Contemplating Life, Libraries, and the Pursuit of Holiness
Sunday, March 19, 2023
No Compromise (Rev. 2:12-29)
Sunday, March 12, 2023
Faithful and Fearless (Rev. 2:8-11)
Smyrna was a city situated along the coast of the Aegean Sea, about 40 miles north of Ephesus. Back in the first century, it vied with Ephesus for the title of “First City of Asia,” and it was widely considered the most beautiful city in that part of the world. In fact, on their coins they had inscribed, “First of Asia in beauty and size.” It was also one of the few planned cities in the ancient world. At one end of the town stood Mount Pagos, around whose base ran the Golden Road “like a necklace on the statue of a goddess.”1 Though the city of Ephesus no longer exists, Smyrna still does. It is known today as Izmir, one of the largest cities in modern day Turkey. And apparently there are still Christians in this city, its witness surviving both pagan and Islamic persecution to the present day.
Despite all its beauty and wealth and commerce, however, ancient Smyrna was dedicated to paganism and the cult of Rome. In addition to all the temples dedicated to the various gods of the region, Smyrna had a temple to the god of Rome. In fact, long before Rome had become a world empire, when it was still fighting it out with the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars, Smyrna had allied itself with Rome, so it had a long history of allegiance to the Roman empire.
Smyrna also had a large Jewish population. By the end of the first century, when Revelation was written, the Jewish community and the church had long separated and although the church was made up of both Jew and Gentile, the hostility the non-Christian Jews felt against the believers was fierce. They apparently had no problem joining with their pagan neighbors in seeking the downfall of the church in that area.
So you see, Smyrna may have been a wonderful place to live if you were a pagan Gentile or an adherent to first-century Judaism. But it was not hospitable to Christians. To be a Christian meant that you had to separate yourself from the community for all intents and purposes. It meant being ostracized. It meant being called unpatriotic or a traitor. For some, it even meant martyrdom.
In the verses before us, we are told of the tribulation of the church (9), a word which refers to “serious trouble, the burden that crushes.”2 Our Lord, who knows these things, goes on to describe this in terms of poverty. To help us to understand what this means, R. C. Trench noted long ago that the Greek word used here means that they had “nothing at all.”3 They were, as we would say today, dirt poor. This is probably due to the fact that they could participate little or not at all in the political or economic life of the city. As Christians who could not fellowship with the cult of Rome or of the emperor, they were seen as undesirable traitors in the midst. As people who could not worship at any of deities in the pagan temples, they were seen as atheists. They were almost certainly boycotted and sanctioned economically. The result was that they had nothing.
They also endured “the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (9). Blasphemy here does not carry the religious connotation we associate with the word today; rather, it just meant to be reproached. The Jews in that community reviled and slandered the Christians in the city. So along with the poverty, the Christians in Smyrna had to put up with being despised on all sides and, like their Savior, rejected of men. Jesus had warned his disciples that this would come: “ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake” (Mt. 24:9). The Smyrnaean Christians found this to be true.
In addition to the present poverty and blasphemy, our Lord warns them that they are about to endure more aggressive forms of persecution: “the devil,” he says, “shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (10). The persecution is going to go from being forced to be materially destitute to becoming martyrs for the faith of Christ.
Christian history has left a remarkable illustration of the sufferings of the Christians in Smyrna several decades after Revelation was written in the martyrdom of Polycarp. What is fascinating to me is that it is very likely that when Revelation was read to the church of Smyrna for the first time, Polycarp was probably in the congregation. He was personally discipled by the apostle John and later (in AD 115) he became the bishop of the church in Smyrna and held that position for many years.
But in AD 156, Polycarp was martyred during a public festival.4 The enemies of the Christian church had cried for Polycarp’s blood, and they moved the authorities to search for the bishop. They finally found him in a farm on the outskirts of the city. However, those who were sent to arrest him were amazed that people wanted this gentle, godly man arrested and executed and they tried to persuade him to offer sacrifice to Caesar and to denounce Christ so that he wouldn’t have to suffer. He refused.
They then led him before the governor who also strongly encouraged him to say, “Caesar is lord.” He pressed Polycarp: “Swear the oath [to Caesar], and I will release you; revile the Christ.” To which the aged bishop famously replied, “Eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
The governor next angrily threatened to throw him to the beasts. To this Polycarp answered, “Call for them.” He then threatened to have Polycarp burned at the stake. (Polycarp had previously had a dream in which his pillow was on fire, which he interpreted to mean that he was to be burned at the stake.) The bishop replied, “You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched; for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do as you will.”
Seeing he could not convince him, the governor ordered Polycarp to be burnt at the stake. Even the Jews, though it was a sabbath day, broke the sabbath by joining with the pagans in gathering wood for the pyre. He thus sealed his testimony by his blood. It is said that after his death, the persecution ended, giving the church in Smyrna a much-needed respite.
The “ten days” of persecution mentioned in verse 10 was probably not a reference to this later episode fifty or sixty years later, but to something that happened to the church in the apostle’s day, at the end of the first century. But we can see that the lessons of a previous generation had strengthened the church to remain faithful in future persecutions. Polycarp not only heard the Revelation read; he took it to heart and lived out its lessons and truth in his own life.
