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… bibles and turn to Revelation 2. If you’re with us this morning, welcome and we are in a ongoing series of studies in the seven churches in Asia Minor and we find them in Revelation 2 and 3. We’ve entitled the series, You’ve Got Meal. I invite you to take your Bibles and turn to Revelation 2:1. To the angel of the church at Ephesus write, “These things says he who holds the seven stars in his hand, he walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands, I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and they’re not, and to find them liars. And you have persevered and have patience and have labored for my name and have not become weary.”
“Nevertheless, I have this against you that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen. But repent and do the first works or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. But this you have, that you hear the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hear. He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches to him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
We’re told that a young painter once brought a painting of the Lord Jesus to the 17th century French artist, Gustave Dore seeking his approval as a considered master of art. Dore was slewed a comment. He could tell that the artist was obviously skilled, but as his expert eye ran down the picture of the Lord Jesus, he noted a fetal flaw and the master of painter turned to the young artist and he gave this verdict quote, “You don’t love him or you would’ve painted him better.”
A thing is always flawed. If love does not stand over it, if love does not stand behind it. Love is the elixir of life. As we come into the context of these seven letters and we’ve begun to look at the first of the seven, we find that the church at Ephesus was coming under the expert eye of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the case of this church, at as Ephesus, Christ finds a fetal flaw like the young man in our story, this church had failed at the most critical point of all.
They had failed to love Christ. In all that they did, Christ says this in verse 4, “Nevertheless, I have this against you. You have left your first love.” Hence the sermon title lost that loving feeling. They were doing all the right things, but for all the wrong reasons. They’d forgotten why they were doing what they were doing. There was an enormous amount of activity but there was no real heart.
Judy filled their lives and what they did, they did precisely, but they took no real delight in what they were doing. Their Christianity was in large measure, a matter of habit. They were too busy for the Lord. They were busily falling out of love with Jesus Christ and doing things in his name. How challenging and paradoxical is that? Here’s the church, more in love with Christianity than Christ. They were serving without seeking him. They were living without loving him.
They were offering to Christ what John Piper calls in his book Desiring God the contradiction of dutiful roses and in the book he draws this illustration of, “Imagine my wedding anniversary,” he says, “and I go to the door one night with 12 red roses and I give them to Nicole and I kiss her on the cheek.” And she says, “Oh Johnny, they’re beautiful.” He looks her straight in the eye and says, “Don’t worry about it. It’s my duty.”
He says duty is a noble thing, but if he can’t give his wife roses just spontaneously for who she is, he belittles her in the gift. And he calls it the contradiction of dutiful roses. While the church at Ephesus was doing its duty, but they were handing Christ of bouquet of which was contradictory in terms of the roses that they were handing him. Christ is not honored by mere acts of duty. There needed to be a spontaneous and sincere love for Christ in all that they did. That needed to be the wellspring of all of their actions.
He’s not honored by anything less. And that’s why I want to come back this morning with you and take a look at this passage and learn from this church nestled in this city. Last week we saw the significance of the city. We saw the strategic nature of the church and we started to work our way down this letter under five headings.
We started to look at Christ’s comprehension. We started to look at Christ’s condemnation and we’re going to get there this morning and move on to a third point, Christ’s condemnation. In Christ’s comprehension, we noticed that the Lord Jesus Christ walks amidst the churches of Asia. He knows everything about them and that we reminded ourselves that we need to live coram deo. We need to live before the face of God. We need to live conscious of the fact that God’s thinking about all that we are thinking about and that’s rather challenging.
Sometimes sin is strengthened by the illusion of secrecy and Jesus reminds us in these letters, “I know all about you. I know everything about you.” We saw Christ’s comprehension. Then we started to look at Christ’s commendation. Jesus is swimming in knowledge of this church’s life and labor and it spills first of all over in the commendation. He praises them before he criticizes them. And that’s a thought worth considering just for a moment whether you’re a biblical counselor or a parent or a pastor.
