So, the last time we were studying verses 9 to 20 of Revelation 1 and the vision the Apostle John saw of the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus who was walking among the lampstands. And since the lampstands represent the churches, it was a picture of the Lord Jesus walking among the churches. Although he’s in heaven, he hasn’t forgotten us or abandoned us, but he’s still watching over us to guard and to guide us.
The Seven Messages
The end of chapter 1 marks the end of the introduction to the book of Revelation. And so, we turn now to the main body of the book which begins with these seven letters to the seven churches. Now, we refer to them as the seven letters, but really they’re seven messages, because, as we’ve already seen from verse 4 of chapter 1, the whole of the book of Revelation is a letter; the whole of the book of Revelation is a letter. And so what we have in chapters 2 and 3 are seven individual messages addressed to each of the seven churches which are contained within this one letter. And people who write letters today do something similar. In the course of the letter, they say:
Tell Johnny this.
Tell Susie this.
Be sure to say this to Bobby.
That’s what the Apostle John is doing now in these two chapters.
Now, each of the letters follows the same general pattern. Firstly, there’s a command to write to an angel of the church. So, in the letter to Ephesus it begins:
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write….
Secondly, there’s a line which describes the Lord Jesus:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.
Thirdly, there’s a commendation of the church’s good works:
I know your deeds, your hard work and perseverance [and so on].
Fourthly, there’s an accusation of some sin:
Yet I hold this against you….
Fifthly, there’s a command to repent with a warning for those who don’t and a promise for those who do.
Sixthly, there’s a command to hear:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
And seventhly, there’s a promise given to those who overcome:
To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat of the tree of life….
That’s the general pattern, though there’s some variation. But notice that each of the seven messages to the seven churches normally contains seven parts.
And, as I’ve said before, in the Bible, the number seven signifies completion and fullness. And so, although these seven messages are addressed to seven individual churches, really they’re addressed to the whole church, the church in every nation and in every generation. And we can even see that in the text, because at the end of each message, the command to hear what the Spirit is saying is addressed not to one church only, but to ‘the churches’. Do you see that in verse 7?
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
And if you glance at verse 23 of chapter 3, you’ll see that it says that all the churches will know that the Lord Jesus is the one who searches hearts and minds. All the churches will know, not just one church. So, the Lord Jesus is not only addressing the church in Ephesus and Smyrna and Pergamum and so on, he’s addressing every church.
Having said all that by way of introduction, let’s turn to the first message which was addressed to the church in Ephesus. Or rather, it was addressed to ‘the angel of the church in Ephesus’. Now, I said the last time that it’s not clear what is meant by the angel of the church. Does it refer to a guardian angel who is responsible for the church? Does it refer to the minister of the church? Does it refer to someone else in the church? We don’t know. But we shouldn’t be too concerned, because clearly the message is meant for the people who comprise the church.
And the message is from the Lord Jesus, who is described in verse 1 as the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand. The seven stars — you’ll remember — represent the seven angels of the seven churches. And the Lord Jesus is also described as the one who walks among the lampstands. Again you’ll remember that the lampstands represent the churches. And so, right there, at the beginning of this message, we’re reminded that the Lord Jesus is familiar with the churches. Though he’s in heaven, he’s also walking among the churches, watching over them to guide and direct them. He knows all about his people here on earth. He our sins and our good deeds. He also knows all about our struggles.
And at the beginning of this particular message, the Lord Jesus commends the church in Ephesus for their deeds. He mentions their hard work and perseverance. We don’t know what he means by ‘their hard work’, but the need for perseverance, or patient endurance, in the Christian life is familiar to us, because whenever the Lord’s people suffer on the earth, we need to endure patiently and continue along the narrow path that leads to everlasting life.
And John goes on to refer to the way the believers in Ephesus didn’t tolerate these false teachers, these wicked men who claimed to be apostles, but were not. And later he mentions their hated for the practices of the Nicolaitans, who were another group with false beliefs.
Well, I wonder if you remember Paul’s final words of advice to the elders in Ephesus? In Acts 20 he warned them that savage wolves will come in among them and not spare the flock. Even from among your own number, he said, men will arise and distort the truth to draw away disciples after them. So, ‘be on your guard!’ he said. And it seems — from what the Lord Jesus said to them in Revelation 2 — that they paid attention to Paul’s warning and they were on the alert for these savage wolves, these false teachers and apostles.
So, that’s all good. And the Lord commends them in verse 3 for persevering; and for enduring hardships for his name’s sake. And they’ve not grown weary. And that’s important, because the Christian life is not a sprint, which is over in a flash. It’s a marathon. It’s an endurance race. We need to endure and not grow weary, lest we fall short of reaching the prize.
But the Lord’s tone changes in verse 4 and he says:
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.
It’s not entirely clear what he means by ‘your first love’. Many Bible commentators think he’s referring to their love for one another. So, one commentator paraphrases the Lord’s words as:
You have given up loving one another as you did at first.
