Lesson Number 3
THE MESSAGE TO EPHESUS
To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place; unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which Is in the midst of the Paradise of God." (Revelation 2:1-7, NKJV)
The book of Revelation is precisely that--a revelation. It came direct from heaven, given to Jesus by God. Here is a message to the churches--something God wants them to know. The thought of the Father giving the Son something to say to the churches is arresting. It reveals the heart of the Father, and the critical importance of the churches. In the giving of this book, we see Jesus functioning as the Great High Priest, administering requirements to His people. Whatever your personal view of "the churches," consider their importance to the Father: He gave a message for them to the Lord Jesus Christ. Consider the closeness of them to the heart of the Son of God: He faithfully delivered the message to them given by His Father. Ponder the involvement of the angels of God with them: a holy angel received the message from Jesus, and delivered it to John the Apostle. Contemplate the role of the Apostles with the churches: John wrote ALL that He was given to see, to be delivered to the churches. There is no acceptable excuse for a disinterest in "the churches" among men, when such a high level of concern for them is found in heaven.
Now we come to a more direct word. After being introduced to the glorified Christ, a message will now be given to John for a specific church. There comes a time when generalities must end, and attention be given to particulars. While all "churches" are part of the vast body of the redeemed, their individual identity has not been lost. Particular congregations in particular cities, within particular provinces, are noted in heaven. We will find the Lord Jesus making personalized assessments of each congregation. He does not simply view them in association with all of the redeemed. They will not be viewed as part of a movement that has been sanctioned by heaven, but as specific groups. Their condition will be evaluated in distinction from the rest of "the body." They will be commended for their virtues, and rebuked for their liabilities. The Lord Jesus will not look at their earthly identity, but at their spiritual activities and attainments.
In my judgment, it is exceedingly difficult to find a congregation that is conscious of this Divine manner. Many have become complacent in their corporate manners, resting in their identity with a movement, embrace of a position, or simply their longevity in the community. It is true that Jesus assesses each church, and has a particular view of it. It is in the interest of our eternal well being that due consideration be given to this reality.
Now, we will hear the assessment of Christ Jesus concerning the church at Ephesus. Like all of His analyses, Divine objectives will be the primary consideration. The church at Ephesus will be viewed in light of the purpose of God. Their activities will be assessed with the design of God's great salvation in mind. The contribution of the church to community interests will not be mentioned. Their role in helping the needy and maintaining a keen interest in the political structure of their area will not be referenced. The exclusive association that will be made will be between what the churches are doing, and what the Lord Jesus is doing: between what they are, and what salvation is intended to make them.
Who Is Speaking?
"These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands . . . " As we progress through chapters two three, you will see Jesus introducing Himself differently to each church. A careful analysis of each presentation will find the Son of God submitting Himself in a manner particularly relevant to the church being addressed. The assessment of the Ephesian church reveals they had forgotten the real identity of the Savior. Their approach to religion had actually driven a wedge between them and the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus begins by drawing attention to Himself in relation to the churches. He holds the messengers in His hand, and they are His representatives. Were it not for Him, they would have nothing to do, and their position could not be justified. He is both the Author and Substance of their message. When the believers in Ephesus think of their messenger, they are to think of him as in the hands of the Lord. He is not, strictly speaking, their servant, but Christ's messenger. His fundamental work is bringing the message of Jesus to the people. He is charged with making Christ's Person and purpose dominant in the people's thinking.
Too, Jesus walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands--the churches. He is in their presence, whether they realize it or not. He is not merely standing in their midst, but walks in the midst of them. He is acutely aware of them, and they do well to be equally aware of Him! The Ephesians are not to think of themselves as part of a group of believers in Asia, but as occupying a conspicuous position in the presence of their Lord. The awareness of His presence produces a sobriety that is essential to Divine approval. The world recedes into the background when Jesus occupies the foreground. A proper sense of values is attained in the light of His glory. O, that this posture were more prominent in the churches!
I KNOW . . .
Notice, Jesus does not ask the Ephesians what THEY know, but alerts them to what He knows. While earthly knowledge "puffs up" (1 Cor 8:1), the apprehension of what Jesus knows exercises a sanctifying effect upon the soul. The Lord will now give an assessment of the Ephesian church. It will be thorough, and will entertain no respect of persons. Here is a fulfillment of that word from God, "The eyes of the LORD are in every place, Keeping watch on the evil and the good" (Prov 15:3). Again, it is written, "For My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from My face, nor is their iniquity hidden from My eyes" (Jer 16:17). And again, "Can anyone hide himself in secret places, So I shall not see him? says the LORD; Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD" (Jer 23:24). This is an aspect of the Divine nature with which the church must familiarize itself. Redemption has not changed the nature of God! It is a provision for the change of man's nature, in order to Divine acceptance.
"I know your works . . . " The Lord Jesus is a Lord of assessment. He reviews the work He has begun, and does so with both a critical and expectant eye. He looks for spiritual productivity where He has planted. This is seen in the parable of the fig tree. Here our Lord portrays the manner of the Kingdom. "A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it, and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, 'Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?" (Luke 13:6-7).
This was a revelation of the Divine nature. God is intolerant with a lack of productivity--particularly since He has made full provision for it to be found in His people. However, as with our text, that Nature also provides opportunity for recovery. This is seen in the response of the vineyard keeper. He besought the master to allow him to give some special attention to the tree, digging around it and applying some fertilizer. Then, he replied, "if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down" (verse 9). Surely, God "is not willing that any should perish," be it individual or congregation (2 Pet 3:9).
