Christ Calls Us to Our First Love (Revelation Sermon 2 of 49)
March 12, 2017 | Andy Davis
Works of the Flesh, Warning for the Church
If, at the end of Simon Peter’s life, we could have asked him to look back and identify the hardest moment of his life, he would surely have zeroed in on the night that Jesus was arrested, and specifically that moment when he denied Jesus three times. At the beginning of the night, when Jesus predicted that they would all fall away on account of him, Peter asserted, “Even if all fall away in account of you, I never will.” Clearly he was full of self-trust, self-confidence which carried over to Gethsemane with prayerlessness — he fell asleep, even though Jesus three times exhorted him to watch and pray, that he would not fall into temptation — “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” — but, he did not listen.
Soon, he was drawn in through his own ego, his own pride, into a net that was far beyond anything he could handle; thus, three times he denied knowing Jesus, until finally, the rooster crowed. In Luke’s Gospel, we read that right at that moment, Jesus was passing by as he went from one place to another in his series of trials. He looked right at Simon Peter as the rooster was crowing. I cannot imagine what that must have felt like for Peter, seeing that look from Jesus, but I do know what he did. After that look, he ran away from that place of temptation and trial that was far beyond anything he could handle, and he went out and wept bitterly.
We do not know fully what was going on in Peter’s mind after he saw the physical evidence of the empty tomb, the resurrection on the third day, or after his encounter with Jesus in the upper room, but we can imagine. He must have been filled with joy at a certain level, but he also must have wondered, “How is it with me and Jesus? Am I still included? Am I forgiven? Is there a future for me? I see that there is great joy here in the resurrection but what about me? Am I out now, now that I have sinned?” Jesus had to do some work on Peter to restore him. In John 21, it says that three times, Jesus looked at Peter with those same eyes with which he looked at him that night and said, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?… Do you love me? … Do you love me?” Three times. It says that Peter was hurt because He asked; he replied, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.”
II. Christ’s Constant Vigilance over the Churches
As we come this morning to Revelation 2:1-7, the same thing could and should happen for many of us today. To some degree, as we sit under this text, we will sit under the searching gaze of Jesus, whose eyes are like blazing fire. “I am he who searches hearts and minds,” said Jesus. By this text, he will ask each one of us the same question that he asked Peter by the sea of Galilee: “Do you love me?” It is not enough for each one of us to say, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” We must ask a deeper question: “Do I love Christ more now than I did a year ago? What is the direction of my heart right now? What is the direction of my walk with Christ? Is my love for Christ growing and developing? Or is it stagnating or contracting? Is it shrinking under the constant onslaught of the world, the flesh, and the devil? And if my love for Christ is shrinking, if my love for Christ is dying, what can I do to be renewed to a healthy, vibrant, vigorous walk with Christ again? What can happen?” Beyond that, you might say, “How can I know what’s happening in my heart toward Christ?” In this probing text, we have seven verses from Revelation 2. I have prayed that Christ would search me and know me and know my heart, and see if there’s any wicked way in me; I think you ought to pray, each one of you for yourselves, this same thing. Ask this question, “Have I forsaken my first love or is my love for Christ growing and developing?”
Review: Revelation 1
First we must review to understand what is happening in Revelation 2. Last week we saw, in Revelation 1, the unveiling of Jesus Christ, of his majestic, glorious, powerful person, and his active vibrant ministry. We have these words spoken of Christ in Revelation 1:14-16: “His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. And his feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. And in his right hand, he held seven stars and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. And his face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” That is John’s vision of the resurrected Christ. He is dressed like a priest with a robe down to his feet and a golden sash around his chest. He is walking in the midst of seven golden lampstands, holding seven stars in his right hand. These seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
We have a prophetic vision of the resurrected, glorified sovereign Christ actively ministering in the midst of seven churches — a priestly ministry of his constant vigilance over local churches and indeed, all over the world throughout all of human history, over all of redemptive history.
