Sermons

February 10/11, 2018

Revitalization of the Church of Ephesus

Kenny Stokes | Revelation 2:1-7

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.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.’—Revelation 2:1–7 

Introduction: 25 x ’25 Update

I want to begin with an update on our Fill These Cities: 25 x ’25 initiative and prayer-goal to plant or revitalize 25 churches by the year 2025. This will help you understand why we are looking into Revelation 2 this weekend.

Since the start of Fill These Cities in Fall 2016, the elders have endorsed four churches: 

  1. Word of Grace, Minneapolis (a Jumpstart Revitalization)
  2. Northfield Community, Northfield, MN
  3. Redemption City Church, Rochester, MN
  4. Table Rock Church, Boise, ID

That’s one revitalization project aiming to turn around a church in decline, and three new churches toward our goal of 25 by 2025. Praise God! However, you need to know that the first of those, Word of Grace Baptist Church in Minneapolis—the revitalization project—has been difficult for various reasons and has not progressed as we had hoped and prayed. Paul Pryzblowski, the pastor, has resigned effective at the end of this month. This Sunday, the church is meeting to talk about next steps. Cleon Engel, my partner in our planting work will be there, with a representative of our denomination to help the church think through its future. 

Before I pray aloud, would you please offer a silent prayer for God on behalf of Word of Grace Baptist in South Minneapolis? Also, ask for God’s continued help in the whole Fill These Cities Vision.

Pray (begin with Silence)

Transition

In my role as Pastor for Church Planting, and as Associate Professor for Church Planting and Revitalization, I work with both new church plants and declining churches in need of renewal. There is an ongoing ‘friendly’ dispute between the planters and the revitalizers. Each tends to claim that they are doing the harder work, and the other has the easy job. Let no one think either planting nor revitalizing is easy. Both are hard work in every category—spiritually, emotionally, relationally, personally, hard on marriages, etc. Neither can be done apart from the grace and power of God.

As an expression of our mission, we long to see new churches planted and declining churches returned to vibrant fellowship, evangelism, and discipleship. If you ask me which one is more valuable, I will say both. I will not principally value one over the other because the Bible doesn’t do that.

Our first Jumpstart revitalization in 2013 at The Heights Church in St. Paul led by Weyland Leach was not easy, but it went well. The church has more than doubled in size, it’s self-sustaining, and a new chapter of gospel ministry has begun.

So, this recent challenge with our current Jumpstart has humbled all of us. And, it has caused me to look again to the Bible to shape my thinking regarding when a church—new or old—falters and its continued existence falls into question.

Church planting is easy to find in the Bible; just read the book of Acts. But, does the Bible have anything to say about revitalization? Yes, I see it throughout the NT. But I see revitalization most clearly in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2–3, where because of an identified problem, Jesus calls into question the future existence of those churches.

So with our time together, I want to focus on the first letter, the letter to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2.

Aim

My aim is that not merely our thoughts of church revitalization be shaped by this text, but that we individually and as a community give ourselves anew to the restoring and sustaining of the grace of our “first love.”

Context in Revelation 

Revelation 1 begins with an explanation of its origin. As a form of persecution for his faith, the Apostle John was exiled on a deserted island called Patmos in about 90AD. During that time, the risen Christ gave him a message through an angel to record and deliver to seven actual churches of the day—and by extension, to all gathered believers since then.

Revelation 1:4–5 …

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

So it’s written with a sense of Christ’s love and authority over his suffering church, according to Revelation 1:5–6.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen

And it’s written with a sense of awe, and help (vv.17–19).

I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.”

The book of Revelation assures us of Christ’s return, his triumph over all his enemies—sin, death and the devil—his just judgment, his eternal reign, and his gathering of his church to himself to live forever with God in the new heavens and the new earth. Even if some of the imagery is hard to understand, it is not hard to see the theme of God’s absolute sovereignty over world history through the victory of Christ Jesus. This has been a great encouragement to believers through the centuries.