At some point you’re going to have to sit down and confront someone, challenge someone, even criticize someone, but I want you to see how the Lord Jesus does it. Do you notice his commendation? If I could put it like this, he pats them on the back before he slaps them in the face. He commends them before he condemns them. And I think that’s important. If you’re going to challenge someone, if you’re going to confront someone, don’t begin by cutting them off at their knees, leaving them nowhere to go, causing them to react in self-defense.
The Lord Jesus Christ left this church with some modicum of pride, some sense that you know what, they were pleasing the Lord to some degree and I think that’s a very important point. He was tactful in his approach. He didn’t bully them. He loved them back to a better place. Christian counseling mustn’t be some kind of demolition derby where it’s your job to pummel the other person into submission.
The Lord does not begin by focusing on their weaknesses. He focuses on their strengths and should we. If you see something in your child’s life or your husband or your wife or someone in your workplace, and you believe it’s got to such a critical mass, you have to say something and you know what? There is a place for doing that. Why don’t you begin with their strengths and then move towards their weaknesses? I think you’ll stand a better chance of them receiving your rebuke. I think someone put it like this, I like this. The best rule of thumb is to remember if you can’t be big, don’t belittle. Think about that. You’ll get it later.
In fact, there’s a great story from the life of Joseph Parker, a congregationalist minister in England when he was approached after the church serviced by a man who criticized a minor point in the sermon, a footnote in his message basically. He took it on the chin, but then he turned to the man and patiently asked them, what else did you get from the message? And the man had nothing to say, but there was tactfulness wasn’t there?
So we see Christ’s commendation and we noticed a number of things about the commendation. We covered two things. We saw their dynamism and we saw their durability. Christ commends them for their works and their labor and any commends them for their patience and their perseverance. He recognizes their work and he recognizes their labor. And thirdly, he recognizes their orthodoxy. He not only commends them for their dynamism and not only commends them for their durability, he commends them for their discernment.
Here’s another thing Jesus likes about this church because you’ll see in verse 6, straight after actually getting to the issue, he comes back, but this you have. You’ve got this in your favor. Although you’ve left your first love in him and that’s big. You’ve got this in your figure fever, you hit the deeds of the Nicolaitans which also I hit. If you back up into verse 3, you’ll read that they could not burrow those who were evil and you have tested those who say they’re apostles and not, and I find them liars.
Here’s a church with some theological moxie. They tested people on the basis of their doctrine. When did we stop doing that? They tested people on the basis of their doctrine. They hided certain perspectives and practices both moral and doctrinal. Their doctrine was black and white. Their morality was cut and dry. There’s nothing wrong with that. Jesus actually commends them for that. Funny, isn’t it? In a day when the mantra among evangelicals says doctrine divides.
But you know what? Here’s a church grinded in the truth. Here’s a church set for the defense of the gospel. Here’s the church that had headed Paul’s warning 30 years earlier in his letter to the Ephesians 4:14 where he warns him not to be blown about by every wind of doctrine. To set their seals and to anchor their ship on truth. He left the member earlier than that in Acts 20 and he warned them again after my departure what, savage wolves will come in. There are people today who would love to savage this church theologically, destroy this church and its doctrine.
You and I have got to be on guard like the church at Ephesus. Two things are mentioned in a church where doctrine was not a dirty word. One, they had smoked out some itinerant preachers who tried to pass themselves off as apostles. That was going on in those days. In fact, Paul talks about that in his letter to the Corinthians, his second letter in 11:13. We read this. Concerning those Paul is addressing and the contexts in which they’re in for such are false apostles, deceitful workers transform themselves in the apostles of Christ and no wonder for Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.
Satan likes to slip into church as a liberal minister. Satan likes to slip into church as a false teacher undermining the gospel and the deity of Christ and his virgin birth, and the substitutionary nature of his toning death. Satan wants us to believe that the resurrection is a trick with a bag of bones. That’s Satan’s work and this church had their antenna up. They smoked out some fossil parcels and secondly, they heeded the deeds of the Nicolaitans.
