Message 5, Christ's Message to the Church:
The Reformers warned us that darkness will once again overcome large portions of the church if the gospel is not proclaimed and defended in every generation. Through the Apostle John, our Savior issued a similar warning to the seven churches of Asia Minor, calling them to return to Him lest they fall into darkness and their lampstands be removed. Dr. Sinclair Ferguson considers what Christ might have said if one of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2:3 had been specifically addressed to the church in the modern West in this message.
Well, those of you who know me know that nobody applauds you before you say anything in Scotland, so it’s very nice to have one’s self-image encouraged by American friends, and very good to see so many of you who over the years here have become good friends, and look forward to meeting some of you that I haven’t yet met.Now, the theme this morning, this afternoon — Christ’s message to the church.
I realize many people come to conferences without bothering to look at the program, so for those of you let me tell you what was on the program, and that was that the remit given to me was to choose one of the letters from Revelation chapters 2 and 3, to select that letter as though Christ were speaking to the Christian church in the West.
Now, the theme this morning, this afternoon — Christ’s message to the church. I realize many people come to conferences without bothering to look at the program, so for those of you let me tell you what was on the program, and that was that the remit given to me was to choose one of the letters from Revelation chapters 2 and 3, to select that letter as though Christ were speaking to the Christian church in the West.
In many ways those letters are really prescripts. They were intended to be read by all of the churches, and it must have been quite something as the book of Revelation made its way, perhaps just one copy, each church making a copy as it made its way along there in Asia, and as one church and another heard what Christ thought of the other churches, you can’t help wondering how they must have felt as they realized that Christ had already taken the X-Ray of their church, and others would hear it.
Ligonier does very few things without giving secret challenges to the speakers, and this particular address allotted to me came with the secret challenge, which if I was willing to accept it, the tape would self-destruct in 30 seconds, and that was to choose one of these letters, one of these prescripts. The difficulty in doing that, of course, is that your choice probably indicates what you think about the church, doesn’t it?
Just think about it, there are seven of them, which one would you choose? You would choose the one that said what you thought about the church, because that’s what you think Christ would be saying to the church today, and so I’ve chickened out. And I’m going to deal with the first of them, which you will find in Revelation chapter 2, first 7 verses, written to the angel of the church in Ephesus.
“The words of him who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. 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.
I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 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.
Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 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.”
The book of Revelation is, in many ways, best understood as the movie version of Matthew 16:18. Matthew 16:18 is best understood as the consummation of the promise that God gave in Genesis 3:15, and the whole of the Old Testament story is simply an unpacking of that fundamental verse, that throughout the ages until the coming of the singular seed of the woman, Jesus Christ, there would be conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, until Satan himself, the serpent, would seek to crush the heel of the seed, Jesus Christ, and in the process his head would finally be crushed.
Jesus says “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades, the seed of the serpent will seek to overcome it, but be unable, because I will build my church.” And in the picture of the church’s history that’s given to us in the Book Of Revelation, the serpent of the Garden of Eden has grown large, as John tells us, in Revelation chapter 12, into the size of a monstrous red dragon, who having failed to devour the Christ child who was born to rule the nations of the world, would then go on in pursuit of those who belonged to the Christ child, and seek to engulf them.
And in some ways these prescripts to the book of Revelation are the Lord Jesus’ indication to these different city congregations of where they stand in that conflict.
And the rest of the Book Of Revelation — because these churches are in very different situations — churches in different parts of the earth today would more identify with one of these churches than with others of those churches, but the whole book of Revelation is for all of those churches, and this is a marvelous illustration in itself in the grace of God, how the one message of the gospel touches different churches at different points to bring them not only to conflict in the battle, but ultimately to bring them to victory in the battle, as we are told here in verse 7, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
But there’s a principle that runs through each of these letters, it’s the principle that the apostle Peter enunciates, isn’t it? That the time has come for judgement, discrimination, analysis to begin at the house of God, and I suspect that Peter draws that from the prophecy of Ezekiel.
