The Beginning Of Decline - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
5 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.
6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.
7 He that bath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to cat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
In Chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation we have the seven letters addressed by the Lord to the seven churches in Asia. In order to understand these messages we must bear in mind the relation of these seven churches to the seven golden candlesticks in the vision of 1:9-20. The latter are symbolic of the church from an ideal viewpoint, perfect and holy, as it has its light and life in Christ. It can never perish. None- of them can ever be removed from its place. Were the church on earth identical with, perfectly like that which is symbolized in the candlesticks, messages like those that are contained in these two chapters of Revelation would neither be necessary nor appropriate. But the seven churches of Asia represent the church on earth, essentially holy, but still imperfect, earthy, and characterized by many infirmities and sins. Hence, they are subject to rebuke and exhortation, and even to threats of judgment and utter extinction. The candlestick of a local church may, indeed, be removed out of its place. A church on earth may cease to be a manifestation of the church as she appears in the symbolism of the seven golden candlesticks.
The Idea Of The Letters To The Seven Churches
Before we enter upon a discussion of the seven letters, a word must still be said about the general significance of the seven churches to which they are addressed. They were really existing churches at the time when John is commissioned to write to them; but at the same time they present a sevenfold picture of the church on earth throughout this dispensation. They were not the only churches existing at the time, but they are selected because in them was found the clearest and most complete picture of the church of all ages. The question is raised, however, whether the completeness of the church as represented by these seven churches must be understood as referring to a simultaneous or to a successive totality. Do these seven churches represent the church on earth as she exists at any period of this dispensation, or must. we see in them seven phases in the development of the church in history? Both views have been and still are championed by interpreters of the Book of Revelation.
There are those who advocate the view that in these seven messages, picturing seven different manifestations of the church on earth, we must discover a portraiture of seven distinct phases in the history of the church in the world. According to this view, it is possible to discern in the development of the church the same order of different dominant conditions as is found in these seven letters to the seven churches of Asia. Each of these seven messages must, accordingly, be applied to a more or less definite period in the history of this dispensation, from the time of John to the second coming of Christ, or, according to others, to the "rapture," the moment when the church shall be taken up to Christ in the air.
However, this view is plainly untenable. Already the fact that at the time when these letters were written the church did not present one dominant feature, but rather a seven-fold picture, - in other words, the fact that the seven churches certainly existed simultaneously, - would contradict this view. Laodicea existed side by side with Ephesus; Sardis existed in the same period as Philadelphia; and Smrna, Pergamos, and Thyatira were simultaneous. Besides, the history of this method of interpretation certainly justifies the remark of Godet: "One may doubtless, by taking up this latter standpoint, succeed in bringing out some ingeniously conceived points of harmony, but they always have' a somewhat arbitrary character." We must, therefore, reject this view.
Yet there is, no doubt, an element of truth in this interpretation. Although it is our conviction that the seven churches must be understood as representative of the church in the world as it exists in any period of this dispensation, so that at any time these seven types may be observed in the church, nevertheless these seven types are not always equally prominent in every period of the history of the church on earth. Sometimes it is the characteristics of the church of Ephesus which predominate in the church; at other times it is the picture of the church of Smyrna that is most vividly reflected. In some periods of history the church is characterized by intellectualism, dogmatism, confessionalism; in other periods by emotionalism, revivalism, pietism; in still other periods by practicism, indifferentism with respect to principles and doctrines. Now the church is cast into the crucible of tribulation and persecution, to be refined as by fire; then she enjoys a period of peace and rest. Always all the features presented by the seven churches in Asia are observable in the church in the world, yet so that now one, then another of these features appears on the foreground. On this basis we may well assume that in the order in which these churches are mentioned, though it is, indeed, the geographical order, there is also an indication of the course of development the church will follow: the direction of this development will be from Ephesus to Laodicea. At the end of this dispensation the church will present the likeness of the church of Laodicea. Maintaining, therefore, that these seven churches are representative of the whole church as she is in the world at any period of history, and rejecting the view that each of them represents a limited period in the history of the church of the new dispensation, we nevertheless believe that in a general way there is in the order in which these seven churches are addressed an indication of the trend of development the church in the world will follow.
