Revelation 2:12-17 The Church That Compromised

There is no book in the Bible which more clearly discloses the invisible, eternal realm to us than the book of Revelation. As we open its pages we learn not only what will someday happen upon the earth, but we learn about what is happening now – and why. We learn the invisible, eternal counsel of God about how we are to live out our lives in the world and in the church.

Christ’s letter to Smyrna warned about approaching persecution (v. 10), but in the letter to Pergamum, Jesus writes to Christians who have already witnessed martyrdom for the faith. Jesus praises them: “You did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you” (v. 13). The word for witness is martus, a form of the word that gives us martyr, a believer who gives his or her life in faithfulness to Christ. It’s not surprising that martyrdom had already come to Pergamum, since Jesus says that it is “where Satan’s throne is” and “where Satan dwells” (v. 13).

In contrast to Smyrna, where the persecution arose from Jewish betrayals, in Pergamum the Christians faced the hostility of pagans who demanded conformity to their idolatrous cultural norms. It is probably for resisting pagan practices and refusing to worship Caesar that Antipas lost his life in service to Christ. We know from a letter from the Roman Governor Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan, dated around A.D. 111 that accused Christians could avoid death only by cursing the name Jesus Christ. It is noteworthy then, how Jesus praises the church in Pergamum: “Yet you hold fast my name” (v. 13). This means that the Christians would not renounce Jesus or despise His name, even on pain or death.

Persecution is not the only serious threat facing Christians and churches, however. A second threat is false teaching from within, and in this respect Jesus expresses serious concern for Pergamum: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (vv. 14-15).

In referring to the example of Balaam and also the false teachers known as the Nicolaitans, it is likely that Jesus was speaking of the same persons. Nicolaitans and Balaam have the same meaning, the first a Greek word and the second a Hebrew word meaning “conqueror of the people.” Jesus equates the two, saying, “So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans (v. 15). In considering Jesus’ description of false teachers under the name of Balaam, we should note that Balaam wreaked his havoc by means of false teaching: he “taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel.” In Pergamum, similar teaching encouraged Christians to “eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (v. 14).

It seems therefore, that the Nicolaitans encouraged cultural accommodation and secular living. They sought to persuade Christians that there was nothing wrong with a prudent conformity to the world’s standards. Today, Nicolaitans would be foremost among those urging the ordination of homosexuals as ministers, since this compromise is demanded by the secular culture. The Nicolaitan spirit tells us not to be rigorous in teaching or preaching God’s Word. By refusing to practice biblical gender order in the church, and by refusing to teach on unpopular topics such as sin, divine wrath, and eternal judgment, Evangelicals are propagating the very false approach to the Bible that has produced such radical results in other churches more advanced along the same trajectory of worldly accommodation and spiritual decline. Jesus’ warning to Pergamum teaches us that Christians and churches must be vigilant against false teaching.

How then, should a church deal with such threats as the error of Balaam or the teaching of the Nicolaitans, whether in the present day or in the day of John the apostle? Jesus’ reply was, in effect, you deal with error with a sharp, two-edged sword! “Repent,” He said. “Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” The Word of God exposes both the error of immorality and the error of spiritual pride and priestly superiority. That is the reason why many churches in our time ignore the clear exposition of Scripture.

At the close of His letter to the church at Pergamum, the Lord gives a special promise to the believers of that far-off place and time – but also to believers of our own time in verse 17. This promise is addressed to all those who heed the warnings of this letter, who are vigilant and faithful in the areas of sexual immorality, spiritual superiority, and spiritual pride. If you and I stand fast against the lure of corruption and the lust of power over others, Jesus promises that we will be given several things – secret things with a special significance. First, He says He will give us “hidden manna.” Second, He will give us a white stone. Third, upon that stone will be written a new name, known only to ourselves. Here is a beautiful symbolic picture special intimacy with God.

Manna was the food from heaven with which Moses fed the people of Israel in the wilderness. Jesus Himself is the food from heaven on which you and I may feed. In John 6, Jesus says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” He is the “hidden manna.” He is the food for the inner spirit – a food that others do not know about. We find inner nourishing and strength when we experience true intimacy with God as we resist the lure of moral impurity and spiritual conceit.

