Revelation 1 through 3 is the setting for last Sunday’s message and the message this Sunday as well. And I started off last Sunday by asking a couple of questions around a similar theme: “Have you ever heard of a church that repented, a church that repented? Have you ever been part of a church that repented? Have you ever led a church in repenting?” And the answer is, “Not likely. Not likely.”
Rarely do churches repent. I mean collectively, rarely do they repent, repent of their collective sins and unfaithfulness to the truth written and incarnate, to their compromises, to their tolerance of sin; very rare. But there are thousands of churches that need to repent. There are a lot of ways that we know that. We can know that by how they have deviated from the truth of the Word of God, how they have made other things their priority, how they have embraced the culture, how they become tolerant of sin and iniquity, and how they have made a comfortable place for sinners.
There are lots of ways in which churches can find themselves in a position to repent, but it’s very hard to find one or even know of one that actually does that. The most common letter that I get through any of the ministries that I’m involved in is the letter that says, “Can you help us? We can’t find a good church in our city.” Talking to a gentleman between services he said, “Can you help me find a good church in my city? I can’t find a good church. This is a large city.”
“We can’t find a faithful church. We can’t find a biblical church. We can’t find a church that takes worship serious. We can’t find a church that’s clear on the gospel. We can’t find a church that has sound theology. We just can’t find it.”
This isn’t new. Throughout the history of the church there have always been churches that need to repent. It is not to say that there aren’t good, faithful people in these churches; there are in probably most cases. But they have collectively tolerated things that are sinful and they need to repent.
In the opening section of the book of Revelation, our Lord addresses this need for churches to repent. It didn’t take long in the history of the church for there to be churches that needed to repent. About 25 years after the ministry of Paul and Peter, after they were martyred in the persecution under Nero, 25 years later before the end of the first century there were five churches that are mentioned in the book of Revelation that needed to repent, first generation churches. Sometimes people say, “We need to go back and be a first generation church.” Really? Well, if we’re going to do that, let’s be selective, because it did not take long for the enemy Satan to sow tares among the wheat, to sow false doctrine in the church: tolerance of sin, welcoming the world, compromise. And that is what is addressed in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation. It is a call for churches to repent.
Now I know when you think of the book of Revelation you think about the second coming of Christ, and that becomes the theme in chapter 4 and all the way to chapter 22. It begins to look ahead to final judgment and the return of Christ and all the elements of that. But before you ever get to that, the opening three chapters are about the present tense. When John was told to write, he was told to write the things that are and the things that shall be. There were many visions in the book of Revelation of the things that shall be; there was one vision of the things that are, and that’s the vision of Christ in chapter 1. This book, by testimony of the opening verse, is the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His slaves the things which much soon take place, and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His slave John who testified to the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ through all that he saw.
John is the human author; God is the source of this revelation of Christ. And it is a revelation of Christ in the future. Starting in chapter 4, it’s up in heaven, and then it begins to see the machinery of judgment starting to move in heaven, and then it comes down to earth in the horrors of the tribulation leading all the way to the return of Christ, and finally to the creation of the new heavens and the new earth, the eternal state. It is a book about the future. But the opening three chapters are about the present, about the church now.
The first vision that John has is a vision of Christ moving in His church. It’s in chapter 1, verses 12 and following, and we’ve looked at that vision. Before we get to the return of Christ we need some instruction about what to do and how to live in the church until He comes, and that is the reason for this opening vision.
Now you have to understand the condition of John. All the other apostles have been martyred, including Paul, the apostle added later. They’ve all been killed, martyred. John is the only one alive and he has been boiled in oil, and then sent to a penal colony on a rock called Patmos in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. He is there as an old, old man, doing hard labor in meager circumstances until he dies.
This is not how he expected this to end when he signed up with Jesus. They had massively clear expectations of a kingdom, and glory, and reigning, and the Messiah establishing His throne in Jerusalem and ruling the whole world. And he and his brother James even wanted to be on the right and left hand of Jesus in the glory of that kingdom. They had their mother make that request on their behalf. They had high and elevated expectations, and everything is now the very opposite of that. Jerusalem is completely destroyed, sacked by the Romans 70 A.D. Almost a thousand towns in Israel were assaulted, and people were slaughtered by the Roman army. The kingdom has not come.
There are a few small churches here and there in the Gentile world, and the ones that he’s most familiar with, five out of the seven of them in Asia Minor are in severe decline, headed down the wrong path. If he could get a vision, it would be a vision of comfort that would be what he wanted. He would love to be encouraged. Scarred, now isolated, exiled from his church for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus, chapter 1 says, because he was faithful.