With respect to the formal side of the seven letters addressed to the churches in Asia, we may note that they all present much the same characteristics. Each epistle begins by addressing the angel of the church to Which the letter is sent, which address is immediately followed by the self-designation of Him that sends these messages to the various congregations, the Lord of His church. Characteristic of these Self-designations is that they are clothed in terms derived from or suggested by the vision of Christ in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks in 1:9-20. In every one of these Self-designations those terms are chosen which bear relation to the particular condition of the church addressed. For instance, to the church which lost its first love and which is threatened with the judgment that its candlestick will be removed from its place, the Lord introduces Himself as the One that walketh in the midst of the golden candlesticks. To the church in tribulation, which is encouraged by the promise of a crown of life, He announces Himself as the first and the last, Who was dead and is alive again. Thus it is in all the letters. Following this Self-designation of the Lord comes the description of the peculiar condition of each congregation, usually headed by the enumeration of the commendable traits wherever this is possible. To this general rule the churches of Sardis and Laodicea are exceptions: nothing good is to be recorded of them. On the other hand, the churches of Srnyrna and Philadelphia are distinguished by the fact that they receive only praise and encouragement; nothing worthy of rebuke is found in them. And, finally, each letter closes with an exhortation, containing a promise or a threat of judgment, or both, depending upon the condition of the church addressed.
The Church Of Ephesus
We now turn our attention to the first of these seven messages, which is addressed to the church of Ephesus.
The city of Ephesus was situated on the west coast of Asia Minor, some forty miles to the northeast of Patmos. It was an important city, rich in trade and commerce, famous, too, for its culture. But it was also notorious because of its shameful idolatry, its well-known temple in honor of the goddess Diana, its frivolity and worldly-mindedness in general. It may be compared to one of our modern metropolitan cities, with all their wealth and luxury and amusement-seeking, their carelessness and levity of heart and life, their vices and social evils. We may well note that in such a world-city the Lord had established a church. The church in the big city occupies a difficult position, more so than the country church. In the metropolis pulsates the life of the world. There the antithesis is sharpest.
Nevertheless, no church needs to shun the big city and seek the seclusion of the country. The Lord would have His church in the world, though never may she be of the world. In the midst of the world she is called to be a manifestation of His grace, that she may let her light shine and show forth the praises of Him that called her out of darkness into His marvellous light.
There is every reason to believe that the church of Ephesus used to be one of the strongest and most flourishing churches of that early period of the new dispensation. It had enjoyed the labors of some of the greatest, most devoted, ablest servants of the Lord. Paul had been there three times. first only for a brief period, but during his second missionary journey he abode with the Ephesian church for almost three years, during which time, as he himself testifies, he labored night and day with tears, declaring unto them the whole counsel of God. Timothy, too, the spiritual son of the great apostle to the Gentiles, had labored there, building upon the foundation laid by his spiritual father. And the apostle whom Jesus loved had spent many a year among the believers in Ephesus in hard and faithful labor. To speak in terms of our own time, the church there had enjoyed the labors of the best and most excellent preachers of the time. He Who holds the seven stars in His right hand had blessed the church abundantly.
Strong In Doctrine
Nor had the labors of these ministers of Christ been without effect upon the church. On the contrary, even at the time when John is commissioned to write this message to her the influence of their work is still plainly noticeable.
