Email from Jesus – 1. When Jesus Comes to Church
Revelation 2: 1 - 7 If Jesus visited our church, what would he say about it? Would he be impressed by the things that impress others? Would he comment on our buildings? Would he mention the size of the congregation? Would he notice how much money was given last month? Would he feel like an outsider? Pastors always feel a bit nervous when someone says, “I visited your church last Sunday and . . ." It’s what comes after the “and” that worries us. What if Jesus himself dropped by? Would the pastor wish he had worked harder on his sermon? (The answer is yes.) John Stott - book - What Christ Thinks of the Church - based on the letters to the 7 churches in Revelation. The book itself is excellent, but it is the title that catches our attention. What does Jesus think about the church? What does he think about the church you attend? Thankfully, we are not left to wonder about the larger question. We are beginning a 7 part series on the letters to the churches in Revelation. Because the letters are short, we’re calling it Email from Jesus. In these 7 letters our Lord pays a pastoral visit to 7 different 1st century local churches. In each case he tailors a message fitting to that congregation in that place at that moment in history. (Map) These were all actual churches in Asia Minor (the western part of modern-day Turkey) struggling with persecution and the temptation to moral and spiritual compromise. Some (like Smyrna) faced more persecution than others. Some (like Thyatira) faced great issues of moral debauchery inside the church. The church in the most enviable position economically (Laodicea) receives the harshest warning from the Lord. Reading Revelation 2, 3 is like reading someone else’s email. These are real churches filled with real people struggling with real problems. Though 2000 years separate us from them, their issues are not much different from ours. As we go through these 7 letters, we will see ourselves and our church in a new light. It’s easy to think that as long as the church is busy, everything must be okay. I have plenty of good memories and not too many regrets about the pastorate. I remember many times when I wondered, “How are we really doing?” It’s hard to know the answer to that question when you are in the trenches. We tend give the answer by the numbers - and they do matter. The money we give says something important, and the number of people who show up says something. People vote with their money and with their feet every Sunday. We measure our churches that way. Jesus evidently doesn’t. That’s a bit of a shock. So what is Jesus looking for when he comes to church? These 7 letters provide an important answer. The first letter went to Ephesus (pictures), a major league city in the ancient world. Because of its location as a port city on the shores of the Aegean Sea, it was in many ways the marketplace of Asia. It was also home to the Temple of Artemis (also called Diana), one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. 3 major roads met in Ephesus, making it a gateway to the Roman provinces to the east. The city was a bustling cosmopolitan centre, a place where the Apostle Paul spent over 2 years establishing a thriving church (Acts 19). Later he wrote the letter of Ephesians to this congregation. Over the years the church had been taught by Paul, Apollos, Timothy and eventually by John. Hardly any church in the 1st century had it so good. 1. A Word of Commendation The letter from Jesus opens with a reminder that Jesus is fully qualified to write because he “holds the 7 stars in his right hand and walks among the 7 golden lampstands” (v. 1). The 7 stars are the angels of the 7 churches. The 7 lampstands are those 7 churches (v. 20). This is a good word for church leaders who feel like they are under a microscope constantly. Never fear. We are held by the Lord himself. He knows us, he sees us and he has not forgotten us. There was much to commend about the church at Ephesus. "I know your deeds” (v. 2). They had great zeal for the Lord. This was a busy, hard-working, service-oriented congregation. They didn’t just sit around patting each other on the back. They were eager to serve the Lord. They had a church calendar filled to overflowing with events, programs, meetings and a whole variety of outreaches to the community. But that’s not all. They would not tolerate false teachers (v. 2). We would hardly ever hear this said about a church nowadays. If a pastor says that Jesus is the only way to heaven, he is widely regarded as narrow minded. Let a Christian teacher speak out against gay marriage, and she will almost certainly get in trouble and she might lose her job. Today it’s much more fashionable to keep your negative views to yourself. After all, we don’t want to risk offending the very people we’re trying to reach. The church at Ephesus evidently didn’t have that problem. They tried the “false apostles” and threw them out of the congregation. They also rejected the teaching of a strange sect in the early church that taught that “freedom in Christ” meant you had the freedom to sin. They wanted to hook up with the surrounding paganism. They were the ones who compromised on sexual purity, saying things like “My body’s mine, I can do with it whatever I want and still be in good standing with God.” Jesus actually says he “hates” the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (v. 6). That’s very politically incorrect for Jesus to talk like that. The Jesus of popular imagination loves everyone and would never hate anyone or anything. But that Jesus is not the Jesus of the NT. They had endured persecution and had not grown weary. The church in Ephesus had many enemies. Nothing has really changed in 2000 years. Today we read about Coptic Christians in Egypt being killed by the police – Christians in Nigeria killed by Muslim exremists. What a great church it was. Hard-working, Bible-centred, courageous, filled with folks who can take the heat and never give up. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a church like that? But there is more to the story. 