The Dangerous Church – Lenten Season 2023
“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 men, 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 your first love. Remember the height from which 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelations 2: 1-7 NIV).
Revelations – Day 3 “Letter to Ephesus – The Leadership Church”
“The reason your son is so sick,” the Pastor was saying, “is to teach you patience and perseverance.”
The young couple sat on the couch in the parsonage with a blank stare. “Well, um…thank you, Pastor.” But they were not convinced. They left without hope, without love, without faith in the goodness of God.
The Pastor may be right, but he misses the point. Pain and suffering do teach us the character of Christ (if we combine them with faith) but the purpose of developing that patience and perseverance is not to prepare us for heaven.
It isn’t as if we have to qualify to pass the pearly gates, after all. It is only the righteousness of Christ and his spirit within us that allows us entrance. Let me be clear. We are not developing the character of Christ in order to prepare ourselves for heaven but rather to do effective work and ministry here on earth.
There. I’ve said it and I’m not sorry.
In fact, I find the whole idea quite unbiblical and offensive. It may be true, but it is only half the story. Why in the world would I be happy that my son is suffering horribly just so that I can learn something? That seems grossly unfair and is not at all what God is saying to his people.
First of all, he loves your children even more than you do. He does not want them to suffer even though he must sometimes allow it. We are a world at war and there are lives at stake and the eternal consequences matter. The second death is the issue and everything else is secondary. We are protected eternally although we may have to suffer temporally.
Secondly, if he allows you or your loved ones to suffer, there is a redemptive, eternally significant reason for it. There is usually someone, somewhere, who is watching and waiting and wondering if your faith is real. They may be cynical about it, indifferent about it, or even hopeful about it. After all, most Christians are generally moral people but don’t appear to be very different from anyone else. It is usually only in moments of difficulty that we can assess the real values and beliefs of people.
It isn’t first of all about your Christ-like character (although that helps) but about the quality of your witness (which is relational). It isn’t just about endurance and perseverance but also about the quality of your efforts and the nature of your faith. Crying out to God and weeping before him is an act of faith, not disbelief. Bringing the community together for prayer and practical support is a testimony to your communal faith and witness.
Not that you should even think about it at the time. By the time the hour of trial comes, it is either there or it is not. You build your house on the rock before the storms come after all. This is not something that you should try to do but rather something that you should remind yourself that you already have. Preach these truths into your heart not to convince yourself that they are true but to remind yourself that your entire life is built on them and that not even despair and sorrow can remove you from his loving care and providence.
Are you ready for effective ministry? Do you have the anointing of God on your church? On your life? How would you know?
Life is difficult. The innocent often suffer. But God has the ability to use those moments to reveal his transformative presence in your life to those who are watching. That doesn’t justify the suffering. That’s not the reason for the suffering. It is God doing his best work in turning evil into good (Gen. 50:20 NIV) like Jesus did on the cross.
We must realize that we are in this world just like anyone else, under the same rules and regulations, under the same death sentence without recourse to special treatment other than our relationship with God in faith.
Otherwise, everyone would become Christians just for the benefits of automatic healing and guaranteed prosperity and exemption from death. We know that’s not how it works. On the other hand, we know that God can take the curse and evil of this existence and transform it into an effective witness that can save people from the second death, and we are grateful for that.
And that is what the Pastor should be talking about. Reminding us that we also still live under the curse and are struggling with sin and evil just like anyone else (but with the Spirit of God within). Things happen. Bad things. But God can turn it into eternal spiritual good for you and your family and those around you.
The call is to embrace his ministry in your life and invite him to use this suffering to bring about an even greater good. And when you arrive at those pearly gates and are greeted by the throngs of family and friends and acquaintances that you have influenced with your witness (oftentimes without even realizing it), the joy you feel will literally overwhelm you.
Jesus understood this.
These letters to the churches reminded them that he was there among them, hurting with them and part of their witness. The question is whether they were ready to face what was to come and be an effective witness in the process. The storm was coming but their houses, individually and as a church, had some cracks in the foundation, some roof tiles that were missing, and in some cases entire sections unbuilt or in shambles. We need to listen to what he has to say to his people.