The churches are being persecuted. Ephesus was persecuted under Domitian, the Roman emperor, and that persecution caught up John. That’s the reason he’s exiled to Patmos. He wants a comforting vision but he doesn’t get one. The vision he gets is quite the opposite.
If you look at verse 12, he hears a voice, a thunderous voice, verse 10 says, like the sound of a trumpet. And as he turns around to see the voice, he sees seven golden lampstands which represent the seven churches, which represent all churches throughout all of church history. And in the middle of the lampstands he sees the Son of Man. So this is the Lord in His church, present tense.
But the vision is a very, very regal vision. “He’s clothed in a robe reaching to the feet and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool. His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace. His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, the leaders of the churches. Out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in its strength.”
This is a vision of Christ moving in His church. It is not comforting, it is terrifying. And in verse 17, he fell at His feet like a dead man, and the Lord had to put His hand on him and say, “Stop being afraid.” He sees a terrifying vision of Christ.
I said last week, and I just repeat it so you don’t forget it, that some people think the church is a safe place to be, and obviously to be in Christ is a safe place to be eternally. But the church can be a very dangerous place to be if that church is in sin and needs to repent. Our Lord says to John, “Pick yourself up, get your pen and start to write. And, first, you’re going to be writing seven letters to the seven churches,” identified in verse 11: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Those are seven cities in Asia Minor—modern-day Turkey—seven actual churches the Lord wanted to speak to. There were representatives on the Isle of Patmos apparently who would take these letters back to the churches along with the full book of Revelation.
The Lord had a message for His churches. He is frightening, and there’s a sense in which the messages are frightening. As Peter said, 1 Peter 4:17, about 25 years earlier, “It is time for judgment to begin at the house of God.” The church can be a very unsafe place to be if the Lord of the church is angry with His church.
Now, again, these are seven actual cities mentioned in verse 11, seven actual congregations of people. Two of them, Smyrna and Philadelphia, the second and the fifth city along the postal route – which is the way they’re listed – are faithful. They don’t need to repent. They’re good, sound, faithful churches. There is no command to repent at all to the church at Smyrna and the church at Philadelphia. All of them were feeling the persecution; two of them were remaining faithful. Five of them receive a threat from the Lord if they don’t repent: Ephesus, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea.
Now all of these churches literally were planted in the apostolic era out of the ministry in Ephesus. Ephesus was kind of the mother church of the others. They all had wonderful beginnings. But five of these seven churches are told to repent. Chapter 2, verse 5, to the church at Ephesus: “Repent, repent, or I’ll remove the lampstand out of its place if you don’t repent.” Chapter 2, verse 16, to the church at Pergamos: “Repent, or else I’m coming to you quickly and I’ll make war against them with the sword of My mouth.”
The church at Thyatira, verse 21: “I gave her time to repent. She doesn’t want to repent of her immorality. I’ll throw her on a bed of sickness. Those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. And I’ll kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I’ll give to each one according to your deeds.” Again, repent or else; even death.
Chapter 3, the church at Sardis is told in verse 3: “Repent. If you do not wake up, I’ll come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.” The church at Laodicea, chapter 3, verse 16: “Because you’re lukewarm, neither hot or cold, I’ll spit you out of My mouth.” Verse 19: “Therefore be zealous and repent, repent.”
Why do they need to repent? Because the Lord says, “I have something against you,” chapter 2, verse 4, “I have this against you,” in Ephesus. Pergamum, 2:14, “I have a few things against you.” Thyatira, chapter 2, verse 20, “I have this against you.” Chapter 3, Sardis, “I found your deeds not completed in the sight of My God.” And finally the church at Laodicea, as we read, is so nauseating to the Lord, He would spew it out of His mouth. These are real places with real people.
Now in all of these churches except Laodicea there are true believers. There are true believers in these churches that need to repent. They are identified as overcomers, that’s how John identifies them. “To those who overcomes – ” he says “ – I’ll promise you this.” And there’s a whole list of promises given, all of them relating to heaven, eternal reward.
John tells us in 1 John 5 that our faith overcomes. Our faith overcomes everything. Our faith is the means of our salvation. So to the overcomers who have saving faith there is the promise of blessing in heaven; and these churches have believers in them. But in no way does that mitigate the threat that our Lord offers these churches. The presence of faithful believers does not remove the threat: “Repent, or else.”
