Last week I introduced an eight week series of messages based on the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor that are found in Revelation 2-3. Each week, for the next seven weeks, we are going to look at one of these letters and see what they say to the church today.
For me, this is one of the most fascinating parts of the Bible, especially today, because Revelation, at its core, is a Jesus message to the church about how to overcome in times of hardship and persecution. It’s a reminder to us that the pandemic that we now face is not the first time that the church has gone through hard times. It has always overcome when it has remained faithful to its mission and to God’s word.
As we look at each of these letters, I want us to remember two things. First of all, these are not John’s words. John may have written Revelation but he was on the scribe. These are Jesus’ words to his churches. They are his words to us about how God calls and equips us to overcome.
The second thing is this. While some of the imagery of Revelation may be confusing to us, it was crystal clear to the people to whom it was first written. They understood the images immediately. Our challenge is to unpack these images so that we can understand Revelation the way that they did and, only when we have done that, can we understand what it means for us today.
The final thing I want to say is that these letters each follow a particular pattern. Each begins by saying something about the author, Jesus. Then there is a commendation, something that the church does well. That is followed by a condemnation, something that the church is doing wrong. Then Jesus shares a concern and finally a promise. This pattern is repeated over and over again to each of the churches.
The year is about 95 A.D. Let’s hop aboard the mail ship as it makes its way across the Aegean Sea from the island of Patmos to the nearest port of call which is the city of Ephesus which is the financial centre of the ancient Roman world. It is here that the letter carrier will deliver the first letter. If you want to follow along, it is found in Revelation 2:1-7 (NIV).
SEVEN STARS & SEVEN LAMPSTANDS
To the angel of the church in Ephasus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. (v. 1)
The ‘him’ of course is Jesus. These are his words and these are his letters which John is writing down but what’s with the seven stars and the seven golden lampstands? Jesus tells us in Revelation 1:20. The seven stars are the seven angels of the churches to which he is writing and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Angels in this context means the guardian angels of the seven churches. These are the angels that are responsible for maintaining godly order in the churches. They are charged with urging and prodding the people of God to share the Good News and to be the church that God created them to be.
The seven lampstands are the seven churches. This speaks of the function of the Church which is to bring light to a dark and lonely world. Christ’s churches are his light-bearers. The Church’s light, however, does not originate in the Church. As the moon reflects the light of the sun, so does the Church reflect the light of Christ. He is the source of light. He is centre of hope and life and peace. All we can do is reflect who he is and shine his love.
But there is something more here. Jesus says that he holds the seven stars in his right hand. He holds the angels. He inspires the angels. He gives power to the angels. The holding, however, is not an act of power. It is an act of love.
Not only does Jesus hold the angels, he walks among the seven lampstands. He walks among the churches. He is present. He is with the seven churches in Asia Minor during their time of persecution. And he is with us now. In his presence, we find comfort and strength to face whatever the future holds. We are not alone. We live in God’s world.
“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. 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. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary” (v. 2-3)
In verse 2-3, Jesus commends the Church in Ephesus. He points to three virtues of this body of believers. The first thing he mentions is their hard work. Jesus is not only present, he is also aware of what was going on around him. He is deeply interested in the work of the Church. Ephesus is a church with active programmes to help those in need. They share the Good News. They are doing the work of Christ. That is great stuff.
The next virtue that Jesus mentions is the church’s perseverance. Remember that this is a time of great persecution. The Church is being persecuted because the Christians refused to bow down and worship the emperor because they know that there is only one person worthy of their worship and that is Jesus. And so the Ephesians hold fast. They persevere.
The final virtue to which Jesus points is their orthodoxy. They simply will not tolerate the false apostles who are among them trying to lead them astray. The Christians in Ephesus are not taken in by these false prophets. They insist on believing the right things. This is orthodoxy, the true gospel. This certainly rings true today when many churches have watered down the gospel of Jesus Christ to make it palatable. Jesus warns us not to do that. We are to remain true to the faith that Jesus shared.
“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the heights from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (v. 4-6)
This, for me, is where we get to the heart of the matter. Jesus shares his concern for the church in Ephesus. He says that they have forsaken their first love. What does that mean? Who is their first love? Better yet, who is our first love? It could only be one person and that is Jesus. Surely, they love him. Their deeds, their perseverance and their orthodoxy points to a church full of love. But as so often happens in Revelation, things are not as they seem. While they still loved Jesus in a sense, they had lost their passion. They had lost the love for him that they first had.
Do you remember your first love? Do you remember the first time you realized that you were in love? Do you remember how it felt? You couldn’t wait to be with that person because apart from them life seemed incomplete. You waited by the phone just hoping that he would call and you could hear his voice. When you touched her hand, just the slightest brush, your whole body tingled. Do you remember how intoxicating that was, how enlivening, how refreshing and urgent?
That was the first love that the Ephesians once had for Jesus. But they have lost it. It probably didn’t happen all at once. It probably happened over a long period of time. Imperceptibly and quietly they drifted away. Sure they still do and believe everything they are supposed to but the passion is gone. The urgency is gone. Their love has become ordinary and stale. They have begun to take Jesus for granted.
Jesus, however, will not be taken for granted. He wants the passion back in their relationship. He wants them to want him urgently, not just as a deity to be worshiped on Sunday but to be part of every aspect and moment of their lives. That is what Jesus wants from them and that is what he wants from us. How many of us are guilty of losing our first love for Jesus? How many of us worship him on Sunday and then promptly forget about him during the rest of the week. We try to do things in own way with our own strength and forget that Jesus wants to live with us and walk with us. He wants us to renew that first intoxicating love for him.
