The Orthodox but Loveless Church

June 21, 2015 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos

It is interesting how technology has changed the way we do things. Before, if you wanted to look for a place, you used a street map printed on paper. Today, you could use an app called Google Maps, type in the address you are looking for, say for example this building we are using today, and the map will show you not only the location of this building, but even the roof of this building and its surroundings. If the address you were looking for were in the U.S., in some instances you would even be able to see the very street and front yard of the house you are looking for and see the same things you would see if you walked or drove along that particular street.

  But as powerful as technology is, you can still only see the outside of the structure and not the inside. Maybe there are some powerful instruments where you would be able to see the people inside a building, and hear their conversations or see what they are doing, but there is no instrument powerful enough that can look into the culture, beliefs, or practices of a community or know the thoughts, motives and intentions of the hearts and minds of people.   But there is One who can see perfectly what is going on inside every building, hear every conversation, and know inside every heart and mind. He knows everything there is to know about nations, communities, churches, and about every individual  in the whole world, at the same time and in an instant. That person, of course, is the subject of the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation, which we are studying. He is Jesus Christ, the glorious, sovereign, all-powerful and all-knowing Son of Man.  

Today, we are going to begin looking at His evaluation of seven churches, which are recorded in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. It is important for us to study these chapters because they show us what Christ’s standard is for churches. Our standards in determining whether a church is successful or not are often contrary to what Christ envisions for a church, and so it is important to learn what He has to say.

  Today, we will focus on His evaluation of the first church mentioned in Revelation, the church in Ephesus. The Ephesian church is an orthodox, meaning doctrinally sound, but a loveless church. Let us see what Christ has to say to this church so that, by God’s grace, we can guard against their failure in our own church.   Before we look at this church however, I want you to know that as we study the letter of Christ to these seven churches you are going to see a familiar pattern. With a few exceptions, you will see seven parts in every letter:  
  • The church addressed
  • A description of Christ
  • Christ’s diagnosis of the church
  • Words of praise or reproof
  • Words of exhortation
  • A promise to the overcomer
  • A command to hear what the Spirit says to the churches

1.   The church addressed (2:1a)

  1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:   Remember again that the word “angel” comes from the Greek word angellos, which is often translated as “angel” in English. But there are a few instances that it is translated “messenger.” And in this verse it also has the sense of messenger. This could refer to a representative of the church of Ephesus who was one of their pastors or Elders. Maybe he was the presiding Elder of the church. And he is addressed because he represents the church or he will be the one to read this letter to the congregation. So although, he is the only one addressed here, the letter is really for the whole local church of Ephesus.   Here is a little background about the church of Ephesus. Perhaps no church in history is as blessed as this church in Ephesus in terms of exposure to the ministries of important men and women of God. Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos, Timothy, Onesiphorus, Tychicus, the apostle Paul who ministered to them for 3 years and even wrote them a letter, and finally, the apostle John who ministered to them for many years before he was banished to Patmos—all of these godly men and one woman, ministered to these believers in Ephesus for many years. What a great blessing and privilege it is to be exposed to their teachings and to their godly lives.  

2.   A description of Christ (2:1)

  The phrase “The words of” is used seven times in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation and each time, it introduces the authority, power, and sovereignty of Jesus Christ who uttered those prophetic messages to the churches.   The description that is given here about Jesus is that He is the One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands – These two attributes of Christ are taken from the description of Christ in John’s vision in 1:13 and 1:16.   As I said before, the “seven stars” that Jesus holds firmly in His right hand means that the ministers of His churches are under His special care and protection. No harm shall come to any of them without His will.   The next description that He “walks among the seven golden lampstands” shows His relationship with the churches. It is both an encouragement and a warning to the church.   As an encouragement, it reminds them that whenever they function as a true church, Jesus is in their midst. If they really go and make disciples of all nations, Jesus will be with them till the end of the age. If they implement church discipline, even if they are a small church, even as small as two or three, Jesus is in their midst. But Christ walking among the lampstands also serves as a warning. Like the OT priests who tended the lamps of the holy place of the Tabernacle, he constantly watches to find out whether the churches are shining as they should or not. If they don’t then they are removed from their place.  

