Jesus' Words To The Church In Ephesus
Most are well aware of the fact that God grieves over our sin; but we tend to forget that God laments over our loss of fellowship with Him because of our sin.
In Jeremiah 9 we see a moving text in which God not only grieves over the sin of His people; but He expresses the root of their problem. We read this in Jeremiah 9:2-3, “Oh that I had in the desert a travelers’ lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a company of treacherous men. They bend their tongue like a bow; falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, declares the LORD.”
In Jeremiah 9:23-24 we read these words, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight declares the LORD.’”
God does not desire an externally religious people; He desires a people who have come to know Him and love Him. He wants a people who will respond to His steadfast love, justice and righteousness; and thereby be drawn to Him and be transformed. The Lord desired a people who were not merely circumcised in the flesh by human hands, but those who have been circumcised in the heart by the Spirit and who are being transformed by the Word of God (Jeremiah 9:13-14; 25-26).
Our text this morning is found in Revelation 2:1-7. And in this text God says,
“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.
2 ‘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 are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 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. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” Revelation 2:1-7
Let me begin by giving a brief overview of this text. Jesus speaks to these churches as the Head of the church and as the Shepherd of His people. He holds and supports the church along with the ministers.
We find that Jesus walks among His churches and in His omniscience He knows all that goes on in the churches and all that is in the hearts of the people within the church. To the Ephesians, He has many good things to commend them for: they work and toil in ministry, they patiently endure through all things, they discern those who are evil and rightfully discern who among them are false apostles. They are characterized twice by a patient endurance and that they bear up for the name of Christ. Finally, in verse 6 Jesus commends them for hating the Nicolaitans whom He also hates. These early heretics took the grace of God and used it, not as a means to be trained in godliness, but as a means of license to sin.
Yet, despite all of this good the Lord Jesus says that they have abandoned their first love. Jesus then gives this church three things to do to recover their first love: remember, repent and do the works they did at the first. (Notice how practical Jesus is. They are not told to feel what they did at first, but to do what they did at first.)
Finally Jesus gives them two motivations in responding. First, Jesus let’s them know that if they do not do this He will remove their lampstand from among them. The church will become ineffective and powerless. They will not be a light in this dark world. Secondly, Jesus reminds them that those who will hear the words of the Spirit to the church and overcome will eat of the tree of life.
As we begin this morning I would like to introduce you to a preacher from the 1600’s whose name is Thomas Goodwin. His story will in many ways mirror what we will see Jesus addressing in our text concerning the congregation in Ephesus. I would like to admit that most of what I will share with you has come from a biographical lecture given by Dr. Michael Reeves.
When Goodwin was a student in Cambridge he desired to become a celebrity preacher. To us, this sounds pretty self-serving. But Goodwin said that he desired to do this so that the fame of God would be made known everywhere.
At the age of twenty, Goodwin heard a sermon at a funeral that caused him to question his own salvation. And for the next seven years Goodwin would slide into a long dark season of morbid introspection. He became deeply concerned for his spiritual condition. He began to look in himself for any signs of grace that might prove that he had been saved. He looked to himself to find assurance of his eternal security, but as hard as he tried he could find no hope there.
After seven long years of staring at himself, a pastor friend said to him, “Don’t trust in the feelings inside. Don’t put your trust in internal performance. Look out from yourself and rest on Christ!”
Those words impacted Thomas Goodwin so profoundly that he was freed. He said, “I’ve trusted too much to these signs. These signs of grace in me, are no sure good. No I tell you, Christ is worth all.”
What Thomas Goodwin discovered in that moment is what David speaks of in Psalm 70. David says,
Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me! 2 Let them be put to shame and confusion who seek my life! Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who delight in my hurt! 3 Let them turn back because of their shame who say, “Aha, Aha!”
4 May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!” 5 But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!
Notice that there are three things that David can look upon at this time.
In verses 2-3 he can see the enemies and hear their words.
In verse 5 we see that David could look to himself. But all that he finds in him is his need and poverty.
However, in verse 4 we see that those who seek the Lord will rejoice and be glad in the God who saves.
Finally, when Goodwin looked again to the Lord he experience joy and rejoicing. It was in that moment that he was reminded of his love for Christ and Christ’s love for him.
