When Jesus Comes to Church
If Jesus visited your church, what would he say about it?
Would he be impressed by the things that impress others?
Would he comment on your buildings?
Would he mention the size of the congregation?
Would he notice how much money was given last week?
Would he feel like an outsider?
Pastors always feel a bit nervous when someone says, “I visited your church last Sunday and . . ."
It’s what comes after the “and” that worries us.
What if Jesus himself dropped by?
Would the pastor wish he had worked harder on his sermon? (The answer is yes.)
What if Jesus himself dropped by?
Many years ago John Stott wrote a fine little book called What Christ Thinks of the Church based on the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. The book itself is excellent, but it is the title that catches our attention.
What does Jesus think about the church?
What does he think about the church you attend?
Thankfully, we are not left to wonder about the larger question. With this sermon we are beginning a seven-part series on the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3. Because the letters are short, we’re calling this series Email from Jesus. In these seven letters our Lord pays a pastoral visit to seven different first-century local churches. In each case he tailors a message fitting to that congregation in that place at that moment in history. These were all actual churches in Asia Minor (the western part of modern-day Turkey) struggling with persecution and the temptation to moral and spiritual compromise. Some (like Smyrna) faced more persecution than others. Some (like Thyatira) faced great issues of moral debauchery inside the church. The church in the most enviable position economically (Laodicea) receives the harshest warning from the Lord.
Reading Revelation 2-3 is like reading someone else’s email. These are real churches filled with real people struggling with real problems. Though 2000 years separate us from them, their issues are not much different from ours. As we go through these seven letters, we will see ourselves and our churches in a new light.
We need this series because it’s easy to think that as long as the church is busy, everything must be okay. I have had plenty of time to think about this because the largest part of my ministry has been spent in the local church. As I look back on those many years spent pastoring in California, Texas, and Illinois, I have plenty of good memories and not too many regrets. I do remember many times when I wondered, “How are we really doing?” It’s hard to know the answer to that question when you are in the trenches. We tend to figure out the answer by the numbers: counting nickels and noses, as they say. And those things do matter. The money we give says something important, and the number of people who show up says something. People vote with their pocketbook and with their feet every Sunday. We measure our churches that way.
These are real churches filled with real people struggling with real problems.
Jesus evidently doesn’t.
That’s a bit of a shock.
So what is Jesus looking for when he comes to church? These seven letters provide an important answer.
With that as background, we can begin. The first letter went to Ephesus, a major league city in the ancient world. Because of its location as a port city on the shores of the Aegean Sea, it was in many ways the marketplace of Asia. It was also home to the Temple of Artemis (also called Diana), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Three major roads met in Ephesus, making it a gateway to the Roman provinces to the east. The city was a bustling cosmopolitan center, a place where the Apostle Paul spent over two years establishing a thriving church (Acts 19). Later he wrote the New Testament letter of Ephesians to this congregation. Over the years the church had been taught by Paul, Apollos, Timothy, and and eventually by John. Hardly any church in the first century had it so well.
A Word of Commendation
The letter from Jesus opens with a reminder that Jesus is fully qualified to write because he “holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands” (v. 1). The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. The seven lampstands are those seven churches (Revelation1:20). This is a good word for beleaguered pastors and other church leaders who feel like they are under a microscope constantly. Never fear. You are held by the Lord himself. He knows you, he sees you, and he has not forgotten you.
There was much to commend about the church at Ephesus. "I know your deeds” (v. 2). They had great zeal for the Lord. This was a busy, hard-working, service-oriented congregation. They didn’t just sit around patting each other on the back. They were eager to serve the Lord. They had a church calendar filled to overflowing with events, programs, meetings, and a whole variety of outreaches to the community.
But that’s not all. They would not tolerate false teachers (v. 2). We would hardly ever hear this said about a church nowadays. If a pastor says that Jesus is the only way to heaven, he is widely regarded as a bigot. Let a Christian teacher speak out against gay marriage, and she will almost certainly get in trouble and she might lose her job. Today it’s much more fashionable to keep your negative views to yourself. After all, we don’t want to risk offending the very people we’re trying to reach.
