Preferring Church Over Jesus

The letter to the Church in Ephesus, recorded in Revelation 2:1-7, captures my attention in that it describes a gathering of people who appear to care more about their church activities than they do about their relationship with Jesus.

The letter begins well. We are pleased to read that the Lord Jesus Christ perceives that many good things are happening at the Church in Ephesus. The commendation given to them by Christ is quite an impressive one.

I know your deeds”, Jesus tells them (Rev. 2:2).

This appears to be a busy congregation. This is not a congregation that merely gathers for an hour on Sunday morning and then scatters—the Ephesian Christians are accomplishing things. They are like a congregation in our day that has a vibrant Sunday School and a variety a mid-week programs. I suspect that the Ephesians are attentive to the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Jesus goes on to commend them, “I know . . . your toil”.

That is to say, ‘I recognize the effort required in your deeds.’ The Greek word for toil implies a loss of strength; or a weariness that results from the work. Apparently, the kind of deeds being carried out in the Church at Ephesus required significant energy. The work being done was not a nominal work. These were the kind of people who could be counted on to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

Jesus commends them further, “I know . . . your perseverance”, He tells them.

The work of the church in Ephesus was not a short-term venture. This congregation is seeing their work through to conclusion. There don’t appear to be any ‘quitters’ in the Church at Ephesus. Evidently, the people who had signed up to do particular tasks were staying with their tasks.

If the commendation of the Church at Ephesus stopped here I would be sufficiently impressed, and yet, Jesus goes on: “I know . . . that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2).

That the congregation in Ephesus is unwilling to “endure evil men” points to their integrity. This is a morally upright group of people. We also learn that they are a discerning group of people. The Church at Ephesus had the ability to identify imposters—people who presented themselves as apostles, but were not.

And then, after all of that—after saying all of those positive things about the Christians in Ephesus, we read what no church ever wants to hear from our Lord:

BUT

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4).

The Lord Jesus Christ perceives many good things about the Church at Ephesus, but He also perceives that there is something fundamentally lacking with them—the people have forgotten that which is most vital: a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

We can be sure that this is no little shortcoming based on the language employed by Christ. The element of loving Christ is so critical that the diminished expression of this love causes Christ to say that He has something “against” the congregation at Ephesus.

This is severe. If someone approaches you and says, ‘I have something against you’—that’s serious. So when Christ tells the congregation in Ephesus that He has something “against” them, my attention is sufficiently arrested. My attention is arrested, in part, because of the severity of the statement, but it is also arrested because I suspect these words apply to more congregations than we could probably number.

And, I suspect there are at least occasions when these words of our Lord apply to you and to me . . . “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

The notion that you have diminished your love for Christ need not cause you to altogether despair. It brings me great relief to see that Jesus follows His severe words with an obtainable prescription. Though Christ be against us when our love departs, He prescribes for us a course that will return us to a right relationship with Him.

Christ prescribes for the people of Ephesus, and He prescribes for all who have wandered from the love of Christ, “Remember” . . . “Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (2:5).

What is implied in this prescription is the notion that our love had a distinct character when we began with Christ. I know mine did. I remember how I felt when I first comprehended that Christ died for me on the cross and that, in Him, I had found forgiveness for all my sins. I remember how inflamed my love for Christ was at the thought that He had become my Saviour, my Lord, and my friend.

Now, remember that each for yourselves. Did you have such a day? Was there a time when your love for Christ was such that you longed to pray to Him; a time when the prospect of gathering with His people on Sunday morning excited your very soul?

If there was such a time, remember it. Bring to mind those thoughts that overflowed into loving devotion.

If there was such a time when loving Christ was your first priority, if there was a time when Christ was the most important thing about you, it will also be helpful to ask yourself: “What has happened? Why is Christ less than that now?”

I agree with Charles Spurgeon, who asserts that our love grows cold when we neglect communion with Christ (not talking about the Lord’s Supper). Spurgeon is referring specifically to our dealings with Christ in prayer and our dealings with Christ as we read the Scriptures. Spurgeon goes on to say, ‘We shall never love Christ much (unless) we live near Him.’

Jesus’ call to “repent” (a word which means “to turn around”) then, is a call to us who are far off, to come near again. It is a call to us who have grown cold in our prayers, to return to fervent prayer. The call to repent is to us who have regarded the words of Scripture as bitter, to once again reckon them to be “sweeter than honey” (Ps. 119:103).

This is the prescription of Jesus Christ to all those who have left their first love.

And lest anyone think that a return to Christ is unnecessary, He finishes His message to the Ephesians with strong words of persuasion, “I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent . . . (but) to him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God” (2:5, 7).

In other words, this is a matter of life and death. The punishment threatened here is corporate—the removal of the “lampstand” signifies the removal of light and life from the local congregation.

What is your local congregation like? Does your congregation run excellent programs? Does it serve the poor? Do your people exert themselves for the Gospel? Is your congregation marked by moral integrity? But, of course, the Church in Ephesus was marked by such things.

It appears that we are not going to be judged according to how busy we are. It appears that we are not going to be evaluated according to whether we accomplish the items listed in our mission statement.

The most critical point is whether or not Jesus Christ is our first love.

Jesus doesn’t simply want us to love Him a lot. He wants us to love Him first.

I’m challenged by that. But I want that—for myself, for my family, for my congregation, and for you.

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“Recovering First Love”, based on Revelation 2:1-7, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 26, 2011.

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