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September 09, 2006

Revelation's Seven Churches Part 1: Ephesus

This is a rough transcript of a message first delivered on September 6, 2006 at Fairlawn Baptist Church.

Revelation 2:1-7, ESV 2:1 “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.

2 “‘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. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 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. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 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.’

The city of Ephesus was only 3 miles from the coast, and was the capitol city of Asia Minor. It was also the home to the temple of the goddess Diana, one of the wonders of the ancient world, and thus it was a haven for ancient mysticism. The cult of Diana was very important to the city of Ephesus financially; in fact, we can see in Acts 19 the riot that was started by one of the silver merchants because of Paul's preaching in the city. Christianity threatened the livelihood of many very wealthy and influential people in Ephesus, and they set out to put a stop to it's spread. Paul was successful in planting the church in Ephesus, though -- in fact, in Acts 20 we read of his exhortation to the elders of that church. The apostle John later lived in the city, and it's said that Timothy was pastor of the church there as well.

The first thing we see in this passage, and in each of the letters we have in Revelation, is a description of Christ. Here, we see Him holding seven stars in His hand. The stars represent the angels or ministers of the seven churches -- we see here that Christ has the leadership of the churches in His hand. He both is protecting us and controlling us, using us for His work. Christ is also walking among seven lampstands -- the lampstands represent the churches. Christ is walking among us when we gather to worship. This is a comfort to us, because we know that He is with us no matter what -- He told us that He would never leave us or forsake us. We can take comfort in that. But it's also a warning -- whenever we meet, whatever we do, He's there, watching us. We are accountable for what we teach and preach. We're accountable to Christ, because He's right there with us, watching and walking among us.

In each letter, there is a commendation to that church. Ephesus receives a three-fold commendation. First, they are commended for their moral and doctrinal purity. They didn't tolerate "those who are evil." This doesn't mean that they didn't reach out to sinners -- we are commanded to do that, and Christ would not have commended them for not reaching out. They didn't tolerate sin -- they expected people to repent of their sin, and didn't allow unrepentant, habitual sin to infect the church.

They were also commended for their spiritual discernment. They were able to spot false prophets; they had learned the apostles' doctrine and knew what was right, and were able to spot phonies and keep them out of the church. This ties into their doctrinal purity -- they knew how to keep apostasy out.

And they were commended for their persistence. They lived in a city where it would have been easy to compromise -- in most cases, it would have been financially and socially expedient to compromise. Just to pay lip service to "Diana of the Ephesians" would have made things so much easier for them, but they wouldn't do it. They stuck to what they believed; they stuck to the truth.

Unfortunately, there's also a condemnation. They had lost their first love. It's easy for churches that are strong doctrinally to become unloving, and in their zeal to keep false teaching out, the Ephesians may have been a bit unfriendly to those around them who were genuinely seeking Christ. They were also known for their works -- the word 'toil' in verse 2 implies working to exhaustion. They were busy people, and worked hard to further the Kingdom. It may have been that they got to the point where they relied more on what they did than on what Christ did for them. They exalted themselves and what they did, rather than the Christ who saved them -- their first love. And they were motivated NOT by love, but by a sense of duty -- "This is what we do here."

All of these things can be seen in churches today. We get busy. We lose focus on what's important. And we get motivated by what makes us or our church look good; what gets us press or publicity, rather than what helps spread the Gospel. We lose focus on Christ, and the importance of what He did and continues to do for us.

And we see the result -- "I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent." We don't lose our salvation -- it's still a lampstand, after all. But it loses its position -- the testimony of the church is lost. We see this all the time, too. Churches that lose focus on Christ, and start doing a lot of things for all the wrong reasons. They become country clubs, or support groups, and stop having any kind of Gospel witness, because they lost their first love. They abandoned the One who got them where they were, and started looking at themselves instead.

There is a solution given, a way to get rid of the condemnation. They needed to remember what they'd done before. In the Old Testament, every time God did something for Israel, they built an altar. That way, whenever anyone asked what that altar was for, the story would be told again, and the people would remember. We forget too quickly what God does for us, and we lose assurance that He'll continue to do them in the future. We forget, and we start to rely on ourselves -- much like King Uzziah did. God blessed him greatly, but he put his focus on his armies and his technology. Finally he tried to take on the role of the priests (as his neighbor kings all did) and was struck down with leprosy. A great king was made an outcast because he lost his first love. He didn't remember.

Once we remember, we need to repent. Agree with God's assessment of our actions and turn from them. We like to talk about sinners needing to repent -- Christians need to repent often, too. And in repenting, we return to doing what we did before, when our focus was on God and His provision for us.

Each of these letters contains a "he who has ears to hear" passage. "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.’"

Some have taken this to mean that the only people who are saved are the people who work hard at it and persevere to the end. Some have taken it to refer to a special reward given to believers who persevere. I think the key is asking the question "Who are the overcomers?" and finding the answer in I John 5:5 -- "Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" This verse is a promise to us that when we believe, we will have eternal life. It's a promise to all who believe, who come to Christ in faith, that they will have eternal life. It's a hope that keeps us looking back to our first love.

Posted by Warren Kelly at September 9, 2006 11:36 AM | TrackBack
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