For we may observe, first of all, that the church of Ephesus was strong in doctrine. This is evident from the description which the Lord Himself gives of her in this letter. The Lord testifies that the church had "tried them that call themselves apostles, and are not," and that she had "found them false." These words suggest, first of all, the doctrinal soundness and strength of the Ephesian believers. True, they also indicate disciplinary action; but notice that it was discipline exercised over those that called themselves apostles, which implies that the discipline concerned a matter of doctrine. True apostles were men with authority, infallibly guided by the Spirit of Christ into all the truth. They were direct witnesses of Christ, of His suffering and resurrection. Their word was gospel. It possessed infallible authority, the authority of the King of the church Himself.
Of this, the church at that time was conscious, as is evident from more than one passage of the New Testament. They made a clear distinction between the word of an apostle and the word of others. For that reason the apostle Paul deems it necessary sometimes to defend his apostleship in the churches. Whenever false teachers purposed to neutralize his influence in the church, they attacked his apostolic authority, aware that only in this way they could oppose the contents of his teaching. Now this letter to the church of Ephesus informs us that men had appeared in their midst who called themselves apostles. Evidently they made this claim and defended the right to this title for the purpose of exercising doctrinal authority in the church. They claimed to be divinely inspired and therefore demanded unconditional acceptance of their teaching. They taught a false doctrine, and for it they claimed apostolic authority. Fundamentally, therefore, the case which the Ephesian church had tried concerned a matter of doctrine. Who these would-be apostles were the text does not inform us; but we are inclined to believe that they were the same as the Nicolaitanes mentioned in this same letter. However this may be, certain it is that they taught a doctrine which differed from that of the apostles. But the church had tried them, had put their doctrine to the test. Probably there had been an official trial of these "apostles," and in spite of their claim to the apostleship the church had found them liars and had rejected their doctrine.
The conclusion, therefore, is justified that the church of Ephesus was sound in doctrine, well-founded in the truth of the gospel. How otherwise could they have exposed the lie of these false apostles? Only those who are themselves sound in the truth can expose the error wherever it presents itself and with whatever claim of authority it may come. But where knowledge of truth is lacking, the church is helplessly exposed to every wind of doctrine. This is one of the main reasons why the church of today is in such a miserable condition. There is no knowledge of the truth, no love for true doctrine, no instruction in the Word of God. Hence, the church of today is easily seduced, tossed about by all kinds of false doctrines. In Ephesus this was different. There was knowledge of the truth. And if there was knowledge of the truth, there must have been study of the Scriptures, instruction in the principles of true doctrine. For without continual instruction through preaching and teaching, knowledge of the truth, cannot be maintained. Hence, all these were found in the church of Ephesus. They were able to discern between the truth and false doctrine, and thus they could pass judgment upon them that claimed to be apostles and were not. Ephesus was a church sound in doctrine.
The same inference may be drawn from the statement in verse 6: "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate." About the origin of this sect nothing definite is known. Their name is probably derived from their leader, one Nicolaus, who must not be identified, however, with the deacon mentioned in Acts 6:5. The Lord here speaks of their works, but these works were based on false doctrine. This is evident from verses 14 and 15 of this same chapter, where the church of Pergamos is addressed as follows: "But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate." It is evident that these Nicolaitanes, about whom we shall have more to say in connection with the letter to Pergamos, were false teachers, men who disseminated evil doctrines and thus seduced the church to spiritual fornication and apostasy. Now the Lord gives the Ephesian church testimony that they hated the works of the Nicolaitanes. This implies that their false doctrines were clearly discerned and rejected. This also leads to the conclusion that the believers of Ephesus were sound in doctrine, well-founded in the knowledge of the Word of God.
