(Fourth in a series on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor. Revelation 1-3)
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him. For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receives” (Hebrews 12:5-6).
The Lord Jesus was unhappy with His churches. Five of the seven congregations scattered across Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) were already getting off-track and needed some swift attention. The two exceptions were Smyrna and Philadelphia. But the other five churches received stern rebukes.
To all the seven churches of Asia Minor, the Lord gave four things (with slight variations for Smyrna and Philadelphia):
HIS ANALYSIS. This is His report card. His “state of the state” message.
HIS WARNINGS. Repent or else.
HIS INSTRUCTIONS. Remedial actions the Lord would like to see.
HIS PROMISES. To Him who overcomes, blessings await. Each church gets its own promise.
These four blessings–for they were that–were not given to the unbelieving world, not to pagan religions, and not to political powers. They were gifts from Heaven to seven congregations for whom the Lord Jesus had great expectations and important roles to play.
If you are sports-minded, then think of a football coach rebuking his team. He reserves his harshest criticism for the best players, the ones gifted with the greatest talents, those from whom he expects the most. The players receiving the least attention from the coach are the bench warmers, those with small talents and little desire, players from whom he has come to expect little and receive even less.
The greatest compliment the coach can give is his undivided attention, his closest scrutiny, his best analysis.
Take Ephesus, for instance. If the congregation of the Ephesians were a football player, it would be the star of the team and thus the coach’s greatest attention would be lavished upon him. Or, to change the analogy, think of a classroom situation. The students who receive the sternest criticism and strictest attention from the teacher are the high-achievers. The smartest students, those in the gifted class, those with great aptitude. That would be Ephesus.
Ephesus has had the spiritual leadership of Timothy, of Apollos, of Aquila and Priscilla, and of John himself. No other church was so blessed with great leadership.
To whom much is given, much is expected.
And so, to Ephesus the ascended reigning Lord Jesus says:
“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and how you cannot bear those who are evil. You have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them to be liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.” That’s Revelation 2:1-3.
Good job, Ephesus.
–You have worked hard. You set a great example for the other churches. Good job.
–You have persevered. You have not shirked from the work when the sun got hot or the conditions unbearable. You stayed by the assignment. Good job.
–You have a zeal for the truth. And you have no patience with the hypocrites, those who want the pay without doing the work. Good job.
–You exposed the pretenders claiming to be apostles in order to gain the honors God’s people bestow on the veteran followers of Jesus. You showed them to be pretenders and put them out of business. Good job.
–To sum up, you have worked hard and been steadfast and have not grown tired. Good job.
However. You are missing out on something important, Ephesus.
“Nevertheless, I have this against you: that you have left your first love.” (Revelation 2:4)
Is this important? Isn’t it more important to get the work done even if one’s attitude isn’t always the best? Why does this matter?
Here is the answer. Jesus said, “Repent…or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place–unless you repent” (2:5).
How stern is that? Unless Ephesus gets its act together and begins to love again–in the way it did at the first!–the Lord threatens to remove its right to be a Church.
Don’t miss that. If the lampstand represents the church itself–as our Lord said in 1:20–then to remove the lampstand would be to cancel the right of Ephesus to be a church. in our culture, we might say the Lord would remove their franchise.
The Burger King in your neighborhood is part of a franchise operation. The local owner has signed an agreement with the parent company to use its name, its products, purchase its supplies, abide by its menus, etc. If the local store does not keep its part of the contract, the parent company can cancel the agreement. They would send out their workers and take down the Burger King sign and other identifying insignia. The restaurant could still of course function as a restaurant. They could still sell burgers, shakes and fries. But they could not market them as Burger King burgers, shakes, and fries. And so with the church.
A church which has had its franchise canceled by the reigning Lord can still meet. It can still have services and call itself a church. But it will no longer be a part of the body of Christ. Jesus Christ will no longer be its Head. It will have been severed, so to speak, cut off from the rest of the body.
That is the warning to Ephesus. Unless they recaptured the love which characterized their relationship in the early days, the Lord was leaving. All their good works, all their zeal for doctrinal purity and integrity would come to naught.
Where does this ‘first love’ come from?
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen, repent and do the first works…” (2:5).
The outline suggested by this word from our Lord is threefold: Remember, Repent, and Repeat.
Remember what you had before. Recall the early days of your salvation, the way you loved other believers and loved the Lord. This love for the brethren, Jesus said, was the mark of a believer. (John 13:34-35). It is the first fruit of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22.
Repent. Call the lack of love the sin it is and repent of it. It is not optional, something to be enjoyed if present but not particularly important when absent. Its absence is everything. Stop what you are doing and recapture the love!
Then, repeat the actions you did when you first fell in love with the Lord and his people. What actions would that be? He didn’t say, but I expect it would involve a lot of spontaneous acts of worship, devotion, obedience, and kindness.
God’s people forget this lesson all the time and constantly have to keep relearning it: Love is the most important command. “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” It is essential and the Christian cannot function when it is missing.
At its essence, it’s a matter of our personal relationship with the Lord. “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). Where the Holy Spirit is, there will be love.
Love God and obey Him.
Wonder what would happen if our pastors talked to the church the way the Lord did in Revelation 1-3? Wonder what would happen if a bishop or district superintendent or director of missions quit trying to be so cotton-picking nice and told the church leaders the unvarnished truth about their situation? What if our leadership quit worrying about someone getting their feelings hurt and withdrawing their contributions? What if we valued faithfulness to Christ above all?
My friend Barbara Smith is the church pianist and receptionist at Tuscaloosa’s First Baptist Church. Today, January 3, 2019, she wrote on her daily email to church leadership. I’m going by memory here and have joined my thoughts with hers. She said, “We applaud (head football coach) Nick Saban for being tough and demanding discipline of his players because he turns out winning teams. But what if a school teacher did that with her class? What if a pastor exercised that kind of strong leadership toward his church? People would holler to high heaven. ‘You’re being too tough.’ ‘Expecting too much.’ ‘We can’t do that.’ And so we end up with mediocre students and average churches. Something is bad wrong here.”
While it’s true that the Lord chastens whom He loves, it is not true that those who receive the chastening appreciate it the way they should. I’d give a week’s pay to know how the church at Ephesus reacted to this first of the letters to Asia Minor.
Help us, Lord.