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Billboards are an effective marketing tool. When you’re driving down the road you can’t help but see these huge signs. You can’t help but read what they say. That’s why they work.
One advertising company in Florida decided to use their billboards to launch a publicity campaign for God. Maybe you’ve seen some of their signs. Typically they’re white lettering on a black background, and they feature a short statement attributed to God. For example, one reads…
"What Part of "Thou Shalt Not..." Didn't You Understand?" -God
"Loved The Wedding, Invite Me To The Marriage" -God
"Let's Meet At My House Sunday Before the Game" -God
While the signs are cute, I’m not sure how effective they are at reaching people. I suppose they might at least provide a conversation starter for Christians who want to talk to people about God.
But what if God himself chose to communicate to people like this? With a direct message posted for them to see? But instead of renting out time on a billboard, what if God took up pen and paper, and wrote a detailed message for Redemption church? A letter he would use to address things that are going on in our fellowship right now?
Would God have words of praise for us? Words of rebuke? What direction would he write to us? What encouragement?
In the book of Revelation, Jesus himself dictates seven messages for seven churches. The apostle John was directed to write these messages down in a book, and make sure it got to the leaders of the seven churches.
Today we’re going to open a letters and see what Jesus had to say to one of the churches of Asia minor. May the Holy Spirit open our minds to hear, and to take to heart what he says. Amen.
Jesus’ first letter is directed to the group of Christians who were meeting in the city of Ephesus. So, before we open this letter, I’d like to start with a little history.
The city of Ephesus was located in Asia Minor. It was a big city, boasting somewhere around 300,000 inhabitants. To put that into perspective, if Ephesus were located in Washington state it would be the second largest city—second only to Seattle.
Because of its port, Ephesus was an economically important city to the Roman Empire. It was also a religiously important. Besides its three temple dedicated to emperor worship, Ephesus also housed the great and mighty Temple of Artemis. This temple was classed among the seven ancient wonders of the world. It’s footprint was larger than a football field. It’s foundation was white marble slabs, the largest of which measured about 10 feet by 6 feet by 5 feet.
One traveler, who had seen the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Pyramids of Egypt said that when he finally set eyes on the Temple of Artemis, all these others wonders were “put in the shade”.
The apostle Paul first visited Ephesus on his second missionary journey. This first visit was short, he just stopped by town. But when he came back through town on his third missionary journey, Paul ended up staying for two years.
There were great opportunities for spreading the message of Jesus in Ephesus, but there was also great opposition.
Paul started by preaching the message of Jesus to the Jews in the local synagogue. But after three months, it became clear that the Gospel was no longer welcome there. After two years of preaching at the hall of Tyrannus, and from house to house, the Gospel had made such an impact that silversmiths who sold idols of Artemis started a riot to have Paul thrown out of the city. In one of his letters Paul describes his time in Ephesus as a time when he did battle with wild beasts (1 Corinthians 15:32).
Yes, there were great opportunities there for spreading the Gospel, but also great opposition.
Ephesus was highly religious, but that wasn’t always a good thing. Most of the religions were pagan cults. And it seems like everyone had an angle to play. The silversmiths wanted to make money. Traveling sorcerors wanted to use the name of Jesus as a magic charm. And some wanted to bring the teachings of other temples into the Christian church and blend them together. But still the message of sins forgiven through Christ grew and flourished. At one point a group of converts to Christianity publicly burned their magic scrolls. And when they tallied up how much these scrolls had been worth it totaled 50,000 silver pieces. That’s about two life’s wages.
This was the city of Ephesus. Huge. Rich. Full of pagan temples and false teachers. And now, home to a group of people who had come to trust that the resurrected Jesus was the Son of God, and their Savior from sin.
To these people Jesus wrote the following…
Revelation 2:1-7 (ESV)
2 “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.
2 “ ‘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. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 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. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”
Jesus begins by describing himself as the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, and who walks among the seven golden lampstands. In the chapter before this one, John saw a vision of in which Jesus was indeed walking among seven golden lampstands, and holding seven shining stars in his right hand.
There Jesus explained that these seven stars stand for the seven leaders of the churches in Asia minor. One of them stood for the pastor of the church in Ephesus. The golden lampstands were the churches themselves, where the precious people of God held up the light of the Gospel.
The message of the vision was one of comfort. To the pastors it said, “Don’t worry, I hold you in my hand. It is MY power that will enable you to do the work I ask you to do.” And to the churches the vision said, “Don’t worry, I still walk among you. I can see all that you are going through, I see all.”
This is why Jesus can tell the Ephesian Christians that he KNOWS their works. He has witnessed them firsthand. He’s seen how hard they’ve been working for him. He’s seen how they’ve persisted in the faith, even though they live in a city full of false religions and false teachers. Jesus has taken special note of the fact that they refuse to put up with wicked people, and they test every new teacher who comes their way to make sure he’s preaching what the Bible says.
The Ephesians had been STEADFAST, holding TIGHTLY to the teachings they’d been given. But, Jesus has one bone to pick with them. He says their love has grown cold. They no longer love like they did at the beginning.
