Jesus Wins! – Part 4: Remember, Repent, Recover

Rev. 2:1-7

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

“‘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. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 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.[1]

Are you a confident person? In what are you confident? Are you confident in your job skills, your training, your education, your performance? Are you confident in your financial situation, your health, your family? Is your future so bright you gotta’ wear shades? Or do you feel discouraged, beaten down, frustrated and angry that your life story is not going the way you want it to go? You think about where you are in life and you have no confidence things will ever change and no hope for the future?

Revelation is all about confidence and hope. But it’s NOT about confidence in ourselves, our abilities, or lives the way we want. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is about Jesus Christ. The confidence and hope the Lord Jesus offers are grounded entirely in Christ himself. He is the maker and ruler of the universe. He is the starting point of absolutely everything (the Alpha, the first). He is the ending point of absolutely everything (the Omega, the last). Because of his perfect law-keeping life and obedient sacrificial death, he is installed as the Cosmic Judge and Ruler of his church. He doesn’t rule from afar; he walks among his congregations evaluating them and encouraging them with the promise of overcoming the world, the flesh, and the devil.

SEVEN “LETTERS”

As we spend the next few weeks studying what is commonly called the “letters” to these seven churches in Roman Asia, it’s important to know three things about these messages. First, they are NOT separate letters sent out individually to each church. They are seven separate prophecies by Messiah Jesus given through John written into one letter. You can think of these prophecies as prescripts (as opposed to postscripts – PS – that come at the end of a letter).[2] The seven prophecies were intended to be heard by all the members in all the churches as this letter was carried on the circular road connecting them and read aloud (1:3).[3]

Second, each of these prophecies has the same seven parts – seven prophecies with seven parts to each prophecy.  (1) They each begin with an address to the congregation. (2) Each uses a description of Christ’s appearance taken from 1:12-16. (3) Every prophecy evaluates the spiritual health of the congregation. (4) Each contains words of praise and/or reproof. (5) Each has a command. (6) Each has a promise for those who overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. (7) Finally, each has a command for the elect to hear what the Spirit says in the prophecy.

Third, these seven congregations in Roman Asia were real churches in real cities with a real place in time and history. So, these prophecies are first given to these specific churches. But, there were more churches in Roman Asia beside these seven. These congregations were in cities and towns on the same circular road. But Jesus chose seven because the number stands for completeness. So, these seven churches represent the entirety of the big “C” Church – all Jesus’ people in every congregation in the entirety of the Last Days (between his first and second coming). These seven prophecies have application to all Christ’s congregations, promising blessings for obedience and cursing for disobedience. But like all imperatives (law, commands) in the New Testament, they must be seen in the light of the indicatives (promises) which precede them and follow them.

IN THE CITY

It’s helpful to know a few things about the city in which the congregation of Ephesus existed. It was a wealthy city of about 200,000 souls containing one of the seven wonders of the world: the temple of Artemis (Roman name: Diana). Ephesus was a major trading center and administrative center for Roman government. The temple of Artemis drew steady streams of pilgrims and prompted a sizable trade in religious artifacts (Acts 19:24, 31, 38).

Ephesus also boasted a temple to Emperor Domitian, dedicated about 5 years before John’s exile. With Domitian’s assassination, the temple was rededicated to previous emperors of the Flavian dynasty (minus Domitian, the Roman Senate had declared his memory obliterated). Ephesus had temple wardens, officials whose job it was to ensure emperor worship and Artemis worship. You may recall the riot Paul’s ministry caused several decades before John’s pastorate as Ephesus’ 25-thousand-person amphitheater overflowed with Ephesians screaming, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28).[4]

The temple of Artemis was a place of refuge for criminals. Some districts surrounding the temple were also considered places of refuge. Criminals on the run, temple prostitution and demonic worship made Ephesus a moral/spiritual cesspool. “The level of morality among the city’s population was notoriously low. The people were licentious, superstitious, vile, and violent. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, a resident of Ephesus, purportedly commented that ‘the morals of the temple were worse than the morals of beasts, for even promiscuous dogs do not mutilate each other.’”[5]

JESUS KNOWS THE GOOD

The first prophecy is for the church nearest to Patmos, the congregation pastored by the apostle John. “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.’[6] Jesus may be addressing a literal heavenly creature – a real angel – or he may be addressing the minister of the congregation, or the session, as the “messenger” of the congregation. Since context governs the translation, I believe the “messenger/pastor/elders” is more likely the recipient. But, it’s certainly possible each church has a guardian angel receiving Jesus’ words.

