At the foundation of every healthy relationship is the assumption of love.
And there is nothing quite like the feeling of being in love.
When you’re in love, time seems to stand still
and the world around you disappears into the background.
When you’re in love, all you can think about, all you want to talk about,
is the objection of your affection.
When you’re in love,
you’ll tell anyone who will listen about your relationship.
When you’re in love,
you look forward to being together with that special someone
and you struggle – as if a piece of you is missing – when you are apart.
Despite the chorus of that classic rock song,
love is typically associated with nothing more than a feeling.
Love is generally perceived as not being grounded
in anything outside of one’s emotions.
And so we talk of loving someone
until we don’t feel any love for them anymore.
As the flame of desire begins to flicker,
as the initial excitement and joy in the relationship starts to wane,
and what was once a consistent, burning passion gradually dims,
we speak of falling out of love.
But is true love based on how we feel at any given moment
or is true love based on something more?
As we continue our series on the first three chapters of
the Book of Revelation, love is the theme of the day.
Jesus through the apostle John has a word
for the church at Ephesus about love – specifically their love for Him.
Through this letter to the Ephesians,
we are going to be reminded of what true love is
– that the foundation of every healthy relationship is more than the assumption of love but rather is build upon our devotion to our first love
– the love we have, the love we give back,
and the love we share thanks to Jesus Christ. (TEXT)
For the past two weeks, we have been orienting ourselves to this singular, cosmic vision Jesus first gave to the apostle John – a revelation
that by Christ’s design intended for all generations of the Church.
The perspective we offered by Jesus through John is not
a linear view of the progression of human history until the end of the world.
It is rather a non-linear glimpse behind the veil of eternity;
it is a spectacular and at times, mystifying picture of how
as it is in heaven is inbreaking into earth
– of how the inevitable and absolute future reign
of the Kingdom of God is already penetrating into the present.
And the overarching message by way of this point of view
is that things are not what they seem.
Despite the way things look to us on earth at any given moment in time,
the eternal reality that Christ has overcome all that ultimately threatens us – sin, evil, and even death itself – remains unchanged.
What we are witnessing is not a death
– the world going to hell in a handbasket.
In all the chaos, pain, and suffering
since the day of Christ’s Resurrection until the day of Jesus’ return,
what we are experiencing is the ongoing pangs of a new birth
– the gradual, laborious transformation of the human condition
and the groans of creation’s redemption.
All the forces that continue to oppose God in Christ
are fighting a losing battle.
They have been, continue to be, and in the end, will be eclipsed
by a grace that is greater than sin, a hope that is more powerful than evil,
a love that is stronger than death.
This is a message for the Church for all time
but it was a particularly needed word for the first generations of Christians
– followers of Jesus who were facing continued alienation and great persecution for living out of the faith of the Gospel.
And so Christ begins this epic vision with seven letters for seven churches – seven actual, physical congregations in existence when John recorded these words.
Located on the west side of Asia Minor in what is now known as
the nation of Turkey, these seven churches formed a “V” pattern
that started on the coast of the Aegean Sea
and progressively moved further inland.
INSERT ASIA MINOR MAP
There were many other churches in the province of Asia at the time
– a few of them were even more well known than some of
the seven churches Jesus addresses in these letters.
But these seven were specifically chosen because
they represent and reflect both strengths and growth edges
of the Church through our entire history – from our beginning to our end.
As the light of Christ shines on each church, Jesus reveals all truth
– the truth of the life and witness of each congregation
– of who they are becoming as works in progress
– of where they leaning into and abiding in Christ,
and where they have become disoriented from Jesus
– where they have fallen back into the habit of going their own way
rather than following Christ.
The contents of this first letter establish the pattern for the other six.
With each evaluation, Jesus begins with an affirmation of the church,
then moves to a diagnosis of a particular problem, and always closes with a prescription for the church’s recovery that includes a promise of healing.
The first letter that we are considering today
was written to the church in the city of Ephesus.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.”
If we were to look at a map,
the Ephesian church was the first on the postal route.
INSERT EPHESUS MAP
More than this, the Ephesian church was
the largest and most prominent of the seven churches.
Part of the reason for this is because Ephesus was
one of the oldest and largest cities in Asia Minor.
Located on the mouth of the Cayster River,
three miles from the Aegean Sea, Ephesus was a major harbor city.
Caravan routes from cities in the north, south, and east
converged in Ephesus, making it a leading center of
commerce, wealth, culture, and learning.
