31 May What happened to you?
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
Have you ever looked at a couple who used to be so much in love with one another, and wondered, “What happened to them?” You witnessed their wedding vow. You remembered how you shed tears as they expressed their love for one another. And a few years later, one spouse said to the other, “I don’t love you anymore.” There are only a few things more painful in life than to hear that phrase from your spouse. What happened? Have you ever wondered why people lost love? We know that you don’t lose love overnight. Loss of love usually happens gradually. We may not even realize it is happening. That’s the gist of this passage. In this text, Jesus is speaking to the church in Ephesus and asks the question, “What happened to you? You used to be madly in love with me. What happened to your love? You think you still have love but you don’t. You have abandoned the love you had at first. And I am not happy about it. Return to the love you used to have or else I will remove my presence from your midst.” This is a strong word from Jesus to the church in Ephesus. And this is a strong warning to us as well. What happened to the church in Ephesus can easily happen to us if we are not careful. But for us to understand the weight of Jesus’ warning, we must first understand how impressive the church in Ephesus was.
Ephesus was one of the most important political cities in the Roman Empire. This was the city that made so much money and became very prominent in the first century. To visit Ephesus in the first century is like going to New York today. And not only that, but this city was well known for its temple of Artemis with thousands of male and female temple prostitutes. They worshipped the goddess Diana by prostituting with the temple prostitutes. Ephesus was not an ideal city for a church to grow. In 52 A.D. Aquilla and Priscilla started a small Bible study group in Ephesus which later became one of the major church in the first century. And the church in Ephesus had an all-star line-up. Just think about it. The book of Ephesians is a letter written by Paul to the church in Ephesus. 1 and 2 Timothy are also written by Paul to Timothy who was the pastor of the church in Ephesus. And later on, apostle John also became one the pastors in Ephesus and he wrote 1, 2, and 3 John, to this same church. So the church in Ephesus was the recipient of four letters of the New Testament, and the church also had Paul, John and Timothy as their pastors. It is equivalent to having John Piper, Timothy Keller and Yosia Yusuf as the pastors of the same church today. And some of you like, “I can see what’s happening now. It’s the last person. That’s where all the problem lies.” Be quiet. The point is, the church of Ephesus was very important and crucial. They grew and thrive in a very dark culture. But many years later Jesus asked them, “What happened to you?” And my concern is that this is the picture of many of us. It is not like we walk away from Christ. We are still in a relationship with Christ. We still go to church. We minister in a church. Yet our relationship with Christ feels more like a duty than delight. And Christ is not pleased with dutiful obedience that does not originate from genuine love. And he is asking the same question today, “What happened to you?”
Tonight, I want us to pay attention to what Jesus said to the church in Ephesus. This letter was written to them, not to us. But it was kept for us. There are lessons that we can learn from Jesus’ specific warning to the church in Ephesus. I’ll separate this letter into four sections. Praise; Problem; Plan; Promise.
Revelation 2:1-3 – “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.
This is Jesus himself speaking. This is not John speaking with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is the very words of the glorious Christ. And he begins by reminding the church that he is in the midst of them. Two things Jesus praises. First, Jesus praises their ministry. He says, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance.” The word toil means to work to the point of exhaustion. That means they work hard for Jesus. They are not idle. They lived their life for Jesus. They give their money to help the poor. They made sacrifices for Jesus. They served in the church from morning to night. Even when they are busy with work, study and family, they still make time to serve Jesus and the church. And Jesus is saying to them, “I see what you have done. I see how much you have given to me. It did not escape my attention. I know all about it.” What an encouragement. Your pastor might not know your works but Jesus does. Nothing escapes his gaze. The church in Ephesus also has patient endurance. Remember that they lived in a sex-obsessed culture. They are marginalised and slandered because they refuse to worship the goddess Diana. Christians are persecuted for their beliefs. Jesus is saying to them, “I see how you endured suffering. I see how you refused to bow the knee to other gods at the cost of your social standing. I see how you did all the work and someone else got the credit because of your faith. I see everything you endured for my sake and your refusal to quit. I know all about it.” Can we agree that this a great church? They are faithful to Christ amid persecution. And they are not living for themselves but they are busy doing the works of the Lord. They probably have all kinds of ministry. Men’s ministry, women’s ministry, singles, marriage counselling, discipleship class, small groups, outreach, social media, videos, whatever you can think of that help the spread of the gospel, they have it. And there is more.