Now if we just collect these five churches that are told to repent and sort of list the corrupting elements that were in those churches, we come up with a list like this. They were allowing for sexual immorality, idolatry, compromise with the culture – the world; tolerance of sin, false teaching, false teachers, hypocrisy, seduction, and preaching for money. They had sunk to the depths of Satan. Our Lord is about to bring a judgment on those churches unless they repent. This is at the end of the first century.
Now you’ve got to understand the apostle John. When Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., at some point after that he left and he ended up in Ephesus, and it was in Ephesus maybe about ten years or so before he received the book of Revelation on the Isle of Patmos that he wrote the gospel of John, almost 50 years after he lived it out with Christ and the disciples. And then he wrote 1 John, 2 John, 3 John. He’s had a flourishing ministry there, and it’s all come to this. He poured himself as the last living apostle into the church at Ephesus, which God used to plant those other churches, and now there is a steady decline among those very churches. And apparently they’re okay with it, as churches always are. That’s why I ask the question: “Have you ever heard of a church that repented?” and your answer would be, “Not that I know of. I can’t remember one.”
Of course, churches don’t repent. In fact, there are churches today that allow for all those sins that I listed that are included here in Revelation 2 and 3, and they’re not actually ashamed of it. They’re even proud of it, that they made a place for all these kinds of people who live these kinds of lives within the boundaries of their tolerant church. It’s a very dangerous trend here that I pointed out last time, I’ll just remind you of it.
When you look at the letters one by one you see that there is no identification of any unbelievers in Ephesus. They’re all believers. By the time you get to Laodicea, the last church, there are no believers; and Christ is on the outside knocking on the door because He’s not even in the church. How does the church go from all believers to no believers? Slowly and steadily.
Pergamos, the next church, has some unbelievers. The word “some” is used. Thyatira has more unbelievers, Sardis has mostly unbelievers, and Laodicea has all unbelievers, and that’s the trend. You start out with all believers; you end up with no believers. There is a true church that ends up a non-church, and there’s a flow as unbelievers, more and more unbelievers, more and more unbelievers take over the church. And the number of overcomers, true believers, shrinks and shrinks, shrinks.
We looked at that last time, but I want to pose a question for this time: “How does it all start? How does it all get going?” It all gets going in Ephesus, and we’re going to look at that. But before I look at that, I want to just have you reach back with me to a great event that happened in the 16th century called the Reformation.
For over a millennium, over a thousand years, there was a disastrous decline in the church until you have the Roman Catholic system, which is Laodicea, a church with no believers. Here and there, there are believers. Throughout that same history there were true believers. The Lord was redeeming His own and there were churches who were not a part of that massive, monolithic Roman system, there were true believers.
But it became apparent that the corruption of that system, that Roman Catholic system had to be addressed, and so the Spirit of God began to move on the heart of men who we know as reformers who protested the condition of the church. And you know those names very well: Luther and Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Beza, Knox, others. They protested. That’s where Protestant comes from. You’re a Protestant because you joined the protest.
The church needed to repent, it needed to repent; and it had reached such a massive scale of iniquity that it was not about to repent. And when these reformers called on the church to repent, the church reacted by killing as many of them as it possibly could. And many of the reformers, as you know, were slaughtered, burned at the stake.
The church is reluctant to repent when it’s completely controlled by Satan; nothing left. You have to understand that this drift in the direction of the church becoming no church has to be stopped before it starts. So you don’t want to become a church that compromises with the world like Pergamos did, and allows a place for unbelievers to be comfortable. You don’t want to become a church like Thyatira that allows immorality to take place and doesn’t confront it. You don’t want to become then a church like Sardis that is dead. All it’s got is programs, and rituals, and no life. You don’t want to become Laodicea, a no church that has nothing but the claim without the life. You don’t want to go down that path. We don’t want to go down that path.
We exist as a part of a protest against that five hundred years ago this next year. Five hundred years ago, 2017, Luther nailed his thesis to the door at Wittenberg, and the protest was launched. We’re part of that, and we’re still protesting any deviation from the Word of God in the life of the church, right? We’re still protesting.
But how did it all start? And this is very important for us. Let’s look at the first letter to the church at Ephesus and see the first step in the wrong direction. “To the messenger – ” representative that was there from the church in Ephesus. Apparently there were people from these churches who could take the letters and the book of Revelation back to the churches. “To the messenger – ” or this would be at least the messenger at that church who would receive the letter when it was delivered to him, “ – the messenger of the church in Ephesus – ” I know you Bible may say “angel.” It’s the Greek word for “messenger.”