Jesus also promises a white stone with our new name – a secret name – written upon it. The symbol of the white stone is significant because the Romans of John’s time used it as a mark of special favor. The secret name written upon the white stone was, of course, another symbol of intimacy, of a special, intimate relationship with God. If we know the Lord Jesus and if we keep our hearts pure from the corrupting influences of the world around us, He has promised to give us a new name, a secret name, a special mark of intimacy with Him. That name signifies not merely a change in what we are called, but a change in what we become: We are new creatures, with a new nature, heirs to a new and exciting destination in eternity – a rich, warm, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ that goes on and on forever.

Revelation 2:12-17 Study Questions:

How does the Lord refer to the city of Pergamum in this letter?

Why might it have been particularly difficult to be a Christian in this kind of place?

The problem in Pergamum is that much of the church has lost its cutting edge, its ability to say no to the surrounding culture. For these people, Jesus has stern words. How do we take this warning seriously and not succumb to societal pressures that lead us away from following Jesus purely and faithfully?

Revelation 2:8-11 Faithful unto Death

It was a thriving seaport city more than 3,000 years before Christ was born, and it is still a thriving city today. During the time Revelation was written, it was a center of commerce, wealth, and architectural splendor, located about 40 miles north of Ephesus. The city fathers proclaimed it “the Pride of Asia.” Today it’s the third largest city in Turkey and a major international trade center, as well as the home of the NATO southern command HQ and the prestigious Aegean University. The city is now known as Izmir, but during the first century, when the book of Revelation was written, its name was Smyrna.

The name Smyrna means “myrrh,” a fragrant spice or perfume obtained when the tender bark of the flowering myrrh tree is pierced or crushed. It is a fitting name for the first-century church of Smyrna, which gave off a fragrance of Christ throughout the region because it was a church that was often pierced, often crushed, often afflicted. The city Smyrna was a center of idolatrous emperor worship. As early as A.D. 26, the region of Tiberius Caesar, a temple was erected to the emperor, and all the citizens of Smyrna – including Christians – were expected to worship the Roman emperor. If you were a Christian in Smyrna, you were called upon once a year to appear at the temple and either say “Caesar is Lord,” or, “Jesus is Lord.” Those who refused to confess Caesar as their Lord were either imprisoned or put to the sword.

So Smyrna was a place of enormous oppression and persecution for the early church. This persecution was inflicted upon the church by the Roman government. And it was also inflicted upon the church by the Jewish community in Smyrna – a community that was fanatically hostile to the early Christian church. These then, are the circumstances of the church in Smyrna at the time the second letter of Revelation was written.

Smyrna receives the shortest of Jesus’ seven messages, yet one filled with praise and without any criticism from the Lord. Jesus’ urgent letter to this church is dominated by His need to prepare the Smyrnaeans for severe persecution that is drawing near (vv. 9-10). Jesus is very familiar with the state of affairs in Smyrna, especially the “tribulation” that was upon the church. This word means “living under the pressure of great oppression.” It’s not surprising that Jesus first associated this tribulation with “poverty,” since successful participation in social and economic life would probably have been impossible for those not willing to worship Caesar as Lord.

How few Christians today are willing to place the affairs of Christ’s kingdom ahead of their careers or financial prosperity! But the Christians of Smyrna realized that theirs was a privilege of sharing in Christ’s own suffering. Another form of tribulation came through the “slander” that the Christians were enduring from “those who say that they are Jews and are not” (v. 9).

Another feature of Smyrna was the large and prominent Jewish community in the city. Many of the first believers may have come from the Jewish community. This would have been one reason why Jewish leaders were some of the early church’s most resolute oppressors. The two other forms of persecution in Smyrna go together, since imprisonment in those days was not for the sake of incarceration but merely as a brief prelude to execution: “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison… Be faithful unto death” (v. 10).

The kinds of tribulation suffered by the church at Smyrna are still being suffered by Christians around the world today. Here in America today, Christians are frequently slandered as being hateful people because of our moral stance against homosexuality. Simply reading the Bible’s teachings on sexuality and marriage may soon be criminalized in the United States as “hate speech.”

