Ephesus: The Danger of Forsaking Love
Topic: Serving/Hospitality Passage: Revelation 2:1–7
“I know what you did, son. I know what you did.” Ever heard words like that? Perhaps some of us heard words like that when we were trying to justify a wrong. Maybe we tried hiding something when somebody else saw: “I know what you did.” Such words pierce our inner self in those moments. They expose us and lay us bear before the undeniable truth.
But the same words could encourage us, couldn’t they? Perhaps you acted with integrity while others are accusing you of wrongdoing. Maybe you’ve been serving others in secret, without expecting any praise, but a person you highly respect takes you aside and says, “I know what you did.” Such words come as a deep sense of relief in those moments. You feel supported to persevere in faithfulness.
Depending on context, then, “I know what you did” could either expose or encourage; convict or commend. In Revelation 2-3 Jesus will repeatedly say, “I know your works…” Jesus knows his churches. He knows what they’re facing. He knows their faithfulness and good deeds. He also knows their sins and the places where they have compromised. From those assessments by Jesus, we learn what sort of church we ought to be in following Jesus. Jesus begins with the church in Ephesus. Verse 1 says,
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. 2 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. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 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. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 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.”
Characteristics of All Seven Messages
This is one of seven messages to seven churches. A few things characterize all of them. One is that Jesus addresses each message to an angel. Some have suggested that “messenger” is the better translation and human agents are in view. But there are good reasons to view these as heavenly agents. Everywhere else in Revelation, this word refers to angels. 1:20 distinguishes the stars from the lampstands, and presumably a human agent would belong to the lampstands (i.e., the churches). Also, a common feature of Revelation is that Jesus’ message comes through angels.[i] And doesn’t Paul allude to angels presiding over churches as they gather in 1 Corinthians 11:10 and 1 Timothy 5:21? By writing to seven angels, Jesus unveils the church’s true heavenly nature.
Something else about these seven messages: they’re written for one church and for all churches simultaneously. Each church differs from the others in where it’s located, what it’s facing, how it’s faithful or faithless. But every message ends with this: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (plural).” Every church needs all seven messages to stay faithful.
Also, Jesus links every message with the vision of his glory in 1:9-20. Each message begins with some aspect of Jesus’ glory that he already revealed and that that church needs to take seriously. Verse 1 says, “The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” That’s from 1:13, 16, and 20. The stars are the angels; and this image of Jesus holding them shows his sovereign power. He also walks among the lampstands—the churches. Like the priests who tended the lampstands in the tabernacle, Jesus tends his churches. He walks among them. He knows what each church needs for their lamp to burn brightly.
Each message also comes with Jesus’ divine authority. Notice how verse 1 begins: “the words of…” Then 2:8, “the words of…” That little phrase appears repeatedly in the Old Testament to introduce prophecy: “thus says the Lord.” When prophets used, “thus says the Lord,” people received the message as the very words of God, but not because the words originated with the prophet. The word originated with God and was delivered through the prophet. These messages come directly from the glorified Jesus. His words carry the same authority reserved for God alone in the Old Testament. So, we owe Jesus all our attention and allegiance here.
One more observation: these messages exist to help you make it into the New Jerusalem. Every message closes with a promise bound up with the New Jerusalem of chapters 21-22. Jesus has words of encouragement for his churches here. But he also has some cutting rebukes and severe warnings. Listen: both the encouragements and the rebukes are designed to get you to the New Jerusalem. Take heed to both.
What Jesus Commends
With that said, let’s see what Jesus says to the church in Ephesus. The first thing we see is what Jesus commends. As he walks among the churches, Jesus finds Christians in Ephesus doing some things very well. Verse 2 says, “I know your works.” That can be a frightening thing because some works Jesus hates. Verse 6 tells us that Jesus hates the works of the Nicolaitans; and from 2:14-15 we learn those works include false teaching and idolatry. Jesus hates those works.
But there are works Jesus loves—works that promote God’s worship, works that align with Jesus’ kingdom. A few examples he mentions in verse 2. He commends their “toil and patient endurance.” The next time “toil” appears is 14:13, where the martyrs enter Christ’s presence and rest from their toil. And the toil in view is “keeping the commandments of God” even when threatened with death. “Endurance” also has to do with this long-standing obedience in the face of trial. Jesus commends this work.
He also commends their intolerance of evil people. He says this a few different ways. Verse 2, “how you cannot bear with those who are evil.” Then there’s a play on words in verse 3: “[you are] bearing up for my name’s sake.” Two sides of the same coin. Evil kingdoms of the world pressure the church to compromise—to buy into their way of thinking, to exchange the truth for lies. Sometimes it’s overt. Sometimes it’s subtle as the world gradually desensitizes us to what’s unholy. Yet this church doesn’t budge. It bears up for Christ’s name. It doesn’t tolerate evildoers in the church.
