Selected highlights from this sermon.
The church in Ephesus was doctrinally robust; they had even cast out false teachers. But while their minds were full, their hearts were empty. Their passion for God had been lost—they had forgotten their first love, and were reprimanded by Jesus for it.
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Well, my friend, today I begin with a question, “What does Jesus think of His church?” That’s the question. The question isn’t, “What does George Barna think of the church?” He’s an analyst; he does a great deal of analysis regarding church and culture. That’s not the question. It’s not the question of what church consultants believe about the church, though they may be helpful in certain situations. The question before us, very simply, is this. “What does Jesus think of His church, and more specifically, The Moody Church, or the church to which you belong?” What does He think of it?
Well, today we are in Revelation, chapter two. As we learned last time, John had this marvelous revelation from Jesus. Jesus comes, the scripture says, standing amid the candlesticks, and we learned that the candlesticks are the seven churches. By the time you get to chapter two of Revelation, he is not only standing among them, but he also walks among them. What does Jesus do on Sunday mornings? He comes to church. Oh, I know there’s a sense in which he’s everywhere and therefore simultaneously is omniscient and omnipotent and omnipresent, but there’s a sense in which Jesus Christ’s focus on the church is more important than say the political situation of the world because it is the church for which he died. Today he goes among the aisles; he’s up in the balcony and he’s observing, and what he’s looking for is the extent of our love, and that’s the agenda.
Why seven churches when we know that there were at least twelve churches in Asia Minor? These are representative churches. Every church that has ever existed since, in one sense, fits into one category or another, at least loosely. The churches represent various the churches throughout the history of the church and that’s why I encourage you, as you read, to ask yourself what one best describes our church. And so, with that background, we look here at the letter to the church at Ephesus.
By the way, it says “to the angel of the church,” and the word “angel” sometimes means messenger, and it may be that Jesus is thinking about the messenger of the church. It’s also possible that every church has an angel, one specifically assigned to a congregation. Some people think that the angel is the pastor. Well, that could be if he’s the messenger but between you and me and nobody else listening, this pastor is not an angel, but nonetheless, I receive the letter to the church at Ephesus, and really, at the end of the day, to us.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write these words of Him who holds the seven stars,” and the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. He not only has them in His hands but he holds them in His hands. Can you have a relationship that is any more direct than that? And then it says, “…and who walks amid the seven golden lamp stands amid the churches” here in the aisles and in the choir loft and in the balcony and all over. Jesus is walking in our midst.
Well, the letter begins actually with a word of commendation. He gives them a compliment. He says, “I know your works (by the way),” and He does know. He’s omniscient. He knows our motives. He knows whether we are late or early. He knows exactly what our motivations are. He knows like no consultant could possibly know. He says, “I know your works and your toil.” We put those together. In fact, the idea is that these people work – they labor - to the point of weariness. I’m sure that they helped the sick. They responded to those who were lonely.
They were a beehive of activity, just like Moody Church is from about 8:00 o’clock on on Sunday morning. By the way, at 7:00 o’clock, our men who have the responsibility for maintenance are out sweeping the sidewalks. If you don’t get here at 7:00 a.m. you’ll never see them do that. They are preparing the church, making sure that everything is in place for us.
The technical crew is praying here at about 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. asking God to help them because the technology is necessary for us to get the word out, and then the Sunday school teachers begin to arrive and all kinds of other things begin to happen. It’s a busy church, and the church at Ephesus was a busy church, but it was also busy outside of its walls, as we are, serving the Lord. What a church to be a pastor of – a beehive of activity.
I remember a pastor saying that he lived in a little town with a church where everyone from the town went to church and he used to go to the train station everyday to watch the train come in and leave, and then afterwards, he’d go home. Somebody asked, “Why are you here everyday doing that?” and he said, “This is the only thing in this town that moves that I don’t have to push.” He loved to see that train.
Well, there is a lot here at the Moody Church that I don’t have to push. Last night I read the entire bulletin with all of the opportunities for ministry. We’ve got so much going on. Thank God there’s much going on that I don’t have to push. You are like the church at Ephesus in your weariness and your toil and your perseverance.