“To the messenger of the church in Ephesus write this.” Here’s the message from the Lord of the church. “The One who holds the seven starts in His right hand – ” that is the leaders of the church “ – and who walks among the seven golden lampstands – ” which represent the church. So here is a message from the head of the church who holds the leaders in His hand.
Here’s the problem: “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent. Yet this you do 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’ll grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.”
All right, the overcomers are promised eternal life, being brought into the Paradise of God. But to everybody in that church, the message of verse 7 is, “Listen to what I’m telling not only you, but the churches.” The plural “churches” expands the message of this letter to all churches who could be guilty of this sin.
“Listen to this. Anybody who had an ear, anybody who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches – not just this church, but through the message to this church to every other church. Here’s the problem. I have this against you – ” verse 4 “ – that you have left your first love.” It’s the Greek verb aphiēmi, which means to leave, to forsake, to abandon, to neglect. It’s an intentional word, it’s not something that happened accidentally. “You have willfully, with intentionality, walked away from your first love. You have forsaken your first love.” First love for Christ obviously.
The persecution is on, they’re feeling it. John was a victim of it, that’s why he is in exile verse 9 of chapter 1 says, “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” He was the one, the leader of the church they wanted to get rid of. Rather than execute him, they exiled him. The church is under persecution, and under the pressure of this persecution they have been amazingly faithful, amazingly faithful, with the one exception that is deadly; they have forsaken Christ as their first love.
Now I want you to go back with me to get a little bit of an idea of the church at Ephesus. Go to the 18th chapter of the book of Acts, Acts 18. Acts gives us the history of the planting of the churches, the ministry of the apostle Paul who was the first one to launch the church in Ephesus. In the 18th chapter of the book of Acts, Paul comes to Ephesus. He came to Ephesus, verse 19, and he entered into the synagogue and he reasoned with the Jews. He leaves soon after that in verse 21 to head to Caesarea back to the church at Antioch. So this is how the church in the city of Ephesus began. It began with an initial by the apostle Paul who preaches the gospel in the synagogue.
Now there are two people there by the name of Aquila and Priscilla down in verse 26. They are there in that church, that fledgling sort of beginning of a church in the city of Ephesus. They are believers, husband and wife, and they are part of that very small group. To that group comes a mighty preacher, verse 24, “A Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth – ” that’s a Jew from Egypt “ – an eloquent man. He came to Ephesus mighty in the Scriptures.”
The Scriptures refer to the Old Testament. He was a mighty preacher of the Old Testament. He had good hermeneutics. He interpreted the Old Testament correctly. “This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus.”
Amazing. He was preaching Jesus out of the Old Testament. He was preaching Messianic Old Testament passages. But he hadn’t really gotten past the baptism of John. He was only acquainted with the baptism of John.
Well, “He began to speak out boldly in the synagogue – ” obviously concerning Jesus from the Old Testament. “But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside, explained to him the way God more accurately.”
What does that mean? They gave him the New Testament. They gave him the rest of the story. He only knew the story up to John the Baptist. They gave him the story of Christ, the fulfillment of all the prophecies he was preaching about.
What an amazing beginning. You’re started by Paul. You have two wonderful people like Aquila and Priscilla who know the New Testament because of the influence of Paul in their life. You have the priviledge of having the most eloquent, mighty, Old Testament preacher preaching Christ out of the Old Testament as a foundation accurately the things concerning Jesus he was declaring. Incredible, incredible beginning.
Go to chapter 20, verse 31, and you read there that Paul came back to Ephesus and stayed for three years, and didn’t cease to admonish with tears. For three years, Paul was their pastor. So you have Paul to start, Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos. Paul comes back, and Paul stays for three years. It’s an incredible, incredible array of people who are part of the foundation of that marvelous church.
First Timothy tells us Timothy pastored there, Paul’s son in the faith. Second Timothy tells us Tychicus pastored there, another of the companions of Paul. And then finally the apostle John pastored there, and while he was there, wrote the gospel of John and the epistles. Nobody could have a better array of people shepherding them than that.
They also had a thrilling beginning. The gospel was being preached, brought out a riot. Remember that? The city literally erupted in a riot, chapter 19 of Acts, because so many people were turning to Christ that they were putting the silversmiths, who were making little idols, out of business. There was teaching; there was preaching; there were miracles. There was a confrontation with the exorcist called the sons of Sceva, and they were debunked openly. It was really an incredible, glorious, stunning beginning of a church.