Second, Jesus praises their theology. Jesus says, “and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” So when they hear those who call themselves apostles but they are teaching weird doctrines, the church tested their teaching and proved the false apostles to be liars. With another word, the church in Ephesus knows their theology so well that they can tell the difference between someone who speaks the truth and someone who tells lies. I love it. One of the popular mantras in today’s church is “Do not judge others.” They are saying that we should not question whatever the pastor teaches. It is not our place to judge. And because of it, the church is not trained to differentiate between good teachers and false teachers. Or, another popular mantra is, “Do not touch the Lord’s anointed. If you touch him, you will be cursed by God.” So that means that even if the preacher teaches the wrong thing, just let it be. It is between him and God. Do not do anything because he is the Lord’s anointed. But the church in Ephesus is different. They say, “It does not matter if you called yourself an apostle. It does not matter if you are the Lord’s anointed. It does not matter how big the size of your church is. If you are not teaching the right theology, if you are not teaching the same gospel as Paul, you are out. You are a liar and you shall never return to our church. Get out!” I love this church!
They take theology very seriously. Why? Because Jesus takes it very seriously. Revelation 2:6 – Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Did you get that? Jesus hates the Nicolaitans. Sometimes we think of Jesus only as loving, kind and gracious. But here Jesus himself says that he hates the Nicolaitans. We do not know exactly who they are but we do know that they are groups of people who teaches false doctrine. And Jesus hates it. We need to get this. Jesus hates theological compromise and it is not loving for us to tolerate what Jesus hates. We should not be a church who just takes in whatever being preached. We must test them with the Bible. And if they are wrong, we need to call them false teachers. They are liars and we should not listen to them. Especially invite them to speak in our church. Some of you are thinking, “Yos, that’s so mean.” It is not me. I am just telling you what Jesus said. Don’t blame me for preaching the Bible. And the church in Ephesus nails it. Jesus says to them, “I see how you kick out that smiling assassin preacher out of your church. I see how you call out the wolves and protect the purity of doctrine. Well done.”
And look at their motivation. Revelation 2:3 – I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. The church in Ephesus is not doing it for their own sake but for the sake of Jesus’ name. The reason they endured patiently, the reason they worked hard and the reasons they protected the purity of doctrine are all for the sake of Jesus. They are not doing it for self-fame. It is out of their passion for Jesus’ name that they do everything they do. The name of Jesus is their priority. And they have not grown weary. They continue to be faithful in doing all they are doing daily. And it does not miss Jesus’ attention. Jesus is fully aware of everything they do, and he praises them for it. The church in Ephesus is as close as it gets to be the perfect church. Does anyone want to join this church? I do. However, there is one big problem with this church.
Revelation 2:4 – But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.
The word “but” is extremely crucial. It is like proposing to a girl and she tells you how great of a boyfriend you are, but. You know that whatever praises that come before the word but suddenly becomes meaningless. Jesus is saying, “It is good that you have good theology. It is good that you worked hard for me. It is good that you endured patiently for my namesake. It is good that you have not grown weary. BUT you have one big problem. You have abandoned the love you had at first.” What happens is that the church in Ephesus is in the danger of becoming a church of Pharisee. They are doing all the right things. They have the right ministry. They have the right theology. They have everything but the most important thing. They no longer have the love they had at first. And Jesus has this against them. This is a strong warning to us. Jesus is not saying that theology is not important. Theology is important. Jesus is not saying that ministry is not important. Ministry is important. But good theology and good ministry alone are not enough. It is possible to be a church that knows so much about Jesus but does not have love. It is possible to be a church that is very busy for Jesus but does not have love. And if we do not have love, then we miss the point.
Commentators debate on what does Jesus means by love at first. Does Jesus rebuke the church in Ephesus because of their lack of love toward Jesus, or because of their lack of love toward one another? The answer is both. Our love for Jesus and our love for one another cannot be separated. A lack of love for Jesus always leads to a lack of love for one another. And a passionate love for Jesus always leads to a passionate love for one another. We will know how much we love Jesus by how much we love one another. That is evident throughout the Bible. Listen, RSI. We can do everything right as a church but losing our love Jesus and one another in the process. And this is a grave danger. So our obedience to Jesus is out of duty instead of love. It is easy to be conformed to the culture of the church but lose love for Christ and one another. And this is my fear for us a church. Let me explain.
