Strong Church/Weak Church 11
Last week, we saw some rather remarkable strengths in the Ephesian church. They were a laboring, patient,fiercely independent church. In the midst of this bounty of spiritual maturity, however, we find one problem. And it is a serious problem, more rightly a massive problem. They had left their first love for the Lord and for people. Nevertheless I have somewhat against the, because thou hast left thy first love (Revelation 2.4).
In one of the classic New Testament passages that even many in the heathen world know of, our Saviour said that God’s expectations and instructions for humanity hung on two supports – a love for God and a love for people.
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
As I have written in more detail elsewhere, this does not mean there are only two rules. It means every God-given instruction is motivated by one or both of these principles. The church at Ephesus had the right doctrine; they had studied the claims of the Nicolaitans and renounced them. The church at Ephesus had the right character; they labored fervently in their service for the Lord. The church at Ephesus had the right attitude; they bore their trials with stoic endurance. But in a very real sense they did all of this for the wrong reason. Why do I assert that? Because any reason other than a love for God and a love for people as a motivation for our actions is an unscriptural reason. Their reason was something other than love. They had long ago left that behind.
Beloved, our religion is a relationship. That relationship is with a Person. That Person is Christ. And that Person told us to love Him and to love others. The Apostle Paul wrote an epistle to this same church at Ephesus three decades prior to John doing so, but we find the same message. Paul acknowledges they then had this love. Wherefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints (Ephesians 1.15). He urges them to strengthen the ties which bound their actions to such love. That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3.17). In fact, in that prior epistle Paul connected numerous aspects of Christianity to love i.e. forbearing one another in love, speaking the truth in love, edifying in love, walking in love, and explicitly connecting faith with love. In my view, Paul stressed this not only because it was important, but because he must have had some level of concern about it, as he clearly expresses in the very last verse. Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen (Ephesians 6.24).
In short, they had it, once. They were losing it. Paul tells them to hold onto it, to grow it. But they turned around and walked away. They left it.
How does such a thing happen? How does a person or church or organization that once had a fervent love for Christ and for people grow apathetic? At least some of the answer is found in our Saviour’s words in the first gospel. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold (Matthew 24.12). We notice here it is not the existence of iniquity that is the problem. Iniquity exists in every human and thus in every human institution, too. But when we allow that iniquity to pick up steam, so to speak, in the parlance of this illustration to charge down the track unhindered, it will choke the love for God and for His people right out of us.
As I sit here at my dining room table writing in late May, we have just this past week planted our small urban garden. Tiny zucchini, basil, lavender, rosemary, and tomato plants dot the enclosure. As the weather warms into summer and the weeks pass these plants will grow, and we will enjoy their fruit. Well, that is we will enjoy their fruit if they stay rooted, if we water them, if they receive abundant sunshine, and if we keep control of the weeds.
I have never yet seen a garden without weeds. Every garden has them. They spring up practically overnight, coming back from the spot you previously plucked them or taking root a few inches over. The problem with gardening, however, is not the presence of weeds. The problem arises when you stop dealing with those weeds, when you allow them to multiply unchecked, when you allow them to abound. A garden that abounds in weeds cannot abound in fruit, no matter how good the soil, abundant the sunshine, and regular the watering. And the exact same thing is true of a Christian and a church.
This is not a dissertation on holiness. I have a book on that subject at the publisher even as we speak. But even within the severely subscribed limits of a blog post I cannot help but mention that is just here that tools such as frequent confession of sin and the mortification of the flesh enter in. It is only by walking in the Spirit that we will not walk in the flesh. The two cannot be done simultaneously. One always pushes the other out.
Having established how such a condition as leaving our first love arises let us briefly turn our attention to what happens when it does. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John’s short epistle in Revelation to the Ephesian church warns, Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent (Revelation 2.5). The candlestick in context represents the church itself, a shining testimony to the grace of Christ drawing men into His embrace. But a church that is walking away from love as the motivation for all it does is walking into the twilight. The sun is setting. The gloaming gradually deepens into night. And then the testimony of that church is gone.
I have pastored in Chicago for fifteen years. It is not an easy place to keep a church going, let alone shepherd one forward for the cause of Christ. Over these fifteen years I have seen two Baptist churches located less than a mile from me close their doors permanently. How does that happen? How is it that their candlestick is removed? Somehow, somewhere, in some way, iniquity began to reign unchecked. Their love waxed cold. Their light grew dim. And then went out.
When it has gone this far it cannot be reversed, but prior to that point I believe it can be. In point of fact, this is John’s precise reason for writing. He seeks to call them back, to get them to return to their first love. He calls on them to remember, to repent, and to do the first works. He asks them to embrace the humility necessary to admit error. He asks them to show that attitude to be genuine, by attacking the iniquity then abounding in their church. Having begun there, they must proceed on to do the first works. They were a working, laboring people, but they needed to get back to laboring like they did when they first started, out of love.
1 Thessalonians 1:3
3 Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father;
10 For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.
Do you serve God?
The next question is why?
The answer must be out of love. If it is not, return to what you left. Repent. Attack the iniquity in your life. And fall in love with God and with people all over again. It is the only way to keep the candle of your church burning for the next generation.