And, of course, with that kind of beginning they had tremendous opportunity to develop leaders; and that’s exactly what they did. They developed some remarkable leaders. Before Paul left he ordained elders in that city, elders who would be able to lead the church effectively. Before he left, he taught from house to house as well as when the people gathered together in one place. And as he was leaving, he commended them, chapter 20, verse 32, to the Word of God, “word of grace … able to build you up … give you an inheritance among those who are sanctified.”
He handed the ministry over to them. They fell on his neck and cried because they wouldn’t see him anymore. But the church was handed over to the elders. We don’t know how long after that John arrives, the great apostle. Astonishing beginnings. And out of Ephesus comes those other churches.
Now a little bit about Ephesus. It was not the capital city of Asia Minor, Pergamos was the capital. But Ephesus was the light of Asia it was called. It was the primary city, the vanity fair of the ancient world. And the reason Ephesus was such a primary city was because it had the biggest port, it had the biggest harbor. It also had the bank of the Mediterranean. It also was a place where all the highways going east and west, and north and south intersected.
So it was the middle of a trade route in every direction. It was a free city, that is it was under self-government. Even though the Romans were over it in authority, they allowed the city of Ephesus to be self-governing, and there were no Roman troops stationed there. It had a landmark, the temple of Diana or Artemis. That’s part of the androgyny of idolatry. That’s where gender confusion comes from.
They had the temple of Diana the female, or Artemis the male; the confusion of that is part of Satan’s destructive attempts. But that temple of Diana was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. So it was a remarkable place. Heraclitus, the historian said it was so debauched the city, that the people of Ephesus were fit only to be drowned. Well it was there that the church was planted; and what a church it was.
Let’s go to Revelation 2 for a minute. What a church it was. “I know your deeds. I know what you do. And I know your toil,” kopos that’s working to the point of exhaustion. “I know your inexhaustible work. I know your perseverance,” that’s hupomonē. Monē is from a word menō which means to remain. Hupo means under, to remain under. “You remained under the persecution. You remained under the pressure. You were enduring it. You were under pressure under suffering, and you endured it.”
“I also know you can’t tolerate evil men. You haven’t made a place for sin and sinful people. You don’t embrace sinful people. You understand that sin leavens the lump; you understand that.” They rejected the evil and the evildoers. They resented sin. They recognized the damage it would do to their fellowship, which meant that when sin popped up, they probably were going back to Matthew 18, confronting sin, taking two or three, and telling the church if necessary. So from a standpoint of their view toward sin and behavior, they worked hard, they endured suffering, they didn’t tolerate sin, and on a theological level, on their doctrinal level, they put to test those who call themselves apostles and they are not, and found them to be false. They had sound doctrine to the point where they had acute discernment. Very discerning group. When you have sound doctrine you have discernment.
Obviously, many of Satan’s people from the very start try to infiltrate the church. A church that’s wise and faithful understands that. Listen to what Paul’s final words were in Acts 20 when he left Ephesus, verse 28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers – ” that’s what pastors and elders do; you oversee; you have a protective responsibility “ – to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” High-priced, high value.
“I know – ” Paul says “ – that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert. And I commend you to God and the word of His grace.” So he says, “Look, I know what’s going to happen. As soon as I’m out of here, wolves are coming in from the outside, and evil men are going to rise up on the inside. Be on the alert.”
Well, the church at Ephesus took that seriously; they were on the alert. They put to test those who called themselves apostles; they tested them. They tested them by the Word of God. When they said that they were apostles and representatives of Christ, they put them to the biblical test and found them to be false, and rejected them.
What a church. And ever since, this is the kind of church that God’s people would hold up as ideal. And we can even add another commendation from verse 6: “Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Churches have to be known by what they love and who they love, and they have to be known by what they hate and who they hate. I know it’s not popular to declare yourself a church that hates, but it’s necessary, because there are things that the Lord of the church hates. And we want to make sure we hate what He hates, and He hates the Nicolaitans; and the church at Ephesus hated the Nicolaitans also.
This is obviously a group of people connected to a man named Nicolas. We don’t have any reason to think it’s the Nicolas mentioned in Acts 6 who was a deacon. That could be a name of a lot of people. There’s no historical connection there. But if you go back in history, we do find some interesting perceptions by the early church fathers on this Nicolas and his cult. They are heretics. They are, in chapter 2, verse 14, also a problem in the church at Pergamos, or Pergamum. And they’re connected with Balaamism, which is false prophets seducing people into satanic things.