But other commentators — and this is what I think — believe that their first love, which they once possessed, but which they have now forsaken, is the love they once had for the Lord. And that seems to match the seriousness of the Lord’s warning in verse 5 where he warns that unless they repent of their lovelessness, he will take away their lampstand, which means he will take away their status as a true church. And it also matches the Lord’s warning in Matthew 24:12 about how the love of most will grow cold.
And the word ‘forsaken’ is a strong word. It’s the same word which is used in 1 Corinthians 7 for divorce. And that seems highly appropriate because think of a man who once loved his wife, but his love for her has gone; and he now wants to divorce her. Well, the Ephesians once loved the Lord. When they first believed, they loved the Father and rejoiced in him; they loved the Lord Jesus and delighted in his salvation; they loved the Holy Spirit who came into their lives. They loved the Lord; but now their love for him has waned and they no longer love him the way they once did.
And it seems so strange, doesn’t it? Here are these believers who have endured all kinds of trials. And they’re very orthodox, aren’t they? They’re very sound, because they haven’t been taken in by these false teachers. So, they’re able to spot theological error and they won’t stand for it. But, at the same time, something has gone wrong in their hearts; and if you were able to look into their hearts, you’d find a hole where their love for the Lord ought to be.
Of course, it’s not so surprising, is it? Remember the Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son? Well, it was really a parable about two sons. The younger son went away and squandered his inheritance; but when he came to his senses, and returned to the family farm, he experienced his father’s forgiving grace. But what about the other son? The elder son? Remember how he complained about the father’s forgiving grace? He didn’t think it was right for his father to treat his brother like that. And he said to his father:
All these years I have … what?
All these years I have … loved you? No, he didn’t say that. He said:
All these years I have been slaving for you.
The father in the parable could have said to the elder brother exactly what the Lord Jesus said to the church in Ephesus:
I know your deeds. Your hard work and perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men. You have persevered and have endured hardships and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you’ve forsaken your love for me.
You’re working hard for me. But you don’t love me anymore.
How does it happen? How does it happen that we forget our first love? Well, there are many ways this happens, but the main way is like this: it happens bit by bit. It happens slowly, like water dripping from a bucket. If the hole in the bottom of the bucket is large, then straightaway, as soon as you pour the water in, you’ll notice it running out. But if the hole is small, then the water leaks drop by drop and bit by bit, and you barely notice. And that’s how our love for the Lord vanishes. It happens bit by bit. If our love was to vanish all at once, then we’d notice. And straightaway we’d do something about it. But when it happens bit by bit, then we don’t notice; and men and women have gone for weeks, months, even years, without being aware that anything has really changed. The cooling off has been gradual; it has been little by little. It’s not all at once. It’s bit by bit. And eventually, eventually, there’s nothing left of the love we once had for him. There’s still a lot of hard work and activity; but the love and joy has gone.
What’s the solution? Well, the solution is here in the text. First of all, remember: Remember the height from which you have fallen. In other words, remember how you used to love the Lord and why you used to love him so much. In Matthew 13 the Lord Jesus tells the parable of a man who found a treasure in a field; and because it was so valuable, he went away and joyfully — joyfully — sold everything he possessed in order to own this treasure. The treasure, of course, is the Lord Jesus. And he is so great and so glorious that having him as our Saviour is worth more than all the things the world has to offer. And so the Lord might have said to the Ephesians:
That’s how much you once loved me. I was like a treasure to you. I was worth more to you than all the gold in the world. Remember that!
Secondly, repent and do the things you did at first. Now, the Lord Jesus doesn’t explain what those things you did at first are. But let me suggest one thing which Christians have always done and which, not only demonstrates our love for him, but it actually increases our love for him. And it’s very simple. Do you know what it is? It’s worship. Public worship. Family worship. Private worship. Public worship with all of God’s people in church every Sunday. Family worship at home each day. Private worship by ourselves. When we read and hear the good news of the gospel, when we give thanks to God in prayer and praise, when we celebrate the sacraments in church, we’re reminded of God’s grace and mercy to us, and all his benefits to us, all the good things he does for us. And by being reminded of these things — day by day and week by week and month by month and year by year — our love for him will grow and not shrink. And, of course, since we’re unable to meet for public worship for the time being, then family worship and private worship becomes all the more important, doesn’t it? We mustn’t neglect these things, but must persevere with them so that our love does not grow cold.
Well now, even in this passage — when the Lord was rebuking the Ephesians, and warning them, that he might have to take away from them their lampstand — even when he was rebuking them, he was giving them a reason to love him, because he was promising those who overcome this sin the right to eat from the tree of life, in the new heavens and earth. After his rebuke and his warning, there’s this wonderful, gracious promise. And even as we think about his promise — and how none of us deserves to eat from the tree of life and to live forever in his presence because we’re sinners — even as we think about his promise, we’re reminded once again of his grace and mercy to us and why we ought to love him.