However, and make no mistake about this, fruit is expected. The "fruit" must be spiritual in nature-- fruit that brings glory to God. Our text exposes us to this facet of Kingdom life. The word "works" is more general than specific. It does not refer to particular deeds of kindness, or some social effort. It rather denotes the whole life and conduct This word is used sixty-one times in Matthew through Revelation. Its use confirms the definition just given. " . . . that they may see your good works" (Matt 5:16). "Men loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil" (John 3:19). "Who will render to every man according to his works . . . " (Rom 2:6). "Who is wise and understanding among you? let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom" (James 3:13). " . . . and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works" (Rev 20:12).
What, then, is our blessed Lord saying to Ephesus? That He knows everything they are doing! He knows how their persuasions have expressed themselves. In the case of the church at Ephesus, no evil works are mentioned. As the all-seeing One, Jesus knew all of the works of His people at Ephesus. He knew WHY they did them, what principles motivated them to do them, and what objectives were sought through them. It was no cursory view of their works that Jesus had, but one which saw the works in relation to submission to and a love for Himself. He recognized whether they were performed in the "strength of His might" or in the energy of the flesh. Their connection with grace and faith were duly assessed, as well as how they contributed to His glory. Indeed, Jesus did not say He SAW their works, but that He KNEW them! He was not viewing them to be impressed but to judge them with righteous judgment. O, that churches today had this perspective of Jesus Christ! Surface views are faulty views, and are not to be entertained by those bearing the name of Jesus. He does not look upon the surface, and neither should we. Hear Him well as He speaks. "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24). Such deductive reasoning is forbidden, because it is at variance with the Divine nature.
"I know . . . your labor . . . " The word "labor" refers to toil, or arduous effort. The is not mere work, but HARD work, requiring extensive effort. There was nothing casual about the Ephesian efforts. This type of effort requires zeal, commitment, and resolution. Again, Jesus does not say He SEES their labor, but that He KNOWS it. He knows what has constrained it, and to what ends their indefatigable efforts are expended. The nominal Christian knows nothing of this sort of activity. The religion of convenience has taken hold of the Western Church with a vise-like grip. Congregational decisions are regularly made that studiously avoid inconvenience, toil, and extended effort. It was not so with the church at Ephesus.
" I know . . . your patience . . . " Not only were the Ephesians engaged in extensive and toilsome activities, they continued in them, even when it was exceedingly difficult. Patience is constancy, or patient continuance. It can refer to continued effort in the face of opposition and a lack of popularity. In this case, it means the Ephesians maintained their works even though it was difficult and challenging to do so. Such patience is included in the appointed means of obtaining the promises (Heb 6:12). The Lord does not chide Ephesus for their works, labor, or patience, but rather commends them..
You Cannot Stand Them
"I know . . . you cannot bear those who are evil." Here is a quality rarely known in our place and time. The assessment of Jesus sharply conflicts with the "hate the sin but love the sinner" myth that has lately risen among those who name the name of the Lord. Keep in mind, the Lord is commending the Ephesian church at this time. He is speaking of their spiritual assets, not their liabilities. He does not say they cannot bear WHAT those who are evil DO. Rather, they cannot "bear," "endure" or "tolerate" those who are evil. Again, not those who "DO" evil, but who "ARE" evil. Were anyone but Jesus to say this, much of the contemporary church would rebuke him. But, alas, now they can only stand silent before Him. What He commends, the flesh cannot congratulate! Evil persons were a burden to the Ephesians. They made life more difficult for them. It was not a weakness, but a strength the Lord Jesus Himself commends.
Often God has spoken of His view of the wicked, and we do well to give heed to His assessments. It is written, "God is angry with the wicked every day" (Psa 7:11). Jesus said the wrath of God "abides" on those who do not believe on the Son (John 3:36). Again, it is written, "The LORD tests the righteous, But the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates" (Psa 11:5). Among the seven things God particularly hates, individuals are mentioned: " . . . A false witness who speaks lies, And one who sows discord among brethren" (Prov 6:16-19). Evil is not always an impersonal matter! It is good to remember that iniquity in His own offspring moved God to say, "I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them" (Gen 6:7, NKJV). He could not bear depraved men, and therefore removed them! On another occasion, when Israel did evil in God's eyes, they provoked Him. The occasion was so serious, the Holy Spirit moved the Psalmist to write, "Therefore the wrath of the LORD was kindled against His people, So that He abhorred His own inheritance" (Psa 106:40). His anger "smoked against the sheep of His pasture" (Psa 74:1).
Sin makes the sinner abrasive to God. With it comes a conflict between God and man that can only be resolved in Christ Jesus! The Ephesians had this in their favor: those who were evil were also abrasive to them! They did not seek to excuse the wickedness of the wicked, or to contrive reasons for the corruption of their nature. A rare quality, indeed, in this day of India-rubber theology and spineless convictions.
"I know . . . you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars . . . " The writer of this book, John the Beloved, spoke in his first Epistle of those who went out from the company of the Apostles, but were of another spirit. "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us" (1 John 2:18-19). These came in the name of Christ, and claimed to be Apostles. The Ephesians, however, did not receive them upon the basis of their claim. They put them to the test, not willing to receive, without due examination, either the persons or the word of those who claimed to be of God.
Before leaving them, Paul; had told the Ephesian elders "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves" (Acts 20:29-30). This had apparently happened, and the Ephesians had taken Paul's words seriously. In keeping with the nature of the Kingdom of God, they were faithful to "test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). If ever there was an appropriate word for our time, it is this one. How we need churches who are willing to "test those" who purport to have a message from God.