Let’s unfold some historical context: Revelation 2 and 3 are beginning this phase of the study of the Book of Revelation. These are Christ’s letters to the seven churches in the province of Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. These were real local churches. Each had its own challenges and issues, strengths and weaknesses. These letters were specific messages for that time but they continue to be timeless lessons for all churches in all areas of church history. Each of the seven letters ends with the same exhortation, “He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches [plural].” That means we must carefully study each of these seven letters to draw in the meaning to understand what the Lord would say to us. The composite picture of these seven churches, the strengths and weaknesses and especially of what Christ thinks about them, His attitude toward them, is vital for us as a local church for our ongoing health. Here at First Baptist Church, Durham, North Carolina, in the second decade of the 21st century, what is Jesus saying to us? What do we need to hear in all of these seven letters?
The timelessness of these lessons comes from a number of aspects of Biblical truth. First is the timeless nature, the unchanging nature of Jesus Christ Himself. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8. It never changes. Second, their timelessness comes from the unchanging mission that He has given to every local church — the Great Commission of Matthew 28 where Jesus said, “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” We discern there an internal journey of holiness resulting in an ongoing pattern of obedience to all of His commands — sanctification, discipleship — which flows out in an external journey of evangelism and missions in which we are making disciples in our own Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, even to the ends of the earth. That is timeless; it will not change. Those two tasks, those two journeys are still in front of us, and they are in front of every local church all over the world.
Third, the timelessness of these lessons comes from the unchanging nature of Satan’s attacks on local churches. He does the same things, attacking local churches, in every generation, physically, mentally and morally. Satan attacks the church physically through persecution at the hands of vicious, persecuting humans, especially evil governments like Caesar and Rome in John’s day and whatever the persecuting governments are in our day; and not only governments, but individuals can persecute as well. Satan attacks the church mentally, luring it toward false doctrine, false teaching, heresies, human philosophies, and world views. And Satan attacks the church morally by luring individuals into sin, into worldliness through lusts.
It is the same in every generation, and it is the same all over the world. Around the world, some brothers and sisters of ours are being viciously persecuted far more than we are, in which they are being incarcerated for their faith, or they are unable to hold down a job because they are Christians, or they are unable to buy and sell in that community, and so on. All over the world, churches must stand firm against false doctrine. That happens no matter where you are. There are always false teachers coming in. And all over the world we are drawn away from holiness to lust and this is going on all the time.
Thus, these are timeless lessons. The Book of Revelation, then, is a timeless call to Christians in every generation in every location to live openly and courageously for Jesus Christ. Bowing our knee to Christ as Lord and Savior, putting sin to death by the Spirit, testifying to the lost that Jesus is the only Savior that there is, standing courageously in the face of whatever reactions come to that testimony — that is what we are called to do.
The Apostle John who wrote these letters was in exile in Patmos at the end of the first century A.D. The Roman Empire was just approaching the zenith of its power. The Emperor Nero had begun overt persecutions of Christians but they were sporadic and limited to mostly to right around Rome. But his successor Domitian was extending this persecution as a worldwide policy throughout the Roman Empire. The battle between Christ and Caesar was joined by the time Revelation was written. Both Caesar and Christ are jealous kings who yearn for the full affection and loyalty of their subjects; there is no compromise between them. The whole Book of Revelation must be seen in light of that conflict — the escalating, organized persecution of the church. These letters to the seven churches make these very same issues plain to us. All seven of these letters are relevant for us and we need to listen to what the Spirit says to all seven of the churches. We will begin this morning by looking at the message to the church at Ephesus.
Christ’s Constant Vigilance is Absolutely Essential
Within this, we see Christ’s constant vigilance as a high priest. It is absolutely essential to us. We have the very powerful image of Jesus walking carefully and thoughtfully in the midst of these seven golden lampstands, reaching out his hand, working on trimming the wick or maybe pouring some more oil into the lamp, or doing something, making the fire burn brighter and hotter.
At the end of the Book of Revelation, we have a very clear image of the single universal church as the bride of Christ, the new Jerusalem. There is one Church in the end, the universal Church, the Body of Christ. But we have this plural word here, “churches.” “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” We do not interpret that to mean that Jesus has multiple brides. Rather, the churches are local assemblies of Christians that gather together, all the individual members of which, we assume, are part of the universal Church, the spiritual church through faith in Christ. The local churches feed the new Jerusalem. They feed the heavenly Zion, the heavenly Church, as they are healthy and doing the ministries God has called them to do. They are feeder systems. All local churches are temporary because there won’t be any local churches in heaven. But they are vital to the work of the building of the worldwide church of Jesus Christ.
