By Pastor Glenn Pease
If someone asks you, "What is the modern name of the country where Paul was born?" Would you know?
If someone asked you, "What is the modern name of the country where Christians were first called Christians?" Would you know?
If someone asked you, "What is the modern name of the country where Noah's Ark landed and the new world began?" Would you know?
If someone asked you, "What is the modern name of the country which became the center of Christianity after the fall of Jerusalem, and which became the center of world power and spread of Christianity for 16 centuries?" Would you know?
The answer to all of these questions is the same: It is the land of Turkey. I must confess I had no idea that Turkey was a major Bible country, but the fact is, it is. All 7 of the churches Jesus sent letters to in this book of Revelation were in Asia Minor, which today is Turkey. The Hittites of the Old Testament developed this land. Abraham came here on the way to the Holy Land. It was famous in Greek history as the land where they deceived the city of Troy into taking their wooden horse in which were hidden some of their soldiers. They took this famous city, and the story is recorded in Homer's famous Iliad.
Turkey is the bridge between Europe and Asia, and it is famous for more than most of us realize. This is where Florence Nightingale paved the way for modern nursing. This is where Hippocrates the father of modern medicine came to work centuries before. Dr. Luke got his training here, and Paul spent most of his life here, and a great deal of his ministry was in this area. John the Apostle served the churches here, as did Timothy. Mary the mother of Jesus lived her last days and was buried here. When Constantine the Roman Emperor became a Christian he transferred the capital of the Empire from Rome to Constantinople in what is now Turkey. For 7 centuries, which is three times as long as the United States has existed, this was the center of world and Christian power.
The first ecumenical council where Christian leaders from all over the world met was in Nicaea in 325 A.D. There they established basic Christian doctrine held by all Christians to this day. Not only is a good portion of the New Testament written to churches in what is now Turkey, but out of that area has come the theological foundation for all the creeds of Christiandom. Everyone of us has been greatly influenced by what happened in the land of Turkey. The reason I share this is two fold. First, because most Christians never think of it or hear of it. It is lost knowledge because we don't know history. Second, it becomes a startling piece of evidence as to the consequences of not listening to Jesus when he speaks to the church. Jesus warned these churches that if they did not listen they would be removed, and would no longer be lights in the world, and that is exactly what happened.
This center of the Christian faith was destroyed, and today it is 98% Moslem, and the Christian church has very little influence. The churches and even the cities are nothing but rubble and wasteland because the church stopped listening to her Lord, and went her own way just like the people of Israel did, and the glory of the Lord departed as it did from the temple of Israel.
The messages to the seven churches are vital to the survival of the church in any part of the world at any time in history. The lights of the church go out all through history and produce dark ages when Jesus is not heard and heeded. This background should make us realize how seriously we need to give heed to these letters of our Lord to the church. Most all of the churches of Turkey have been turned into Mosques or museums because they had ceased to listen. History teaches us that Jesus says what He means and He means what He says. We want to look at what He says to the first church-the church of Ephesus. This letter is really second Ephesus, for Paul wrote one of his most impressive letters to this church several decades earlier. It was a great church in a great city.
In the original list of the seven wonders of the world which goes back to the second century B.C. The second one on the list was the temple of Diana in Ephesus. Pliny the Roman Historian called it, "The most wonderful monument of Grecian magnificence.." It took a 120 years to build it. It was 425 feet in length and 225 feet wide with 127 60 foot columns, each given by a different king so that all of Asia joined in the building of this temple to their favorite goddess. The Greeks called her Artemis. Diana was her Roman name.
Ephesus was the city of greatest renown, and it was wealthy because people came from all over the world to see the temple. It was the Orlando, Florida of Asia Minor. Paul almost started a riot in Ephesus because one of the silversmiths by the name of Demetrius made silver shrines of Diana and sold them to the masses of tourists. Paul came along and said manmade gods are not gods at all. Demetrius, fearful of losing his money machine, stirred up the people and the whole story recorded in Acts 19 says the crowds became furious for two hours as they shouted,
"Great is Diana of the Ephesians." The officials finally got them quieted down, but this gives you a glimpse of what life was like in the city of Ephesus. It was a pagan capital of worship, and with a temple which was awesome. In the shadow of one of the seven wonders of the world Paul establishes one of the seven churches in Revelation.
Ancient writer after ancient writer raved of the magnificence of Ephesus. It was the home of the world's most popular goddess. She had an army of priests and prophetesses, theologians, choristers, and even acrobats. What chance did a handful of Christians have in that environment. It would be like setting up a tent along side a great Cathedral and trying to compete. Paul knew it would be tough, and it was. He spent three years in a lecture hall having discussions everyday on the Christian way. The Apostle John followed Paul and gave leadership to this church. That area became the nursery of Christiandom. After the fall of Jerusalem, Ephesus became the new center of Christianity.
Diana is a mere record of history known only to scholars, but the letter of Paul to the church of Ephesus, and the letter of Jesus to Ephesus are read and studied by people all over the planet. The once proud city is now a heap of ruins, and the church is gone, but the messages it brought forth from Paul and Jesus live on to challenge and change the church the world over.