3.   Christ’s diagnosis of the church (2:2-3)

  Jesus has something positive and negative to say about this church. First, let’s look at the positive.  
  1. The Lord says, “I know your works.” The phrase, “I know,” means that Jesus has knowledge of His people, their activities, and their circumstances. He says that he knows their “works.” The word “works” is a general term that can mean good or bad works, but perhaps the idea here is more about the good works.
  1. The Lord also commends them for their “toil.” “Toil” comes from a Greek word that means to engage in an activity that is physically or mentally exhausting, burdensome and wearisome. “Toil” may refer to their diligent efforts to live a godly life in the midst of a crooked and evil generation.
  You must know the context these Ephesian believers were living in.   You see, during Paul’s day, Ephesus was called “the greatest city of Asia” for many reasons. And one of the most important reasons was because it was there that the Temple of Artemis was located. Known as “Artemis” to the Greeks or “Diana” to the Romans, this many-breasted fertility goddess was housed in a Temple dedicated for her that became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world.   Besides being a religious center, the temple also served as a bank for kings and merchants so that it became the richest banking center in that part of the world. The temple was also a gathering place for criminals and the scene of widespread immorality. This was no surprise because the priestesses that served in the Temple were actually Temple prostitutes.   Every year a month-long festival was held in honor of Artemis, complete with athletic, dramatic, and musical events. And most of these events were done in their theater, which is still visible today, that held an estimated 24,000 people.   In addition to Diana’s temple, Ephesus had another temple dedicated to the worship of the Emperor. Roman prefects forced the people to worship the emperor Domitian and to utter the statement “Caesar is Lord.”   In the midst of such prosperity, idolatry and immorality that characterized Ephesus was a faithful group of persecuted Christians who declared, “Jesus is Lord.”   No wonder, these believers toiled and labored to the point of exhaustion and weariness. It was always a struggle to live a godly life in the midst of such a crooked and evil generation.  
  1. Not only were they commended for their toil, they were also commended for their patient endurance. This is how the Ephesians responded to their trying circumstances. Instead of losing their patience, becoming bitter towards God, their patiently endured and remained faithful to their Lord.
  Please take note the possessive pronoun, “your,” that is connected to their works, toil, and patient endurance is singular. Perhaps this indicates that the Lord is speaking not only to the church as a group but also to each individual church member.  
  1. Another commendable thing about the Ephesian believers was that they didn't tolerate evil people. Jesus said, “you cannot bear with those who are evil.” Some interpreters may think that the “evil” people here are referring to the unbelievers in their society that I described a while ago. But then the following clause shows that our Lord was referring to a particular group of evil people. These evil people were not those who were outside the church but those who were inside. These evil people are those “who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” These were the evil people our Lord was referring to.
  Observe that the Lord considers false apostles to be evil. Apostles were supposed to be Christ’s representatives and one of their main responsibilities is to teach God’s word. But because these were false apostles, it means that they taught wrong doctrine. What this means is that from God’s point of view, evil is not only doing of immoral acts but it is also teaching false doctrine. Look at these NT examples:  
  • 2Jn 1:9-11 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
  • 1Jn 2:18,22 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. … 22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.
  • Gal 1:7-9 there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
  Be careful about those who claim to be the Messiah. Some of them have been praised for creating a Paradise out of barren wastelands. But the question is, how did they acquire that piece of land they planted their pine trees and beautiful gardens? Some of them acted like King Ahab of the OT who coveted Naboth’s vineyard and acquired hectares and hectares of land through the murderous acts of fanatical minions.  
  1. The Ephesian Christians were also commended by the Lord because they were discerning. They “have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.
  • The Ephesians never forgot the admonition Paul had addressed to their leaders so many years earlier in Acts 20:29-31: 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert,
  • They were like the Bereans in Acts 17:11. They examined Scriptures daily to see if the teachings of the so-called apostles were really biblical.
  The Ephesian church exercised spiritual discernment. They tested these false apostles and found them to be counterfeit. These so-called apostles preached a gospel that was not the gospel of Christ. They were not appointed by Jesus. They did not have the marks of an apostle, such as being eyewitnesses of the risen Christ, preaching the true gospel, and performing signs, wonders, and miracles (2Co 11:4; 12:12). The Ephesians tested the doctrine and works of these apostles and discovered that these people were imposters.   To summarize Christ commendation of the Ephesian church He says in v. 3: I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary.  
  1. In verse 6 Jesus mentions His final commendation of the Ephesian church. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
  The Nicolaitans were also a problem in the church in Pergamum, in Rev 2:12-15 but Bible teachers are not certain who the Nicolaitans were. Some suggest that they were the false apostles of in v. 2.   The teaching of the Nicolaitans perhaps had some similarity to the teaching of Balaam (2:14–15) who led the nation of Israel who were in the wilderness to eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.   According to early church Fathers like Irenaeus (about A.D. 180), Nicolas, may have been one of the first deacons mentioned in Acts 6. But he has a false believer who later became apostate. But because of his credentials he was able to lead the church astray. The Nicolaitans, the followers of Nicolas, were “apparently a sect that advocated license in matters of Christian conduct, including free love, though some understand from the meaning of the name (‘conquering of the people’) that they were a group that promoted a clerical hierarchy” (Ryrie Study Bible).   Again, as I said, the bible scholars are not sure. But one thing they seem to agree upon is that the Nicolaitans are not legalists like the Judaizers. They were antinomians. Their teaching perverted grace and replaced liberty with license.   The Lord Jesus commended the church of Ephesus because it hated the heretical teachings of the Nicolaitans. They did not permit these evildoers into their churches or in case they got in and they were discovered, they were immediately excommunicated. Their reaction was exactly the opposite to the attitude of tolerance of the Pergamum church in Rev. 2:14-15.  