Faithful In Discipline
From what we discussed thus far it will also have become evident that the church at Ephesus was faithful in discipline. This is usually connected with doctrinal soundness. Where the one is present, the other usually is also found. Where the church is lax in discipline, soundness in doctrine cannot maintain itself very long. Christian discipline is the reaction of the church against every form of evil, both in doctrine and life, through the preaching of the Word of God as well as through personal admonition and, ultimately, through excommunication. Also in this respect the church of today is miserably weak and wanting. The keys of the kingdom of heaven are practically forgotten. But about this we shall have more to say in our discussion of the letter to Pergamos. The church in Ephesus was faithful in the exercise of discipline. This is evident from their trial of the false apostles. Nothing can be urged against the view that they tried these false teachers officially and finally excommunicated them from the church. But besides, the Lord writes to that church: "...thou canst not bear them which are evil," (vs. 2). The thought is that men who wrought wickedness in doctrine or life were not tolerated in that congregation. Evil workers usually could not find a place among the believers in Ephesus; and if they did find a place for a time, they usually did not feel themselves at home there because of the sound preaching of the Word and the general testimony of the members. But if they persisted in their attempt to perform their evil work in the church, they were expelled from the communion of the saints by the application of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The church was not only sound in doctrine; she was also faithful in the exercise of Christian discipline.
Abounding In The Work Of The Lord
Nor is this all. The commendable features of the church of Ephesus are not limited to soundness in doctrine and discipline; the believers there were also abounding in the work of the Lord. It was not a church, at least not at the time when this letter was addressed to her, that was characterized by dead orthodoxy, that had an intellectual grasp of the truth but was loath to apply this knowledge to life. On the contrary, the Lord gives her the testimony: "I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience... and (thou) hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted," (vss. 2, 3). This is a beautiful testimony indeed, especially if it is taken in connection with the fact that the church was also sound in doctrine and in the exercise of discipline. In our day there are many, indeed, who clamor for a so-called practical Christianity. who would have the church do nothing but labor and toil in the world "to make the world better," but who are absolutely indifferent in regard to doctrine. What one knows about doctrine and believes matters little or nothing if he is only willing to work and to serve. This was not the case in Ephesus; they kept the gospel that was delivered them. But, on the other hand, there are also churches which are characterized by cold and dead intellectualism and orthodoxy, which emphasize the necessity of soundness in doctrine, but which are lacking in the application of the truth to actual life and in zeal for the work of the Lord. But also this could not be said of the church in Ephesus. She did not take it easy in the kingdom of God. She did not follow the line of least resistance. She labored and toiled; and she did so for Christ's name's sake. This does not refer to all kinds of work, but to the work that is in harmony with the calling of the church to hold forth the Word of life, the preaching of the gospel, within the church and without. They bore testimony of Christ in word and deed. Their conversation sealed their profession. And even if their faithful confession caused them inconvenience, required them to take up the cross and suffer with Christ, even if the reproach and contempt of the world was their reward, they remained faithful. For the Lord bears them testimony that they have patience. Repeatedly this is stated. In verse 2 it is mentioned; in verse 3 it is repeated, "and hast patience.," and it is added, "and didst bear for my name's sake," (ARV). And patience is the spiritual virtue and power to endure suffering and tribulation for Christ's sake. And do not infer from the rest of the epistle that this testimony refers to the past, and that the church manifested this patience and faithfulness in doctrine and conversation no longer. For this would be a mistake, as is evident from what the Lord adds, "and hast not fainted." They still were strong in doctrine, faithful in the exercise of discipline, zealous in the work of the Lord, and willing to bear the cross and to suffer with Christ patiently.
Without Her First Love
From all the foregoing we would, perhaps, be inclined to draw the conclusion that the church of Ephesus was well-nigh perfect. But in this we would be mistaken. The church of Ephesus receives a very serious rebuke. There was something lacking in the church of Ephesus. There was a certain defect in her inner life, hidden, perhaps, from the eyes of men, but known to the Lord Who tries the reins and the hearts: a defect so serious that it would lead the church to utter ruin unless she repented. Something was gnawing at the very life-roots of the church which would cause her to die if it were not removed. The very life of the church was ebbing away.
