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Revelation's Seven Churches Part 1: Ephesus

April 19, 2009


What do we know of Stephen? Not much, from a historical standpoint. We don't know when he was born, or how old he was when he died. We don't know his testimony, as far as how he became a Christian -- though tradition says that he was one of the 70 that Christ sent out. We're fairly certain that he died in either 36 or 37 AD, just based on the material in Acts. From a spiritual standpoint, we know enough. Stephen is an example for us -- he's someone who used what he was given to the glory of God, even though it was certain to lead to his death in the end.

We first learn of Stephen in Acts 6, as the church in Jerusalem is faced with a controversy. There were two groups of believers in the Jerusalem church -- those who were Hebrew believers, the physical descendants of Abraham, and the Hellenists, who were Greeks who had converted to Judaism. The Hellenists were upset because they felt that their widows were being neglected. The church in Jerusalem had pooled their resources so that they could take care of everyone who was in need, and the Hellenists alleged that their widows weren't getting the same help as the Hebrew widows. This became a serious problem.

Most problems you run into in church eventually become serious problems, don't they? Even trivial things can be blown out of proportion; the smallest misunderstandings can quickly become the reason that a church splits in two. The apostles had never seen a church split before -- it just hadn't happened. But they knew that they had to stop it before it caused the work of the Lord to grind to a halt. So they acted.

The chose men to help meet the needs of the people. These were the first deacons. They were (6:3) "men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom." So there are some things we know of Stephen right there.

FIRST: He was a man of good reputation. "Of good report" -- people knew him, and couldn't find anything bad to say about him. Ironic then that very quickly people would find plenty to say about him -- enough for him to be killed.

SECOND: He was a man who was full of the Holy Spirit. Not that these seven men were the only people who were filled by the Holy Spirit -- we know that the Holy Spirit dwells in us when we trust Christ as our savior. Stephen was a man who was controlled by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was evident in everything he did.

THIRD: He was a man who had wisdom. Not just that he was an intelligent man, though from his sermon that we'll look at in a minute it's clear that he was educated. Stephen was a wise man, someone with discernment. Someone you could trust to manage the money, and the food. Someone everyone agreed would be fair in distributing what the church was giving out to those in need.

So how then did Stephen end up on trial? This is obviously a man who was respected and well liked in the community -- he'd probably have been elected mayor of Jerusalem if not for one thing -- his faith. When he is accused, it is for blasphemy. 6:13-14 "And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us."

He was doing what Christ had commanded us all to do, to go, and teach, and make disciples, and baptize. And people didn't like that at all, so they took him before the Sanhedrin for trail. And the things he was teaching went directly against everything the Sanhedrin stood for. Of course, he was just repeating what Christ Himself said in John ch. 4 and Mark ch. 13. He was pointing them to the ultimate culmination of the law, the reason that the Law had been given in the first place -- to show mankind our need for a savior. Stephen was faithfully pointing people to that savior, and they didn't like it at all.

Now, when faced with that situation, how do we react? "Well, if people won't listen to you, then maybe you need to change your approach. We can't go around offending people, after all. So maybe we should just leave them alone -- after all, who are we to say that they're wrong and we're right? Live and let live, that's what I say." And we go on our way, proud of how tolerant we are.

How did Stephen react? He was asked a simple question -- "Are these things so?" And the charges against him were false, really -- he was accused of blasphemy, and he never blasphemed God. He could have just said "No, these things are not true. I do no blaspheme God. I worship Him." And he would have been punished, but most likely not killed.

But Stephen didn't do that. And this is where we see that Stephen was a Baptist, because he took one simple Yes or No question and preached a sermon on it.

Notice first how polite he was. He didn't call people names, he didn't insult anyone -- "Men and brothers," he starts out. He shows that he respects the Old Testament by talking about the history of the Jews, and how God was always with them. Stephen approaches the entire New Testament from a prophetic point of view -- that is, he viewed the entire history of the Hebrews as a foreshadowing of what God was going to do in the future, as well as a record of what God did in the past. And I'm sure he had his audience with him, ready to acquit him, until verse 51.

"You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it."
(Act 7:51-53)

He connects them with their idolatrous forebearers. He shows them that just as Israel and Judah had disobeyed God, and persecuted and killed those who spoke for Him, so had they persecuted and killed those God had sent to them to speak to them of Jesus. His entire sermon, of which we probably only have the highlights, showed them from the Old Testament exactly what God was doing, and Stephen pointed them straight to Jesus.

He could have watered down the message God gave him. He could have backpedaled a bit, maybe not mentioned Jesus (that was still a sore subject with the Sanhedrin -- it had only been a few years since they'd executed Jesus, after all). He could have done a TV friendly sermon about living your best life now, or about getting everything you've ever wanted from God, and being rich and powerful -- that would have gone over well with the Sanhedrin -- they were all about the money and the power by this time in history. He could have had the entire council show up at First Baptist Jerusalem for Sunday services. But he told them the truth. He told them what God told him to tell them.

And so they killed him. He really didn't leave them any options -- they had no out after he'd spoken what they thought of as blasphemy right in their presence. So they killed him -- and they weren't allowed to do that under Roman law! They had to take Jesus to the Romans because they weren't allowed to administer capital punishment -- that was one right the Romans kept for themselves, and were very strict about. They did everything in accordance to Jewish law, and killed Stephen.

Stephen took what he was given and used it for God's glory. He was given a lose-lose situation; he could either water down his teaching and go free, or stand up for the cause of Christ and be killed. And he realized that it was much better for God to get the glory than for him to keep his life, knowing that he hadn't been faithful to God.

That's our example.

Posted by Warren Kelly at 03:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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 11:36 AM | Comments (2109) | TrackBack
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