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First, Love


*Revelation 2:1-7
October 6, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts at 17:30 in the audio file.



Or, The Proper Order of Obedience and Orthodoxy

You can learn a lot from other people’s problems. Of course it’s possible to become more proud when you see someone else’s issues, especially if you think those aren’t your issues. But it can be really beneficial to see what sort of damage comes from another person who is failing in a way you could also fail.

In my testimony, as I look back at the churches I’ve been most involved with over the last 25 years, I’d say that most of them are very similar to the church in Ephesus. We’re starting our study of Christ’s messages to the seven churches, and, all but two of the seven have serious problems. There will be other applications to make as we hear the Spirit’s exhortation to the churches, and there is good that the Lord commends among the Ephesians. But their problem was dire: they had fallen from the heights of first love.

As we saw in the last half of Revelation 1, Jesus revealed Himself to John in a vision and commissioned John to write what he was seeing. Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are seven letters, or at least seven parts of one letter, to the churches named in seven cities in 1:11. The descriptions that John gave of the one whose voice he heard will return in the addresses to the churches.

Before we hear Christ’s word to the Ephesian church, there are some interpreters who take these seven messages to churches in seven cities not as messages to actual first century churches in the named locations. Idealists say that the whole of Revelation is symbolic, including these chapters, so that the application is universal. Historicists, and apparently some Dispensational Futurists, believe that the seven churches represent seven eras of the church (for example, the Dispensationalists Chafer and Walvoord, as mentioned in the commentaries by by Mounce, Osborne, and Thomas). Ephesus, as the first era, for example, would be the church from Jesus’ ministry through the time of the apostles. That would place us in the Laodicean era of lukewarmness.

But each of these cities was known, and the historical and geographical background for the various cities fits with the messages to them. We, along with churches in all places in all generations, can still ask what we can learn and apply. We are not limited because the letter wasn’t addressed to us, it just means we have to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

The Ephesians are commended before and after Christ warns them and calls them to repent. They were known for their patient obedience and their committed orthodoxy. But those qualities had gotten out of proper order. The Ephesians needed to first, love.

A Powerful Presence

Each letter–not technically a separate letter, more like individual messages in a larger letter–follows a similar structure. Every one begins with a reminder of who it is addressing the church. It’s always Jesus, but a different characteristic from John’s vision in chapter 1 is referenced.

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 mentioned last week that I lean toward understanding angel as an angel, that is, a heavenly being, not as a human “messenger.” If it is a human, that human being has some connection to and responsibility for the church, and needs to pass on this message from Jesus. If it is an angel, this being also has some identification with and responsibility for the church, and it emphasizes the supernatural sphere in which each church exists.

I don’t usually mention textual variants, but it is interesting that, “Instead of ‘to the angel of the (τῆς) church in Ephesus,’ some manuscripts read “to the angel of the church who (τω) [is] in Ephesus” (A C 1854 pc), which locates the angel actually in the church. … Perhaps the change was motivated by an attempt to identify the ‘angel’ as a bishop, pastor, or elder in the church” (Beale). Usually, variants like this come when a copyist is trying to “fix” what he thinks is wrong. That’s not a proof either way, but it at least means that something is out of the ordinary.

“These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars” (KJV), isa a pattern among the prophets.

The description repeated from chapter 1, verses 16 and 13, is that Jesus holds the seven stars in his right hand, meaning that He is the ultimate power behind and controlling the angels. That He walks among the seven golden lampstands reminds each church of His presence, both for their encouragement and their conscientiousness. Jesus knows.

Falling from Love (verses 2-6)

Jesus does know, and He knows what is good and bad. He starts with what is commendable.

No Compromise (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.

This is an impressive list of faithfulness: faithfulness in deeds, faithfulness in doctrine, faithfulness in determination. The Ephesians knew the truth, they were willing to defend the truth, they were unwilling to compromise. Their toil was a labor to perspiration, like the Corinthians “always abounding in the work of the Lord,” and their endurance was holding up under burden. They didn’t just do what was easy and they didn’t quit when it got hard.

In their teaching, and especially their reception of teaching, they couldn’t bear with those who are evil. They held Scriptural standards and stuck with them. They tested those who call themselves apostles, who claimed authority, but whose lives and/or teaching didn’t match. Paul exhorted the Ephesians elders that “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock,” (Acts 20:29). The Ephesians took that warning seriously.

Somehow related to that, maybe in being tagged as intolerant, Jesus again says that they were enduring patiently and have not grown weary. They weren’t doing it for their name, but for my name’s sake.

They were both exhausted, and not exhausted. They were working to the point of being weary, and also weren’t so worn out that they quit. They are an almost ideal model of truthfulness.

Bad Love (verses 4-5)

If Jesus had stopped there, we would have to have assumed that things were all good. Jesus didn’t stop there.

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 now, I will come to you and remove your lampstand, unless you repent.

Jesus does not qualify this admonition. He doesn’t negate the good, but this is very bad, and the threat of lampstand removal is an ominous warning.

He says that you abandoned the love you had at first. There is something distinct, and good, about the initial time of conversion and the affections that go along with it.