Revelation 2 begins the first of seven letters addressed to specific actual churches. In each of the letters, Jesus warns each church that its existence is at stake depending on whether they respond to his word or not. 

Addressee and Author (v. 1)

Let’s walk through the letter together starting with Revelation 2:1.

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: 'The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.’” 

Who is the angel of the church in Ephesus?

The letter begins, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write …” So it’s a message for the church of Ephesus. But who is this angel? It’s not exactly clear. Many say, it is to “the pastor” of the church of Ephesus, but if there is a plurality of elders/pastors in every church (cf. Acts 14:23), why is it singular? Or, could it be that God has assigns a specific angel to serve specific churches in specific places? As Hebrews 1:14 says of angels,

Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

It is not clear whether the angel represents one or a plurality of elders, or is an angel who serves the church of Ephesus. But either way, it is clear that the letter is addressed to the people of the church at Ephesus.

Who is the author?

Jesus himself is described as the author in verse 1 ...

“The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands …”

Since verse 1:20 says that the stars are the angels of each church of the seven churches, and the lampstands are the seven churches, I take it that Christ wants us to know that with his might he sustains the care of the church, and he constantly oversees the churches—walking among them, present and attentive to us as his people.

This seems reflective of the Old Testament high priest who would tend to a seven-candled lampstand in the earthly temple. Yet here is Christ, our eternal high priest, tending to the seven lampstands—the seven churches. It is Christ who tends the churches. It is he who walks among us, knows our state and persistently works to keep the flame blazing to shine for the glory of God. 

Have you ever opened a letter and begun reading it, then because of what it says, you jump to the end of the letter because you have to know who wrote it before you know how to respond to it? A letter that closes with, “I love you” signed by my wife means one thing, and the same message signed by my dad would mean another. 

This letter is from Jesus Christ himself. The church ought to give ear, with trembling and expectation.

The City of Ephesus was an important harbor city, commercially and culturally, in Asia, modern Turkey. The city was prosperous and modern. Yet, it was stained by prostitution, gambling, and idolatry. The city was known as the guardian or “keeper” of the temple of Artemis, which the Greeks called the goddess Dianna. The temple, built in the 6th century BC, was massive and made entirely of marble. It was considered one of the seven wonders of the world. When the gospel of Christ arrived, it inevitably confronted the idolatry deeply engrained in the culture of the city. 

Four-Part Message to Ephesus

In each of the letters, including this one to Ephesus, Christ’s message can be outlined in four parts: Commendation, Confrontation, Correction, and Comfort. 

1. Commendation (vv. 2–3, 6) 

First, Christ commends the church. He looks and he first he sees evidences of his grace. Jesus is not like a parent who cannot be pleased with his children and only sees shortcomings. No, Christ sees—and wants us to see—the evidences of his grace in us. 

What does he see at the church Ephesus?

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. ... Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”—Revelation 2:2–6 

Jesus commends the church at Ephesus for her deeds and hard work. He commends church members for their care in guarding biblical truths and the gospel. He commends them for not tolerating false teachers. He commends them for perseverance in suffering persecution for the name of Jesus. And, in verse 6, he commends them for hating the work of a heretical cult, the Nicolaitans, who denied the gospel and promoted sexual immorality.

And we, at Bethlehem, ought to pray for God to enable such hard work and a zeal for biblical teaching and perseverance in suffering for Christ. That would be right fitting. Jesus is not speaking flattery; these are really commendable things. Yet … Jesus continues his assessment of the church in verse 4, as he says that there is something very essential—core to what it means to be a church—that is woefully lacking.

2. Confrontation (v. 4)

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

The verb translated “abandoned,” simply means “to leave,” or “to forsake,” or “depart from.” They left their first love. To lose one’s first love for God is a devastating deficiency. And if it characterizes a church, that will bring the demise of the church. 

Christ’s eyes kind of like an MRI. 