Jesus has a message of encouragement to the persecuted church of Smyrna which is grounded in His own glorious person. His command is “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (v. 10). The basis for this urging is found in Christ’s opening words: “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life’” (v. 8). Jesus presents Himself as the Lord of the persecuted, granting hope, provision, and victory for His saints in the tribulation of this world.

Jesus has three words of encouragement for those who will endure this severe form of persecution, three statements to strengthen and embolden the hearts of the believers in Smyrna. First, He says, “The devil will put some of you in prison to test you.” God knows what we are to endure even before we are subjected to it. We discover how much we have matured in Christ and how trustworthy God is in times of trouble. Trials strip away our artificial and superficial supports and force us to lean on the only support that is truly reliable: the grace and strength of God Himself!

Second, He says that persecution will last only a limited time (“for ten days”). We can be encouraged to know that the Lord sets limits to our suffering. The test will not last longer than we can endure. If the Lord says the test will last “ten days,” then there is no force on earth that could make it last eleven days! The pressure under which the Smyrna congregation suffered would not last forever.

Third, He says, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” We can be certain that “the crown of life” had a special significance to the Christians in Smyrna. The city of Smyrna was often called “the crown of Asia.” This was a source of status and pride to the citizens of Smyrna. But Jesus says that He will give to the Christians of Smyrna and even better crown – the crown of life, the enjoyment of eternal life in glory! These words of reassurance to the church in Smyrna remind us of Paul’s statement in Romans that “the sufferings of this present moment are not to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.” And elsewhere Paul writes, “This light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us to produce an eternal weight of glory.” We are continually encouraged by the fact that these trials, testings, and pressures are producing something of eternal value in our lives.

Jesus places a single requirement on His persecuted church: “Be faithful,” even “unto death” (v. 10). The believers were not to look at the suffering to come, so that they tremble with fear, but to look through the suffering to the Sovereign Lord who promised to deliver them strengthened and purified after a limited duration of trial. With this perspective, remaining faithful was their single goal.

Jesus gave an incentive to faithfulness under tribulation that pertains to believers of all times: “He, who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (v. 11). The expression “second death” also appears later in Revelation, which identifies it with the eternal condemnation in hell that awaits unbelievers in the final judgment (21:8). The Bible speaks not only of two deaths, temporal and eternal, but also of two resurrections – of the spirit and of the body. All persons will be resurrected in the body on the last day to stand before the judgment throne of Christ (Matt. 25:31-32). But those who believe in Jesus in this present life, suffering tribulation for His name but made rich through saving faith, have received a spiritual resurrection in the new birth.

Jesus told His followers in Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (v. 10). Likewise, Jesus tells unbelievers that their true fear is not what they will lose in this world through the faith in Christ but rather God’s judgment that awaits us all in death. Jesus once said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). For both the Christian and the unbeliever, the Bible’s antidote to fear is one and the same, along with an invitation to eternal life: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). He promises all who believe: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life…The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death (vv. 10-11).

Revelation 2:8-11 Study Questions:

In the church of Smyrna, the Lord finds nothing to condemn. What seems to be the main focus of this letter?

The Jewish synagogue in Smyrna has become a “satan-synagogue” – not just in vague, general, abusive sense, but in the rather sharply defined sense that, as “the satan” is literally “the accuser,” the synagogue in town has been “accusing” the Christians of all kinds of wickedness. What is the Lord’s advice to the church at Smyrna when it comes to responding to such accusations and their consequences (v. 10)?

How might we take the promise of verse 11 to heart and live as those who know that the “second death” has no power to harm the faithful?

Weekly Seed Of Faith 9/23/2021

Seed of Faith – Resurrection Rescue   By Pastor Dave  

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 1 Corinthians 15:10

Dear Faithful and Fruitful Seed-Sowers,

It is my prayer that each and every one of us are walking with Jesus and that we are surrounded by His powerful presence, perfect peace and rescued by His precious grace.

Our “SO WHAT?” questions from last week were:

What is the most important thing you have or own? (Pause. List a few.)
What is the most important thing you know?
What is the one thing you want to pass on to your family and friends?

