READ : Revelation 2:1-7
It’s always a sad thing when love dies – when people fall out of love instead of into it. How much worse when that’s love for the Lord Jesus?
I’ve looked forward to this with a lot of excitement and pleasure, sharing the good news again on Words of HOPE. For these next seven broadcasts, Lord willing, I’ll be preaching from Revelation chapters 2 and 3, thinking with you about letters from the risen Jesus to seven first-century churches in what is now the country of Turkey – letters that are also to us.
JOHN: EXILED ON PATMOS
You may remember how these came to be written. The Apostle John, who was called “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” was a prisoner in exile on Patmos. This is a small mountainous island in the Aegean Sea, about 40 nautical miles from the Turkish port of Kusadasi, near the ancient site of Ephesus. Imperial Rome was apparently threatened by John’s powerful witness to the lordship of Christ and his growing influence. They decided to arrest him and send him to their penal colony on Patmos, hoping by that to put an end to his troublesome ministry.
Imagine what this was for John to be cut off from loved ones, friends, brothers and sisters in the Lord, from the congregations he had loved and shepherded! It must have seemed like it really was the end of his life and ministry. But then something marvelous happened.
John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day and saw Jesus in his risen glory and majesty. The apostle was overwhelmed and fell down as though dead. But Jesus reached out and touched him, encouraged his heart and gave him a ministry beyond his wildest dreams. He would send the word of Jesus not only to seven churches in Asia Minor, but also to the whole church, for all the ages to come. He would write what we call the Revelation, the last book of the Bible.
“Do not be afraid,” said the Lord. “I am the first and the last and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever, and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen . . . and send it to the seven churches.
THE CHURCH AT EPHESUS
The first of these letters from the Lord is to the congregation in Ephesus. Have you ever been to the site of ancient Ephesus, near the Turkish city of Kusadasi? I have, on several occasions, and that experience, friends, is unforgettable. It’s without question the most amazing archaeological restoration anywhere on earth. You walk there on huge marble pavement stones – the very ones on which John, Luke and Paul once walked. You gaze across the space where there was a giant market, marvel at an ornate library. You sit down in a huge amphitheater where crowds once screamed for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” You amble down the wide thoroughfare that once led to a great harbor. Ancient Ephesus, grandest city in the province of Asia – you are there!
If you can imagine someone coming to the mainland from Patmos, Ephesus would be his first stop. Then, in a kind of rough circle, the messenger would go on to Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and finally Laodicea. At each church, the believers would probably hear all seven of these letters – their own and also the other six.
Imagine now that you’re in the congregation in Ephesus on the day when this letter first arrives. Either John brings it after his release from Patmos (tradition tells us that he did get back to Ephesus eventually) or some courier finds a way to deliver it.
This message now is from John, or rather from Jesus through John. Listen:
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.”
The seven stars, we learn, are the messengers of the seven churches, the leaders, the pastors. Jesus holds them in his hand. They are his. He walks among the seven golden lampstands. Those are the seven congregations. The risen Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit, walks among his people, right where they are.
The first words these Ephesians hear are quite encouraging
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers. You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false.
The Lord knows about what they’ve done—how hard they’ve worked, how patiently they’ve hung in there. He knows that they can’t stomach evil. They have checked out false prophets and pretenders, exposing them for the frauds they are. These people in Ephesus care about church discipline and purity, and the Lord sees that. Jesus knows also that they have gone through hard times without growing weary. They’ve shown considerable strength and loyalty.
I can picture here the members of that congregation exchanging smiles, feeling pretty good about themselves. They’re a good-sized church, and they’re orthodox and faithful. It’s encouraging to know that the Lord recognizes all that.
But suddenly, the atmosphere in the room changes. Next comes: “I have this against you” (v. 4). At that everyone is sobered, maybe shocked. Can it be? Jesus has something against us. What could that be? Here it is: “You have abandoned the love you had at first.”
That love they once had for Christ and his kingdom, and for each other—they’ve somehow left it behind. It’s not there any more. They haven’t thrown over the faith; they’re still functioning, after a fashion at least. But somewhere along the line they’ve let their first, ardent love dwindle down and die.