You’ll notice it says, “patient endurance.” Now remember the context. The nineteenth chapter of the book of Acts tells us about the beginning of the church, and it is there where you have the great statue to the goddess Diana. Demetrius, who I believe was a silver-smith, made little shrines to the goddess and made his money that way, but then when the church began, people stopped buying these shrines, and so he put pressure on Paul and a riot began and Paul was chased out of the city. We are told that the goddess Diana is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Now you can imagine the Christians. They were marginalized; they were persecuted. They didn’t get the good jobs, just like many of us are fearing in America where freedom of religion is constantly being limited, and will eventually be limited to the human mind, it seems to be. What you find today is that through separation of church and state you dare not impose your views or even state them in certain contexts. The church has always had situations like that. That’s nothing new.
So the church was marginalized but they had patient endurance. In fact, notice that the text says that were working and they “tested those who called themselves Apostles and are not.” So, what you have is a busy church and a church that is doctrinally sound.
Again, and we don’t have time for it, but in Acts 20 when Paul said goodbye to the elders at Ephesus, he says, “Grievous wolves shall come and shall devour the flock. Take heed to the church of God which He purchased with His own blood and watch those false teachers.”
All right, fast forward. It’s thirty or forty years later now and the church heeded Paul’s warning and they routed out Paul’s teachers. “You discerned those who were false and you called them liars” and that’s what they are. We are living in a day of false teachers, particularly on television. Not everybody on television is a false teacher but they abound, and they have huge followings, and they make huge claims.
What were the false teachers saying, these Nicolaitans, which incidentally is a word that occurs later in the text and means “destroyer of the people.” They were saying things like this. “Because Jesus Christ suffered we don’t have to.” The false teachers were very much into oratory and huge fees for coming to speak. In fact, they criticized Paul because he would preach free and they said, “We won’t come unless we get money.” They were the money-baggers of their day, and they are all over television.
I remember seeing with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears one of these false teachers, who was so obviously false (it is just so unbelievable to me that people don’t get it), saying, “If you send me your mortgage from your house we will burn it and you’ll get a letter from your mortgage company saying that your house is paid for.” Really? About a year later I had lunch with a pastor in the city where this man has his ministry, and I asked, “What happened?” He said, “First of all, there were people who paid $2,000 to have him burn their mortgage, and after that they received letters from a collection agency telling them that they better pay up or lose their house.”
We are living in a day of huge deception, and I want to take my hat off to the church at Ephesus who discerned false prophets and called them liars, because they are out there. Have you ever noticed, by the way, that their crowds are largely poor people because these people are saying, “If I only had the faith of my guru; if I only had the same kind of great faith to speak myself rich.”? I mean I’ve heard people say, “Speak to your wallet and say ‘Be thou filled’.” I tried that, and I opened it and it was full of air.
Let’s commend this church. They discerned false prophets; they nailed them, and they said, “You are a liar.” (or “You are liars.”) Praise God for their doctrine. So here you have a church that is busy and that is doctrinally sound. It’s the kind of church every pastor wants to be the pastor of, and I might say it duplicates Moody Church.
Now, let’s go on. The text says, “But”. Whenever you see that word you have to say, “Oh-oh – ouch!” “But (verse four – a word of commendation now turns to a word of complaint) I have this against you that you have abandoned the love that you had at first.” Wow! “You’re doing it without love. I commend you for what you’re doing but where’s the love?”
When the church got started there was this enthusiasm; there was this sense of commitment to Jesus, this reckless abandonment in giving. People gave generously; they witnessed and they were a united community, and how important that is to have a strong church. You can’t have a church without community, and that’s what the church of Ephesus had, but now again we’re thinking of the Apostle Paul. In the book of Ephesians (the letter that he wrote to the church) he prayed for them - “…that your love may abound yet more and more, that you might know the height, the depths of the love of Christ,” he said.