Before we go to God’s living words of life, let us come to our Living Lord in a moment of prayer.  “Lord, God of all hope and healing, we come today to be touched and renewed, restored and resurrected by Your Living Word.  Come, Holy Spirit, speak to us. Cleanse us of our wrong thinking and guide us in Your ways. Amen.”

Take a moment and read I Corinthians 15:1-11.

The Apostle Paul lays claim to the power and hope of the resurrection right here. But, first, we need to take a moment to reflect upon who Paul is and how he came to this knowledge.

POINT 1: Paul the Persecutor
Paul was a Jew who grew up and sat at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest Pharisee and teacher of the law.  Paul learned the law and lived the law.  Paul became an aggressive persecutor of the newly formed Christian Church. In chapter seven of the Book of Acts, we find Paul holding the cloaks of those stoning Stephen, the first martyr for Christ and of the church.   By chapter nine of Acts, Paul goes to the High Priest to receive papers to go to Damascus to find the followers of the Way, the followers of Christ.  Paul had been imprisoning them and had these Christians beaten and put to death. The Bible tells us that Paul was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” (Acts 9:1)

Take in this picture of Paul. A man highly educated, passionate about God and filled with fire for keeping the law of God. Are you in this story today?

Have you ever been lost? 
Have you ever felt as if you had gone too far to return to God?
Have you ever looked down on someone and judged them beyond hope?
Maybe you think you are beyond hope?

If so, then this story of Paul’s conversion and encounter with grace is for you!

In the eighteenth century, there were two young men in England whose names were Lord Lyttleton and Gilbert West. They were unbelievers. In fact, they were strong in their unbelief. They were also both lawyers, with keen minds, and they thought they had good reasons for rejecting Christianity. One day in a conversation one of them said, “Christianity stands upon a very unstable foundation. There are only two things that actually support it: the alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ and the alleged conversion of Saul of Tarsus. If we can disprove those stories, which should be rather easy to do, Christianity will collapse like a house of cards.” Gilbert West said, “All right, then. I’ll write a book on the alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ and disprove it.” Lord Lyttleton said, “If you write a book on the resurrection, I’ll write on the alleged appearance of Jesus to the apostle Paul. You show why Jesus could not possibly have been raised from the dead, and I’ll show that the apostle Paul could not have been converted as the Bible says he was—by a voice from heaven on the road to Damascus.” Each went off to write their book. Sometime later they met again, and one of them said to the other, “I’m afraid I have a confession to make. I have been looking into the evidence for this story, and I have begun to think that maybe there is something to it after all.” The other said, “The same thing has happened to me. But let us keep on investigating these stories and see where we come out.”

In the end, after they had done their investigations and had written their books, each had come out on exactly the opposite side he had been on when he began his investigation. Gilbert West had written The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, arguing that it is a fact of history. And Lord Lyttleton had written The Conversion of St. Paul.[i]

By treating the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the conversion of the apostle Paul as the two great pillars of Christianity, these men were saying that if the apostle Paul was not converted as the ninth chapter of Acts says he was, and as he himself declares in his own recorded testimonies both before the Jews and the Gentiles, then Christianity loses one of its two most important bulwarks. Moreover, it loses its most able theologians.

Point 2: Paul the Proclaimer of GRACE
Listen to Herschel H. Hobbs’ (author and theologian) thoughts on law and grace:

I read an illustration about a man who is standing at a fork in the road trying to decide which way to go. One road has a sign which says “law.” The other has a sign reading “grace.” If he chooses to travel the law road, he falls away from the grace road. It is not a matter of being in grace and falling out of it. It is a matter of never having been in grace. One cannot travel both roads. For law and grace negate each other. If it is by works, it cannot be by grace, grace is a gift. If it is by grace, then it cannot be by law. Christ is in the grace road. So, if you travel the law road, you are cut off from Him and His saving power. To depend upon legalism in any form or degree for salvation is to turn your back upon Christ.[ii]

Paul stood on the fork in that road. He had to choose between law and grace.  I believe that we all come to this fork in the road many times in our lives. Maybe you are at one today.

