The Revelation to John

Dec 15:                        A Love Grown Cold                 (Rev 2.1-7)

 

“They that see God cannot but praise him.  He is a Being of such glory and excellency that the sight of this excellency of his will necessarily influence them that behold it to praise him.  Such a glorious sight will awaken and rouse all the powers of the soul, and will irresistibly impel them, and draw them into acts of praise.  Such a sight enlarges their souls, and fills them with admiration, and with an unspeakable exultation of spirit” –Jonathan Edwards, “Praise, One of the Chief Employments of Heaven” (Thanksgiving Sermon, Nov 7, 1734)

 

We begin today’s class with an important principle from Jonathan Edwards, namely that in beholding the excellency of God we are drawn into acts of praise that affect the deepest and most remote compartments of our soul.  That is why we do Bible study. That is why we take Bible study one step farther and do Biblical theology, and farther still to systematic theology.  These are an attempt to behold God, grounded in the revealed word that he has given us, that we might behold him and be given “an unspeakable exultation of spirit.”  I have said this many times before, and I say it again.  THE KEY to spiritual growth lies not in applying Biblical principles to your life, but in beholding God and having his majesty and the depth of his love, mercy, kindness and righteousness transform the heart and reorient our desires. 

 

And yet even this pursuit can be corrupted and turned from its original end, as we shall see in our reading today, we see a church whose love has grown cold.  What is striking about this, is that their love grew cold when they were so well equipped to behold the majesty of God.  So there is a lesson for us here.  When knowledge of God becomes more important than God himself, then our doctrine has become our idol, replacing our “first love” with cold dogma.  May God save us from this!  Let us see what Jesus has to say to the church in Ephesus, and see how we might be turned from this sad situation.

 

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” (Rev 2.1)

 

In Eph 6.12 we read “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Also in John 8.12 we read “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  There are two important things to draw from this.  First, there is a spiritual force, active in this world described as darkness.  Second, we understand that this darkness is overcome by Jesus, who causes people who once walked in darkness to walk in light. 

 

This is important for understanding why Jesus describes the church as a “lampstand”.  In the daytime, you would not use a lamp, but only in darkness.  A biblical portrait of the world is a world immersed in the deepest darkness.  Darkness indicates things hidden, confused, and afraid.  These are the principal motivations of those who live in darkness.  People who walk in darkness hide their sin, are confused about purpose, meaning, and morality, and are fearful of both life and death, as they have nothing greater than life or death to give them security.  In the midst of this darkness stands the church, which is a “lampstand,” that burns brightly for the world.  In an old fashioned lamp, you would have glass covering an oil burning fire.  The glass magnifies the light and causes it to emanate further and more brilliantly.  Jesus, walking in the midst of the church, is a brightly burning fire, by which the church is meant to magnify him in the darkness of our present condition.

 

How is he magnified? 

 

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” (Rev 2.2)

 

There are many ways to magnify the Lord, but the Ephesians have done so in a few particular ways that we can look to and be instructed by.  Jesus says to the church in Ephesus, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance.”  Toil is the Greek word χοπος, which could be loosely translated “excessive labor united with trouble.”  What was their specific “labor” united with “trouble”?  We get a clue when we read “but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not.”  “Apostle” simply means messenger, or “sent one”, and it is important for the church to recognize something, Biblically speaking there is no neutral ground you are darkness or you are light.  At the church in Ephesus, there were men who came in authority, who said they were “sent ones”, but who were tested and proven to be darkness.  What does this have to say to the church in our day?  I think two things:

 