Another way he says it comes in verse 6: “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” From 2:14-15, it seems this group was persuading churches to compromise with false teaching that leads to idolatry—that leads to works that undermine the worship of God, that leads to works that enslave God’s people to evil practices. It is right for a church to hate evil works, to hate works that ignore the word of God and undermine the worship of God.
One more thing Jesus commends: they’re able to discern false teachers. Verse 2, “[you] have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” Some of you might recall the early days of this church in Ephesus, when we preached through the book of Acts. Paul warned the elders of this church, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock…I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Thirty years later, we find that this church took Paul’s words seriously. They were careful to test the spirits to see whether they are from God or from the spirit of antichrist.
What Jesus Condemns and Threatens
In sum, then, we could say this church is full of Christians who are hard-working, morally resilient, and doctrinally orthodox. I know a lot of you; and I can hear you saying, “Yeah boy! That’s where I want to be!” You might’ve even typed words into the search bar to find a church like that… But that’s not all that makes a church, at least a church that pleases Jesus. Jesus threatens to unchurch this church if they don’t revive one crucial virtue. Look now at what Jesus condemns and threatens.
Verse 4, “But this I have against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Other translations use “first love,” but the ESV seems to capture the temporal aspect embedded in this phrase. Later, in 2:19, John uses the same wording to contrast works done in the early years of faith with superior works done later in a church’s life (i.e., “first works” versus “later works”). Applied here, that “first love,” the love that characterized the Ephesian church at its beginning had now waned. It’s even stronger: they abandoned love like a spouse abandoning a marriage.
Now, it’s hard to say whether this “love” is love for Christ or love for one another. In the end, I don’t think we have to choose. The two are closely linked in John’s writings. A few things lead me to believe the emphasis falls on love for one another. Jesus praises them for their endurance, for bearing up for his name’s sake, for hating what’s evil; and elsewhere in the New Testament, we could say those things evidence a love for Christ. Also, Jesus has good things to say about their negative relations to outsiders, but he has nothing to say about their positive relations to one another—thank you, Colby, for showing me that. Love for one another, then, seems to be the emphasis.
At the same, we must acknowledge that throughout John’s other writings, to grow cold in our love for one another indicates that we have grown cold in our love for Christ. “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen”—1 John 4:20. Here is a church that was hard-working, morally resilient, and doctrinally orthodox, and yet they endanger themselves by abandoning love—a central and necessary virtue to the life of a true church.
It’s so necessary that Jesus threatens to undo them, if they don’t repent from their lovelessness. Verse 5, “If you don’t repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” The lampstands are the churches, 1:20 tells us. If Jesus removes your lampstand, you’re no longer a church. You might still get together with your tribe, but in Jesus’ eyes you will be nothing. That’s how crucial love is to the life and health and endurance of a local church. It’s not enough to confess and do the right things; we must love Christ and, from that love, love one another.
You can hear echoes of 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, “…if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” If you work hard and stay morally resilient and doctrinally sound, but have not love, you are nothing.
Why he mentions lampstand may puzzle us at first. But later, in 11:4, we discover that the lampstand signifies the church’s witness to the world. The lampstand in the tabernacle burned continuously to light the way into God’s presence. According to John’s Gospel, 13:35 and 17:23, what happens when the church loves one another? They become a witness to the world lighting the way into God’s presence. It’s by our love for one another that the world knows that the Father sent the Son. Jesus is saying, “If you don’t return to the love you had at first, it will be the end of your witness to the world because you will no longer be a church.” He will see to that.
What Jesus Commands
So, what must they do? They’re not without hope. Jesus still walks in their midst. He speaks to turn them around. We see next what Jesus commands. We find three imperatives in verse 5: remember, repent, and do. He says, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen.” Look back at that love you once had. Consider what that love for each other looked like. Consider how you cherished God’s love for you, and how that love spilled over into your relationships. Jesus wants them to imitate that love once again.
Which is why he adds, “repent.” Repentance includes not just abandoning sinful ways but returning to Christ and his ways. It’s a complete 180 from what you were doing before, and an active pursuit of what Jesus demands. Here, that means pursuing love. No sitting around until they start liking each other. They must love now. How?
Well, the next imperative says, “do the works you did at first.” Return to love by doing the works you did at first. Love works. It’s not merely a feeling—though that’s included. Love acts for the good of another. Love values what is good for another and then acts to help them obtain that good. John’s other writings are very helpful here. For example, 1 John 3:16-18, “By this we know love, that [Christ] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed [or work] and in truth.”