Local churches get stronger or weaker depending on how they respond to the Satan’s three-pronged assault: assault on the body, assault on the mind, assault on the heart or the morals. We also learn from this first of the seven letters to the churches that local churches can be removed. The lampstand can be taken out as an act of judgment.
Christ ministers constantly to these lampstands and he is working to make them burn brighter and hotter in their locality. He tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world.” He lights a lamp and puts it up on its stand; He is yearning for these local churches to burn for the glory of God. Individual Christians who are genuinely born again who are justified by faith in Christ can never lose their salvation; that is absolutely, clearly taught. But local churches can be and are removed, and we must understand why that happens. We must be concerned about that and be zealous that it not happen to this church in our generation. I am personally jealous for First Baptist Durham, that we would be as healthy and vibrant and vital a church as we possibly can be.
Let’s dig in to try to understand this letter to the church of Ephesus. The city of Ephesus was the most prominent in Asia Minor; in effect, it was the capital of that province of Asia Minor since the governor resided there. Its population in New Testament times was between a quarter and a half million people. It was famous throughout the world for the Temple of Artemis of the Ephesians, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Because of its architectural grandeur and all the pagan worship, people came from all over that part of the world to Ephesus to worship Artemis of the Ephesians. John McArthur said this about Ephesus and the temple: “The temple was attended by numerous priests, eunuchs, and slaves. Thousands of priestesses, who were little more than ritual prostitutes, played a major role in the worship of Artemis. The temple grounds were a chaotic cacophony of priests, prostitutes, bankers, criminals, musicians, dancers, frenzied hysterical worshipers.” One ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, was called the weeping philosopher because he declared that no one could live in Ephesus and not weep over its immorality. He was a pagan philosopher — that is how bad that city was.
What about the gospel there in Ephesus? Perhaps no Gentile city or Gentile church is as well known or has as much coverage in the pages of the New Testament as this church in Ephesus. Priscilla and Aquila, Jews who were expelled from Rome under an earlier persecution, came to Ephesus and began to share the gospel there. Soon, they were joined by a very zealous man named Apollos, who understood some aspects; but they brought him more in tune with what had happened through Jesus. Through these individuals, a foundation was beginning to be laid, which Paul then completed by his ministry. The apostle Paul had been thwarted in an earlier attempt to minister in that part of Asia Minor. Acts 16 tells us that on his second missionary journey, he could not go there because the Holy Spirit would not permit him to do so. The Spirit wanted him to cross to Philippi to minister in Macedonia, which he did. However, at the end of his second missionary journey, he went by very quickly and saw the strategic value of Ephesus. That was the first place he went on his third missionary journey, and he helped to build the church there.
It is quite possible that the other six churches were planted out of the ministry that Paul did for two and a half or more years. It says that everyone throughout the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord from that church in Ephesus.. Paul did amazing miracles there in Ephesus, driving back the power of Satan. One of my favorite stories about this is that of the seven sons of Sceva, Jews who went around trying to drive out evil spirits. They heard about what Paul was doing and they said to a demon-possessed man, “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, [we] command you to come out.” … the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus, I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” Then the demon possessed man beat up those seven men and and they ran out naked and bleeding.
The name of Jesus was held in great honor and so also the Apostle Paul and his preaching. The effect of the preaching there was so powerful in driving back satanic darkness that people who owned some occultic scrolls that were very costly came and burned them. They were worth 50,000 laborers’ one-day wages — huge amount of money was burned. The gospel took solid root there in Ephesus. Many people came to faith in Christ. So many people were turning away from paganism that some makers of silver shrines, replicas of the temple, were losing business; they became angry and started making charges against Paul and against the Gospel. That started a great riot in Ephesus that went on for two hours. Most of the people did not even know why they were there — they were caught up in the mob mentality — and they chanted for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”
In Acts 20, Paul gave a farewell address to the Ephesian elders in a great displays of pastoral ministry. If you are interested in vocational ministry, Acts 20 may be a home base for studying elements of a healthy pastoral ministry. He saw to it that they were thoroughly and well trained. After he left, he never returned there again, but he wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians, which is an incredible statement of Christian doctrine. Timothy, Paul’s protégé, his trainee, his son in the faith went to Ephesus and ministered. 1 and 2 Timothy were written into the context there in Ephesus.