Now, we’re going to leave the Nicolaitans alone a little bit this morning. I’ll put you in the direction of understanding who they are, but they come up a lot more in the church of Pergamum. I’m going to leave them till then, but I want you to notice first of all, that Jesus hits certain things. That doesn’t sound too politically correct. Jesus hits certain things. They hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans, verse 6, which I also hit.
I don’t want this feminized girly Jesus that’s presented on television. I want the biblical Christ. Christ had moxie. He had convictions about truth because he was the embodiment of truth. And there’s some things he hates and dislikes because of what they do to people. Bad doctrine hurts. Bad doctrine damns people to hell because they end up believing in a false Christ and a false sense of assurance.
We need to grasp this church’s discernment and be challenged by it. The Nicolaitans were probably a group who perverted the gospel and distorted grace. From what we can tell they were, they were a group of people who basically taught a doctrine that said, “You know what? Even after you’ve come to Christ because of God’s extravagant grace, you have a license to sin.”
Mark didn’t know what I was getting to this morning, but he read a passage that’s in my notes Roman 6 where Paul says, “Does God give grace so that sin can abound? No. Christ came to save us from the penalty of sin but also from its power, its domination in our lives. God doesn’t want us being slaves to sin. When we come to Christ, we turn from our sin in repentance and we go on repenting our whole Christian life.
But here’s a false doctrine. It turns grace into disgrace. Grace is not an excuse to sin. They taught a form of easy believism that really saw no change and no repentance, and no righteousness forming in the heart and in the life. I want to say something to your good. You cannot continue in blatant sin and deliberate sin and call yourself a Christian. You just can’t do that. This is what the Nicolaitans taught and Christ hits it because it damns people.
Titus 2:12 tells us, the grace of God teaches us to deny sin and ungodliness. Just finish the book recently by Steve Bryan called Approaching God. He’s a pastor in Florida Key Life Ministries and entity tells that often when they have a key life conference, they bring along Buddy Greene musician to play. He has a little bit of a tradition or a custom. As he gets going, he’ll have the congregation stand and he’ll tell them turn to the person on your right and tell them that God loves them just the way they are.
So everybody turns and tell you, “Hey, God loves you just the way you are.” And then he says, “Look, before you sit down, turn to everybody on your right and tell them that God loves you too much to leave you the way you are.”
How true is that? It’s true. God loves us the way we are. We can come to Christ no matter how vile and dirty and sinful. He’ll love us just the way we are. He died for as well we were yet sinners. But he won’t leave you the way you are. He’ll change you, and that’s not what the Nicolaitans taught and Paul. Jesus commends this church for standing up against an antinomianism and a libertinism. Here’s a church that was not frightened to draw some lines and count some people in and count some people out.
It’s almost foreign to evangelicalism today. It’s all about attracting the crowd. It’s not about drawing the lines delineating doctrine and what is the true gospel, and what it does in a person’s life. This was a church not willing to risk the truth. This was a church that knew that bad theology hurts people. We see in this that love has limits. Christ’s beef with them over their lack of love doesn’t extend to their preciseness in doctrine.
It’s not like Jesus said, “You know what guys? You’ve left your first love and you know I can see that because you’re judgmental when it comes to doctrine. Quite the opposite. After saying you’ve left your first love, he goes on to say, “Buddy, I want to come back to something. I also commend you for the fact that you draw some lines when it comes to doctrine.” Hi. Antithetical that is to where evangelicalism is traveling today.
Biblical love is not mushy and it’s not indiscriminate. There are certain things that we ought to abhor and cannot bear. It says here, “You cannot bear those who are evil.” Some storms in his book on the seven churches said unsanctified mercy has no in the church. It’s quite a statement and there is a place to question. There’s a place to test. We read here that they tested those who said they were apostles but were not. They weren’t gullible. They didn’t throw their hands around every one and everything.
