“Marks of the Church: First Love” Revelation 2:1-7 October 12, 2008
SI: Today we begin a seven week study of a special part of book of Revelation.
When was last time you wrote a real letter to someone about something important?
Not an email. Not a text message. But a real letter in which
you crafted your words to express just the right thought.
The pastor I worked for after seminary, Dr. Bruce Fiol,
had grown up in India and worked there for 16 years.
He did not grow up with a telephone, grew up writing letters.
He disliked the telephone.
He liked talking to people face to face most of all.
And second, he liked writing letters.
He wrote about a thousand letters a year.
Once asked him about his letter writing and he said—
A letter takes time and thought.
A letter is the most careful expression of thought.
A letter takes effort—it’s a labor of love.
It shows that you value the person writing to.
And a letter endures. You can get it out, read it over and over.
The first summer after Allison and I had fallen in love,
I was working in Lake Worth, Florida,
she was back home in Covington, Louisiana.
I wrote a love letter every day.
A few years ago I found them in a box in the top of the garage and I read a few—
and realized they were not destined for greatness—mostly said things like—
I want to hold you—very original expressions!
In Revelation 2 and 3 are seven great letters, seven enduring letters,
from the Lord Jesus Christ to seven churches in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. Seven is an important symbolic number in the Bible stands for completeness.
Remember the seven sons in Ruth! Number seven throughout Revelation.
Seven churches a way of symbolizing all churches—the whole church.
So these are letters written by Jesus Christ to the church
at all times and in all ages.
But it’s important to remember that these were real churches.
The church of Ephesus was a real church, Ephesus was a real place,
with a real history and real people and issues.
Smyrna and Philadelphia and Pergamum were real cities, real churches.
When the Apostle John wrote the book of Revelation,
these churches were in existence, they read these aloud and studied them.
And what is in these letters?
Jesus Christ’s thoughtful, loving, penetrating insights about each church.
In these letters he praises and encourages and rebukes and warns.
He calls them to be the churches they are meant to be—
to glorify God and be a light to the cities in which they exist.
Be who you are. Be who you are meant to be.
Out of all of the chapters of Revelation—these have been the most preached.
And I think it’s easy to see why—
because the thought of these letters captures our imagination.
What if we got a letter from Jesus Christ—
To the church in Cullman. To Christ Covenant in Cullman.
What would Jesus say to us? What things would he praise us for?
In all but one of these letters, Jesus finds things to praise the church for.
There would hopefully be things he would praise us for.
What would he warn us about, what would he rebuke us for?
I think we could expect that—although in two letters, he does not rebuke
the church for anything—he just commends and encourages.
What promises would he make in his letter to us to stir us up and encourage?
I don’t think we correspond exactly to any of these seven churches—
because every church, just like every Christian, is unique.
But somewhere in the middle of all of them we find ourselves and
will hear the word of Jesus spoken to us.
So let’s approach these letters with open hearts, willing to look at ourselves
as individuals and as a body of believers.
And see what Jesus is telling us about the church he wants us to be.
What jumps out at you when you read this first letter?
The detail that jumps out is when Jesus says to this church:
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
“You have forsaken your first love.”
Out of all of the seven letters, this is one of the most memorable phrases,
because it’s so full of strong emotion,
and because it touches on things that are most important.
If you overheard a married couple talking and he said to her, or she said to him—
“You don’t love me like you used to.”
“You’ve abandoned the love you had for me at first.”
If you heard that, you would fear for their marriage, wouldn’t you.
Even if everything looked good on the outside—
if they had the house and two cars and two kids and a dog
you would say to yourself—things aren’t good.
One of the word pictures the Bible uses to describe our relationship with God
is that of a husband and wife. God is the husband, the church is his wife.
The church is the bride of Christ.
So here we have the husband Jesus saying to his wife the Ephesian church:
“You don’t love me like you use to.”
Then he says, if you don’t regain that first love, I will remove your lampstand.
Lampstand is a symbol of the heart and purpose of the church—
to shine the light of the Gospel to the world.
Jesus is saying, If you don’t regain the love for me you had at first,
you’re going to lose your very identity as a church and disappear.
So this is serious business.
But what is surprising is that Jesus also commends this church.
He praises their commitment to sound doctrine, to upholding the truth.
As we will see in our study of the other letters, this was not the case
in many churches. Many of them failed in this very area—but not Ephesus.
So an interesting picture emerges.
This was a church strong in good teaching, a model for other churches to follow,
but at the same time it was a church that was failing to love to an alarming degree.
Let’s look at this, apply it to ourselves, our church—three headings:
The importance of truth, the importance of love, and how we keep two together.
MP#1 The importance of truth
Jesus praises the Ephesians twice for their commitment the truth of Scripture.
First he says that they have tested those who call themselves apostles
and have found them to be false. These were apparently men who
traveled around, preaching and teaching, collecting love offerings.
