Do you ever do something and forget why you are doing it? Rosy, my wife, is constantly going upstairs and then forgetting why she has gone up there. This got me thinking about service stations. Do you have a favourite one? Service stations are easy places to get distracted in, aren't they? You stop to rest and get a bite to eat and when you get inside it is easy to get distracted. Shops selling a wide variety of rubbish you don't need. From two-man tents and teddy bears with your name on to hardback magazines celebrating the latest royal wedding. There are an arcade and a casino. Lots of them now include an M&S so you can buy 3 bite-size chunks of organic melon for 5 pounds. Suddenly you are very distracted from the real reason why you were there in the first place.
This was the experience of the Ephesian church which we are going to look at today. There were lots of great things going on but they had abandoned the very thing that was supposed to be driving them forward. They had abandoned their first love.
The part of the Bible we are looking at today is a letter to the church in a place called Ephesus. It was dictated to the apostle John during his time in exile on the island of Patmos. It was dictated to John by Jesus himself. Jesus is described here as "him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands". I don't want to get bogged down in the picture language, this picture has already been explained in the previous chapter. The lampstands are the churches and the stars are the angels of the churches caring and looking after them. Why seven of each? Almost all numbers in the book of revelation mean something. And we know from the rest of the Bible that seven represents completeness or perfection. This picture of Jesus is presenting him as the one who has complete care and control of all his churches. His letter to the church in Ephesus, as with the other six letters in Revelation starts with the words "I know". Jesus knows each local church. He knows them perfectly. And in this letter, we are going to hear what he makes of the church in Ephesus. And Jesus also knows St Joseph's Benwell perfectly and so we should pray that he would speak to us and encourage and discipline us from these verses too.
Jesus has three positive things to say, three encouragements. Let me show you them in the passage.
The first is that they're full of effort. In verse 2 Jesus says "I know your works, your toil". This was a hard-working church! The second is that this is a church who patiently endures. Verse 2 Jesus praises them for their patient endurance and verse 3 he says again that he knows they are patiently enduring. And thirdly Jesus praises them for standing up for the truth. Not only do they hate the evil sect of Nicolaitans in verse 6 but they're also praised for testing apostles and not bearing with those who are evil in verse 2.
So let me introduce you to Nikos. A typical member of the church in Ephesus. He serves in the music group on Sundays. He helps out at the youth group. If there is a gap in the rota Nikos fills the gap. On top of that, he holds down a full-time job and is always inviting his colleagues to church. He always takes time off work when he can help out with a holiday club or a camp. He is always the last one at church clearing up. Nikos understands that being a church worthy of the praise of Jesus requires hard work.
But, for Nikos and the rest of the church, it wasn't easy being a Christian in Ephesus, just like it's not easy being a Christian anywhere. Suffering for the gospel was an everyday reality. Nikos had lost his job for becoming a Christian and was still putting up with insults and threats to his family. Despite all this Nikos was patiently enduring everything that was being thrown at him.
Nikos had also made a stand against the false teachers that sprung up, like the Nicolaitans, who were claiming to be apostles and teaching evil in the name of Jesus. Nikos and the Ephesians were willing to take a stand for the truth of the gospel.
And I think I can see a lot of Nikos and his church family in us too. We are striving to be a church which is full of effort, a church that is enduring and a church who is passionate about standing for the truth. So you might think this church in Ephesus is pretty good, isn't it! This is pat-on-the-back time for Nikos! And pat-on-the-back time for us too.
Or maybe not, hang on! What does Jesus have against them? What danger does he want to warn them of? What might Jesus have against us?
Jesus says verse 4:
"But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first."
Jesus had lots of positive things to say about what the church in Ephesus was doing. But as he knows each church perfectly, he could see the problem was not with their actions, but with their motives. Nikos was doing the right things, but he was doing them for the wrong reasons. It hadn't always been this way. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, which is found earlier in the New Testament and was written to the same church 30 years previous, ends with this. Ephesians 6.24:
"Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible."
This had been a church who had been known for their love of Jesus. But 30 years on, things had changed. They had abandoned that love for Jesus. That first love, from which everything else had followed, had been lost. The ministry was all action, but they had forgotten why they were doing any of it. They had forgotten that it was supposed to be their love for Jesus that was the fuel for what they were doing.
Nikos had found lots of great reasons to serve in the church. He had found it a great way to make deep friendships. He loved the activities they put on in the youth club. He was also serving for some pretty bad reasons. Serving to earn respect and gain a good reputation for himself. He'd also been pressured into doing it, guilt-tripped. He was serving God for good reasons and bad reasons. But Jesus is clear: serving is worthless if the main reason we do it isn't a love for Jesus. Jesus is warning Nikos of real danger. Serving because he was guilt-tripped will only lead him to become bitter and feel used. Serving to earn respect will mean he only serves when it can be seen by others and important things like prayer will be lost, meaning he is ineffective. And ultimately he will burn out from it all. Well, that's Nikos and the Ephesians, but what about us?
A love for, an excitement about, an amazement at the person of Jesus must be fundamental to everything we do as a church. Would someone coming into our church describe us as most fundamentally a family of different people who all love Jesus? There are lots of reasons we do what we do as a church. There are reasons we run Kids Zone, there are reasons we have a Foodbank collection, there are reasons we have a music ministry. But if the deepest reason isn't a love for Jesus, who he is and what he has done for us, then Jesus himself will have that against us.
And that is why we have to say no to lots of good ideas for things we could do as a church family. There are lots of great things we could do but we need to make sure we have time and space to focus on our love for Jesus and for discipling others to love him too. That is the only way we can be an effective church.