If a pastor says that Jesus is the only way to heaven, he is widely regarded as a bigot.
The church at Ephesus evidently didn’t have that problem. They tried the “false apostles” and threw them out of the congregation. They also rejected the teaching of the Nicolaitans, a strange sect in the early church that taught that “freedom in Christ” meant you had the freedom to sin with impunity. They wanted the church to be religiously pluralistic. They wanted to hook up with the surrounding paganism. They were the ones who compromised on sexual purity, saying things like “My body’s mine, I can do with it whatever I want and still be in good standing with God.” Note that Jesus actually says he “hates” the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (v. 6). That’s very politically incorrect for Jesus to talk like that. The Jesus of popular imagination loves everyone and would never hate anyone or anything. But that Jesus is not the Jesus of the New Testament.
he Jesus of popular imagination loves everyone and would never hate anyone or anything. But that Jesus is not the Jesus of the New Testament.
Moreover, the church had endured persecution and had not grown weary. The church in Ephesus had many enemies. Nothing has really changed in 2000 years. Today we read about Coptic Christians in Egypt being killed by the police. In Iran Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani is in jail, having been sentenced to death for apostasy by becoming a Christian and then refusing to deny his faith. His eloquent letter from jail has been posted online. Here is a portion of what he wrote:
What we are bearing today, is a difficult but not unbearable situation, because neither he has tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does he do as such. And as we have known from before, we must beware not to fail, but to advance in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, And consider these bumps and prisons as opportunities to testify to his name.
We might call that an “Ephesians faith” because it’s exactly what our Lord commends in his message to this church.
What a great church it was. Hard-working, Bible-centered, courageous, filled with folks who can take the heat and never give up. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a church like that?
But there is more to the story.
A Word of Rebuke
When Christ looks at a church, he peers beneath the surface to see the underlying reality. In this case all the good the church was doing was overshadowed by a sad reality.
What a great church this was!
They had left their first love (v. 4).
They didn’t love Jesus very much at all.
Somehow in the midst of all their godly busyness and all their standing for the truth, somehow, somewhere along the way, they had left Christ out of their church.
Is that possible?
It must be possible because that’s what happened at Ephesus. One wonders if Paul sensed this problem thirty years earlier when he wrote to the Ephesians and prayed that they, "being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ" (Ephesians 3:17-18). Did Paul sense way back at the beginning that this great church might be lacking in the love department?
Christ knew they didn’t love him.
Here is the saddest part.
Christ knew they didn’t love him.
Perhaps as John recorded these words of Jesus, he remembered another time, many years earlier, when Christ asked Peter not once, but three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17). Peter, embarrassed and ashamed because of his betrayal in the courtyard, blurts out what any of us would have said,
“Lord, you know that I love you!”
What happened to Peter could happen to any of us. I suspect that what happened in Ephesus is even more likely among us. How easy it is to substitute knowledge for a warm heart toward Jesus. How quickly we justify our hard hearts by pointing to all our well-intentioned religiosity.
How easy it is to substitute knowledge for a warm heart toward Jesus.
I ran across this quote from Michael Horton that seems to apply equally to the Ephesians and to us: “We can lose Christ by distraction as easily as by denial.” I think that’s what happened in Ephesus. They got distracted away from Jesus, and in the process they lost him.
But Jesus won’t be fooled.
In verse 5 he gives them a simple yet deeply challenging prescription:
Remember how it used to be.
Repent–change your mind and your heart.
Repeat the first works.
This strikes me as an eminently sensible prescription because it assumes an important spiritual truth. You don’t regain your first love overnight. Ask any couple that has gone through a marital crisis. A marriage doesn’t deteriorate overnight, and it is not restored overnight.
Healing takes time.
You don’t regain your first love overnight.
So it is in the spiritual realm. And it all begins with a good memory. "Remember the height from which you have fallen!” (v. 5) Pondering what you once had can be a good thing if it leads you to practical action. I have often told people struggling spiritually that they need to take “tiny steps toward the light.” If you keep on walking in the right direction, soon you will walk out of the darkness and into the blazing light of God’s love.
