We got off to a good start on Revelation last week. There was a lot of information to give you—historical background, authorship, issues at stake, geography, and even a brief walkthrough of the first chapter—so if you missed it, I encourage you to go on our website and listen or read the manuscript from the sermon. Revelation is an important book with big ideas, some of which are presented in quite startling ways, so I hope that last week gave us a bit of grounding as we head forward the next several weeks.
Truly, the first three chapters of Revelation have their strange bits, but relative to the rest of the book, they go down pretty easy. Even without the background, we can get a sense of what’s going on. But Revelation as a whole has some serious drama. Warfare in the heavens. Throne rooms. Dragons and beasts. It’s quite tempting to jump over chapters 2-3 where John writes brief notes to the seven churches who receive this whole letter. Chapter 1 offers an awesome vision of Christ. Chapters 4-5 give us a picture of the ecstasy of heaven. The book moves on to grand battles and final judgment. So, what’s with these short letters to churches? Can we just skip over them, since that was then, this is now, and that was them, this is us?
It would be a mistake to skip these letters. They are not misplaced. As Eugene Peterson puts so well, “The church has to be negotiated first. The only way from Christ to heaven and the battles against sin is through the church.” To skip the church is to miss the very vehicle through which God is remaking the world. We all know that the church has problems. Not one church is perfect—certainly not this one. Peterson also says this well, “No church ever existed in a pure state. The church is made up of sinners. The fleas come with the dog.” But that doesn’t mean we lay aside the church thinking it’s easier to find our way outside of it.
More on that later, but for now, let’s look at one of the letters addressed to John’s seven congregations. We’ll begin with the first one, but just know that it would have been possible to preach a full sermon on each of these letters. Maybe we’ll do just that a few years from now.
To better understand these letters, it is helpful for us to know more about the communities to which they are written. Ephesus was a hugely important city. It was a major trade route by land and sea. It had a population of 250,000 inhabitants. (For comparison, that’s 50,000 more people than Grand Rapids has today, but the world population then was only around 200 million people.) It was also a hub for imperial worship. It had a temple dedicated to the worship of the current emperor, Domitian, but it was also home to the temple of Artemis, which was one of the wonders of the world. Just listen to the grandeur of this place of worship: “Its roof was held over sixty feet aloft, resting upon over a hundred columns and covering a space greater than twice the size of an American football field. The internal ornamentation was of extraordinary splendor, adorned by works of art created by famous Greek artists. From all parts of the Mediterranean world, tourists…came to view and to worship in the great temple.”
The Christian faith came to Ephesus in the 50s. We caught a glimpse of that in our reading from Acts today. We also saw in that reading how Christianity was disruptive to the way of life in Ephesus. Prior to Paul’s arrival, some in Ephesus had been baptized in the way of John the Baptist, but they didn’t know the gospel of Jesus. After three months arguing in the synagogue, Paul spent two years teaching in a public lecture hall about Jesus.
During this time, God also did extraordinary miracles through Paul—all signs of God’s reign coming. So powerfully was God working, that even handkerchiefs that touched Paul were bringing healing. We heard the story today of the seven sons of Sceva, itinerant exorcists, whose powers paled in comparison to Paul’s. They tried acting like Paul, but the evil spirits beat up the seven sons. Many in Ephesus saw the power of God in Paul and began leaving their old way of life behind. They disposed of their magic books—worth 50,000 silver coins. This change was socially and economically disruptive.
If we kept reading on in Acts 19, we’d see that there is a guild of silversmiths. They make their living selling goods to the worshipers at Diana’s temple. So disruptive is the gospel to their community that a man named Demetrius tells the other silversmiths, “There is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her” (19:27). So, they begin rioting, going through the streets shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” This kept up for over two hours, with Paul and his companions hidden away for their own safety. They had to leave Ephesus, but there was a community of Christians left behind in a major city filled with opposition to their way of life. This is a church born in struggle. Even if it had a few hundred in its number, what were they compared to 250,000 living in the shadow of one of the wonders of the ancient world?
