11/30/2020 10:37:12 AM
Letters to the Seven Churches: Ephesus
Pastor Eric Schroeder - The First Sunday in Advent - Sunday, November 29, 2020
Please permit some words of introduction before we begin our sermon series. The Revelation of Jesus Christ to St. John, or simply Revelation, can be an intimidating book. It is filled with symbolic language, some of which can seem awfully disturbing. But anytime we approach these words of God, we want to remember a couple of things:
- The Big Idea of Revelation—It’s all about victory. The enemies of God are a threatening lot, but they cannot overcome God, with his plans and promises guaranteed in Christ.
- The Purpose of Revelation—These words are for us and for our good. For our strengthening and encouragement, God has given us these words of warning and caution, of confidence and comfort as we await our Lord’s return.
- Without careful study, and without the rest of Scripture, we won’t be able to understand Revelation. Even with careful study, we still might not understand certain references or details. That’s ok. But what we don’t want to do is take any passages out of their context and think that anything here in Revelation will contradict anything else God has inspired in the other 65 books of the Bible.
Chapter one serves as the introduction to the book. St. John makes it clear that he wrote these words, but they came from Jesus himself. John was writing from an island called Patmos, where he had been exiled for his faithful ministry. The immediate audience was made up of seven congregations, scattered throughout present-day Turkey; beginning with chapter 2, John addresses each of them, but every Christian congregation ought to apply these words to their own setting. Today our focus is on the words aimed at Ephesus. They start with “to the angel [or messenger] of the church,” probably a reference to the pastor who would share this message with the rest of the people…
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands [a reference to these seven churches]: 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
What we’ll see as a clear pattern in these seven letters is probably what we’d expect in an evaluation of any Christian congregation, including ours. Most of the churches have both strengths and weaknesses, both positives and negatives, both commendations of faithfulness and corrections to be made. We see that here in these words, and we’ll see application for our lives and in our church. Let’s start with the good.
I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. There was much effort and much activity in Ephesus. The same could be said of St. John’s. Many people putting in many hours, serving many individuals, homes, and families. Ministry is not easy or without cost, but generations of St. John’s members have stepped up throughout a long history to get things to where they are now. We can thank God for all those blessings, as the Ephesians could.
Jesus goes on: I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. [and a bit later on…] You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
The Ephesians didn’t quit, that’s for sure; they were still hanging on despite difficulties. The first century was a rough one for the early Christians. They faced persecution from the Roman leaders and Jewish establishment alike. I don’t know that any of us have been physically threatened on the same scale as they regularly were, but we too know what it is like to face opposition. We know how society is always pushing for acceptance and even promotion of what God says is sinful, and when we hold fast to the Bible, we are called all kinds of derogatory names. To many people, we are bigots, unloving or even hateful, foolish, or uneducated when we hold to the teachings of what they consider an outdated and obsolete collection of writings. Or we are the hypocrites who love to look down on everyone else and pat ourselves on the back because God must love people like us more than he loves them.
We’ll take just a small break here to talk about the Nicolaitans. Who are they? Short answer is we don’t know; they are never really introduced or explained, only mentioned in passing, both here and in one of our upcoming texts, the letter to the Church at Pergamum. Whatever their practices may have been, whether grossly immoral or full of false teachings—most likely both—the Ephesian Christians lined up with Jesus in their judgment of such things and such people. Either way, the scary thing about the Nicolaitans is that they don’t seem to be a group outside of Christianity, but rather a sect within the organized Church. Let’s always remember that danger to our souls comes not only from those who hate the church, but also from those who hijack the church to suit their own appetites and desires, who lead souls away from Christ instead of preparing people for his return.
Now back to…where were we? Oh yes, hypocrisy. Is it possible that such a charge against us might be warranted at times? It seems like that may have been the case in Ephesus. 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. For all the good in the Ephesian congregation, there was one glaring negative…and it is one worth investigating in ourselves today. Have we forsaken our first love? Have we replaced the heart of Christianity with the habits of Christianity? Have we let budget numbers or attendance numbers or online viewership numbers convince us that we are doing just fine? Have we convinced ourselves that we have given enough or put in enough time or learned enough of the Bible to go on some sort of spiritual autopilot? Have we looked at our own lives and come to the conclusion that we have found the right balance between doing what God wants and what we want (as if there is a proper “balance”)?
The odds are pretty good that those are convicting questions, if we are honestly willing to ask them. They convict me. They pull us down from a position of “doing just fine” to a more fitting place of humility before God and one another. We look at our constant spiritual need and realize that this is no time to relax; this is time again to repent of our own hypocrisy and complacency, our selfishness, and our pride. We didn’t get here by doing everything right. We were led here to admit our sin and be forgiven once again, because Jesus did everything right for us. We are children of God not because we loved so well, but because we are loved so well, as John wrote in his first Epistle. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are…” because our heavenly Father has not forsaken his first love: you.
As we are reminded to prepare for our Savior’s coming, our first call is to repent—to show genuine sorrow over our sins and turn to Jesus alone for forgiveness. There is a stern warning for all who refuse: If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. That’s not the kind of visit from him that any of us want to experience, where our souls and our church are lost. The good news is that we are mere weeks away from celebrating the kind of visit we all needed—God in the flesh, to show God’s love by loving perfectly in our place and proving his undying love for sinners by dying for sinners on the cross. What a blessing to hear his loving call today as one who lives again and longs for us to return daily to him in repentance, so that we are ready for his return.
Just think of where our church could go if every one of us returned regularly to our first love… If every one of us began every day in humble repentance and closed our eyes every night in the peace of God’s forgiveness… If every one of us reflected the love of Jesus in all of our interactions in our homes and in our lives… If every one of us had the continual desire to know God and his Word better, and we devoted regular time to our own spiritual growth… If every one of us gave as generously as we are able in support of missions, ministry, and serving those in need… If every one of us took every chance we were given to speak the name of Jesus in love for lost souls around us… Of course, none of us can carry out these works for everyone else. But by God’s grace, you can strive to do them more in your life. I can, too. But the real question is why, lest we forsake our first love again. The answer is God’s everlasting, unchanging love for each of us in Christ: love from eternity, proven in Christ, personalized at your baptism, and renewed in us through the gospel in Word and Sacrament. God loves you. He always has, and he always will. And that brings us back to what Jesus promises here, the big idea of Revelation: Victory! Because of God’s love for us in Christ, we will overcome, and eat from the tree of life in paradise with him. AMEN.