This week, I just finished my last class for the Master of Divinity degree. In my college, I get to meet friends and professors who have different theology than me. Some of them are Arminian and Egalitarian. I’m a Calvinist and a Complementarian. If those words mean nothing to you, don’t worry. And every now and then, we have class debates on theology. And I love it. I am a theological nerd. I read lots of Piper, Keller, Edwards, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones and many others. Do you want to have a theological debate with me? Bring it on! My goal in ministry is to explain text like Piper, contextualise like Keller and communicate like Chandler. This is how I am wired. And because of it, this is how RSI is wired as a church as well. And here is my concern. This passage is not talking about Christians who walked away from the church. This passage is a strong warning to Christians who are active in the church, to people like me. Many of you know how to look like a good Christian based on my model. That is why most of you are reading ESV Bible. If you see someone reading the Message, you will go to Koorong and buy them ESV Bible as a gift. You wear #GospelPeople bracelet. You listen to Timothy Keller. You read John Piper. And when you see someone reading “your best life now” you judge them silently. You like to talk about theology. You are very concerned about false teachers and false doctrines. If you hear someone preach false doctrines at RSI, you stand up and walk out of the church. Okay, none of you has ever done it and let’s keep it that way. Or I’ll get in trouble later. But you are tempted to do it right? And you would message me during the sermon and say, “What is this junk? Why do we have him as a guest speaker? Put his name down in RSI blacklist.” Some of you are thinking, “Do we have RSI blacklist?” No comment. But that’s how you are wired. Why? Because that’s what I do. I have set a pattern in the church for others to follow. And it is easy to follow a pattern. Is it wrong? Of course not. But if we are not careful, what could easily happen is that we become a people who know how to look right but do not have love. We can become experts in theology and ministry and yet missing out on love for Christ and one another. We become great Christians but not great lovers.
This is the problem with the church in Ephesus. They are doing great as a church but their love is fading. Their bodies are still at church but their hearts are far from Christ. And I love what Jesus does. Rather than letting the relationship dies out, Jesus confronts them, “What happened to you?” Jesus is not pleased with their church attendance. Jesus is not impressed with their ministries. Jesus wants their heart. Jesus is passionately in love with his church. He not only wants the church’s obedience but also the church’s affection. So here is my questions for you. Are you still madly in love with Jesus? Do you love your brothers and sisters in Christ? If you have been in love, you know what first love is. It is that strong feeling where you always want to be with that person. You cannot stop thinking about that person. You talk all the time. You would do whatever it takes to make them smile. You would turn into Shakespeare and start writing crappy love songs and poems. You would not eat and save money for months to buy them a gift. You would wake up early in the morning just to make them breakfast. Is that how you feel toward Jesus? Or have you abandoned your first love? Is your relationship with Christ more like a husband who tells his wife, “I will still work for this family, I’ll still come home every night, sleep in the same room with you, father our children, but I just don’t love you anymore”? So you still come to church, sing, minister, give. but you don’t love Jesus like you used too. Have you abandoned your first love?
Revelations 2:5 – Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
Even though we have abandoned our first love, Jesus does not give up on us. He gives us three ways to restore our first love. First, remember. Remember from where you have fallen. The word remember is a present imperative, which means, keep on remembering. This is crucial. One of the habits that we must cultivate as a Christian is the habit of remembrance. Did you realize that there is something about your heart that easily forget the good but remember the bad? I don’t remember much about 2005. That’s 15 years ago. In fact, I don’t remember anything good from 2005. I am sure there are many, but I can’t recall it on top of my head. But I never forget how I felt when I found out my girlfriend cheated on me. I never forget the day when KFC tasted like a vegetable for the first time in my life. Isn’t that true about our hearts? We easily forget the good we received but exaggerate the bad we experienced. We forget the compliments but remember every exact word of criticism we received, even to its very tone, pause and comma. Our hearts are corrupted with sin that it resists the good and put a spotlight on the bad. And it affects both our relationship with Jesus and with one another. Most of the things we should remember, we do not remember. Jesus now calls us to remember. Remember the love you have at first and keep on remembering it.
What is the love you had at first? It is the moment when God opened your eyes to the beauty of the gospel. You may not remember the exact moment but you must remember what it was like when the gospel gripped your heart. Two things happened. When the gospel gripped you, there is an increased awareness of sin and an increased appreciation of grace. For me, it happened in 2009 on the hospital bed. I was diagnosed with leukaemia. After 5 years of studying in Dallas, the first thing happened to me when I got back to Sydney was cancer. I was angry with God. I felt like I did not deserve this treatment. I was a very good Christian who graduated with a good grade who was ready to change the world for Jesus. And I remembered expressing my anger to God. You do not want to know what I said to God that night. But God was very patient with me. At that time, I already knew the gospel in my mind, but I have yet to experience the gospel in my heart. And after pouring out my anger for hours, I sensed the Holy Spirit whispered to my heart, “Why are you doing what are you doing? You said you are doing it for me. Are you? Do you love me or do you love yourself by using me?” And it was like a lightning struck me. I realised for the first time that I did not love God. I was simply using him for my own gain. I was not a good Christian. I was a miserable sinner who lived for myself. So there was an increased awareness of sin. Yet at the same time, there was an increased appreciation of grace. Grace reminded me that I was righteous in front of God not because of my good deeds but Christ’s perfect work on my behalf. He became sin so that I may become the righteousness of God. I was accepted in front of God because I was covered in Christ’s righteousness. I was forgiven of all my sins by my faith in Christ. And at that time the gospel came alive in my heart. My heart was overflowed with love for Christ and I couldn’t wait to share this love with others. The first thing that we need to do to regain our first love is to remember. The reason many of us abandoned our first love for Christ is because we forget the gospel. Life happens. We become very busy with works and ministry and we neglect the discipline of remembering the gospel. We forget how sinful we are and how lovely Christ is. And Jesus is telling us to keep on remembering the gospel.