Now, it’s good to remember that we’re reading someone else’s mail here. We don’t know exactly what Jesus is referring to when he says that they’ve “abandoned the love” they had at first. But you know, we don’t really need to know the exact details. We know how the love of Christ works. First John 4, verse 19 says…
“19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:19-20 ESV).
When we see how much God cherishes us, so much that he sent his precious and only Son to die for us, that love moves us to respond with love. With love toward God, and love toward others. It’s that simple.
As sinners we do all sorts of things that have to do with hate. We say ugly things. We lie. We do hurtful things. But through the Gospel of Christ we have been introduced to a huge and unbelievable love. The Son of God cared for us so much that he humbled himself, became human, lived a painstakingly perfect life, suffered hell for our every sin, and died to give us forgivnesss and eternal life. This is love.
And when we truly grasp, truly believe, that the Son of God did all this for us, love begins to grow inside us. And that love begins to reach out, not only to God who saved us from hell, but also to the people who we interact with every day.
But in Ephesus, their love had started to grow cold. They were steadfast in keeping the word of God pure. They didn’t let false teachers fool them into abandoning Christ. They bore up under whatever persecutions came their way. But along the way they started to drift away from the love of Christ. They started to treat the Gospel like it was just a message to guard, not a message to LIVE and message to CHERISH.
Through a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy we get insight into some of the things that were going on in Ephesus. In First Timothy 1, verse 3 Paul writes…
“3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:3-7 ESV).
Apparently, Timothy had been successful in his work. The church at Ephesus had been led away from false teachings and pointless speculation. But we see in these words of Paul a general attitude that was growing among the Ephesian Christians. Our religion is mostly about having the right doctrine, not so much about living out the Gospel of forgiveness through our daily conversations and interactions with those around us.
Jesus had a sharp warning for the Ephesian Christians. Go back to the love you first had, or your lampstand will be taken away. When the love of Christians grows cold, when religion becomes an academic exercise, when religion is just about being right—then there is real danger of losing the faith altogether. Being doctrinally steadfast, but unloving, is not the way of Christ.
But Jesus doesn’t just sound the warning, he also lays out the path to restoration for the Ephesian Christians. Look again at verse 5. Jesus says…
“5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first…” (Revelation 2:5 ESV).
Jesus says, Dear Christians, first you need to look back. REMEMBER how excited you were when you first learned that your sins would not condemn you to hell. Remember what it felt like when you learned that God LOVED you so much that he bought you back with the precious blood of his SON. REMEMBER.
Next, Dear Christians, REPENT. That is, turn around. Turn away from your loveless I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong mentality. Guard against false teaching, but do it out of loving concern for your fellow Christians, and out of loving concern for the people who don’t know about the gift of forgiveness found in Christ’s cross. REPENT.
And finally, Dear Christians, RETURN to the way you used to be. Do the things you used to do. Learn to love again, with a love like the one I have for you. RETURN.
Along with his serious rebuke, Jesus also offers the Ephesians a Gospel promise. In verse 7 Jesus says…
“To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7b ESV).
The one who conquers isn’t the person who succeeds in winning all their battles against sin and temptation. None of us do that. In one of his letters, the apostle John writes…
“Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:5 ESV).
Those who trust in the Lord Jesus, are those who conquer.
It would be Jesus who would reinvigorate the Christians at Ephesus. It would be the message of his grace and forgiveness that would move them to love again. And it would be HIS LOVE FOR THEM that would bring them to eternal life in the end.
So, this letter was written to the fellowship of Christians at Ephesus. But how much of it applies to our fellowship at Redemption Church? Do we deserve the same commendation? The same rebuke and warning?
If Jesus were writing directly to us would he say, “I’ve seen how hard you’ve been working for me?”
Would he say, “You’ve tested each of your leaders by comparing their message with the Bible?”
Would he commend us with the same words, “I’ve seen how patiently you’ve endured for my name?”
Would he find fault with us like he did with the church at Ephesus? Would he say, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first?”
We don’t need a billboard written by the hand of God to shock us on the roadside. And we don’t need a letter addressed specifically to us from the hand of Christ. We have the letter that he wrote to the Ephesians. It was indeed written specifically for them, but it was also written for our learning. And we CAN take to heart the things that are written here. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to ponder these questions, and to re-center our lives closer to the cross, closer to the message of forgiveness through Christ—as individuals, and as a church.
Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, you send us leaders to guide us with your Word. Help us never to become complacent. Teach us to pour over your word and hold our pastors and spiritual leaders to teaching only what is found in Scripture. Lord Jesus, we believe that you walk among us, unseen, and you view all that we say and do. Forgive us for the times we have not been steadfast with your word. Lead us to hold tightly to what it says without wavering. Forgive us for the times we have not endured patiently, but have grown tired of speaking a message that much of the world disagrees with. Forgive us for the times we have lived out our faith with a chip on our shoulder, instead of speaking the truth in love to those who need to know of your everlasting love. Open our hearts to hear your direction. Lead us to be, as Paul says, “more than conquerors through Him who loved us”. And carry us, by faith in your all atoning sacrifice, to the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Amen.