1)  Recognize that there are false apostles in the church.  There are people in the church right now, claiming to be “sent ones” who are nevertheless ministers of darkness.  Later on in our reading we see that Jesus commends the church in Ephesus for “hating the practices of the Nicolaitans” which Jesus says he also hates.  The Nicolaitans come us again, in 2.15 and they are specifically associated with sexual immorality.  In Pergamum, the city reflected the sexual ethics of pagan Rome.  The Nicolaitans were Christians, who advocated an accommodationist approach to the sexual ethics of the city.  That is, they made accommodations in the church for those who wanted to practice the loose sexual ethics of Pergamum.  This is to carve out and set aside a space for darkness in the church, a place where Jesus is not allowed to walk, because then we would no longer be accommodating!  It is to say, “Jesus is not welcome to be a light here!  He must leave!”  And while our current denomination struggles with accommodationist sexual ethics, like the Nicolaitans, we must not avoid accommodationist tendencies towards social justice, use of money, media consumption etc.  Jesus is a light that claims every aspect of the human soul, age, sexuality, gender, vocation, property etc. 

 

2)  Second, we must recognize that there are false apostles in culture.  There are “sent ones” in culture, who unlike the false apostles of Ephesus who claimed to be sent from Christ, the “sent ones” of today are most often those who have attained a height of cultural status where the culture presupposes that they are able to speak with authority.  In engaging this critical debate, perhaps we might turn to Francis Schaeffer for help.  Schaeffer urged Christian apologists to ask the right questions of such authorities.  Every person has a set of fundamental ideas. As an apologist for Christianity, it is your job to discover those ideas.   Ask your hearer to explain what he really believes. Ask him to identify the logical conclusions of his presumptions. Keep your ears open for inconsistencies between his conclusions and the real world, and help him recognise the tension in which he is forced to live if there are discrepancies between his beliefs and reality.  Schaffer refers to this process as ‘taking the roof off’. The Christian must lovingly remove the shelter of invalid beliefs and assumptions under which the hearer attempts to live his life — thereby making the truth of the external world apparent thus exposing a false apostle. 

 

The church in Ephesus proclaimed and defended the light of Christ faithfully, but along the way something went wrong.  We read:

 

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where 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.” (Rev 2.4-5)

 

How is this possible?  How could a church, who exposed darkness and defended the light of the church, be now threatened to have their light removed? 

 

1)  When doctrine does not lead to worship, doctrine is used improperly

 

2)  A church that loves truth but does not love Christ does not love truth

explanation:  Christ is truth personified.  You can love being “right” about Biblical interpretation and in matters of theology, and yet not love Jesus.  This subverts the power of the truth you are proclaiming to the extent that it is “no truth.”

 

3)  You can be “present” with someone and still be absent. 

In the garden, God calls to Adam: “where are you?”  Adam was present physically, but spiritually had departed.  You can be present in church, do and say all the right things but it doesn’t mean you “present”. 

 

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” 

 

The above words are meant to move the church in Ephesus to repentance.  As Horatius Bonar writes, commenting on this verse:

 

There are some words which smite like a hammer, or cleave like a thunderbolt—words of mere power and terror—words like those which broke forth in fire from Sinai. But the words of our text are words which drop as the rain, and distill as the dew; words which pierce, yet soften; which rouse, yet soothe; which wound, yet bind up; which combine the biting north wind and the healing south wind. Such are these.

 

The words of Christ both pierce and soften.  They call the church back once more to its purpose of loving Christ and magnifying his presence in the world.  Jonathan Edwards writes:

 

“There are two things needful in a person…there must be a sense of the great importance and necessity of mercy sought, and there must also be a sense of opportunity to obtain it and the encouragement there is to seek it.” – Jonathan Edwards, “Pressing into the Kingdom of God”

 

Jesus’ promise first draws our attention to the great importance of the mercy sought.  That is, the importance of obtaining the “Tree of life” (Gen 3.22, Rev 22.1-2).  The early church fathers always taught that the tree of life in the garden, was in fact Jesus.  It is significant that Paul remarks that Jesus died on a tree (Gal 3.13).  For the Christian, Jesus on the cross is the tree of life, his blood shed that nourishes the soul causing it to produce fruit.  Christians who have their theology squared away, but who struggle with loving God, must return to the cross because it is there that they first fall in love with the savior.  This is why Jesus promises them to eat of the tree of life.  In returning to him to be nourished by him, they will gain the reward and be given the desire of their hearts. 

 

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