From the one who holds the Church’s teachers in his hands and is present with his congregations, comes the twice repeated word, I know (2:2, 3). Ephesus was a very significant church in the region. It was the church from which the gospel had spread and out of which likely came many church plants in Roman Asia. Paul planted the Ephesian congregation with a core group of twelve. He performed many healings and exorcisms, rented a public building and spent a total of three years preaching and teaching there (Acts 19, 20:31). The great preacher Apollos preached there. Timothy pastored there. The apostle John has been preaching there for about 30 years.

The congregation of Ephesus was blessed with a list of superstar preachers. This was one of the most well-taught congregations of its era. Paul sent 1st and 2nd Timothy to Ephesus. John wrote his gospel and 1st-3rd John from there. Paul had warned the elders on his last visit with them to be constantly on guard against the false teachers from outside and inside their congregation. A heretical elder leading away most of John’s flock is the basis for 1st John, the apostle’s last great sermon preached upon his return from Patmos.

It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus commends this congregation for their having guarded against false doctrine with such diligence. “‘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.’” [7] They had labored hard (toil) to plant churches, to preserve sound apostolic doctrine, and to root out false man-centered teaching. Twice in verses 2 and 3 Jesus says they have persevered patiently, “bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.[8] They refused to conform to the vile culture of their city, year in and year out. The Lord Jesus Christ sees their labors of doctrine and practice. He knows their good works.

The main objection to Christianity from both Gentiles and Jews was its refusal to yield to other religions. The Romans would have been perfectly happy with one more religion if that religion was willing to offer incense in Domitian’s temple and proclaim, “Caesar is Lord.” For the resolute theologians of Ephesus, salvation was not merely through Christ, but it was ONLY through Christ. “In that little word ‘only’ lay all the offense.”[9]

The early church did not define success in terms of numbers of members. They did not define it in terms of budgets. They didn’t have the luxury of arguing over music styles, picking the prettiest pastor, or the best youth or singles group. The early church defined success by the faithful adherence to apostolic doctrine and the patient endurance of persecution. Christ’s kingdom on earth is displayed in two ways: faithfulness to the gospel and endurance of suffering. That is Jesus’ message to all his churches in every age.

JESUS JUDGES THE BAD

BUT, because Christ is present in the Ephesian congregation he also sees something very dangerous going on along with the good things. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.[10] What love is Jesus speaking about? Some teachers believe he’s speaking about love for other people. They take the view that concentrating on good theology has made the Ephesian believers a cold and uncaring bunch. I can direct you to numerous internet discussion groups, Twitter feeds, Facebook groups, and podcasts where armchair theologians bite and devour the men Christ has called to minister in his church. It is possible to be puffed up with theological knowledge. But learning good theology does not, of itself, make one cold any more than devoting one’s self to cultural transformation and shalom in the city makes one full of love.

It certainly could be the case in Ephesus that doctrinal infighting produced bitterness and a judgmental attitude. The elders were, after all, in a war to preserve the congregation from all kinds of false teachings. Church conflicts leave exhausted leaders as church members go on the warpath to promote their personal ideas of what church should be. Leaders begin to question not only doctrines but individual motives and agendas. That leads to a contentious atmosphere and arguments over theological minutia.

A contentious atmosphere leads to members becoming well-intentioned dragons determined to solve perceived problems by burning the church down around them through gossip and backbiting. People enduring personal tragedies turn on the church because they’re angry with the way God is writing their stories; they attack the preaching, the music, the color of the carpet, and the quality of the casseroles at the Agape Meals. They labor to run off other families from church. Of course, whenever we’re angry or agitated over ANYTHING, the problem is NOT someone else’s sin; the problem is our refusal to see and repent of our own sin – the very last place any of us ever look.

Those things may have been happening in Ephesus because they happen in every congregation most of the time to varying degrees since every congregation is populated with people who are simultaneously justified and sinners. However, lack of love for one another in the church and lack of love for our neighbors outside the church is a symptom of a deeper problem. The deeper issue for Ephesus and the other six churches addressed (and for all congregations in these last days) is one thing: they are pursuing various individual benefits of Christ without pursuing Christ himself. They are living out a mostly Christ-less Christianity where the gospel has been assumed.

