Church in Ephesus
Good morning, church. So I want to invite you to walk with me on a path to discover who the church of Ephesus is. Revelation 2 begins with this line, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write.” To the angel of the church in Ephesus write. Where are they and who are they? Ephesus is an inland city in modern day Izmir, Turkey. In the time of this revelation of Jesus, Ephesus was a major city of trade and culture with an estimated population of a quarter of a million people. To this day, buildings dating to the first century still stand, and the amphitheater would stun you with its scope and size.
The recipients of John’s revelation would have daily walked by one of the wonders of the world, the great temple of Artemis. “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write.”
Who are they? To answer that question, we have to step back in time from Revelation about 30 years and join the journeys of a guy named Paul, formerly called Saul, one-time church persecutor, now turned church planter. And Paul traveled through Asia and came into this city of Ephesus and discovered about 12 disciples already there. Paul poured into those 12 people. Paul then went to the synagogue and began to teach there the way of Jesus for about three months. This proclamation of the way of Jesus was not well received in the synagogue, so Paul and his disciples moved from the synagogue to this place called the Hall of Tyrannus. Paul discipled in Ephesus for about two years. “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write.”
During those two years, Paul and his disciples preached the way of Jesus so much so that local merchants got really upset, especially silversmiths. You see, once the way of Jesus was proclaimed and people believed it, people stopped buying silver idols, and so the silversmiths were not happy. The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ affected the economy of Ephesus. It seems that there was a powerful word being spoken, and people were believing it. These merchants whipped up Ephesus into a frenzied mob, and there was so much infectious anger that some of the people in the mob didn’t even know why they were there. “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write.”
Paul had to leave Ephesus and this church and continue his journeys. But at one point, the Spirit of God placed on his heart the idea to write a letter to that church in Ephesus, and we have that in our Bible, and it’s called Ephesians. Paul spends the first half of that letter kind of re-teaching the doctrine, the truths that he gave them at first, and then spends the second half of that letter telling them how to live that out in real life. “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write.”
Paul at one point knew he was never going to see the church in Ephesus again, and so he called the leaders of that church together to this prayer meeting. And at that prayer meeting, he described how he lived his life for that church, that he evangelized everyone everywhere in that town, how he worked for that church, that he didn’t take silver or gold for what he did, but he worked hard for that church and gave them an example of hard work to follow. And now 30 years later in the Book of Revelation, Jesus says this to the church of Ephesus, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.’” The seven golden lampstands are these seven churches that John is writing to.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, [he may] eat of the bread of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
This is the first of seven literal letters to seven literal churches in Asia.
These churches are being given these letters from Jesus through John in this crazy, wild literature style called Revelation. And, therefore, this idea of seven churches is literal, but it is also expansive and symbolic to the churches that were in Asia and by extension to us. And now we come face to face with the messages to all seven churches, and we have a choice, North Hills. See, we have the opportunity to view these letters as mirrors.
The question is, dare we look in? Do we have the courage? Do we have the humility?
Can we hear the praises and the critiques that Jesus gives these churches and look not to another person in this gathering, but to our own heart? Look not at another church here in Greenville, but at North Hills. Not looking at denominations, but at ourselves. Will we look? I have looked at myself in the mirror of this letter to the church of Ephesus over the past several weeks in preparation, and what I saw was not pretty. So we could sum up the message of Revelation 2:1-7 in just six words: Upstanding, toiling church abandons love…Caution! Upstanding, toiling church abandons love… Caution! Ephesus was an upstanding, toiling church. Why can we say that? Well, we can begin there because Jesus praises this church. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are words of encouragement, words of kindness, and words of affirmation. And I think we can almost stop there and preach a message just on that.
How do you hear Jesus? Dare you think that Jesus would look at you and say, “Great job!” Dare we think that Jesus might look at our gathering of North Hills and go, “You guys are doing great.” How we answer that question reveals a lot about our view of Jesus. Just like a boss should praise his employees, a teacher a student, a parent a child, so Jesus steps in here right at the beginning and encourages this church. He encourages them for all of this being done for his name’s sake.
These people had Jesus in mind with what they were doing. See, identity informs activity. Who we are declares what we do. Now, what this church did was informed by who they were. So what does the church of Ephesus do in Jesus’ name that is praiseworthy? First, they toiled and worked.