The Lord points to this serious weakness in the words: "Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love," (vs. 4). The condition described in these words has frequently been compared to a similar condition in the life of an individual Christian. Perhaps we are acquainted by experience with such a loss of first love. Immediately after our conversion, especially if that conversion was rather marked and sudden, we were filled with a fervent spirit and ardent love of the Lord. Our heart throbbed with a holy zeal. The experience of our salvation caused us to abound in gratitude. We loved to speak of Jesus and to witness of His love. It was our sincere desire to consecrate our life, our all, to Him Who loved us even unto death and by Whose power we were translated from darkness unto light, from death to life. Nothing seemed too difficult for our faith. It seemed impossible that we would ever become unfaithful to Him with Whom our hearts were united in love. But another period began.
The first zeal and enthusiasm cooled down. We were not so fervent in spirit any more as in the period of our first love. It became evident that we had not reached perfection, that sin still operated in our members, that we often did evil when we would do good. Perhaps we grew anxious about our own condition and began to wonder whether our conversion had been real. We left our first love! This experience of the individual Christian has often been used as an illustration to explain the meaning of the Lord's words to the church of Ephesus, "I have against thee that thou didst leave thy first love." Yet this comparison is not entirely correct. There is something very normal in the experience of the individual believer which we just described. In it there is really nothing to be alarmed about. Fact is that the first experience of the love of Christ by that believer was largely a matter of emotion. He was in a state of spiritual tension which could not last. His real condition was not up to the level of his feelings. Sooner or later reality was bound to assert itself. And then it became evident that he was not so near to perfection as he first imagined. The glow of his first enthusiasm died down. And this change, while it was a cause of grief to the consciousness of the believer, was nevertheless very likely accompanied by a deepening of spiritual life and love. With the passing of that first experience of love which was sustained mostly by feeling, another, firmer, deeper love appeared, rooted in the heart, the expression of a sanctified will. And in as far as this experience of the individual child of God is normal, it cannot be compared with the abnormal condition of the church in Ephesus which is here rebuked by the Lord.
Nor may the church in Ephesus be compared to those churches in our own country which need periodic revivals to keep them emotionally alive. A church of this kind is weak, spiritually anemic, needs always stronger stimulants of spiritual sensationalism to keep her on her feet. She is not instructed in the truth and not used to sound doctrine, and, therefore, is not firmly rooted in Christ. She lives on religious emotions. When her pastor has exhausted his own resources of sensationalism, the emotional interest of his congregation dies down; and then the church is in need of a stronger blast of sensational preaching by some outsider who travels the country with some "soul-stirring" messages which serve like a "shot in the arm" for the churches in whose midst he appears. But this not a true picture of the church of Ephesus. It was not a weak church which lived on emotions. It was sound and wellfounded in the truth, and it certainly would have tried many a revivalist preacher of today and found them liars.
No, when Jesus brings against the church of Ephesus the indictment that she had left her first love, He refers to love in the deepest sense, to the true love of God in Christ as the very life of the church. And of this love, as it first had filled the church of Ephesus, the Lord states that it had been left, forsaken. This was a very serious matter. If it was not remedied, the church would die. For the love of God in Christ is the deepest root of all our spiritual life. If a church leaves that love, the spiritual fountain of her life will dry up.
This is the reason why we characterize the church of Ephesus as the church in the beginning of her decline.
In the abandoning of her first love we must recognize the beginning of all apostasy of the church in the world. It is not true that the beginning of corruption must be sought in departure from the truth, or in laxity in discipline, or in a tendency to worldly-mindedness. These may all be manifestations. first symptoms of spiritual decline; but they are not the root. That the church of Ephesus is the first in the series of seven churches which are addressed in these letters is not incidental or irrelevant. It is significant. From Ephesus to Laodicea may seem a long way, but it is an inevitable way. The church which abandons its first love ultimately loses all her spiritual treasures.
