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Studies in the book of Revelation: How to stay in love with God

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 2:1-7

Sometimes the honeymoon ends too quickly. And sometimes it never starts.

I read about this classified ad: “For sale—Wedding dress. Never been worn. Will trade for .38 pistol.”

I heard about the man who was determined to marry a certain woman. He began writing her a love letter every day, then three a day. In all he wrote her more than 700 letters—and she married the postman.

What do we do when love grows boring? When the new wears off of our faith, or our family?

One third of all married Americans say they are now or have had an affair. Nearly half of all Americans say there is no reason to ever be married. Only 32% say they would stay in a bad marriage for the sake of the kids. 53% say they would cheat on their spouse, given the opportunity.

And what’s true horizontally is also true vertically. Only 27% of Americans participate in worship regularly. Only one in ten of us believe in each of the Ten Commandments. It takes 39 Baptists a year to lead one person to Christ. Across all denominations, it takes 85 church members one year to lead one person to Jesus.

How do we stay committed to the ones we love? Horizontally and vertically? How do we continue to love God with our heart, soul, and mind? How do we continue to love our neighbor as ourselves? God’s word has the answers we need.

Today we’ll look at our vertical relationship with the God we love. Next week, we’ll explore our horizontal relationships with the people we love.

Losing our first love

We need to go to ancient Ephesus, to study the two letters in Scripture written to them. One came from the Apostle Paul, the other from the Lord Jesus. Both deal directly with our issue.

Let’s begin with a brief tour of the city.

Ephesus was located on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). It was often called Lumen Asiae, “the light of Asia.” This was the wealthiest city in Asia Minor, with the greatest harbor and most lucrative trade routes in that part of the world.

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.

Her chief claim was the Temple of Diana. 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 church here 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. Church councils were held here in later centuries, bringing Christians from across the world.

Jesus commends this congregation in wonderful ways.

First, 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).

Second, 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.

Irenaeus, bishop of Antioch, wrote them just a few years after this letter arrived. He said that they were so well taught in the gospel that no sect could gain a hearing there. This is a congregation filled with hard-working, Bible-believing Christians.

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.

Enemies of the heart

How does this happen? How do we fall out of love with God, and with other people? The Ephesian story is ours as well.

First, time makes love boring.

It’s been forty years since these Christians have first trusted in Jesus, first heard his word and responded to his love, first knew the thrill of sin forgiven and life changed.

Their faith is now routine. Their worship is set and standard; their prayers are learned; their work is organized and efficient. And the same thing happened to them that happens to our churches, our marriages, our relationships: time makes love boring.

The fastest-growing churches are five years old and younger. Past that, churches almost always plateau in growth and energy. The hardest time for marriages is between ten and fifteen years. The kids are well along in school; careers are established; finances are steady. And we get bored, and trouble starts.

What about your faith? Are you settled into a routine, a tradition? Be careful—time can make love boring.

Second, busyness makes love secondary.

They’re hard at work—toiling, persevering, enduring. Jesus commends them for all of this. But they’re so busy working for Jesus, they’ve forgotten Jesus. They don’t love him any more—they’re too busy serving him.

How easily this happens to us. So busy with our kids, work, church. We spend time together, but not really. Not quality time, just for each other. We’re too distracted, too busy, working too hard. And love burns out.

What about you? Are you really busy serving Jesus? Committees, work, Bible studies, activities? Then watch out—busyness can make love secondary.

Third, success makes love complacent.

They’ve been at it, long and hard. And so these believers have built the greatest church in all the Christian world. By every standard they’re a success. And this is their problem.

Success always pushes us toward complacency. We’re doing so well, we must be right. My wife and I don’t fight, the money’s good, the kids are successful, all is well. But it may not be.

So many men say to counselors, “I had no idea my marriage was in trouble.” They’re successful at their work, their church, and they think, their homes. And they get complacent.

How successful is your faith? Can your love grow old? If you say it can’t happen, it’s probably already started.

Are you in Ephesus today? I’ve been there as well.

I’ve found myself preaching because it was my work. Not because I loved Jesus, but because I served him. It’s not that I didn’t love Jesus, but loving him was not the reason I was preaching. He was my employer, and the church was my job. I was preaching because it was Sunday. I was reading the Scriptures and praying because they were my daily obligations, like taking out the trash or cleaning up after a meal.

And I know I’m not the only person here who’s been to Ephesus. A Sunday school teacher prepares and presents her lesson because it’s her responsibility. She took this job and she’ll see it through. She loves the Lord, but he’s not really why she’s teaching today. It’s just her job at the church.

A choir member comes to rehearsal so he won’t be asked, “Where were you last week?” A committee member grumbles on Sunday afternoon, wishing she hadn’t agreed to serve again but going to the meeting anyway to keep her word. A father sits in church because it’s Sunday morning and his family expects him to be there. A woman puts money in the offering plate as though she’s paying another bill. They’ve lost their “first love.”

This is a process. We lose our gratitude for what Jesus has done for us and begin serving him out of obligation. We come to church for what we can receive, not for what we can give. We make time alone with Jesus into a routine, a habit, until that’s all it is.

We begin to serve our work. We want to impress people with our hard work and our integrity. When we do so, we assume we’re impressing Jesus as well. But we’re not.

Anyone in Ephesus today?

Staying in love with God

So, how do you stay in love with God? Three words are important here.

First, remember. “Remember the height from which you have fallen!” Remember when you loved Jesus first, and most of all. Remember when you came to church because you were excited to worship God; when you read the Scriptures and prayed out of gratitude for such a privilege. Remember when your faith was new and joyous.

Think back to the time when you first began to follow Jesus. How did your faith feel? How excited were you to be a Christian? How new was everything? Remember what it was like to be in love with your Lord.

Next, repent. The word means to change. Make a strategic plan for your soul. Determine what you’re going to do to make your love for Jesus real again. Act into feeling; don’t wait for the feelings to start. Spend an hour listening to Jesus, or a day walking with him. Decide what you’re going to change, to return to him as your first love.

Insanity has been defined as doing the same things but expecting a different result. Decide to make a change in your lifestyle. Change your heart and your life.

Last, act. Do this now: “Do the things you did at first.” The Greek is imperative here. Do something now. Make your decision today. Take your first step now. This is crucial. The cancer is spreading, the heart is dying. Act now.

Conclusion

Hear the warning of Jesus: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” We know from Revelation 1:20 that the “lampstand” represents the church. Christians are the light of the world, so the church which holds us up is the lampstand.

Theirs is secure, well-funded, successful. Their future is bright—of this they are sure. But Jesus is not. He is clear: if they do not love him, they are not a church. And they will not have a church.

This is the most dire warning to any church in the New Testament. Their glorious church and their city will die, unless they fall in love with their Lord again.

What happened? Did Ephesus repent? Did her believers return to Jesus as the first love of their lives? Was their church restored to greatness? No. In fact, today there is no Ephesus and no Ephesian church. There are only ruins—ruins of her stadiums, her temples, her theatres. Ruins of her church. The lampstand has gone. Of all the churches in Revelation, she was the greatest, and now she is gone.

Remember the Temple of Diana, the pride of Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? 127 columns, each 60 feet high, stupendous in their majesty. What is left? Just one. Because this church lost its first love.

If you’ve lost your first love, it’s not too late for you, yet. The next step is yours.