You remember as Ezekiel sees in these visions into what is really happening in the church in Jerusalem, and sees that the real problem is not the external forces on the church, but the internal, spiritual decay in the church, and he sees judgement beginning literally in the house of God, and then this vision of the glory of God leaving the house of God, and departing.
And this of course is the very principle that Jesus applies here, that unless the church in Ephesus repents, then He will remove the candlestick, the symbol of the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and the church in Ephesus would therefore be no more.
You and I, my guesses are far better at analyzing the world than we are at analyzing the situation in our own churches. If I may say so, as an insider/outsider to the conservative Christian community in the United States, many of us have been far too good at analyzing what is wrong with the culture, and far too myopic in analyzing what is wrong with the church.
But whether this is the letter that applies to us, or whether once we have read this letter we would listen to the other letters, it is of the very essence that we listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, and especially what Jesus Christ Himself is saying.
I have five things to say on the basis of this passage, and we will just see how many of them we manage to get through, but first of all I want you to notice — and this is hugely significant — how Christ presents Himself to the church in Ephesus.
You notice in the vision that John has of the Lord Jesus, in the first chapter, He is described in a multi-faceted way, but then in each of these letters the Lord Jesus points to one particular dimension of His person and ministry, as though to say “In your situation there is an aspect of my ministry to which you need to pay particular attention.” And interestingly here in the prescript to the church in Ephesus what Jesus draws attention to is that He is the one who holds the stars in His right hand and He walks among the candlesticks.
The stars are the angels of the churches, perhaps as many commentators think, the leadership of the church. He holds them in His hands and He walks among the candlesticks. It’s a remarkable picture actually of the way in which the One, the Son of Man of whom we sing of His bleeding hands and His wounded feet, that now those wounds made glorified above are hands that hold the ministry of the gospel in the churches of Jesus Christ, and those feet move among the churches discerning, testing, probing.
And the essential principle that He is expounding here, isn’t it, to the church in Ephesus is that the church is his, He is its Lord, and in saying that He is underscoring what I rather imagine in the Western Christian church, and not least in the Reformed Western Christian church. He is underlining how easily we fall from asking the question “What does Jesus Christ really want?”
Some of you belong to sessions or leadership groups in your churches, however they are named in the particular grouping that you have — is it the single, most frequently asked question, or at least in your minds, what does Jesus Christ want here?
Or only, what is it that Jesus Christ agrees with me about wanting that I want here? And this was so clearly in the church at Ephesus, that had seen so much of what Jesus Christ wanted and would produce, yes at a cost, but now they are beginning to drift, and what Jesus Christ wants becomes incidental.
Those of you who followed Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones’ expositions of the Book of Romans will remember when he comes to the exposition of Romans chapter 3 “And he’ll raise the whole of mankind before the judgement seat of God, so that every mouth may be shut, and the whole world be held accountable before God,” he pauses — I can almost hear him doing it — and saying ‘Here is my definition of a Christian. A Christian is a man whose mouth has been shut.’
But my dear friends, you wouldn’t get that impression meeting every Christian you know, would you? Not even when the issue is what does Jesus Christ really want for His church, because He has told us in the Scriptures, but we are so inculturated in our world that we decide what pleases Jesus Christ by what pleases us.
We even — even in the Reformed church, bring in the experts to tell us how well we are doing, how glorious our worship is, and the voice of Jesus Christ is never consulted. We are really speaking about what we enjoy, and about what we are doing, and we are not really searching and seeking out the Scriptures to reflect with deep self-analysis and humility “Lord Jesus Christ, what do you want for the church?”
Because one of the things that was clearly happening in the church in Ephesus, which was one of the three greatest churches in the world, set within one of the great centers of the Roman Empire, cultural center, one of the Seven Wonders of the World was in Ephesus, but what concerns the heart of the Lord Jesus Christ is that they seemed to have ceased asking “What will please the Lord Jesus Christ?”
You dare not assume that is what please you incidentally, and you can only find it out by probing the Scriptures, immersing yourself in the Scriptures, and constantly asking the Spirit “Show us how this applies Lord, how your will is good and perfect and acceptable, because we consecrate everything to you to that end.