As the years went on, the church in Ephesus continued to be the most influential church in that region of the world. According to church tradition, the Apostle John settled there after Timothy to pastor that church. Now, John is in exile in Patmos, off the coast of Asia Minor there for the ministry of the word of God.
We Begin with the Letter to the Church at Ephesus
The letter to the church at Ephesus begins in verse 1 with Christ’s self-identification. He says, “‘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.’” We do not know exactly what “To the angel of the church in Ephesus” means. The word “angel” means messenger. It seems unlikely that Jesus would tell John, a human, to write a letter to an angel — that business would be handled in house between God and the angels. Typically, messages go from God to angel to Apostle or prophet to churches. Rather, the messengers are likely the pastors in those churches. Some commentators have said it may be the dominating spirit of the churches that seeks to be a witness to that community — that is difficult to understand — but we could at least say the elders or pastors of those churches. So we could read: “Write to these pastors, write to this pastor of the church in Ephesus.”
III. Christ’s Commendation: Labor and Right Doctrine
Christ identifies himself as the One who holds in His right hand the seven stars, who is walking among the seven golden lampstands. Holding the stars in His right hand represents His ownership of and authority over those seven churches and His protection of them. No one can snatch them out of His hand. His movement among the lampstands shows his active, intelligent, consistent, priestly ministry to the local churches. He says, “These are the words of…” This is how He is ministering to them, by speaking words. It is by the Word of God that Christ continues through the spirit to minister the local churches.
Then he commends the church of Ephesus. Look at verse 2-3; it says, “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. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary.” In these letters, Christ always begins with these words “I know,” or “I know you”, or most commonly, “I know your deeds.” “By their fruit, you will know them.” He begins with this comprehensive, perfectly detailed knowledge of each of these seven churches. He does not use a different Greek word that means “I am getting to know you” or “I am learning you.” No: “I know you. I know everything about you and I know your deeds, but also... [this will be relevant to this particular letter] I know the heart behind your deeds as well. I know everything about you completely.” That is very comforting to us, isn’t it? But it is also unsettling. For us who are Romans 7 Christians, i.e., with sin nature in us, it is hard to be searched by someone whose eyes are like blazing fire. He says “I know you, I know your deeds.”
Christ’s Commendation of the Church at Ephesus
Christ first commends the church at Ephesus. He names three categories, three virtues: their deeds, their endurance and their commitment to orthodox, right doctrine. The first commendation is for their deeds; the Greek word indicates labor. They are hard workers. They do not dabble at Christian labor. They are energetic, not lazy — a beehive of activity. We know from the book of James that faith without works is dead. This was the church that was energetically doing good works. We do not know what deeds He is commending, but you can imagine the kinds of deeds that happen in a healthy Church life. The spiritual gift ministries were flowing — preaching and teaching, administration, help and service, evangelism; women making meals for those who were unable to do so for themselves, or articles of clothing for the poor.
Second, he commends their endurance, the fact that they didn’t grow weary or give up. Christian life is like a marathon race and they were not becoming tired or growing weary of it. They did not give up in the face of what is implied here, which is persecution. We do not know what kinds of persecutions they endured in Ephesus. We saw the two-hour riot. If Paul had gone into the melee, he likely would have been killed — that is the level of hatred Demetrius and the silver workers and the shrine makers had for Christianity. The Ephesian Christians continued to live in this atmosphere in that community after Paul left. We can imagine the persecution — perhaps socio-economic, maybe they could not buy or sell or hold down jobs. But they did not give up their profession of faith in Christ. They persevered, they endured.
