Christ’s Letter To The Churches: Ephesus
Don Fortner | Added: Apr 07, 2014 | Category: Theology
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Christ’s Letter To The Churches: Ephesus
Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. Revelation 2:1-7
Ephesus was a wealthy, prosperous, magnificent city, famous for its extravagant temple for the pagan goddess Diana. For many years it was the centre of commerce in Asia. It was connected to all the major cities of Asia Minor by well maintained roads. Its harbour accommodated the largest ships of the day. The temple of Diana in Ephesus was a museum, a treasure house, and a place of refuge for criminals. That pagan temple provided employment for artisans and silversmiths, who made and sold little shrines, religious trinkets, and idols to the worshippers and tourists who passed through the temple.
The Apostle Paul came to this city of more than 225,000 people on his third missionary journey. He preached the gospel in Ephesus for over three years (Acts 18-20). Multitudes were converted by the grace of God. A gospel church was established, which quickly became a lighthouse for truth, from which the gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ was preached. The church at Ephesus was devoted to Christ. It was known throughout the Christian world for its devotion to and zeal for Christ.
But, now, more than forty years had passed. Another generation had arisen. The church at Ephesus still walked in the truth. The gospel of Christ was still proclaimed from her pulpit. But something desperately evil had happened. The Lord Jesus Christ discovered a very sad fault in His church at Ephesus. The pastor, the angel of the church, did not discern the fault. The people were unaware of it. But Christ saw it. Therefore He sent this letter to the church, to be read publicly in the assembly of the saints. How their hearts must have sunk when they read these words from the Saviour, ‘I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.’
This letter was not written to the church at Ephesus alone, but to all the churches of Christ in this world. ‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches’ (v.7). It is written to you; and it is written to me. Let us each ask God to give us ears to hear and hearts to obey the word of Christ to His church.
Let us each ask ourselves this question:—Is there in me a declension from my first love to Christ? Painful as the question is to the heart of one who truly does love the Saviour, it must be asked and honestly answered.
We must not fail to recognize that there was much, in this Ephesian church, which the Saviour commended (vv.2,3,6). Our Saviour always deals with His people in love, kindness, and tenderness. When there is a stern reproof to be given, He cushions it with a kind word of commendation and encouragement. Let no one imagine that the church at Ephesus was an apostate or even indifferent congregation. Nothing could be further from the truth! Few are the churches to whom such a laudable commendation could be given.
The Lord Jesus Christ, who is the faithful and true Witness, said to these Ephesian believers, ‘I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted...And this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.’ With those words, the Lord Jesus Christ commended His church at Ephesus for eight noble things. Blessed is that man, blessed is that local church in which such commendable characteristics of grace are found!
1. ‘I know thy works.’ These were not idle believers. Their faith was practical. By works of obedience to God, works of charity to men, and works of devotion to Christ, the saints of God at Ephesus demonstrated their faith. They did not merely profess faith. They practised faith. Their works were known, approved of, and accepted by Christ.
2. The Saviour also said, ‘I know thy labour’. These believers not only walked in good works before God, they put themselves whole-heartedly into the work God gave them to do for His glory. They zealously and anxiously went about serving the cause of Christ in their generation with all their might. These men and women were not lazy, loitering, listless people. They seized every opportunity to serve their Saviour. And they did it willingly.
3. Next, the Lord said, ‘I know thy patience’. There are many who labour, and labour well, but labour only for a while. They do not persevere in the work. Before long, they faint and fall by the wayside. Not these people! This congregation had laboured steadily, in the face of great opposition, in the midst of great trials, and in a dark, pagan world of religious superstition and moral perversion. They had done so for more than forty years! This church threw all its energy and all its means into the cause of Christ, not in spurts and spasms, but in continual, unabated zeal for the glory of God!
4. Then, the Son of God commended the church at Ephesus for its intense adherence to gospel truth. ‘I know how thou canst not bear them which are evil’. They had an intense loathing for that which is evil, both doctrinally and morally. They loved the truth. And their love for the truth made them ‘hate every false way’ (Psalm 119:104).
5. The Lord went on to say, ‘I know thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars’. Few there are to whom these honourable words could be spoken! But the saints at Ephesus knew the difference between things that differ. They knew truth from error. When they heard Judaizers and free-willers (legalists and Arminians) preaching another gospel, another Jesus, and another spirit, their blood boiled. They boldly denounced all such pretentious preachers as liars, deceivers, and wicked men.
6. This church also bore reproach and persecution for Christ’s sake, and did so with patience. The Lord Jesus said, ‘I know how thou hast borne, and hast patience, and for my sake hast laboured’. In the teeth of opposition, they stood firm. In the midst of Christ’s enemies, they boldly confessed Him. In the face of hardship, trial, persecution, and imprisonment, they confidently served their Master. They were loyal to the core.
