Topical Scripture: Revelation 2:1-7
The lions got fat, the baboons got stressed, and zoo officials worry that the antelopes might have heart attacks. It’s been rough to be an animal in the zoo at Haifa, Israel the last few weeks. The carnivores, bears and monkeys had to be moved inside to protect them from rocket strikes. And to keep a missile on a retaining wall from setting them loose on Israel’s third-largest city. The baboons are happy to be back outside, but the antelopes may suffer from delayed stress.
The week has not been boring. A cease-fire in Lebanon brings hope, but danger persists. One of our trustees had to miss our meeting last Monday because she was stuck in London, trying to get a flight out. Dell has recalled 4.1 million laptops because their batteries can catch fire. The heat wave continues, with no relief in sight. And none of this is the greatest problem you and I face this morning.
There is actually an issue more vitally urgent than war in the Middle East or terrorism in our airports. There is a threat to our church and our souls which is more insidious and malignant than anything you’ll find in the newspapers. We will discuss this morning the single most crucial issue in all of Christian faith and life. And I trust we will respond wisely, while there is still time for us.
Ephesus is the most reconstructed ancient city in the world. I’ve visited three times, and have a fourth trip scheduled next spring. Walking down marble streets rutted with Roman chariots, sitting in the same Colosseum where Paul sat and preached, walking through the home where John and the mother of Jesus lived, visiting the tomb of John–it’s an overwhelming experience. Let me try to give you some sense of the place.
Ephesus was located on the southwestern coast of what the ancients called Asia Minor, what we call Turkey today. Her very name meant “desirable,” as the city was often called Lumen Asiae, the “light of Asia.”
Ephesus was the wealthiest city in Asia Minor. Her ruins are spectacular even today. A massive theater, holding 25,000 people. Ornate marble temples to the various Roman emperors; a gargantuan Library of Celsus; marble even in the public latrines.
This was a city of great political importance. The Roman governor over the region lived here, and tried all the important cases in the city. Ephesus was host of the Panionian Games, as prestigious as the Olympics in their day.
She was the most religious city on her continent. Three temples stood in tribute to her worship of the Emperor. Artemis (Diana), their goddess of fertility, was worshiped across the city and region. Her temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 425 feet long by 225 feet wide, with 127 columns, each 60 feet high; 36 of these columns were covered with gold, jewels, and carvings. The Greeks said, “The sun sees nothing finer in his course than Diana’s Temple.”
And the Christian church in Ephesus was magnificent as well.
Their congregation was probably founded by Aquila and Priscilla; they were later joined by Paul, who preached here more than two years. Timothy pastored the church, as did Apollos. And John the Beloved Disciple pastored this church, and is buried in the city. Tradition says that he brought Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the city with him. I’ve been to the house where they lived together. Church councils were held here in later centuries, bringing Christians from across the world.
After Rome destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, the center of Christianity shifted to this church and city. In many ways, this was the greatest church in all the world.
Learning from Ephesus
And so Jesus commends their church family in wonderful ways.
He applauds their actions (v. 2a): he knows their “deeds” (the word means activities) and “hard work” (the word means toil or sweat). He commends their “perseverance” (the word means to endure with steadfast courage despite all opposition).
He compliments their theological integrity: “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (v. 2b). Later he commends them for rejecting the Nicolaitans (v. 6), an early cult of heretical, self-indulgent behavior.
But they have a problem. A spiritual malignancy is growing in their hearts; left unchecked, it will destroy them. “You have forsaken your first love,” Jesus tells them (v. 4).
“First” here means “first in time.” They have forsaken the One they loved first when they became Christians–the Lord Jesus. This church has gotten so busy with the work of the Lord that they have forgotten how to walk with the Lord. They are consumed with “doing,” and have lost “being.” They have fallen out of love with Jesus.
If they do not return to their “first love,” he will “come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (v. 5). The “lampstand” is the church–he will remove their church, and they will be no more.
This letter is in God’s word because it applied not just to them but to us as well. If we lose our “first love,” the same thing will happen to us. Individually, and as a congregation.
How do we fall out of love with Jesus?
Religion replaces relationship. The Ephesians were busy beyond words. Their deeds, hard work and perseverance were all consuming. And the relationship they once had with Jesus now becomes a religion for him.
That happens in marriages all the time. You were so close at first, when you had no one but each other. Then children came along, and jobs, and houses and cars and bills and responsibilities, and your marriage became a business partnership.
The same thing happens with our souls and Jesus. When he was our “first love,” we had no one but him. No religious commitments, no activities and programs and responsibilities. But now we do, and our marriage to Jesus becomes a business partnership with him. We get so busy with the work of the Lord that we lose touch with the Lord of the work.
