The letters to the churches we find in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are in the context of the church facing tribulations in the world. The Lord Jesus Christ has revealed himself as the Savior of his people and the Lord of glory. From Heaven’s perspective, the important thing on earth is how the church is upholding the name of Christ and the gospel in a world of trouble. 

The letters to the churches are to real churches in 1st Century Asia (modern Turkey), but they are written to be instruction to the churches who proclaim Christ’s name in every generation until his return. The Lord Jesus speaks first the church in Ephesus. He says, “I know your works” (Revelation 2: 2). The Lord can say to every church, your church and mine, “I know your works.” He can say it to you as an individual. We do well to remember this truth.

The Lord commends the church in Ephesus for their patient endurance under the pressure of false teachers. They had tested those who claimed to be apostles but were false. The church saw false teaching as no small thing, but rather an “evil.” It’s not easy to be faithful to the truth when it can cost you friendships, make enemies, and make you unpopular.

Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus requires his church to be faithful not only in proclaiming the truth, but refuting error. Serious error makes Christ to be no Christ. Truth is truth and error is error whether men think it so or not. There is a certain and immutable truth connected to Christ’s name. 

We learn a couple of things here. There always has been and always will be a lot of error concerning the Christian faith. The devil is a deceiver. The truth glorifies God and humbles the pride of men, so there is resistance to it. Also, it is never in vain to defend the truth, no matter how lonely or difficult it is. The Lord knows and is pleased with those who bear up for his name’s sake.

After showing that he is most ready to commend all that is good, the Lord says, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4). This is a serious rebuke. Christ is speaking to his people and questioning whether they still have love for him. It doesn’t matter the good they are doing if their love is declining. 

The reason Jesus came into the world is that we might be saved from our sins and “know God” (John 17). To know God implies a love to God above anything else. The psalmist says, “Whom have I in heaven but you, and there is none on earth I desire but you O Lord.” The Lord insists on love because it was for that reason he called us out of the world. 

The remedy to their fall is to “Repent and do the works you did at first” (verse 5). Here we need to remember the law/gospel distinction. The law says, “Do this and live.” The gospel says, “Believe in Christ and live.” The problem with the Christians in Ephesus is pride. They had been refuting error and developed a legal mindset, forgetting that it was only by grace that they had been saved. There was nothing lacking in the outward works, but much lacking in their hearts.

A legal mindset sees the works you do as what makes you more righteous than other men. A gospel mindset sees the works you do as those done to honor the Lord who paid the debt of your sin on the cross. The greater the legal mindset grows, the further away from Christ you go. Pride will replace love. Pride goes before the fall. The path back is to remember the reason you came to Christ and do the works out of love and thanksgiving. 

The Lord gives a warning: “If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” The lampstand represents light and life, the truth of the gospel. The warning is the loss of Christ, fellowship with God. The weightiness of this is plain, the life of the church and the soul of the individual is at stake. If this doesn’t humble us, we won’t be humbled.

In verse 7 the Lord says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Repentance is always a call to turn and live. The Lord promises that the one who conquers (overcomes by faith) will be given access to “tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” That is the inheritance of a world of love. So, let us love Christ and live by faith, casting off all pride. 

The Rev. Chris Shelton is pastor of Union’s First Presbyterian Church.

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