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Revelation 2:1-11: First Love Until Last Breath Print E-mail
Sunday, 19 February 2012

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Over the next few weeks we will be looking at the letters written to the seven churches in Asia.  I believe these are real letters written to real churches.  As we stated last week, they were made up of believers who were facing real persecution from the Jews and the Romans.  They had various temptations and struggles.  Thus, the Lord addresses them individually in chapters 2-3 of the book.  Each letter, though different in its details, follows a similar pattern: introduction/description of Jesus, positive/negative statements, commands/instructions, and results/conclusion.  Although each letter does not contain every section, they all follow the basic pattern.  We will seek to follow this outline as we look at the letters over the next few weeks.  The main theme of the letters is what we identified last week, namely faithful endurance to the end.  Even though we often think of the ‘New Testament churches’ as great examples for us to follow, we need to see that these churches had some serious weaknesses.  In fact, five of the seven are rebuked and called to repent for their disobedience.  Only two (Smyrna and Philadelphia) contain no negative statement and both of these were facing severe persecution.  Perhaps we need to think a little harder about what it means to be a ‘New Testament church.’

This morning we are looking at the letters to Ephesus and Smyrna.  Following the outline that we just mentioned, let’s consider what the Lord says to these churches.

The Letter to Ephesus (v. 1-7)

The introduction to the letter is found in verse 1a.  Look at that with me.  Ephesus was the most important of the cities and so it is addressed first.  It has a rich history in the New Testament and one of Paul’s letters was written to this church.  Each of the letters is addressed to the angel of the church.  It’s hard to know what this is referencing but most think that it symbolizes the prevailing spirit of the Church or some sort of representative for the Church (human or angel).  Either way, all agree that the letters were to be read and followed by the churches themselves.

Christ uniquely identifies himself in each letter.  Look at how he does this in this letter in verse 1b.  Following the vision in 1:12-16, Christ identifies himself in two ways.  First, he is the One who holds the seven stars in his right hand.  We were told (see 1:20) that the stars represent the angels.  Christ upholds these representatives, providing for and protecting them.  Second, he is the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands.  The lampstands are symbolic for the seven churches (again see 1:20).  Thus, Jesus is telling them that He is among them, watching them and keeping an eye on them.  He is in their midst. 

Next, we see the body of the letter which contains both positive and negative statements about the Church.  First, the positive, look at verses 2-3.  The Lord knew of the Church’s toil and patient endurance.  Their toil involved addressing the false teachers that were present in the Church.  They did not bear with them, but tested them and found them to be false.  Jesus goes on to commend them for their dealings with the Nicolaitans.  Look at verse 6.  Whoever these groups were and whatever they taught, it is clear that it was contrary to true Christianity.  They claimed to be apostles but they were not.  They were false teachers.  The Lord commends the Ephesians for recognizing their errors.  Likewise, He commends them for enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake.  They were willing to suffer for the Lord and endure for His glory.  For these works the Lord commends the Church in Ephesus.

Yet, they are not doing everything right.  The Lord corrects them in verse 4.  We are familiar with this critique of ‘forsaking your first love,’ but what does it mean in this context?  The most likely interpretation is that the Ephesian believers had lost their love for God expressed in their love for one another.  Sure, they had dealt with the doctrinal problems, but they had not remained faithful in their love towards their brothers and sisters in Christ.  They had developed a “harsh zeal”  that kept them from truly loving each other.  We see an important dynamic for Church health in this letter, namely a proper understanding of the relationship between love and truth.  We don’t have time to look at all of the different passages that instruct us concerning this issue, but we must realize that you cannot have one without the other and be faithful to Christ. 

If the Ephesians would have been all about ‘love’ and ignored the errors of the false teachers, then the Lord would not have commended them for hating the works of the Nicolaitans (v. 6).  They could not abandon truth.  Yet, in the same way, exposing false teaching without having love for one another is not faithful either.  We must, as Paul tells us (and wrote to this Church earlier), speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  We cannot abandon truth and call that love.  We cannot abandon love and fight for truth.  Generally, we have a tendency to do one or the other as individuals and as Churches.  But we must recognize these tendencies and fight to be faithful.  Healthy Churches will maintain the right relationship between truth and love.