This is a very serious lesson for the church of today! How many complaints are registered against the present day church on earth! How indifferent she reveals herself to be with regard to doctrine! How ignorant she is in the things pertaining to the kingdom of God! How utterly she neglects the keys of the kingdom of heaven! How adulterous she is become in her alliance with the world, her seeking of the things that are below rather than the things that are above! Yes, but if all these wretched diseases of the church, or of what still calls itself church, could be traced to their beginning, you would discover that their source is the abandoning of their first love. How can a church which keeps her first love possibly apostatize? How can she become indifferent with respect to the truth as it is in Jesus? How could she become so miserable that she can tolerate evil men in her midst? How could such things as worldly amusements, worldly associations, seeking of worldly treasures and pleasures even become a "problem" in a church which clings to her first love? It is well for us to understand this clearly and to bear it constantly in mind. A good thing it is, indeed, to watch over purity in doctrine: for the church which forsakes the truth has no foundation. But let us remember that outward purity in doctrine is not enough, and that it must itself be rooted in the love of Christ. Let us watch, therefore, and pray that, while we preserve the purity of the truth, we may remain rooted in the love of God in Christ!
There are questions, of course, which arise in your mind as you read these things. The first is this: but how is it possible that a church abandons her first love? Is not love a matter of grace? Is not the love of God poured forth and shed abroad by the irresistible operation of the Holy Spirit? How then can this love be abandoned? Is there then a falling away from grace? In answer to this question we remark, first of all, that we must make a distinction between the church and the individual believer. Surely, there is no falling away from grace. We are saved by grace once for all. Once a believer is always a believer. Once united with the Lord in the bond of love is always thus to be united with Him. Our conscious faith may sometimes be weak; our conscious love may often be wanting in fervency; our prayer for the grace of the Holy Spirit may frequently be mere lip-work. But we certainly cannot be separated from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. The reason for this is simply that His love is and remains always first, the never-failing source of our love to God. No one can pluck us out of His hands. But what is impossible for the individual believer may happen to a church as she appears in the world.
Let us try to visualize the development of the church in Ephesus. The Lord speaks of her first love. By this He refers to the love which filled her when first she came into contact with the gospel and was called out of darkness into the marvellous light of God. Then she had been filled with the love of Christ. All had been living members of the body of Christ. All could profess their personal faith and testify of their part with the Savior. This was true of the angel of the church; it was equally true of the members. The love of Christ was experienced. It permeated and glowed through all their activity as a church. It characterized the preaching, which was more than cold doctrine. And it marked the life and conversation of the members. If you had visited the families of the church at that time, you would have found no difficulty to converse with them about the experiential aspect of the Christian life. The whole church was rooted in and motivated by the love of God in Christ Jesus. But all this had changed.
That first love had been left by the church of Ephesus. Not as if the real love of God had died out in the hearts in which it once glowed. No, but the constituency of the congregation had changed. Many years had passed since the time of that first love. A new element had been added to the church. Some had joined themselves to the congregation from without; others had been added from within by the organic growth of the church. And the church had not been watching. It had emphasized the necessity of soundness in doctrine, faithfulness in discipline, diligence in the work proper to a church of Christ; but it had neglected to stress the necessity of personal faith and love in the Lord. Outwardly the church had grown; inwardly it had become weak. Many of those that were added to the church were not Israelites in the spiritual sense of the word, possessed not the love of the Lord. They could speak of the truth objectively, but they knew nothing of its spiritual experience in the heart. And this element had increased. It gained in influence in the church. It had become predominant. There were still those, indeed, who knew the love of Christ. But they no longer were the predominating element in the church. And thus the church had left its first love. What could never be said of an individual believer was certainly true of the church of Ephesus: "I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love!"
But you ask another question: how, if the church had left her first love, could the Lord bear such a beautiful testimony concerning her as is contained in this letter? How could she still be sound in doctrine, faithful in discipline, zealous in the work of the Lord without growing weary?
