by Pastor Doug Stratton — September 27, 2020
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
CCI: The message to Continue to build on your past service and faith is only possible when we remain true to our first love.
Today we are going to close our brief series on Messages in a Bottle. The passage we just read is one such message, it is a letter “dictated” to John the Revelator from Jesus to be sent to the Church in Ephesus. The church in Ephesus was one of 7 churches in what is now called Turkey. These churches had already faced persecution, and the city of Ephesus had been a center of conflict for Paul. But the Church was a faithful church seeking to follow Jesus and right teaching.
The letter begins with a description of Jesus as “the one who holds the seven stars and walks among the seven candlesticks.” In chapter 1 we learn that the seven stars are the divine messengers, perhaps angels, perhaps pastors and the candlesticks are the churches of Turkey. So Jesus’ message is to this particular church and its leaders, but it’s message is timeless and universal.
What do we know about this church from the letter?
Jesus is clear – you work hard, you are task oriented and you persevere in hardship. In fact, he speaks of their perseverance two times. Your theology is pure, you weed out false teaching and you will not tolerate people who are evil.
This is the way the church was known by God and by the people around them. They were hard workers who knew what was right and fought for truth with all their might.
That is a description that would make any church feel good about itself. Pure faith and hard work, with a can-do-never-give-up attitude.
Today, we continue to strive for pure doctrine. What do we believe about God? Should we associate with people who believe something else? How can we expose false teaching around us? We also continue to honor those who work hard and persevere in hardship. We raise up as models those who can get the job done no matter what obstacles they face. We want to be known as a church of pure faith and hard work, with a can-do-never-give-up attitude.
The church of Ephesus was committed the Faith that has been entrusted to them by Paul. But there was something else. With all their purity and with all their hard work, Jesus had and issue with them. In fact, despite their hard work and their purity, if they did not address this issue, their connection with Jesus would be lost.
“Yet, I have this against you, you have left your first love, you have forsaken the love you had at first.” The doctrine was pure, they worked hard, but they lacked the most important thing, their love had been lost in their efforts and their purity.
On the night that Jesus washed the disciples feet, he told them, “This is how all people will know you are my disciples, when they see the love you have for each other.” Jesus did not say people will know you are my disciples by the height of the steeple on you building, or by the doctrinal statement on your website, or by the size of your choir, or by your ability to pray publicly, or even by the number of times you say “God bless you” in a day. Rather it is by the love you have for one another. And so Jesus tells the church: Return to your first love!
When I wonder what that looks like, I think about couples who have just committed themselves in marriage. Look at their faces, look at the way they look at each other, listen to the way they talk to one another, capture the wonder of the commitment they are embracing. (pictures of newlyweds)
First love is a love of commitment and giving.
First love is energizing. First love is empowering. First love believes there is no mountain so high, no ocean so deep that it can keep one from her beloved. The beauty of first love is elevated in the Song of Solomon who wrote, “Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned.”
And Jesus said to the church, “You have left your first love.”
In the messages from our bottle 5 years ago, there was one that we need to hear today. “Do not leave your first love.” It can happen so easily. We can follow the path of the church of Ephesus. We become concerned with purity, or with right doctrine. We begin to look at our bank accounts to determine if we love Jesus. We begin to pursue power so we can influence more. But these are all steps on the path of losing our first love. Philip Yancey in a blog yesterday wrote: “Historically, when the Church gets tempted by those who are in power, it bears the consequences for generations. A year ago I was in Spain, where in the last century the Church had allied itself with a strongman, Francisco Franco. Now, several generations later, many Spaniards will have nothing to do with the Church, because when they hear the word “Church” they immediately think repression and violence.”
Have we lost our first love? Is our passion consumed by serving and loving Jesus? If not we are in a dangerous position.
Jesus tells the Ephesians how to return to their first love.
- Consider from where you have fallen. Reflect on the early days of our love relationship with Jesus. Remember the joy you experience in prayer and in reading the scriptures. Remember how you longed for others to find the same joy. To return to your first love, remember what it was like and realize how far you have fallen.
- Repent. That means to turn around and head in a new direction. Confess your sins, acknowledge that you have slipped away.
- And then, Return to that place of passionate love Jesus is waiting. Do the very things you did when you first came to love Jesus. It is that simple and it is that hard.
Jesus includes a warning, If you don’t, you will lose your connection with Jesus. In fact, he says, I will remove your lampstand. You will cease to be a church. You may be a great social service agency, you may be a center for encouragement, but unless you return to your first love you will not be a church of Jesus Christ.
These are sobering words, “I will remove your lampstand.” But the path back is the last message from a bottle that I want to share with you, “Continue to build on our past in service and faith.” That is what happens when we return to our first love. Build, grow, expand, love, share, serve, support, feed, heal, encourage, in short, love one another passionately.
But there is an extra comment that Jesus makes to the church of Ephesus: “you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Who were these? There are several ideas about the Nicolaitans. They may have been a sect that followed one of the early deacons named Nicolas. There are times that we fall away from Jesus because we elevate a leader to the place of Jesus and that is a lure that leads to ruin. Another way to understand this word of encouragement is found in the name “Nicolaitans.” The Aramaic translated “Nico” means “To eat, or to indulge” it may be that they were a sect committed to overindulgence, they fed their own hungers and ignored the needs of others.
If we are going to “Continue to build on our past in service and faith” we cannot be concerned only about ourselves. We must return to Jesus message on that night he washed the disciples’ feet. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Have you fallen in love with Jesus? If that is a strange question to you, I urge you to open your heart to him today. Jesus is waiting to embrace you and love you and give you joy, even in the midst of Covid 19. Have you fallen from your first love? Then it is time to return, to remember those first days of love with Jesus, and repent and return to Jesus’ side where you will find peace.
These are the messages from a bottle not only 5 years ago, but even 1900 years ago. Hear the message, return to that first love and let Jesus change you.
~ Pastor Doug