It seems as if the news is filled every day with scandals. Government scandals, corporate scandals, all kinds of scandals. It seems that even our own WVU is involved in a scandal. And this one doesn’t have anything to do with the football team. It seems that the governor’s daughter was awarded a master’s degree that she didn’t earn. Now I don’t know the details about it or anything that’s going to come of it. But here’s what I do know. I know two things that will come of it. First, if it stays in the headlines much longer, someone will call for a “top to bottom” review of the university. And second, somehow someway, somebody will try to blame this on Coach Rodriguez leaving and going to Michigan. But seriously, whether or not they bring Coach Rodriguez’s name into it, you can mark my words. If it stays in the headlines, someone will call for a “top to bottom” review. You can mark it down, because that’s what happens with most scandals. Back when the Savings and Loan crisis happened—congress called for a review. Every time something goes wrong in Iraq, congress calls for a review. When video of the horrible barracks at Ft. Bragg hit the internet, the Army called for a review. Any time there is a corporate scandal, CEOs call for a review. It’s even happening in churches. There are now specialized people called “intentional interim” pastors. These people specialize in coming into pastorless churches who have split or have been involved in scandal or conflict. And guess what the first thing they do is? They go through a “top to bottom” review. That’s all well and good. But we shouldn’t have to wait until things fall completely apart before we take a look at them. And I believe that’s why Jesus gave us these letters to the seven churches here in Revelation 2 and 3. So that we can review ourselves in the same way that Jesus reviews us. Over the next seven weeks, we’re going to look at Jesus’ “top to bottom” review of seven first century local churches in Asia Minor. We will look at each of the seven churches differently because Jesus looked at each one of them differently. Each church was unique. Each one had different problems. And each one needed different solutions. Over the years, people have looked at these seven churches different ways. Some have seen them not as historical first century churches but rather as seven different ages of the church. They have looked at church history and broken it down into seven different ages that correspond to each letter. That thinking has led to some very powerful sermons that compare our present church age to Laodicea. There are some valid comparisons there. And it is possible to see elements from different ages of church history in each of the seven churches. But that moves away from the real power of God’s Word in these letters. The real power is in seeing that these were seven letters to seven literal, real churches in Asia Minor at the time. And in each of those churches we see problems that have plagued local churches throughout history. Not only have they plagued local churches throughout history, they continue to plague churches today. As a matter of fact, if we allow the Holy Spirit to convict us over the next seven weeks, we will begin to see some of these same problems in our own church. But Jesus didn’t have John write these letters just to wag His finger at the problems. He wrote these letters to point out the solutions. So while I’m sure that we’ll see ourselves in many of these letters, my prayer is that we won’t just see ourselves in the problems. My prayer is that we’ll see ourselves in the solutions that Jesus gives us.
This morning’s text takes us to the local church at Ephesus. Ephesus was a tremendous city. As a matter of fact, it was the largest and most important city in the Roman province of Asia Minor. If you were able to find it on a map today, you would find Ephesus on the western coast of Turkey, straight across the Aegean Sea from Athens, Greece. Ephesus was known for many things. It was known as one of the most important trade centers of the Roman Empire. It was a port city and was built on the crossings of four major trade routes. Up to ½ million people lived there at any one time. It had the latest in art, entertainment and commerce. It was like the NYC or San Francisco of the Roman Empire. It also had the temple of Diana or Artemis. Diana was the Roman name of the goddess. Artemis was the Greek name. This temple was known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The temple housed one of the most important banks of the day. It also became a sanctuary for criminals and people looking to make a quick buck. Worship in the temple was really little more than open orgies. Thousands of male and female temple prostitutes were there. One commentator puts it like this—“The temple grounds were a chaotic cacophony of priests, prostitutes, bankers, criminals, musicians, dancers, and frenzied hysterical worshippers. And it was right in the middle of this city that Paul’s ministry partners, Priscilla and Aquila, planted a church.
Acts 18 tells us how Paul went with Priscilla and Aquila to Ephesus and basically dropped them off there. They faithfully planted the church, but Paul didn’t leave them in the lurch. He came back near the end of his second missionary journey. That was just a brief stop. His biggest ministry there happened during his third missionary journey. This time he spent three years with them, building the church. When he left, Acts 20 tells us he left the church in the hands of godly pastors and elders. Later on, we find that Paul’s young protégé Timothy served there as pastor. We don’t know how long Timothy was pastor there, but church history tells us that in his later years, John was their pastor. It was there where he wrote 1,2,3 John. It was also while he was serving as their pastor that the Roman Emperor Domitian’s men physically removed him. They removed him and exiled him to the island of Patmos. The island where Jesus appeared to him and told him to write these letters and this book.