So, let’s look at Jesus’ words to the Ephesians in Revelation. He begins with their strengths. He acknowledges their efforts and their sticking with the faith through hard times. He praises them that they have stood firm in the true gospel and not the distortions of the gospel brought by others. This would include the Nicolaitans mentioned at the end. John’s basic point here is that Christians need to be vigilant about the ways we can stray. So, Jesus praises the Ephesians for standing firm in so many consequential ways, but he has a word of warning. “But I have this against you,” he says, “that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
And here is the word that is so clearly timeless. It is for them and for us. To put it clearly, believing the right things without loving generously leaves the church wanting in the sight of Jesus. If we say we love Jesus, but how we treat others leaves them cold, then we have missed the mark. Particularly when we move into the mode of “We’re right, and they’re wrong,” we see how easy it is to begin separating ourselves from others. It’s something that is so common in our world, where relationships rupture over differences of conviction both in the church and in the wider community.
As usual, N. T. Wright, summarizes this well, “‘Love,’ in the early Christian sense, is something you do, giving hospitality and practical help to those in need, particularly to other Christians who are poor, sick or hungry. That was the chief mark of the early church…. ‘Love’ of this kind, reflecting God’s own self-giving love for them, was both the best expression of, and the best advertisement for, faith in this God.”
So, forsaking our first love can be about forsaking what is truly important. But—and here’s the very real danger for us Christians comfortable in Grand Haven—losing our first love can also be that our zeal for loving the God we know in Jesus Christ begins to flag. The cares of this world, the priorities of this world begin to overtake us. Rather than living with Jesus’ simple summary of the way to life—love God with everything we are and love our neighbors as ourselves—we slowly give more control to messages that are not the gospel. They may be good, but they are not what leads to life. Giving them first priority over following Jesus leads us down a destructive path.
When I felt a call to be a pastor, I was fairly naive about what being a pastor meant. I thought, “Well, I’ll preach good sermons. People will hear God speaking to them, and they’ll be ready to do the work to transform their lives according to the gospel.” Yes, sometimes that happens, but what I’ve found more often is that the Word of God is drowned out by all sorts of other messages. It loses to our convictions about politics or economics. It loses to the inertia of striving for the good life. It loses to busyness. It loses to entertainment. This is evidence that the love we had at first has flagged. Jesus is not our first priority. A pastor is supposed to be a shepherd, guiding the flock into the way of life, but the sheep keep going their own way!
Here’s the danger if we’re not willing to stoke the love we had at first, and it’s the danger Jesus warns the church in Ephesus about. There is no guarantee that a particular church will always be the place Christ is present. To Ephesus he warns that he will remove the lampstand from their presence. Sadly, that seems to have happened. In this notable church, by the fourth century there is no longer any evidence of a church still alive in Ephesus. They never regained the love they had at first. The flame flickered, and the light was gone.
A church that is alive is one that is always in the process of reflection and transformation. That’s the case for the church as a body and for the individuals that constitute it. The people of God will gather together because Christ is present in the gathering. We gather around the light of Christ that illuminates our lives—all that is good and all that needs changing. We gather together because we need each other to stand firm in the wonderful news of Jesus, to call us to love more deeply, to be more just and faithful and hopeful. It is in the midst of the church that Christ chooses to be present.
Jesus’ words for the church in Ephesus are words for us. Each of these short letters concludes with urging us to listen to what the Spirit is saying. Listening is deeper than hearing. It is taking the message deeply into ourselves, pondering it, and then applying it to our lives. The church that is alive will listen to Jesus. It will tend to its first love—its first priority.
The church in Ephesus did not survive. It never returned to the love it had at first. First Pres Grand Haven has been here since 1836 – 187 years. Let us listen well to the Spirit and tend to this love within us. May our lamp burn brightly until Christ returns.