Second, repent. The word repent is active. It comes from the Greek word “metanoia” which means a change of mind. It is to make U-turn in life. It is to acknowledge that what you do is wrong and what God said is right. So if you are walking to the right and God says left, to repent is to stop, turn to the left, and come back to God. That is repentance. It is not simply an acknowledgement that you are wrong but to turn the other way. So, let’s be more practical in applying repentance. What are the things in your life right now that robs you of your affection for Jesus? All of us have it. It might be a sin, or it might be not. But it hinders you from loving Jesus more. It might be a small thing. Here is what I know about losing the first love. It does not happen immediately. It happens gradually. What makes you abandoned your first love for Christ is the little things that gradually steal your affection. And before you know it, you already lost appetite for Christ. For me in the current season of my life, it is Netflix. Most of you know that I am currently in a very busy season of life. I am just a few weeks away from finishing my study. And I also have the responsibility to prepare a sermon and preach every week. So I am consistently studying and my brain gets weary. And every time I am tired, I run to Netflix for entertainment. Add to it the social quarantine. And what happens is that Netflix has become my saviour whenever I am weary. Is watching Netflix a sin? Of course not. But the way I consumed Netflix robs me of my affection for Christ. I sleep and wake up later than usual. And I no longer feel the hunger for Christ because I am full with Netflix. This is dangerous. Even though Netflix is not a sin, it has become a substitute for Christ. To repent is to hit the stop button on Netflix over-indulgent. To repent is to turn from things that steal your appetite for Jesus.
Third, redo. Do the works you did at first. Remember how you used to love Jesus and others. Return to it. A marriage couple rode home after celebrating their 25th anniversary. On the way home, the wife cried. She asked her husband, “Honey, do you remember the way it used to be? We used to ride so close that people could not tell who was driving. Now we sit so far apart. What happened to us? Doesn’t that bother you?” The husband replied, “No. I am not the one who moved.” The same is true about your relationship with Jesus. If Jesus seems far away, he is not the one who moved. Jesus is still in love with you as he always had. And he is pursuing you. You are the one who moved. And now Jesus is telling you to return. Go back to the place where you used to be in love with Christ and do what you did then. With another word, pursue whatever increases your affection for Jesus. What makes your heart filled with the joy of the gospel? If repent is to stop whatever steal your affection for Jesus, redo is to pursue whatever increase your affection for Jesus. Again, it looks very different to all of us. For me, it involves morning coffee with pen and Bible in my hand. There is something about the combination of those three that helps me to see the gospel better. And I have to do it before I get busy with my school works or sermon preparations. Even though both school works and sermon preparations involve studying the Bible, it is different from reading the Bible simply to enjoy Jesus. I also read books or articles before bed to help my mind focus on Jesus. What Netflix did to me is stealing my appetite to do both. That is why I limited my Netflix consumption for me to have an appetite for Jesus.
But Jesus does stop there. He also gives the church a warning. “If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Unless we repent and return to our first love, Jesus will remove his presence from the church. This is a very frightening thought. One time, the Lord told Moses, “Moses, I had enough with the people of Israel. They continue to rebel against me. They continue to pursue other gods beside me. If I go with them, I’ll end up killing all of them. So here is what I am going to do. I am not going with you. I will give you everything I promise you. I will give you the Promised Land. I will give you milk and honey. I will give you riches. You will be a powerful nation. But you will not have me. Moses, you go and lead the people. I am not going with you.” And Moses replied, “Then I am not going as well. If you give us everything and we don’t have you, then it is not worth it. Either you go and I go or you don’t go and I don’t’ go.” I love the fact that Moses argued with the Lord and did not get struck by lightning. But here is the lesson for us. It is very possible for us to be a very successful church without Jesus in the church. The church in Ephesus is very successful but Jesus is saying that unless they repent, he is off. Ministry is important. Theology is important. But the purpose of both is to love Christ and one another.