So, the works that demonstrate love—according to 1 John—are works like meeting your brother’s needs, works like sacrificing to serve the good of your brother or sister. In 3 John 8, love works again by supporting missionaries who go out for the sake of Jesus’ name. We could also involve Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church; and from there we would find works like “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3), “working hard with your hands, so that you might have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph 4:28), speaking words that impart grace to the hearer and fit the occasion (Eph 4:29). This church was once zealous in these things. John says elsewhere that, when travelling to other churches, missionaries would brag about this church’s love (3 John 6). But not even a generation passed before they abandoned it. Now, they must renew their efforts in love. They must return to those first works.
What Jesus Promises
If they overcome lovelessness and obey Jesus’ commands, he promises eternal life. Look now at what Jesus promises in verse 7: “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.” Paradise—that word appears numerous times in the Old Testament. But more commonly you’ve seen it translated, “garden,” as in the original “Garden of God,” Eden. Together with “tree of life,” all sorts of connections should be firing in your minds back to the Old Testament.
The Garden/Paradise was known for its beauty and plenty—well watered, lush greenery, massive trees, precious stones, abundant food, joy and gladness always found in her. But greater than any of these was life in God’s presence. The tree of life was in the Garden, and to eat from it meant that you lived forever in God’s presence. But man rebelled against God. Man tried to be God instead of trusting God. So, God banished man from that Garden. Genesis 3:24 says, “[God] drove out the man, and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” Sin means we no longer have access to eternal life; and in Adam, that’s all our story. Our sin keeps us from access to eternal life.
But God—God’s Son came into the world to reverse that for you. Jesus died to remove your sins, to remove that barrier, and give you access to the tree of life. The final pages of Revelation paint this picture for God’s people: “the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.”
It’s through Jesus that you share in the tree of life. It’s through Jesus that you gain eternal life in God’s presence. It’s through Jesus that we might find rest and joy and peace in the Garden of God. But Jesus grants that access only to those who follow him. Jesus promises that access only to those who conquer, who overcome, who endure to the end—and in this case, endure in love. If you have ears to hear the Spirit today—if right now you see the importance of love; if you are convicted by your lovelessness and choose to follow Jesus by pursuing love in the church—the tree of life is yours.
Heeding Jesus’ Words and Pursuing Love Together
That’s his message to the church in Ephesus. That is the message all seven churches must hear. That is the message we must hear. How desperately do you want to eat from that tree of life? Then let us not abandon love.
We have a few things to reflect on for ourselves. For starters, imitate the qualities Jesus commends. Rebuking them for lovelessness does not mean they should abandon hard work or moral resilience or doctrinal orthodoxy. People in our culture are often just fine with “love,” so long as you don’t combine it with these other qualities. That’s because when our culture speaks of love, what it often has in mind is moral permissiveness. That is, “you are loving to the degree that you let me keep doing whatever I want.” By rebuking this church for abandoning love, Jesus isn’t telling them to be more morally permissive. In pursuing love, don’t abandon what Jesus commends.
Jesus says it is right to keep working hard when those opposed to Christ’s kingdom want to stop you. It is right not to tolerate those who practice evil. It is right to discern false teachers and to expose how their teaching undermines the truth. It is right to hate the works that Jesus hates, the works that undermine God’s exclusive worship. It is right to hate abortion and the porn industry and human trafficking and prejudice and fudging numbers and covetousness. It’s right to hate the anger and greed and lusts of your own heart. Pursuing love doesn’t mean we abandon any of that. It does mean we’re washing feet while we do those other things. It does mean your life looks a whole lot like the one who loved you and bled to save you when he hated your works.
Something else we need to see: no amount of what you get right can become an excuse for what you get wrong. Has someone ever approached you about sin in your life—maybe some excesses they don’t think align with Scripture, maybe a pattern of behavior that doesn’t reflect Christ—and your inner lawyer stands up and begins mounting the defense? “Look at all that I’m getting right! Doesn’t that count for something?” Or maybe it’s you going to bat for others who agree with your positions—theologically, politically. Someone steps in to show where they’re off, where they get it wrong, and you mount the defense: “Look at all he gets right!”
Look how much this church gets right, folks. And yet Jesus doesn’t hesitate to warn them of imminent judgment: “I will come and remove your lampstand, if you don’t repent of lovelessness.” When Jesus puts his finger on something you must change, the only appropriate response is to acknowledge your wrong and repent. He’s the King. He is Lord. If you try to justify wrong with all that you get right, you’re in a dangerous place; and you’re putting the church in a dangerous place. Pharisees do that: “Thank you, God, that I am not like other men…” The Rich Young Ruler did that: “All these I have kept from my youth, Jesus…” “One thing you still lack…”—and he proved not to be in Jesus.