One of the obvious illustrations of that is just what I’ve said, that there are experts who will come and tell you that the worship in your church is outstanding. But they mean no more than you have a good choir, organist, band or orchestra, that your preacher is eloquent, because there’s only one who can tell you what the quality of your worship is, and He has told you in the Scriptures the measurements He uses of that quality, and that’s one of the things that clearly concerns the Lord Jesus here.
And He does as He presents Himself to the church — He does that by telling the church in Ephesus what He knows about them, and there are things He commends. He commends them because they’ve persevered in the face of difficulty. Verse 2, “I know your works, your toil, 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” and “you,” verse 6, “hate the works of the Nicolaitans”, a false teaching group in the first century, “which I also hate.” But do you notice something here in this?
In a sense these are the things that Christians can do aren’t they? Can stand firm against the foe. We can smell false teaching at 20 paces, and some of us can shoot it in the eye at 50 paces, but there’s something missing, and what is missing is that they have abandoned, He says, the love they had at first. And this, particularly interestingly, because they had very special privileges.
This was — actually I think this was the church that had the most privileged ministry of the Word in the entire history of the Christian church bar none, since the days the Apostles were in Jerusalem, and one might even go beyond that and say even including that church. This was the church that had the eloquence of Apollos.
This was the church in which the Apostle Paul had spent most of his ministry in terms of “Where did he spend a good chunk of time?” He was three years in Ephesus, this is the place where he left Timothy to continue that ministry, the traditions of the early church pretty much guaranteed to us that at some point, the apostle John himself also ministered in the church at Ephesus.
In the providence of God I’ve specialized in being called to churches where there have been famous ministers, without exception. Tremendous privilege. But you know there’s such a thing as vicarious spirituality. It expresses itself this way “So where do you go to church? What’s your church?” “I sit under Steve Lawson’s ministry, or I sit under R.C. Sproul’s ministry, or I sit under Alistair Begg’s ministry.” You must really be some Christian.
But it can all be vicarious can’t it? Biblical Christianity is not going to an assembly where the Word of God is preached. Biblical Christianity is being an assembly where the Word of God jumps out of the pulpit and starts running around the church, and transforming people’s lives. And the staggering thing about this particular church is it had this extraordinary tradition of ministry.
And it had persevered, and had struggled, and in some senses conquered, but it lost sight of the main thing, and it could die because of losing the main thing. More than that, Jesus could come along and remove it’s candlestick for loss of the main thing. And what was the main thing? It was the love they had at first.
Now, how do we know what that love was? Well, we need to go back to the first, don’t we? Here are some illustrations of what it meant for them to abandon the love they had at first. This is what Christ has against the church, and this is the third thing I want us to notice.
In early days, they loved the Word of God. That was the chief characteristic of this community. They loved the Word of God, they loved being taught the Word of God, and they loved the ministry of the Word of God. How do I know that? Because Acts chapter 19 tells us that Paul hired the lecture hall of Tyrannus, you remember? And one long-standing manuscript tradition of the book of Acts says to us that he did this for five hours in the middle of the day, for up to three years.
And Christians gathered in Ephesus, it looks as though they gathered from other parts, and for three years he poured the Word of God into them, and they loved it, and they grew, and the result was that the whole of Asia heard what the Word of God was doing.
Ever puzzle over the expression that Luke uses in the Acts of the Apostles, that the Word of God grew? Now, that’s false teaching isn’t it? The Word of God doesn’t grow, it’s given to us once.
What does that mean? It means there were such a color and an acceptance of the Word of God that it seemed to fill and fill and fill and fill and keep on growing like that stone that ran down the mountain in the vision of the book of Daniel until it consumed these people, till they were like you remember what Spurgeon said about John Bunyan, that if you pricked him anywhere he would flow Bibline. That’s one of the rarest commodities in the Christian world and the English-speaking world today.
Most Christians have more Bibles than they know what to do with, and know almost nothing of what is in them, except a few texts. I am ashamed to say that is a broad experience the statistics tell out to us. And yet we think we have it. That perhaps there’s never been a church like our church. I remember once a man telling me “Don’t you think this is the greatest church in all the world?” I didn’t have the heart to say no. I think the church I’m in is the greatest church in the world.