We must remember that the Lord writes this warning to the church in the first stages of her spiritual decadence. Her apostasy was as yet not in an advanced stage. In close connection with this, we must bear in mind that there were still those who possessed the love of the Lord in their hearts, that had not forgotten the days of the church's first love. No doubt, the fact that the Lord could speak so well of the church was in a large measure due to the influence of these living members. But, thirdly, it must not be forgotten that a church may, for a time, drift onward on the current of tradition. This, no doubt, was also the case with the church of Ephesus. When the church was in the period of her first love, it had labored to keep the Word of Jesus, to know the truth, to instruct young and old, to expel evil from their midst; and it had been zealous in the work of the Lord. Now the original motive power which had impelled the church had decreased in force. But as a steamer in the ocean will continue for a while with apparently undiminished speed after the engine has been shut down, so the church in Ephesus apparently lost none of its energy, lived and labored by virtue of the momentum of that first love which had motivated her in the beginning. Partly because of the love which was still present in the church, partly by virtue of the momentum of tradition, the church of Ephesus was still active in the work of the Lord and did not grow weary. And thus you have the phenomenon of a church which is sound in doctrine, faithful in discipline, active in all the work of the Lord, but without the motive power of her first love!
It is the church in the beginning of her decline!
Rebuke And Admonition
In view of this very serious defect of the church of Ephesus, we are not surprised that the Lord sharply rebukes her and approaches her with an urgent admonition to repent. No doubt this admonition is addressed first of all to the angel of the church and to its office-bearers, whose calling it is to watch over the flock. But in and through them the Lord also admonishes the church as a whole.
We may distinguish three elements in this exhortation: the call to repent, the admonition to do the first works, and the exhortation to remember whence she was fallen.
The last element shows the church the way in which she may come to true repentance. The church must remember whence she has fallen. She must recall former days, the days of her first love. Oh, it is altogether possible that the influence of the dead, carnal element in any church may become so strong and overwhelming that for a time even the spiritual succumb to it and fall asleep. They deplore a condition of dead orthodoxy and dead works. For a time they raise their voices in protest against the tendency to emphasize mere doctrine and external activity at the expense of true faith and love. But gradually they become more or less accustomed to the situation. Their voices are silenced. They grow passive. Gradually they forget the days of the church's first love. The past does not live in their consciousness any more. And now they fail to notice the lack of spirituality in all the activity of the church. It was missing everywhere. It was wanting in the preaching of the Word, in the instruction of the youth, in the pastoral work. If I may speak for a moment in terms of our own church-life, when the angel of the church or the elders went through the congregation to visit the families, the subject of spiritual growth in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ was hardly broached. Such routine questions were asked as whether the services were faithfully attended, the sacraments were used, the church-papers were read, the budget was paid,-questions, in short, that all pertained to the external life and activity of the church. Everywhere the spiritual note was now missing. And the true spiritual element of the church had grown accustomed to this situation, had forgotten the former days. Hence, the Lord shows them the way to repentance. They must awake out of their slumbers. The angel and elders and members of the church must bring back to their minds those former days, when all were filled with the love of Christ, when all the activity of the church was aglow with real spiritual life. And recalling that former condition, they must be filled with an earnest longing to restore the church to that former state.
They must repent. Their backsliding must become sin unto them, which they confess before the Lord and before one another. And they must do the former works. Things must change. In preaching and teaching, as well as in the personal communion of the saints, the spiritual note must be struck once more. While remaining sound in doctrine, faithful in discipline, and zealous in good works, she must return also to her first love and do the first works. Once again the life of the church must spring forth from the root of true love in Christ Jesus her Lord!
This call to repentance is urgent. The church must heed it. So urgent is the matter that the Lord threatens the church with complete extinction if she does not repent.