I love how Paul puts it in this letter to Corinthians … Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. 1 Corinthians 15:8-11

“But by the grace of God I am what I am.”  What a powerful statement.

Paul was transformed from a powerful persecutor of the church into a passionate preacher proclaiming Christ and Him crucified, dead, buried and risen! Paul was presented Grace Road and he left the fork in the road that day.

Paul told the church in Colossae these words … “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” Colossians 1:2-5

I know many people who quote only part of this famous saying.  Many say, “I am what I am.” But we need to include the last part of this verse: by the grace of God.

Paul’s life was forever changed and transformed by God’s grace.  Pick up your Bible and you will read how Paul begins most of his letters to the churches with “grace” and he ends most of his writings with words of “grace.” Paul had been trained for years in the law. He stood at the fork in the road for an exceptionally long time. Friends, it is only the grace of God that can change us from being a sinner to saint, from a persecutor to a proclaimer. GRACE: God RICHES At Christ’s Expense—a free gift for all. We cannot buy this precious, priceless commodity. Grace is God’s free gift.

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eightfold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law—each offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.[iii]

The Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection de-centers unbelievers from the center of their own life.  That is what it did for Paul.  Paul stood at the intersection of Law and Grace and recognized his unworthiness. Paul recognized a truth I want us all to remember “I AM WHAT I AM BY THE GRACE OF GOD.”

Where would you be today without God’s grace?

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 1 Corinthians 15:10

So What?
Brennan Manning has been one of my favorite authors.  I was able to go and hear him speak in person on many occasions.  I have read and reread his books.  They have ministered to me in many ways throughout my years of ministry and my years of being rescued from myself. I stood at the intersection of law and grace often. Manning has written: “The Ragamuffin Gospel, Ruthless Trust, Abba’s Child, The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus.”  Get ready for the title of his last book: “All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir.” Manning was a recovering alcoholic.  Brennan died of wet brain syndrome, Weirnecke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS).  Brennan struggled with alcoholism. Listen to some of his last words:

“Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity—that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain—that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves YOU without condition or reservation and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be?”[iv]

Many of you know that the past few years have been difficult for my wife and I. We have lived through the sorrow and grief of the deaths of four family members and a very close friend who was like family.  I went back to Illinois this past month to help clean out some of the personal items in my dad’s home where he and my mom lived for many years. My mom died in this home. I was with her. This is the same home where my dad and stepmom lived for another 20 years. In mid-May Jodi, Juliet, Brian, and I traveled to the house (from Texas and California) in order to pick up boxes that my stepmom had set aside for the Peters family. We moved the boxes to a storage building in Rochelle. Jac and I planned a cross-country trip for July in order for me to go through those boxes. A few weeks later, I bought a few additional items from the estate sale and had a good set of friends deliver those items to the storage shed.

As Jac and I stood in that old storage building in Rochelle the last week of June, it hit me. I was standing at the intersection of law and grace like my brother, Paul. I actually heard a soft, still voice within my heart, soul, spirit, mind say, “Dave, I want to tell you why this has intruded into your life. I know how busy you are, but you have a platform to proclaim my grace to many. Here is what I want you to know: Unlike you, I go to an awful lot of estate sales every single day. You went to your first estate sale and brought a few family heirlooms back home. Dave, I go to every estate sale I know of and I go every single day. You know what I do? I buy my people back. It’s okay. You are at the same intersection Persecutor Paul found himself at so very long ago: Law or Grace? Paul was blinded. He was guided to town and laid in a bed for days. Paul had plenty of time to pray and to think. So have you. I will imprint on your heart what I imprinted on Paul’s: Forget what lies behind. Focus on what lies ahead. CHOOSE GRACE EVERY TIME.”

Grace.  We cannot earn it. We  cannot buy it.
Grace is a free, priceless gift of God offered to us through the life, death, and resurrection of His one and only Son—Jesus Christ.

A long time ago our blue van housed a bumper sticker on the back end:  HOW TO GET TO HEAVEN? TURN RIGHT. GO STRAIGHT. We drove that van for 350,000 miles. It went to the ballpark several nights a week. One day my wife was working at the concession. A little boy ran up to her and said, “Hey! I turned right and I’m going straight to heaven!” It was good advice for him. It’s good advice for you and me.