They were accepted as spiritual leaders in many churches,
but the Ephesians smelled bad theology a mile off and had nothing to do
with these men—called them false apostles and evil men
Second Jesus says that they hate the works of the Nicolaitans which he also hates.
Don’t know much about the Nicolaitans but they appear to have taught
a message of moral compromise with the surrounding culture.
They wanted to make it easier to be a Christian in a pagan world.
Probably taught that Christians could, in good conscience participate
in the worship celebrations in great pagan temples in Ephesus.
This commitment to the truth brought the Ephesian church into conflict
with the culture around them. Jesus praises this too as he speaks of how they
have endured patiently and born up for his name and not grown weary.
This church did not have a soft, fuzzy form of Christianity—
they knew the Gospel, they knew the great doctrines of the Christian faith,
and they stood on these things and defended them.
I think we need to let the force of all of this hit us—
Jesus praised a church that is willing to call people false apostles and evil men.
He praised a church for hating the works of what was apparently a popular
teaching, accepted by many other churches.
These are strong words—false, evil, hate—these were not politically correct words.
And yet Jesus himself commended the Ephesians
for this level of commitment to the truth.
This is the reason he praised them—this is why the truth is so important.
Because Jesus is the Truth. He said: I am the truth.
And the truth about who he is, and who we are, and our need for his grace
is taught in Scripture. Through this truth we come to know him
and grow in grace and knowledge.
So whenever false teaching keeps people from knowing God
and knowing Jesus rightly, Jesus is honored when a church says—that’s false,
that’s evil, we hate what teaching is doing to the souls of people.
What does this look like in a church? I think it is expressed in two ways.
The first one might surprise you—good church government.
A church that defends truth has good government based on New Testament pattern.
It has elders who know the truth and love it
and are willing to point out falsehood and call a spade a spade.
Paul started the Ephesian church and he trained the elders.
Last time he saw them, before arrested and sent to Rome.
Remember what I taught you. After I leave false teachers are going to come.
He calls them savage wolves. Defend the flock. Defend the truth.
We’re blessed to be in a denomination where this happens at three levels.
Elders in local church. They answer to elders in presbytery—North Alabama.
They answer to the church as a whole—General Assembly.
When teachings trouble the church, elders at all levels examine.
Good church government means not only is harmful teaching identified,
it also means there is not an over-reaction. Every little error is not blown
up into a major heresy. The Ephesians weren’t witch-hunters.
It was only the really big, truly harmful things they dealt with.
Once heard the a very well-known and wise minister in our denomination talking
about the value of small groups—like our Covenant Groups. Someone said—
what if groups get out of hand, start saying things that aren’t doctrinally sound?
He said: So what. I call that happy heresy. It’s not going to hurt your church.
His point was well-made. Good church will see what is truly harmful.
The second thing this looks like in a church is a taste for the truth.
What’s the best defense against false teaching?
It’s to give people a taste for what’s really good.
I had a friend in seminary who used to wear a T-shirt that said:
Life is too short to drink bad wine. That’s good theology!
A taste for something good trains your palate, trains your senses
so that when something is off, when it’s funky, you know it.
You say—this isn’t leading me to Jesus. This isn’t magnifying his grace.
This is undermining the Gospel—let’s stay away from this $2 bottle of wine.
Let’s drink the good stuff.
I hope we are a church that always serves the good stuff—pulpit, studies, SS.
MP#2 The importance of love
And I hope you are personally doing all you should be doing to develop
a taste for good teaching. We ought to be like the Ephesian church in this way.
That was the strength of the Ephesian church—
but they had a terrible flaw.
Because after this glowing praise about their defense of the truth, Jesus says:
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
Brings us to our second point—the importance of love.
What was the first love that the Ephesians had abandoned?
It’s interesting that great Bible scholars and preachers disagree on this—sort of.
Some of have said that the first love is love for Jesus.
That the Ephesians, had started to trust in their doctrinal perfection,
it was the thing that made them feel right before God.
As that happened, as they transferred their righteousness from Jesus,
to their sound doctrine, the lost their love for him.
That’s a very interesting way of looking at abandoning your first love.
Because it means that you can have perfect theology—
can teach and believe that faith in Jesus alone is necessary for salvation.
But at a deeper level, the thing that is really giving you a sense of acceptance
in God’s eyes is that you’ve got good theology.
You’ve got it right and the Nicolaitans don’t.
So the thing that you really love is not Jesus,
but it’s yourself having the right ideas about Jesus. Talk more about in a minute.
Other Bible scholars have said that the first love is love for other Christians.
Point to Jesus’ command “Love one another.”
By this all men will know that you are my disciples. Glory of early church.
But the Ephesians became so concerned with getting doctrine right, sour, unloving.
They ran right over each other and couldn’t even see the damage doing.
Few weeks ago I went to Piggly Wiggly to get some milk.
Whipped into a parking place, walking through store and a man confronted me.
He actually started cussing me—and he had a northern accent.
I don’t know what was more startling in Pig, cussed out or Boston accent.
