Monday, January 29, 2018

The Love You Had At First (Revelation 2:1-7)

When people visit our church for the first time, especially if they have been more accustomed to congregations filled with more ritual or liturgy, usually their first impression revolves around how “un-churchy” it can seem. They might even walk away thinking, “Wow, I don’t even feel I was at church today.”

A similar experience belongs to those who are working their way through Revelation 1-3 for the first time. They might conclude, “Wow, the content in these first chapters seems pretty normal, practical, in fact, almost unremarkable”—especially if what they were expecting was to get into a great amount of fantastic material that talks about beasts, marks on your hand or forehead, battles, demons, angels, time charts, and the like. Through the first three chapters some might think, “It all seems just so practical and focused upon who the church is and how we are to function!”

And such a response is right on the money. After all, the book is not about appeasing our curiosity about the future. It is about how to function on mission as the church, especially as we face a hostile culture. This is why the opening to the book (1:1-8), along with its first vision in chapter one (what we have covered so far), speaks of living on mission, facing a hostile culture, and persevering.

You might be surprised to discover, as we get into the second and third chapters, we find much more of the same. Here, John, while exiled to the island of Patmos for his evangelistic work (1:9), addresses individually the seven churches he has already mentioned in 1:11—seven congregations located in what is Turkey today, and who represent the global church of all ages. It seems the order in which the apostle addressed them was based upon their location: “These churches formed a natural route for a circuit rider, starting in Ephesus and moving in a clockwise direction through Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea” (this is the same order as his addresses).[1]

Each of the messages in Revelation 2-3 has a similar order to it:

1. Addressee: “Unto the angel in…, write.”

2. Identification and description of Christ, based on the vision in ch. 1: “The words of him who….”

3. Affirmation that Christ knows about the church.

4. An evaluation—either a rebuke, commendation, or both. We should note there is no commendation in the message to the church in Laodicea (3:14-22) and there is no rebuke in the messages to Smyrna (2:8-11) or Philadelphia (3:7-13).

5. An exhortation to the church to take needed action (either to remain true or to change their course).

6. A statement of what Christ will do, based upon how they respond.

7. A Promise to the one who conquers.

8. A call to hear: “He who has an ear….”

We should also note that numbers 7 and 8 can be in reverse order.

Something else we find out in these two chapters is that there is a good deal of repetition of subjects within them and repetition of subjects already addressed in chapter one. Because of this, we will approach these two chapters topically in three sermons. Nevertheless, we will briefly introduce ourselves to each church as we move through the two chapters. We will discover a number of application points given to the Church worldwide throughout this age for how we should function—application points we will cover in these next three sermons out of chapters 2-3.

The first application point we discover, the one we will focus on this morning, is this: Churches are to have and retain their love for Christ that leads to a love for gospel ministry.

We will begin by seeing how this message arises in Christ’s words to the church in Ephesus (2:1-7).

How This Message Arises
John starts by writing: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write….” Nowhere else does Scripture clearly teach that a person has a guardian angel, nor does it even imply that a local church would have an angel assigned to it. What appears to be taking place here is that the vision of the seven angels (or the seven stars, see Rev. 1:20; 2:1b) signifies the churches have a heavenly existence. In other words, though they are located on the earth in this age, their existence is largely in heaven with heavenly realities applied to them, and they are held in the Savior’s hand. So, to address the angel is to address the church itself.[2] This is a difficult aspect of this passage to understand and does not seem to have unmistakable Old Testament (or any other) background to help. However, whatever it means does not have great bearing upon the understanding of the passage one way or the other.  

Ephesus, a place where Paul ministered (Acts 19-20), which had a church to which Paul wrote (Ephesians), and which was the location where Timothy was when Paul wrote to him (1, 2 Timothy), was a major center for Christianity from the end of the first century through the fifth century, with some major Church councils held there. At the same time, it was also a major center for the worship of the goddess, Artemis (or Diana), the goddess of love (Acts 19).  So, no doubt there was a good amount of push back on the church from the surrounding cultures and they needed to be reminded they are in the hands of the sovereign Savior, who is also in their midst (1b-c): “The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” This first description of Christ reminds us there is strong connection between the chapter one vision and the specific messages to all seven churches in Rev. 2-3.

It is not just Ephesus that needs this reminder. We need to hear this truth, which is a repetition of what Jesus promises his disciples when he commissioned us to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:20): “And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  

The presence of the sovereign Savior among the church not only reveals he is with us to help and support, it also displays he knows our situation (verses 2-3): “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary.” 

Here Jesus commends the Ephesians for the works they did, their endurance, the fact they are not giving up in the face of hard situations, and their opposition to false teaching. There is much for which Jesus can commend this local congregation!  These two verses remind us just how important these same traits are for us today. In these we should follow the example of the church in Ephesus.

Yet, there is one way in which we should not follow their example. In verse 4 we read: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” The way this is worded, they began leaving behind this love sometime in the past and still have not come back to it. I am of the strong conviction that what John has in mind here is the love for Christ that the Ephesians had when the first believers came to Christ and the church was new. Since Jesus goes on to say that if they do not return to that love, he will remove their lampstand—i.e. their light or mission to the world (Rev. 2:5), I believe he is saying that this love they had for Christ at the beginning led to gospel work, i.e. disciplemaking. This is also supported by the strong emphasis upon the church living on mission in the near (Rev. 1:5, 6, 9, 12, 20) and far (Rev. 5:10; 11:1-2; 12:11, et. al.) contexts of the book.