Paul had a history. He turned RIGHT and went STRAIGHT. Thank God.

You and me? Same choice. I don’t know about you but I’m turning right and going straight….by the GRACE OF GOD…I AM WHAT I AM.

See you Sunday!

God loves you and so do I,
Pastor Dave

Join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 9am Pacific at 9284 Baseline Road Rancho Cucamonga, California.  If you are not able to join us in person you are invited to watch out live-stream and connect with us through your chats, prayers and worship.  You can always go to our YouTube channel and wrtch the weekly worship service, children’s messages and sermons.  The YouTube channel is The Seed Christian Fellowship.


[i] My version, an old one, has West’s and Lyttleton’s books bound together: Lord Lyttleton on the Conversion of St. Paul and Gilbert West on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (New York: The American Tract Society, 1929). In some editions the flyleaf contains the words: “Blame not until thou hast examined the truth.” The story of these two men is told in R. A. Torrey, The Bible, and Its Christ (New York: Revell, 1904–1906), 98–100.

[ii] Hobbs, H. H. (1990). My favorite illustrations (p. 132). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

[iii] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace?, Zondervan, 1997

[iv] Brennan Manning, All is Grace, 2011, David C Cook

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Revelation 2:1-7 The Church that Lost Its Love

We find now, a stack of letters, seven in all, which have largely been ignored and unopened by the Christian Church over the years. Many people tend to skip over these seven letters to the churches, so eager to hurry to those juicy, action-packed, sections of Revelation. We would rather hear about the great cataclysms of the last days than be confronted with the urgent challenge of our own present moment. These seven letters to seven churches are powerful letters, burning with urgency. Their message is still as vital and timely today as when first written. So many ills of our churches in the twenty-first century could be cured if we would only listen with attentive ears to the message Jesus gave us through the pen of John over 2000 years ago,

In these letters, our Lord outlines for us His plan for the church. He shows us that He has set His church in the midst of the world. It is His instrument to impact and direct the course of human history. Jesus calls the church “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth.” The apostle Paul calls the church “the pillar and ground of truth.” That is the mystery and the mission of the church. God intends the church to exert tremendous influence over the affairs of the world.

These seven letters set forth His eternal “game plan.” So it’s a grievous mistake to slight the crucial importance and timely relevance of these letters. They are filled with both warning and encouragement to churches that are struggling with sin and complacency within, and persecution without. In these letters, our Lord teaches the church how to live as light in a darkening world while also confronting the sin and error that threatens the health and life of the church.

Do you remember the first time you fell in love? Do you recall that feeling of always wanting to be near the object of your love, to simply bask in the presence of that person? In Revelation 2:1-7, we meet a church that once loved Jesus that way. But tragically, at the time that we encounter this church in Revelation, the fondness, the remembrance, the yearning of that first glow of love had faded. Instead of a church that is ardently in love with its Lord, we find a church that has lost its love.

The first thing the Lord impresses upon the Ephesian church is that He is the Lord of all the churches. He holds the seven stars in His right hand, and He walks among the seven lampstands. He is in control of the angels of the churches, and He is directly observing the lampstands, the churches themselves, as He walks through their midst.

Ephesus was the leading city of Asia. It was the gateway to the Roman Empire in the region now known as Turkey, with rivers and roads connecting it to far-flung places. Ephesus was famous for its large harbor, a flourishing marketplace, and especially the great temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was also a dissolute and greatly immoral city, in large part because of the cultic prostitution and the liberty granted to criminals at its famous temple.

The church in Ephesus was now a second-generation congregation, having been founded forty years earlier by Paul, who later stayed to teach for three years during his third missionary journey. It was then overseen by Paul’s helper Timothy, until after Paul’s death the apostle John came, probably around the year A.D. 66. The apostles had thus invested a great deal in this church, and it is likely that the church in Ephesus extended the gospel throughout Asia so as to plant the other churches of the region. With such leadership and ministry, it is not surprising that Jesus finds much to praise in these believers (v. 2). Here, we are reminded of the words that Jesus will say to all His followers who worked hard for Him while He was gone: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21).