Throughout all of these years Goodwin had been preaching. Because Goodwin had not looking to the Lord for those seven years, he said he devoted himself, “to battering the consciences” of his listeners. But when Goodwin stopped looking to himself and turned to Jesus Christ, his ministry and preaching changed. He now became a Christ centered preacher. Micahael Reeves said of him, “Now, he would not use his considerable intellectual abilities to patronize people; rather, he would use his abilities to help people.”
Listen carefully to these words of Thomas Goodwin when in his eighties as he laid in bed with a fatal fever and said these words,
“I am now going to the three persons with whom I have had communion. My bow abides in strength. Is Christ divided? No, I have the whole of His righteousness. I am found in Him, not having my own righteousness which is of the law, I have the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ who loved me and gave Himself for me. Christ cannot love me better than He does; and I think I cannot love Christ better than I do. I am swallowed up in God. I shall evermore be with the Lord.”
In one of Goodwin’s sermons entitled, ‘The Heart of Christ In Heaven Towards Sinners in Earth’,
“Many are too carried away with the rudiments and the effects of Christ in the heart, they are not carried away after Christ Himself. The minds of many are so wholly taken up with their own hearts that Christ is scarce in all their thoughts. First, look out from yourselves and look to Christ. The reason we don’t is that we have not grasped well the glory, the love, the concern of Christ. And not knowing how kind He is, so we do not dare look to Him. Instead we imprison ourselves in our guilt and don’t dare go to a Savior. So I have made it my mission to set fourth Christ that others may go to Him.”
Could it not be said of Thomas Goodwin that he is a pastor who had ears to hear what the Spirit was saying to the church? And because he had heard the Spirit he partook of the tree of life and held out that fruit for others to eat too.
The reason that I spent some time talking this morning about Thomas Goodwin is because his testimony gives voice to some tendencies that most of us succumb too:
we may work for the Lord; but neglect worship.
We labor for Christ; but we may drift listlessly from Him.
We may toil for Christ; but in the process we loose our tenderness towards Him.
We may patiently endure for Christ; while we loose our passion and energy for Him.
We may discern truth and make good judgments; but we may come to find that we have drifted from the love of Christ.
We hate the false teachers; but we find that in some way we have abandoned Christ Himself.
We may do all this in the name of Christ; but the relationship with Him has grown cold and distant.
We may defend holiness before men; but concealed in our chest is a heart growing cold towards our first love.
This is what is happening when Jesus addresses the church in Ephesus. They had forsaken their first love.
By ‘first love’ it could mean that they had neglected putting Christ at the center of their lives. Christ had begun to be neglected, abandoned and divorced from the whole of their life. John Owen once said that most men wish that Christ was a house plant that they could put in the corner and not have to water or tend to it. They give this plant little attention but they expect that it will continue to grow and provide them much fruit.
The church of Ephesus was the opposite of what we see in the church of Galatia. Paul was astonished at how quickly the church in Galatia had deserted Christ. (Gal. 1:6) The church of Ephesus, on the other hand, was vigilant, hard working, patiently enduring for Christ’s name; but they were drifting slowly from Him. They were abandoning Him. They were leaving Christ behind and letting Him go. To some degree they had begun to divorce themselves from Him.
Jesus affirmed this church by saying that He knew of their work, toil and patient endurance. But contrast that with the beauty of what Paul says to the church in Thessalonica when he wrote, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2-3)
Of faith, hope and love, which would be dispensable to the church?
Is there one of these things which should not be at the root of our work, our labor or our endurance?
Our faith, hope and love in Christ Jesus must always be present and growing. Since the church in Ephesus had abandoned their first love, Christ addresses it here.
Notice the love and care with which Jesus does this. Some of us may assume that God is more aware of our sins than He is aware of our efforts and attempts. But notice that Jesus’ words here are quite the opposite. Jesus comes and encourages them by saying,
I know your works
I know your toil
I know you cannot bear with those who are evil and you discern between truth and falsehood
I know you are enduring patiently
I know you are bearing up for my names sake and have not grown weary
I know you hate the Nicolatians whom I also hate
We often wonder if Jesus sees our work, toil and our endurance for His names sake and this passage shows us that He does. We can work, toil and labor in life knowing that God sees it all and that He will reward those who work as unto the LORD. (Matthew 6: 2-4, Matthew 6: 16-18, Ephesians 6: 5-8)
If these seven churches are any indication as to the disposition of Christ towards us we know that He is more like a gardener than like an inspector who is out looking for violations. Jesus Christ walks through the churches and sees the good that grace is producing in the people of God. And when He walks among them and sees something that will hurt his people He loves us enough to address it.