2. A Word of Rebuke When Christ looks at a church, he sees beneath the surface to the underlying reality. In this case all the good the church was doing was overshadowed by a sad reality. They had left their first love (v. 4). They didn’t love Jesus very much at all. Somehow in the midst of all their godly busyness and all their standing for the truth, somehow, somewhere along the way, they had left Christ out of their church. Is that possible? It must be possible because that’s what happened at Ephesus. One wonders if Paul sensed this problem 30 years earlier when he wrote to the Ephesians and prayed - Ephesians 3: 17, 18. Did Paul sense way back at the beginning that this great church might be lacking in the love department? Here is the saddest part. Jesus Christ knew they didn’t love him. Perhaps as John recorded these words, he remembered another time, many years earlier, when Christ asked Peter not once, but 3 times, “Do you love me?” Peter, embarrassed and ashamed because of his betrayal in the courtyard, blurts out what any of us would have said, “Lord, you know that I love you!” What happened to Peter could happen to any of us. I suspect that what happened in Ephesus is even more likely among us. How easy it is to substitute knowledge for a warm heart toward Jesus. How quickly we justify our hard hearts by pointing to all our well-intentioned religious activity. “We can lose Christ by distraction as easily as by denial.” I think that’s what happened in Ephesus. They got distracted away from Jesus, and in the process they lost him. But Jesus won’t be fooled. In v. 5 he gives them a simple yet deeply challenging prescription: Remember - how it used to be. Repent - change your mind and your heart. Repeat - the first works. This is a sensible prescription because it assumes an important spiritual truth. You don’t regain your first love overnight. Ask any couple that has gone through a marital crisis. A marriage doesn’t deteriorate overnight, and it is not restored overnight. Healing takes time. So it is in the spiritual realm. It all begins with a good memory. "Remember the height from which you have fallen!” (v. 5) Remembering what you once had can be a good thing if it leads you to practical action. If you keep on walking in the right direction, soon you will walk out of the darkness and into the blazing light of God’s love. We all would prefer a quick prayer. In this age of instant-everything, no one wants to wait. We want the quick fix that will instantly make everything right. The words of Jesus remind us that while healing is possible, it must begin in the heart and in the mind. When Jesus met a man who had been an invalid for 38 years, he asked him a penetrating question: “Do you want to get well?” (John 5: 6). Why would he ask a question like that? Jesus is probing at the level of the will - “Do you really want to be changed?” If the answer is yes, then miracles can take place. If the answer is no, then even Jesus cannot help you. We all face the same challenge today. Are we so comfortable where we are that we don’t want to change? If so, then Jesus has nothing more to say to us. But if we feel the stirring of God within, then we will do what Christ prescribes. We will ponder our past blessings. We will repent of our self-centred living. We will do the “first works” again. Jesus doesn’t specify the “first works.” It is so tempting for me to give my favourite “to-do” list - usually very good things like Bible reading, prayer, worship and so on. But when asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus summarised it in 2 sentences: Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbour as yourself. Do loving actions and soon loving feelings will follow. 3. A Word of Warning Don’t skip the words of Jesus in v. 6: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” The lampstand represents the approval of God on the church itself. No church has an unlimited claim on God’s blessings. Any church may have its “lampstand” removed by the Lord. Let me ask a question for which I have no answer. How does a church know when its lampstand is removed? I think the church itself would never know because in one sense nothing would change. God would take his hand off the church and everything would continue a usual. The preacher would preach. The worship team would sing. The lights would shine. The sound system would work. The Sunday School would meet. The door stewards would collect the offering. The people would clap. The deacons would pray. The teens would have their get-togethers. But God would not be there. It would be religion without reality, preaching without power and church without Jesus. It is a sad fact that the church at Ephesus eventually ceased to exist. It simply was no more. Perhaps that is better than to continue as a church when Jesus is absent. 4. A Word of Invitation So we come to the ultimate question. Are we listening to what God is saying? Each of the 7 letters includes this sentence: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 6). Do we have ears to hear? Or are we already too distracted by the noise of the world? The Christian faith is a religion of the ears - of hearing the Word of the Lord. God is speaking. Are we listening? The message to the church at Ephesus ends with this promise to the overcomers. “I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (v. 7). That speaks of the personal presence of the Lord Jesus. It’s what Jesus promised to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” If we are faithful in this life, we will know Jesus intimately in the next life. We can’t say exactly what that means, but it must be wonderful. In that day we will never regret having loved the Lord in this life. If we love him here, we will love him more there. If we rejoice here, we will rejoice even more there. More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee! Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee. This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee; More love to Thee, more love to Thee! Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest; Now Thee alone I seek, give what is best. This all my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ, to Thee; More love to Thee, more love to Thee! This is what we need to hear today: “Now Thee alone I seek, give what is best.” More love, O Christ, to Thee, more love to Thee! Amen.