Significant in this connection is the way in which the Lord introduces Himself to this church: "These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks." He holds the seven stars, the angels of the seven churches. They are His gifts to the church. Only when He gives them are they truly ministers of the Word. Only by His Spirit can they be equipped with light and understanding and life to minister the Word of God. Only when the Lord Himself speaks through them is there preaching of the Word. This is a truth which the church in the world must always remember. Training of those who are to serve in the ministry of the gospel is certainly indispensable. But there is no seminary that can furnish the church with ministers of the Word. The Lord alone holds the seven stars in His right hand. If the minister of the Word is not one of those stars which Christ holds in His power and bestows on His church on earth, he may be a false teacher, a carnal seeker of self and the world; but he cannot preach the Word. Besides, Christ walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks. The church has her life in Him only. It can be a light in darkness only through His Spirit and grace. Without Him she is nothing and can do nothing. Very essential, therefore, it is for any church to stand in living fellowship with Him. She must not leave her love. She must understand that there is no life for her in separation from Him. A mere human society can never be church. This Selfdesignation of the Lord already contains a solemn warning to the church which left her first love. If she does not repent, but continues in the direction in which she is developing, death and darkness can be the only result.
But this same inevitable end is directly expressed in the threat of judgment: "...or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent," (vs. 5). The Lord here addresses the church as her King and Judge. When in this connection He speaks of His coming, it is evident that He does not refer to His final coming to judge the quick and the dead, but of His coming for judgment upon the historical church of Ephesus. Out of that place will He remove the candlestick. The meaning of this is evident. The church of Ephesus will cease to be a manifestation of the body of Christ on earth. She will become extinct. Outwardly, as a mere human fellowship and gathering, she may probably continue to exist for some time; but she will no longer be a representation of one of the candlesticks in the midst of which Christ walks. If she continues, she will be one of those dead churches of which we may notice so many round about us in the world of today. They are bearing the name of Christ's church falsely. They are no more than mere human associations, without the light of the truth, without the life of Christ. Thus the church of Ephesus will die. In the way of leaving the love of Christ, she will lose every spiritual virtue. The judgment threatened is, therefore, wholly in harmony with the defect and sin of the church.
Let us take it to heart! He that hath an car, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches!
An Encouraging Promise
But the Lord does not close this letter with this threat of judgment, but rather with an encouraging word of promise to those that overcome and fight the good fight even unto the end.
He introduces this word of comfort with the well-known, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." This admonition, therefore, is addressed not only to the church of Ephesus, but to all the churches, to the whole church of all ages. Not all have ears to hear, even in the church visible on earth. Only they that were efficaciously called out of darkness into His marvellous light can spiritually hear and discern and heed the Word of Christ. To these the Lord now addresses Himself. He did address them, too, in the preceding, though the whole church must hear the call to repent. For only they that have an ear will obey It's Word and repent and do the first works. They must assert themselves in the church of Ephesus, and insist upon repentance. They must fight, even within the church, in order that she may reform and return to her first love. This will not be easy. They must expect opposition, even from the carnal element in the church. A bitter fight it may become for them, in which they will have to bear the reproach of Christ and suffer for His name's sake. For worse and more bitter enemies than carnal Israel the church has none in all the world. They must expect scorn and derision, hatred and contempt and persecution. Perhaps they will be expelled, cast out of the synagogue. Outwardly they may suffer defeat. But if they only will be faithful to the end, they will surely overcome. And to him that overcometh the Lord will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God, vs. 7.
In the original paradise there stood the tree of life. It stood in the midst of the garden. The garden of Eden was God's house, His dwelling-place with man on earth. It was His tabernacle, in which God blessed man with the fellowship of His friendship. And the midst of the garden might be called the "holy of holies." There God dwelled. There Adam could meet his God as a friend meets his friend. There he had life in the true sense of the word. There also stood the tree of life. It was a sacred symbol to man that he could have life only in God's blessed fellowship. Surely, the tree was more than that. It was a means of life. By eating of that tree man could perpetuate his earthly existence. But it was also a sign of God's covenant with Adam. He could eat of that tree, only as long as he stood right with his God. He could not reach the tree unless he could meet his God. And he could not meet his God except in righteousness and holiness and truth.