One night deep in the dark days of the Depression, New York’s famous Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was presiding in night court when a man was found guilty of stealing a loaf of bread. The man said he needed the bread to feed his starving family.
“The law is the law,” said La Guardia, “I must fine you ten dollars.”
“I don’t have any money,” the accused said.
La Guardia took $10 out of his pocket and tossed it into the huge hat he used to wear.
“Mr. Bailiff,” La Guardia announced, “Here’s the fine. Now I am fining everybody in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a city where a poor man must steal bread in order to feed his family. Collect the fines and give them to this man!”
The bread thief left La Guardia’s night court with more than $40 in his hands, walking like a man in a dream.
Was strict justice done? Perhaps not.
What kind of fine would God mete out to us today for being in such a church of tremendous resources and yet missing the point of greatest need? What is God saying to us today? Are we not doing church, and doing it successfully, yet missing out on so much?
This morning I am beginning a series of messages from the first three chapters of the book of Revelation. This series will deal mainly with the message of Christ to the seven churches.
The book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave to Christ, who in turn sent it by His angel to John, who delivered it to the seven churches in Asia.
This book is meant to say something to Christ’s churches. The seven churches are seven specific churches in Asia but it also means that Christ is speaking to all His churches, now as well as then.
This book tells of the coming of Jesus Christ for His church. Just as Christ was preparing them then, so He is preparing us now. Should that make any difference in our lives and in the church? This is in reality what the book of Revelation is all about.
It is a book that describes the triumphant Christ for the church triumphant. It beautifully describes the church triumphant in eternity, in heaven, but it also describes the church triumphant now, in time, on the earth.
Revelation assures us that God has a plan for His churches, so He sends a special message to them. He is still building the church spiritually, adding to it, beautifying it, preparing it for the marriage supper of the Lamb, and calling the church to be triumphant.
Turn with me to Revelation 2:1-7 as we read his message to Ephesus and to us.
In these days that have all the characteristics of the last days, I believe Christ is calling His church back to Himself, truly to be the church He desires it to be. The church at Ephesus had that opportunity and so does ours.
The church was located at the capitol of the province of Asia, in a city that was a commercial and religious center. Ephesus was called “The Light of Asia.” It was an ending point for a great system of Roman roads that constituted the trade route westward. It was famous for the Temple of Diana, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was a “hotbed” of every false religious cult and superstition. It was in this city filled with paganism that God planted a church that became a powerful gospel light throughout Asia.
The church at Ephesus had a great Christian background, with the apostle Paul as its originator. During a two-year period he evangelized the whole province from this church. Timothy labored there, and John the apostle served as pastor before and after his exile to Patmos in his later years. Some of the most important parts of the New Testament are associated with Ephesus—the gospel of John, 1, 2, 3 John, the book of Revelation itself, the epistle to the Ephesians and Paul’s letters to Timothy.
To this great church the Lord Jesus Christ issues a strong call. Let us look at it from three directions.
He issues forth a call
He calls the church back to His Lordship. It is the same triumphant Christ who is described in chapter 1. He is the Christ of the churches, the Lord of the lamp stands. Notice where He is and what He is doing. He is in the midst of the seven churches and He is doing two things. First, he is holding the seven stars—the messengers—(some say angels or pastors of the churches in His right hand. The word “hold” is a strong word that means “to hold authoritatively.” How encouraging it is to be secure in Christ’s hand (John 10:28-29). Second, He is walking among the seven churches, not just standing. This speaks of His presence to His churches then and now. Matthew 28:20 is still strong with meaning, “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” So, He is administering to the churches, revealing Himself to them, reproving them, loving them, and ministering among them in every way He does.
He calls His church back because He is Lord.
He gives a commendation
Christ calls back His church for the sake of the life of the church (v. 2). The Lord of the church knows the life of the church. The word “know” emphasizes that He has an absolutely clear vision of all that is happening in the churches. He sees us clearly.
The church is commended as active and energetic. They had many activities in the church, as seen from their “works.” They were in business for the Lord. They were not like the church that sent in its report of its year’s work. No baptisms, none by letter, no deaths, and no gifts to missions. Then at the bottom of its report, a note was added, “Brethren, pray for us that we will hold our own.”
The church is commended for its labor. This is not a repetitious statement because a different word than “works” is used. It is the word for toil and working at a cost. It is the type of toil that is required in a spiritual harvest of people (John 4:38). We tend to take the Great Commission lightly, but it requires blood, sweat, and tears.
It is commended for its patience. Things were not easy for this church in this pagan city because they were confronted with all kinds of trials, yet they were patient. They accepted their difficult situation triumphantly.
