The first stop in our church tour here lands us in a city of Asia Minor called Ephesus. Geographically John started with the place that is closest to his location at Patmos. I fancy that the reason that he started here though is not the geographical nearness of the place to himself but its spiritual nearness to the heart of God. It is a church that experienced the greatness of God’s grace and an intensity of the loving attention God. It had an important place in the heart of the apostle Paul. The city that once rioted in its love of the goddess Diana would become the home of intense loving Christianity. God loved the people of Ephesus so much that his apostles “fought with beasts” there for them to hear the gospel (I Cor. 15:32). The elders of Ephesus bowed in prayer with Paul on the shores of Miletus they “all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck, and kissed him” (Acts 20:36). It is there, as Paul warned of the grievous wolves that were to come into the church, where Paul summed his ministry in Ephesus up like this: “[I was] serving the LORD with all humility of mind, and with many tears…, [and] I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:19, 20). But the grace that was poured on them was not just found in the relationship with Paul but many of the early Christians served there: Aquilla and Pricilla, Apollos, and Timothy who later become pastor of this church who was the spiritual son of Paul. And John here shows that he had a special relationship with it as well. The name Ephesus itself shows us the fervent grace which they represented for the word Ephesus means “desire.” It would seem that the grace of God shown to Ephesus showed us God’s desire after them and in answer their fervent desire after Him. We may indeed see our church and every church under this umbrella of grace. Great grace has been given to us. We are the heirs of the work of the apostles, the early church fathers, the martyrs, the reformers, the puritans, and the great revival preachers. We are the heirs of the Word of God and the exceeding great and precious promises contained therein. Great grace has been given to Ephesus and great grace has been given to us.
The first thing that we note in the message to this church is that Christ is presented to this church as one that is holding and one that is walking among His church. “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….” The way God speaks to any church is through preaching. This differs from the walk of the individual Christian who meets with God in the Scripture and in prayer. But the congregation as a whole is dealt with by the corporate teaching and preaching of the Word of God. So it is to the angel, the messenger or preacher, of the church that John is told to write to. God wants the men of God who stand behind the sacred desk to deliver a message from God to the people. This is a personal note of conviction for me and one that I do not mind sharing with you tonight. I see a call in this text to the preacher to take up the responsibility to faithfully preach what God has given for us to preach. And the first part of any message that the preacher needs to preach is the person of Christ. The angel of the church needs to tell the church who Christ is in relationship to them. Here to the church of Ephesus Christ represents Himself in relationship to His church. It is fitting for a church that has been such a recipient of grace that they should be reminded that Christ is the one that holds their messengers in his hand and the one that is constantly walking among the churches. He is near unto them. O! If only we could realize the work that Christ is doing among us! Christ is both guiding men in the church to proclaim His word and actively walking among the churches to deal with men who hear the word. God is in the midst of her. God shall help her and that right early. He is not far from us if we will turn to him.
The next thing that God would have the preacher relay to the church is the intimate knowledge Christ has of the works of grace He has done through the church. All that we have done for Christ has not gone unnoticed. Be not weary in well doing for if the entire world fails to notice the good work that Christ does in you Christ does not fail to notice it. “I know thy works, and thy labor, 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 labored, and hast not fainted.” This is a church that had labored for the Lord and the preacher is called on to speak these encouraging words to the church. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, un-moveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (I Cor. 15:58). We are sure of one thing and that is that this church did not lack fervor for the work of God. In fact this text tells us that this church was fervent about many things. They were known by God for their works in accordance with the commands of Christ. They were not only known for their works but for their labor. They were laboring for the sake of the gospel. They were not just calling themselves Christians they were doing Christianity. In today’s terms we may say that they were living a holy and separated life. They were knocking on doors, they were going to nursing homes, they were going to jail ministries, and they were organizing evangelistic outreaches. But their fervency went even beyond that. They had an enduring faith. They had patience and endurance in their trials. They stood strong and did not waver under periods of persecution. They were also fervent in their separation from sinners. They could not bear to keep company with evil doers. No doubt they were a church that practiced the lost concept of church discipline. They were also fervent about their doctrinal purity. They tried the spirits to see what sort they were (I John 4:1). Throughout the years many pretenders had come to Ephesus claiming to have apostolic authority but they searched the Scriptures and found that they were liars. Their messages did not coincide with the message which they received from the beginning so they rejected it. They would not waiver on their doctrine. They had fervency also for standing for Christ. They bore shame for Christ. They bore it with patience. They bore it for the glory of the name of Christ alone. And they bore it all without fainting or giving up. And all of this Christ saw and wrote down in the book of His remembrance. There is a reward for saints such as these. Church, no one else may know of your faithfulness but your Savior does.
