“I have some good news and I have some bad news.” Such is how we could summarize the words of Jesus to the Christians of Ephesus in the Book of Revelation. So let us begin with the good news:
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. . . . this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Revelation 2:2,3,6
Works, toil, endurance, standing up to false teaching and also to bad practices. Sounds like a good report. However,there is a ‘but,’ coming. And it is a really big ‘but.’ It is something very serious, so serious that here are the consequences:
Remember then from what 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. Revelation 2:5
What does it mean to lose the lampstand? We are told in John’s vision that “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20). In other words, the Christian community will cease to be relevant in Ephesus, there will be no church there. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount:
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16
If the Christians in Ephesus do not change course there will be no lampstand in Ephesus which means no Christian witness which means no glory to God.
So what is the ‘but,’ the bad news that needs fixing?
But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Revelation 2:4 (NASB)
What does this mean exactly? At first reading, it certainly seems as if the Christians in Ephesus are good at expressing their love for God. Remember they are commended for their works, toil, endurance, and standing up to false prophets and bad practices alike. On the surface of it, it looks as if they are expressing a great love for God. In fact it seems they are very religious about expressing their devotion to God. And maybe that is the clue.
The Christian journey can sometimes look like this: We fall in love with God. In fact we become religious about expressing our LOVE for God. Then we become RELIGIOUS about expressing our LOVE for God. Then we can become VERY RELIGIOUS about expressing our love for God. Then we just become VERY RELIGIOUS. And we have left our first love. We have replaced it with religion.
We can leave our first love in two ways:
The first way we can leave our first love: by replacing love with religion as the basis of our relationship with God.
There is an easy way to tell when this is happening. We enter a church, or enter into prayer, and say, “look at me, Lord. Look at how good I am. Look at my works, toil, endurance, and how I stand up to false prophets and bad practices.” We know religion has replaced love when we find ourselves at the centre of it all. We have no capacity to impress God. Nor do we need to. When God’s love is at the centre rather than our religiosity, we are free to enter into church, or into prayer, and say, “Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be Your Name.” We enter into church, or into prayer, not because we have a chance of impressing Him, but because He loves us. After all, does it not say in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whosever is really religious shall not perish but shall have eternal life?” You know that is not how it goes! It is “whoseover believeth in Him, or better, whosoever trusts in Him. The basis of our relationship with God rests first of all on His love and the fact that He gave Himself for us. We leave our first love and trade it in for mere religion when we trust, not in the love of Jesus, but in our own efforts. If the Christians in Ephesus don’t get this right, they cannot be a lampstand, and their Christian witness will be lost to the misfortune of the people of Ephesus. It will be to the misfortune of our towns and cities today if we replace love with religion as the basis of our relationship with God.
The second way we can leave our first love: by replacing love with religion as the basis of our relationship with others.
You can see the challenge the Christians in Ephesus faced. They were in a very Roman world with very Roman practices, which were very far from Christian practices. There were huge pressures to cave. It is commendable that they have not. They are to be commended for enduring, and standing up to false teaching and bad practices. However, the easiest way to endure when all the world around you is putting pressure on you to cave is to crawl into one. Crawl into a cave and disconnect yourself from all that pressure. Hunker in a bunker. There is such at thing today as “hunker in a bunker” Christians. There we are free from pressure and temptation. We are free in a bunker, sheltered from the world around us to excel in being religious. Religion becomes the main point of connection with our friends, and the main point of disconnection from everyone else. We can excel at being religious in, but we cannot love the world around us from, a bunker. We are called to love! Study the life of Paul and you will see that despite all the pressures on him, he never hunkered down in a bunker. He rubbed shoulders with anyone and everyone, letting his light shine. Jesus rubbed shoulders with anyone and everyone, letting His light shine. It is good to do those commendable things the Christians in Ephesus were doing; not countenancing evil, weeding out the false prophets, enduring. But it is not good to become isolated and a closed community. If the Christians in Ephesus do not get this right, they cannot be a lampstand, and their Christian witness will be lost to the misfortune of the people of Ephesus. It will be to the misfortune of our towns and cities today if we don’t keep love as the basis of our relationship with others.
Jesus shows the way:
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: Revelation 2:1
Jesus is the example of love, walking among the the seven gold lampstands, a living presence of love. In everything he has done and everything he does, he gives us an example, not of what religion looks like, but love. May we be more like Jesus, and not so much like the Ephesians.
(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.)