If you can say anything about the church at Ephesus, you have to say it had good, godly leadership. Think of that legacy of leadership. In 40 years, they had Pricilla and Aquila, Paul, Timothy and John. I would say they had some pretty successful pulpit search committees. I don’t think you could ask for better leadership. Can you imagine the teaching they received? They had been taught by two men who wrote nearly all of the New Testament. At least 18 of the 27 books of the New Testament were written by Paul and John. The rest of them were written by men who they were intimately close to. What awesome teaching! With that kind of teaching, how could anything possibly go wrong? Because, no matter what kind of church… no matter how good the teaching… no matter how good the programs… churches are still made up of people. And even well-taught, godly people still sin and fall short of the glory of God. And that’s what happened here at Ephesus.
Notice what happened. In verses 2 and 3, Jesus commends them. He says, “As I walk in your midst, I see the things that you are doing.” That’s something to think about, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it give us a whole different outlook how we serve this church if we recognized the fact that Jesus is walking in our midst, watching what each of us is doing? Watching how we serve. Watching how we give. Watching how we live and react and interact with each other? Do you think that realizing that would make a difference in how we see church? Do you think it might change our attitude that church is a place to go and “have our needs met”? Do you think it just might make us realize that church is a place to teach and to learn and to worship and to serve? We see from verses 2 and 3 that there were many things about the Ephesian church that Jesus was pleased with. They were workers—hard workers. When He talks about their “labor”, the word carries the idea of working to the point of sweat and physical exhaustion. I know that there are many of you who work like that in this church. And most of it is behind the scenes where most folks will never notice. I want you to know that I notice. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Jesus notices. He notices your hard and dedicated work. He notices your perseverance. How you faithfully stick to your calling no matter how people react and no matter what the results. Jesus notices—and He commends.
This church at Ephesus was full of hard workers. It was full of patient and longsuffering saints. But there was one thing they wouldn’t put up with. They wouldn’t put up with bad doctrine. They wouldn’t tolerate false teaching. See, late in the first century, there were false teachers who were creeping into the churches. They would come in the name of the apostles, but they were liars. As a matter of fact, it only got worse over the next few centuries. It got to the point that they even falsely wrote books and letters under the names of apostles. Many of those like the so-called Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas have popularly resurfaced over the past several years. They regularly make their way onto the History Channel and even into movies like the DaVinci Code. But the people of the church at Ephesus were smart enough not to fall for those kinds of lies. They had been so well taught that they could immediately recognize an imposter. And they wouldn’t put up with false teachers. Verse 6 talks about a group of false teachers called the Nicolaitans. Jesus commends them for how they completely rejected their false teachings. Extremely hard workers who loved the truth and hated false teaching and wouldn’t put up with it. You would think that would be a pastor’s dream come true. It probably would, but Jesus wasn’t pleased. So, why in the world was Jesus not pleased with them? Because verse 4 says that they had left their first love. They had become so focused on the work of the ministry. They had become so focused on the doctrinal purity of the ministry. They had forgotten the purpose of their ministry. Some people think this means that they had lost their love for Jesus. But really, it’s not that they had stopped loving Jesus with their head—they had stopped being excited about it. It goes back to what Jesus talked about in Matthew 24:12-14.
Jesus was talking about the end times. And one of the things that He says will happen is that the love of many will grow cold. Then He draws a contrast to that coldness by the heat of evangelism that’s shown in verse 14. The opposite of cold, dead, emotionless love is the fervent, passionate love of evangelism. This unevangelistic, cold, emotionless love is what was happening on a small scale in the Ephesian church. Their doctrine was as straight as a gun barrel. But their passion was just as hollow and empty. The Ephesian church had become internalized. They had their teaching and doctrine straight. That was great. They were extremely hard workers. Wonderful. But it never left the church. The whole point of the word “first” in the phrase “first love” is to show that they didn’t lose their love for Jesus. They lost the passionate emotional fervor that they had when they first got saved. They lost that kind of love that overflows into simple, heartfelt testimony. That kind of love that made them excited to learn. Excited to worship. Excited to teach. Excited to witness. That was what they lost. I want you to think about something for a minute. If you get nothing else out of this message, I want you to get this question into your head. I want you to look deep inside and ask yourself—was there ever a time in my Christian walk when I was more excited about Jesus than I am today? Has there ever been a time when you were more passionate about telling people about Jesus than you are today? That’s for you personally. What about for us as a church? Has there ever been a time when we as a church were more excited about reaching the lost than we are today? If so—and I believe that’s the case—then Jesus isn’t happy. As He walks in our midst this morning, He is saying the same thing to us that He said to Ephesus in verse 5. Look at verse 5:
The consequences are severe, aren’t they? Jesus told the church at Ephesus that if they didn’t come back to their first love again, He was going to remove their candlestick. Do you know what that meant? It meant that He was going to snuff them out as one of His churches. They were no longer going to be one of the churches He walked in the midst of. How horrifying that is. History tells us that the church of Ephesus continued on strong into the second century. But then they began to decline. Some later church councils met in Ephesus later on, but the church was little more than an old building. There was nothing left of the original, strong, doctrinally pure church. They just slowly died. You can imagine Jesus removing their candlestick and the flame slowly dying until not even a smoking wick or melted wax remained. So the question is, how do we keep that from happening to us? Both as individuals and as this local church? Do we do it by putting less emphasis on truth? No, Jesus commended Ephesus for their good and healthy emphasis on doctrine. Do we do it by putting less emphasis on hard work? No, Jesus commended them for their hard work too. So, what’s the missing ingredient? How do we get back to the place where Jesus wants us to be? Well, verse 5 holds the key. First, we must remember.