Many scholars want to argue about whether Jesus was preparing his people for the Parousia (his second coming) or for the Persecution (at that time and throughout history). The first is offensive as we already said. We are not being prepared for his coming, or for heaven, or to qualify for some sort of reward when we get there. But the second option isn’t much better without further comment.
Yes, we are being prepared for the persecution that is coming but not really. A stronger relationship with the risen Christ will make the persecution more bearable. That is valuable but not enough. Rather, we are being prepared to be effective witnesses in the context of the hour of trial because that context is always the place where people can see if this claim to a new life is real or merely religious jargon. Is there “power” in our godliness or just smoke and mirrors?
That is God’s message to all of us.
It is in our moments of suffering and pain (as unfair and terrible as it may be) that he can get through to those who are watching and demonstrate that this transformation is real. It is the most “attractive” power in the universe and the Holy Spirit can take that witness, together with the good news of the gospel, and penetrate the cold, hard hearts of doctors and nurses and friends and family.
So, neither Parousia nor Persecution but rather “effective witness” in the context of the real world with all of its sin and evil to bring about the salvation of those around us is the point.
A real live demonstration that the “gates of hell cannot prevail” against the church (Matt. 16:18 NIV). It is important to emphasize that Jesus was talking about his church, the community, and not just individuals. Some would even claim that there is no such thing as an individual Christian.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20 NIV) he would be among them, and they would be “church.” Our strength and anointing lie in being “church,” living in spiritual unity and connected to the Head, who is Christ.
And if we do not agree that it is worth it, then we are the most miserable people on earth. To suffer and not believe that it matters, that it is worth it, that something wonderful and beautiful will come from it, is incredibly sad. Paul felt the same way. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” he said (I Cor. 15:19 NIV).
Because we are willing to give up this life in order to receive the life to come. We are willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel but if there is no gospel, if there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are truly to be pitied. It matters. All of it. And it matters eternally.
So now you understand why Jesus wrote these letters to the seven churches (and to all churches) so that they would have the chance to prepare themselves, wake up, and repent so that their witness and efforts would not be in vain. Patience would be required. Endurance, consistency, and loyalty would be expected. It isn’t the Parousia that was imminent but rather the Persecution and therefore an opportunity for effective witness.
Each letter seems to have seven parts to them. The comparison of how Jesus deals with each church is interesting and instructive. He always starts with the statement “to the angel of the church in” each of the locations.
Then there is the statement that “these are the words of” Jesus, although he does not say his name but rather makes reference to the vision that John had of him among the lampstands.
Then he lets them know that he is well aware of their situations and usually has a few sentences saying “I know” this about you and “I know” that about you. Sometimes positive and sometimes not so positive. And then comes the rebuke.
“Yet, I hold this against you.” Usually followed by a call to repent and a warning of what will happen if they don’t.
Then often he will say something encouraging with the words “but you have this in your favor.”
And finally, he gives another warning that is always the same and reminds us of what Jesus always used to say. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
But one of the most interesting elements is the promise “to him who overcomes.” We will look at each of these elements for each church in order because we know that the Spirit (and Jesus) is talking to us as well.
“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” (Rev. 2:1 NIV).
Ephesus is the first church that Jesus addresses in his letters to the churches. The interesting thing is that whatever phrase he uses to describe himself comes from the previous vision John had of Jesus standing among the lampstands. Most often, the phrase that Jesus uses to describe himself has something to do with his message to that particular church, and the same is true here.
Ephesus is a leadership church. In many circles and in many cities around the world there is a “first” church in a region from which all of the other churches were born. And the same is true for Ephesus. If you remember Paul’s ministry there, he “had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:9b,10 NIV).
How many of us wish we could have been there for that wonderful training in the gospel? It was so effective that it brought people from all over the province to learn and be saved. Ephesus was the source of much of the evangelistic work that happened in that region and held a leadership role among the churches.
Ephesus, during Roman times, was one of the most important ports in the region. Pergamum was the seat of government, but Ephesus was where they landed. The temple of Artemis was one of the wonders of the ancient world and, although Greek in name, it had even earlier connections to the Mother Goddess worshipped in that region long before Rome. Of course, with the addition of an area to worship the goddess Roma, and even the divine Julius, it became closely associated with the imperial cult and emperor worship.