Third, Christ commends their orthodox doctrine. This was the Church that received the Book of Ephesians. The depth of doctrine that Paul laid on them and the way he trained them in the doctrines of the faith was powerful. They had some excellent elders whom Paul had trained, as we saw in Acts 20. In Acts 20:29-31, he said this to the Ephesian elders: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. [Listen to this!] Even from your own number, men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard.” You see how that fits the very commendation he gives here. They were vigilant. “Even from your own number…” They had the mindset of the Bereans in response to false teaching such as is described here: “Just because you are one of us does not mean will accept what you are saying at face value. We will listen and then search the Scriptures to be sure that what you are saying is Biblical and true.” They were able to test those who claimed to be apostles but were not; they were able to find them false. That takes a great deal of doctrinal knowledge and precision and discernment. They were discerning church, and they were committed to it.
In summary, this was a hard-working church. They persevered, and they were committed to solid doctrine. We see later in the letter that they the teaching of the Nicolaitans, who were like Libertarians: they taught, for example, that people could do whatever immoral activity they wanted, that Christ would forgive them. They hated the works of the Nicolaitans. They were hard working, they were persevering, they loved right doctrine and they stood up against false teaching, so what is wrong?
IV. Christ’s Judgment: You Have Forsaken Your First Love
What is wrong? He tells us in verse four what is wrong: “Yet I hold this against you. You have forsaken your first love.” Stop and think of the weightiness of Jesus saying something like that to us. Stop and listen, and imagine what it would be like to hear Jesus say to us as a church or even to us as individuals, “I have this against you.” Feel the weight of that. That should matter to us. “I have this against you. You have forsaken your first love.”
They had WILLFULLY and probably GRADUALLY forsaken their first love
What does that mean? It means they had willfully — not accidentally — and probably gradually turned away from their first love. We do not know exactly what that means. True Christianity results in heartfelt, Spirit-led obedience to the two great commandments: vertically, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind; and horizontally, to love your neighbor as yourself. Genuine Christianity builds obedience to these two great commandments in us.
First and Foremost: Love for Christ
I will focus on the vertical aspect, specifically, love for Christ. This is referring to the love they had when they were first converted, their beginning love, rather than to their first priority. “Remember how it was when you were first converted? Remember how excited you were at being a Christian? Remember what that was like at the start? You have forsaken that. You have turned away.” Where there is no love, there is no life. Little by little, through willful choices they had made, they had allowed their hearts to grow hard. They had allowed their love to grow cold. We are not told what caused it to happen. It is reasonable to assume that love for the world, at a certain level, stepped in front of love for Christ. The world is very alluring, singing its siren song all the time to come off the path of fervency in Christ. Perhaps it had to do with persecutions and they were weary in their attitudes.
If it were overt immorality, Christ would have called them on that as He does with later churches. Given His commendations, they were carrying out their Christian business but had perhaps become cold and grimly ascetic, determined to do the right things, but not receiving any joy from it, as though little by little their hearts had grown cold. Paul asked the Galatians: “What has happened to all your joy? What happened to that joy you had in Christ?” and perhaps the Ephesian also did not have any heart or joy behind them. We will be seeking something to make us happy. We don’t think, “I am going to be a grim ascetic, miserable and unhappy all the time.” We do not tend to do that. Perhaps they were focusing on amoral pleasures: food, entertainments, worldly things rather than corrupt or perverted or immoral things.
In the Old Testament, God again and again used this image of marriage between Him and his people. We have the image of God and His bride Israel. God speaks of His affection, like that of a spouse, for his people. Jeremiah 2:2-3 says something very similar to Israel: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you followed me in the desert.” Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruit of his harvest. “I remember…” God is saying, “I remember what you were like back then.” “I remember the devotion of your youth.” Many of the prophets in The Old Testament picked up on this image of God’s love relationship with His bride Israel and her wandering ways going after other lovers, going after false gods, idols. In the New Testament, that image is brought over to the image of Christ and His bride, the Church. Christ desires to have the sincere and pure, wholehearted devotion of His bride. Paul says to the church at Corinth, “I am afraid that like the serpent tempted Eve, your hearts might be drawn away from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” He is calling His bride, the Church, into a love relationship with Him. He desires his bride to delight in him, to love him with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength. But over the years, it seemed that the Ephesians' original ardor for Christ had cooled; their hearts had grown cold and distant. It was not an accident. They had made willful choices. They had forsaken their first love.