The Ephesians found these men to be "liars." A worthy discovery, indeed! No nice assessment here, or savory language that dulls our sense of the enormity of misrepresentation! If God commanded that no one bear false witness concerning human relationships (Ex 20-16), you can imagine His view of those who are false witnesses concerning their relationship to Him. This was another commendable trait among the Ephesians.
Ignatius, early church father who succeeded Simon Peter at Antioch, also wrote to the church in Ephesus. His words reflect the same assessment as that provided in our text. "I ought to be trained for the contest by you in faith, in admonition, in endurance, in long suffering, for ye all live according to truth and no heresy hath a home among you; nay, ye do not so much as listen to any one if he speak of ought else save concerning Jesus Christ in truth, as indeed ye are not deceived, I have learned that certain persons passed through you from Syria, bringing evil doctrine; whom ye suffered not to sow seed in you, for ye stopped your ears, you were ever of one mind with the Apostles in the power of Jesus Christ." (William Ramsey, Letters to the Seven Churches). The point to be seen here is that they labored to maintain an identity with the Lord Jesus Christ, not allowing the encroachment of false teachers. That is a commendable quality the contemporary church would do well to restore. Even though trying the spirits can sometimes be exhaustive, the Ephesian church did not fail to insist that those coming in the name of the Lord be tested. This is a strong quality, and not at all common among contemporary churches.
You Have Persevered
"I know . . . you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary . . . " This refers to the bearing of burdens--matters that weigh down the soul and make progress difficult. They were not "weary in well doing" (Gal 6:9; 2 Thess 3:13), but continued in their efforts. As a congregation, Ephesus excelled far beyond the average American church. It maintained an identity with Christ, laboring for His "name's sake." The idea behind the expression "and have not become weary" is that the Ephesians did not tire of toil. They had become accustomed to arduous effort. Again, this is a most commendable quality, and not to be despised.
Some of the energy with which they approached the faith is seen in their initial reaction to the Gospel of Christ. "And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. And many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed" (Acts 19:17-20). How refreshing it would be to find such zeal today. No doubt, there are pockets of such spiritual fervor here and there. However, once again, it is not common. What is more, we will find it was not common in the day in which this message was given.
These believers abandoned their past with zeal, a most exemplary trait. Years later, they still possessed a zealous character, the Son of God Himself commending them for it. In this regard, they were fulfilling the mandate of the Spirit: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor 15:58).
The nature of spiritual life demands such a posture! Those who do not bear up under stress and difficulty, continuing faithful in the face of opposition, and for the Name of Christ labor indefatigably, have no promise of completing the course set before them. Failure in these matters is most critical, even though it is common. Legion is the name of those who today have less fervency for the Lord than in prior times. Multitudes have experienced the abatement of their zeal and the dissipation of their labors. Such things ought not to be! Salvation provides for constancy!
This is a time when men have grown accustomed to a sword without an edge, and profession without commitment. However, the Lord Jesus had not grown accustomed to such things. He still holds a loss of "first love" against those no longer possessing it.
Our Lord is exacting in His assessment. He will not fail to commend spiritual virtues. However, neither will He "wink" at spiritual departures. "Love will cover a multitude of sins" (1 Pet 4:8), but virtues will not hide serious spiritual flaws from the flaming eyes of Jesus. He will not knit-pick, so to speak, but will go to the heart of the matter. He has dealt with the "works" of the church at Ephesus, now He will look at the heart of that congregation. His assessment is arresting.
I Have Something Against You!
"Nevertheless I have this against you . . . " Notice, this is not simply a gentle criticism. This is something the Lord Jesus has "AGAINST" the church. It might appear from the language of the KJV that this is something of small consequence: i.e., "Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee . . . " This, however, is not at all the case. The word "somewhat" compares their single liability with the many virtues they possessed. While it was quantitatively less than their many strong points, we will find it outweighed them all! The phrase "I have this against you" is an extremely strong phrase. It literally means, "I have this grave thing against you." Even if we were not aware of this linguistic fact, the words that follow would convince us of its truth.
When I read this solemn warning, I think of the word of God to ancient Israel. "For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth. Ye shall not tempt the LORD your God . . . " (Deut 6:15-16). That is a condition to be avoided at all cost! How frequently Scripture records the Lord saying, "I am against thee!" Jeremiah warned the people God was against them (Jer 21:13). Babylon also received the word God was against her (Jer 50:31; 51:25). Ezekiel cried out for God against "Jerusalem" and the "land of Israel", "I am against thee" (Ezek 5:8; 21:3). Tyrus was also given this message (Ezek 26:3), and Zidon as well (Ezek 28:22). The same words were shouted to Pharaoh, king of Egypt (Ezek 29:3), the land of Egypt (Ezek 29:10), and God's own people (Ezek 35:3). Gog heard the same warning (Ezek 35:8; 38:3; 39:1), and Nahum declared the same condition to Nineveh (Nah 2:13; 3:5). These words are always attended by the greatest solemnity. If not heeded, they are a prelude to Divine cursing and judgment. While it is true, "If God be for us, who can be against us" (Rom 8:31), if the Lord is "against us," or has something "against" us, there is no virtue or acquaintance that can offset the condition. Only a correction of the situation will turn away Divine indignation. I am persuaded that many have never seen Jesus in this light. Some cannot conceive of the Lord Jesus being "against" anything, particularly in His church. But they are wrong--seriously wrong!