Later, at some point, the apostle, John, ministered there and his Gospel as well as his pastoral letters came from his pen as he lived and worked in Ephesus. Twenty years after the Revelation was written, Ignatius, one of the church fathers, wrote to the Bishop in Ephesus named Onesimus. Is that the Onesimus who was once a slave of Philemon (cf. the letter to Philemon)? One can only wonder. In any event, there was no question that Ephesus was the most important church in the province of Asia.
When Jesus describes himself as the one “who holds the seven stars in his right hand,” he is telling the leadership church that he is taking care of them, he understands what they are going through, and they are under his watchful eye. The right hand is one of power and strength and that would be transmitted to them. When he tells them that he “walks among the seven golden lampstands,” he is also telling them that he is not high and lifted up but rather in the daily ministry working with them for the salvation of mankind.
“I know your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, 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” (Rev. 2:2,3 NIV).
Again, Jesus imparts comfort to them and tells them that he is well aware of their struggles and commends them on their hard work and perseverance, qualities which are essential in the hour of trial to come. This is not to say that they haven’t already “endured hardship for my name.”
I especially like the commendation that they “have not grown weary.” That is saying something after forty years or so of intense ministry.
But the key commendation at this point in the letter is the statement about false apostles. Perhaps they were Judaizers, claiming that the Gentiles had to become Jews and be circumcised in order to become Christians. Jesus calls them “a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9b, 3:9 NIV) in some of the other letters and even claims that they are not true Jews.
But this seems to be something else, otherwise, Jesus would just have branded them openly for who they were like he did elsewhere. It is not likely that these false apostles were pretending to be one of the twelve, but they could have made the claim that they were still witnesses to the life of Jesus on earth (and therefore apostles) or closely associated with the twelve in some way.
After all, there were a lot of other disciples who were among Jesus’ followers and others who were closely aligned with the twelve, people like James the Just, Barnabas, Junias, Andronicus, and even Paul and Silas (to name but a few). Some were legitimate and others not so much.
Testing the spirits and identifying false apostles is a key leadership function and serves the whole church. But in order to do so, one must be immersed in and committed to the gospel as witnessed by the true apostles and messengers from God. You cannot tell a forgery unless you know the genuine.
And, of course, Ephesus had that true witness in spades. They had three years of ministry under Paul and probably twenty or more years under John, the beloved disciple. Strong apostolic leadership and witness right from the start, which, of course, is where leaders are born.
“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which 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” (Rev. 2:4,5 NIV).
These are shocking words. Not just because it seems harsh to our modern ears to hear that someone (especially Jesus) has something he holds against you. That is a rebuke in and of itself. But the content of that rebuke justifies the direct words that Jesus uses to get their attention.
“You have forsaken your first love.” How can that be? Didn’t Jesus commend them for all their hard work, endurance, and perseverance? Didn’t he say that they hadn’t grown weary but were still hard at work? Even so, they have lost that spiritual fervor that is so common at the beginning of our relationships.
The reference is actually to marriage though it obviously refers to Christ. The idea is that they have left the wife of their youth (Proverbs 5:12 NIV) whom they married when their affections were “pure and fresh” and their love “strong and simple” (Malachi 2:14 NIV).
It happens to all of us, and it takes a concerted effort to focus on the relationship and maintain the romance and excitement not because it isn’t there but because we are selfish and sinful and naturally fall away from those initial demonstrations of our affection. The same is true in our relationship with our Master and Lord.
But perhaps there is something more going on here as well. After all, being good at rooting out imposters and false doctrine can cause one to fall into a judgmental spirit which can easily lead to a lack of love. Zeal for the truth can sometimes get in the way of grace and love which are at the heart of our faith. Jesus was full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14 NIV) but we are often either hard as nails when it comes to the truth or entirely too tolerant when it comes to grace. The Ephesians needed to maintain their vigilance but “seasoned” with grace (Col. 4: 6 NIV). As Paul well knew, a formidable mind is no excuse for a cold heart.
Jesus is interested in our hearts, not just in our actions. Our deeds are the focus, but it is our heart that must be the source of our deeds. Otherwise, we fall into the danger of becoming like those who “have the form of religion but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5 NIV).
