The Lord Jesus’ letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) are also for all of the church throughout the ages – which means they are for us today as well. So, I am going to go through each letter picking up on some important practical issues for us and the churches to which we belong.
The most piercing criticism of the otherwise faithful church in the city of Ephesus was: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” (Rev 2:4-5) What is the first love of any Christian and any Christian church group? Surely it is our love for Jesus. We love the Bible, we love each other, we love the lost… but love for Jesus must trump all of these for He is the head of the church body, the author and perfecter of our faith, and our Saviour and Lord. We all experience great love and devotion for Jesus when we are first ‘saved’ but, sadly, our passion for him and the things of God tends to diminish over time. So many ‘mature’ Christians appear to be cynical and passionless adherents rather than zealous disciples, because they have fallen out of a loving relationship with Jesus into a form of religious observance. This is of such importance to the Lord Jesus that He says; “If you do not repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place.” The lampstands symbolically represent churches (Rev 1:20) and so this warning applies to church bodies and not to individual Christians. It states a terrible truth: a church that does not place love for Jesus above all else is no church at all! And we must remember that a church is simply an organised and continuing group of Christians; so it can only lose its first love if WE, who make up the church, lose our first love.
Revelation 2:5 gives the remedy for this deathly condition: Remember => Repent => Do!
Do you remember what it was like in those first months and years after you were spiritually regenerated, born again of the Spirit? I remember those days so well. I had an insatiable hunger for the Bible: I loved to go to church to worship, and learn, and minister: I prayed fervently on every occasion: I expected the miraculous; I loved to talk to people about Jesus – saved and unsaved alike. If this is no longer the case then I need to repent, (acknowledge my condition, apologise to God, and turn away from an apathetic and cynical mind-set), and do again the things I did when I was first saved – Study the Bible, pray, worship, testify… all with expectancy and faith. Remember? That’s how it was! Do ‘the things you did at first’, and the feelings will surely follow.
The Lord Jesus didn’t just criticise the Ephesian Christians, He also commended the church for her deeds, hard work, and perseverance. In addition He noted with favour their rejection of false apostles and the Nicolaitans. History has nothing to say about the mysterious Nicolaitans, but their name gives a possible clue to their nature. It is possible that the name is a composite of two Greek words meaning ‘rule over or by’ and ‘the people’. There is a strong possibility that this group were introducing their own ‘false’ apostles into the church.
Today there are many false apostles promoting themselves on television, on the international speaking circuit, and through books and other media. With them come wave after wave of deceptive counterfeit signs and wonders. Most of these ‘miracles’ are just cheap tricks, like the preposterous leg-stretching sleight of hand so many of them perform (talk about having your leg pulled!). These false apostles, evangelists and teachers prey upon the great need for the genuinely miraculous, the good faith of Christians, and the incredible gullibility of so many immature believers. But they are not that hard to spot – here are three dead giveaways:
• They promote themselves shamelessly pretending all the while to be pointing to Jesus when in reality the centre of attention is what they are claiming and doing.
• They distort the Bible, taking texts right out of their biblical context and using them to support their own ‘teachings’.
• They ask for money, lots of money, and sometimes spend more time promoting the offering than they do actually preaching.
On the other hand, there are those who feel that they have a discernment ministry and a mandate to expose these false apostles, evangelists and teachers but in the process many of them throw the baby out with the bathwater and exclude the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit from the life of the church. In addition they become hard and fanatically committed to their cause, often labelling anyone they believe is in error and attacking their characters as well as their credibility. The Internet-based heresy hunters are a good example of this but I have seen it in books and videos presenting doctrinal differences among well-educated and senior leaders. The Calvinist/Arminian debate is a case in point where I have observed character assassination and the loveless presentation of ‘truth’ at its most obnoxious.
I appreciate that there are times when church leaders need to take a public stand against error and deception, but I am convinced that it is usually better to focus on Jesus and His truth than to focus on combating what a particular leader or group perceives as ‘error’. A focus on an intimate relationship with Jesus yields zeal for God and his Kingdom, whilst a focus on erroneous doctrine and practice invariably produces a cold and critical heart.
These are some of the lessons we can learn from the Letter to the church in Ephasus in Revelation chapter two – in my next post I will continue to pick up on these and other practically important matters.