Yesterday we began a series through the letters to the seven churches, found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. So far, we’ve just looked at some background, and the fact that these “performance reviews” follow the same basic pattern:
- Who’s speaking: a way of describing Jesus
- What’s good: an affirmation of what the church is doing well
- What’s bad: a charge against the church for what it’s failing to do
- How to get back on track: an exhortation to repent and set things right
- A warning: of what will happen if they don’t
- A promise: of what’s in store if they do
Today, we’re looking at the letter to Ephesus (2:1-7) under these headings.
The letter begins with a reminder of who it is that’s conducting the performance review. Not John. Not your boss. But Jesus himself, who’s described in the following way:2:1 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.
Now apart from the impressive fact that Jesus doesn’t need to use oven mitts, what’s significant about holding seven stars in his right hand? And what’s he doing walking around in what sounds like a tacky homewares shop? Thankfully, in chapter 1 Jesus has already explained the symbolism for us:1:20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels [or “representatives”] of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
In other words, Jesus is the one who holds the churches in his hand. He protects them. He’s in charge of their destiny.
And what’s more, he walks among them. He’s not some kind of distant God who works on the top floor and only comes down occasionally to yell at people and conduct intimidating performance reviews. He’s right there, on the shop floor, day to day with his staff. The risen Lord Jesus walks among his churches. He’s here, doing life with us.
And it’s this Jesus who addresses his church. Sovereign lord, yet deeply involved.
So what does he say to his church in Ephesus?
Clearly he’s done one of those “how to give criticism” workshops, because he starts off by commending them for what they’re doing well. The good news part of the sandwich. Have a listen:2:2-3 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, 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.
And then, having delivered the rebuke in verses 4 and 5, he returns to some more positive stuff in verse 6:2:6 But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Sounds like a pretty good church, doesn’t it? Hard working. Prepared to suffer for God, rather than being in it just when it’s convenient. And clearly very careful about both doctrine and behaviour. They tested false teachers and booted them out. They rejected the Nicolaitans, which Jesus says is a good thing.
Now, we have no idea who the Nicolaitans were or what they believed. But they show up in the letter to Pergamum as well, where they appear to have had more success in leading some people astray. But here in Ephesus: no such luck! The Ephesians consistently reject false doctrine, and the sinful behaviours that false doctrine often encourages.
I may be biased, but I think Jesus would say similar things to my church (and many other churches like it). In a world that constantly pressures the church to revise its teachings to something more palatable, more acceptable to the current age, we stand firm.
In a world that believes that all religions are valid, that considers it outrageous for one faith to claim exclusive truth – we hold to the uniqueness of Christ. That there is no other name under heaven given by which we may be saved. That Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no-one comes to God except through him.
In a world that finds the idea of sin objectionable, the threat of judgement unenlightened, and the notion of sacrifice absurd – we hold to the death of Jesus in our place; his blood shed for us, to pay the penalty for our sin; the wrath of God poured out on his Son so that we might go free.
In a world that decides morality more by popular vote than reference to an absolute standard, that thinks the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is simply a reflection of a bygone culture and an affront to human freedom – we hold that God created us to live in a pattern of relationships that are for our ultimate benefit. We reject the lie that if it feels right, and we’re not hurting anyone, we can do it.
And I could go on, but I think you get the idea. In a godless world, we stand firm in the truth. And we aspire to the kinds of behaviours that flow out of that truth. Just like the Ephesian church.
What about you and your church?
But that’s not the whole story, is it? In between these commendations come some strong words of judgement:2:4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.
They’ve lost that lovin’ feeling. Or more accurately, they’re not performing loving actions, since in the next verse they’re commanded to repent and do the things they did at first. Not feel the way they used to feel. Do what they used to do. This is about love in action.
Now it could be love for God that’s in view here. But most commentators think John’s talking about love for one another. After all, love for one another seems to be a key theme in all of John’s writings:2 John 5 I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.
There’s also an interesting connection with Jesus’ own warnings about the future:Matt 24:11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
The Ephesian church had managed to avoid the first danger: being deceived by false teachers. But they’d fallen into the second error: a lack of love.
Isn’t that often the case? Churches (like mine) that are good at holding firm to the truth and upholding right standards of behaviour can (if we’re not careful) also be unloving and judgemental. The very thing they’re good at can sow the seeds of their failure. ‘Cause it’s hard to be both truthful and loving at the same time, isn’t it? It’s hard to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) as Paul said some decades earlier in his letter to the Ephesian church.
Would that be Jesus’ assessment of you? Or of your church?
More broadly, I alluded before to the danger of the church adopting the worldview of the dominant culture. Are we in danger of reflecting the selfishness of our age? That tells us to look after me and my family first? To fit our own oxygen masks before helping others?
I mean, these days we’re so time poor we might think about helping someone else in the church who’s struggling – but then my family will suffer. I’ve barely got time to cook meals for us, let alone for someone else. I’d make that phone call to see how they’re going, but I need some me-time first or I’ll burn out. We intend to look out for others, but the pace of life can mean we never quite get around to it.
Have we forsaken what for Jesus was meant to be the key characteristic of his church?John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
To think about
How do you – and your church – go with this tension: holding to right doctrine and showing love to one another (even those with whom we may disagree)?