As the capital of the province of Asia Minor in the Roman Empire,
boasting a population that fluctuated between 250,000 to 500,000 people, this is the city in which the church of Ephesus existed.
Beyond the impressive city in which it was located,
the Ephesian church was important in its own right
during the early days of Christianity.
After an initially unsuccessful attempt to visit the province of Asia,
the apostle Paul finally made a brief visit to Ephesus
on the return trip of his 2nd missionary journey.
Eventually, Paul returned to Ephesus
and ministered there for nearly three years.
After a fruitful and but not uneventful time of
both corporate and individual sharing of the Gospel,
Paul departed Ephesus putting his protege, Timothy, in charge
to oversee and guard the continuing growth of the church in Ephesus.
Tradition holds that John – the transcriber of this Revelation of Jesus Christ – eventually replaced Timothy as the leader of the Ephesian church
near the end of the 1st century.
The other six churches to whom Jesus writes were founded by
the church in Ephesus and John initially ministered to those churches from there until he was exiled to the island of Patmos.
It is to this community of faith living in this sprawling, urban city that
Jesus begins his first letter by giving them a glowing commendation.
Jesus commends three specific virtues on the part of the Ephesians.
First, they are affirmed for their deeds – their hard work.
“I know your deeds, your hard work…” -Revelation 2:2
In other words, the Ephesian church was an active congregation.
It was a community of Christians who kept busy performing
regular, daily acts of service to those in need.
Second, they are affirmed for their perseverance
– particularly for enduring in the face of hardship.
“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance…You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” – Revelation 2:2-3
Living in one of the great cities devoted to the cult of the Roman emperor that also served as a spiritual hub for the worship of the Greek deity, Artemis, otherwise known in Rome as Diana, the mother goddess of Asia, the Ephesian church refused to participate and practice
both the civil and local religion of the neighborhood.
More than this, Christians living in Ephesus also would have
through their preaching, teaching, and witness, been encouraging
their neighbors and fellow citizens to believe and follow Jesus Christ
as the one true God.
And as a result of both of these actions,
the Ephesian Christians paid a heavy price.
They lost customers for any of the goods and services
they offered to make a living as well as were denied
service and goods from others who refused to sell or trade with them.
All because the Ephesian Christians were not willing to be patriotic,
would not give Artemis/Diana her due.
And yet, despite all this – the physical abuse and social ostracism
that came with living out of their faith in Jesus, the Ephesians endured.
They did not bend or break before the pressure they faced
of when in Rome to do as the Romans do.
Thirdly, Jesus affirms their discernment and diligence
in defending the faith.
“I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people,
that you have tested those who claim to be apostles
but are not, and have found them false.” – Revelation 2:2
Apparently, there were itinerant teachers and philosophers
who asserted themselves within the Christian community at Ephesus
as self-proclaimed apostles and would-be prophets of Christ.
Specific reference is made to a group called the Nicolaitans.
“But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” -Revelation 2:6
We don’t know much about these Nicolaitans.
We consider more about them when they are mentioned again
in Jesus’ letter to the church in Pergamum.
The point, for now, is the Ephesians didn’t believe everything they heard. They didn’t accept whatever they were taught at face value.
Jesus commends them for being a community that listened
– that gave an honest hearing – and tested what was being taught
against the word of God through praying in the Spirit.
And whatever did not line up with the content of the Word
and the guidance of the Spirit – whatever was found to be false
– they had no part of.
I don’t know about you but Jesus’ initial evaluation of the Ephesian church seems pretty darn impressive to me.
Actively and busily serving others.
Continued perseverance in the face of obstacles and afflictions.
Consistent testing and discernment of any & all information and teaching.
It sounds like the Ephesians are doing everything right.
What could possibly be wrong?
Jesus, moving from affirmation to concern, focuses on
one crucial area of concern where the Ephesians have missed the mark:
“Yet I hold this against you:
You have forsaken the love you had at first.” -Revelation 2:4
What does this mean?
Initially, we might perceive the Ephesians are
being called out for losing their love for Christ.
But this doesn’t line up with how Jesus previously has
described and affirmed them.
They are vigilant about not giving their heart to other gods.
They are concerned about maintaining
the proper worship of God in Christ.
They are working hard to serve others in the name of Jesus
even as they are carefully discerning any teaching or influences
that might lead them astray from the truth of the Gospel.
All of this seems indicative of a love – perhaps not true love
– but an attempt at some expression of love for Christ.
The point is not that the Ephesians fell out of love with Jesus.
It is not that this church once possessed an emotional passion
for Christ and then lost it somehow.