My hope is that it will do the same thing for us. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if persecution on the level that the church of Smyrna experienced is in the future for the church in the United States. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. I’m not a prophet. But I do want all of us to be the kind of Christian who refuses to bend the knee to the image of Baal, no matter what the cost. And even if we never face the kind of grinding poverty and ostracism and martyrdom that the Christians in the first century world faced (or that Christians in other parts of the world face today), there are still other ways the devil can get at us to wear us out and down so that we will not remain faithful unto death. You will notice the two times the devil’s name is mentioned here. He is Satan in verse 9 which literally means “the adversary,” and in verse 10 he is the devil, which literally means “the slanderer.” He opposes the church, and he slanders the church. If you are a Christian, he will oppose you too: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith” (1 Pet. 5:8-9; cf. Eph. 6:10-20).
Our Lord’s word to the church at Smyrna and his word to us therefore is this: “Be faithful unto death” (10). His word is also, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer” (10). The two of course go together. Those who give into fear will give into cowardice. They will not be faithful; they will not overcome. So we want to be people who are not fearful but who are faithful. The question is, how to we become people like that? How do we become faithful and fearless people for Christ?
These verses suggest that at least two things need to be true of us if we are going to be this kind of person. First of all, we need to rest in God’s sovereignty. Second, we need to rejoice in God’s sufficiency.
We must rest in God’s sovereignty.
Note how Jesus the Lord addresses this persecuted church. He comes to them in these words, “These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive” (8). This is drawing of course from the revelation of himself to John in chapter 1: “And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (1:17-18). This is especially relevant for the church at Smyrna to hear because they, or at least some of them, are facing the prospect of death. How are they to do that? And how are they to do that so that they don’t give in to fear and remain faithful unto death? They are to do that by remembering who Jesus is, that he is the one who faced death for us and defeated it for us. Because of that we know that death cannot have the final word. For the Christian, there is life after death – not life merely in the sense of existence, but life in its fullest sense. This is eternal life, the life of Christ shared with him with never-ending, ever-increasing joy.
What makes this even more certain for us is that the one who died and rose again is also “the first and the last.” What does this mean? We considered it briefly when we first encountered this expression in chapter 1. In 1:8, God reveals himself to us in this way: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” To be the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending, is the same thing as being the first and the last. It means not only that God is eternal but that he is Lord is history. It means that he does whatever he pleases in heaven and earth. It is why these terms are put together with the description of God as “the Almighty.” It means that God’s wields his sovereignty as the one who is omnipotent, who has all power.
Isaiah also describes God in these terms to demonstrate his superiority over all other gods as the only one who is truly in control over human history. So we have these wonderful statements about God in that section of his prophesy that is sometimes called the “trial of the gods.” “Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning? I the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he” (Isa. 41:4). “Thus saith the Lord the King of Israel, and his redeemer the Lord of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God” (44:6). “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (46:9- 10).
So even as our Lord reveals to John the future for the church, he speaks of things as if they are already accomplished. “And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely” (Rev. 21:6; cf. 22:13). It is because our Lord is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, that he can say of something not only entirely future but impossible to bring about on human terms, that “It is done.” It is the same principle on which the apostle Paul speaks when he tells us about the future glorification of the saints: “whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). This is what we mean when we say that God is sovereign.
Unfortunately, there are some Christian teachers who teach that God cannot know the future exhaustively, and that God is not sovereign over human history. What they will say is that God knows everything that can be known, but that he can’t know everything. In particular, they argue that God can’t know the future choices of men and women who are exercising their free will. Otherwise, they say, their choices couldn’t be truly free. One of their motivations for this is to let God off the hook when tragedy strikes. If there is a tragedy they will say, “Oh, but God didn’t have anything to do with that. He never even saw it coming.”
What are we to say to that? Well, the first thing we must say is that it is a fundamental rejection of the Biblical witness to God. It’s a rejection of what God says about himself in these passages we’ve looked at in Isaiah, for example, and it is a rejection of the revelation of Christ of himself to the churches. He declares the end from the beginning. God knows the future as clearly as he knows the past. That’s part of what it means that God is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.
And when you consider the fact that nothing can happen in the universe apart from God – for even our being is held moment by moment in existence by the omnipotent power of Christ; he is the one who upholds all things by the word of his power and who holds everything together (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3) – then the explanation for God knowing the future is not simply that God is a good guesser. God knows the future because, as Paul puts it to the Ephesians, he works all things – not just some things but all things – according to the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11).
Now there is mystery here, for men are free in a real sense. We are not robots. We are accountable for our actions. But we must not say that in such a way as to deny the ultimate sovereignty of God over all things. We have to say that there is mystery at the place where God’s sovereignty and human responsibility intersect. But I do know that the Bible unabashedly teaches both that God is sovereign over history and that man is responsible for his actions. It teaches that God is not the author of sin even as it teaches that even sin is permitted by God according to his eternal plan.