The next thing that the angel of the church is to tell the church is that Christ sees our faults and moves to correct them. “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.” With all that was just said you might think that there would be no room for negative preaching. But as it is in the individual Christian life there is always a need for repentance. Christ would have reproving and rebuking to be just as much the ministry of the pulpit as exhorting is. Beyond that we see that Christ not only sees the goodness of a church but He sees their deficiencies. Christ something against them but it was nothing against them in a judicial way. Here despite all that was good about this church Christ noted one glaring flaw. They were fervent in their service but their love was waxing cold. They had a cold orthodoxy as opposed to a living orthodoxy due to the fact that they had left their first love. Notice that they did not lose it in the hustle and bustle of the ministry but they had consciously left it, by choice. Gill stated this: “Now this, though it was not lost, for the true grace of love can never be lost, yet it was left; it abated in its heat and fervor; there was a remissness in the exercise of it; what our Lord had foretold should be…, the love of many waxed cold, Matthew 24:12….” What is this first love? Why did they leave it? How is such a description of them possible with a church that serves so faithfully? What can they do to correct it? Let us try to briefly answer these questions. First, the first love is not a description of all love within the church only that which is to be first among them. It is the first in principle or importance. It did not mean that they did not have a passion for ministry or a love for their neighbors. What is this first love then? We take our clues from the writings of Paul and we find one of two possibilities. Their first love could be their love for the saints. It is this that Paul said was what the Christian Ephesians were known for: “Wherefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints…” (Eph. 1:15). This would be in line with the new commandment which was added to the church by Christ and that is for us to love one another as Christ has loved us. In fact this was to be a key part of our witness for the world would know that we are Christians by our love for one another (John 13:34, 35). Their love then is not a loss of love for the work but a loss of love for one another. Surely if such love made up the new commandment of Christ to His church then it could well be such a love that should be called first in importance. Why would they leave such a love? Such love takes work to maintain. In one sense it is easier to throw yourselves into the work of the ministry than it is to get along with the people in the church. It is hard for us to overlook one another’s flaws and love each other as Christ loves us. It is hard for us to forgive and not harbor bitterness towards one another. It is hard for us to bear one another’s burdens as we should. The other possibility about what this first love is in our text is that it is the love of Christ itself. Paul wished to perfect the love of the Ephesians in his letter to them. He wanted for them to know the full length, width, breadth, and height of the love of Christ; to be “rooted and grounded” in the experience of Christ’ love (Eph. 3). Is it possible that a church could get so wrapped up in the work of the ministry that they could forsake intimate fellowship with the Lord Himself? Could we get so wrapped up in church work that we do not even realize that Christ is not in the midst; the glory is departed? Not only do I believe that it is possible, I also believe it is all too common. We can get so busy standing up for Christ that we cease to stand with Christ. We may apply this to ourselves either way. Personally, I believe that one is related to the other; our love for the saints is connected with the experience of the love of Christ in our daily lives and so it is in the church.