The love that Jesus invokes here is not an emotion.
Instead, the love Jesus invokes here is about action.
Notice how Jesus goes on to stress the Ephesians
need to start doing the things they did at first.
“Repent and do the things you did at first.” -Revelation 2:5
What the Ephesians have stopped doing is loving one another.
What the Ephesians have forsaken is acting out of love towards others.
In other words, in all their hard work to do good for others,
the Ephesians have lost sight of being good
– kind, compassionate, and merciful – toward others.
In all their zeal for moral purity – in not worshipping false gods and opposing false teaching – they have lost sight of the centrality of love.
The Ephesians are unrelenting in speaking and representing
the truth but they are doing so without love.
Endurance in the face of opposition has become
hardness of heart toward one’s enemies
rather than a humble heart of forgiveness and mercy.
Honest discernment before the rival claims of truth by others
has turned into a bitter, judgmental spirit rather than
a spirit of charity and peace.
It cannot be understated how crucial it is
we understand what is going on here.
The Ephesians, more than likely,
were shocked and perhaps even a little offended by this rebuke by Jesus.
In their estimation,
everything they were doing was out of their love for Christ.
But the mistake the Ephesians were making
– a common mistake still within the Church today –
is failing to recognize our love for God and our love for others
– our fellow human beings – are inseparably connected.
Jesus previously made this clear when he summarized
the entirety of the Law – God rules for all life – as coming down to
our absolute love of God – in all phases of our being –
as expressed through loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” -Matthew 22:37-40
Because of our brokenness in our love for God
– our rejection and rebellion against His love for us –
our capacity to love ourselves along with our neighbor is also broken.
Our love apart from God is conditional, fickle, and fluctuating.
Our love apart from God is based upon our feelings
because the love we seek apart from God is
based on our own self-interest.
Apart from God, we love conditionally – we love in order to gain.
We love in order to feel secure and complete.
And we fall in and out of love based on whether or not we are feeling secure, whether we are satisfied, whether we are gaining something.
The love we need – the love that is true – the love that will truly make us secure and complete – the love where we gain all that ultimately desire
– a sense of identity, acceptance, purpose, accountability, protection,
and destiny – is the love we cannot earn or achieve or woo by ourselves.
It is the love we are given unconditionally – despite our flaws,
despite our failures, despite our – at times – just plain wrongful behavior.
It is the love we are given freely by God who comes down to us in Christ
in order to willingly bear the burden of brokenness that humanity carries,
in order to sacrificially face the death we deserve,
in order to both heal and conquer every obstacle before us
in allowing ourselves to be truly loved and to truly love each other.
When we receive God’s love expressed through Christ,
we love out of the fullness and assurance of God’s love for us
– we can and should love others as Jesus loves us.
John elaborates on this in his first letter to the church
– written long before he ever received this revelation from Jesus.
Back then, John made it plain.
“We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” -1 John 2:3-6
Once we receive the security of God’s unconditional love for us,
We reflect that same love back to God
through loving others unconditionally – not withholding forgiveness
and being willing to serve the needs of others
– not after we’ve taken care of ourselves
but serving others out of the care
that we acknowledge we receive from God.
John pulls no punches in that letter when he basically declares,
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” – 1 John 3:16-18
if we have no love to give to others in the name of Jesus
then the truth is we’ve never truly embraced the love Jesus has for us.
And now, here in this letter, Jesus is repeating the same message.
Let us pay careful attention to the warning
Jesus gives the Ephesian church as he speaks of
removing their lampstand from its place.
“If you do not repent, I will come to you
and remove your lampstand from its place.” -Revelation 2:5
This is less of an eschatological threat
and more of an inevitable consequence.
The symbol of the lampstand
was a representation of our role as the Church in the world.
It goes all the way back to when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and told us that as his followers, as the Church,
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
We exist as the Church to shine – not to reflect our own brilliance or prosperity – but to radiate the glorious light of Christ’s love for the world.
When love – the love of Jesus we are given, the love of Christ we are called to share – when love is not the foundation of all we say and do
– the basis of evangelism, our discipleship, and our service,
we cease to be the Church, the Body of Christ.
There is no lampstand because there is no light.
For there is no light of Jesus without the love of Christ.
We can be busy doing lots of good things
– even serving others – and yet still not be loving in our motivation and intent or in our expression and practice that service.
We can endure suffering and hardship but still do so without any love – holding grudges, keeping score, seeking vengeance.
We can exercise discernment and hold fast to the truth
and all the while be denying love through the passing of judgment,
the self-satisfied condemnation of others, or getting our pound of flesh.