7. The Saviour commended them for their rare faithfulness and perseverance. ‘I know that thou hast not fainted.’ They never failed. They never faltered. They never quit. The saints of God at Ephesus were rare, rare people.
8. One other matter of commendation was their hatred of the Nicolaitanes. ‘I know that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.’ The Nicolaitanes were a sect of base antinomians which had arisen in those early days of Christianity. They contended that since God’s elect are saved by grace and are free from the law, nothing is evil. They made every excuse for lewdness and licentiousness.
John Gill tells us that the Nicolaitanes ‘committed fornication, adultery, and all uncleanness, and had their wives in common. ’All this evil was practised and promoted in the name of Christian liberty. All true believers, like these Ephesians, and like Christ himself, despise those who promote ungodliness in the name of grace.
A Sad Declension
These eight things the Lord commended. Commendable characteristics they are. Yet, the church at Ephesus had one serious flaw, one dreadfully evil weakness, which, if it were not corrected, would end in utter ruin. The Lord Jesus said to this otherwise exemplary church, ‘Nevertheless,’ though you are orthodox, zealous, patient, persevering, uncompromising, and upright, ‘I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.’
Does this charge apply to you? Does it apply to me? William Cowper took the charge personally. Should we not do the same?
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus in His Word?
What peaceful hours I then enjoyed,
How sweet their memory still!
But now I find an aching void
The world can never fill!
The sad fact is, love that is not fed with fellowship and communion soon decays into something worse than indifference. It decays into presumption and ingratitude.
What is this first love?
I am not sure that I can really define the term ‘first love’; but I am sure that it can be clearly identified. Do not imagine that this is merely an emotional or sentimental thing of no significance. This thing called ‘first love’ is very important to our God and Saviour (Jeremiah 2:1-2).
When our Saviour says, Thou hast left thy first love,' it is obvious that He is not talking about believers who once loved Him, but have now ceased to love Him. True love can never be quenched. Anyone who ceases to love Christ never truly loved Christ at all. Love for Christ is a gift of God’s grace that can never be taken away, lost, or destroyed (Jeremiah 32:38-40; Hosea 2:19-20).
Yet, God’s people do sometimes leave their first love. Through indolence, neglect of duty, and the care of this world, the heat and fervour of our love for Christ abates, and the exercise of love toward Him diminishes.
Let me stir up your memory a little. Go back to the place where you first met the Saviour. Go back to Mount Calvary, where the Lord Jesus Christ first appeared to you, bleeding upon the cross as your Substitute. Do you remember how He spoke to your heart and said, ‘I am thy salvation. I have redeemed you. All your sins are forgiven, washed away in this fountain of blood.’?
Immediately, you fell in love with Him. Had He asked you then to give everything you had to Him, you would gladly have done so. In fact, He did ask it, and you laid all at His feet. If you are a believer, I know that was your experience. Faith, in its very essence, involves a voluntary surrender of all to the dominion of Christ as Lord (Luke 14:25-33).
It was that first love which caused us to confess Christ before men, identifying ourselves with Him in believer’s baptism, and caused us to earnestly and zealously confess to men, telling all who would hear us what a wonderful Saviour He is. That first love inspired our hearts to almost unceasing prayer, praise, and communion. That first love for Christ made His Word our most delightful treasure. That first love made the house of God, the ministry of the Word, and the fellowship of God’s saints the most important and most joyful things in the world to us.
How delightfully we learned and sang the songs of Zion! How easily our hearts broke with joy, as we ate the bread and drank the wine at the Lord’s Table, remembering our Saviour! How anxiously we read and studied the Word of God! How anxious our hearts were to hear the preaching of the gospel! You do remember, don’t you?
That first love caused us to do the will of God with unquestioning faith and unhesitating obedience. We would give anything for the cause of Christ. We would do anything for the glory of Christ. We would go anywhere at the bidding of Christ. Like the Apostle Paul, once the will of God was known in any matter, we ‘conferred not with flesh and blood.’
Those peaceful hours we once enjoyed, How sweet their memory still! Do you remember how it was then, when your heart was still burning with those live coals from off the altar? But now we are more refined. Now we are more settled. Now we are more learned, more mature, more cold, more dead, more useless. Is that not so?
Where did we go wrong? How did we leave our first love? Rarely, if ever, does such a decline in love begin with some climactic event. It gradually steals over our hearts and suffocates us by degrees. But the cause of the decline is not hard to find. If we will be honest with ourselves, we will find, I am sure, that any decay from our first love comes from three sources.