Have you ever had an MRI? I had an MRI several years ago because of back pain. My physician assistant interpreted the facts of the scan seen on a video monitor. It showed a three-dimensional representation of the inside of my body. It showed what was really there. She said, “Here is your spinal structure,” and she pointed out each of the bones. “Here is the soft tissue, the disks,” she said as she pointed to the screen. “And,” she added, “here is the spinal cord, the nerves. The structure looks good, healthy. The disk at L4 is pushing on the nerve—that’s why your leg is numb and you are hurting.” 

Then came the questions …

“Do you sit a lot?”

“Yes.”

“Exercise?”

“Sometimes.”

“Lift correctly?”

“Maybe?” and then I pointed to the screen and asked, “What’s all this white stuff on the bones?” She said, “Oh, that’s normal arthritis for a guy your age.” (What’s that mean? My age?)

“Are you kind of stiff in the morning?” I said, “Yup.”

After the diagnosis, I was told that I needed to change some things about my lifestyle—exercise, posture, lifting habits—to remedy the problem. I was given a prescription to change. And change I did, for my own good.

Jesus sees what’s really inside, what is really there from every point of view. And Jesus doesn’t pull any punches in confronting the church with what ails us.

When God grants us faith to believe in Christ upon hearing the gospel, the eyes of our hearts are opened to see the glory of Christ and the love of God for us in Christ. It seems to me that “the love we had at first” is the love we had in response to God’s love for us. We love because he first loved us. Our first love for God is our response of passionate, joyful, devoted, submissive, sensitive-to-his-spirit, and even sacrificial affection for Christ.

And I take the abandoning of “the love you had at first” to mean that they have left the love they had for God and have turned their affections toward other higher “loves.” Their hearts have become hardened by sin and unbelief (cf. Hebrews 3:7). They have turned away from the primacy of God’s love and forsaken their first love.

Beneath their great ministry works, their labors, their patient endurance of persecution, their intolerance of evil, their rejection of false teachers—was a second-rate love for God.

The church fell into Martha’s trap. Remember, Mary and Martha? When Jesus came to their home, in Luke 10. Martha was busy, busy, busy with the hospitality and cooking for Jesus. But Mary was at Jesus’ feet loving and worshiping him. When Martha complained that Mary had left her to do all the work, Jesus rebuked her saying, “…one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Beware. Never be fooled into thinking that working for the Lord is a replacement for worshiping and loving the Lord. Without worship of the Lord, our work will be loveless, defective, mechanical and even may threaten the very church and people we serve.

3. Correction 

After showing the church what he knew of them, Jesus the great physician of the soul and head of the church gave this prescription to restore the church’s first love (v. 5). This is path of revitalization for the church at Ephesus.

Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.

a) Remember: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen.”

In other words, compare the present state of your love with your first love. Remember how you were when you first came to know Christ. See how you have changed. Observe if your love has faded. Remembering your first love will help you see more clearly the state of your love now and will enable you to seek God for the grace of a renewed first love.

This is a call for personal reflection. When I first came to know God and his love for us in Christ, what was it like?

  • I was 15.
  • I could not get enough of reading my Bible. I marked it up with highlighters of every color. I put notes in the back and in the margins. I was hungry for truth … and not just to know it, but to live it.
  • I would sing songs of worship alone in my bedroom for hours—just “me and Jesus.” I even learned not to sing in the car too enthusiastically when I broadsided the car of a very nice lady at an intersection in St Paul.
  • Prayer was easy. Calling on the Lord was my new nature.
  • I went out of my way to gather for corporate worship—even attending more than one church on a weekend so to be with other believers in the presence of God in song and to sit under the preaching of the Word.
  • I experienced joy in Jesus. It was real and tangible and had an impact on others.
  • Peace with God was precious.
  • I longed for more of the Spirit’s power and influence on my life and sought it.
  • I grieved greatly for my sins and yearned for growth in holiness.
  • I sought to show the love of Christ to the most difficult people, bullies, and those who struggled socially at school.
  • I enjoyed and respected a Bonita, a woman with Down Syndrome, and I loved her as a sister in Christ.
  • I knew the fresh joy of sins forgiven and a clean conscience. It welled up in me a readiness to forgive others.
  • Speaking about the gospel of Jesus came easier, because it was pervasively on my mind.
  • There was an overwhelming sense of the fruit of the Spirit … love, joy, peace, patience, kindness.
  • I longed for the return of Jesus—not merely to get out of this messy world but to be with him. 