It’s not simply a matter of warm feelings here. They’re not living as they had lived before, not doing what they once did. They’ve moved away from some important disciplines, some vital expressions of love for Christ and for others. By slow degrees, perhaps, they’ve grown cold in devotion and compassion. They’re still fairly orthodox and busy, but it’s not the same. The holy fire has burned low. It’s not putting out any warmth.
ANYTHING FAMILIAR HERE?
Is there anything familiar in that picture for you, for me, if we’ve been believers for some time? Is your eagerness to pray what it once was? Is your hunger for the Word as intense, your purpose to share the gospel as compelling as it was in past days? Or in your family life, is your attentiveness to your spouse and children as devoted as ever? Is love growing or disappearing in your home? Are we doing the kinds of things we used to do out of love for others?
If we say “no” to any of these questions, then this message of Jesus is for us—one of the most searching, heart-piercing words ever spoken. Think of it. We’ve turned our backs on love! God help us! And yes, he wants to! Listen again. Here’s what he says in verse 5:
Remember then from what 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.
What shall we do if we’ve let love die? First, remember what it was like when you were walking closely with the Lord. Bring to mind what you’ve neglected and let slip. Name it. Confess it. Turn back in repentance and get on track again. The Lord is waiting for that, longing to see your life change, your heart grow warm again. This is a wake-up call of his loving concern.
What if we don’t repent, don’t begin afresh? Then the prospects are gloomy indeed. Jesus says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place . . .” What can that mean? The lampstand, as we’ve seen, is the church. Where love dies, and people are content to have it so, Jesus will come and take their lampstand away. The building, the organization, the activities may continue, but the church as a living body of believers there will cease to be. For those people it will be lchabod—“The glory has departed.”
I thought about that a lot when I was in Istanbul some time ago, visiting the famous church called St. Sophia’s. It was built in the 6th century by a Roman emperor in what was then Constantinople. In those days St. Sophia was a vital center of Christian faith and life. Later, in the tenth century, the worship of that congregation was so beautiful and moving that visiting envoys from Prince Vladimir of Kiev were captivated. They came there surveying for their prince religions in the various areas around them. They wanted to find one that would be appropriate for their people. They didn’t know after they worshiped at St. Sophia’s whether they had been on earth or in heaven! They decided they wanted that faith and worship for their own. Vladimir and all his people were then baptized and his life was marvelously changed. Thus began a thousand years of Christian worship in what we know today as Russia. And that all grew out of this marvelous church, St. Sophia.
It continued to be a church until 1453 when the invading Ottoman armies seized Constantinople. It became then Istanbul. The great church was changed into a mosque, with many of its gorgeous frescoes whitewashed over. It remained a mosque until the Republic of Turkey was formed in 1923. Since then, the building has served as a museum. And if you visit Istanbul today, you will see little evidence that it was once a thriving Christian center. The same is true all over Turkey—at the very sites to which all seven letters in Revelation were sent. You go to many of them and there’s nothing there but a few ruins.
Many factors have, of course, been involved in that—military conquests, political changes, ethnic strife. But the sad reality is, the lampstands of those once vibrant churches have been taken away, leaving only deserted remains.
It doesn’t mean that the church of Jesus Christ has been destroyed. When he takes away a lampstand, God causes the light and life of the gospel to spring up elsewhere. But it does mean that in some areas, for long periods of time, the glory departs. The lamp simply goes out.
Think of the churches which once throbbed with life across North Africa, but since have disappeared. St. Augustine came from one of those. In many parts of western Europe magnificent cathedrals witness to a vital Christian past, but few worshipers visit them today. In many parts that once were alive with the witness of the gospel, there’s now a spiritual wasteland.
Could it happen in the largely Christian U.S., where 90 percent say they believe in God and over a third of the citizens testify to a born-again experience in Christ? The word of Jesus and the testimony of history say a sobering yes. Our lampstand could be taken away. We could abandon our first love and cease to be vitally Christian.
But the Lord doesn’t want that. He calls for deep, heartfelt repentance. He invites us to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. He cheers us with a wonderful promise, “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.” It makes me want to say, “Forgive us, Lord, where we’ve left our first love. We’re coming back. We want to love you as we once did, and much more. Fill us with the fire of your Spirit, and let us blaze for you!”