Those are the words Jesus uses. They worked and they toiled. In a sense, we could almost say that the church of Ephesus modeled itself after Paul. Remember Paul gathered the leaders of the church of Ephesus together and told them about how hard he worked for the church. It seems like those elders really grabbed onto that idea and took it back to their church. And the church of Ephesus for 30 years lived out of that reality of working hard.
The church of Ephesus as a whole was committed to toiling well. Secondly, this church of Ephesus, they endured patiently. Jesus praises not only what they do, but how they do it. They endure patiently and patiently endure. They don’t grow weary. Work was worthy, not wearisome. Paul, the guy we’ve talked about who planted this church in Ephesus, wrote to another one of his churches and said this,” And let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we will reap if we don’t give up.” The church of Ephesus got this idea, and Jesus praises them for it.
Finally, they’re praiseworthy because they tested truth. They tested truth.
The Ephesians were not a gullible group. They didn’t gobble up spiritual messages without discernment; rather, they took time to test those who claimed to be apostles or messengers on God’s behalf. Maybe they even compared those new messages to that letter Paul wrote them that had all that doctrine in it to determine whether or not it’s true. Whatever happened, we know the church of Ephesus could spot a poser. They could see through falsehood, and they were praised for that.
They also tested the truth in a theological way. This church was theologically aware, theologically active, and theologically acute. In a similar way, they also tested works. We see this in the mention of this kind of weird name called the Nicolaitans in the passage. We’re going to get that name again in another letter to the church of Pergamum. But I believe N.T. Wright helps us discern the point of Jesus’ bringing up this group when he says this:
“Various attempts have been made, in the ancient church and in modern scholarship, to figure this out, [to figure out who the Nicolaitans are] with hardly any success. The main point we can gain from this mention of the ‘Nicolaitans’ is that the church must always be on the lookout for individuals or groups who try to teach strange new ideas or to introduce strange new practices. This doesn’t mean that God never has new things for the church to learn; far from it. But these new things will come from prayerful, Spirit-filled study of scripture, not through mere innovation.”
Whatever works this group was doing, the Ephesians had no part in it, and Jesus loved it. Now, in the buckle of the Bible belt, Greenville, South Carolina, if you stop with just that description “upstanding, toiling church,” I think most people would look at that and go, “You’re a success. Great job! Good work! That’s a great church.”
But Jesus turns the tone of his comments from commendation to correction. Commendation, “You guys are doing great, you work so hard you don’t grow weary” to correction, “You have to change.”
It seems that somewhere along the way, the church of Ephesus abandons love. Now “abandons,” that’s a rough word. That’s a loaded word, so when I say “abandon,” using your imagination, what image floats into your brain?
I wanted to see if I could figure out what is a broad understanding of the word “abandon.” So if Google is to be trusted, and let’s admit, we all trust Google pretty much every week to answer questions for us. In this instance, the main idea that’s connected with abandonment on Google is child abandonment. A parent who chooses to leave their child behind.
So is that what the church of Ephesus is doing with love? They’re just throwing it away? Now, I want to be careful. I don’t want to soften the text because Jesus gives a very stark warning in the text. But what I want us to be careful of is putting an attitude on top of the word “abandon” that may not be in the text itself. See, the word literally means to leave behind. Just to leave behind. So, I’ve left my keys behind on the counter as I’m going out to my car to leave. So in a sense, they sit there abandoned.
I just heard this story two weeks ago. A pastor friend of mine from Atlanta had gotten back in town late one Saturday night, went to bed, got up. He and his wife got going, going in two different directions on Sunday. He had to get to church, she had to get there, two vehicles. He’s getting ready to preach. About five minutes away from preaching, his phone starts ringing. It’s a Facetime call from his daughter, which he thought was odd. So he actually on the front row answers the Facetime, holds it up like this, and she says, “Where is everybody?” She was still at home. They hadn’t communicated who was taking the daughter. So in a sense, she was abandoned at home, but there was no premeditation or anger or choice made there.
That’s perhaps the church in Ephesus. In the Bible, this word is used elsewhere like in Matthew 4:20, where these two brothers named Simon and Andrew, who were fishermen, they immediately left their nets. They abandoned their nets. Why would fishermen abandon the tools of their trade? Well, they had just met this guy Jesus who said, “Hey! Follow me. Come with me.” They were so consumed with Jesus, Jesus had become the bullseye, that they left behind the tools of their trade. They didn’t need them anymore. They didn’t throw them down. They didn’t tear them up in anger. They left them. In light of a more pressing opportunity, following Jesus, they left their former activity, fishing, behind. In light of a more pressing opportunity, they left their former activity behind.