So how do we get back to the place of love that should define our life and the life of the church? “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.” This is the grand three point message for revival given to us by the greatest revival preacher, Jesus Christ: Remember, Repent, and Repeat. We need to remember where it was that we fell from. Johnson broke the call to remembrance down like this: “1. They had been at a height of excellence. 2. They had fallen from that height; there had been a spiritual declension.” O! If we could remember the joy which we had when there was a unity of love among the saints; when we gave of ourselves to one another! O! If we could remember the greatness of love we experienced when we were in intimate fellowship with Christ? When we remember these things we may well weep over the greatness of our fall. Such weeping is a necessary step toward repentance and true revival. The next step for revival is repentance. Remember that repentance is not just something that happens when one is saved but should be a continual reality for the individual Christian and the church until we are perfected at the return of Christ. Every time we see the spots of our sins we should despise them and seek to turn from them. When we see that our love has waxed cold we should hate those things in our life that cooled it and seek the heat of God’s love to reignite it. The last step toward revival is to repeat or do our first works of love. To go back to doing those things that exhibited our love to the saints. To go back and do those things that made up an intimate relationship with Christ.
But over this and every call for revival is a warning. We can both hear the call for revival and act on it or we can refuse to be revived; we can refuse to repent. Let us remember that the Ephesus church is currently a graveyard. The institution of the church will never die but individual churches may refuse to repent and may die. I am confident that Christ will always have churches to work with in this dispensation but I fear that our church may end up a grave stone without the candlestick of real Spirit filled witness fueling it. Jamison explained the historical truth to this point as after the Revelation Christianity shifted from Asia to Europe: “It is removal of the candlestick, not extinction of the candle, which is threatened here; judgment for some, but that very judgment the occasion of mercy for others. So it has been. The seat of the Church has been changed, but the Church itself survives. What the East has lost, the West has gained.” Individual churches may die out if they do not care to maintain their light, even while the church as an institution will never die. But this is little comfort for us if we are the ones left without the light of the presence of Christ. I do not want Christ to stop working here. So I want to heed the call of Christ for us to repent. Again Johnson commented: “To remove the candlestick would be to suffer the church to cease to exist. How signally this has been fulfilled in the case of Ephesus is seen in the fact that not one vestige of the church remains, and of the city itself naught but moldering ruins. What concerns us, however, is that this warning is addressed to every church which has left its first love. Unless it repents, and does its first works, its candlestick will finally be removed from its place.”
The last thing that we note concerning this church is that Christ encourages His church in the truth. “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.” Christ would have His messengers to encourage the church in those things that they are fervent in. Notice that it did not hate the Nicolaitanes but that they hated their deeds and their doctrines. Love of truth is a proof that this church can yet revive so Christ would have them encouraged in it. The deeds of the Nicolaitanes could be one of two things. First, it could be the followers of Nicolas of Antioch who was supposed to been one of the seven deacons in the early church (Acts 6:5, Although history records that he was nothing like those who claimed to follow him). Gill stated this: “Though these Christians had left their first love, yet they bore an hatred to the filthy and impure practices of some men, who were called “Nicolaitans”; who committed fornication, adultery, and all uncleanness, and had their wives in common, and also ate things offered to idols….” If this is correct these are the types of false professors who would say that grace gives them a license to sin. The name Nicola according to Lightfoot means “let us eat” which reminds us of the idolatrous practices of Israel in the wilderness when they sat down to eat and rose up to play. “Let us eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” We should well hate the deeds of those who use our religion as a cloak of lasciviousness. Jamison stated that the deeds which they hated “abused Paul’s doctrine of the grace of God into a plea for lasciviousness (2 Peter 2:15,16,19, Jude 1:4,11 who both describe the same sort of seducers as followers of Balaam).” This is the ancient doctrine of Antinomianism (opposed to the law) which we should all shun. Hatred of sin is a sign that there is yet a love for the holiness of God and is here commended by Christ. But the other meaning of the deeds Nicolaitanes is that it means to “conquer the people.” In the name itself you have the deadly doctrine that the church is to exercise power over the “laity.” This is what would later translate into Roman doctrine. To defend the pure doctrine of the priesthood of the believer and the equality of the saints is to defend the truth of Christ: salvation is only through Him and not through a church. In either case the defense of the truth against error, whether that error is the doctrine of Antinomianism or Roman doctrine, is a sign that the love of truth is yet there and therefore should be encouraged.