Age five my Dad did something which has affected my life ever since. He took me to a youth event at JPC in May 1998 to watch Newcastle vs Arsenal in the FA Cup final. Arsenal won 2-0 and I literally couldn't stop talking about them for weeks. By October I had my first Arsenal shirt. Up until the age of 21 when I decided it might be time to grow up I wore an Arsenal shirt pretty much every day. There were tough times being an Arsenal fan though not as tough as most of the teams in the country, but I could always look back on that day when I fell in love. This is obviously a stupid example and love for Arsenal is hugely different to love for Jesus but I think it's helpful to ask those same questions. Do you remember that feeling you had towards Jesus when you first understood the gospel? When God first revealed himself to you? Do you remember what that love felt like? Do you remember the way that impacted what you did? Is it that same love that is impacting you now? Is that fuelling the way you serve God? Have you, like the church in Ephesus, abandoned the love you had at first?
I don't know about you but I found this passage challenging to read. And it's good to feel challenged reading the Bible. That's how we grow to become more like Jesus! Thankfully Jesus gives us some clear steps to take if that is something we are struggling with either as individuals or as a church.
The first step to take, Jesus says in verse 5, is to "Remember therefore from where you have fallen".
Hopefully listening to this talk is helping you to do that. Maybe we should all take some time out this week to just pause and think about our love for Jesus. Is that what is spurring us on? The church I went to in Sheffield asks each member of the church family to complete a spiritual MOT booklet each time it's their birthday. The first question was always this: How did you become a Christian? This wasn't there by accident. It helped people to remember that love for Jesus they had at first. Maybe that would be a helpful thing to go through with a friend or spouse sometime this week? Often going to evangelistic events I find myself being re-evangelised. Seeing the gospel put so clearly and seeing people turn to Jesus. Seeing people love Jesus. It's a great way to remember our love for him. Remember from where you have fallen.
Secondly, Jesus tells the Ephesian church to "Repent, and do the works you did at first".
Repent is a Bible word which means to turn around. To change direction. Take a U-turn. My teachers used to say to me when I was in school. 'Don't be sorry, change!' God throughout the Bible makes it clear, 'If you're sorry, you will change.' That is what repentance is. And as we look back and see that a love for Jesus isn't motivating our serving, isn't what is guiding our lives, then we need to repent and change what we are doing.
We need to commit to making a love for Jesus a priority again. Commit to enjoying God again.
I'm sure you can think of people in this church family, whose life isn't easy and yet who serve incredibly faithfully because they have not abandoned that first love. Their love for Jesus is still as strong as ever. I wonder if we interviewed them at the front of church. Like we did with David Hamilton the terrorist couple of weeks back. If we asked them how do you keep your love for Jesus at the centre of what you do? How do you stay amazed by Jesus? How do you still enjoy God so much? I wonder what they would say.
Maybe they would say that spending time in God's word each morning letting the Bible show them how amazing Jesus is every day is a big part of it. Maybe they would talk about radical steps they have taken to make sure that they're serving God for the right reasons. Being accountable to people they trust about pride and selfishness. Focussing on serving God when no one is watching. Maybe they would say they regularly talk with people about when they first loved Jesus. Especially to non-Christians, which can be even more helpful. Maybe they would talk about enjoying being plugged into a small group of Christians who are encouraging each other to love Jesus more. We can't do this on our own.
Have a look down again at verse 5. Here Jesus spells out what will result if we don't change. If we don't repent. He says that Jesus himself will remove the lampstand from its place.
If you've been driving around cities in the UK for any length of time you will see so many church buildings that are no longer churches. They're cafes or libraries instead. What has happened? In the vast majority of cases, the lampstand has been removed by Jesus. It is not an idle threat. If the love of Jesus is not at the core of everything you do, Jesus will take away our right to be a church representing him.
This is true on a personal level too. We may know people ourselves who, like Nikos, have served lots in our church. As they have slowly abandoned their first love for Jesus, they have started serving for the wrong reasons. They have burnt out. They have become bitter. They no longer are part of the church. This may look from the outside like it is their doing, but maybe it is Jesus removing them as he keeps the focus of his church on himself. This is a very serious threat to us. We all should take it very seriously.
Jesus finishes off his letter to the church in Ephesus with an encouragement. Verse 7 says:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God."
So after the threat of taking the lampstand away, Jesus encourages his church. He encourages them by reminding them of the prize for the church who conquers. The conqueror, the one who listens to this letter, takes it to heart and acts, has something very exciting to look forward to. He says that he will grant them to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.
This image is taken straight out of the first chapters of the Bible in Genesis. Where Adam and Eve were given a tree whose fruit would keep them alive. Access to this tree was an incredible gift from God. They chose instead to eat from the one tree he told them not to eat from. And because of their sin, their disobedience we too are stained with sin. We too disobey God. We too have no access to the tree of life. Death is a reality. But Jesus here at the end of the Bible is showing that the story of the Bible has gone full circle. That due to his love for us, he has provided us with a way to eat from that tree of life again. What is the paradise of God? Well, its where God dwells! That is what makes it a paradise. The God, who the Bible says is love himself, offers the conqueror, the one who loves Jesus, eternity to love Jesus in. Eternity to enjoy God in.
If you are sitting here today wondering how you could possibly love Jesus. Nothing displays how worthy Jesus is of your love more than that. That he loved you first. And showed this by dying. Taking what you deserved. The punishment of God. And giving you instead, the paradise of God.