All the Work and Doctrine Becomes Drudgery Without Love for Christ
All the work and the doctrine become drudgery without love for Christ. Remember the story about Jacob and Rachel? Jacob was, in a sense, in the market for a wife — it was time for him to marry. It appears to be a Biblical example of love at first sight. Rachel’s father, Laban, turned out to be quite a scoundrel. He contracted with Jacob for seven years of labour in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Jacob had to work for him for seven years. But, it says in Genesis 29:20, “So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.” We can guess that the church at Ephesus was not feeling that way about their service to Christ anymore. They don’t seem to be of the mind, “It seems like no time at all. I love Jesus so much, I want only to serve him.” Instead it became a burden; it was difficult. Their attitude and mindset was more in tune with drudgery: “We have to do that again? Another outreach? Another offering? Another prayer meeting?” It felt like a burden because the love was not there any more. Even the worship was stale. Jesus quoted Isaiah in Matthew 15: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain…’” Cold and distant — they were there in body, singing the songs, but not in spirit.
Jesus is speaking to us through this. God directed the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer to symbolize Israel’s wandering ways. Hosea 2:14-16 says, “‘Therefore, I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her… There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. In that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘you will call me “my husband”… I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord.’” That is what Jesus wants to say to his Bride, the Church: “I want bring you out just like it was when I first brought you up out of bondage to sin, and I will make you sing again like you used to.”
Insights from Church History
Augustine said in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and the heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in you.” The saddest part about our Christian lives is we do not stop being restless. Have you noticed that? We just sang Come Thou Fount, which contains these words: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” It is so true, isn’t it? Do you not feel that proneness that you have to wander? Do you not find yourself asking, “What is wrong with me? Why would it be that I love Jesus less now than I did a year ago? I should love him more since I have learned more about Him.”
Jonathan Edwards, in his Treatise on Religious Affections said, “True religion consists very much in the affections… The heart is able to analyze and understand something, plus be attracted to or repulsed from that thing to a greater or less degree.” That is what the heart does. First, we know and understand, then we love or like or dislike or hate. We are made that way. First and foremost, we are made to love God above anything else — to have a heart attracted after God. Love is a heart attraction.
We use the simple four-letter word “love” to describe or name a wide range of experiences. We may love a beautiful sunset, snow in March, the Durham Bulls, chocolate ice cream. We men will certainly say “I love my wife.” We all will certainly say “I love Jesus.” The same word is used for all those instances. What is the commonality in using the same word? It is heart attraction. Like a magnet, I am pulled toward those things. “To a greater or less degree,” said Edwards. Maximum attraction must be to God. The point of our faith is to give us a heart of love that we did not have before. We loved God now, whereas we did not before. We used to hate Him. However, it is not static but dynamic. Sometimes we love more, sometimes we love less.
V. Christ’s Command: Remember, Repent, Resume
Next Christ gives this command to the Ephesian church. He will not leave any local church wandering aimlessly in a desert of lovelessness, churning out works and right doctrine from a cold heart. This is appalling to Him, and He will not allow it to continue. He presses in, like a good physician, and gives this threefold prescription, this threefold command. “Remember, repent and resume.” Look at Verse 5: “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” “Start with this: Remember the height or the place from which you have fallen.” This is the image of backsliding. Our growth in love for Christ is pictured almost like climbing a mountain, going higher and higher.
Remember the height (or place) from which you have fallen
In my sermons on the book of Ephesians, I preached eagerly on that beautiful section, Ephesians 3:17-19, in which the apostle Paul prayed for the Ephesian Christians: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and that you would know that love that surpasses knowledge — that you would be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Those words, written to this same church at Ephesus, indicate that they must have had some elevating experiences, maybe not caught up to the Third Heaven as John was, but above the cloud cover, the fog level, to see how much Jesus loved them, to see the infinite dimensions of Jesus’ love for them at the cross and the empty tomb. They had seen it, and their hearts were moved by that.