I wonder if you understand what that means. Five hours a day for three years, and all he’s doing is teaching them the Scriptures, pouring the Scriptures into them. Now, transfer that to the church in the Western world, yes the Reformed church in the Western world. What kind of appetite do we have and what kind of diet are we being given? Yes, but we are a Reformed church.
You know, I guess I’m old enough now to say this. I get weary of people telling me they are Reformed churches in the tradition of Calvin, until they’ve answered this question: Do you have preaching every day of the week? Is the whole of Wednesday given over to prayer in the congregation, and does the congregation gather for prayer? Then you’ll be a Reformed church.
And yes we live in — no we don’t all live within half a mile of St. Pierre in Geneva, but how little we do in this area of feeding on the Word of God and loving the Word of God to be taught us is it’s good to work that down in groups that are well-led. But you know, there’s a symbolic difference between what happens in the preaching of the Word and what happens in the small group. You can’t help noticing, it’s even physical.
In the small group we’re all sitting, looking down on our Bibles, and we’re thinking hard to answer the leader’s question, and then we’re disagreeing, or we’re not sure.
And there is a symbolism in the fact that when the Word is being expounded to us it’s coming down to us, and even the person who is preaching it is under it and conscious he’s under it, and this is God’s Word and we’re all under it, and it’s feeding us, and it’s getting places that we could never be brought to in our Bible study groups, as the Spirit strives with our spirits in the beautiful anonymity of a large company, and reveals things that have been hidden from us, and probes places where we hurt, and does the deepest counseling of the entire week, and again and again and again as the weeks pass and the months pass and the years pass. Our lives are transformed by the Word of God.
And this was something it looks as though the Ephesians had lost their love for. And of course, once your appetite begins to go you lose your love for the food, and then you begin to think your appetite is normal.
My brothers and sisters, we have no idea whatsoever how abnormal our church life really is. Why do I say that? I say that because when I came to the United States first of all, and visited churches and was handed the bulletin, two things I would look for: how frequently is the Word of God expounded to the people here, and correspondingly is it very evident to me that this is a people devoted to prayer? Because the Apostolic motto was “We will give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word of God.”
And there is 25 minutes in a Sunday morning. And in congregations, even congregations that think of themselves as Reformed, the elders and the pastors know the people won’t come out at night. And yet we leave saying it was wonderful. You know, if you’re a young man and you leave an hour with a girl and think that was wonderful, you don’t leave saying “Is there any chance we could meet for an hour the same time next week and keep that up?” You can’t build a relationship on that.
And yet, you see, we have no idea what’s happening, we haven’t seen it. We think we’re normal, but we know the Scriptures so little. And if we’re really honest, we love the Lord Jesus so little as well, that if someone put us into a room with no distractions and said “I just want you to sit there and think about the Lord Jesus for five minutes” many Evangelical Christians in the Western world would find that an enormous trial, because we don’t know five minutes’ worth of the Lord Jesus.
Because we don’t know the Scriptures. Because our lives haven’t been under the Scriptures. And we think we’re normal, and it’s a surprise.
We understand why Jesus would say that to those horrible liberals, but would He be saying it to us, and what if the evidence is in our churches? That we are indifferent actually to the ministry of the Word. And what is the least attended meeting in most churches if there is church — such a meeting?
It’s a meeting for prayer. And we build. And we want really sharp pastors, kind of Apostle Pauls plus mixed with John. You know, little touch of the eccentricity of Ezekiel would do us very nicely. And we don’t realize that we’ve maybe lost our first love.
I read some time ago a letter that Peter the Venerable had written, who was the abbot of the great monastery at Cluny, and he wrote it to far more famous Bernard of Clairvaux, and he said “You know Bernard, you know what your real problem is? You do all the things you think are difficult really well. You fast, you discipline, but you don’t do the simplest thing well at all. You don’t really love.”
Just think of that for a moment. It was apparently possible to say in these early centuries “See how these Christians love one another.” That surely would be one of the singular effects of the ministry of the Word of God crushing our humility and building up our Christ-likeness, and the whole community would know.