But how does the doctrine work? How are we to use it in our lives?
First of all, we don’t want to use this doctrine to feed fatalism. We don’t want to take this doctrine and become fatalistic. That is not Biblical either. It is wrong to adopt the attitude that it doesn’t matter what we do. It’s wrong to think that it doesn’t matter whether we pray or work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. It does matter because God’s word says it matters. It matters whether or not we are faithful. It matters whether or not we fear not or whether we give into fear and unbelief. This text wouldn’t make any sense if it didn’t matter.
But second, neither should we use this doctrine to feed our expectation of worldly comforts. You can tell if you are there when you get disappointed or bitter at God when things don’t turn out the way you wanted them to. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty does not function to give you hope that you won’t get sick or that if you do you’ll get well soon. It doesn’t mean that you won’t experience loss or failure. It doesn’t mean that you will have your best life now.
How do we know that? Well, just look at the church of Smyrna. There is nothing here in the text to indicate that there was anything wrong with the church. This was one of only two churches of the seven that weren’t rebuked for sin. The poverty and persecution aren’t happening because they are being judged by God.
However, neither is this happening because God is unaware of their situation. Jesus knows (8). He knows their poverty and the persecution they are enduring. But instead of relieving them of it, he warns them of more to come. Instead of delivering them from suffering, he calls on them to be faithful.
God is sovereign over all things, including our suffering, but that does not mean that he always removes the suffering for us in this world. Or, to put it another way, just because our persecutors are victorious over us doesn’t mean that God is not sovereign. Just because a thorn in the flesh is not removed doesn’t mean God is not in control. Just because the cancer didn’t go away doesn’t mean that God doesn’t rule or that he doesn’t care. We are overcomers (see ver. 11!), which means that we get the inevitable victory. And God is sovereign over that. But sometimes that victory is only achieved through much earthly loss. Sometimes it even means martyrdom. God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean we don’t bear a cross. It means we get resurrection into life eternal after the cross.
So why does God reveal his sovereignty to us? What is the purpose of this? Why did Christ reveal himself to the Smyrnaean Christians as the first and the last? He did so, not to relieve us of our responsibility. He did so, not to give us false hopes of earthly bliss. He did it, rather, so that we would rest in his sovereignty and be faithful and fearless in the face of imprisonment, poverty, and martyrdom. Indeed, I would put it this way: we are strengthened in our resolve to be faithful and fearless because we rest in the fact that God is in control and that Christ rules overall for his glory and the good of his people. Men may kill us. They may take away our goods and our reputations. But they will not have the last word. Not even death can have the last word. How do we know that? Because God is in control. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future. God holds the beginning and the end and everything in between.
You can see how belief in God’s sovereignty works to strengthen the faith and fearlessness of his people all throughout the Bible. You see it in the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3, who were threatened with being thrown alive into a burning, fiery furnace if they didn’t bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s image. Here is their response: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan. 3:16-18).
So dear saint, rest in God’s sovereignty. Let the truth of Rom. 8:28 make you a fearless and faithful for the cause of God and truth.
We must rejoice in God’s sufficiency.
What kind of person magnifies the riches of Christ to a watching world? Certainly not someone who is shriveled up by fear or who has become faithless out of bitterness. But neither is it a Christian who somehow remains faithful but who has lost their joy in Christ. Now I’m not saying that you have to go around constantly with a smile on your face. Nor am I saying that you have to pretend to be happy when you are not. The Christian groans and grieves. But there is a difference: we do so in hope. And you cannot separate hope from joy. It’s why Paul exhorts the Roman Christians to “rejoice in hope” (Rom. 12:12).
So how do you do this? It is by understanding that in Christ we have true riches. You will note what our Lord says to the church at Smyrna. Though they are poor, he says, the reality of the situation is that they are rich (9). Now I think it is interesting to contrast Smyrna with Laodicea at this point. Whereas the church in Smyrna was really poor in the material things, the Lord says that they are truly rich. Of course he means that they are spiritually rich. The Laodiceans were the exact opposite: “thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Which do you think is better? Our Lord clearly is of the opinion that material wealth often blinds us to our true riches and leaves us spiritually impoverished.
We can forget this. If you belong to Jesus, you are rich and you are riches with an inheritance that no one can take from you. The value of something is often determined by how much it costs. Yet how can you compare spiritual riches to earthly ones? There is no comparison! For it came at the cost of the very life of the Son of God! As the apostle Paul writes, “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). The apostle Peter reminds us that we were purchased by “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). It is why Paul calls the gospel he preaches “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
Or the value and worth of a thing is determined by what it does for us. But what has Christ done for us? He has given us the forgiveness of sins – that alone should make us shouting happy if we really grasped the significance of it. As the hymn puts it,
My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought,My sin, not in part, but the whole:Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
But there is more: we are given freely by faith the righteousness of God, acceptance with God, adoption in his family, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and everlasting and eternal life – the “crown of life” as our Lord puts it here in verse 10. Do you believe this? Must we not say then with the apostle Paul that no matter how terrible our suffering is in this life, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18)?