Typically, humility is at a new low, in the good sense of low, because the Spirit has brought us to see what we deserved as well as the love and sacrifice of Christ.

There is also a height of love, and the first solution that Jesus gives is to Remember therefore from where you have fallen. They were supposed to bring back to mind their previous focus and intensity, for sake of returning. And so the follow up instruction is repent, and Jesus says it twice. The Greek word for repent is the idea of turning away from one thing toward another. As they returned to their first love, they would also do the first works. They were doing works, but they weren’t doing those works from love like they used to.

Obedience and orthodoxy are good, necessary even. But they are not first. Love is first, and it is possible to have faithful looking motions without the proper motivation. Paul told the Corinthians the same thing. He listed a variety of significant religious knowledge and works and sacrifices that, without love, meant nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

“It is clear that the Ephesians loved truth more than they loved God or one another.” (Osborne) (Love is first and last, following the chain in 2 Peter 1:5-7.) Paul, some three decades earlier, wrote to the Ephesians to speak the truth in love, so that the whole body builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16), and now their love tanks were empty.

Not having love is a big deal. The Corinthians in particular were not loving one another in the church, but Jesus doesn’t say the who the Ephesians weren’t loving. It could be other Ephesians in the church, though I think it is more a lack of love for God. The “love you had at first” belongs more with conversion and worship, though the first works that belong with first love probably are most visible in horizontal relationships.

Their love was so bad that Jesus threatens to remove your lampstand from its place. We know that the lampstand represents the church, so that makes this somewhat odd. Jesus may come and remove the church from the church? Yes. If they weren’t living as lights then He would make that permanent. A church without love is on its way to losing status as a church, regardless of orthodox sentences. Jesus warns that they will lose their identity and witness as lights (John 13:35).

Good Hate (verse 6)

Jesus returns to one of their positive characteristics, with a more specific example than in verses 2-3. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. It is possible that the Nicolaitans were an offshoot of one of the first deacons, Nicolaus (Acts 6:5). A number of early church historians make that connection. This group is named again in the church in Pergamum (2:15), who also had issues with a group following Balaam, for whom we have more evidence of their antinomian living and compromise with idolatry.

Whoever they were and whatever their issues, Jesus hated them, and the Ephesians hated them, too. Jesus targets the works, but God says at other times that He hates the workers who do the works (Psalm 11:5; see also Psalm 139:21).

The Ephesian response was right, but apparently they were having issues hating what was hate-able and loving those whom they were called to love. When hate of evil spills into a suspicious first attitude, when we act as if “you are a heretic until proven otherwise,” love has fallen. Heresy hunters do not do friendly fire.

Hear for Your Life (verse 7)

The last verse expands the application of the message to the Ephesians. A similar expansion and promise happens in all seven messages.

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.’

Jesus, the one who holds the seven stars in His hand, is the one speaking, but so is the Spirit. Jesus addresses the angel, and the Spirit is addressing the churches. Among the Ephesians, perhaps there were some who had an ear, meaning that they were attentive, to hear what the Spirit says. The concern about loveless living, though, has application beyond Ephesus.

And as in all seven messages, we meet the one who conquers (τῷ νικῶντι, a substantive participle in Greek emphasizing the action of the verb as characteristic of the person). Here is the overcomer, the one who endures and who endures in love. Of course Christians are tempted to give up doing good, to grow weary in doing good, to relax their hold on the truth, and to cool off in their affections. But in this spiritual battle, believers ought to want to win. Sometimes the winning follows the pattern of Christ’s victory, which included faithfulness to death. Conquering doesn’t always look like shiny trophies, it often looks like Spirit-enabled suffering. This is not #NextLevelDiscipleship, this is for everyone in the churches.

JustConquer Promise #1 is: I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Later in Revelation the tree of life is located in the new Jerusalem, and is watered by the stream that flows from God’s throne (Revelation 22:2). Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. The first time the tree is mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis (Genesis 2:9), and God kept Adam and Eve from eating it (Genesis 3:22, 24). It may be a specific contrast for the Ephesians:

“archeological evidence that the temple was originally a ‘tree shrine,’ and that a symbol of Artemis well into the NT period was a date palm. In other words, this is also a further counter to the idolatry and immorality of Ephesus (as a fertility goddess, Artemis signified “life” (Osborne).

What eating from the tree of life means here is eternal life, as every variation of the promise to each church points to. Keep enduring, keep hating evil works, keep loving God, and then you will get to the paradise of God.

Conclusion

There are cowards and there are conquerors. There are lovers and there are fighters, and what we really need are brother-warriors, those who fight because they love. It is very easy to fight as an excuse not to love. It is easy to claim love as an excuse not to fight. It is even easier to just give up.

But as Jesus and the Spirit say to the churches: obedience and orthodoxy are good, but first, love.


Charge

People do crazy things when they are in love. Between people, sometimes so-called love makes them act like fools, even blind to the truth. But when believers are full of Spirit-fruited love, it may look crazy, but crazy in faithfulness. Such love also knows what is true and good and beautiful, less like a math formula and more like opening the window blinds. May you be stirred up to love. May you remember your first love, and may your love not fall, but climb.

Benediction:

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9–11, ESV)