I’ve sometimes said to people in — particularly in the United States, “You know, we’re desperate to make an impact on our society.” Especially this is true of a somewhat larger church, and we’re trying to do every conceivable thing to kind of touch society. Actually there’s a very simple thing to do; cannot fail.
You just come to church on Sunday night. You just come to pray whenever the leadership in the congregation says “Pray.” And I guarantee there’ll be anywhere between three and a dozen messages on your cell phone, on your home phone, saying “Where were you on Sunday night when I called? Where were you on Wednesday?” And you just need to know two words, church and prayer, and you are likely to get the response “Oh God.” And then you are likely to be able to say “Precisely.”
You don’t need to be eloquent. The sheer, radical counterculturalism of your life is going to make people start talking about what’s happening in the church. And it really does all go down to this. One of things apparently that had happened in Ephesus was that impact that was made because of the Word of God and it’s fruitfulness in the people’s lives.
The transformation of character made people talk, so that the apostle Peter in another context doesn’t say “You know, what you really need to do is to ask people questions about whether they’re going to heaven or not.” He says “No, all you need to do is ask — answer the questions they’re asking you.”
Why are people not asking us more questions? Why do we get up to some of the false jiggery-pokery that sometimes isn’t even honest with non-Christians, to ask them our questions? Because apparently there’s so little about our lives and our churches that would make them ask any question at all.
And what lies at the bottom of that? If it’s true then it’s surely that we’ve lost our first love. Maybe that was why Paul wrote to Timothy, whom he had left in Ephesus, as he says in 1 Timothy chapter 1, he says to Timothy, “Timothy the goal of our ministry is love. Love for the Lord Jesus. Love for His Word. Love for His people. Love for the lost. Love for prayer. And love for His glorious appearing.” And the Ephesians apparently had lost it.
These words of Jesus remind me of that probably quite electric moment in the gospels when there was the dinner in the family home of Simon the Leper, and in the midst of it when, you remember, Jesus was so beautifully anointed, He turned to Simon who was complaining. He was actually critical of the love that someone else had shown to the Lord Jesus actually, because it exposed him, and Jesus said to him “Simon, I’ve got something I need to say to you.” And that’s what Jesus was surely saying to this church too.
So how do we apply this in the fourth place? And, I think, when I read this particular letter — but some of the others — I think, to a friend I had who was a missionary in Turkey, and was feeling unwell, and had gone to have an X-Ray done, and just because of the medical system the radiographer had given my friend the X-Rays in a brown envelope, and she got on to public transport to travel across town to the physician who would read and analyze them.
And what the X-ray people didn’t know was that she herself was a physician, and she opened up the X-Rays, and her first thought was this “I am a dead woman.”
And here it’s as though Jesus is coming and saying “Before that stage is reached, let me tell you what I already see on your X-Ray. There’s a spot here, and I know what it means. It means you’ve lost your first love, and my grace is no longer amazing to you. You don’t have the appetite for the Word.” For all the struggle prayer is, you don’t love coming together to pray.
I remember an elder in the church I served in Scotland, after he retired he said to me he was free now. He said to me, “You know” — he was in banking — he said “You know, sometimes at the time of prayer, I had to drag myself here.” I admired that, but then I said to him with a smile “But Bobby, you never had to drag yourself home afterwards, did you?” Because you see, in spiritual things in relationship to Jesus Christ, there are pleasures that we never taste because we’ve never tried them, and astonishingly in the United States of America of all places, because we say in our heart of hearts they wouldn’t work here.
And the paradox is, I think that in, perhaps the nation in all the world which has had the most enterprising spirit of “We can do it.” I come from a nation where the basic spirit has been “We’ve never tried it.” But you know there is one Scottish malaise that so many churches actually suffer from: prayer, we’ve never really tried that.
When I came to the United States of America, to me the most astonishing thing, it was like entering a television set. In the supermarkets the apples were four times the size, there were 45 more varieties, the buildings were enormous, the churches were vast. If I could have packed up some church plants and put them in my pocket and dropped them down anywhere in Scotland, people would have assumed “That’s the new Jerusalem.”
