Truth and Love, based on Revelation 2:1-7, prepared by Joe Ellis, Jan. 24, 2021
The opening lines in this passage are a reminder of why I thought it was so important for us to hear from the book of Revelation in this season. The Revelation is a letter written to churches in the region of Asia Minor during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. John is writing this letter because he has received a vision from Jesus — and in this vision John has been shown that persecution is about to get much worse for these churches, and it doesn’t appear that these churches are ready. Yet that’s not the primary message that comes across in the letter called Revelation. The primary message is that despite what the churches see on earth, the Kingdom of God is not in trouble. The way things appear on earth do not reflect the heavenly reality. The fact that these churches are going through difficult times does not mean that the foundation of their faith has fallen apart. That’s why its so important not to rush past Jesus’ statement: “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” It is so important to hold on to what John sees and Jesus says, and not what we see. What do we see in this moment? We see our church empty. We see each other mostly as a bunch of square names on zoom. We see a lot of people who opt out of the Telkwa Community Church worship services. We see a church that doesn’t seem like a church, a church that is functioning in ways that most of its 1
members never would have dreamed throughout our 68 years. Yet John’s Revelation reminds us not to be taken in by what we see. We are continually called to live for what’s true in heaven, not appears true on earth. Jesus describes Himself as the One who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. The stars are the angels of the seven churches (which are the lampstands). But the focus is not on the churches or the angels, the focus is on the One who holds the angels and walks among the churches. This One that John describes dressed in a priestly robe with the golden sash around his chest. This one with hair white as wool, as white as snow. This one with eyes like a blazing fire. This one with feet like glowing bronze, with a voice like a waterfall. This One holding the stars of the angels of the churches, this one with the sharp double edged sword coming from His mouth. This One with the face shining like the Sun in its brilliance — This is the One who is speaking to the churches, and walking amongst them. This is the One who is with us now. Jesus, in His glory, his utter glory sees us, he knows us, he walks among us. Jesus describes Himself as walking among the lampstands. Our church is a lampstand in His presence. Our church is one lamp among thousands, yet He is with us, He knows us. Just as he was with the Church in Ephesus, and spoke to the church in Ephesus, so He is with Us. Take a moment to picture our church, represented as a lamp stand, giving light in the presence of Jesus Christ? Let’s not lose sight of who we are. Knowing who is speaking, we get to hear what he says to seven particular churches in a particular time of history. He addresses the Churches in 2
Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. He has a message for each, and they each hear each other’s message. They get to read each other’s mail? They get to hear what the Spirit is saying to each other’s churches. There appears to be an expectation from Jesus, that these churches are going to hold each other accountable. That the churches will help each other walk in truthful doctrine, moral holiness and love. They get to hear the things Jesus commends them for, as well as the areas they fall short — and they get to have those conversations. The church in Philadelphia can say to the church in Ephesus: “what’s this business about having forsaken your first love? This sounds serious.” The problems of one church are problems of them all. Likewise, the faithfulness of one church is to the glory of all the churches. This points to a unity that we can sometimes for get in our individualistic age where we don’t get in each other’s business. In the early church, churches were expected to hold each other accountable in areas of truthful doctrine, moral holiness and love. We try to hold on to this reality by covenanting with other Christian Reformed Churches in our denomination — this one letter addressing the many churches reminds us of how important this practice is. Nearly every message to the seven churches has a word of praise and a word of rebuke. Jesus’ message to the church of Ephesus begins with encouragement. Jesus recognizes that things have not been easy, yet he praise their deeds, their hard work and their perseverance. Jesus says, “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” Some people had come into the church that Jesus describes as wicked. 3