They were heresy hunters in the best sense of the word. When I was in Toledo, I set up a lunch with one of the local pastors, quite a large church, wanted to meet him and just let him know who I was. I’d come to Emmanuel Baptist and wanted to partner or join arms and whatever we could do together. So we were sitting over lunch and we started talking and before long he learned my master’s connection and my personal friendship with John MacArthur.
And without skipping a beat over lunch, he just said to me, “You know what, MacArthur is a bit of a fighter, isn’t he?” I could tell by his tone he wasn’t paying John any compliments. I turned him and I said, “Sir, don’t you think some things are worth fighting for?” I think he nearly choked, but is that not a good answer to a loaded question?
Of course we shouldn’t go wrong picking fights with everybody over anything, but some things are worth fighting for. There are evil men, there are impostors, there is false doctrine and we need to fight for the truth. There was a man in this pulpit before I got here that did this and by God’s grace, so long as God has me here, I’ll do that. Do you see the commendation?
Christ acknowledges so many good things about this church, but let’s move on quickly to the condemnation. The condemnation. On the surface, this church was a five star church, right? They were diligent in service. They were patient in suffering. They were orthodox in doctrine. But the gavel is about to fall. Christ is pronounced an indictment on this church.
Verse 4. Nevertheless, having said all of that, okay, that was the pat in the back. Here’s the slap in the face. Nevertheless, I have this against you. By golly, you don’t want to have Christ against you, do you? Because your arms are too short to box with Christ. Nevertheless, I have this against you that you’ve left your first love. They no longer loved Christ as they did at first.
As one old writer put it, I think his name was John Braun. I have a beautiful old book by John Braun and the seven churches of revelation of the gift from David Connolly’s father’s library, and I was flicking through it the other day and came across this statement. As one old writer put it, they knew how to hate it, but they didn’t know how to love. We never want to get to that place.
They were without the one thing that really counted. They were missing the one in front of the zero because you see, if love doesn’t stand over all that we do and stand behind all that we do, anything we do loses value. It’s just a bunch of contradictory roses. Love must be the reason we do what we do. And nothing substitutes for love. It’s interesting. As much as he commends them, he goes on to say, “Nevertheless, I have this against you.” And it’s so serious that if it doesn’t get rectified, he says, “I’ll pull the plug on this church. I’ll take away your lampstand.”
Nothing substitutes for love, neither service, patience or orthodoxy. Let’s just look at that for a moment. Service is no substitute for love. It’s not enough to work for Christ. You got to love Christ in your work. You must ask yourself, “Why do I do this?” You can do stuff without heart, can’t you? I mean, think of a disgruntled employee. If you’re a businessman here this morning, I’ll back you. If you a few people on your roster is you know what you wouldn’t mind getting rid of if you could get rid of them easily, because you know that while they work, they’re disgruntled, they really don’t put their heart in it. They’re mad either at you or life or whatever.
Well, they’re working. By golly, they’re not working the way they should be. Think about a child that’s asked to do a chore about the house. Goodnight. They’ll do it. After a while when you’ve threatened to hang them from the nearest tree, they’ll do it. Oh, they’re working, they’re serving. They’re taking out the trash. They’re cleaning. They’re taking the dishes out of the dishwasher. But are they doing it with the right motive? Of course not.
Service isn’t enough if it’s not stood over and stood behind by love. Oh, you can do something because someone asked you to do it. But if you want to get the real value of it and you want to bless them, you got to do it because you love them. Not just because they asked you to do it but you love them. I’ll tell you what, friends, patience isn’t enough either. Oh, here’s a church that was faithful. Here’s a church that endured and persevered, but faithfulness, while a good thing is not enough, you can stick at something for a long time without achieving very much.
Let’s be honest, people can be together in marriage for a long time. It doesn’t mean they have a vital and vibrant relationship. They may be together simply out of a cold commitment, not the divorce. That’s admirable but not enough. A woman may not sleep with anyone else other than her husband, but at the same time she may not love her husband. What good is that? It’s good in a relative sense, but not an ultimate sense.