But the question that lay in my mind was this: “How is so much of this being built, when the Word of God is largely silent in the property, and how can all of this been built?” And there seems to be so little passionate, intercessory, pleading prayer for the power of the Spirit, the Word of God, the transformation of lives and the salvation of sinners.
And I would say in my lifetime, the single most obvious difference between my teenage years as an early Christian listening to people pray and the present day is this: in those days you never were with the people of God in prayer without them pleading for the salvation of sinners. And nowadays you can go to many prayer meetings, and the only thing that there is pleading for is somebody’s broken leg, and we’ve become all so horizontal, haven’t we?
We would die if somebody denied the Scriptures to us, and said they aren’t inerrant, but in practical terms most of them could be errant, and we would know almost nothing about it, because we neither read them nor love to have them expounded to us, and we don’t pray that the Holy Spirit would come down upon the ministry of the Word and transform lives.
Maybe this isn’t the right letter, but just imagine that you’re sitting there when the messenger has moved on from Ephesus to Smyrna to Pergamum to Thyatira, and you know having heard Jesus’ message to the church in Ephesus, you know that, that what this messenger is holding in the, in the scroll, or in the papers in which the book Of Revelation is written, you know inside that brown envelope is the X-Ray of your church too.
And you almost want to say to mine own, I almost want to say to him, “Would you go around the other churches first? Because I need to take in what Jesus is saying to the church in Ephesus first of all before I’m really ready to hear anything he might say in particular to the church in which I’m in now.”
But you see, Jesus doesn’t say this to crush us. He says this to bring us back. He knows the way to bring us back, our fallen spirits to restore. And so He says “If you’re listening now, if you’re listening, I want you to remember that first love.” If your marriage is going wrong, isn’t that what you do? “Honey let’s get back to our first love.” And to repent and to do the works that you did at first. Otherwise, the candlestick’s going to be removed.
I first studied the book of Revelation as a teenager, actually, with the help of William Hendriksen’s beautiful little commentary, “More Than Conquerors,” and I’ll never forget as a youngster reading the chilling words with which his exposition of these verses ends, when he says “There is no church at Ephesus now. The place itself is a ruin.” That couldn’t happen in the United States, could it?
There were people living in North Africa for many centuries loving the Lord Jesus. They’d had the greatest theologian in history, actually the two greatest theologians in the first five centuries of the Christian church, and more of them, they had all lived in North Africa now. You know what’s in North Africa now: Islam.
How do we understand that? We could understand it in terms of the rise of Islam, but that would only be half the story. The rest of the story is that Jesus removed the candlestick, because nothing happens apart from the sovereign judgement of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the first love of our ancestors in this country, you know what that was for — my dear friends, there’s no point in boasting about them unless you imitate their example — was to give themselves over, “Feed us the Word of God” they said to their pastors, “and let us pray for the blessing of God.”
When I was a young man I was serving a summer assistantship in the remote vastnesses of the Scottish highlands, and I became friends with a man who was — I think he was probably about 90. All his friends called him Dodo. And I remember Dodo taking me out to the back of his craft one afternoon and saying “I remember as a 14-year-old boy coming out here on a Sunday afternoon, and the grass had turned black.
And it was the backs of the men who were prostrated on the ground pleading for the divine blessing,” as he put it. And I can still hear him say “And it came.”
That’s what we need, and so we need to remember, and to repent, and to do the works, and to begin to taste this promise that if you overcome in these areas, He will give to you to eat of the Tree of Life that is in the paradise of God. May He save us, my dear friends, before it’s too late. May He increase our hunger for His Word.
May He make us men and women of young people of prayer, and build such character and churches that we will discover that need to be ready to give an answer to those who are asking us “What has happened here?” It happened once in Ephesus, and it happened no more. Whatever the Spirit is saying to the churches, let those who have ears hear.
Our heavenly Father, we pray as we bow before the wonder of your Word and the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you would cover any words that might lead us astray from him, and empower all words that will point us to him and His majesty and glory, cause us to humble ourselves before him, in order that He, and we with Him, may be in our churches, exalted by His grace. We pray it in His name, amen.