In sum, we have been brought to God (1 Pet. 3:18), not as a criminal in chains, but as children to their Father. We have “all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3) – not some, not most, but all spiritual blessings!
Further, we determine the worth of a thing by how long it lasts. Man, I wish they made washing machines the way they used to. Things are not made to last anymore, it seems. But that is the way of all earthly things, isn’t it? Rust and moths and thieves are the correlates of earthly wealth. But not so the true riches. We have in Christ “a better and an enduring substance” (Heb. 10:32). As our Lord promises the believers here, “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death” (11).
No matter how wealthy a person is here, no matter how famous, no matter how comfortable, if they have not Christ, they will not escape the second death. What is this? It is the death of the soul as well as of the body. It is described in chapter 20 as the place into which death and hell are cast (14). It is the lake of fire, into which the beast and false prophet receive their final judgment, “tormented day and night forever and ever” (10). My friend, I cannot think of anything possibly worse – nothing! To be condemned to this is to lose all hope forever. It is to be banished to into the iron grip of despair and torment with no possible reprieve for eternity. This is what the believer is rescued from, something which we all deserve, but which Christ frees us from. Instead of the second death they get the crown of eternal life. The second death – nothing worse! The crown of life – nothing better!
Thank God, this gift of eternal life is something which is eternal also in the sense that the saint can never lose it. I am thankful for that. We need to take seriously the exhortation to overcome. But we must not read that as if God’s people will somehow fail to overcome. They will overcome. Why? Not because they are better than the next person but because God keeps them. They overcome because of the truth of Romans 8:37-39: “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
How do we know this is true? We know it is true because of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. Who is he? He is the one “who was dead, and is alive” (Rev. 2:8). Christ conquered death. We know this because the historical record points to this just as much as it does to any other fact of human history. We know it because no other explanation accounts for the fact that the message of Christ’s resurrection was believed by people who could have inspected the tomb if he had in fact been there. No other explanation adequately accounts for the fact that his own disciples believed it and many of them went to their deaths because they preached it. No other explanation adequately accounts for the fact that since that time millions of Christians have met the risen Christ in their own lives and found themselves transformed by the power of his grace.
Would you meet the risen Christ? Would you be saved? Do you want the forgiveness of sins? Then come to Christ, and by faith and repentance receive him as your Lord and Savior. The Scripture testifies that all who do so will be saved for the Lord is rich unto all who call upon his name.
1 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, revised (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1998), p. 73.
2 Leon Morris, Revelation, revised (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 63.
3 Qtd. in Mounce, fn. 6, p. 74.
4 The following details can be found in The Letter of the Smyrnaeans. See, for example, the translation by J. B. Lightfoot: https://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/martyrdompolycarp-lightfoot.html
Sunday, March 5, 2023
First Love Lost (Rev. 2:1-7)
Jesus Christ loves his church. You see that in all the letters. Even in the rebukes his love shines forth: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19). His love for the church at Ephesus comes through as well in every aspect of his letter to the Ephesian church, and this is what I want to explore with you in our message this morning on Rev. 2:1-7. I think this point is worth emphasizing because whenever sin is pointed out and rebuked, and whenever we personally feel the sting of guilt and sinful failure, we can tend to turn inward in order to fight back to where we need to be. But there is a reason why this letter, and every letter, begins with a reminder of who Jesus is. It is so that we will turn to him who is our Lord and Savior for cleansing and forgiveness and repentance. In this letter, our Lord begins by reminding them that he is the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands (2:1). For the one who can remove the lampstand is also the one who can restore it and keep it in its place.
This letter, and the ones that follow, are addressed to the angels of the seven churches. So this begins, “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write” (2:1). Who are these angels?
Most scholars, it seems, believe that these are heavenly beings, what we would normally think of when we hear the word angel. The argument is basically a statistical one: every other instance of the word angel in the book of Revelation outside the first three chapters does refer to those ministering spirits sent forth to serve those who are to be heirs of salvation (Heb. 1:14). And this is a strong argument. This argument, however, is further strengthened by the observation that in the book of Daniel angels were associated with different nations (cf. Dan. 10:18-21). So if a nation can have an angel, why not a church?
However, the objection I have to this interpretation is that it doesn’t make sense to rebuke an angel for the sins of a church or to call them to repent, which is exactly what we have here. Angels don’t sin and don’t need to repent. It also doesn’t make sense to interject an angel in the process of delivering these letters, since we are already told that God the Father gave the Revelation as a whole, and these letters in particular, to his Son Jesus, who gave it to his angel, who then gave it to John (1:1). Why do we need another angel on the other side of John?
Others say this is a reference to the “spirit of the church,” or to its overall attitude. But again, you don’t call on the spirit of a church to repent; repentance is something specific people both as individuals and as a group are to do. Also, it is a problem that, as far as I know, there is no other instance of the word angel anywhere in the Bible where it is used in this sense.
