This sermon was preached at Christ Church Downtown on September 15, 2019 in Moscow, ID.
“To the angel of the church of Ephesus write,
These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: 2I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars;3 and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. 4 Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. 6 But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
7 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:1-7).
Introduction to the Text
This Lord’s Day I want to look at these first seven verses in Revelation 2 – a letter from the risen and reigning Jesus Christ to the church in Ephesus. In this letter we will read of the things which Jesus commends the church in Ephesus for—the good works that they are doing, and what he condemns—his rebuke regarding the love they lack.
Revelation was a circular letter, meaning that it would have been copied and passed around the churches in Asia Minor, and beyond. And within this one large letter, we find these seven smaller letters to historical congregations in what is now modern-day Turkey. While each letter applies specifically to the church it is written to, all of the churches are invited to listen in and heed Jesus’ teaching at the end of each letter, as he writes, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 7). And Jesus is still saying this word today, to us. He is still encouraging His people to search the Scriptures, to heed his commands, and to hear what the Spirit has to say.
In order to get the context for Rev. 2, let’s briefly look at Rev. 1. There the Apostle John describes his experience while on the island of Patmos. He says in verse 9 that he was there “for the Word of God” and the “testimony of Jesus Christ.” John is not saying that he voluntarily went there as a missionary or because real estate was cheap. Instead, he was exiled there by the authorities for his witness – for proclaiming the gospel and leading the Church. And perhaps he was there with other Christians too.
John says that on the Lord’s Day he was in the Spirit, when from behind him he heard a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia…”
John then works up the courage to turn around to see this Voice. He first sees seven golden lampstands, and then in the midst of them… Jesus. The man that he had spent three years of his life with, the man that he saw crucified, the man that asked him to take care of his mother, the man that was resurrected and then ascended – many years ago. And here He is, glorified… “One like the Son of Man, clothed with garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire, His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters, He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength” (v. 13).
And what does John do? What can he do? He falls down at Jesus’ feet, as if dead. Who can bear this? Who can see the glorified God-man and live? And Jesus reaches out to Him with His right hand—the one that grips the stars—and lays it on John saying, “Do not be afraid.”
Often you’ll hear it said that we don’t have any descriptions of Jesus in the New Testament. We don’t know what He looked like. But that is not entirely correct. While we don’t have a description of Him during his earthly ministry, we most certainly have a glimpse here of His glorified existence. And this magnificent description of Jesus follows the kind of description we find of the Bridegroom in Song of Solomon 5, which begins, “My beloved is radiant and ruddy, Chief among ten thousand…” and continues to describe each feature of the Groom with metaphor.
So here is Jesus, the Bridegroom, writing love letters to His Bride, His Beloved people, through the pen of the Apostle John. You may protest – what kind of love letter includes rebuke? Can I get away with writing a note to my wife on our anniversary that says, “You are so beautiful, you are so amazing, you are wonderful, you are radiant and ruddy… But this I have against you?” No, I cannot. And I doubt you could either. But Jesus can, for He says in His letter to Laodicea… “As many as I love, I rebuke…” So let us consider this letter to Ephesus, and to us, together.
Rev. 2 begins, “To the angel of the church of Ephesus write…”
Now there has been debate as to whether or not the angels are… well… angels, as in, celestial beings. This isn’t because of skepticism or trying to play loose with the text, but because the Greek word angelos can simply either mean angel or messenger – it just depends on the context. For example, angelos is used to refer to John the Baptist in the beginning of Mark as a ‘messenger,’ and Jesus’ disciples are called angelous in Luke 9.
Given the context, I believe the most straightforward reading would be that these angels are the bishops or elders – the representatives – of these local churches. For one, why would Jesus have a human record a message, for other humans, but then have John send it off to an angel? How does John know where angels receive their mail? How come Jesus doesn’t just speak to the angels Himself as He does elsewhere in Revelation? And in what way do churches have angels?
Beyond these considerations, looking closer at the text, we might find a clue back in Rev. 1 when Jesus touched John. He touched Him with His right hand, the star-hand. We are told in Rev. 1:20 that the stars are the angels or messengers of the seven churches. Perhaps this signifies that Jesus is commissioning John to become a messenger as well, one that will send His letters to the other messengers.
One God, Seven Stars, Seven Lampstands
Jesus continues, “These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven gold lampstands…”
We know that the seven stars are the seven angels or messengers, gripped by Jesus. We are also told back in Rev. 1:20 that the seven lampstands are the seven churches of Asia. The phrase “these things says He” appears around 250 times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, often translated as “thus saith the Lord.”
So here we have Jesus speaking with authority, Jesus speaking as Yahweh does in the Old Testament. Continuing on, we see Jesus walking among the lampstands, He is in their midst, reminding us of Yahweh walking in the midst of the Garden. And when did God do this in the Garden? When He came to check on Adam and Eve, and found them to be hiding naked and ashamed. Likewise, Jesus does the same with His churches throughout the world. He is attentive to His people, tending the lampstands, trimming the wicks, refueling the lamps, maintaining their light to the world. He is present with His Church, He is present with Christ Church Downtown, and He intimately knows us, our works, and our hearts.