That’s the church of Ephesus. They left their love behind. Something else had become a more pressing opportunity. They left behind love like Simon and Andrew left behind nets.
So what was so compelling for the church of Ephesus that they would leave behind love? And it seems from the text that it’s their energetic, enduring, patient work. The new focus was their work in Jesus’ name with great energy, but as they focused on that, love fell behind. In all of their working, they left behind their loving. In all of their hard working, they left behind their loving. So when John says they abandoned love, what’s love? Well, for John, the beauty of it being John is, John wrote a whole gospel in the Bible.
John also wrote a letter that is in the Bible called 1 John, and in there, he tells us what love is. Love is an unbelievable affection for God and affection for others that is always intertwined and inseparable. You kind of can’t have one without the other. So, in some way, because of the work in front of them, the church of Ephesus had abandoned that big, holistic view. And now Jesus gives them a yellow light of caution. And Jesus does it so beautifully. Jesus doesn’t praise this church and then critique the church and leave them hanging. He helps them by providing future consequences for the way they’re living and an immediate plan. The future consequences Jesus talks about, he says if change doesn’t occur at Ephesus, Jesus says, “I will remove your lampstand from its place.” What in the world does that mean?
I think of it this way. I kind of kick into my dramatic background. If this were a movie, and Jesus uses that line, “I will remove your lampstand from its place,” some minor character in the scene says something like, “Oh, that’s not good.” That doesn’t sound good.
So, years ago now I used to mountain bike. And when I say mountain bike, I don’t mean take a bike over to the Swamp Rabbit Trail on concrete. I mean my friends and I, we would tear down our bikes, put them in boxes, and ship them to British Columbia, and we would go to a ski resort called Whistler. And in one run from the top of the mountain down, you could descend 5,000 vertical feet, reaching speeds of 25 to 30 miles an hour, jumping 10 to 15 feet in the air, and doing jumps that were anywhere from 20 to 30 feet long. Every day, we were there – we were there for seven days two times in my life – every day, there was an ambulance there taking somebody to the hospital.
There were places on those trails where people wrecked so often that there were back boards and med kits strapped to trees, ready for people. So, I would take photos of that stuff or videos that we did and show them to friends and family, and more than once, I heard the phrase, “You’re going to end up in the hospital.” So at that moment when somebody says, “You’re going to end up in the hospital,” are they saying that so that I mentally tick off everything it means to be in the hospital, like I’m going to have to have an I.V. I’m going to have to pay a lot of money. I’m going to have to wear that weird gown. Is that what they want me to think about? I don’t think so. They’re issuing a warning based on the severity of the situation. That mountain bike riding is so severe, if you wreck, you don’t have a skinned elbow, you’re in the hospital.
In a similar way, Jesus saying, “I will remove your lampstand from its place,” is a similar shocking warning of severity. So I don’t want any of us to get pulled into a theological whirlpool of trying to figure out exactly what does that mean, because I think what it means is “Wake up! If you don’t change, wake up!” Jesus is saying this, “Do not expect me to be among you or walk around with you if you abandon love. It won’t happen. You will be removed from where I walk and where I am. I will remove your lampstand from the other six lampstands if you continue to work hard and yet abandon love.” John, the author of Revelation, in his other works in the New Testament is often very blunt.
Consider the responsive reading we read earlier all together. If we don’t love, we live in the realm of death. The starkness of the warning Jesus gives, the bluntness of John in other passages is meant to shock the listener. The church of Ephesus, when they read Jesus’s words for the first time, imagine that church gathering. I think heads would have snapped up, eyes opened, a big collective intake of breath. When they heard, “If you don’t repent, I will remove your lampstand from its place,” they would be shocked because they are perhaps the hardest working, enduring, toiling church in all of Asia, and they were still missing something. Jesus is not playing around.
So now we’re confronted with the question Peter brought up last week. Are we willing to reject our cozy, comfy, buddy, hipster view of Jesus? In light of Revelation 1:1-2:7, Jesus is an unbelievable encourager, and Jesus is an awesome disciplinarian. The absence of love in the church of Ephesus is like a human without a heart. So, what do we do? Jesus provides that future consequence, but he also provides an immediate response. Jesus says, “Remember.” And man, the more I’ve read this passage over and over, I love that’s where he starts. Remember. Jesus engages the memory and imagination of his people. Jesus looks at people and says, “Hey, you’re working so hard, you’ve kind of let go of love.