Also, our church must be characterized by love, not merely by what we’re against. I don’t think this is true of every person here, but I do think it’s a danger in the more conservative circles we associate with. Our circles are very loud in letting others know what we’re against. We’re against abortion—it’s murder. We’re against homosexuality—it warps marriage. We’re against socialism—it’s rooted in a faulty view of human nature. We’re against Roman Catholicism and the prosperity gospel and critical race theory—all of which skew the truth of Scripture. On we could go with the list of things we’re against, some more loudly opposed than others.
I want to acknowledge—as Jesus does as well—that there’s a place for the church to discern falsehood and expose evil. At the same time, this passage forces us to recognize how necessary is the more positive pursuit of love. If all that people can say of us is what we’re against, then we have failed the world and we have failed Christ.
Without love, we are nothing.[ii] Jesus expects his church to be characterized by love. John 13:34, “…as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Paul says, “Let all that you do be done in love”—1 Corinthians 16:14. The whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”—Galatians 5:13. To mature into Christ-likeness is to grow in love—Ephesians 4:16. 1 Peter 4:8, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly…”
Picture a marriage for a minute. What sort of marriage would you have if there was no love? Only hard work, duty, avoiding divorce, avoiding porn, always criticizing when something’s off, but no active pursuit of love. It wouldn’t be much of a marriage, at least not one that’s healthy. If that marriage is going to last—if it’s going to image Christ’s relationship to his bride—then the spouses must revive love. They must pursue love.
Same with us, church. We can’t just be against abortion. We must also be for adoption and supporting mothers in need. We can’t just be against homosexuality. We must also be for strong, healthy marriages here and a robust vision for image bearers. We can’t just be against socialism. We must also be for generous giving and sharing what we have with others. We can’t just be against critical race theory. We must also be for showing hospitality to people who aren’t like us and centering our relationships around the cross and striving toward just relations with all people.
Have you abandoned the love you had at first? Has serving one another become only a duty, only a motion you’re going through? When opportunities come to serve, do you find yourself sighing, “Ah, not again! I just served them. Can’t they see?” Has the pursuit of moral purity become only something you do because that’s the conservative way—that’s what keeps us looking good before others; it’s just what we do here—when the pursuit of purity ought to come from a love for Christ’s purity and a love for others and how our actions affect them? Has the word of God become a mere manual for morality without the sweetness of meeting Christ in its pages and adoring his person?
Have you become such a “heresy hunter,” that it’s hard for you to shake feeling suspicious of everybody but yourself? I thought this was a good paragraph from Robert Mounce: “It seems probably that desire for sound teaching and the resulting forthright action to exclude all imposters had created a climate of suspicion in which love within the believing community could no longer exist. Unfortunately, the history of the Christian church has all too many instances of “unholy zeal in the pursuit of ‘truth.’” Good works and pure doctrine are not adequate substitutes for that rich relationship of mutual love shared by those who have experienced…the redemptive love of God.”[iii]
Reading that, I was reminded of the sad story of A. W. Pink. Pink wrote the well-known book, The Sovereignty of God. His writings have influenced some of you. At the start, he was known for being careful theologically. But the last decade of his life, he spent by himself and wouldn’t join a church because nobody aligned with him on every point. We cannot follow his example of separatism, lovelessness.
Have you become so fixated on discerning false teaching, that you have grown cynical about the church—it’s hard for you to hold out any hope for the church? The rich theology that once caused your heart to soar in worship, to spread it to our neighbors—has it become just a club to beat down others? Has sound doctrine, which has as its goal fellowship with God—has doctrine become just a badge to boast in the team you belong to? Is it easy for you to argue on social media, but hard to spend time in prayer—both to commune with God and pray for those you engage?
Don’t abandon love. Pursue it. Cultivate it. Keep your love for Christ and your love for one another vibrant. Here’s how: revive your love by meditating on Christ’s love. Consider the never-ending fountain of love within the Trinity—Father loving the Son, Son loving the Father, both sharing in the love of the Spirit. Perfect. Passionate. Never having a beginning. Unending. Consider, then, how the Trinity chose to love us. Despite how sinful we are, God chose to love us and include us in the love he has for his Son. He loved us by giving his own Son to remove our sins, that we might have fellowship with him. Consider also how Jesus’ love continues for you: that’s what 1:5 said, “to him who loves us (present tense)…” This glorious, exalted Christ of chapter 1—he loves us now. He loves us in these rebukes.
Consider also that the New Jerusalem will be a place of love. If you want to grow in love, meditate on the community of the new heavens and earth. Christ’s love in us will be complete and full and unending. Never again will we act toward each other in a way that’s not loving. We will love freely and passionately without end. That’s the community we should reflect to the world now. That’s the community we should pray for. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
[i] In 19:10 and 21:9, an angel even views himself as a “fellow servant” beside John in delivering the message of Revelation.
[ii] Mounce, Revelation, 70.
[iii] Mounce, Revelation, 69.