It seems to me that this must be a reference to a human being, either to messengers of the churches who carried the letters to their respective congregations, or to the pastors of each congregation, and I lean toward the latter. Here is why I think this way: first, statistics doesn’t preclude outliers. As long as the word angel can bear a meaning appropriate to a human being, then just because that connotation in a certain place happens to be statistically improbable doesn’t rule it out as a genuine possibility. And here’s the thing: angel just means messenger. This is the way it must be translated, for example, in James’ epistle: “Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers [angels], and had sent them out another way?” (2:25). It can be a human or a heavenly messenger; context must decide. Here I think the context is decidedly in favor of a human messenger.
That these are the pastors of the various churches seems to be indicated by the fact that they are represented by the seven stars in Jesus’s hand (1:20). It’s hard for me to imagine why the guys who are just delivering the letters to the churches would be represented in this way. However, the pastors in a real sense represent the church and its witness – it seems to me, at least, very appropriate for them to be referred to in this way and to be addressed the way the angels are addressed in these letters.
This angel, this pastor along with his church, is about to hear an awakening message. There is sincere affirmation but there is also a stinging rebuke. But the angels are the stars, and the stars are in the hand of Christ. He holds them, not only accountable but also as the one who empowers, cleanses, and forgives.
Now what does he say to this church? There are four elements to our Lord’s message to the church in Ephesus: Praise (2-3, 6), Plight, (4-5), Prescription (5), and Promise (7). In each of these elements, we hear the love that our Lord has for his people. These are not the words of a stranger. These don’t come from someone who doesn’t care. Rather, these are the words of the Good Shepherd who has given his life for the sheep and who lovingly guides and teaches and rebukes them.
We need to remember that these letters were not only given to these particular churches, but to the church as a whole in every age. That doesn’t mean that every single problem these churches were dealing with are going to be problems our particular church is dealing with. But it does mean that we should see the things these churches are praised for as things we should aspire to, and it means that we should see those things for which the churches are rebuked as a call to examine our own hearts and to do some repenting where needed. Note well the words in every letter: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). This is a call to every believer in every age: listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying here – and obey.
With that in mind, let us hear what the Spirit said to the church at Ephesus.
We will note in a moment that there is a serious sin that needs to be dealt with in this church. Yet, even though our Lord knows this and is about to address it, it is remarkable to me that he spends more time underlining their achievements than he does in rebuking them for their sin. This speaks to the genuine love that our Lord has for these people. He cares for them, and that means that he is not constantly looking for reasons to get on to them, or that he is constantly suspicious of everything they do. Do you know people like that in your life? People who are always suspicious and always looking for something to criticize are not commending themselves to us as people who care for us. But if you truly love someone, you don’t gravitate to their faults (though it doesn’t mean you ignore them, either); instead you tend to notice their talents and strengths and accomplishments. That’s what our Lord does here.
He begins by saying, as he does with every church, “I know thy works” (2:2). No one can escape the penetrating gaze of Jesus (cf. 1:14). This is true of churches, and it is true of individuals. He will tell the church of Sardis that even though they had a reputation of being a vibrant church, he knew they were dead (3:1). Our Lord always knows our true situation. Even when we have convinced others that we are better off than we are, and even when we have deceived ourselves about our true state, Jesus knows the truth. We might be able to get away with hidden sin when it comes to people, but not with the Lord. On the other hand, this is also encouraging because it is just as true that sometimes our achievements are either hidden from or forgotten by or even despised by others. But not the Lord: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Heb. 6:10).
It is very important that we hear what they are praised for. It comes down to two things: doctrinal faithfulness and tireless labor for the kingdom. Here is how our Lord describes them: “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted” (Rev. 2:2-3). One thing that’s interesting here is how our Lord not only praises them but repeats the praise – twice they are praised for their labor and twice for their patience.
When our Lord praises a church for something, you know it is true. This was a church that was willing to do hard work for the kingdom. And they didn’t give up: they labored and did not faint. They didn’t grow weary. They didn’t get fatigued in the service of Christ.
To appreciate this, you need to understand where these saints were at. These saints didn’t live in a context that made it easy to be a Christian. They not only lived in a pagan city, but in some sense they lived at the cultural heart of that pagan society. Ephesus was a port city and was the doorway into the heart of Asia Minor. With a population of at least 250,000, Ephesus was considered one of the most important cities of proconsular Asia as a commercial and export center. Multiple valuable trade routes passed through here. And the city was impressive and stunning. Mounce writes, “The traveler from Rome landing at Ephesus would proceed up a magnificent avenue thirty-five feet wide and lined with columns that led from the harbor to the center of the city. . .. [The city] boasted a major stadium, marketplace, and theater. The latter was built on the west slope of Mt. Pion overlooking the harbor, and seated some 25,000 persons.”1
But most impressive, and for the church most daunting, aspect of this city was the Temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Again, Mounce gives us the details: “About four times the size of the Parthenon, it was adorned by the work of many great artists. . .. Pliny the elder gives the dimensions of the temple as 425 feet long, 220 feet wide, and sixty feet high. He also notes that the 127 pillars were of Parian marble, with thirty-six of them overlaid with gold and jewels.”2
We learn of just how important Artemis was to the inhabitants of Ephesus through an event recorded in the book of Acts. Because the gospel had come to Ephesus through the labors of the apostle Paul and had flourished through his three-year ministry there (Acts 19:10), the pagan idol-makers became incandescently furious and provoked a riot that eventually ended up at the theater (see Acts 19:23-41). One of the Asiarchs appealed to the rioters to cease because, as he put it, “Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana [Artemis], and of the image which fell down from Jupiter?” (35). Ephesus was not only a pagan city; it was proud of it. Not only were the townspeople proud of it, but they could also be violently defensive against those who threatens the status quo.