We all would prefer a quick prayer at the altar. In this age of instant-everything, no one wants to wait. We want the quick fix that will instantly make everything right. The words of Jesus remind us that while healing is possible, it must begin in the heart and in the mind.
When Jesus met a man who had been an invalid for 38 years, he asked him a penetrating question:
“Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6).
In this age of instant-everything, no one wants to wait.
Why would he ask a question like that?
I think Jesus is probing at the level of the will. He is saying, “Do you really want to be changed?” If the answer is yes, then miracles can take place. If the answer is no, then even Jesus cannot help you.
We all face the same challenge today. Are we so comfortable where we are that we don’t want to change? If so, then Jesus has nothing more to say to us. But if we feel the stirring of God within, then we will do what Christ prescribes in Revelation 2.
Are we so comfortable where we are that we don’t want to change?
We will ponder our past blessings.
We will repent of our self-centered living.
We will do the “first works” again.
I find it fascinating that Jesus doesn’t specify the “first works.” It is so tempting for the preacher to give his favorite “to-do” list at this point, usually very good things like Bible reading, prayer, meditation, worship, and so on. But when asked to name the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40), Jesus summarized the whole law in twp sentences:
Jesus doesn’t specify the “first works.”
Love God with all your heart.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
That will suffice for us too. Do loving actions and soon loving feelings will follow. We often tell unhappy spouses, “Act as if you love your spouse even when you don’t feel like it.” We say that because it’s easier to act yourself into a new way of feeling than to feel yourself into a new way of acting.
A Word of Warning
We must not skip the solemn words of Jesus in verse 6: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” The lampstand represents the approval of God on the church itself. No church has an unlimited claim on God’s blessings. Any church may have its “lampstand” removed by the Lord.
Do loving actions and soon loving feelings will follow.
Let me ask a question for which I have no answer. How does a church know when its lampstand is removed? I suggest that the church itself would never know because in one sense nothing would change. God would take his hand off the church and everything would continue a usual.
The preacher would preach.
The choir would sing.
The lights would shine.
The sound system would work.
The Sunday School would meet.
The ushers would collect the offering.
The worship team would lead.
The people would clap.
The deacons would pray.
The teens would have their get-togethers.
And God would not be there. It would be religion without reality, preaching without power, and church without Jesus.
It would be religion without reality, preaching without power, and church without Jesus.
It is a sad fact that the church at Ephesus eventually ceased to exist. It simply was no more. But perhaps that is better than to continue as a church when Jesus is absent.
A Word of Invitation
And so we come to the ultimate question. Are we listening to what God is saying? Each of the seven letters includes this sentence: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 6). Do we have ears to hear? Or are we already too distracted by the noise of the world? The Christian faith is a religion of the ears-of hearing the Word of the Lord. God is speaking. Are we listening?
The message to the church at Ephesus ends with this promise to the overcomers. “I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (v. 7). The word paradise speaks of the personal presence of the Lord Jesus. It’s what Jesus promised to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). If we are faithful in this life, we will know Jesus intimately in the next life. No one really knows or can say exactly what that means, but it must be wonderful. In that day we will never regret having loved the Lord in this life.
If we love him here, we will love him more there.
If we love him here, we will love him more there.
If we rejoice here, we will rejoice even more there.
To those who are faithful, Christ promises continued, intimate fellowship in paradise, sustained at the “tree of life” throughout eternity.
During a period of illness in 1856 Elizabeth Prentiss jotted down a poem that she later showed to her husband who published it in a pamphlet. When Howard Doane saw the words, he put them to music that became a beloved gospel song. The first verse expresses her earnest desire:
More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
The second verse describes the prayer the church at Ephesus needed to pray:
Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest;
Now Thee alone I seek, give what is best.
This all my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ, to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
The second line of the second verse sums up so much of what we need to hear today: “Now Thee alone I seek, give what is best.” As we end our study of the first message to the seven churches, let it be in the spirit of this old gospel song:
More love, O Christ, to Thee, more love to Thee!
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