Now Christ “Remember? Remember how that was? Now, look at you. You slid back, you are back down below the fog cover now, and you do not seem to know how wide and long and high and deep anymore. You are certainly not filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. So remember.” Remember climbing higher and higher in our knowledge, in our sense and feeling of the love of Christ for us.
“Remember the height from which you have fallen. See how it used to be. Remember what it was like when Jesus’ love first pierced through your heart. Remember that. Remember the first time you surveyed the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, and you saw the attributes of God there. You saw the love of God displayed in the cross. It was not an ugly, disgusting picture of a bloody man tortured to death. It was now a picture of God’s love for you. Remember what that was like. Remember when you first felt yourself to be the prodigal son: when your Father embraced you and welcomed you back and forgave all your sins; when He put a ring on your finger and shoes on your feet and a robe around you; when He welcomed you into a feast. Remember what that felt like to have your Father love you like that. That is the height from which you’ve fallen. Remember what that was like.”
Second, repent. Feel the pain of the fall. Cry out against yourself. Turn in your mind on your own situation. Turn and become alarmed and become awakened and become zealous about this. The coldness of affections for Christ is a great sin, not a small sin. To become bored with Jesus is a big deal, not a small thing. To become cold and lifeless toward the Bible, to have very little attraction toward the reading of Scripture is a big deal. To be distant from God and from Christ in corporate worship and not really enjoy singing any of the songs is a big deal. Prod yourself with God’s word, provoke your heart, charge yourself with sin, turn from your present course, do a U-turn — that is repentance. Renew your mind by God’s word and see your present spiritual state the way Christ does. Repent; take responsibility for where you are in your walk with Christ.
Resume: Do the things you did at first!
You do not need to wait. You can do it right away — that is the beauty of sanctification. If at any moment you are convicted of sin, repent and immediately do the right things. You do not have to wait or have a warm-up period. You can go right into the third command, which is renew or resume the things you did at first. There is no waiting. This is a most urgent matter. The Ephesian Christians were a busy, hardworking church. He is not talking about hard work and accounting for their time. Rather, there were some works of love that they used to do, works of affection, works of heart attraction to Christ.
What did you do when you wanted to tell Jesus that you loved him early on? How did you express it? I liked to be out in nature, to go for long walks in the woods or other natural settings looking at scenery. At those times I found myself praying, thanking God for the things He has done. Perhaps you liked to go to the ocean. Or maybe you just stayed at home, spending a long evening studying God’s word with like three or four different colored markers, writing notes feverishly, discovering new things in God’s word back then. Or perhaps you would sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs where no one could hear you.
Three or four years into my Christian walk, I went to a Christian bookstore and bought my first hymnal. (I held it in my hand this morning in my study. I was going to bring it into the pulpit, but I am not big on show and tell.) By then, I knew many of the hymns in there, and I loved to sing them. One day, I was at a picnic table out in the park; I was alone in the park when I started, but when people started coming, I was tested at that moment. Would I keep singing? But I did not care about them, I was simply enjoying singing.
Or, when I was single, I would go out on Sunday afternoons — we did not have any evening service at that small church in Topsfield — and find a tree to sit under and I would eat a sandwich and read Christian books, or the Bible, or memorize Scripture. I would sit for hours. I loved doing that. That is what I used to do; what did you used to do? What are the works you used to do when you wanted to express your love for Christ? Well, resume those actions again, whatever it is.
Christless Pleasure Has Such a Deadening Effect on the Soul
Remember, repent and resume. The world has a deadening effect on us. You go after some habit, you think it will make you happy, you get increasingly addicted to it, and little by little, you do not want to do anything but that; it dims your joy and delight in everything else, including Jesus. That is what the world does. Ecclesiastes 1:8 says, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say.” That is life apart from Jesus; that is what happens — we get bored. Remember, repent and resume.
VI. Christ’s Warning: I Will Remove Your Lampstand
But what if we do not? If not, what then? Look at Verse 5 again. “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” This is a grave threat. Christ will not accept a loveless, hardworking orthodoxy. He will not have a religious machine running to no purpose. We must realize as a local church that He does not need us at all — we need Him. He does not need us to build the universal Church. All local churches are temporary. He can and does remove lampstands. If a church has forsaken its first love and is called on in this text to repent but they does not, the lampstand will be removed. Alexander Strauch wrote a book about this; it is one of the most striking titles I have ever read. It is about these verses, Revelation 2:1-7, called Repent or Die. These verses are speaking to a church: “If you don’t, I’m going to take you out and the church will be dead; it will be gone.”
