The Backslidden Church

Revelation 2:1-7

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2012

Last week, we looked at the first of seven visions in the Book of Revelation, the vision of the Son of Man. In that chapter, we saw a vision of the glorified Christ walking among the seven churches of Asia. What does Jesus do on Sunday? He goes to church and walks up and down the aisles. He makes an inspection of each church.

Wouldn’t that completely change our perspective if we could actually see him in our midst? We might say and do things completely different. This is an apocalyptic picture. Jesus does not have to walk around the churches to get information. He knows everything about every church.

Jesus sees everything that happens in a local church. Nothing escapes his notice and he evaluates each church and gives each church a report card. These churches were very different. Some were rich and some were poor. Some were doctrinally orthodox and some were not. Some were moral and some were immoral.

Some had experienced persecution and some had not. Some of these churches were thirty or forty years old and some may have been much younger churches. Some were dead. Some were alive and one was in between.

The church of Laodicea was lukewarm (neither hot nor cold). Some of these seven churches received an A. Jesus had nothing bad to say about them. He had nothing but praise. Other churches received an F. Jesus had nothing but criticism for those churches.

Most churches received both compliments and criticisms from Jesus. We all go to some local church and this section has to be applied to a local church. These chapters tell us what Christ thinks of the church. What does he think about the church we attend?

The question is not, ‘What do the members think of our church?’ or “What does some consultant think of our church?” or ‘What does the First Baptist Church (other Christians down the street) think of our church?’ but ‘What does Jesus think of our church?’

His evaluation is very different from how many people evaluate churches. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. What people often think is important in a local church (great big building, huge membership, seeker-sensitive) is not necessarily what he thinks is important in a local church.

The letters to the seven churches are one of the longest uninterrupted speeches of Jesus. It is not as long as the Sermon on the Mount (Jesus’ longest recorded sermon) but it is a pretty long speech from Revelation 1:19-3:22. Revelation 2 & 3 contain personal letters from Jesus to each one of these seven churches.

Revelation 2 contains a letter of Jesus to four different churches. Revelation 3 contains a letter to three more churches. Some preaches have entitled this section: “You’ve got Mail” or “An Email from Jesus”. What would Jesus say if he wrote a letter to our church?

Tonight, I want to look at Jesus’ letter to the Church if Ephesus. This is a very important topic. It is very practical. It is something that every Christians should hear. It is a section that may change your life. Before we look at the church, let me tell you a little about city of Ephesus. Ephesus was ancient Greek city on the west coast of what is now Turkey. What was it like in Paul’s day?

Characteristics of the City of Ephesus

1) It was a large city

It was the largest city in the Roman province of Asia. It was a big city, like New York City, the largest city in the US (although Ephesus had only a quarter of a million people living in it and New York City has eight million people in it).

2) It was a wealthy city

It was called the Queen of Asia. One of the most beautiful cities in the region. It had a huge amphitheater that held 25,000 people. It was bigger than the Greensboro Coliseum which only holds 23,000 people. That theatre is mentioned in Acts 19:29 where a riot nearly started. It had a library with 200,000 books and that was before the invention of the printing press. All of these books were copied by hand.

3) It was an important city

It was also the capital of the Roman province of Asia, so it was important politically. It had the most important sea port in Asia, so it was important economically.

4) It was a pagan city

It had this huge temple there, the largest temple in Asia Minor temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis. The Greeks called her Artemis and the Romans called her Diana. Luke mentions this temple in Acts 19:35.

It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world with 106 marble columns 40 feet high (four times as large as the Parthenon in Athens) . It was also a place where witchcraft and magic was practiced (Acts 19:18-19). There was occult activity there.

5) It was an immoral city

There were all kinds of brothels there. There were prostitutes even in the Temple of Diana. Why did the first letter of Jesus go to the church of Ephesus? It was the closest of the six cities to the Island of Patmos (about sixty miles away).

Notice how Jesus begins the letter. He begins it with a commendation. He starts out positive (2:2-3). He begins by praising the church for the good things they are doing.

That is a lesson for us today on communication. If you have a criticism of someone, one of the best ways to deliver it is to start positive and to point out the positive, as well as the negative.

That is much easier to receive that someone that does nothing but criticize, is always negative and never sees anything positive. Jesus starts with the positive. He says that the Christians at Ephesus were doing a lot of good things. He mentions seven things they were doing right. There is that number seven again.