The Intolerable Condition
And what is it that Jesus has against the Ephesian church? What has neutralized His view of them, provoking Him to issue this solemn warning? They have been hard workers, faithful testers, and consistent in their labors. What could possibly diminish the weight of those virtues? Here is the Divine assessment: "you have left your first love." It did not leave them, they left it!
The wording here is critical. Jesus does not say they LOST their "first love," but that they "LEFT" it! The RSV reads, "You have abandoned the love you had at first." The NIV reads, "You have forsaken your first love." The BBE (Basic Bible English) reads, "You are turned away from your first love." The word from which "left" (abandoned, or forsaken) is translated is extremely strong. It is afhkej (af-ee'-ay-mes), and means leave behind, forsake, neglect, let go, or dismiss. It speaks of an act of the will a choice to leave one thing in favor of another. It is the same word Jesus used when He said, "And every one that hath left houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit eternal life" (Matt 19:29). This is the word used to describe the healing of Peter's mother-in-law, when a fever "LEFT" her (Matt 8:15). Jesus used it when He said, "the Father hath not left me alone" (John 8:29). This is a strong and aggressive term!
Notice, Jesus does not say their "first love" left them. Rather, they left it! Something moved them in a direction away from an affection for Christ. Rather than drawing near to Him, they actually withdrew while engaged in an unusual amount of correct religious activity. Their doctrinal purity, as essential as it was, allowed the dismissal of their first and fervent love for Christ. Even though they had tried false Apostles, finding them liars, they had abandoned their deep and abiding affection for the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Nature of Loving Christ
This is a condition with which I am painfully familiar. By the grace of God, I have found deliverance from it, but remain acutely aware of the fragility of our love for the Savior. It can be upstaged by a penchant for doctrinal exactness that is only on the surface. Hearty efforts, wrought for His blessed Name's sake, can also wash away our "first love." Mind you, it is not that doctrinal purity, testing false teachers, and tireless labors are bad. God forbid! Jesus commended the Ephesians for those things, and, of themselves, they are necessary, noble, and good.. The Ephesians were not rebuked for their involvement in such activities. Like the Pharisees, it could be sad, "These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matt 23:23).
I have observed a condition in the religious world concerning which there are few, if any, exceptions. Those who maintain a focus on doctrinal exactness nearly always are unknown for their love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Rarely is tenderness found among them, particularly as regards insight into the Person and accomplishments of the Lord Jesus Christ. At this point I am especially cautious. Under no conditions can faulty doctrine be tolerated or condoned! If Jesus commended efforts to maintain "sound doctrine," we must be not be found despising or criticizing such endeavors. They are not, however, to be our focus, or the primary thing. The heart of our Gospel is the Lord Jesus Crist Himself. Our death to sin is traced to our unity with Him in His death (Rom 6:1-8). Our spiritual life is the result of God raising us to sit with Christ in heavenly places (Rom 6:4; Eph 2:6). Jesus Himself is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6).
Our love of the truth, indispensable to our salvation (2 Thess 2:10), is basically spiritual, not a mere intellectual preference. It is because of our love for the Lord Jesus that we have been drawn into affinity with the truth. That is one of the primary things revealed by Christ's wonderful promise: "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him . . . If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him" (John 14:21,23). Our love for Christ has a sanctifying effect upon the soul. It spreads its fragrance throughout every activity of our lives. Without it, the most noble engagements become ineffective as regards eternal issues. It is no wonder the Spirit declared, "If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come!" (1 Cor 16:22).
Jesus does not upbraid the Ephesians, however, for NOT loving Him, but for leaving their "first love." Peterson's paraphrase of this passage reads, "But you walked away from your first love." What is this "FIRST love" that they left, abandoned, forsook, and walked away from? We know it is no small and inconsequential thing, because Jesus was against them because of it. This was the love they had "at the first." It is what constrained them to zealously abandon all competing interests, and "cleave to the Lord with purpose of heart." It moved them to burn their books of curious and occultic arts (Acts 19:19). But, alas, they did not retain their ardent affection for the Person of Christ. They could no longer say with Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal 2:20). Their approach to spiritual life was ardent, fervent, zealous, and consistent--but it did not require intimacy with the Lord Jesus! Ah, many are the churches who have also embraced this dreadful approach!
Upon coming into Christ, everything becomes new (2 Cor 5:17). Unless, however, the heart remains focused on "the things that are not seen" (2 Cor 4:17-18), the luster of that beginning begins to fade. Like an object hurled up into the air, spiritual life begins with energy, focus, and fervent love. It is intended to increase, going from "strength unto strength" (Psa 84:7) as the saved are "changed" from one degree unto another (2 Cor 3:18). However, there is a spiritual gravitational pull exerted upon the soul, which causes life, like the object thrown into the air, to reach a peak, and then descend again to earth. That descent is slow at first, but increases in speed. So it is with those who abandon their "first love." They get closer to earth and further from heaven with quickening pace! There is nothing inherent in eternal life that causes this. It happens when Jesus is no longer the heart and focus of our attention.
That "first love" is attended by a "joy unspeakable and full of glory" because of the preciousness of Christ Jesus (1 Pet 1:8; 2:7). There is an awareness of sins forgiven, and fear no longer dominates the heart. It is the time of the "first love." There is an unparalleled tenderness of heart that makes the redeemed teachable--and how they love to be "taught by Him" (Eph 4:20-21). The commandments are neither "grievous" nor burdensome, and there is a genuine hatred of even the "garment spotted by the flesh" (1 John 5:3; Matt 11:29; Jude 23). O, the blessedness of the "first love." There is nothing--absolutely nothing--in salvation that encourages or provides for a departure from that tender preference!