You almost hit me in the parking lot!
Sir, you must be mistaken. I came right around the corner here, no one there.
Yeah, that corner, you were in that green car, almost plowed into me,
I had to slam on the brakes.
I started thinking. Did I do that? Was I really that blind?
Did I really almost run over this old Yankee?
He said a few more things and I realized that it was me, I never saw him.
Here’s the point—a total lack of love because of this huge blind spot
created by a desire to get things right. Leading to criticizing each other,
and running over the weak members of the congregation.
Then other Bible scholars have said the first love was evangelism.
It was love for the lost in city of Ephesus. That’s the love they abandoned.
Jesus is saying that in the early days of your church, reached out to lost.
You aren’t doing that any more. Failing as a lampstand to shine light.
You’ve let your commitment to sound doctrine and Bible study make you
totally ingrown so that you’re failing to love.
You have all the right answers, so what, you are not making them known.
Do the works you did at first—share Christ with your lost neighbors.
So what’s the first love? Is it love for Jesus, for one another, for the lost?
I think you would agree with me that all three are very convicting.
I think you would also agree that all three of these are connected
in every church and every Christian life.
There is no true love for other people that doesn’t start with a love for Jesus,
and anyone whose heart is full of love for Christ
will want to love his brother and bring others to Christ.
And failure at any point leads to total breakdown of love.
You have to let yourself feel the force of Jesus’ letter.
Have you abandoned the love you had at first in any of these respects?
Are you finding your righteousness in something else besides Jesus?
Have you become cold and critical towards certain members of this church body?
Are there people you avoid? People you criticize?
Do you neglect the lost people God brings into your life?
Do you take no opportunity to tell them good news? Those are hard questions.
MP#3 How we keep the two together
So hard, realize it would be much easier if Jesus had just said—
Doctrinal purity, that’s all I care about—just get it right theologically.
But he didn’t. He loves the truth, wants us to know it and defend it.
And he wants us to be overflowing with love.
We’ve looked at the importance of truth and the importance of love—
now let’s see how we keep the two together.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—written about 20 years before Revelation—
there is a verse where Paul says: “Speak the truth in love.”
And that really sums up what we’re talking about.
That’s what Jesus wants in our lives and in our church.
Not love without the truth, not truth without love—but truth spoken in love.
The key is the Gospel.
Because the Gospel makes you humble and bold at the same time.
You have to be humble and bold to speak the truth in love.
The reason we fail in love is because we’ve allowed something
to take the position of trust or confidence in our lives that we should give to Jesus.
We are finding our righteousness in something besides Jesus.
It could be doctrinal correctness—that’s the example we’ve looked at so far.
But it could be other things.
It could be your morality—living right, keeping God’s commandments.
Could be having a good family, good marriage, good kids.
Could be success in business, career, financial matters.
Could be your looks, body image, your health, athletic ability, intellect.
There are lots of things that we can put trust, confidence in besides Jesus.
You say you believe in Jesus, but it’s these other things that
enable you to look at yourself in the mirror.
That always leads to a failure of love at every level and here’s why.
If you are successful in this thing you are trusting—if you are moral person,
if you are successful in marriage, child rearing, in money—whatever—
that success leads to pride. You look down on people.
If you are a failure at the things you are trusting—fail morally, in marriage,
with your children, or financially—or if those things are threatened—
it leads to depression. You are jealous or intimidated by people.
You can’t speak the truth in love, you can’t keep love and truth together
if you are looking down on people, or if you are jealous or intimidated by them.
The Gospel alone makes you humble and bold at the same time.
That’s why Jesus tells the Ephesians at the end of this letter.
Remember from where you have fallen.
Remember how you used to find your trust and righteousness in me.
Repent and do the works you did at first.
Repent of doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
When you remember and repent it humbles you.
And then he gives them a wonderful promise.
If you overcome in this, will eat of the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
When our first parents rebelled, were cast out, denied access to the tree of life.
Jesus says, through me, you can have access again.
And you can taste and see that God is good—he’s talking about heaven—
when you know that is what God has for you in Jesus, it makes you bold.
Because you know that this truth you are speaking to this person is for their good—
it’s going to get them closer to Jesus, who is the source of all blessing.
Imagine if we were a church that always spoke the truth in love.
It would not always be the most comfortable place.
Because as sinners, the truth sometimes comforts, but sometimes it hurts.
But, ultimately it would be a place of great joy because that truth would
lead us closer to Jesus.
I have lots of books in my study, but there is one that is dear to me.
Because given to me by a Christian friend years ago.
He gave it to me because he felt compelled to tell me the truth
about something that was painful for me to hear.
And the book was his way of softening the blow.
It was his way to communicating to me—Andrew, I love you.
I love you because I love Jesus and I want you to experience a good life.
Listen to what I have to tell you. And I knew he loved me, and I let truth in.
That’s beautiful. That’s a picture of the church and people God wants us to be.