in this hard-working, tireless, enduring, discerning, truth-loving, lie-hating congregation (Rev 2:2-3): "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first" (Rev 2:4). This "first love" was a height from which the church had fallen and to which it must return if its lampstand was not to be removed (Rev 2:5).
What are the evidences of first love?
- Conviction of sin.
- Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace.
- Sanctification. Living a holy life.
- Desire to share Christ with others.
- Loving both the wayward immoral and the legalistic moralist.
Service accompanies true love. What is this loss of love? It is likely that the first love lost in Ephesus was love for other people. In Rev 2:19 the pairs "love and faith" and "service and perseverance" go together. As perseverance under persecution demonstrates faith, so service shows love. Jesus predicted that persecution would tempt people to apostatize and fall away and that false teaching mislead others. Being attacked on all sides, "the love of most will grow cold" (Mt 24:10-12). When a church feels attacked they become suspicious of others and turn inward to preserve themselves. The remedy and proper response, however, is the very opposite: Repentance involves doing "the things you did at first" (Rev 2:5). This command confirms the focus of first love on other people, for in John's writing the proof of love is found in deeds of service to others (1 Jn 3:16-19). Paul also emphasized the balance of truth and love that makes the church grow: "speaking the truth in love" (Eph 4:15).
Standing for truth without adequate love. Herein lies the problem of the church at Ephesus. In their emphasis on truth, they lacked love. Despite their emphasis on truth, they neglected love. So, though they confidently proclaimed the truth, their proclamation of truth that lacked love WAS NOT the truth. For, telling the truth without love is not telling the truth, just as loving without telling the truth is not loving.
God's first love. God and Jesus also had a first love. Their first love is unbreakable from eternity past to eternity future. Yet God loved us and expressed that love for us at great cost to himself. To love us, God had to break his unbreakable first love with his Son. His Son cried out because of the unbearable agony of a broken love. No human being can bear to lose the love of a most beloved one. It is true for all human beings that we can lose and part with virtually anything and everything except that of a first love. I do not like to read Ezekiel simply because in Ezekiel his wife, who was the delight of his eyes, dies (Eze 24:15-18). No one can bear losing a first love, not even to read about losing a loved one. But God lost his first love for his Son in order to love us.
The right to eat from the tree of life. Jesus' last word to Ephesus, however, is not threat but promise: the victor will be given "the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (Rev 2:7). In this first letter the painful memory of paradise lost (Gen 3:22-24) is transformed into hope, as the promise points ahead to the tree of life in the new Jerusalem, bearing a different crop each month and healing the nations through its leaves (Rev 22:1-2). Jesus promises to those who overcome, through truth expressed in love (Eph 4:15), access to a tree that yields endless delight and eternal life.
Is Jesus your first love? How is your first love expressed in your daily life?
1. Who "holds the seven stars in his right hand" and "walks among the seven golden lampstands" (Rev 2:1)? What are the seven stars and seven golden lampstands (Rev 1:20)?
2. What did the church in Ephesus have going for it (Rev 2:2-3)? What did Jesus have against them (Rev 2:4)? What does this mean? What causes you to lose your first love for God? What was it like in the early days of your relationship with Jesus? (When were you most excited about Jesus? What influences contributed to you living a life on fire for Christ? What decisions did you make then? How does a couple's first love for one another relate to our first love for Christ? Why does the "first love" tend to grow cold? Are you still doing the things you did in the early days or your courtship? Do feelings follow actions or the other way around? How do we stay on fire for Christ? Help each other stay on fire for Christ?)
3. What did Jesus ask the Ephesians to do about this first love problem (Rev 2:5a)? What would happen if they did not follow Jesus' counsel (Rev 2:5b)? What does this teach us? Does God punish Christians? Why or why not?
4. Who are the "Nicolaitians" (Rev 2:6; 14-15)? What was wrong with their teaching? Any contemporary parallels?
5. All seven letters close the same way: "Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 1:7a). Why is this so important as to bear repeating (Rev 2:11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)? What is your reward as a victor who "overcomes" (Rev 2:7b)?
6. If Jesus was writing to your church, what positive qualities might He commend you for? Scold you for? What kind of grade do you think your church would get? What is the most glaring need for improvement in your church? What can you do to be a part of the solution? Homework (to help you study and understand the seven churches in Revelation, which are representative of all churches, including [y]our church):