Furthermore, not only was the worship of Artemis central to the life of the city, but we are also told that Ephesus was a center for the magic arts, or, as we would call it today, witchcraft (19:19-20).
So this was not a church on the buckle of the Bible belt. This was a church in a city devoted to superstition and idolatry and witchcraft. In other words, the entire culture was opposed to the things that the Christians believed and taught. The lifestyle commended by the worship of Artemis was antithetical to the lifestyle commanded by Christ. The fixtures of their culture were just so many roadblocks to a faithful living-out of the gospel. It was in that context that the Ephesian Christians labored!
Do you feel burnt-out in your faith? Let’s take a lesson from the Ephesian church. Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we will reap if we faint not (Gal. 6:9).
Not only were they faithful in laboring for the kingdom, but they were faithful in adhering to the faith once delivered to the saints. They had “tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.” This is a church which had had a wonderful legacy of mighty spiritual leaders. First the great apostle Paul (Acts 19-20), followed by Timothy (1 Tim. 1:3), followed by Tychicus (2 Tim. 4:12). Early church tradition also links the apostle John’s name to this church. This is a rich heritage, and the church guarded it well.
Perhaps they remembered the words of the apostle Paul to them on his last visit with the elders of the church: “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (Acts 20:27-32).
Again, this is important. Our Lord commends them for this. We are to care about doctrinal fidelity. We should want to communicate the truth with clarity and boldness. The Ephesians were doing this. They were guarding the gospel that had been entrusted to them. We need to do the same. In a day when people tend not only to be careless about Biblical truth but even judgmental when you ask for carefulness, this is a timely reminder. Just because someone says they love Jesus and is working for Jesus doesn’t make them faithful to Jesus. Just as there were false apostles in the first century, there are false teachers in our own day. We need to be able to discern and to call out the liars and to hold fast to the truth.
In fact, our Lord comes back to this again in verse 6: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” The Nicolaitans were promulgating false doctrine in the churches. We don’t know exactly what they taught, although the fact that they were associated with those who held the doctrine of Balaam (2:14-15), indicates that they probably justified idolatrous and immoral practices. According to Victorinus, the first commentator on Revelation, the Nicolaitans were “false and troublesome men, who, as ministers under the name of Nicolaus, had made for themselves a heresy, to the effect that what had been offered to idols might be exorcised and eaten, and that whoever should have committed fornication might receive peace on the eighth day.”3
Jesus hated the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, and he commends the Ephesians for hating it and for not bearing with those who were evil. Don’t miss that! If you love the truth you are going to hate heresy. To be soft on false teaching is to be soft on the gospel. It is to be unfaithful to Christ. We must learn to hate teaching which corrupts our minds and hearts so that we do not give it a single square inch in our own thoughts, or homes, or churches.
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (4). What a stinging rebuke! If you have any genuine love for the Lord, then for Christ to have something against you must cut you to the quick. There are many important lessons that this one verse can teach us.
First of all, this teaches us that we should not think that doing right makes up for what we are doing wrong. Note the “nevertheless” at the beginning of verse 4. What they were doing is good, even very good, and very commendable. But it does not give them an excuse for the sin in their lives. Beware of letting a sin fester in your heart by silencing your conscience with other acts of obedience. Remember the warning in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Mt. 7:21-23). Here were people who, like the Ephesians, were doing “many wonderful works.” But they were also “ye that work iniquity.” What was their end? “Depart from me,” our Lord said to them.
Second, it’s important that we understand the nature of their problem. They had left their “first love.” Now there are differing opinions about what exactly this is. Some say that they had lost their love for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Others say that they had lost their love for unbelievers and as a result had stopped being witnesses for the gospel. Still others say that they had lost their love for Jesus. Honestly, I don’t think you need to pick here. You cannot separate love of the Lord from love of his people and a burden for the lost. The apostle John also wrote this: “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 Jn. 4:20).
It is called first love because it was the love they had for Christ at their conversion. It was then at a fever pitch, and they were completely sold out for the Lord. But something had happened over the years. Their zeal had waned and the vibrancy of their walk with the Lord had become replaced with a spiritual barrenness.
But how are we to square this with the foregoing verses? How could people be doing all that they were doing and no longer love Christ the way they ought? One way some have sought to resolve the problem is by claiming that the works for which they were commended were all in the past. However, this just isn’t true. The works, labor, and patience were all present realities (note that the phrase “hast patience” in verse 3 is present tense). It just goes to show that you can be very busy for the Lord and yet be so without a heart for him even as you “serve” him. Such are like fake flowers: they may look real and genuine, but they have lost the fragrance of true godliness.