This is the language of a Bridegroom speaking with His bride--Jesus talking to the church. In just a few years, the preciousness of Christ had waned in the hearts of the Ephesians. He was no longer dominant in their affection. They had become champions of precision but vacillating in affection--a dreadful combination! Someone has said (I do not recall the name), It is possible for all of the machinery of the church to be in fine working order, while the spirit of love and zeal which first set it in motion is on the decline!
What Caused the Departure?
How is it that they "left," or abandoned, their "first love?" Alas, this is not an easy question to answer, for the heart is complicated. With some, the failure to put away some lingering lust, a sin that "so easily besets," causes the diminishment of the "first love." For others, the mitigation of that early affection is caused by "evil communications" unholy alliances with wicked people which corrupt good manners (1 Cor 15:34). Some subject themselves to skeptical books, and views that challenge the authenticity of Scripture. But for the Ephesians, the departure appears to be caused by something even more subtle than these.
I see in the Ephesians something that is very prevalent in the circles in which I have companied. It is an academic approach to the things of God. The Ephesian church had a commendable penchant for exactness. They tested those who said they were Apostles, finding them to be liars. They appeared, however, to rely more upon their studies than upon the "anointing," provided by God to assist us in deciphering the truth. In my opinion, they did not engage in this testing relying upon the Lord, but rather upon their own assessment and perception of the truth. This may seem like a small and inconsequential persuasion, but it is not. We know their activities did not ascribe the preeminent place to Christ, because they "left" their "first love." This simply cannot be done while placing implicit dependence upon Him.
John wrote of the appointed means of detecting false teachers. Allow me to quote his rather lengthy treatise of this subject. It has great relevance to this discussion. "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth. Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also. Therefore let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that He has promised us; eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you. But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him" (1 John 2:18-27).
The times were dangerous. There were teachers who had actually been with the Apostles, but had not tasted of the Lord as they had. They eventually left their company in order that God might expose them as liars, possessing the spirit of antichrist. John does not write to the people because they are ignorant of the truth, requiring correction. Rather, he writes to alert them to Divine provision. In receiving the Holy Spirit, they were thus equipped to distinguish truth from error. This could not be done by the human intellect alone, as gifted as some may be. Error has a spirit to it, as well as content--and it is the spirit of it that the Holy Spirit enables the redeemed to detect.
This anointing abides with us through our love for and affinity with the Lord Jesus Christ. As soon as our hearts become distant from the Savior, the Spirit no longer teaches us. He is, after all, "the Spirit of Christ," and "the Spirit" of God's "Son" (Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6). It is my persuasion that the Ephesians did not rely upon the Good Shepherd in their assessments. While they did, indeed, find the false Apostles to be "liars," their approach allowed them to leave their "first love." The "anointing," however, does not allow for such a departure. Rather, it is written, "but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him."
"Remember therefore from where you have fallen . . . " These are startling words, awakening the slumbering spirit of those who have "left" their "first love." The Ephesian church was in a "FALLEN" state! Say what you may about the precision of their teaching, they had "fallen!" Anyone familiar with Scripture cringes at the word "fallen." This is the word used to describe the condition of Satan; "How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" (Isa 14:12). Judas is said to have "by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place" (Acts 1:25). Those seeking justification from Law are said to "have fallen from grace" (Gal 5:4). From the standpoint of their activity, they had "LEFT" their first love. From the Divine viewpoint, they had "FALLEN!" Dreadful day, when the Lord Jesus says you have "fallen." I wonder how many churches in our fair city, were they able to hear the Lord Jesus, would hear such words.
In the case of the Ephesians, they had fallen to their own ruin. It is as though they were in a deep crevice, having fallen from a place of safety. But they did not see themselves in this light. They had grown accustomed to living in the place of spiritual restriction, insensitive that they had "left" their "first love." Now the Lord Jesus urges them to look up to the cliff of safety from which they had fallen. It is as though He said, Remember when you first believed, and were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph 1:13). Ponder that blessed occasion when, in a burst of zeal, you gathered the books of curious arts, and burned them publically (Acts 19:19). Contrast where you are now, with where you once were. Think of the joy and peace you have lost. Consider how you once "learned" Me (Eph 4:20), and were possessed by faith AND love (Eph 1:15). Remember! Remember! Such remembrances exert a powerful influence over the soul.--the recollection of times of blessedness, when the consciousness of the Lord was acute, and devotion was unquestionably to Him.
Do not miss the strength of the Divine assessment! They had labored and endured, but they had fallen! They could not bear those who were evil, but they had fallen! They had tested those claiming to be apostles, and had found them to be liars, but they had fallen! This church had held up under great stress, but they had fallen! They had endured for Christ's Name sake, and did not give up, but they had fallen! They had retrogressed, when everything about salvation is progressive. They excelled in secondary matters, but failed in primary ones! This is the church that was told, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He has made us accepted in the Beloved" (Eph 1:3-6). The blessedness of their former condition could still be recalled, even though they had FALLEN from it.
The Determined Objective, Repent!!
" . . . repent . . . " The condition of the Ephesian church called for repentance! They had no choice but to turn from their present course, which was leading to destruction. When Jesus cries out "REPENT," men do well to give heed. How many are the people you know, or even churches, whose fire has dimmed and affection for Jesus waned? They are all about us, and men have grown accustomed to such things. I know of churches within a short distance of this very house whose love for Christ has waned. They are in a state of spiritual deterioration, drifting from their moorings, and leaving their "first love." And yet, the religious structure in which they find themselves does not allow for a call to repentance, for their condition is not viewed as wrong! Such congregations must listen to what Jesus is saying to the church at Ephesus! "REPENT!"
