2021-01-10 “Recover Your First Love”

Cornerstone EPC                                                                              Sunday morning
Franklin, NC 28734                                                                          January 10, 2021

“Recover Your First Love”
Revelation 2:1-7

I remember, toward the end of many a ministerial examination in bygone days in Southeast Presbytery, that Rev. Bill Sharp would rise to ask the man under examination, “What is the Spirit saying to the churches?”[1]  It was a good question then, for it elicited the candidate’s sense of the will of God, what He would have us do right now, and the like.  It remains a good question in times such as ours: a time beset by racial unrest, by political upheaval, and by epidemiological concerns—the coronavirus first among them.

Let’s examine God’s sevenfold answer to this question, God willing, in a seven-part series from Revelation 2-3—a series entitled What the Spirit Says to the Church.  Today we look at Jesus’ words to the Ephesian church—words relevant in any season, to be sure, but perhaps especially relevant in our own time.  Let us give our attention once again to the reading and preaching of the Word of God in this place.

(HERE READ THE TEXT)

Before we come to the heart of the matter, let us set the stage somewhat.  First, we note the scribe of the very words we read today—the Apostle John.  John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, endured exile on Patmos, some forty miles off the coast of southeast Turkey in the Aegean Sea, for his Christian testimony.  He wrote Revelation ca. A. D. 95, late in reign of Emperor Domitian—no friend of the first-century Church.  John, led by the Spirit of God, wrote initially for seven churches in modern-day Turkey—seven churches lying on a then-extant route in western Turkey.  These letters to seven churches in the last decade of the first Christian century are to the whole Church in every age: both because this writing is Scripture—and, as such, is applicable in every age—and because the number seven symbolizes completeness whenever it occurs in the book of Revelation.[2]

Second, we note the Speaker within today’s text: the risen, ascended, glorified Jesus.  Jesus holds the seven stars in His hand, which are (from chapter 1) the messengers (or angels) of the churches.[3]  Jesus also walks among the seven lampstands, which are the churches themselves.  He is our Speaker—and, as the Holy Spirit quickens His Word, and words, to our souls—we do well to hear Him.

Third, we note the addressee: the church at Ephesus.  God led and empowered the Apostle Paul to found the church—during his third missionary journey, ca. A. D. 53-57, likely by the end of A. D. 55.  Years later Timothy served the church (fl. ca. A. D. 64) as its pastor.  What a legacy of Christian leadership—Paul, Timothy, and, possibly, later Onesimus—the runaway slave addressed in Paul’s letter to Philemon.  Yet, as we shall see presently, this church stands in need of amendment.

We come now to the heart of the matter.  The message from Jesus to the angel of the Ephesian church, for the Ephesian church’s hearing and response thereunto, contains commendation, correction, prescription (with warning affixed), and exhortation plus promise.  We treat each of these in turn.

Jesus gives the Ephesian church of A. D. 95 significant commendation.  The church does not tolerate those practicing evil (especially Nicolaitans, 2:6, who seem to be a sect espousing a libertine sexual ethic).  The church discerns well that certain self-styled apostles, actually, are false apostles.  Hence, the church discerns the difference between truth and error well.  They also endure persecution faithfully—and admirably—for Jesus’ sake.  Nor does the church become weary in its endurance of persecution and other providential hardship.  The Ephesian church of A. D. 95 sounds like an ideal orthodox, conservative Presbyterian church.  Yet Jesus finds it wanting.

Jesus begins His correction with diagnosis.  The diagnosis is plain, even stark, and doubtless grievous to Ephesians ears: You have abandoned the love you had at first.  The case is like most believers—and churches—over time: The believer receives the Gospel with great joy, and he feels and expresses great love for God, His ways, and His people.  This, for many throughout the ages—and, to our point, especially in Ephesus—is typical: The initial love cools (not unlike the case in some marriages).  By the time Jesus speaks, and John writes, to Ephesus, the initial ardor for God, et al., has cooled noticeably—if not in fact to outright coldness.  This, alas, all too often plagues the orthodox, conservative Presbyterian church.  Let us be on guard, individually and as a whole, against such coolness and coldness toward God, His ways, and His people here at Cornerstone EPC.

Now comes Jesus’ prescription.  First, the Ephesians (and us) must remember the height from which they have fallen.  John Newton wrote in “Amazing Grace”: “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”[4]  Let us, then and now, remember the joy, gratitude, relief, etc., when we found ourselves safe in Jesus’ love.  Second, we need to repent.  In this matter, as in many like matters, we must first acknowledge God in the right and self in the wrong and then turn in the Spirit’s power from wrong to right—both in thinking and in doing.  Third, we must recover our former love for our Lord.  We must do the former things—and we only can do the former things and find our ardor for Him rekindled by the secret work of the Holy Spirit.  Let us indeed cry out for Him to do this work in us, and in our church, as need for amendment rises to our attention.

There is a warning for failure to repent.  Should the church fail to repent, then Jesus will come to the church—not in a good way—and He will remove its lampstand from its place.  There is difference of opinion over what this means.  Some argue that this means that God will cause that local church no longer to exist, while others argue that this means that God will cause the church to be ineffective and unfruitful in its worship, witness, and work, whereas others argue that God will remove His preachers and teachers, et al., from the church—to the church’s impoverishment.  In any case, ‘tis better to repent and enjoy the ongoing presence and blessing of God in the church

We come now to exhortation and promise.  First, exhortation: “The one having an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  Let His hearers, in Ephesus, in Franklin, and everywhere, hear the Spirit both with understanding and with obedience following.  Then comes the promise.  To the one who conquers, Jesus will grant to eat of the tree of life (cf. Genesis 3) in the paradise of God.  To live forever where the Lord is, freed from any vestiges of sin or its ravages, what better is there?

Years ago, Dr. Harry Reeder, now longtime senior pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote Embers to a Flame.[5]  This book is an extended prescription for church revitalization based upon his extended study of and meditation upon this text.  His entire prescription falls under the headings he discerns from today’s text: remember the height from which you have fallen, repent of the same, and recover first love and first things.

Let’s apply to our own souls today what we have heard.  What is the Spirit saying to the Church—and to our church?  He says to remember the heights we have known in earlier walk with Christ, to repent if He show us anything amiss, and to recover our first love—and this only by the Spirit’s gracious power.  Let us, then, recover our first love of our triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Let us recover first love of His right ways, in which we must walk with joy.  Let us recover first love of His people, Whom we must love as He directs us.  May we, here and throughout the visible Church, recover our first love—and that for the glory of God and for our good.

AMEN.

[1] Bill served our Presbytery with distinction during his time in Southeast Presbytery—last as Stated Clerk for the Presbytery.

[2] This seems to be a consensus view, no matter one’s particular view of Revelation 20 (premillennial, amillennial, or postmillennial) or one’s particular view of Revelation 4-19 (past [preterist], future [futurist], current [historicist], or idealist).  Consensus views regarding the material in Revelation are few and far between—and, when they both occur and are correct, are to be celebrated.

[3] Scholars debate the precise identity of the angels of the respective churches.  Some contend that certain angels are the messengers, whereas others contend that the pastors of the several churches are the messengers (the Greek appears to admit of either notion).  Yet this much is clear: the Lord Jesus is the ultimate Messenger here.

[4] John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1772, published 1779).

[5] Harry L. Reeder, with David Swavely, From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2004, pp. viii, 209).  I believe that this book rose out of Dr. Reeder’s Doctor of Ministry project at Reformed Theological Seminary’s Charlotte, North Carolina, campus—undertaken while he was senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church (PCA), in nearby Matthews, North Carolina.