When Jesus said that the church at Ephesus needed to remember, do you suppose He was telling them to remember the things that Paul had written to them? Things like Ephesians 1:3-4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” Or like Ephesians 1:12-14, “That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ. In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.” Or maybe they needed to remember Ephesians 1:19-2:1, “And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” Have we forgotten what Jesus has saved us from? Are we so comfortable in our salvation that we’ve forgotten our passion? Have we forgotten what it’s like to be concerned for the lost? Just like the church at Ephesus, we’d better remember. Think back to that time when you were more excited and passionate and evangelistic than you are now. Think back and remember what it was like. Then, after you remember—repent.
Jesus said in verse 5, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent.” When you remember what Jesus saved you from. When you remember how that used to make you excited. When you remember the times in your past when you were more passionate about God’s saving grace than you are now… don’t just hold on to it like a precious memory. Jesus doesn’t call us to nostalgia. He doesn’t call us to look back on the good old days. He doesn’t call us to come up with all kinds of excuses why we don’t feel like that any more. He calls us to one thing. He calls us to repentance. If there is a time in your past when you were more passionate about telling people about Jesus than you are today—then you need to repent. If there was a time in this church’s past when we were more evangelistic than we are today—then we need to repent. Were we more involved in missions in the past? We need to repent. Were we more involved in church planting in the past? We need to repent. Were we more involved in local outreach in the past? We need to repent. Remember and repent. But that’s not where it ends. It’s not where it ends because not only does Jesus call us to remember and repent. He calls us to return.
Verse 5 says, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.” See, it’s not enough to just look back and talk about the good old days. It’s not even enough to feel bad about not being there today. It’s only enough if you repent. And repentance isn’t just saying, “Jesus, I’m sorry—please forgive me.” That’s not repentance. As a matter of fact, that’s not even confession. Because confession is seeing your sin the same way that God does. And God hates it. Hates it so much that He won’t have anything to do with it. Jesus hated the sin of Ephesus losing their first love so much that He was going to snuff them out as His church. That’s serious. That’s what it means to confess our sin. But even confessing isn’t enough. Only repenting is. Because repenting is an active turning away from that sin. An active turning away from sin and turning to Jesus. For Ephesus, that meant not losing the things that Jesus commended them for. They needed to hold on to their sound doctrine. They needed to continue to work hard. But they needed to turn back to their first love. They needed to remember everything that Jesus had done for them. They needed to repent for losing their passion and love and excitement in the community. And they needed to turn back to where they had been before. Go home and read Acts 19. See how on-fire the church at Ephesus had been for Jesus. See how they were such a witness to the community that people in the streets were confessing and repenting before the Lord. They were burning their books of witchcraft and evil practices that were worth over the equivalent of 50,000 days of the average worker’s wages. In today’s terms that would be over 4 million dollars’ worth of books. Can you imagine a revival like that? Can you imagine how a revival like that would change the very fabric of Mercer County and even West Virginia? It happened because the members of the church at Ephesus were passionately on fire for Jesus. And that was what Jesus was calling them back to. And that is what Jesus is calling us back to. Each of us as individuals. And all of us as a church. Are you ready? Are you ready to remember? Are you ready to repent? Are you ready to return? Today can be a new day for you. If you’ve looked back into your past and can’t remember a time when you were passionately excited about Jesus, you might not know Him. Because when Jesus saves you, He takes away your heart of stone and gives you a heart of flesh. He gives you new life. And new life always brings excitement. If you have never known new life in Christ, you can have it today. If you have known that joy and excitement of salvation, but it’s stuck somewhere back in your past… Jesus wants you to have it again today. You remember. He wants you to repent and return. Today’s the day to do that. Today’s the day for a fresh start. Either a fresh start with a new life in Christ or a fresh start with a renewed life in Christ.