Remember, Jesus has been exalted to the Father's right hand "to give repentance" (Acts 5:31). He not only gives it initially, when one turns from the broad way and idols to serve the living God. Repentance is also "given" to those who once escaped the pollutions of the world, but again were captivated by the tempter (2 Tim 2:24-26). However, He will not do it without the effort of the offender! The church at Ephesus must "REPENT." They must turn away from the course of action that has dulled the flame of their love for Christ--their "first love." In spite of all of their activity, their Savior had been pushed into the background. They must REPENT of this condition, turning from it with zeal.
Do the First Works!
" . . . and do the first works . . . " It is not enough to renounce flawed manners. Ephesus must again "do the first works"--the works which were done out of a fervent love for Christ Jesus. In the Kingdom, "faith works by love" (Gal 5:6), and only works motivated by faith will be ultimately acknowledged. It is not that there was a separate class of works accomplished by the Ephesians at the beginning. Those earlier works sprang from higher motives. In them the saying was fulfilled, "For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again" (2 Cor 5:14-15). It is clear from our text that the Ephesian church was not being motivated by "the love of Christ." They had left that love, and had taken a powerless approach to spiritual life. Their works may have appeared extremely valuable to those about them, but they did not come up to the works they did at "the first."
Lost ground MUST be recovered! The situation bears some resemblance to the time when Joseph and Mary lost the young Jesus. In their return from Jerusalem, they noticed after three days that Jesus was not with them. They had supposed He was "with the company," and therefore went a day's journey seeking Him "among their relatives and acquaintances" (Luke 2:43-44). In order to find Him, they had to return to the place where they lost Him ! It is written, "they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him" (Luke 2:45). It is like this with those who have left their first love. They must return to the place where they lost it, recovering "the first works."
This is a most challenging requirement. Having "left" their "first love," the sophist might suppose they should repent and love the Lord as they did at the first. But that is not Christ's counsel. He cries out to them, "DO THE FIRST WORKS." There is an aspect of the Kingdom that must be seen here. In the beginning of their walk with Christ, they were told, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:10). Walking in those works, however, is not mere activity. The Ephesians were intensely active. Yet, they were not walking in the works prepared beforehand by God.
The "first works" were accomplished in union with the Lord--that is what gave them their validity. God has made no provision for acceptable Kingdom activity that excludes Himself or His Son. Jesus referred to these works when He said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matt 5:16). The "light" to which Jesus refers is not our own! It has been given to us by our Lord! The works of reference result from a walk "in the light, as He is in the light" (1 John 1:7). They flow out from intimacy with the Redeemer. Any work that is not performed out of such a glorious union is not acceptable to the Lord. He entertains no interest in theological precision without intimate association with Himself. Where an acute sensitivity of Christ Jesus is lacking, works are reduced to mere activity. They may count well with men, but not with the Lord.
Avoid Divine Judgment
" . . . or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place; unless you repent." In a day of religious sophistry, this aspect of Christ's character is little known. However, if the church is to "make herself ready" to meet the Bridegroom (Rev 19:7), she must have a proper perception of Lord Jesus.
See how the One with eyes as a flame of fire speaks to the church at Ephesus! He does not suggest that His church repents: He commands it! In a straightforward and unmistakable manner, He reveals the consequences of failing to do so. He will personally come to the flagging church and "remove" its "lampstand from its place." He will not allow them to wear His name and represent His cause to the world if they insist on remaining at a distance from Him! The church itself is threatened with removal. The Lord does not say HOW this will be accomplished, but Scripture teaches us to fear such judgment. Their light was flickering, and their service was mechanical. Jesus now fans the flame with a serious threat, seeking to bring the Ephesian church once again into intimacy with Himself.
When the Jews refused to receive Christ, He said, "Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it" (Matt 21:43). And again, "But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt 8:12). The mighty man who revels in evil is told, "God shall likewise destroy you forever; He shall take you away, and pluck you out of your dwelling place, And uproot you from the land of the living" (Psa 52:5). Think how God removed king Saul following his disobedience: "You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!" (1 Sam 15:26, NIV). Those who attempt to live in separation from the Lord, whether individuals or congregations, will be rejected by Him! Judgment "begins" with the "house of God" (1 Pet 4:17). Even though the Ephesians had tested false Apostles and found them to be liars, if they did not regain their "first love" and "do the first works," the church would be removed. Her vigorous works were not enough to justify her existence. If her works did not flow from her fellowship with Christ, there was no need for her to continue. History confirms both the longsuffering and judgment of the Lord Jesus. All of the churches, saving for Smyrna and Philadelphia became extinct after 1,000 years. The church did NOT "repent," else it would not have been removed.
During the last few years, I have become acutely aware of a great number of churches that have closed. Not a few of them had a noble beginning and a long history. Could it be that they too were "taken away"? Such a consideration is rarely entertained these days, when institutionalism and humanly-devised organization reign. There is an abysmal ignorance of Christ Jesus in the professed church--an almost total lack of intimacy with Him. Where such a condition exists, the judgment of Christ will soon follow. How we need flaming evangels to call the churches into fellowship with Christ! It is both pleasant and essential! Lord, give us such men!