Jesus first tells the Church in Ephesus what they are doing right. He says in verse 2, “I know your works, your labor, your patience…” Clearly the Ephesian Church was not a lazy Church, but they were working hard and in it for the long haul.
Jesus then identifies specific aspects of their work, “you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars, and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary’ (vv. 2-3).
The idea of “not bearing” those who are evil relates to not tolerating those who do wicked things. This could be both within and outside the Church. When grievous sin and evil is found within the Church, what are God’s people called to do? We are to confront our brother or sister in love, and plead with them to repent and turn back to God who is willing and able to forgive. And if they refuse? The Church of Christ is called to discipline, and if needed, excommunicate, those who willfully do not walk according to the faith. Jesus here is commending intolerance – the intolerance of evil.
Jesus says that “they tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them to be liars.” When Paul was passing by Ephesus for the final time on his way to Rome in Acts 20, he called the elders to himself to give one final exhortation and said, “After my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch…” (Acts 20:29-31).
So these “savage wolves” have now come, and the Church in Ephesus has stood firm in opposing them and exposing them as liars. The early Church Father Irenaeus wrote to the Ephesians and observed, “You all live according to truth and no heresy has come among you. Indeed, you do not so much as listen to anyone if he speaks of anything except concerning Jesus Christ in truth.”
They do not so much as listen to anyone if they do not speak of Christ in truth. No entertainment of falsehood. No interest. No tolerance. False apostles and teachers can move along, you have no business here in Ephesus.
Likewise, we must do this today. Wicked men and women who speak falsehood about Christ must be resisted by God’s faithful, and Jesus says that the Church in Ephesus has done well in this regard. A specific example of a false teaching operating in Ephesus comes in v. 6 where Jesus celebrates that “they hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans” which He also hates.
We’re not entirely sure who the Nicolaitans were, but from the Letter to Pergamos later on Jesus says they held to false doctrine, and perhaps the false teaching was the same or similar to the “the doctrine of Balaam” mentioned there as well—that of eating food sacrificed to idols and encouraging sexual immorality. An additional reason to tie the “doctrine of Balaam” and the Nicolaitans together is that Balaam in Hebrew and Nicolaitian in Greek mean roughly the same thing: People-Conquerors or Victory People.
So what does Jesus commend here? He commends their hard work and patience – as they endure the onslaught of false teachers. He commends them for not tolerating those who are evil, and for hating the works of the Nicolaitans. Put positively, Jesus commends their robust commitment to both moral purity and doctrinal purity.
From the outside looking in, the Church in Ephesus seems to be in good shape. If you were to visit the Church in Ephesus one Sunday morning, I’m sure you’d leave edified. They have their doctrinal ducks in a row and their scandals consist of removing evildoers rather than tolerating them. And given the history of this Church, we would expect as much.
What do we know about the Ephesian Church? Consider this: In Acts 18, Paul arrives there during his second missionary journey with his friends Priscilla and Aquila to first introduce the gospel. Paul then moves on to Jerusalem, leaving Priscilla and Aquilla behind, who were then soon joined by the powerful preacher Apollos. On his third journey Paul stopped and ministered there for about three years – the longest he ever spent in one place. Eventually his son in the faith Timothy pastored there. Other co-laborers of Paul are mentioned there, and lastly according to Church tradition, the Apostle John spent his last decades there, and perhaps Mary the Mother of Jesus was even buried there.
What a legacy that this Church has! And don’t forget the beautiful Epistle to the Ephesians written by Paul. Ephesus was a good Church, blessed with good shepherds. In fact, in many ways it reminds me of Moscow, of our Christian community here.
We have all heard the stories of how Jim Wilson strategically moved here. The story of how Pastor Doug came to lead this congregation, which grew and over time became Reformed. With this wealth of knowledge and blessing, the Church started a publishing house. And we came to the conviction that we couldn’t tolerate our children being taught falsehoods by government schools, so we started Logos School and various homeschool options. And of course we want to be faithful in teaching not just young children but also young adults, so we have New St. Andrews, which God has blessed with many talented professors over the years. If in a 500 years Moscow is found mentioned as a footnote in a book on American Church history, you might find a list of people and events like I listed for the Ephesian Church.
We care about doctrine at Christ Church. We care about truth. As a Church we hold to a Reformed confession of faith, and belong to a denomination that requires every Church to do the same. We also care about moral purity, confessing our sins together every Lord’s Day and confronting sin in one another. Our elders are willing to do the hard work of discipline, laboring with tears to confront destructive sin and restore men, women, and families to the Lord.