Ephesus was the first of the seven churches to be addressed by the Lord of the church. It was the closest to the island of Patmos where John received the revelation. The seven churches were key churches in the area, but they were not all the churches that were there. There were many others, but these seven represent the total church as seven represents totality all through the book of Revelation. Jesus begins His revelation of the plan of God from the first century to the last century of history, and on into eternity with these messages to the churches. The reason is, the church is His key tool to change history and get people ready for His coming and the eternal kingdom. He does not have another plan. His church is His body, and by means of it He will fulfill His plan for this world.
The amazing thing we see in these letters is that they are far from being perfect instruments. Jesus was the perfect man and he fulfilled the will of God perfectly in His death and resurrection. But now as the Lord of the church He has to finish His work in history by means of His church, and it is still made up of people who live in a fallen world and who are yet far from perfected. All of the churches have defects, problems, and weaknesses. If you feel the church is not all it should be, that is not surprising, for Jesus felt the same about the early church. They had all kinds of problems, and some of them quite serious. Jesus was very critical of His churches, but it was always with the goal of getting them to repent, change, and become what they had the potential of becoming.
The first thing we need to learn from these letters is that the church needs to be in constant renewal, for it is a fallible human organization, and thus, it is in constant decay. It is a tool that is getting dull all the time and needs perpetual sharpening if it is to get the job done that Jesus left it here to do. These were the cream of crop churches, but they had plenty of problems and were in need of revival. Every Christian alive is to be a overcomer, for that is a major theme in these letters. In Ephesus they were growing cool and losing their first love. Jesus says in verse 7, "To Him that overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life." Problems and bad attitudes of believers can be overcome and reversed. That is why these letters exist: To bring that very thing about, and make Christians of all churches perpetual overcomers.
At the conclusion of each of these letters you read of a reward to be given to those who are overcomers. Overcoming sins and weaknesses is what being a Christian is all about. It is basic ministry of the church to be ever engaged in overcoming all of the things that make Christians less than the ideal tool Jesus needs to get His purpose done in this lost world. Even to the most deficient church of the lot-the church of Laodicea, which was making Jesus sick so that He was about to spit them out of His mouth, He concludes in 3:21, "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to set with Me on My throne, just as I overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne." The worst can still have the best. The church, no matter how short of the mark, can still be an overcomer and succeed in fulfilling the purpose of Christ in the world.
The Lord of the church is optimistic about the church and its potential for perpetual renewal. It is always going to the dogs, and Christians are cooling off and following some fool fad or heresy, but Jesus is ever ready to forgive and restore and use this fallible tool for His glory and the salvation of the world. Jesus never gives up on the church, for it is a living organism, and it can listen, respond, repent, change, and get back on track, even when it goes astray and is part of the problem instead of part of the solution to this world's mess.
The church is just people, a great variety of just ordinary people. There are people with varied gifts and personalities, but everyone of them not yet perfected. So when you get a number of them together they do not create perfection. If two wrongs don't make a right why should 200 make a right? Church is never wholly right or ideal and free of defects. If you find one you should let the Lord know right away because He never found one in His search. There are no perfect churches in the New Testament, and it is safe to assume there never has been such a church. Every church can be criticized, and it is valid to do so, but to be Christlike about it the goal of the criticism is to be constructive so as to help them to be overcomers.
You do not forsake your yard because weeds or dandelions began to take over. You work to make it better. You do not throw away your car when it gets dirty and tires get worn. You seek to wash it and replace the tires. So it is with your house and your body. If people abandoned their body every time it developed a defect that made it not function as it was designed to function, the suicide rate would be almost 100%. We do not abandon the body even though we get very critical of it. We seek to make it better and restore it to health. That is how Jesus deals with His body-the church. He seeks to restore it to health when it is sick. To be Christlike is to be ever seeking for ways to help the church be healthy. If you cannot stand an imperfect church, you are in the wrong world because that is all there is in this world. I love the way Eugene Peterson says it in his book Reversed Thunder.
"The churches if the Revelation show us that churches are not
Victorian parlors where everything is always picked up and
ready for guests. They are messy family rooms. Entering a
person's house unexpectedly, we are sometimes met with a
barrage of apologies. St. John does not apologize. Things are
out of order, to be sure, but that is what happens to churches
that are lived in. They are not showrooms. They are living
rooms, and if the person's living in them are sinners, there
are going to be clothes scattered about, hand prints on the
woodwork, and mud on the carpet. For as long as Jesus
insists on calling sinners and not the righteous to repentance-
and there is no indication as yet that he has changed His policy
in that regard-churches are going to be an embarrassment to
the fastidious and an affront to the upright. St. John sees them
simply as lampstands: They are places, locations, where the
light of Christ is shown. They are not themselves the light.
There is nothing particularly glamorous about churches, nor,
on the other hand, is there anything particularly shameful
about them. They simply are."