Some had joined the Church in Ephesus claiming to be apostles, yet were later revealed to be false apostles. From the sounds of it, the church in Ephesus had made some very difficult decisions around morality and doctrine. Differences of morality and doctrine are perennial and challenging issues for all churches to navigate through. I know that there are many in our midst who have vivid memories of breaking fellowship with other Christians and communities, over differences of morality and doctrine. Today, our church, like many churches throughout the world, has a diversity of perspectives around morality and doctrine. Each of us has a slightly different take on what it means to be holy and what is morally acceptable. We each have slightly different formulations of Christian doctrine. While we hope that we are all constantly journeying closer to Jesus — and growing both in moral holiness and in doctrinal truth, this of course does not always happen. There are times when people make choices that we believe are moving away from moral holiness and doctrinal truth. There are times when difficult conversations need to be had, when lines need to be acknowledged as crossed, when a call to repentance is given. And of course, we all have different perspectives on where that line is. The result is that navigating through these areas in unity can be incredibly challenging for churches. Balancing holiness with grace, balancing doctrinal truth with a generosity is not easy. Those seem to be the tensions that the Ephesian church was navigating — some had crossed the line and people needed to be confronted. These conversations put strain and tension in their fellowship — hence Jesus’ praise for their hard work, perseverance, and endurance of 4
hardships without growing weary. It sounds as though they had come out on the other side, although not entirely unscathed. Jesus says: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen.” I’ll say it again: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen. What is the love this community has forsaken? There are really two options: The first option is that they have forsaken their love for Christ. The picture I get for this is that of the older son in the story of the prodigal son — working tirelessly for his father all the while feeling like a slave. There is duty but no love in that relationship. The church in Ephesus has been praised for its hard work and perseverance for Jesus and His Kingdom, yet Jesus says “you have lost the love you had at first”. The second way you could interpret this line is that they have lost their love for one another. Perhaps something cracked within their fellowship, and as the Righteous Brothers say, they “lost that loving feeling.” Whether they’ve lost their love for Jesus or each other, John may have intentionally left that ambiguous. After all, love for Jesus and love for one another aren’t entirely distinct, as John says in another letter: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another. God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” There are certainly many ways of expressing your love for Jesus, yet one of the most significant is through loving one another. In John 13:34 Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if 5
you love one another.” Yet here Jesus says to the church in Ephesus: “Yet I hold this against you, You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen.” John doesn’t explicitly tell us what happened, what led to their loss of love — but I wonder if it is related to what Jesus said before. On the one hand they have taken a hard and difficult stand for morality and doctrine, for which Jesus gives them a strong word of praise. Yet in the very next line, he rebukes the church for forsaking their first love. I wonder if those two are connected. From what I’ve seen, it can be very difficult to take firm stands for morality and doctrine, while maintaining a posture of love. Love the sinner, hate the practices of the Nicolaitians. Easier said than done. For many of us, when we take a stand in an area of morality or doctrine, what can happen is a hardness can creep over our heart. We can sometimes steal ourselves for taking a hard stand by hardening our heart. We try and develop a callous around our heart so we won’t get hurt by repercussions of our stance. Yet if you were to take one look at my cracked heals, you’ll know that callouses don’t come off easily once they’ve formed. Especially if they’ve been there for several years. Perhaps some of you have experienced being in a church that prides itself on being very firm around doctrinal purity and moral holiness — yet feels very cold inside. Maybe it felt as though it has lost its heart. I wonder if that happened to the church of Ephesus? Persevering in their internal conflicts, having no tolerance for wicked people, revealing the false apostles to be false — perhaps this came at a price. Although they preserved moral holiness and doctrinal purity, they emerged with a calloused heart to the point where Jesus 6
would say, “You have forsaken the love you had at first.” Yet the solution is not to be indifferent to matters of holiness and doctrine in the name of love. Perhaps some of you have been a part of churches that, in the name of love, became indifferent to matters of holiness and doctrine. Living at that end of the spectrum can feel equally soul-less, as though the community has lost its reason for existence. Jesus issues a strong challenge — on the one hand we are to champion matters of holiness and doctrine. We are not to brush them off as irrelevant in the name of love and harmony. Yet as we have difficult conversations, we cannot let our heart become hardened to God or to one another. If we do become hardened and if we do not repent, Jesus says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Incredibly strong words, sobering words for all churches. In our life together as a church, the hope is that together we are always moving towards moral holiness and doctrinal truth, that we can give each other challenges when needed — while always working to maintain a soft heart, filled with love. Jesus says, “to the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is the paradise of God.” Perhaps one way that we can keep a soft heart, is remembering that you and I are in need of redemption just as much as anyone else. For this reason we come again and again to another sort of meal. A meal in which we remember that Jesus gave His body and blood for the forgiveness for our sins.