Ephesus is striving after theological purity and steadfastness against their idol-worshipping culture. They are strictly policing what is taught and carefully watching over how their members live in the community. Those are good things, but those things will not preserve their existence and their witness as a church. Theological purity and outward conformity to God’s law are benefits of our faith-union with Christ, but they are NOT union with Christ. That is the fundamental confusion underlying every problem with every church in these seven prophecies. Preserving theology and waging a culture war with paganism caused Ephesus to forget Christ’s sovereign glory.[11]

Remember how Christ began his prophetic message to John in 1:8? “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.[12] Jesus is the starting point of everything and the ending point of everything. Theological correctness is a benefit of union with Christ but it is not Christ. Refusal to compromise with the world, the flesh, and the devil is a benefit of union with Christ but it is not Christ.

Christ acknowledges the goodness of his benefits poured out in Ephesus – toil, patience, endurance, refusal to give evil false apostles a place in the church, hating the works of the Nicolaitans (most likely a group combining paganism with Christian teachings). This was Israel’s situation after their return from exile: they strove for theological and cultural purity; they purged pagan idols from their culture and refused to bend to Roman immorality. But they were so focused on purity in an evil world they turned the promise of Messiah into a poster boy for culture wars, not the promised seed who would provide the once-for-all sin sacrifice that brings shalom with God.

Israel was to be a lampstand providing the light of salvation to the gentiles. This is the duty of God’s people in both the Old and New Covenants. In the Old Covenant, lampstands generally represented the power of the Holy Spirit and the witness of God’s people to the lost (Zech. 4:6; Isa. 42:6-7; 49:6) Jesus uses the same imagery in the same way in the gospels (Matt. 5:14-16; Mk. 4:21-25; Lk. 8:18).[13] Remember how Jesus described the woman of bad reputation who poured a year’s wages worth of perfume over Jesus’ feet to the complaint of the Pharisee hosting Jesus for supper? Jesus said she loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven much (Lk. 7:36-50).

When we lose our sense of the great weight of our sins – not just outward acts, but our inward cravings of self-worship – we lose the sense of our desperate, continuous need for the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Peter denied Jesus three times in public, it was because he loved the benefit of safety and security more than he loved the Lamb who was, at that moment, being prepared by the priests as the sacrifice for Peter’s sins.

Jesus didn’t ask Peter three times, “Peter, do you love patient endurance and bearing up for my name’s sake?” Wasn’t that the problem? Wasn’t Peter failing to pursue the patient endurance for which Jesus commended the Ephesian church? No. Both Peter and the Ephesians were running after the benefits of Christ rather than pursuing the whole Christ. Both had lost the sense of being forgiven much. They had lost the sense of their desperate need for Christ. So, the light of their witness in a lost and dying world flickered dimly under the bushel of seeking Jesus’ benefits without seeking Jesus himself.

TWO TREES

It has been said by one scholar that the temple of Artemis was built on the site of an ancient tree shrine. So, the symbol for Artemis’ temple was the date palm tree. That symbol was reproduced on many ancient trinkets sold in the city to the temple tourists.[14] In a world where refined sugar was unknown, dates were sugar bombs – symbols of the luxuriously sweet life offered by the goddess of fertility and nature.

The Lord Jesus Christ offers fruit from a much different tree than the date palm of Artemis. He offers the fruit of eternal fellowship with God in the paradise of God. The fruit from which Adam and Eve were cut off by sin, is freely offered to the Ephesian church and to you and to me. It is offered by the One who hung as a curse upon a tree of judgment to take upon himself God’s holy, righteous judgment of the sins of his people. What was for the Eternal Son a tree of judgment becomes for you who trust into Christ alone the very tree of life of which Christ alone is the sweet fruit offered.

Until sin becomes bitter, Christ will not be sweet. When Christ is not sweet, we seek his benefits rather than his person and work. When you seek his benefits rather than his person and work, you have abandoned the love you had at first[15]and are pursuing Christianity without Christ.

Remember the bitterness of your OWN sins – not the sins of others, not the sins of the world; your problem is not someone or something else; your problem is ALWAYS and ONLY your own sin! Repent of seeking Christ’s benefits without seeking Christ Jesus himself as the only fruit of your salvation. Return to the works of Step One: It’s all about Jesus!

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.[16]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:1–7.

[2] Ferguson, Ephesus: The Church that Fell, Rev. 2:1-7. Accessed 10/11/17 at: https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-061007am

[3] Kistemaker and Hendriksen, 109.

[4] Id., 110.

[5] Id.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:1.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:2.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:3.

[9] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 123-124.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:4.

[11] Phillips, 94.

[12] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 1:8.

[13] Beale, 231.

[14] Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Settings, 41-47.

[15] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:4.

[16] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 2:7.