True love is the first and foundational mark of the Church
– love for Christ and love for all of God’s children.
As the apostle Paul stresses in 1 Corinthians 13,
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
– 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
any act – no matter how well-intentioned or well-performed –
without love is meaningless and inadequate. It is vain and self-centered.
If it is loveless, it is lifeless.
Work without the love of Christ behind it,
is awful – it leads to burnout.
Endurance without the love of Christ driving it,
is exhausting – it leads to bitterness.
Speaking the truth without the love of Christ
is both hypocritical and hurtful – it is not life-giving but life-taking.
Without the love of the Father that is ours thanks to Jesus,
we will become the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son
who argues he has done his duty but has no love for his brother
– who claims to be owed everything while at the same time
refusing to accept what he has been given and all that he can possess thanks to His Father – if only he receives it and shares it in love.
Much like in the story of the parable,
Jesus in this letter begins his prescription
to the problem in Ephesus with a call to come home.
“Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” – Revelation 2:5
“Consider how far you have fallen!” is not a rebuke
but a prompt by Jesus for the Ephesians to remember
where they have been – where their lives were before Jesus
and how far they had come – all they had received from Jesus
– how they had grown and matured in Christ when they followed Him
– when they loved others like Jesus loved them.
In our relationship with Jesus, do we ever consider,
do we ever ask ourselves, “What would our lives be like without him?”
Dare we even imagine what our lives would look like,
if God didn’t love us in Christ?
Ponder for a moment if Jesus hadn’t died for us,
hadn’t risen from the grave, hadn’t given us His Spirit?
When we actually stop and reflect on the limitless heights of eternal glory
we have been given – that are ours today thanks to Christ,
we may find ourselves wondering why we are lowering ourselves,
settling for less, cheapening grace, and squandering the opportunity before us to love and be loved so well – so perfectly, so unconditionally.
By the way, that’s one of the reasons I believe
Jesus gave us the sacrament of Holy Communion.
That’s why every Sunday we come to the table that Christ sets before us.
The bread broken for us, the blood spilled for us
— it’s a ritual, a discipline not only of remembrance
but of being reoriented, recentered to love Jesus offers us,
to the caliber of love, Jesus calls us to shares with each other.
Jesus continues in his prescription by calling us
to not only reorientation but repentance.
“Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” – Revelation 2:5
Jesus calls us to change direction – to turn around and stop going the wrong way – the way that is apart from Him.
Jesus is calling us to repent doesn’t call for us
to wallow in guilt and shame – to continually shed tears,
repeatedly beat ourselves up, and just feel bad.
Jesus calls us to change direction – to be lifted – to be raised up
– to be resurrected like Lazarus and to once again to live out of His love rather than to remain trapped behind the cold, darkness of
simply dying for the sake of duty.
When we realize how far we’ve fallen,
we either can bemoan where we are
and simply adjust to where we find ourselves
– wistfully recalling the good old days – what once was
– but to remain on the ground is to reject the hand Jesus offers us.
For the repentance, the Gospel demands is not
that we have to pick ourselves up and find our way to God.
The good news is that God in Christ comes to us – finds us –
and picks us up when we’ve fallen and can’t help ourselves.
Repentance begins by taking the hand of Jesus
and by the grace of God, get up and walk in a new direction.
The final direction Jesus gives in his prescription to the Ephesians is:
“Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” – Revelation 2:5
Jesus, once again, is not telling us to fix or change ourselves.
When change is up to us, our tendency is to wait
until we feel ready to change until we believe we are capable of change.
When change is up to us – solely our will and our effort
– change will start, stutter, and stop – until we believe we can’t change.
Jesus is beckoning the Ephesians and us
– to yield, to submit to being healed,
to continually being changed – transformed – by Him.
When Jesus calls us to do the things we did at first
– ultimately it always comes back to one thing.
It’s the same one thing that Jesus communicated to Peter
in front of John long ago in front of the warm of an early morning fire
on the beach and a breakfast of some broiled fish.
In seeking to lift Peter back up after having rejected Christ three times and helping him to repent – to go back to the things Peter was doing at first, Jesus looked at Peter and asked three times, “Do you love me?”
Three times, Peter declared his love for Jesus, and each time,
Jesus directed Peter in terms of the one thing to do
– to convey that love he had for Jesus – “Feed, take care, of my sheep.”
In professing our love for Jesus we are called to follow Jesus.
Following Jesus is the first thing, the one thing
– the only thing we need to do.