What should a Church do that has abandoned its first love?  Jesus tells us in verse 5a.  Look at that with me.  Jesus gives the Church in Ephesus three commands, or steps, to correcting their error.  First, they are to remember.  They are to remember how they once loved the Lord and each other.  They are to remember the importance of loving each other.  Second, they are to repent.  They are to make a break with their present actions toward one another.  And third, they are to do the works you did at first.  True repentance results in change of action.  Christ is commanding the Church in Ephesus to stop being harsh and unloving, and return to treating each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  He is in their midst and He commands them to love.

So then, what happens to a Church that does not repent and return to its first love?  Again, Jesus tells us in verse 5b.  Look at that with me.  This is a sobering verse to say the least.  Loving the Lord and loving each other is not optional for a Church.  They cannot get love wrong and expect to survive as a true Church.  Jesus makes it clear that if they do not repent, He will take away their status as a Church.  It is hard to know exactly what this will look like, but I can confidently say that no Church wants to find out.  If the Ephesian Church wants to survive, then they must repent and obey.  Continued disobedience will destroy the Church.  Yet, if they repent, if they do return to their first love, then they are given a great promise as well.  Look at verse 7.  If they listen to what the Spirit is saying to them, turn from their sins, and show themselves to be faithful to Christ, then they will conquer and Christ will grant them eternal life with God.  Again, we see this theme of faithful endurance that leads to victory through our sovereign Lord.  Christ calls for the Church in Ephesus to repent and obey, to conquer and to live.

The Letter to Smyrna (v. 8-11)

The second letter is addressed to Smyrna.  Look at verse 8.  Jesus is described here as the first and the last, who died and came to life.  Again, following what is said about Jesus in chapter 1, we are reminded of His eternality and the fact that He died and rose again.  This is significant for the Church in Smyrna because of the persecution that they are facing.  We see this in the positive statements that are contained in the body of the letter.  Look at verse 9.  No negative statements are given about this Church.  Rather, we are only told of their tribulation and poverty.  Again, the Lord knows what is happening among His people.  He is aware of their struggles at the hands of these ‘Jews,’ who are not true Jews because they do not follow Christ but only persecute the Church (see Romans 2:28-29).  Instead of truly being believers in God, they had joined with the Enemy in persecuting Christians in Smyrna.  They were slandering believers by speaking lies about them to the Romans, who then imprisoned them and had some of them killed (see v. 10). 

So then, what does the Lord command this Church to do?  How are they to respond to such suffering?  Look at verse 10 with me.  Jesus does not tell them that He is going to sweep in and deliver them from coming suffering.  He knows that it is going to happen and even tells them that it won’t last too terribly long.  Yet, it will come.  They will suffer.  Does this mean that He is not really in control or that they are being punished?  No, it simply means that they will join Him in suffering.  They will die just as He died.  Thus, they are told: Be faithful unto death.  What a statement!  He commands them to not be afraid and be faithful into death.  How could they do that?  How could they obey? 

First, they must remember who has given the command: the first and the last, who died and came to life, the One who has the keys of Death and Hades (1:18).  He is in control and He has power over death and life, which leads to the second reason they should obey.  Second, they must believe the promise: I will give you the crown of life.  Going on Jesus says: The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.  Jesus reminds of the glorious good news of the gospel: namely eternal life for all who turn from their sins and believe in His death and resurrection.  Yes, we will suffer.  Yes, we will die.  But death cannot hold the followers of Christ, for it could not hold Him!  So He tells them: Be not afraid, be faithful to the end, and I will give you victory even over death.  I should note at this point that this passage was lived out less than fifty years after it was written.  Polycarp, the bishop of the Church in Smyrna, was burned at the stake for his belief in Christ.  Before he was burned, he told his captor: “You try and frighten me with the fire that burns for an hour, and you forget the fire of hell that never goes out.”   He was not afraid and he was faithful until death.

We might be tempted to dismiss these letters since they are not addressed to us, but we must not miss what is included in each letter: He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (v. 7, 11).  Yes, they were written for real Churches in history, but they were also meant for us.  We must hear what the Spirit is saying to us.  First, we must hold fast to our first love by loving the Lord and faithfully loving each other.  We must hold fast to what is primary (the essential doctrines of the faith) while showing grace and liberty on secondary issues.  We must remember that without love we have nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).  Second, we must not fear and be faithful to the end.  Suffering and trials will come, but we must never forget who we follow.  Our Savior has been this way before.  He has suffered and bled and died for our sins.  He has been cold in the grave.  But He did not remain.  He came to life.  And though faith in Him, so will we.  May we be faithful to the end and receive the crown of life.  For His glory!  Amen.

1 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), p. 116.
2 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), p. 37.

~ William Marshall ~

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