Strengths of the Church of Ephesus

1. It was a church with phenomenal leadership.

It was a church founded by an apostle. Paul started the church. He stayed there for three whole years and wrote a letter to the Ephesians. After he left, Timothy took over. According to Tradition, the Apostle John went there after being exiled in Patmos for about ten years. We know from the Book of Acts that Apollos was there, as well as Aquila and Priscilla. This was a church with great role models and good leadership.

2. This was a church that was doctrinally sound.

This point follows the first one. If you have good leadership in a church, you will be doctrinally sound. This was a church that knew what they believed. They knew all of the doctrines. They were good on doctrine and it is not surprising because this church was exposed to some of the greatest Bible teachers of the day.

Many churches today do not teach the Bible and the average Christian in the church doesn’t know the Scriptures. People in the Church of Ephesus knew the Word. They had the Apostle Paul preaching in their church for three years.

3. This was a church that hated sin.

We see this in Revelation 2:6. This church hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans. Who were the Nicolaitans? There are all kinds of speculation. No one knows. The Bible doesn’t tell us. All we know is that this was a heresy in the early church that affected two of these seven churches (Ephesus and Pergamum).

We also know that it involved some type of antinomianism (we are free from law therefore we can live any way we want as Christians). This group lived an immoral life and the Christians at Ephesus hated their immoral lifestyle. Notice that it says that they hated the DEEDS of the Nicolaitans. It does not say that they hated the Nicolaitans themselves. The hated is not directed at people but at their works.

The application is that not all churches hate sin. Some churches tolerate sin. Most churches do not even practice church discipline. Many churches justify and rationalize sin. They celebrate alternative lifestyles. They want to be tolerate and accepting and non-judgmental. The church at Ephesus hated their deeds. Jesus commended them for that. He said, “It is good that you hate their deeds. I hate their deeds”.

What is strange about that is that most people do not picture Jesus going around hating. That is not politically correct. He was the one who told us to love our enemies. Hatred does not seem like a Christian virtue. Are Christians supposed to be hateful? No but not all hatred is wrong. Jesus hates evil and we are to hate evil (Hebrews 1:9; Romans 12:9; Psalm 97:10). Jesus does hate certain things. We are to be like Jesus.

4. This was a busy church

Jesus said, “I know your toil.” This was not just a working church, it was a hard working church. It is possible to work but not work hard. People do this all the time on the job but this church, not only worked, it worked hard. That is what the word “toil” means (work to the point of exhaustion).

This was not a lazy church. They were doing all kinds of things. There were all kinds of different programs and ministries going on at the church. That is a good thing. Paul said, “You know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:58). If it is done with the right motives, it is not in vain.

5. This was a patient church.

Many churches that are program oriented tend to burn out but not this one. This was the energizer bunny church. This church labored to the point of exhaustion and when they felt like giving up, they preserved and kept on working. Two times we are told this (2:2, 3).

6. This was a discerning church.

This church knew the difference between truth and error. They declared certain things to be false (2:2). Not all Christians are discerning and not all churches are discerning. The line between truth and error is not clear. Some churches would never take a stand on truth and call anything false or anyone a false teacher. We are too polite today. Everyone is acceptable.

They do not want to offend anyone. They could spot false teaching and false teachers a mile away. This church did not believe everything that people told them. This was not a gullible church. If someone claimed to be an apostle, they applied some tests to that person. They did not take them at their word.

We should be discerning Christians. We should know the difference between truth and error and we should apply tests today just like the church of Ephesus did (I John 4:6). In order to be discerning Christians and in order to be a discerning church, we have to know the Word. Christians who do not know the Word will follow every fad that comes along and will be gullible (Ephesians 4:14).

7. This was an intolerant church

Most people think that tolerance is a good thing. We live in a day when tolerance is in. The text says that this church did not tolerate evil men (2:2). That is interesting.  The buzz word today is tolerance.  People are praised for their tolerance.  Jesus praised this church for its INTOLERANCE.

The church could bear with trials and persecutions but they could not deal with evil people. This church was intolerant and Jesus praised them for this. That is politically incorrect. Two of the other churches in Revelation 2 were the opposite of the Church of Ephesus (Church of Pergamum & the Church of Thyatira).

They were very tolerant permissive churches. Local churches should be tolerant about some things but intolerant about other things. There is a certain type of intolerance that is good.

When Intolerance is Good

1. Intolerance of Sin

The Church of Corinth had a man living in open sin in the assembly (living with his mother-in-law) and the church tolerated it. In fact, they were even more tolerant of sin that the unsaved (5:1). Paul said that you should not tolerate it. They should have removed the man from the church. Instead, Paul says that they were proud of him (5:6)

2. Intolerance of Doctrinal Error

Another type of tolerance that is wrong is tolerance of false teaching. The Church at Corinth was also an example of this (cf. II Corinthians 11:3-4). Paul did not encourage the churches in Galatia to be tolerant of the Judaizers.