“You have forsaken your first love.” Perhaps one of the first places where we can start to get serious about our discipleship once again is to work on recapturing our first love “and do the things you did at first.”
Even the exhortation to “remember the height from which you have fallen” could be understood in terms of the effective witness and leadership influence they had in the early years under Paul when the entire province of Asia heard about the gospel. In any event, they knew what Jesus meant and we do too.
One thing I hate in the church, especially among the leadership is the spirit of politics. And I call it a “spirit,” not because I believe that there is a demon instigating it (although I wouldn’t be surprised) but because it is a general attitude and corporate culture in our churches that has been justified and rationalized over and over again until it is encrusted with hardness and disregard for the needs of the individual.
Rather than protecting the individual and trusting God to protect the community, most often the individual is sacrificed for the sake of the group.
Instead of leaving the ninety-nine and seeking out the one who has gone astray, the black sheep is encouraged to leave for the sake of the ninety-nine.
Instead of focusing on healing relationships through confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, we are more concerned about the budget, the facilities, and the good graces of the Board. We have lost our first love.
This is truly a leadership issue (although it affects all of us) and we are called to get it right and make the people the focus and not all of the rest of the worldly concerns that can so easily get in the way and take up our attention.
And listen to the warning to repent. This lack of spiritual fervor for the Lord and his people is, first of all, a sin. Nothing more and nothing less. And yet, in my experience, the majority of churches and boards and pastors are so encrusted with the spirit of politics which places almost anything else as more important than the spiritual care of the people is epidemic in our modern age (and has always been so since the early church).
And if we don’t repent? What then?
“I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5b NIV).
What does that mean? The lampstand represents the church as we know so it can’t be that Jesus is saying that he will remove the church from the city of Ephesus. Certainly not, but rather that he will remove it “from its place,” meaning its position of leadership, its ministry.
In other words, if you will not lead from the heart with the priorities of Jesus and with a focus on effective ministry in the lives of each individual under your care then that leadership role and ministry will be removed from you. The church will continue but its influence will diminish.
It is true that many churches and many leaders simply continue on with their politically encrusted ministries not realizing what effective and joyous leadership they could have if they enjoyed the anointing that comes from returning to their “first love.”
But the leaders in Ephesus understood. They had something to compare their present ministry with. The stories of past miracles and wonders, of many coming to know the Lord, of spiritual growth and transformation, of individual sacrifice, and warm spiritual unity are there to lead the way back into the heart of their Master and Lord.
“But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:6,7 NIV).
Although the rebuke that “you have forsaken your first love” cuts to the heart (for all of us), Jesus ends with another commendation concerning the Nicolaitans. We will go into more details about them in another letter but for now, it is important to distinguish between “false apostles” who preach a false gospel and other forces within the church, like the Nicolaitans, that seek to pervert the gospel in some way.
That is not to say that they were Christians. Most certainly they were not. But rather that it was a different kind of discernment that was needed and a different kind of response.
So, whether the threat was from without or within, this leadership church was on top of things, getting the job done, making sure that the gospel was clearly preached, and that false teaching was clearly exposed. Their leadership was intact, but their heart was not right. This is so often the case with our leaders. It is easy to be against falsehood, preach well, and manage the affairs of the church with efficiency and even effectively but without your heart filled with the spiritual fervor of your first love.
So be careful in your own ministry but also pray for our leaders that they would either return to that spiritual fervor and anointing that they had at the beginning of their ministry or that they would “stay” in that sweet spot where effective ministry is empowered.
Paul calls us “more than conquerors through Christ who strengthens us” (Rom. 8:37 NIV) and that is the inference here as well. We are not able to “overcome” without the strength that comes from Christ.
When we embrace the call to radical discipleship, we are embracing Christ himself. We are getting our hearts right, re-examining our priorities, accepting our purpose, and taking joy in our significant role together with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
But what is the connection between those who overcome (“the conqueror”) and those who will be martyred? On the one hand, the concept of overcoming is related to the call to repentance and that is clear enough. On the other hand, it is repentance that will result in an effective witness or testimony (which is the meaning of “martyr”) that leads to death.