We have good shepherds, and the shepherds have good and faithful sheep here at Christ Church. Likewise for Ephesus. But what does Jesus have against them? What should we watch out for here?
Jesus says in verse 4, “Nevertheless, I have this against you: that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.”
They were lacking in… love. Now notice that Jesus does not condemn them for caring about the purity of the Church and for holding fast to sound doctrine. This past week I came across a post on Facebook that said “What people need is love, not doctrine.” Well, that’s not what Jesus says in this letter at all. He finds all their works commendable. But He does say that the works must go hand in hand with love. And that’s an understatement – not only must love accompany these good works, but without it Jesus says that their lampstand will be removed – their Church would cease to be.
The Ephesians did well in their hating. Jesus commends them for hating what He hates. And they were well trained in spiritual warfare, heeding Paul’s instructions to put on the whole armor of God in Ephesians 6. These were a hardy group of Christians, living in a city full of idolatry, and they were zealous in rejecting all of it. In Acts 19 we read that some of the first converts practiced magic, but repented and burned up their books. And so many in the city had turned away from worshiping idols that the silversmiths started a riot!
But… over the years they had slowly slipped away from their first love.
Love for the World
Now naturally there have been different interpretations regarding what this “first love” is, given that we aren’t provided further explanation. Is it love toward God? Toward one another? Toward the unbelieving world? Perhaps it involves all three on some level. But given their zeal for truth and purity, it doesn’t sound that they do not love God and Christ. And given their unity in rejecting false teachers and the idolatry in their culture, I somewhat doubt that they lack love for one another. No, if anything, it seems the love that could be lacking is that for the outsider – for those who do not know the Lord in Ephesus.
Jesus actually prophesied that this would occur prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24. He says, “Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end shall be saved.” Following right after this, Jesus speaks of how the gospel must be and will be preached in all the world as a witness to the nations.
The Church is a lampstand. It is meant to shine bright into the dark culture that surrounds it. The Church is a light to the nations. But if we cease to love our neighbors, if we cease to share the gospel with those who do not know the Lord… we cease to be a light. What good is a lampstand that doesn’t shine? It would be right for Jesus to remove such a lamp from His presence.
It is not enough to hate the deeds of the wicked world around us. It is not enough to hate the sexual immorality that has filled our entertainment. It is not enough to hate the perversion that is so-called gay marriage. It is not enough to hate abortion clinics that masquerade as health centers. It is not enough to hate a welfare system that replaces the family. And it is not enough to hate our own hypocrisy…
It is simply not enough to hate. It is not enough to be orthodox in our hatred… but not in our love.
It’s not enough because we are commanded to love. We are commanded to love the lost. This gospel is meant for all people. It’s meant for your liberal neighbor who hates your pastor’s guts, its meant for the college kid passed out drunk, its meant for your unbelieving family members… The gospel is for everyone.
We can discuss our doctrine all day and night in coffee shops. We can defend it with zeal on Facebook. We can pride ourselves in the sacrifice we make to provide our kids with a Christian education. We can publish books and read them. We can worship on Main Street in the heart of Moscow every Sunday morning and hear true doctrine preached unto the glory of God.
But if we’re not interested in inviting those on the outside in… we are lacking in love, and we ought to heed the warning of Jesus here in Revelation 2. The Church is not our club. The Church is the Lord’s – and He has a mission for His people, and His mission is this: preach the gospel.
This can look like many things. Yes, it looks like evangelism on the University of Idaho campus. But it also looks like listening closely to your barber or hairdresser, asking them about themselves, and looking for opportunities to share Jesus with them. It looks like inviting your neighbors to your parish group. It looks like not hiding your faith from your co-workers because you don’t want to offend. It can look like many things… but ultimately it looks like love. It looks like Jesus.
So if this is you – if you have left your first love, Jesus says “remember.” Remember from where you have fallen. Remember the works that you used to do.
From the time the Church in Ephesus was planted to the time Jesus wrote this letter to them, nearly a generation had passed. Perhaps the younger believers lacked the zeal of their parents for the lost. They were good at memorizing their catechisms, dressing nicely for Church, and doing the good Christian thing.
We’re in much the same place at Christ Church. So as a collective Body, we must remember the work that those before us have done. Remember their labor. Remember their love. And repent – turn around – and do the work Jesus has called us to do. We must love the people of Moscow.
Jesus says that if the Church repents, He will not snuff out their light. He says that if they endure and overcome, He will reward them with a feast – He will give them the tree of life in midst of the Paradise of God to eat. Jesus says endure, conquer with love – and you will join Me, you will be in my midst, in Paradise. And in a few minutes we will get a taste of this heavenly feast as we celebrate Communion together.
Remember. Repent. Do the first works. Return to your first love. And know this:
We can have confidence that we will overcome because it is Jesus who holds the angels in His hands. It is Jesus who walks in our midst, trimming our lampstand, maintaining our light, so that we may continue to shine brightly in all of Moscow.