And now thirty or forty years have passed and we’re talking about second generation Christians. We’re talking about children whose parents were on fire for God, but they themselves had not picked up the same zeal, so their love had grown cold and indifferent. They were still busy, still doctrinally sound and still active, but without the passion and love for Jesus.
Now what is it that makes us lose our first love - maybe not lose it but at least move away from it? “You have abandoned…” – that’s what my text says. “You have abandoned (that’s what my text says) your first love.” What makes us do that? In the Old Testament God says, regarding Israel, “I have chosen you as my bride.” He says, “I have loved you. I am your husband, but you have gone after other gods.” What will most assuredly ruin a marriage? It is to find another lover – someone else who steals your affections, someone else who draws your soul away from the person to whom you are committed. That’s what happens. James says in his book, “You adulterers and you adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity against God?” And there you have it – other lovers.
Jesus put it this way in one of his parables. He says that “the seed is sown and the cares of this world – the deceitfulness of riches (now there’s a phrase that I need to preach a message on) choke the word and it becomes unfruitful.” So there you have it.
Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I’m going to move away from my love for Jesus.” Nobody ever says that. It drifts - like the time my wife and I were on a ship and were talking to some people out on the deck and it was only later that we looked back to shore and realized that we’d already gone perhaps a mile. We didn’t notice it, and you don’t notice what happens in your life. The coldness sets in, the rationalization sets in, and before you know it, the fervency of your love is gone. You’re still doing it. You’re still into theology, you’re still into service, you’re still active, but the passion for Jesus has drained. Now it’s just a chore. It’s just work and no delight. Wow!
Well, we’ve looked at the compliment Jesus paid them, and then he gives them this complaint. “You’re hurting me because you don’t love me like you should,” and now he gives a command very directly. In verse 5 he says, “Remember therefore from when you follow me.” Just take out time and remember.
I remember when I was converted and how the next day it seemed as if I could do anything. I said to myself walking into my father’s garage, and I still remember this clearly, “I know God.” There was great sense of fervency. A friend of mine and I were so enthusiastic for Jesus that in high school we used to hitchhike. Now you can’t hitchhike nowadays but we used to do it, and we’d go to a town of about sixteen people and we’d take with us thousands of tracts that we had bought previously. Some of them were not very attractive. They were printed on cheap paper, and we’d go to a fair and we’d give thousands of them out as the people were leaving. That’s where I learned to preach. I remember out on the street corner we’d have people hassle us. We’d be out there because the love for Jesus was all that mattered. I look back now and I say, “Wow, I was pretty fervent back then. I hope I haven’t lost it,” but there’s a good chance that I’m moving away from it if I don’t repent as the Bible is going to tell me in just a moment.
What was it like when you received Christ as Savior - when just coming to church and coming to prayer meeting, and reading God’s Word was just your appetite, and now it’s gone? “Remember from whence you are fallen and then” Jesus said, “repent.” Now as I contemplated this it dawned on me that we would never be asked to repent from something unless it was a sin, so as you look into your heart today and as I look into my heart today, if there is coldness and indifference, it isn’t just something that you need to live with, or you need to adjust to. According to the Scriptures it is a sin that demands your repentance.
“Repent. That is sin.” Well, you say, “Pastor Lutzer, my heart is cold, but I have no idea what the cause could possibly be.” Well, I have frequently taken advice from one pastor who said that he had a parishioner come up and say, “Oh, my heart is so cold and I’m far from God, but I have no idea why (what it could be).” He said, “Get on you knees and guess at it. Just guess at it.”
Last night I spent perhaps ten or fifteen minutes in quietness before the Lord saying, “All right, Lord, what’s in here that I need to confess because I’m not loving Jesus as fervently as I should,” and I was amazed at what the Holy Spirit pointed out that I needed to confess and to repent of.
Give God five minutes; give Him ten minutes and you will discover why the love is drained and why the passion is gone – perhaps because of bitterness, perhaps because of an addiction, perhaps because of whatever – perhaps because of self-will which I see in my heart. Repent. That means change your mind. Call it sin. Don’t call it a weakness. Don’t blame your schedule. Just say, “I’m sinning here. My fervency and love for Jesus is gone.”