So it’s a satanic kind of counterfeit form of religion. Irenaeus, the early church father, relates them to kind of beginning forms of Gnosticism, Gnosticism from the Greek word gnōsis which means “to know.” Gnostics were people who thought they were in the secret know. They had the elevated knowledge. They were way above the hoi polloi, all of us folks down here. They had secret knowledge. They had esoteric insights into the supernatural world. That was the Gnostics.
There are things, false documents written by them called the Gnostic gospels that show up sometimes even in Hollywood movies. They elevated knowledge, some kind of secretive knowledge. But connected to the Nicolaitans, it was not only this kind of Gnostic idea that we have a higher knowledge, but an antinomian idea. And nomos is the Greek word for law, anti law. It means they were against the law of God; that is they believed that salvation was by grace, and so we had no obligation to the law, no obligation to the law.
Antinomianism would go so far as to say you can freely sin and it has no bearing on your soul, and it has no bearing on your salvation. You can freely sin. It has no bearing on your soul, no bearing on your salvation at all.
The argument might go like this: “Look, we’re in these human bodies. We are sinful. We’re still in the flesh until the Lord gets us out of the flesh. The flesh is going to be the flesh. The flesh is going to do what the flesh does, so don’t worry about it; let it do whatever it does.” That’s antinomianism; it has no affect on your salvation. And what this led to is sensuality, sensuality in the name of grace.
Clement of Alexandria, another of the early fathers writing on the Nicolaitans said this: “They abandoned themselves to pleasure like goats, leading a life of self-indulgence.” They were marked by immorality and perversion apparently, but in the name of grace.
God hates antinomianism. He hates any system then or now that says, “Don’t worry about your sin, you’re under grace.” God hates that. The Lord of the church hates that, and so did the church at Ephesus.
This is a good church. They hate bad theology; they hate bad behavior; they hate bad paradigms of sanctification. They hate what their Lord hates. They contest people because their theology is so sound, they can expose false teachers and their teaching. They work hard. They endure suffering. They don’t tolerate sin. You say, “This is a great church.” Yes, with this exception in verse 4: “You left your first love, and I have this against you.”
Now, look, they did everything they did, even with a right motive. How do you know that? Because in verse 3 it says, “All this you have done for My name’s sake. You’re doing it for Me – ” there was a Godward focus, a Christward focus “ – and you haven’t grown weary – ” we might add in your well-doing: tireless, energetic, effective, eager, busy, suffering and enduring it, intolerant of sin, able to expose false teachers, wanting nothing to do with bad theology that led to sinful behavior being tolerated. And they did it all for His name’s sake. Their motto might have been, “For the glory of our Lord. For the glory of our Lord. For the glory of our Lord.”
In the middle of all that there was this really serious problem: “I have this against you – ” verse 4 “ – you have left your first love.” “You don’t love Me like you did. You don’t love Me like you did.”
They had forsaken that flaming love when they were first pulled up out of the kingdom of darkness and saw the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ. They had abandoned that burning heart that was characteristic of those on the Road to Emmaus who said, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He walked with us and talked with us along the way.”
This happened. This happens: love grows cold. This didn’t start here. Let me take you back to Jeremiah, chapter 2. You look back to the prophet Jeremiah. By the time Jeremiah comes on the scene, Israel is in dire condition, and God is going to pronounce judgment.
So Jeremiah’s a judgment preacher. Jeremiah is going to preach judgment, judgment, judgment, judgment, judgment, and he’s warning about the Babylonian captivity. Of course, it came. Many of them died and others were hauled off into captivity. It was, “Repent, or else.” That was his message: “Repent, or else,” just like our Lord to the churches.
But I want you to notice what he says in chapter 2:. “The word of the Lord came to me – ” Jeremiah says, verse 1. “Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord – ’ here’s the Lord’s message ‘ – I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, the love of your betrothals, your following after Me in the wilderness, through a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the first of His harvest. I remember – ’ God says ‘ – I remember the days when you loved Me. I remember the days of our betrothal. I remember those days. What happened?’”
Verse 5, “Thus says the Lord, ‘What injustice did your fathers in Me. Is something wrong with Me that you don’t love Me anymore? They went far from Me. They walked after emptiness and became empty. They didn’t say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought and of deep darkness, through a land that no one crossed and where no man dwelt?” I brought you into the fruitful land to eat its fruit and its good things. Have you forgotten all that? But you came and defiled My land, and My inheritance you made an abomination. And the priests didn’t say, “Where is the Lord?” And those who handle the law did not know Me. The rulers also transgressed against Me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal and walked after things that did not profit. Therefore I’ll contend with you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and with your sons I will contend. I’m coming after you in judgment.’”