SOMETHING IN YOUR FAVOR
"But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." It is as though the Savior seeks for a reason to speak well of the church. He has told them their indefatigable labors and constancy have been duly noted. However, when He speaks of an especially noteworthy virtue, He mentions something having to do with their affection. The Nicolaitans were the moral libertines of the day, giving free reign to fleshly appetites. They committed fornication, adultery, and all uncleanness, had their wives in common, and also ate things offered to idols. These were a sect of the Gnosticism against which John wrote in His First Epistle. Gnosticism taught that man's superior capacity was for knowledge. The primary source of its tenets was human philosophy. Gnosticism borrowed from a great variety of thoughts--a sort of philosophical conglomeration. Its approach to life was based on human, rather than Divine, satisfaction. Gnostics did not acknowledge the humanity of Christ, a matter specifically addressed by the Apostle John (John 1:14; 1 John 4:2-3). The rejection of Christ's humanity caused them to accentuate their own humanity. Thus, they indulged their fleshly appetites without restraint.
This sect had affiliated itself with Christ Jesus, but in a corrupt way. They viewed redemption as release from matter rather than sin. Thus they did not acknowledge immorality, or the indulgence of fleshly lusts, as wrong. They supposed themselves to have been delivered from such foolish restraints. A modern counterpart of Gnosticism is Christian Science, which rejects matter, and ascribes everything to patterns of thought. They provide reading rooms where people can read away, what they conceive to be, imagined difficulties, ranging from illness to sin. They also believe the "blood of Jesus" did more good in His veins than in being shed for the sins of the word.
This Gnosticism was the fountain in which Nicolaitanism was spawned. Their doctrine bore a great resemblance to that of Balaam, "who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication" (Rev 2:14). Two of the seven churches were succumbing to this corrupt doctrine: Pergamum (Rev 2:14-15) and Thyatira (Rev 2:20). The church at Ephesus HATED the "deeds of the Nicolaitans." They could not abide the result of their teaching--and Jesus commended them for it. He did not call for a prayer meeting for this ungodly sect, but commended the Ephesians for their contempt for their deeds.
Jesus also declares He hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans: "which I also hate." He declared the same thing to the church of Pergamum (2:15). Actually, all sin is hateful to Christ, and thus should also be to His church. One of the marks of our Savior is, He "loved righteousness, and hated iniquity" (Heb 1:9). In a startling revelation of the Divine nature, Jehu once said to king Jehosaphat, who had formed an alliance with the ungodly, "Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Because of this, the wrath of the LORD is upon you" (2 Chron 19:2). Jesus insists that His church have the same regard toward sin as Himself--particularly something as reprehensible as "the deeds of the Nicolaitans." In my judgment, there needs to be a revival of this type of hatred in the churches. There is altogether too much tolerance of sin.
THE APPOINTED INCENTIVE
The One Who stands in the middle of the churches has issued a stern warning. Those who have abandoned their "first love" are threatened with removal. But the Lord does not stop here. He will provide a strong incentive for them to give heed to His words.
Divine Counsel Must Be Heard
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." This section is written to the messenger of the church at Ephesus, who was to faithfully deliver it. But the message is not confined to Ephesus. What God has written in a book is not only for a specific person or group. Notice, He does NOT say, "what the Spirit says to THIS church," but "what the Spirit says to THE CHURCHES." If men live "by every Word of God" (Luke 4:4), we dare not take a provincial view of any Scripture. The books of Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, for example, are not private letters intended for no one else. Neither, indeed are the books of Romans, Corinthians, Colossians, etc., intended only for those groups. Wherever there is a soul sensitive to the Word of the living God, the message is to be heard."He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." Those who have ears to hear, have been given them by the Lord. To the hard-hearted Israelites the Spirit said, "Yet the LORD hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day" (Deut 29:4).
Every person possessing a sensitivity to God is obligated to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, even though they themselves are not immediately addressed. Notice, God gave the message to Jesus. Jesus gave it to an angel. The angel gave it to John. However, it is "the Spirit" Who is saying it to the churches. This is His sword (Eph 6:17), and He will quicken, or make alive, the Word to every soul giving heed to it. Those who are "dull of hearing" (Matt 13:15; Acts 28:27; Heb 5:11) are in a most serious condition. In that condition, they are cut off from the life-giving word of Christ!
A Precious Promise
"To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." Here is the greatest of all incentives--the "exceeding great and precious promises" of God (2 Pet 1:4). This is the means through which we become "partakers of the Divine nature." For the Ephesians, there was something to overcome--a spiritually deficient condition over which they must triumph! The Divine nature was slipping away from them. They, like many churches of our day, were operating in their own strength. Having "left" their "first love," they were more academic than spiritual! However, because of the "great mercy" (Num 14:18) and the "great love " (Eph 2:4) of the Savior, recovery was possible. The Lord has already told them they will be taken away, forfeiting their stewardship, if they do not repent. Now He will give them an exceeding strong reason to recover.
Observe how personal the promise is: "to HIM who overcomes." Although the word is spoken "to the churches," it is addressed to individual living stones. We will find this most personal approach throughout the messages to the churches. Here we are provided a perspective essential to acceptable living. Rather than being absorbed by the world, in Christ we are equipped to overcome it! While in the body, we are subject to the attacks and delusions of the wicked one. He is characterized by unparalleled ferocity, and cunning as well. The enemy had made inroads in the church at Ephesus--while they were intensely zealous and active. Mark it well, if in all of your doing you do not overcome, it makes little difference what you may have appeared to accomplish! The promise is not to those who TRY, but to those who overcome! You might say, those who CONQUER, or TRIUMPH--the victors! These finish the race, even though confronted with obstacles. They win the war, though often "cast down." All such have tasted of "the power of the resurrection," which enables recovery, excellence, and final triumph!
