The Heart Of The Matter
The letters to the seven churches in Asia, found in the Book of Revelation, are spoken by Jesus Christ, and are recorded by the apostle John. These letters contain varying levels of praise and criticism for the seven churches. For example, criticism is altogether lacking in the letters to the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia. By contrast, the letter to the Church of Laodicea contains nothing but criticism.
The letter to the Church of Ephesus is somewhere in between. With a mixture of praise and criticism, the letter addressed to the Ephesian congregation has a discernable outline. The letter begins with what Christ perceives about them, continues with what Christ prescribes for them, and concludes with what Christ persuades them towards (Spurgeon).
Turning our attention to verse two, we identify first what Christ perceives. We are pleased to read that the Lord Jesus Christ perceives that many good things are happening at the Church in Ephesus. If this Ancient congregation were to have a “Rally Day” celebration they would have much to cheer about. The commendation given to them by Christ is an impressive one. Frankly, I would be delighted if St. Giles Kingsway received the same commendation from our Lord as the Church at Ephesus.
Jesus begins by recognizing their “deeds”—“I know your deeds”, He tells them (Rev. 2:2). This appears to be a busy congregation. This is not an idle 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 Church School and a variety a mid-week programs. I suspect that the Ephesians are attentive to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. “I know your deeds”, Jesus tells them
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 employed here (kopos) implies a loss of strength; a weariness that results from the work. Apparently, the kind of deeds being carried out in the Church at Ephesus were of the kind that required significant energy. In other words, the work being done was not a nominal work; these folks were exerting themselves in their congregational duties. These were the kind of people who could be counted on to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. “I know . . . your toil”, Jesus tells them.
Having recognized the value of the actual work done, and having recognized the effort involved in the execution of their work, Jesus commends them further, “I know . . . your perseverance”, He tells them. The people of this congregation were doing more than engaging in good deeds and exerting themselves in those deeds, the people of this congregation were seeing their work through to conclusion. There is no mention of any ‘quitters’ in the Church at Ephesus. The people who signed up to do particular tasks were persevering in those tasks.
The word employed here in the original language (hupomone), is rich with meaning. This word for “perseverance” has connotations of patience and hopefulness. These connotations point to our motivation for perseverance. What naturally compels us to endure to the end is the hopeful expectation that our persevering will secure a particular result. Conversely, if we lack hope for a successful conclusion, we are likely to give up on the task we are working on.
I suspect most of us know what this is like. At some point in our life, I’m guessing that we have all given up on something. I know I have.
Just a few months ago I bought one of those outdoor wood-burning stoves. As with most things of this nature, it came unassembled in a box. I worked on it for hours before I finally gave up trying to assemble it. Why did I give up? First let me say that when I began the work of assembling the stove I was confident that I could finish the job. That confidence fueled my work. But as time wore on my confidence began to wane. I began to doubt the accuracy of the instruction manual, and I eventually concluded that completing this task was hopeless. Without hope for a successful conclusion, my will to continue with the task was broken.
As a sidebar, for those of you who are curious, Allie succeeded in assembling the stove without much difficulty. What was the difference? It could simply be that Allie is a lot brighter than I am, but more than that, I think, was that Allie did not vacillate in her hope for a successful conclusion.
This is how Jesus describes the effort of the people in the Church at Ephesus. These people were engaged in worthwhile projects, they were exerting themselves, and they were staying with the work until it was done. “I know . . . your perseverance”, Jesus tells them.
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; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary” (Rev. 2:2, 3).
There is much we can unpack in that compliment. Hearing that the congregation in Ephesus is unwilling to “endure evil men” (2:2) 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, again, the Christians in Ephesus are commended for persevering.
Jesus had already said they were persevering in their good deeds, and now He commends them for persevering in their discernment and their moral integrity.
And then, after all of that, we read what no church ever wants to hear from our dear 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 wrong with them—the people have forgotten the central element of the Christian faith, which is a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.
We know 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 I . . . “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”
The notion that you have diminished your love for Christ need not unduly startle you in that Christ 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, if there was such a time when loving Christ was first priority, if there was a time when Christ was the most important thing about you, 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. 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” 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. Alternatively, the reward promised is “the Paradise of God” (2:7). Which shall you choose? Which shall we choose as a congregation?
We have already chosen to do good deeds, we run excellent programs, our people exert themselves for the Gospel—but of course, so did the congregation in Ephesus.
The heart of the matter is not how busy we are. The heart of the matter is not how much we are accomplishing. The heart of the matter is whether or not Jesus Christ is our first love. Because, if Christ is not our first love, Christ will stand against us even in the face of a multitude of good deeds.
Above all else, above all civil and congregational duties, resolve this day to love the Lord Jesus Christ with all your heart. Amen.