This is alarming, because what this shows is that some of the deadliest sins are sins which no one else can see. Like the church of Sardis, we can have a reputation for being spiritually vibrant and yet be dead (Rev. 3:1). It’s just not good enough to have other folks slapping you on the back telling you what a great job you are doing. What matters is that when you meet the Master he says to you: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:21).
What are some of the signs that we might have lost our first love? What are the signs of incipient declension of the soul? I would suggest the following.
First, the neglect of prayer is a sign of declension in the soul. Prayer is speaking to the Lord, bringing our needs to him, worshiping him, and expressing our need of him. It’s hard to want to talk to someone that you don’t love like you used to. Open and free communication is a fruit of union and communion, and that is a fruit of love. In particular, the neglect of private prayer is a sure sign that we have left our first love. It is easy, like the Pharisees, to pray in a church service where everyone can see you, not because you love Jesus but because you love the praises of men. On the other hand, when the prayer closet finds you a frequent visitor, it is a sign of a healthy faith and a vibrant love to Christ.
Brothers and sisters, what is the state of your prayer life? If you are getting by with barely a prayer here and there, it is a sign that the very thing our Lord condemned the church at Ephesus for is a problem in your own life.
Second, the neglect of watchfulness over the soul is a sign of declension in the soul. What do I mean by this? I mean being careful over the state of our hearts. It means to “Keep thy heart with all diligence: for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). It means to police our minds and affections with the word of God. It means to pray the prayer of David and mean it: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24). It means to be careful about our life before God that no one else can see. And though it is true that you might be able to be negligent in this area and fool people for a long time, you won’t always be able to do it. Sin in the heart will eventually manifest itself, as Paul warns Timothy: “Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after” (1 Tim. 5:24). Or as Moses warned the children of Israel, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23). To be watchful over the soul means that it is not our sin that is finding us out, but that we are finding out sin out and rooting it out. It means not only caring about the “big sins” but rooting out the little ones as well. In fact, I would argue that your holiness depends more upon what you do about the little sins than it does upon what you do with the big sins. The one who is faithful in little is the one who is faithful in much.
This requires great diligence and spiritual care. It is a part of working out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). And therefore it can be difficult work. It means putting to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 6:11-4; 8:13). It means going to war against the flesh. And you are not going to do that if you don’t love Jesus. Because if you don’t love Jesus, or if you love him less than you ought, it will only be because you love something else instead. And to love something else in the place of Christ is sin. And that sin will slowly choke your devotion to the Lord, and the heart sins will become more and more prominent.
Brothers and sisters, what is the state of your heart? Are you watching over your souls?
Third, treasuring lawful things more highly than Christ is a sign of spiritual declension in the soul. There are things that are not sins in themselves. But if you love that thing more than Jesus, then that is sin. It is not a sin to eat, but if I love food more than Jesus, that is sin. It is not a sin to be entertained, but if I love entertainment more than Jesus, that is sin.
How can I tell if I love lawful things too much? I think the words of the apostle Paul are very helpful here: “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). If that thing that may be lawful in itself brings me under its power, so that I lack self-control in its enjoyment, then that is sinful. Is Jesus really King in my heart? When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven,” we need to pray that this begins in our own lives and in our own hearts.
Fourth, a lack of love and concern for people, not only in terms of their physical needs but also in terms of their spiritual need, is an evidence that we have lost our first love. We are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt. 5:13-16). It is not for no reason that the church is likened to a lampstand. We are to shine the light of Christ upon others. It is the love of Jesus that compels us to do this, just like the apostle Paul: “For whether we be beside ourselves, it is to God: or whether we be sober, it is for your cause. For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:13-15). Those who hide their light and put it under a bushel are only evidencing that they care more about their own selves than they do for the cause of God and truth.
Could this be the reason why the judgment threatened here is what it is? For if the Ephesian church does not repent of this sin, our Lord warns them that “I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Rev. 2:5). If they do not shine their light, Christ will take the lampstand away. The church will cease to exist. This is a very serious warning, and it shows just how serious this sin is. We are reminded that sin is not something to be trifled with; it is something to eradicate, no matter how painful or difficult it might seem to be.
Brothers and sisters, do we care about people? Has our commitment to orthodoxy, though good and commendable, only taught us to hate but not to love?
I am thankful that our Lord doesn’t see our sin and then write us off. Instead, he calls us to repentance, just as he did the Ephesian church: “Remember therefore from whence thou are fallen, and repent, and do the first works” (5).
First of all, I want you to notice the gentleness of our Lord here. It is there in that word, Remember. He is not piling up mountains of penance for them to do as a precondition for the lampstand to stay. As the Egyptians did of the ancient Israelites in their bondage in that land, he is not taking away the straw and yet requiring of us the same amount of bricks to make. He is not putting on us burdens too heavy to bear. He is not constantly moving the goal line so that every time we get close we have to do a little bit more.