The body does a lot of things even when it is sick or defective. It is inadequate, but it still works and loves, and makes a difference in the world. So the defective church is still the church. It's light is often dim, but its still points people to the light of Christ. It has plenty of sin of its own, but it still leads people to find forgiveness of their sin. Christians are often more concerned about their crabgrass than a lost world. But the lost are still won by a world wide outreach.
At a church supper there may be more gossip than casseroles, yet people are loved and cared for, and they get support to survive one crisis after another. Christians may be more interested in the sports world yet the Word of God does get through, and there is a measure of growth in having the mind of Christ. Christians want to be in an atmosphere of the holy with little interest in being holy themselves. You can go on and on about the defects of Christians, and all of it is true, but none of which is a valid reason for forsaking the church. Jesus knew that the critics of the church would be correct. He is the first and the greatest critic of them all. But He also makes it clear that a critic whose goal is not to help the church overcome its defects does not have his mind toward the church.
Look at the shocking criticism He levels at the church of Ephesus. He has just said, I am impressed with your deeds, hard work, and perseverance. You have been orthodox in your theology, and have not grown weary in enduring hardships. Jesus really butters them up as being a great church. But then in verse 4 He says, "But there is this one thing I hold against you. You have forsaken your first love." He just as well have poked them in the eye with the golden lampstand, for this was a devastating accusation. What good is all the rest without love? Everything minus love equals nothing. If you lack the basic thing, what good is it that you have a lot of lesser things? Jesus admits this is the basic thing to have love, for He makes it clear if they do not repent and get restored to their first love, He will remove their lampstand. In other words, they will cease to be His light in the world. A church without love is like a candle without a wick, a flashlight without a battery, a bulb without electricity. There can be no light where there is no love.
Here we see the bride and the groom when the honeymoon is over and the hot summer has changed to winter, and just when they are most needed, the coals of fire have grown cold. First love is honeymoon love. It is the love that warms life and makes people happy to be alive. Jesus loves this kind of love too. The radiance of the real hot romance is everybody's favorite kind of light. Jesus is a jealous groom, and He wants His bride to keep that romance alive and not let it grow cold. It is of interest to note that the problem in our relationship to Christ is the same as our problem in relationship to our mates. We let the flame go out and try to live by the ashes of yesterday's fire. In our romantic and religious life we become cold and dull, and just follow a routine. Mates can often adjust to this and live together for 40 years after the fire is out. Jesus is not content with this sort of relationship. He expects to be loved today just as He was yesterday, and as He expects to be loved forever.
The fascinating thing here is Jesus says it is a matter of the will. You lose your love because of choices you make. You can choose to remake these choices and get back to your first love. Love is not just an emotion, love is a choice. Jesus says you can repent and stop doing what you are doing, and start doing again what you did at first. First love is a priority, and it is a choice you can make. People act like love is some outside force like a flying saucer, and unless one hits you you cannot do anything to make it happen. But love is not so, it is an inside job. It is what you choose to do with your life and energy. We choose to love or we choose not to. It is not an external that we have no control over. It is an internal we have full control over. Jesus says you forsook your first love. It was your choice. Now make another choice to get back to it, or you are no longer a part of my team, and you will be sidelined for good.
They had some good things going for them, but it was like a car that has run out of gas. It will keep going for quite a ways because of the momentum of past power.They were sort of coasting along not realizing they had run out of the fuel of love, and would soon come to a halt. Jesus says, get back to your fuel supply of love, or you will be going nowhere. It is interesting to note that he says in verse 6 that they still had their hate working. They hated evil and that was good, but their love had conked out. Hate of evil is easier to keep going than love for people and the Lord. You find Christians who are powerful haters of evil who have lost their love for the evil people they so hate.
Hate of evil is good Jesus said, but it cannot be the light that represents Him in the world. Their hate is going strong, but if they don't get back to their first love, they will be removed. No church can be moved by hate of evil alone and be what Christ needs in this world. Without love the best hater is of no ultimate value. Hate of evil by itself is worthless for the purpose of Christ. Hate only has value when it is a servant of love. Show me a Christian who is a great hater, but who is not a great lover, and I'll show you a Christian whose light is about to go out, for such a Christian cannot represent Christ in the world.
Augustine of Canterbury insisted that the 3,000 monks in Bangor Wales strive to evangelize the Saxons. "No way," said the Abbot, "We will not preach the faith to this cruel race...who have treacherously driven our ancestors from their country..." Augustine said, "Since you will not show them the way of life, I am sure they will show you the way of death." Not many years later Ethelfrid invaded Wales and many of these monks were massacred. They were excellent haters, and possibly even the best ever, but that did not prevent their light from being snuffed out. Hate does not shine, only love does. If love does not shine, hate will not save the day, for it can never be a substitute for love. There is no substitute for love.
The world needs saving more than it needs condemning. The truth is not God so hated the world that He planned to judge it, but He so loved the world He gave His only Son to save it. The Bible makes it clear that to God the priority is love.