So the text says, “Remember, repent” and then it says, “Do the first works.” That’s what the text says here as it is before you. It says, “And do the works you did at first.” Now, the order here is very important. You don’t get your love back by doing the works that you did at first simply by beginning to pray, and beginning to read the Bible. That’s part of what you’ll have to do, but you’ll have to repent first because, you see, the love of God is not something that can simply be worked up. It is really a gift. “Whom having no seen ye love,” the Scripture says. In fact, a parenthesis is if you do not love Jesus at all, it is almost certain that you have never received Him as your savior.
I’m not talking just about the fact that you admire him. We’ve got people all over who admire Jesus, but do they love Him? It’s a mark of the new birth that we would actually love someone whom we’ve never seen, and yet the text says that’s exactly what God implants in our hearts when we are born of the Spirit. We can move from that love, but it’s been planted there by God, and then you do the works that you did at first. And then he says, “and if you don’t, I will remove your candlestick from its place – your lamp stand.” This is very serious stuff.
In recent years I’ve been studying why it is that the church was stamped out in North Africa because of Islam. At some time, when I have more time to study it out more directly I’m trying to find answers for that. Incidentally, all seven of these churches are in Turkey today, and there is no church essentially in any of these places. What happened historically is when the church this letter apparently they had a revival, and you can understand why. I mean if Jesus wrote a letter to Moody Church, and I were to say, “This is from Jesus and this is what he said,” we would take it so seriously that we would repent. I am sure that we would. Apparently they had a revival, but as time went on, and as the centuries progressed, having left and abandoned their first love they faded into oblivion, and you can go to Ephesus today where there is no church. No church can say, “We have a permanent place in the economy of God.” I say to myself, I say to Moody Church, and to future generations here, “Don’t take anything for granted.”
Now, Jesus says, “Remember,” and then he says, “if you are an over-comer,” and it appears, in this passage at least, as if all believers are overcomers because he says, “I have a place for you.” He says, “This you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let Him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers (there we are) I will grant to eat of the tree of life that is planted in the paradise of God.” This is the very tree that Adam and Eve were told they could not eat from (they were barred from eating it) and He says, “I will allow him to eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.” You can read more about this in Revelation, chapter 22, where it talks about the heavenly city and how you have this river, and on both sides of it you have this gorgeous description of heaven. Whether or not this is symbolic or literal, one thing is sure. To the person who overcomes, to the person who repents, they will have easy access, for all of eternity, to the tree of life symbolizing eternal life – not just eternal existence but life to the full.
Do you remember day-by-day when you go to work that eternity is coming? And after that flips through your mind, do you realize that eternity is a long time – really long?
Today as the National Christian Choir was coming down the stairs I said to someone, “Well, we get to walk down the stairs with you.” We walked with the choir members for a few moments, and I said, “I’d like to hear every one of your stories but,” I said, “that’s going to have to wait for heaven.” And they all agreed it would have to wait for heaven, but you know in heaven if you want to spend five years with Abraham, take your time. You know we’ve got all of eternity. We can get all the stories of the National Christian Choir and hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of others because you know eternity really is long.
“And to him who overcomes,” – to him who lives with the full recognition that Jesus is first and that all false lovers are confessed and forsaken, “to him I will give to eat of the Tree of Life, the paradise of God.” That is going to be great.
The bottom line is this. First of all I want you to remember that doctrine is not a substitute for devotion. They had the right doctrine, and I commend them, and I personally decry the lack of doctrine in our churches today. I think that eventually it’s going to weaken the church as we shy away from doctrine. It’s a very, very serious thing, but doctrine is no substitute for devotion.
There’s a man here – he’s probably here this morning – who was a pastor for many years, and he wouldn’t mind if I told you his story. In fact, if I asked him he’d come up and tell you it himself. He was a pastor. He preached the Gospel, he says, just as it is preached at Moody Church, and he was not born again until about six years ago, and he said, “To me it was justification by belief. You believed the right things,” but he said, “It never entered into my heart as an act of faith.” Wow! There are people like that who are doctrinally sound; they are right. Catch this now. They are right, but they are “dead” right. Do I have to say that again? They are “dead” right.