Additionally, this understanding is supported by the reality that in verse 5 “the works you did at first” appears to be connected to and parallel with their love they had at first. And, elsewhere in the messages to the seven churches “works” speak of missional works (see 2:19). There may also be a parallel in 3:15-20, where the church in Laodicea is addressed. There, in verse 16, the church is denounced as “lukewarm,” i.e. neither hot nor cold. In other words, they were no longer useful as a church. This description arises from the reality that, “There were well-known hot springs in Hierapolis, just 6 miles…from Laodicea [that were useful for therapeutic or medicinal purposes], and a good supply of cold running water in nearby Colosse [that was piped into Laodicea]. Laodicea itself, however, appears to have had a tepid and barely potable water supply. This would have been a potent symbol for this congregation of its church’s ineffectiveness [or uselessness].”[3]

This message to the church in Ephesus is rounded out not only with a call to repent (5a), a promise of what will happen if they don’t (5b), a further word of commendation (6), a call to hear what the Spirit is saying (7a), and a promise of full life to those who listen and conquer (7b). Consider: 
Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

There are two realities we need to note before moving on to what is next. To begin, I hope you are seeing the book of Revelation has a strong emphasis upon outreach and mission. This is to be at the core of who the church is and what we do.

Additionally, each of these churches is addressed as a collective unit. Certainly, a church is made up of individuals who can experience God’s blessing or discipline apart from others. However, a local congregation also is a community that stands together and rises or falls together. God can bless, discipline, or judge whole congregations on their faithfulness or lack thereof. Along this line, we get the idea that what can often happen to churches that cease living on mission is that they die and close their doors. Responsible and faithful leaders, as well as teachers in the church, must cast vision for, equip, and call the church to live on mission that flows out of their knowledge of and love for Christ!

Now that we have seen how the main message arises, we must next discover just how a church leaves its love for Christ and gospel ministry.

How A Church Leaves Its Love For Christ And Gospel Ministry
Though John does not explicitly tell us this in these verses, there are hints in this passage and in the context.

1. If we keep in mind the strong connection these messages have to the chapter one vision and its explanatory preface (1:9-20)—a vision designed to help the church step up to the plate and endure on mission, we see that ignoring the Word of God, the very Word that reveals to us Christ and the importance of his mission (1:10-11), leads to loss of that mission. This does not mean that the Bible is not being taught at all within such a congregation. After all, Ephesus is commended for endurance, having some works among them, and opposing false teaching. However, when individual members are not tracking with the Scriptures and so are not being strengthened and equipped to live on mission and if the leaders are not teaching in a manner that is equipping people to live on mission intentionally and effectively (see Eph. 4:12), this can lead to loss of that gospel ministry-producing love for Christ.

2. At the end of each of the messages to the seven churches (including here in the message to Ephesus: Rev. 2:7) Christ says through John to the churches, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This is an allusion to Isaiah 6:9-10 and the hardness of heart, that unwillingness and even moral inability to hear, that most likely comes from idolatry and the truth we become like the idols we worship—namely, blind and deaf (cf. Isaiah 44:9). When we understand that idolatry is at the heart of all sin (cf. Ex. 20:3-6; 2 Kings 17:7; Is. 65:7, 11-12; Rom. 1:23; 1 Cor. 10:7; 10:14; Gal. 3:5; 5:20; 1 Pt. 4:3), this further supports the reality that idolatry leads to our loss of love for Christ and gospel mission. We have so many things in our present world vying for our attention and heart allegiance that can easily displace the preeminence of Christ in our hearts and schedules and our putting his mission on the back burner (or ignoring it altogether).

3. The first two factors behind losing our mission lead to two more:
a. Our surrounding cultures. The word “culture” refers to how we seek to make order of the world around us, to define it, and to make it rich and flourishing. We can see this from the use of “culture” in “agriculture,” that act of bringing order to the land in such a way that it is fruitful and flourishes. As a result, the word “culture” can also refer to how we seek to find purpose and meaning in the world, which can be seen in the use of a related word, “cult,” which can refer to a sect, religion, or a way of explaining ultimate meaning and purpose in the world. The cultures that surround us (made up of the people around us) have made decisions about how we find meaning and purpose in life, what makes for a successful life, and the kinds of actions that are acceptable. At the very least we can say here that virtually all cultures that surround us oppose speaking into the life of another person so that they can come to know Jesus Christ as Savior. It is “none of our business.” That part of our surrounding culture is strong, along with all the other idols in those cultures that compete for our attention and take our eyes off Jesus Christ. If we are not intentionally fighting off these strong influences, we will most likely give into them and will not live on mission.

b. Our fear of what others think. Related to the cultures and people around us, most of us are fearful of living out our faith too specifically or being missional in it, since this is not what is socially acceptable. Such cowardice is probably referenced in Rev. 21:8. Again, we must be much in God’s Word and must depend upon the empowerment we have through the presence of Christ and his Spirit in us, if we are to overcome this (Rev. 1:12-20). Such need for empowerment also means we will be praying much so we can be faithful to Christ on mission.

So, given what we have seen here it should not be too hard to outline how we can overcome the things that help us stay on mission. However, we will say more about this in our sermon Sunday.

[1] “The Seven Churches Of Asia Minor,” in the Archaeological Study Bible, 2051.

[2] This seems to be similar to what we find in Daniel (See Dan. 10:20-21; 12:1).
Another possibility is that since “angel” can mean messenger, it could mean that the angel represents the pastoral leadership of the church. The problem with this understanding is that it does not seem to have a parallel anywhere else (including in Revelation). However, the sense of the passage would not really be different if this is what is meant.

[3] “The Seven Churches Of Asia Minor,” in the Archaeological Study Bible, 2051.

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