1. Our love decays whenever we wilfully neglect Christ (Song of Solomon 5:2-6).
One of our most besetting sins is the neglect of Christ, the neglect of sweet communion with our Saviour. Give us something to do for Christ, for the good of His church, for the furtherance of the gospel, and we will immediately put ourselves into the work. But we are not, it must be shamefully confessed, nearly as quick to open our hearts to communion with Christ. Yet, love to Christ very much depends upon nearness to Christ. If we live near Christ, in close, intimate communion, we cannot help loving Him and being controlled by love for Him. The heart that lives nearest Christ in sweet communion is most aflame with love for Christ.
2. Another thing that causes first love to decline is the love of the world (Matthew 13:22).
There are few, very few, people who increase in riches and increase in grace at the same time. Of all the temptations to which God’s people are exposed in this world, this is the most dangerous, because it is the most subtle. Too much of the world is an evil encumbrance to any man. None of us are sufficiently aware of what our Lord calls, ‘the care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches.’
3. The third thing which causes first love to decline, is our carnal tendency toward presumption, self-confidence, and self-righteousness—‘Woe unto them that are at ease in Zion’ (Amos 6:1).
When we begin to think much of ourselves, we think little of Christ. Presumption destroys perseverance. Self-confidence destroys faith. And self-righteousness destroys love. He is wisest who walks before God always as a poor, needy sinner, trusting Christ alone for everything (Colossians 2:6). He is strongest who knows his weakness and total insufficiency, finding Christ’s grace and strength sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
What can be done to rekindle our first love?
If we belong to Christ, though we decline in love to Him, His love toward us will never decline; and because He loves us He will chasten us and cause us to return to Him (Song of Solomon 5:6-7). If we do not return to Christ, if our hearts do not again glow with love for Him, if our decline is a permanent decline, it is because our love is a fake, a pretence, a sham profession, and no more. Let us not be presumptuous. We might be wise to sing with John Newton,—
Help me to love Thee more and more, If I love at all, I pray: If I have not loved before Help me to begin today.
If you would return to your Saviour and regain that first love, the Lord Jesus here gives you three words of instruction.
1. ‘Remember!’ — ‘Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen.’
‘Remember’ what a blessed condition your soul was in when you enjoyed that first love (Song of Solomon 2:4-6). ‘Remember’ where and what you were when the Saviour found you and saved you by His grace (Isaiah 51:1). ‘Remember’ what you owe Christ (Ezekiel 16:6-14).
‘Repent’ as you did at the first. Repent of the evil you have done to Christ in leaving your first love. ‘Repent’ of your shameful neglect of your Saviour. ‘Repent’ of your sinful love of the world (Colossians 3:1-3). ‘Repent’ of your proud presumption, self-confidence, and self-righteousness.
3. Return! — ‘Repent and do the first works.’
That is just another way of saying, ‘Return unto the Lord.’ Many years ago, a young preacher went to visit an older preacher whom he admired, to seek his counsel about the work of the ministry. The young preacher asked the old man, whom he esteemed so highly, — ‘Can you give me one word of advice, I can remember, by which to direct my life and ministry for the glory of God?’ Without hesitation, the old man replied, — Take great care that you never lose your sweetheart love for the Lord Jesus Christ.'
Wiser counsel was never given. Yet, when that love does decline, as it is ever inclined to do, return! Return to the place where first you met Christ. Return to the foot of the cross. Bathe your sin-sick soul again in the precious blood of Christ. As you did at the first, trust Christ. As it was in the beginning, let your soul be ravished with His love, and look on Him until your heart breaks with love for Him again (Song of Solomon 5:8).
In order to stir up our hearts to return to Him and regain that first love, our Saviour gives us a warning and a promise.
The warning is this: — If you do not remember, repent, and return to me, ‘I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place’ (v. 5). That believer who goes on in indifference, will be put away like a broken tool, in uselessness. That local church which goes on in indifference to Christ will have the light of His presence taken away, and their usefulness will cease.
The promise is this: — To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God‘ (v. 7). Those who lose their first love fall, but those who regain their first love are made to stand. And that love is fed and nourished by Christ Himself, both now upon this earth and forever in heaven’s glory. The Lord Jesus Christ will be, to all that love Him sincerely, ’the Tree of Life‘ in heaven, ’the Paradise of God'. The feeding of love upon Christ is heaven begun already in the soul!
If I could have anything on earth I might desire, I would choose to have nothing but love for the Lord Jesus Christ, and to do nothing but that which is for His sake and that which is done out of love for Him. Oh, may God the Holy Spirit fill our hearts with love for Christ! Yet, I know that there will be no returning of our hearts to our first love, once it is in declension, except Christ Himself cause us by His Spirit to return. So this is my prayer—Turn us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned: renew our days as of old.'
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