Years ago I learned the little ditty,
Here lies the body of William J.
Who died while maintaining his right of way.
He was right, completely right as he sped along,
But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.
Here at the Moody Church we want to hold to sound doctrine. We want Jesus to write the same part of the letter to us until you get to verse four. We want to hold the truth but not with an edge, not with a self-righteous edge, not with a judgmental edge. We want to always hold it with deep passionate devotion to Jesus.
And so remember that doctrine is no substitute for devotion, and remember that labor is no substitute for love. You can prove it there in the text. They’ve done all this and Jesus said, “Yes, but I have this against you, this complaint that’s hurting me. You’ve left the love that you had at first and all the work in the world can never make that up.”
The Bible says “We love Him because He first loved us.” Somebody said, “I asked Jesus, ‘How much do you love me?’ and He stretched forth His hands and He said, ‘So much.’ ” He stretched forth his hands and died on the cross.
Can we not love Him with fervency and get rid of the false idols and the false loves in our lives? Can we not do that so that we as God’s people can serve with passionate love for Christ?
Michael Thate is a young scholar who is on our staff here at the Moody Church as Missions Coordinator, and last Sunday evening he used an illustration. I said, “Michael, it would sure fit with what I’m doing” and he gave me permission to use it. He said that we should love Christ so much – this is as I remember the story – that if He doesn’t come for us, we’re proven to be fools because we risked everything for Jesus. Everything is risked for Jesus – our time, our talents, our money, our abilities, and our affections. Everything is risked for Jesus, and then he gave this illustration.
He says that a young woman says goodbye to her lover who goes to war, and then she lives a very pure life because she is keeping herself for him. She has the possibility of other suitors but she says no to them all because she is passionately in love with the man to whom she is betrothed. And so she spends her life helping others to see the glories of purity and commitment. Now if he doesn’t come back she may say to herself, “Well, I might just as well have accepted another proposal. After all I have waited.” In a sense she is a bit of a fool actually because she waited for him and kept himself for him when she could have had somebody else and maybe had a fling, but now don’t miss the point. The point is simply this. We know out lover is coming back. There’s no doubt about that.
Let’s risk everything for Him – everything, and in risking everything say, “We’re going to love Him passionately. We’re going to get back on track. We’re going to be servants in our work, but we’re going to be people who love Jesus, and in the process, love one another.” because you can’t love Jesus without loving His people despite all of their imperfections. It just can’t work. You love Him - you love others.
Gustav Dorr was a very famous painter in Europe and he painted a picture of Jesus. Someone said, “Oh, you must love Him to paint Him like that,” and Gustav Dorr said, “I do love Him, but if I loved Him more I could paint Him better.”
Can we as a church today commit ourselves to loving Him more so that we can paint Him better? Are you with me? Can we commit ourselves to that as a congregation? We’re not to lose our first love or else – or else!
Our Father, we want to thank you for this letter to the church at Ephesus and the letter to the church at Moody, and we ask, Father, that we might be a church that is active, that is doctrinally sound, but a church that is passionately in love with Jesus. May we risk everything for Jesus who has redeemed us.
How many of you say today, “Pastor Lutzer, God spoke to me and I have some things to make right so that I love Jesus as I should.”? Would you raise your hands please if you fit into that category? God bless you. All over the lower floor I see hands. What about in the balcony? Did God talk to you today? The scripture says, “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear.” Not everyone will hear. It’ll just blow past some people and they’ll say, “That was interesting.”
Oh Father, we ask today that you might do a work that is deep and lasting in my life and in the lives of the leadership of the church, and the lives of all who have listened today, whether directly by radio or the internet, or whatever. Father, may we love Jesus with our whole heart, and we ask that you shall fulfill the prayer that we are about to sing as a congregation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
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