4.   Words of reproof (2:4)

  Jesus commended the church in Ephesus for their deeds, hard work, endurance, for their orthodoxy, their discernment, their willingness to ban false teachers and false brethren from entering the church and they set an example to the other churches to do likewise. But despite all of these positive things the Lord Jesus commended them for, the Lord spotted a serious fault in the Ephesian church. He says in v.4:   But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.   The word “abandoned” implies an intentional, not accidental, act. The phrase "abandoned the love you had at first" does not mean that the Ephesians live and work without love for God or for their neighbors. It simply suggests that they still loved, but with a quality and intensity that was different from that of their initial love.   More than 30 years before the book of Revelation was written, Paul wrote the Ephesian church a letter and praised them for their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for their fellow believers. Eph 1:15-16: For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints.   But now, this church was no longer the same in the intensity and quality of their love for Jesus and for the brothers and sisters in Christ.   How may this have happened?   It is possible that the desire for sound teaching and the proactive action to remove or to discipline all impostors “had created a climate of suspicion in which love within the believing community could not longer exist” (NTCS).   Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul counseled believers in Philippians 3:1-2:   1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.   If you will observe, before the warning about false teachers, first Paul says, “rejoice in the Lord.” This usually happens, when we discipline members, when we confront unbelievers, when we expose false teachers, we can be so enamored in proving that they are right and we lose sight of our need for God and the humility that the Lord requires of us. We can become proud of our knowledge and be hypercritical of all of those who are wrong or even just with those who disagree with us in our position. We can become hardened, cold, and forget to be gentle, humble, loving, caring, understanding, merciful, gracious. We may be very sensitive to see the speck in the eyes of others and forget to see the log in our own eyes, and thus forget of our ever need to be dependent upon the grace of God.   Here are some convicting words from Alexander Strauch, from his book, Love or Die.   What we learn from Revelation 2:4, and must never forget, is that an individual or a church can teach sound doctrine, be faithful to the gospel, be morally upright, and work hard, yet be lacking love and therefore, be displeasing to Christ. Love can grow cold while outward religious performance still appears to be acceptable—or even praiseworthy. … How easy it is to be self-satisfied with external religious performance and be like the Pharisees who “tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God (Lk 11:42). …   [And now listen to his diagnostic questions to evaluate if our church has lost its first love.]:   We must ask, when people visit your church, do they find a warm, friendly, and welcoming atmosphere that demonstrates love for all people? Do they sense Christlike compassion and the kind of loving family community envisioned by the New Testament writers? Do they see genuine care for one another’s needs, Christian hospitality, and unselfish generosity? Do they observe joy in the Lord, spiritual vitality, and people reaching out to minister to a suffering world? Or does your church seem more like an impersonal gathering of people than a spiritual family? Do visitors sense unfriendliness and indifference? Do they see a proud, critical spirit, or an angry, contentious group of people? Remember, there is always one who walks among the churches, unseen but seeing all. How do you imagine Christ might evaluate your local church body?  