Throughout the book of Revelations, mention is made of the conqueror (or overcomer) whose victory is like the victory of Christ on the cross, whose love and loyalty towards God in the face of death parallels that of Christ, who become, like Christ, a “faithful and true witness” (Rev. 1:5, 3:14 NIV) unto death. It is the weapons of love in the face of persecution that is Christ’s victory on Calvary and our victory on earth and what so affected those who witnessed their persecution torn apart by wild beasts in the arena or falsely accused and crucified by Nero and soaked in tar and used to light his parties at night.
To suffer with Christ is to suffer in the same way that he did, with forgiveness in his heart and love in his eyes. Peter tells us that “God called you to endure suffering because Christ suffered for you. He left you an example so that you could follow in his footsteps” (I Peter 2:21 NIV).
But even John did not suppose that everyone would be martyred. His message seems to be that we are all martyrs, but we will not all die a martyr’s death. All must face the prospect of martyrdom in the flesh and there is very little distance between that spiritual preparation and the daily crucifying of the flesh (Matt. 16:24 NIV) that Jesus called us to from the very beginning. It is that same attitude of overcoming whether from without or within that we are called to as “living martyrs” in his kingdom.
Jesus made it clear that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me, will find it” (Matt. 16:25 NIV). At the time the disciples no doubt thought that they might be in danger from their own religious leaders, but the Romans were always lurking in the background with threats and callous indifference. It was just becoming real in ways that made it clear that Jesus was serious about his call to discipleship. In that sense, martyrdom (daily or ultimately) was always the expectation of those wholly committed to the spread of the gospel.
Now listen to the promise for those who overcome. “I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Now that is confusing, to say the least.
Aren’t we all going to eat from the tree of life when we get to heaven?
Yes, and no. All of these promises belong to all who overcome most certainly just as all of the warnings are really for everyone in the church. But there is a sense in which each trial, each temptation, each difficulty that is overcome in the power of the Spirit here on earth has its promise of fulfillment in the “paradise of God.”
Whether it is someone who struggles with addiction or someone who is afraid of suffering and death, there is a promise for them in the life to come. For those who do not feel complete or whole and who may have to struggle with addiction their entire lives, a wholeness will come, a completeness, a filling will be theirs in the life to come (and the foretaste in this life). For those who are afraid to sacrifice in this life, the promise is that they will receive far more than they can even imagine in the life to come.
Eating from the Tree of Life is not merely a question of being alive forever after but of complete and full life in a new relationship with Jesus Christ who is “the tree of life” and the “water of life” (John 4:14 NIV) swelling up within us through the Spirit.
Foretaste in this life. Overflowing abundance in the next.
Of course, if you don’t care much about these things in the first place, these promises won’t mean much to you. They only mean something to those who have the Holy Spirit working to transform them from within.
That’s not to say that everyone doesn’t (to one degree or another) want to satisfy that void, that hunger and that thirst for something more that they feel naked without, that they feel incomplete without, that they search for and long for and don’t even know it. True enough.
But, for those of us who have found the Tree of Life and know his name, it is a wonderful promise to remember that abundant life in all of its many forms and variations is ours as we overcome.
Why only if we overcome? Why the conditions? Why is it not just freely available for everyone no matter what they do or how they act?
Because we aren’t talking about a physical tree but about our relationship with Jesus. We must overcome our inertia, our lukewarmness, our fear of suffering and sacrifice and death, and our tendency to distance ourselves from our first love in order to eat from the tree of life. If we do not overcome and embrace our calling to become radical disciples for effective ministry and witness, it means that our relationship with Christ is not as it should be.
Are you still a Christian?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Christians want a closer walk with God. It is a natural result of having the Spirit within. If you are not interested, then you may be quenching the Holy Spirit, or you don’t have the Holy Spirit at all. It’s hard to tell at that point but I wouldn’t take the chance.
“Following” is what a disciple does.
“Growing” is a natural consequence of walking in the Spirit.
“Overcoming” is the goal and Christ, himself, is the reward.
If that doesn’t stir you up, excite you, or motivate you, then something is wrong. This is not a game but rather the stuff of legend and adventure and great accomplishments and eternal significance but only and always by cultivating and desiring a closer walk with him.
The Desert Warrior