Remember. Remember the love you had at first. The hope, the power, and the zeal you had at first. Remember the satisfaction in God—looking no place else you had at first. Remember the peace when all was quiet. Remember the expectation of grace every morning you had at first.

b) Repent

Jesus, seeing the chasm between their first love and present love, commands his prescription, in verse 5, “Repent.” Lay down your defenses or justifications. Make no excuses. Take responsibility for falling from your first love and ask God for forgiveness and grace to change.

c) Do

Reading more from verse 5 ...

Repent and do the works you did at first.

This “doing” is the acting out of genuine repentance—the change of heart and mind—turned in to action. What are the works Jesus has in mind? The text doesn’t say. But I think we know.

Surely this is not a calling for more of what they are already doing in a commendable way. It is a call to action toward the rekindling of the heart—the first love and … 

  • Praying for restoration of your first love
  • Resting in the love of God (see Ephesians 3 prayer)
  • Mirroring God’s love to others
  • Thirsting for God
  • Imagining what it would be like to become a new Christian all over again
  • Memorizing the word
  • Savoring the gospel realities of all that God promises to be for us in Christ.

And experiencing …

  • Tenderness of conscience
  • Readiness to forgive
  • Love of God for others
  • Life-giving relationships with other believers.

4. Caution & Comfort

Christ closes his correction with a warning and a promised reward. The warning is that if there is no repentance, Christ himself will remove the church. Again, from verse 5:

If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

The comfort is the reward of salvation to those who repent and show authentic saving faith: 

“To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”—Revelation 2:7 

And lest we think these words of correction are only for the church of Ephesus, Jesus says this in verse 7:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Conclusion

Let me close with two thoughts on revitalization and two thoughts on our own personal renewal.

Applications for Revitalization of Declining Churches 

  1. Let us acknowledge Christ’s reign over his church. He is sovereign over the closing of a church. He is the one who “removes lampstands” (Revelation 2:5). Why he removes one and leaves another with more time to renew is in his wisdom, not ours. When Christ sustains and renews a church, it is a grace and is no ground for boasting—it is a supernatural work of grace that a church is revitalized. May we press on in seeking that grace for the church.

  2. Think not that I am drawing a one-to-one correlation to any particular church in decline. I am not. I cannot say “This loss of first love is the reason for your decline.” Maybe and maybe not. This is one of the letters to the seven churches. If a church is in decline, I would strongly recommend the recovery of its first love. But I cannot say that the closing of any one church is due to that and that alone.

Applications for Personal Renewal 

  1. Humbly hear what the Spirit says. There is a word from Jesus here for you. Do you hear it? Whether you have been a believer for six months or 60 years, you are vulnerable to “abandoning your first love.” Let us never think that we are above losing our first love. Jesus says of the last days, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).

  2. Be vigilant and rely on God’s grace. Never be satisfied with work for God without love for God. (See 1 Thessalonians 1:3.) “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12–13). Thomas Manton, the puritan pastor, wisely cautions (from his commentary on Jude),

Take special note of the first decline in love, for this will cause a further lack of love. Evil is best stopped in the beginning. If we take heed when we first begin to grow careless, we would never totally decline. A heavy object, rolling downhill, gathers more and more momentum as it travels and goes faster and faster. Note your first breaking away from God and return to your previous spiritual fervor. It is easier to crush the egg than to kill the serpent.

  1. Rehearse the gospel by which we have been brought into the love of God. Christ’s explanation of why the sinful woman in Luke 7 was worshiping him, kissing his feet, pouring expensive ointment on them, and wiping them with her hair was this: Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).

  2. Pray to know the God who loves us in Christ. It is no coincidence that Paul prays for the Ephesian church to know the love of God for us in Christ in Ephesians 3:14–19:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Benediction: Jude 20–21

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

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