Here is a word particularly for "the churches," and everyone with a spiritual capacity to hear! To the one who overcomes, Christ promises, "I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." Sin cut mankind off from "the tree of life" (Gen 3:22-24). Uninterrupted communion with the Living God was no longer allowed, and death began its ruthless reign. This is a symbolic reference to immortality which awaits the faithful. It is a condition where "Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor 15:54). It involves the total absence of decline in any form. No more deterioration, dissipation, or erosion. No more necessity for recovery. For the overcomer, death in all of its aspects will be finally vanquished! For those who do not overcome, death will be perpetual.
By saying "I will give to eat," Jesus means the overcomer will have constant and uninterrupted access to the life and fellowship of "God and the Lamb" (Rev 22:1,3). There will be no more "famine of hearing the Word of the Lord" (Amos 8:11)! Darkness in any form will be banished from the habitation of the saints. No more thirsting for God as in a "dry and thirsty land" (Psa 42:1-2; 63:1). The fruit will be found in abundance, with no hint of scarcity. No difficulty will be associated with its appropriation, and it will bring about full and total recovery from the fall. How beautifully this is portrayed in Revelation 22:2. "In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." Such abundance will be for the overcomer! No permission will be required to partake of the blessedness of eternal life! No focused quest in the face of opposition will be experienced. Jesus will "give" the "right" to eat of the fruit.
Eating of the tree of life will not be a commandment, like eating Christ's flesh and drinking His blood in this world(John 6:53-56). There will be no competing interests! The promise also assumes the fervent desire of the overcomer to enjoy eternal life in its fulness. An acquaintance with God will be realized by the conqueror that is longed for in the battlefield. Here, we develop the appetite. There, it shall be satiated. In this world the overcomer battles to keep his "first love" and obsession with "things that are above." Jesus promises the fulfillment of those deep longings will be fully realized in the world to come.
The "tree of life" is "in the midst of the paradise of God." What a glorious thought! If the overcomer is eating from a tree in the heart of God's paradise, then he himself is at the center of God's dwelling. No more experiential periphery! There are three immediate references to "paradise" in Scripture, and one symbolic reference. It is assumed that man was originally placed in a sort of "paradise." How wonderfully it is described. God "planted a garden eastward in Eden," and placed man in it. "Every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food" was caused to grow for man. The "tree of life" was also placed "in the midst of the garden." It is written that a "river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison . . . the name of the second river is Gihon . . . the name of the third river is Hiddekel . . . and the fourth river is Euphrates." The areas through which these rivers flowed were noted for good gold, bdellium, and the onyx stone" (Gen 2:8-14). It was a marvelous place, indeed. But sin cause men to be thrust from that ancient paradise!
Jesus mentioned "paradise" to the penitent thief: "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Truly, a state of blessedness. Paul tells us of an occasion when he was "caught up to the third heaven," "into Paradise," where he heard words that could not be conveyed in human speech (2 Cor 2:2-4).
Now, in our text, Jesus promises the overcomer a place in "the paradise of God." The glory of this paradise is the Lord's presence (Rev 21:11,23). Here, the communion of Christ will be close and intimate. There will be, as the hymn writer affirmed, "nothing between." There will be no prohibition in any form, no restraint of any kind, and no handicap. Nothing will be withheld from us, nor will we ever hear the words, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now" (John 16:12). Blessed contemplation, indeed, and worthy of hearty repentance and a vigorous pursuit of the "first works." Such efforts will be honored in heaven, and assist in preparing churches and individuals to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Such are things are to be pursued!
A sensitive soul will see remarkable parallels between the church at Ephesus and many churches of our day. Such parallels are not to be left in the room of observation. Those, whether individual or congregation, who have "left their first love" must recover it at all cost. They must repent of the grievous loss, and do the "first works," when their heart was uncluttered with ways and manners that did not require the presence of the Lord Jesus. There is far too much church activity that is void of a strong and dominating love for Jesus Christ. It is inexcusable, and must not be tolerated. Whatever seeming good may be accomplished by those who have abandoned their "first love," is invalidated by their spiritual condition.
Christ's threat and promise assume that spiritual dulness robs the soul of a proper appetite for the things "God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor 2:9-10). Those engaged in intense religious activities, but who have forsaken their "first love," do not think about Jesus taking them away. Their minds do not consider that the Lord has something "against" them. And why is this so? Because their hearts have been desensitized by their religion! Too, the thought of having access to eternal life with no restraint is not at all appealing to them. They do not walk in communion with Jesus now, so have no thoughts of its expansion in the world to come. Though men have grown accustomed to such a condition, Jesus has not.
You must see Christ as calling His people back within the circumference of hearing, where the soul is acutely aware of its Lord. It is only within that boundary that salvation can be worked out "with fear and trembling." May you take this message to heart, using it as an occasion to become more sensitive of the Lord. May you recover any ground you may have lost, and be found acceptable in Christ's eyes.
The church at Ephesus has afforded us a glimpse into the nature of spiritual life. It has also acquainted us more thoroughly with the Lord Jesus Christ, and His assessment of the churches. He has a keen interest in their productivity, and longs for them to be in "the paradise of God." Buit He cannot abide a departure from a love for Himself. No amount of activity, however arduous, can compensate for a loss of that. Thus He views them with a most critical eye, not to condemn them., but to save them.