Revelation 2:7 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
Jesus ends his letter to the church of Ephesus with a promise. To the one who conquers, Jesus will give them the fruit of the tree of life. What does it mean to conquer? To conquer means that there is a battle to fight. To conquer means to be victorious in a struggle. However, the word “conquer” in the book of Revelation does not refer to victory through force. The word conquer in the book of Revelation refers to victory through faithfulness to Christ to the very end. It means to continue to pursue Christ no matter what the cost. It is to finish the race and hear the Lord says to us, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Enter the joy of your master.” This is what it means to conquer. How do we conquer? Revelation 12:11 – And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Did you get that? We don’t conquer by our own strength. We conquer the enemy by the blood of Jesus. We defeat the enemy by reminding ourselves of the sacrifices that Jesus made for us. Jesus was killed at the cross on our behalf so that we might become conquerors. The blood of Jesus has guaranteed our victory. We remain faithful to Christ not by our strength but by the victory that he has already won. Our victory is participation in Christ’s victory. That is our testimony. Christ has won for us. And our active trust in Christ’s perfect work leads us to faithfulness to Christ in the present struggles.
Let me put it this way. I fell in love with soccer when I started watching Manchester United at twelve. But here is the problem. I was really bad at soccer. I mean, really bad. To tell you how bad I was, that same year my school had a soccer team try out. 20 boys tried out to get into the team and they only needed 18 players. I was one of the two who were left out. That’s how bad I was. But I loved Manchester United. And at the end of that season, Manchester United made it to the final of Championship League. It was a game against Bayern Munich. And Manchester United was losing 1-0. And toward the end of the game, the coach made a big gamble. He brought on Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. The game hit 90th minute and the score was still 1-0 against Manchester. And then the game entered into the three additional minutes. You would not guess what happened next. In the first additional minutes, Teddy Sheringham scored an equalizing goal. I was on my feet. The score was 1-1. And there were still another two additional minutes. And hope entered my heart. “Is it possible? Another goal in two minutes? Surely not. But maybe, just maybe.” And one minute later, David Beckham took that corner kick, Teddy Sheringham headed the ball, and Ole was standing in the direction of the ball and he kicked the ball toward the net. And it was a goal. Manchester United scored two goals in three additional minutes to beat Bayern Munich in the final of Championship League in 1999. It was an unforgettable moment. I ran around my living room, jumped around with excitement. Because Manchester United victory was my victory. I participated in their victory even though I did not play at all. I did not even get picked for my school soccer team but I won the Championship League together with Manchester United.
Hear this my friend. When you are in Christ, this is your testimony. Jesus said to everyone who trusts in him, “My victory is your victory.” You don’t have to pretend like it’s yours in your living room. It is yours at every moment. When you are weak, Jesus says, “My strength is your strength.” When you’re confused, Jesus says, “My wisdom is your wisdom.” When you feel guilt, Jesus says, “My righteousness is your righteousness.” When you feel shame, Jesus says, “My honour is your honour.” When you feel hurt, Jesus says, “My comfort is your comfort.” When you are depressed, Jesus says, “My hope is your hope.” One day, when you are faced with death, when all your strength, all your energy and ultimately your breath fails you, at that moment, Jesus says, “My life is your life.” Christians, rejoice in the victory of Jesus. Boast in this. Wake up every morning, walk through every moment, remembering the reality that you are in Christ Jesus.
And here is what Christ promised you at the end of your struggle. He will grant you to eat of the tree of life and welcome you to his paradise. This is a picture of the world before sin, where Adam and Eve have perfect fellowship with God in the garden of Eden. That is what is waiting for us. We will have eternal life in a beautiful place where Jesus dwells. We have many things to look forward to in paradise but let us not forget what makes paradise, paradise. Paradise is a paradise because Jesus will be with us. Jesus will be with his church forever. You and I will delight in the presence of Jesus for eternity. It is the presence of Jesus that makes paradise, paradise. This is the gospel.
Let me end with this question. What happened to you? Remember the love of Christ for you and return to the love you had at first.
- What is the difference between dutiful obedience and loving obedience? Give some examples from your daily life.
- Why do we need to take theological compromises very seriously?
- In your own words, what is the problem with the church in Ephesus? Can you see the same inclination in your life?
- You cannot separate your love for Jesus and your love for others. Explain.
- What are the things that steal your affection for Christ? Share it with your group.
- What are the things that trigger your affection for Christ? Share it with your group.
- How does the gospel empowers us to conquer?