In this case, Jesus has this against them – they had abandoned the love they had at first (ESV).
The NASV says, “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”
Or the King James Version says, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.”
Do you remember the story recorded in Nehemiah concerning the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem? When opposition arose concerning this work the people did several necessary things.
They prayed to the Lord (4:9)
they remembered the Lord who is great and awesome (4:14)
they remembered their families and neighbors (4:14)
they labored with one hand and they held their weapon in the other (4:17)
They knew that God would fight for themselves (4:20)
I mention all of this because in the church of Ephesus we see that there was much to do and many to guard against. And as a result of all of this they had slowly become neglectful and perhaps even jaded concerning the truly important things concerning their faith.
Over time they stopped praying to the Lord,
they were failing to live dependent upon the Lord,
they were neglecting to worship the Lord,
they had become so distracted that they failed to remember the Lord,
they treated the work as more important than the family, and the mission as more vital than true ministry,
they forgot to work with one hand and hang on to Christ with the other,
they were failing to appreciate that ultimately it would be God who would be needed to fight for them
Jesus encourages them to do three things to recapture the love that they had lost for Christ: remember, repent and do the works that they did at first.
The church needed to remember from where they had fallen. They needed to remember God according to the Word of God. I began with some verses from Jeremiah 9. Consider this one from Jeremiah 9:13-14, “And the LORD says, ‘Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice or walked in accord with it, but have stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals, as their fathers taught them.”
The Ephesian church was not to continue in the same sin that Israel had done. They were to remember the Lord, obey His voice and walk with Him. They were not to continue to stubbornly follow their own hearts which will lead them far from Christ and into idolatry; but rather, to heed His voice to return to Him.
The church in Ephesus was therefore called to repent.
They had abandoned Christ.
They had left Him behind and
they had divorced themselves from His presence
They are being called to return to Him.
They would do this by doing the things that they had done before.
They were to draw near to Him by the Word of God,
Their hearts were to be moved to Worship by the Spirit of God,
They were to Pray and commune with the Father.
In all ways they were to seek to love the Lord so that they could say like Thomas Goodwin, “I am now going to the three persons with whom I have had communion...Christ cannot love me better than He does; and I think I cannot love Christ better than I do. I am swallowed up in God. I shall evermore be with the Lord.”
My friends, each one of us can obey this command to ‘do what we did in the beginning’. Imagine for a moment that someone in this church had grown old and sickly since they had first loved the Lord. Physically they cannot ‘do what they could at one time’. But they can turn the affections of their heart to admire Christ.
Jesus is not telling us to work harder and to toil more. He is telling us to draw near with our hearts. Though our outward bodies are wasting away our spirits are growing stronger day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Where do we start? Let us start today with taking the Lord’s Supper together as a church. We have heard the Word of God. We will seek to respond: by Remembering, by Repenting and by Doing the works we did at the first.
Guided in all our works by God’s Word,
Faithfully partaking in the Grace of God in our communion with the Trinity,
Growing in our fellowship with the LORD through prayer,
Our hearts will be filled with Gratitude in being Grafted into Christ and His church.
Let us come to the cross of Christ and remember the tree that gives us life and the Savior who has given Himself for us so that we might have eternal life.
As we look to Christ in communion I would like for you to consider one thing. The church in Ephesus had quite an impressive history within the early church. The apostle Paul traveled to Ephesus three times and on his second visit he remained there three whole years. When he left he left Timothy, his spiritual son as the pastor. Priscilla, Aquila and Apollos all ministered in Ephesus. The apostle John and Jesus’ mother, Mary, also lived at one time in Ephesus.
Perhaps by now all of these great figures in early church history are gone. But the problem with the church now is not that they have stopped looking at these giants in church history, but that they stopped looking to Christ. Jesus does not tell them that they need to remember John, Mary, Paul, Priscilla and Aquila or Apollos. Rather, they need to remember Christ.
People come and go in the church. Generations have passed and new ones arrive upon the scene. We are all commanded to look to Christ. Let us not fail to do that today as we take communion.