5.   Words of exhortation (2:6)

  To help the church address their problem, the Lord Jesus Himself prescribed a three-fold remedy:   5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.   Insights from Alexander Strauch’s book, Love or Die.   The first thing the Lord directs the church to do is, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen.”   Jesus admonished them to remember their early days when love motivated all they did. They needed to recall the love they originally possessed by had forsaken.   To “remember” means to recall past feelings and actions, but not in a passive sense. It is not sentimental daydreaming about the “good old days: with no intention to act. The present imperative command, “remember,” emphasizes an ongoing, continuous mental attitude of remembering. It requires making the effort to recall past joys, deeds, attitudes, and experiences in the life of the church in order to repeat them and act upon them.   These memories will guide the church’s present action and provide future direction. They will set the standard and will motivate change. Remembering these things will help the church see and admit its lapse of love. Remembering will lead to repenting and returning to their first acts of love.   Second, they needed to repent. Remembering from where they had fallen would lead them to repentance. Repentance refers to a decisive break. It is an active step. It is a radical redirection of one’s entire life.   What would be involved in true repentance? Listen to Strauch:   Through repentance, the church in Ephesus would demonstrate  
  • that it accepts Christ’s evaluation of its fallen condition,
  • that it has judged itself according to Christ’s Word to be sinful and deserving or divine discipline (1Co 11:31-32),
  • that it grieves over its loss of love and displeasure to Christ (2Cop 7:8-10),
  • that it is turning away from sin and returning to its past life of love,
  • that it will, by God’s grace, take appropriate action (2Co 7:8-12).
    Finally, they needed to “do the works you did at first.”   In the case of the Ephesians, returning to their first works means returning to their former state and eagerly seeking to reengage in the deeds of love they once had done but had abandoned. Jesus is not simply telling them to do more works—they have works (Rev 2:2)—but to do the works they did at first. It may be that their present “toil” and “patient endurance” were largely confined to stopping false teachers, preserving sound doctrine from attack, and facing opposition form a hostile society. As the Ephesian believers gradually abandoned their first love, they also abandoned, or greatly minimized, certain acts of love, kindness, compassion, care, hospitality, and prayer. Loss of love always has adverse consequences on a church’s works, conducts, attitudes, and activities. The Ephesians worked hard and endured, but there were missing elements of their work that needed to be restored.     Christ warned the Ephesians that if they neglected His call to remember, repent, and do the works they did at first, they would face divine judgment:   If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.   The coming our Lord here refers not to His second coming, but His coming to them in judgment as a local church. Failure to obey the warning would cause Him to remove their lampstand out of its place. What this could mean is that the Lord Himself will remove the spiritual usefulness of that church in the community. They will lose their light. They will have no significance in the community. They will no longer be a church. The members may still come together, but they meet for social and not spiritual purposes. Or it could mean that eventually God is going to remove their church in the community. The members will all leave and all that will remain will be an empty church building.  

6.   A command to hear (2:7a)

  7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.   The use of the plural noun “churches” signifies that the message is directed not only to the congregation in Ephesus, but to all the churches. In other words, the message is for the universal church of all ages and places. Every church needs to hear every message.  

7.   A promise to the overcomer (2:7b)

  To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.   The term “conquerors” does not refer to those who have attained to a higher level of the Christian life but to all Christians (MacArthur).   This is how John refers to believers in 1Jn 5:4-5:   4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?   Christ promises the overcomers at Ephesus that He will “grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”   The Tree of Life is first mentioned in Gen 2:9 where it stands in the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve sinned, God drove them out of the Garden of Eden and placed an angel with a flaming sword there to guard the tree of life (Gen. 2:9; 3:22, 24). By guarding that tree, God prevented sinners from eating the fruit of the tree of life and thus living eternally in the unredeemable state in which the fallen angels exist. The redemption of His people, which Jesus Christ brings to completion at the consummation, includes the promise that everyone who overcomes will eat from the tree of life (Rev. 22:2, 14, 19).   The “Paradise of God” in the Old Testament refers to a delightful place, unmarred by sin. It occurs at the beginning and the end of Scripture. The word describes the blissful life that believers will have with Christ in a new heaven and a new earth.   Closing words from Alexander Strauch:   The Lord’s rebuke to the church in Ephesus is a strong warning that a church can work hard, fight heresy, persevere, teach sound doctrine, and yet, because of a lack of love, be in danger of divine discipline. No matter how impressive a church may appear to be on the outside—a magnificent building, huge congregation, large staff, big budget, dynamic teaching, outstanding missions program, and awesome music—it may still be dying within from a lack of love (1Co 13:1-3). Love is vital to the spiritual health of the individual believer and to the local church.   One of the most practical things we can do in order to return to our first love is to pray.   Strauch writes:   Pray for love. One reason we see little growth in love in our churches is because we exert little effort in praying for it. … If ever we are to love as Christ loved, we must pray for the Holy Spirit’s enablement. There can be no revival of live without persevering prayer.   The NT provides examples for growth in love:  
  • Pray to know Christ’s love. Eph 3:18-19: [that you] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
  • Pray to love others more. Paul prayed in 1Th 3:12: and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you.
  George Muller, a remarkable man of prayer, understood the necessity of ongoing prayer. He said, “The great fault of the children of God is, they do not continue in prayer; they do not go on praying; they do not persevere. If they desire anything for God’s glory, they should pray until they get it.”   Let us take heed this counsel from Alexander Strauch:   Make praying for love a regular part of your prayer life. Pray for increasing knowledge of God’s love in Christ. Pray to excel more in love for others. Pray with others for growth in love. In your church prayer meeting or in your small group study, pray for more love for Christ, and for a lost, suffering world. As you pray, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1Th 3:12).