Go over to verse 12. The Lord actually calls on the heavens to react: “O heavens, be appalled with this, be appalled with this and shudder, and be very desolate,” declares the Lord, “for My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water. They have forsaken Me for something empty.”
Now go back to Revelation 2. Sounds like this, doesn’t it? The honeymoon had ended in Ephesus. The church was on the brink of spiritual apathy, and spiritual apathy is the forerunner of decline. When you begin to love Christ less you start loving something else more; and then you’re a Pergamos church, compromising with the world; and then you’re a Thyatiran church, comfortable with sin; then you’re a Sardis church, dead; and then you’re Laodicea, no church at all.
That’s how the road gets before you, you take the first step. He says, “You don’t love Me like you loved Me. You don’t love Me that way anymore.” Verse 5, the command, “Remember from where you have fallen.” Like Jeremiah 2, “Don’t you want to go back and remember? Don’t you want to go back and remember how in a salvation sense I picked you up out of the land of bondage, and I led you through that wilderness to the Promised Land of salvation? Don’t you want to go back and remember where you have fallen, and repent, and do the deeds you did at first, do the kind of things you did when you loved Me with that full explosive love? And if you don’t, I’m coming to you, and I will shut you down. I will remove your lampstand out of its place unless you repent.”
Sad story. History says they didn’t repent; they went out of existence; no church there, not even today. “Can’t you go back to loving Me like you did at the beginning?” This is a local judgment, very serious on a church that didn’t repent.
Nothing has really changed since then. This has always been a portion of Scripture that spoke to me in a very powerful way as pastor here, because this is a church that is so much like Ephesus. This is a church that works hard, perseveres under all kinds of challenges and difficulties. This is a church that doesn’t tolerate sin; we confront it, we deal with it.
This is a church that knows how to test somebody as to whether they’re valid in their proclamation of being a representative of Jesus Christ: we reject sin, we reject false doctrine. This is a church that does what it does for the sake of His name, for His glory: we don’t grow weary in our well-doing. But do we love Christ the way we did at the first?
And you have to ask yourself, “Do you love Christ? Do you love Christ? Is He the supreme object joy of your heart and soul and mind?” Loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind is the basic commandment. And God is most clearly revealed in Christ, so it comes down to loving Christ.
“Yes – ” you say “ – I love Him.” But is it manifest? When Jesus met Peter in John 21, three times He said, “Peter do you – ” what? “ – do you love Me? Your behavior just doesn’t validate it. Do you love Me?” “Yes, I love You. Yes, I love You. Yes, I love You.”
That’s always what the Lord is looking for in the church. It’s not enough to validate our church by saying we work hard. We do; it’s good. Not enough to validate our church by saying, “We are faithful. We endure the persecution. We endure the onslaught of the culture. We remain faithful against all that’s going on around us.”
That’s true. And we do what we do for the glory of the Lord. We can spot a false teacher a mile away. We are discerning; we have sound doctrine. We don’t get tricked by cults. We have a sound hermeneutic of sanctification. We don’t reject the law of God and live in some kind of folly because we overextended grace. We get all that. And the question is: “Do we love Christ? Do we love Christ with a fiery love that dominates our minds and our actions.
Jesus said in Matthew 10, “You have to love Me more than father, mother, sister, brother, or even your own life.” And, yes, the epistles say that as believers, we read it in 1 John, we do love Christ, we do love God. But the question is, “Do we love Him as we ought to love Him? Do we love Him like we once loved Him?”
Loving Christ is what it’s all about. Verse 7 says, “You’d better listen to this.” The driving, compelling affection of the church must be love to Christ, or we’re sliding toward Laodicea.
Peter said, “This is the evidence of our faith – ” 1 Peter 1:8, “You have not seen Him, but you love Him, and you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.” We love Him.
You know, it’s always been a concern to me, just a personal word. People have said, “You spend an awful lot of time in the gospels.” Well, when I came I wanted to be in the New Testament, because I wanted to full glory of Christ to shine in the church. We draw from the Old Testament because they’re examples, Paul says, of New Testament truth and divine truth. But the New Testament is everything, because that’s the full revelation of Christ.