So remember the works you did at first. Remember those. Well, that’s memory. That’s accessing the bank of our minds and even imagination. What was it like when I first met Jesus? What was it when I started gathering with a community of God’s people, and I started giving away my money because they’re in trouble, or I started giving up my time for someone else, or I took insult against myself because it doesn’t matter. Jesus paid for that. All of these acts of love that we were connected to at first, John and Jesus are saying to us, “Remember.”
And here’s the deal. This is not shaming remembering. This isn’t look back on yourself, “I was so terrible!” No! He’s saying, “Remember how you used to love? That’s a good thing.”
So, no shame. Remember, how did you used to love? What did that feel like? Grab a hold of that and then repent. Change your mind. If the Ephesians were on the highway of hard work, and love wasn’t in the car, Jesus is saying, “Turn the car around, go home, get love in the car, and then head in a new direction.” That’s repent. Change direction. Turn away from abandoning love and turn to embracing love.
Finally Jesus says, do. Do. What you remembered and you changed direction about, do that stuff. Love. Love again. Love again in some of those original ways. Those works you did at first. After you do the work of remembering and repenting, do the work of doing.” So what could the church of Ephesus have remembered?
This is what’s great for us. We have this letter that was written by Paul to this church, and we actually have insight what they were like and what they were told to do, specifically in the realm of loving. So what if, when John gave this to the church and they had that stark warning and they started to remember. What if as a church, they remembered this from Ephesians 4 where Paul says,
“I, therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you [church of Ephesus] to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
If you want to know what love looks like, there you go. It’s humble and gentle and patient, and let me let you in on a little secret. Love in the church of God often looks like bearing with one another rather than hugging one another. We’re eager to maintain unity. We’re on the tip of our toes, the edge of our seat when it comes to maintaining unity in the Spirit of the bond of peace. We’re ready for it. We’re ready to jump at unity. That’s love. Maybe they remembered that. Upstanding, toiling church abandons love… Caution!
Seven mirrors over the next seven weeks in these seven letters. Mirror number one is the church of Ephesus. Did you look into it? Let me tell you what I’ve seen about me in the past several weeks. So, kind of in line with how Paul speaks to the Ephesians, I’m going to describe a little bit about myself. I work hard. If you want to make fun of the way pastors work, if you want to pull that whole “pastors-only-work-on-Sunday” joke, I’ll trade any one of my workdays with you any day of the week because I respect the way you work. I work hard. You know, I remembered in first service.
My second year of being pastor, I was visiting a life group one time, just to go and encourage and meet with them, hear what was going on, and I had a guy afterwards ask this question in this tone, “What is it that you do all day?”
Now, the hard part was this particular gentleman and his wife had been in and out of counseling of which I had been part. So I cared neither for the question nor the tone, and so I responded with, “Well, a lot of my day is spent with wives whose husbands are jerks.” Now, I’m not saying that was a wise response. I’m saying it was a response.
But I feel like I work hard. I work a lot of hours, probably not more than any of you. I try to live a balanced life with that with my family. I have a lot of responsibilities, and most of the time I get them done. I’m wired towards fulfilling responsibilities. I work, toil and I think, more often than not, I do that with a sense of endurance and patience. But at the end of summer 2017, I was done. I hit the end, and I was going to quit working at North Hills Church. I took a day off of work.
I asked my wife to take a day off of work, and we drove to Asheville. When we got in the car that morning, I looked at her and I said, “I hope you’re ready for a lot of words, and I’m going to need you to not panic when I tell you what I’m going to say.” I did not have a specific job lined up, but I had a plan of where I was going. See, I had come to a point where two things hit me.
Was I doing this because I have appointments on my calendar and things I’ve got to get done and responsibilities that are really important, or am I doing this because I love God’s people? I had also gotten to the point where I was asking myself the question, “Am I able to continue doing this in the face of suspicion and really unkind criticism about direction and choices?” Upstanding, toiling pastor abandons love… Caution!