Not only had the Ephesians performed good works in Christ’s name, but they had persevered patiently under trials (vv. 2-3). This commendation indicates not merely that they had continued in believing, but that they had stood up to the pressure to conform to the surrounding culture. Then Christ commends the Ephesians for their vigilance over the truth (v. 2) It seems that false teachers had come among them, claiming to be apostles, but under testing they had been proved false and rejected. Jesus goes on to identify this threat in a further commendation in verse 6. Jesus’ praise to the Ephesians for testing and rejecting the false teachers should disabuse us of the idea that we can remain neutral in matters of truth! Certainly we should avoid needless controversy and argument. But when truth is up for sale, there is fidelity to Christ on one side and friendship with the world on the other.

There was however, a serious problem in Ephesus, and Jesus did not hesitate to confront it (v. 4). This rebuke is understood in two ways. Many commentators hear Jesus saying that in their zeal for correct doctrine, the Ephesians have become unloving toward people. In the earlier days they warmly embraced all who named the Lord in faith, but their zealous orthodoxy has made them suspicious and harsh. The second view sees this rebuke as charging the Ephesians with growing cold in their love for Jesus and their zeal for a close relationship with Him. It is likely that both are involved, especially since loss of love for God will result in less fervent affection for fellow Christians. This poses a serious challenge for doctrinally minded people: Jesus’ rebuke does not say that zeal for truth must always make our love grow cold, but it certainly indicates that it is possible. This is why Paul warned: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).

This same rebuke should be directed toward Christian individuals: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (v. 4). Many Christians recognize that the enthusiasm they once had for Christ is no longer seen in their lives. We have not turned from faith, and we are still performing our Christian duties. But from Jesus’ perspective, it is obvious that the first love has grown dim, perhaps replaced with lesser, more worldly priorities. If so, Jesus urges us to remember our first love with longing. Remembering is not enough, however. Jesus adds: “repent” (V. 5). This means that we must take action to change whatever caused us to lose our fervor for Christ. We should ask ourselves what happened or what entered our lives so as to account for our lessened fervor for Christ. Then we should remove it or put it back into its proper place and priority.

The final element in the seven messages to the churches of Revelation is a promise from Christ for blessing to those who conquer through faith (v. 7). To conquer with Christ doesn’t mean that all our difficulties have gone away or that believers can all expect to become thin, beautiful, wealthy, and powerful. Christians conquer by persevering to the end in faith, godliness, truth, and fervent love. This is the chief message of the entire book of Revelation, so we will gain a deeper idea of Christian overcoming as we progress in the book.

To conquer in Christ is to confess our sins and seek the atoning power of His death for our forgiveness, to hold fast to the gospel truths of the Bible as the foundation of our faith, and out of love for Jesus to be willing both to live for Him now and to die with Him should there be a day of final testing. Christians conquer amid tribulation in this world, but the blessing Jesus promises is received in the world to come when He returns (v. 7).

This promise refers back to the blessing lost by Adam and Eve through sin, as they were barred from eating from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22). Ever since that day, sinners have desperately sought to either find or build a paradise here on earth. Have you been trying to do that? Every earthly form of paradise fails precisely because it cannot provide the life for which we were created. Yet Jesus holds open before those who persevere with Him, bearing the cross through this world, and conquering through their faith, a true paradise prepared in heaven for those who love Him, where the Tree of Life blooms with leaves “for healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). Jesus confronts us with our obligation to overcome through faith in Him: He warns, “In the world you will have tribulation.” But, together with the promised Tree of Life, Jesus offers His own presence to those who rekindle their first love for Him: “Take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Revelation 2:1-7 Study Questions:

Do you sometimes hesitate to speak up about things you really believe in out of fear that you might offend someone? Explain.

What words of praise, warning and promise are spoken to the church of Ephesus?

The Ephesian believers have drawn a clear line between those who are really following Jesus and those who are not (v. 2). As all church workers, a group that is rightly concerned for the truth of the gospel may forget that the very heart of that gospel is love. What can we do to help maintain this delicate balance between truth and love in our own churches today?