So we’ve been in the New Testament, and we have been relentlessly preaching Christ. And when I first came it was the gospel of John. Now sort of near the end, it’s the gospel of John again, because that’s Christ. It was eight or nine years in Matthew, and then it was nine or ten years in Luke, and then it was a few years in Mark, and if you throw John in a couple of times we’re looking at well over 20 years of just looking at the gospels.
You say, “Why are you so preoccupied with that?” Because my great fear for our church is that we would lose our love for Christ. And so we want to keep Christ before you in all His majesty, beauty, and glory. That’s why we do that.
I could preach systematic theology. Sometimes we talk about theology and doctrine. But even when we preach Romans it’s Christ, or Colossians it’s Christ, or Hebrews it’s Christ, or the book of Acts, it’s the preaching of Christ. Or a couple of times we’ve gone through the book of Romans; a couple of times through the book of Revelation over the years. And Revelation is the revelation of Jesus Christ. And when we finished the book of Mark you remember we went to the Old Testament and we had a series on “Finding Christ in the Old Testament”?
This isn’t just a preference, this is a necessity. Christ has to be held up before you so you see His glory and can be changed into His image by the work of the Holy Spirit. I say to myself all the time when I listen to preachers, “Why don’t they preach Christ?” They’re just producing churches that need to repent. They need to repent of not having a first love for Christ, but they aren’t being helped to love Him. And the next thing that happens is when they forsake that first love for Christ, then they compromise with the world, then they tolerate sin, then it’s just a sham, and then it’s not a church.
We will always hold up Christ to you because your love for Christ is the primary, primary reality in your spiritual life. I want to proclaim Christ every word, every verse that reveals Him, so that you can always see His glory. And when you love Christ, you will love each other, and you will love to obey Him. True love for Christ shows up in two things: love for the brethren and obedience.
You look at our church and you want to say, “Is this a church that loves each other?” It is. “Is this a church that loves to obey the Word?” It is, and that’s because you love the Christ who is the focus of our lives. We just want to love Christ; don’t ever forsake that.
So we have had a ministry through all these years. I don’t know how many years I’ve been here. Somebody told me, I think it was 47. Is that right? Wow. But it’s always going to be about Christ as long as I have breath.
Thinking about that, a few weeks ago I wrote out something just summing up the Christ we love. We love Christ who is the eternal Son, one in nature with the eternal Father and the eternal Spirit, the triune God. We love Christ who is the Creator and life giver as well as the sustainer of the universe and all who live in it. We love Christ who is the virgin born Son of God and Son of Man, fully divine and fully human.
We love Christ who is the one whose life on earth perfectly pleased God, and whose righteousness is given to all who by grace through faith become one with Him. We love Christ who is the only acceptable sacrifice for sin that pleases God, and whose death, under divine judgment, paid in full the penalty for the sins of His people, providing for them forgiveness and eternal life. We love Christ who is alive, having been raised from the dead by the Father, validating His work of atonement, and providing resurrection for the sanctification and glorification of the elect to bring them safely into His heavenly presence.
We love Christ who is at the Father’s throne interceding for all believers. We love Christ who is God’s chosen Prophet, Priest, and King, proclaiming truth, mediating for His church, and reigning over His kingdom forever. We love Christ who will certainly and suddenly return from heaven to rapture His church, unleash judgment on the wicked, bring promised salvation to the Jews and the nations, and establish His millennial reign on earth. We love Christ who will, after that earthly reign, destroy the universe, finally judge all sinners and send them to hell, then create the new heavens and the new earth where He will dwell forever with His saints in glory, love, and joy. This is the Christ we love.
Father, we thank You for the revelation of Your Son and our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. We thank You that we know Him and have been enabled to love Him. But we hear the words of the apostle Paul saying, “May Your love abound more and more.” Increase our love for the glorious Christ.
There are some here who don’t love Him at all. And 1 Corinthians 16:22 says, “If anyone doesn’t love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be damned.” Not to love Christ is to be damned to everlasting punishment. On the other hand, how wonderful to love and be loved by the Savior, and to be an overcomer promised the glories of the Tree of Life in the paradise of God in heaven.
Lord, I pray that You’ll open hearts to love Your Son in whom You are so well pleased, perfect revelation of Yourself. We love You. We want to love You more. And may our love not only go upward, but may it go outward so that we love each other and we even love Your law. May we say with David, “O how I love Your law,” and may we pursue obedience to it lovingly.
We thank You, Lord, for what You have given us by loving us. It is incalculable, incomprehensible, and everlasting. And may we love You because You first loved us. Increase our love we pray, in Christ’s name. Amen.