I am not talking about individual Christians losing their salvation — that is a different matter. Warnings are given to individual Christians, and we should heed those warnings: if you’re genuinely born again, you will repent and turn and do the things you did at first. But Christ is talking to whole churches in these verses. We have seen, even in this community, churches that used to be flourishing, shut down. They do not exist anymore. Or others that are in that process. They are heading toward extinction. It does happen.
VII. Christ’s Promises: The Tree of Life for Those Who Overcome
But to the overcomers — verse 7 says, “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.” Each of these letters ends with the same words:“To him who overcomes…” Sweet promises. “If you listen to what the Spirit says to the churches, if you repent and do what He is telling you to do, if you overcome…” I love that word. We are to be more than conquerors. We have severe challenges. We must overcome. “If you do overcome by faith in Christ, by the Spirit, if you remember, repent, and resume, if you have an ear and you listen to what the Spirit says to the church,” “I will give you the right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God.”
Remember, there were two trees in the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. When Adam and Eve fell at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the way was blocked or closed to the tree of life. There was a cherub with a flaming sword put in the way, flashing back and forth saying, “You cannot go there. You cannot eat from that tree.” But now, Jesus is saying, “If you remember, repent, resume, if you overcome, I will give you the privilege of eating from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” It is a metaphor for salvation: “You will live forever in heaven.”
Revelation 22:2, at the end of this book, says, “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing 12 crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Isn’t that beautiful? Feed on that — you can get the benefits right now. You can feel spiritual nourishment flowing through your soul now if you will remember, repent and resume the works you did at first. You will start getting stronger. But that is not all. In the end, you get to be in the paradise of God, eating. Revelation 22:14 says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.”
Come to Christ
I have been weaving applications all through this sermon, but I have a couple of things to add. First, to non-Christians and then to Christians. To non-Christians, I will say this: You have been overhearing a conversation between Jesus and his Church. We are so glad you’re here. God brought you here to listen to this conversation, but if you are not yet a Christian, He wants you to know you are on the outside. But He is inviting you to come in, saying, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. Open the door, and I will come in, and I’ll eat with you, and you with me.” He is inviting you to come to Him. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” If you accept His invitation, you will immediately come into a love relationship with Christ that will last for all eternity. Trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and know the salvation only He can give.
Christians: How is Your Love Relationship with Christ?
To you who are Christians, we have been looking in the mirror today in Revelation 2:1-7. How is your love relationship with Christ? Do you love Jesus more now than you did a year ago? Is it growing? Is it expanding? Is it developing? Is it warmer? Stronger? Hotter? If not, why? What is going on? Are you in sin? Is there some kind of pattern of sin that is drawing your spiritual strength away? Is there some habit of worldliness, maybe not overt sin, but things you are addicted to in the world that are sapping your strength and causing you not to give as much time to prayer or Bible reading or other things? What is your worship life like? Do you like to pray and sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs anew? Do you like to tell Jesus, “Thank you for dying for me”? Do you have a sense of the ministry of the Spirit poured into your heart, the love of God poured into your heart? If not, then these three steps have been very helpful for me: Remember, repent, resume.
Close with me in prayer. Father, we thank you for the things that we’ve learned today in your word. My desire, O Lord, is that each one of us would love Christ more fervently a year from now than we do now. I pray that those things that are sucking strength out of us, that you would prune them from our lives, O Lord, that we would cut off the right hand, gouge out the right eye, whatever it takes so that we can have a more sincere and pure devotion, a more fervent devotion to Christ. I pray, O Lord, give us power by the spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh. Help us to love you more and serve you better. Help us to be willing to obey your commands. You said, “ If you love Me, you’ll obey what I command.” Help us to be more obedient by the Spirit, and if we are, you’ll reveal more and more of yourself to us. Lord, we pray these things in Jesus name. Amen.