Here’s an example from last week where I looked into the mirror and saw myself. You ready? This past week, I got into, and I mean this, a huge argument with Peter Hubbard. I was loud, angry, unkind. I was acting out of perceived hurt and weariness. I was working so hard on the direction of one particular area of our church, trying to be a good leader that in one moment, when my leadership was questioned, I abandoned love and ran to anger and gave it a big hug. I sat there with another elder, demanded trust and acted like an unloving child. Upstanding, toiling pastor abandons love… Caution! Is there hope for me? Well, in both instances, I’m still employed. And even more importantly, in both instances, God showed up. In the first one, a year and a half ago, I remembered. I remembered that I love this church, that I absolutely love serving this church. I remembered where eleven years ago this past February before I was hired, for about a year, I would go home almost every Sunday crying because I did not have enough time to help God’s people.
I did it for no recognition. I did it not because things were on my calendar, but because I loved Jesus so much, and I wanted everybody I met every Sunday connected to loving Jesus. I remembered. I repented. I turned away from the idea that being a good leader meant that you could only do it based on a calendar. I rejected the idea that, even if there was suspicion and unkindness, that that was what would define me as one of God’s elders here. I did. I began to love people and serve people in the best way I could, out of my brokenness, out of my junk, out of my own story and tried to impart the wisdom God had given me over the past eleven years.
This past week, God let me remember. I remembered that Peter Hubbard has pastored my family for twenty-four years. That man has invested countless hours in me, and I am a pastor by God’s grace and his influence, and I’m a better man for it. I remembered that Peter Hubbard deserves double honor because he labors for me in teaching and in preaching. I remembered that although we may differ and look at the world differently, and we do, that is to God’s glory and that that is a man who would probably give up almost anything for me and my family. I repented. I talked to God about it, and I have to be honest, that happened really quick. Because after that argument, I had to go do the pastoral thing of praying for people for healing. What a dork! I’m going to be a good leader. Oh, I’m going to pray for you. Upstanding, toiling pastor abandons love… Caution! I repented. I talked to God about it. I talked to Peter about it. Ironically, that night I couldn’t get a ride home from elder meeting that went to about 11:45 at night, and Peter lives out by my house. So we got to talk, and I kindly received his forgiveness. I did or I am doing. I am committed to serve with every person here, to let everyone at North Hills Taylors, North Hills Northwest love Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
What about you? Did you look in the mirror with Ephesians 2:1-7? And let me do this.
Can I gently remind you how mirrors work? When I get up in the morning and I go to the mirror in my bathroom and I look in, I see my reflection, not Rebecca’s or Peter’s or anybody else’s. If I’m looking in glass and see another face, that’s a window. So if in all of this, you have a whole bunch of ideas about how other people need to figure out their love, stop looking through a window and look in the mirror.
You might need a second glance.
I think, I believe when it comes to the seven mirrors that we’re going to look at, the one that most accurately reflects what God would write to North Hills Church is the Church of Ephesus. I say that with all the love in the world for us as a people. Upstanding, toiling church abandons love… Caution! I don’t think it takes much to argue that North Hills Church works hard, so I’m literally not going to spend any time doing it. I think it’s a given. The question we must wrestle with is not whether or not we love at all, but in all of our working at North Hills, have we left behind our loving? So, if like the church of Ephesus, we looked back into that letter called Ephesians and we read Ephesians 4:1-3 again, and it was addressed to us, is this who we are?
“I, therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you [North Hills Church] to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.”
“Remember… from where you have fallen.”
Jesus provides one more future consequence in our text today that’s actually an encouragement. At the very end, he says, “To the one who conquers, [or the one who is victorious, the one who endures, the one who makes it until the end, to that person] I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” There’s a lot of imagery going on there at the end. Let me share two things with you.
One, that’s an Eden image. So in the Garden of Eden, all the way back in Genesis 1 and 2, the tree of life was in the middle of the garden. After Adam and Eve rejected God’s plan, God set up protection around the tree of life so that they couldn’t eat from it. No one has eaten from the tree of life. And Jesus is now saying to the church, “As you endure, as you gain victory, if you make it all the way, what was uneatable is now for you in a meal.
What’s really interesting is if you look at the culture of the day and Ephesus, it’s an Eden image and it’s an Ephesus image.
The temple of Artemis had a great tree in it. That tree had particular meaning. It was actually on the coins of Ephesus. And even if you were a guilty criminal and you ran to that tree, you could not be prosecuted. Jesus and John, I think, are taking a slight little dig at Ephesus. You have a tree at the temple of Artemis there that might help you for a little bit.
The tree of life is in the paradise of God, and we get to eat from that. So I want to invite us right now to take a moment, a pause in our extremely fast lives, and choose to look into the mirror.