Oh, you can serve, but if love isn’t behind it, and you can endure, but if love isn’t behind it, then that which is most important is missing, orthodoxy, it’s not enough to be doctrinally signed. As important as that is, and I’ve just stated that. Aiden Wilson Tozer said, “You can be as straight as a gun barrel theologically and just as empty.” Zeal for truth carries with it and inbred danger. You can become judgmental and severe and critical. And pride. Knowledge can puff you up and you can pummel people into submission and you can engage a Roman Catholic friend or a Mormon missionary on your doorstep and you can close the door, walk away with a sense you, “Oh, I stuck it to them.”
But did you open the heart for the love of Christ to come in? Ephesians 4:15 to this very church were told to speak the truth in love, but if you’re not careful, you can just end up speaking the truth. Sometimes you have to get involved in controversy to defend the Lord Jesus. I’m all for that. I’m up for that. But I tell you why. There’s a subtle danger in that if you’re not careful. You can start out loving Christ and end up loving controversy. Orthodoxy is not enough.
Oh, Jesus says to this church, “I’ve got this against you. You’ve left your first love.” I want to answer three questions. I think with the time left, only covered two and we’ll pick this up next week. I don’t intend to be as long in each of the other letters, but there’s stuff we’re covering in this first letter. We won’t spend just as much time in the next few, but I want to answer a few questions. The question of who and the question of what.
They left their first love, but the object of their abandonment is not stated. Who is it they left? Who is it they feel to love? Was it Christ or was it other Christians? Were not sure. And expositors wrestle with that and commentators aren’t agreed on this. In the letter to the Ephesians 1:15 to 16, he commends their love for the saints. He mentions it specifically. But then later on in that letter, this is 30 years earlier, he says in chapter 6:24 that indeed the thing is to love Christ. So which is it? Is it loving Christ or loving Christians?
Yes, it’s a little bit of a chicken and an egg deal here, I think. And if you think about it, the argument is a little bit redundant because the one grows out of the other, isn’t it? You cannot love Christ and not love others. Not properly. What did Jesus say? “Love one another as I have loved you.” John 13:34. So is it Christ or is it Christians? It’s both because you cannot love Christ without loving others, and you cannot love others properly without loving them like Christ loves you.
But if you push me, when push comes to shove, I believe the first love left here is love for Christ. For the very reasons stated the one grows out of the other. And it’s interesting when you study the other ladders, you’ll see that the issue addressed and the other letters really is related to their relationship with Christ and I think that’s the issue here.
That’s the question who? But what about the question what? What is this first love that they have abandoned? Well, my best study and research tells me it’s probably the love of a newly wedded bride for her husband. And if you study the word of God in the Old Testament or the New Testament, the marriage relationship is often the metaphor for the relationship between God and his people.
God mourns the fact back in Jeremiah 2:2 that Israel had left him, was committing spiritual adultery that they no longer loved him the way they once did. Listen to what we read in Jeremiah 2:2. “I remember you, says God, “the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal. When you went after me into the wilderness and into a land not sewn.” Israel’s greatest pleasure was God. Israel’s greatest pursuit was going after him.
Israel was willing to pay any price to love God. They even followed him into a wilderness word. There was land that you couldn’t sow and you couldn’t profit from. They loved God at the cost to themselves. That’s the love I think Jesus has in mind here. You get the same idea, don’t you? In 2 Corinthians 11 where Paul again dredges up this metaphor of the betrothal and the courtship, and the romance, and the marriage between a man and a woman.
He says this, “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy, for I have betrothed you to one husband that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ, but I fear less somehow as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
I think that’s the issue. It speaks of the first flush of a faction that binds two hearts together. It speaks of the afterglow of the honeymoon in the ecstasy of those early days. It speaks of a desire to do anything to please the other person. It speaks of a time when the relationship is personal and fresh, uninhibited, and exciting, and exclusive. We’ve all been there. We’ve all seen it. Think of a youth group and they all run about together, but all of a sudden one of the guys finds a girl. And he’s kidnapped, he’s gone.