Because if we follow Jesus, then we will love others
– we will do what Christ models, what Christ directs,
what Christ empowers us to do – feed and care for His sheep
– to compassionately, justly, and humbly serve each other.
The way of Christ can become to us something to be
studied rather than a trajectory to follow,
the only way to live, and a direction to which we point
and teach others about – not just through our words
but our actions.
The truth of Christ can become to us something we fiercely defend
even as we violate the essence of the truth of Christ
by thoughtlessly and carelessly wounding or worse, killing another person.
The life of Christ – the Christian life, life in the Church,
can become all duty and no delight – just going through the motions
– adopting the rituals – adhering to the superstition of a religion
rather than experiencing, abiding, and enjoying Jesus as a person
– a person who loves us like no one else can and
who seeks to love through us in a manner we never will on our own.
The church in Ephesus began to focus on
the struggles of this life, this world, rather than staying centered on Jesus.
They focused on what they thought they should confront
and what they needed to defend rather than following Christ.
Slowly, the duty of religious actions replaced love.
Gradually, gate-keeping and wall-building eclipsed love.
And eventually, all their hard work
– all the good they might have been doing – amounted to nothing –
because the love of Christ was no longer behind any of their efforts.
The question for me that this letter to the Ephesians
causes me to ask is “Where is the love?”
Where is the love of Christ in the Church these days?
Where is our love for Christ being reflected in our love
towards each other?
Nothing is more tragic, more heartbreaking,
and frankly, more life-sucking than a house divided
– a family at odds with each other.
It’s not attractive. It’s not edifying.
And yet that’s what much of the Church looks like today.
I’m not talking about agreeing to disagree.
Living out of the love of Jesus, there is more than enough room
for diversity within the Body of Christ – to agree to disagree.
What I’m talking about is being disagreeable in our disagreements
– the global pandemic of polarization infecting
not only this country but our broader world.
Loving each other like Jesus loves us does not give us
any excuse or justification for going to war with our kin
– over their politics, age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or religion.
Loving each other like Jesus loves us demands
that we refuse to take up arms to divide and conquer each other
but instead, unreservedly commit to being peacemakers
– to listen, to learn, and seek common ground
not only our brothers and sisters in the faith
– but our fellow human beings who have been fearfully and wonderfully created in the image of God like us.
While there is such thing as setting
appropriate, healthy boundaries in relationships,
it is something entirely else to cancel or cut ourselves off from each other.
Loving each other like Jesus loves us does not allow us
any margin, any basis for speaking and acting like the other person – whoever they are – is dead to you, doesn’t exist, isn’t worth acknowledging.
Loving each other like Jesus loves us requires us
not to punish or to condemn, not to seek revenge or to kill,
but instead to forgive even if we can’t forget,
to allow time and space for reconciliation,
and to promote rather than to get in the way of grace and healing
– the grace and healing we all need
– the grace and healing that is all ours thanks to Christ.
To love each other like Jesus loves us means
our conversations and our actions need to move away
from a continual dichotomy – an either/or, us/them perspective
– and towards the more awkward, laborious,
but ultimately worthwhile view of a continuum
or spectrum of points of view.
Graciousness and civility are required in the midst of
both serious disagreements and wounds of the past.
Loving each other like Jesus loves us is realizing
Jesus loved us while we were yet sinners,
that Jesus continues to love us while we remain
imperfect works in progress, that Jesus keeps loving us
even as we continue to stumble and fall on our way
to being made perfect by the grace of God
– and therefore, we can and we must go and do likewise
– to love others like that – forgivingly, patiently, and unconditionally.
Loving each other like Jesus loves us is accepting that
what we believe matters but whatever we believe doesn’t matter more than embodying the love of God in our relationships with each other.
Loving each other like Jesus loves us is understanding that
we will stand before the Lord less on the basis of our doctrine
– what we professed to believe
– and more on the character of our love toward others
– our stewardship of the grace we received from Jesus.
Jesus closes this letter to the Ephesians with a promise for them – a promise for us all: “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
In other words, all the love and peace – the shalom originally lost to humanity in the Garden of Eden because of our rebellion against God
that then separated us from each other – will become ours once again.
The reward of loving others like Jesus loves us is
the reward of more love – the love that overcomes all things,
the love always protects, always trusts, always hopes,
always perseveres and never fails
– the love makes us together more than conquerors
– the love that death itself cannot hold.
The reward of loving others like Jesus loves us is
an ever-deepening and widening experience of the love
that God has for us – of knowing less in part as we come to know fully, even as we are fully known.
Thanks be to God!