Then complacency replaces passion.
The Ephesians had their act together. They were the leading church in the leading city in their part of the world. All must be well.
Our marriages must be healthy, because they are successful. Our kids are doing well, our finances are in order, we have enough status to be successful. We stop working on the marriage, assuming it must be healthy. The passion we had at the first is replaced by complacency at all we have achieved.
So it is with our souls. We’re here at church, passing all our neighbors who aren’t. We’re living good lives, doing good things. We must be right with God. He must be pleased with us. And our complacency replaces our passion.
And one day we wake up to realize that we’ve lost our love for Jesus. We work for him, but we don’t really love him. We worship him with our lips and actions, but not with our hearts and passion. We read his word and pray and give and serve, but it’s all part of our routine, just another commitment we’ve made, bills to pay, obligations to fulfill. We come because it’s Sunday, not because we love him.
When that happens, we’re not a church any more. We’re a religious organization, a Salesmanship Club with a Bible study. We do good charitable work for the community and provide fellowship for our members, but we don’t love Jesus. We’re not the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, fully devoted followers of Jesus. We’re not a church unless he is our first love. And one day he’ll remove our lampstand and we’ll die.
That’s what happened in Ephesus. The church died, and the city with her. The Temple of Diana, 127 pillars covered with precious metals and stones, is just one pillar today, with a bird’s nest on top. There is no Ephesus, and no Ephesian church this morning. What happened to them can happen to any church, anywhere. Even here. Even us.
Does any of this describe you? If it doesn’t, if you’re not living in Ephesus today, be encouraged. Be grateful to God, and rejoice in him. Renew your passion, your unconditional commitment to him today. And be encouraged by his word.
If it does, if you’re in Ephesus this morning, know that it’s not too late. This letter has come to you today because there’s still time to do something about the condition of your soul. What do you do?
“Remember the height from which you have fallen” (v. 5a). Remember when you were in love with your Lord–when you prayed because you wanted to be with him, when you read his word because you wanted to hear from him, when you worshiped because you wanted to honor him, when you gave and served and witnessed because you wanted to give back to him. If you don’t remember a time you were in love with Jesus, start today.
“Repent” (v. 5b). Change. Decide to be the way you were, to seek the love you used to have. Decide that you want him to be your first love again.
And return: “do the things you did at first.” Don’t wait until you feel love for Jesus–act out love for Jesus. If he were your first love today, what would you do? What person would you forgive, or seek forgiveness from? What wrong would you make right? What resource would you give? What ambition would you surrender? What lost person would you pray for and seek to win to Jesus? What service would you render? Do that. Do it now. Do it while you still can.
Any of us can be in Ephesus today. I know, because I’ve been there as well.
When I first trusted in Jesus back in 1973, it was as though a new world had opened before my eyes. God’s word was an exciting mystery to me, and being with my friends at church was the greatest joy and thrill.
Our church had a bus ministry on Saturdays, and I was part of it each week. We’d get there at 9:00 and knock on doors all morning finding children to ride the bus to church the next day. Then we’d go to lunch and come back for a Bible study. There was usually an activity that night, then Sunday school and church the next morning, followed by choir and church that night. Visitation was on Tuesday night, and prayer meeting and Bible study on Wednesday night. I learned about having a quiet time each day. There was a Christian Student Union prayer meeting most mornings before school began. And all of it was exciting, none of it routine.
But over time that changed. I became a professional–a youth minister at another church in town, then at my home church. I got an office at the church where I had become a Christian five years earlier. I began studying for the ministry at college. I began preaching sermons and leading Bible studies. Religion began to replace relationship, and passion turned to complacency. I began to measure myself by how many people came to my programs, not by my love for Jesus.
This has been my battle and challenge ever since.
There have been times of remembering, repenting, and returning to my first love. A porch outside a hut in Malaysia back in college when Jesus spoke to my heart and called me to himself. The joy of pastoring New Hope Baptist Church in Mansfield, where everything about being a pastor was new. The times in each of our churches where the Spirit has moved in powerful ways and we’ve seen souls saved, lives changed, the Kingdom blessed. A silent retreat in Atlanta where I fell in love with God again. Times of retreat and renewal here in Dallas.
But there have also been times in Ephesus. Periods of routine religion and programs. Times when I preached because it was Sunday, not because God had given me a gift I couldn’t wait to give his people. Times when I ministered to hurting people because it was my responsibility rather than my privilege, days when I measured success by popularity rather than passion.
I’ve been to Ephesus. Most of you have as well. Who’s there today?