Now we should be tolerant of Christians who differ with us on minor non-essential doctrines. We should also be tolerant of young Christians and weak Christians who have not been saved as long as we have and do not know the Word as well as we do.

They may think that certain things are wrong that are not wrong. In Paul’s day, some Christians thought it was wrong to eat certain kinds of foods. Today, Christians may think other things are wrong that are not.

Weakness of the Church of Ephesus.

To the Church of Ephesus, Jesus says, “I have good news and bad news for you”. What was the one criticism that Jesus had of the church? This church lost its first love. The KJV weakens this a little (“I have somewhat against you”).

It was actually a very serious problem (I Corinthians 16:22). Falling out of love with Jesus is not a minor issue. What exactly does it mean that this church was not a loving church? Does this mean that this church lost its love for Jesus or does this mean that the church had lost its love for one another? It is an age-old debate.

I believe that this is primarily talking about our love for Christ, because it says that they didn’t just lose their love, they lost their first love. We are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

What is the state of your love for Christ? Many people when they get saved are on fire for God and as the years go by that fire and that passion dies down. They lose their spiritual passion for Christ. They used to be excited about spiritual things but not anymore.

It is the picture of a husband and wife that used to be madly in love with each other (honeymoon). Now they can’t seem to stand each other. They used to feel goose bumps all over their body when they saw each other.

Now they get annoyed just looking at each other. The same language is used of Israel in the OT (Jeremiah 2:2-3, 12-13). What did Jesus ask Peter after the Resurrection? Peter denied Christ three times and Jesus asked him three times, “Peter do you love me?”

What is the application here? This may be a little convicting. We can do all kinds of things not out of a love for Christ. We can do all kinds of things in the church just because it needs to be done. We can be very busy just because we are workaholics and we cannot sit still.

We have to be up doing things. We can do things just because it makes us feel good or for what we get out of it. We should do things out of service to Christ (because we love him and want to do what he has called us to do). Why do you serve Christ? Why do you serve in the church? Why are you a small group leader? We can do all kinds of good things for the wrong reasons.

Let’s go back to the question, Did this church lose its love for Jesus or its love for one another? I believe that this is primarily talking about our love for Jesus, not our love for people, but I also believe that the two are related in Scripture (I John 5:1).

If our love for God is off, our love for one another will also be off. If we do not love God, we will not want to be around other Christians. If we have fellowship with God, we will want to have fellowship with one another (I John 1:5-7).

Have you lost your first love? Has a church lost its first love? We often apply this to individuals and that is not wrong but these words are addressed to a local church. If you have, you can get it back, just like a husband and wife and rekindle the love they once had for each other. How do we do that? There are three steps you have to take.

How to Regain Your First Love

1. Remember

Remember what your relationship to Christ was when you first became a Christian. This is what the prodigal son did in Luke 15:17.

2. Repent

This can be a difficult step for some. It can be painful. You have to acknowledge what you are doing is wrong and stop doing it. People don’t like to admit that they are wrong and they may like what they are doing. If you love your sin, you are not going to want to sop doing it.

3. Repeat

Resume the first works of love.  Do the same thing you used to do before you lost your first love.

What if a church does not remember and repent? Jesus says that then he will come and turn the lights out. He will remove it as a lampstand. What does that mean? Does it mean that you can lose your salvation as some have said? No. it is not talking about individuals. It is talking about a local church.

The warning is that if the church does not change Jesus will judge the church and one of two things will happen. Either the church will cease to exist, which is happening to churches all over the country.

Other churches are still around but are completely dead. God is not working in them. They are not shining any light. They may have a building but not light is shining through them. It is like a lamp without a light bulb.

This may come as a shock to some but Jesus doesn’t visit every church on Sunday. There are some churches he doesn’t attend. He is not present there. He’s not doing anything there. He only visits his lampstands. Some churches are no longer lampstands. They used to be.

At one time they were great sources of light. God’s Word was believed and preached. The gospel was proclaimed. Prayer was important to the church but that was one hundred years ago. Today, many churches have become more social than spiritual.

The chapter ends with a promise (2:7). The one who overcomes will be able to eat from the tree of life. That is the tree that Adam and Eve never ate from. They were kicked out of the garden before they got a chance to eat from that tree but if we are saved, we will get a chance to eat from that tree.

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