Jesus tells the Ephesians what he has against them but then he also tells them that there are three things that they can do to remedy the problem. The first thing is to remember what their love used to be like. “Remember the height from which you have fallen,” he tells them. He isn’t telling them to live in the past but he is telling them to remember it. Why? Because remembering is often the first step along the road of repentance.
That’s the second thing that Jesus tells them to do. He calls them to repent which means to change direction. Note that he is not trying to lay a guilt trip on them. He is not trying to make them feel badly. He is asking them to get back in the game. He is simply calling the Ephesians to return to the faithfulness that they once had, to reaffirm what wass good about the past and to reject what has become stale and bland.
The third thing that Jesus calls them to do is actually to make the change. “Do the things you did at first,” he tells them. This is where Christians often miss the boat. They know what they have done wrong, they repent of their sins but they go back and do the same wrong thing over and over again. What Jesus tells us is that words are not enough. True repentance means a change in behaviour. It means returning to the kind of first love faithfulness that Jesus demanded of the early Church.
Jesus then gives a solemn warning if the congregation fails to repent and change. He says that he will come and remove their lampstand from its place. Simply put, Jesus tells them that if they don’t want to live according to his will, he will remove his light from them. He doesn’t say that he will do it forever. What he means is that if they want to do things on their own, they can give it a try. But why would anyone in their right mind chose to walk in darkness when the light of Christ is there for the asking?
This is a stark reminder that if we want Jesus to shine his light on us, we must be willing to do our part to keep the covenant. No church has a secure and permanent place in the world. Every church is continuously on trial. Jesus continues to demand our faithfulness. We dare not become complacent for, if we do, we risk losing his light. We must always strive to keep the first love strong and fresh in our hearts.
A FINAL PROMISE
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (v. 7)
Each of the seven letters ends with a promise to those who overcome and obey. The promise in this letter is that those who overcome will be given the right to eat from the tree of life.
It’s interesting that this promise offers free access to the very tree that was previously forbidden to humanity in Genesis 3:22 when Adam and Eve were driven from the garden of Eden. But now, it is freely there for those who overcome.
This, of course, is God’s promise of eternal life. This eternal life is to know God’s love, that first love, both in this life on earth and eternally in heaven. The reward for renewing our first love is to be swallowed up in everlasting love in the kingdom of heaven. That is God’s promise to all who continue in that first undying love.
He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit continues to say to the churches.
Next week, we will travel with the letter carrier as he makes his way to the city of Smyrna.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Loving God, we come as children seeking the pure spiritual milk that only you can offer. We come from our busyness and the stresses of everyday life to find refreshment for our spirits. You, O God, offer us what we can find nowhere else. You nourish us and nurture us. You give us peace and security. You protect us from the powers that would harm us. You lift us above the difficulties of life and enable us to deal with whatever is thrown our way. Thank you for staying with us. Thank you for walking beside us and never leaving us alone. Even when we forget about you, you do not forget about us. How great and awesome you are.
We offer our thanks for the coming spring. It’s been wet but pray for some drier weather that the farmers may get onto their land to get the seeding done. We also pray for the bees that pollinate our fruit trees in the various orchards in the county. We pray even now for a good harvest this fall, thankful that you hear our prayers.
We lift up in prayer the continuing struggle against the current pandemic and as we seek to reopen the economy. We pray for wisdom on the part of our elected officials. We also pray for reasonable behaviour from people who are starting to get back to some sort of semblance of normal living. May we do things that keep each other safe.
We thank you for front line workers and their families. And we pray for those who are sick this week with whatever illness or condition they may have. Bless them with healing and wholeness. Be with their families and calm their fears. Soothe their anxieties and give them the peace that only you can offer.
God of Heaven and Earth, hear our prayers and the prayers of all those who, in faith, seek you. Feed our hungry souls and lead us onto your path of peace. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
May 24, 2020 / Easter 6
Psalm 66:8-20; John 14:15-21; Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22
CALL TO WORSHIP
Praise the Lord! Praise God in the Temple!
Praise the Lord! Praise his strength in heaven!
Praise the Lord! Praise the mighty things of God!
Praise the Lord! Praise his supreme greatness!
Praise the Lord! Praise God with harps and drums, flutes and cymbals.
May all living creatures praise the Lord!
PRAYER OF APPROACH
The earth rejoices and the heavens declare your greatness. The hills sing and the valleys cry out in gladness. The sea is yours for you made it. Your hands prepared the dry ground. You have opened to us your Holy Kingdom. You have made us citizens of your Heavenly Realm. Come to us now, Lord Jesus. Fill us anew with your Spirit as we worship and lift our lives in praise and thanksgiving.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
You, O God, have created the mountains heights and the depths of oceans. You have strung the stars together and caused the planets to spin our their axis. Yet, like Thomas, we doubt. We ask for proof of your existence. We want evidence that your love for us is real. We demand that which we should already know by faith. Forgive us, God of Mercy, for our untrusting hearts. Help us to come, in faith, to your table with the gifts of assurance and grace.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
When we doubt, Jesus comes to us and assures us of God’s love. When we mourn, Jesus comes to us, offering the soothing balm of God’s touch. When we repent and confess our sins, God forgives, forgets and brings healing to our brokenness.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
Creation rejoices in the works of your hands. We, your people, praise you for the goodness of your abundance for us. We give, now, a portion of your gifts to the work of your Church. Bless these gifts and each giver, in Jesus’ name.
Praise the Lord, all you people. Praise God in your comings and in your going. Praise God in the waking and in your sleeping. Praise God in your sorrow and in your joy. Praise God in your shouting and in your silence.