No, not at all! What does he tell them to do? Simply this: go back to what you did when you first became a Christian. It is as if our Lord were saying to them: “Remember the zeal you had for me when you first came to know me as your Lord and Savior. Remember the joy you then had. Remember that and go back to that.” This is not something extra. If you are a Christian, this is something we have done. This is something we have experienced. We know this can be done because we have done it.
But it is not just that they were to remember the love they had at the first, but that they should remember what it was that sparked that love. As the Lord spoke to the children of Israel, so our Lord speaks to the church today: “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel was holiness unto the LORD, and the firstfruits of his increase” (Jer. 2:2-3). Let us remember the redemption purchased for us by Christ. Let us remember the burden of sin that rolled off our backs and into the tomb of Christ. Let us remember the declaration of sins forgiven and righteousness granted when we stopped trusting in ourselves and put our faith in Jesus Christ alone. Should we not with Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress give three leaps for joy and join him in his song?
Do the “first works.” How does a Christian begin? They begin by looking to Jesus Christ as he is presented to us in the gospel. So go back to the gospel. Stay there, linger there until the old fires are rekindled. And if you have never known what this is; if you don’t know what it means to have your sins forgiven and to feel the peace of God through faith in Christ, I want to encourage you to come to Christ and in him you will find rest for your souls.
And repent. Faith and repentance are two sides of the coin we call conversion. They are not something we do just at the beginning of the Christian life, but they are marks of the entire Christian life. We don’t just remember; we also repent. There must be a dramatic turn from sin to God. We must put away our idols. We must put Christ first. We must seek his kingdom first (Mt. 6:33). You cannot really love Jesus and then love what he hates. Jesus hates sin; so must we, and we evidence that by turning from it and by fighting against it.
Every letter to the churches ends with a magnificent promise. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). The promise has to do with the new creation, which our Lord will bring about as a result of his victory over sin and death. Through Adam paradise was lost, but in Christ it is regained. In other words, the promise of paradise is a promise to participate in the redemption and regeneration of our world that has become marred by sin and death.
To see that this is what John is talking about, we should note that this word paradise is used two other times in the NT. It is used in the promise of Christ to the thief hanging on the cross next to his in Luke 23:43 (“Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.”) and by Paul in 2 Cor. 12:4 (“caught up into paradise”). In both these instances, it is clear that it is talking about heaven, the blessed abode of God and of the souls of just men made perfect. But the word “paradise” itself points us back to Eden. According to G. R. Beasley-Murray, this word is used in the Septuagint in Gen. 2:8, 15, 3:23f., to describe the garden of Eden. The word itself “is a Persian loan word . . . meaning a walling round, and so a park surrounded by a wall.” In Jewish writings the garden of Eden and paradise had “become interchangeable terms . . . for the abode of the blessed in the future life.”4 The implication is clear: God is not content simply to take this world ruined by sin and do away with it. No, he is going to redeem it. Paradise was lost and it will be reclaimed, and the promise here in Rev. 2:7 is that the people of God are going to enjoy paradise again in a new heavens and new earth, and we see a preview of this in Rev. 21-22.
In other words, the promise is meant to motivate us to be faithful and to remain patient and to repent and to do the first works and to return to our first love. It motivates us to this by reminding us that what awaits the believer is infinitely better than anything that can be gotten by taking the easy way of capitulation to the values and standards of this world, in rebellion as it is against Christ. Paradise is unattainable here: but it is the sure and certain and everlasting possession of all who belong to Jesus. We are to live in light of the age to come. After all, as the apostle Paul put it, the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18).
However, we also need to notice to whom this is promised: “To him that overcometh.” Who is this? What does it mean to overcome? What do we overcome? Well, to answer that question, let’s listen to what the apostle John writes in 1 Jn. 5: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (4-5). It is the world that is overcome, the world in its values and thinking and lifestyles. The “world” here is not a reference to planet Earth but rather to lost humanity in rebellion against God and his Son Jesus Christ. We know this is what John means because he said it himself: “And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 Jn. 5:19). We overcome the world when we refuse to join it in its wickedness and idolatry and immorality and rebellion.
It is by faith that we overcome, a faith that is granted to us in the new birth. Not just any faith, but faith in Jesus Christ. It is by faith in him that we quench the fiery arrows of the devil (Eph. 6:16). It is by faith that we join the ranks of believers in Heb. 11 who overcame incredible odds and opposition. It is by faith that we are like Abraham, “Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:18-22).
We need to take such a promise like this seriously. It would be meaningless if both overcomers and those who apostatize from the faith enter into paradise. Are you an overcomer?
Now some of you may look at this and it scare you to death. Because you know the sin that is within you. And so I want to encourage you that the overcomers are not those who have confidence in themselves – they are those who look to Jesus and who trust in him. And so I want to leave you with this promise from Jude, and let it encourage you to stand firm in the faith: “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen (Jude 24-25).
1 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Revised (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1998), p. 67.
3 Qtd. in Leon Morris, Revelation, Revised (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1987), 61.
4 G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, Eugene: 1981), p. 79-80.
No Compromise (Rev. 2:12-29)
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