You don’t see him anymore. He doesn’t talk to you anymore. He’s on the phone 24/7. He’s sick to his stomach. He usually would eat a horse. Now he sits at the dining room table and hardly eats a [inaudible] scrap of food. He’s being captured, smitten. This is the kind of love we’re talking about here.
If you ever visited Florida, I think you’ll find there are two kinds of people in Florida, the newlywed and the nearly dead. Just two, the newly wed and the nearly dead. There’s not much in between. You meet all these honeymoon couples in the hotel. Just lost in each other’s presence, loving on each other. They have only eyes for each other and yet it’s a wonderful thing even in the nearly dead to go outside and see these 70, 80 year olds still skipping down the street hand in hand.
It’s a wonderful thing. If you can love each other from being newlywed the nearly dead and not lose the first love. But here’s the church that had been swept off its feet by Christ in amazing grace and in those early days his word was like honey. They didn’t go to the service and look at the clock. It was like, “Pastor, keep going.” You hear that? You’ve got the presence. Christ’s presence was the center of their universe. Every wish, their command.
But then something went wrong. We’ll see this next week as time’s gone. They progressively allowed that first flush of love to slip away and things became routine and calculated, and predictable because when Jesus says here, “You’ve left your first love.” I think you’ve got to think a little here. That seems to infer they still loved him, right? I mean, this isn’t the church totally absent of love. They still loved him, but it wasn’t first love. Wasn’t first love.
They didn’t love him the way they once loved him. Their love had grown cold. Their love had chilled. Much of what they did was routine. They did the same things, but they didn’t do them the same him way. They did it with half a heart. I like the story of the two guys that are out golfing and the guys on a down swing. When he does a Tiger Woods moment, he stops. His friend is struck by this and he noticed his friend putting the golf club down because a hearse and a funeral cartage is passing.
He gets down on his knees, takes off his cap and just pass some respect to the passing funeral procession. He gets up and he’s about to swing again. His friend says, “That was rather touching.” In a day like this, most people don’t do that and they just get on with their day and ignore all that’s going on. He says, “That was touching.” And the guy turn, he says, “Well,” he says, “what else can I do after 34 years of marriage?”
That’s functional love. That is not first love. That’s not fairy love. That’s not impulsive love. Jesus warns the church here that indeed they have left their first love. It’s a sad day when grace is no longer amusing. It’s a sad day when prayer is no longer a privilege. It’s a sad day when Christ’s voice heard through his word is no longer a music to a believer’s ear. As the team comes up and I close, I’ll go back to Steve Brown’s book. In it, he talks about how he had often counsel men on how to treat their wives.
At the end of the conference, he would often say to the guys, “You know what? You need to be more sensitive. You need to say I love you at least three times a day. You need to buy her some flowers at least once every two weeks. You need to take her out for dinner without the kids at least once a week. But then he goes on to say this, “I don’t tell man that anymore.” Why? Because he says this quote, “A wife told me, Steve, I can’t stand it anymore.”
When he does nice things, he does these things because you told them to. I’ve become a checklist. Once the list is completed, he goes and gets a beer and always vegetate. It’s in front of the television set. Wow.
It’s scarily possible that Christ becomes a checklist. Coming to church is just one other thing to do in the week. Okay? You got soccer practice out of the way. You’ve worked five days. You did your lawn yesterday. It’s off the church now. Maybe I’ll even serve in children’s ministry. And you know what? If I really push myself and really go beyond the second mile, maybe I’ll go out on Wednesday night to the Bible study and prayer meeting, and you’ve got your checklist. Something wrong when Christ becomes a checklist.
When grace is no longer amusing and prayer is no longer a privilege in his word is no longer music to our ears. We’re going to sing a beautiful old hymn to close. May it be a prayer. May it be words that challenge us to think about, “You know what, do I not love Christ today the way I once loved him?” Maybe this week you’ll start to do those things that will retain that love and increase that love and we’ll get back into it next Sunday morning in a greater fashion. Let’s stand and sing and I’ll come up in a moment.