We need to remember that patience is developed through trials.
Though our culture shuns hardship, we would do well to remember that God uses it “for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10) (GF 1067).
Remember that patience is developed through trials. Do you want patience? Do you pray for it? When you do, watch out! The Lord will really test you, by giving you difficult situations. This is how patience grows.
The church is commended for its sensitivity to evil. They could “not bear them which are evil.” The word “bear” has the idea of the refusal to let evil have control. They were sensitive to representatives of evil. This is God’s will for the church in all ages.
Vance Havner, one of our greatest preacher-prophets, said:
Some Christians who once championed sound doctrine beat a retreat once in a while and from stratospheric heights announce that they will not “stoop to controversy.” When a man contends for the faith in New Testament style, he does not stoop! . . . Contending for the faith is not easy. It is not pleasant business. It has many perils. It is a thankless job, and it is highly unpopular in this age of moral fogs and spiritual twilight. This is a day of diplomats, not prophets. It is nicer to be an appeaser than an opposer. It is the day of Erasmus, not Luther; of Gamaliel, not Paul.
The church is commended for its spiritual discernment. John says they “have tried them . . . and hast found them liars.” First John 4:1 says, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God . . . “This is necessary lest there be “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” as Jesus warned.
The church is commended for its endurance. In v. 3 Jesus said they had “borne.” This is the same word as in v. 2 but in respect to the sufferings they experienced as Christians.
While some feel John wrote this to persons suffering under the persecution of Nero, others feel that he wrote during the persecution of Domitian. I personally feel that the latter is correct.
Domitian was simply unbelievable. Unlike Caligula who was an insane devil, Domitian was a sane devil, which is even more dangerous. He was cold blooded and particularly hated Jews and Christians. He demanded that he be addressed, “Our Lord and God Domitian” or die.
What were the Christians to do? Many called Domitian, “Our Lord and God.” Many died. The anti-Christian spirit was at work.
The church at Ephesus was commended for its endurance.
How do you endure? –By the motivation of the name of Jesus Christ. It is His saving, sufficient, victorious name that enables us to keep on for Him.
The church is commended for its determination. They hadn’t fainted. They wouldn’t quit. They purposed to accomplish God’s goals in God’s time regardless of the opposition.
In light of these commendations, the church at Ephesus was a great church! It possessed commendable qualities, but it still needed to be called back to Christ because one aspect of the life of the church was missing! And for any church it is the most essential characteristic. It is first love. A church can have it and lose it.
He utters a condemnation
Something had happened in the life of the church that had left them cold, mechanical, and routine. They were not experiencing the love of God as they once were. First love was missing! And it can happen to any Christian.
The Lord of the church is calling the church back to its first love, for the sake of the life of the church.
He gives a command
The Lord Jesus calls his church back for the lessons we must learn. A church can sin away its opportunity. Jesus warns. “ . . . or else I will come . . . quickly, and will remove thy (lamp stand).” This coming is not His coming again, but His coming in special judgment upon the church. He can remove the church as a testimony for Christ. This is more than a fifty cent fine, isn’t it?
We are a lamp stand and we make up the body of Christ, so we are the ones who are judged by the Lord of the church. This later happened at Ephesus. May it never happen to us.
Let us renew our commitment to be the salt and the light. Even Adolph Hitler recognized that the Christian church must be different in order to be great. In his book “Mein Kampf,” he stated:
The greatness of Christianity did not arise from attempts to make compromises with those philosophical opinions of the ancient world which had some resemblance to its own doctrine, but from the unrelenting and fanatical proclamation and defense of its own teaching.
The one thing that Jesus wants for His church above all else is love. Why was Ephesus such a great church as seen in Acts 19 and 20? What makes the church the church? What makes it the moving, mighty, meaningful body of Christ Jesus’ answer is that it is love—a church filled with love!
Love is Jesus’ new commandment (John 13:35). It is our love relationship to Jesus that He questions (John 21). Love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Love is cultivated as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Love is the more excellent way of the Lord (I Corinthians 13). Without love, we are nothing.
I agree with Isaac Watts who said, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Love can be renewed in our hearts. This is what v. 5 truly means, “Remember . . . repent . . . and do.” We can have the fresh touch of love upon our lives. “Remember” how it used to be in your life, in the happy days. “Repent!” Realize the need in your heart. Confess the wrongs in your life. Turn your life over to Jesus Christ. Let the Holy Spirit fill you with love. “Do” the first works in the power of the Spirit and return to the Lord. Take whatever steps you need to take to make sure things are right with Him and everyone in your life.
This is the call of Christ to His church today. Lord, renew our first love in our hearts.
Frank S. Page is president and CEO of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.