The Christian movement in Asia Minor is a wonderful example of a group of churches and APEST leaders who took doctrine and morality seriously. Writing to a few of these churches in Ephesus less than four decades after Paul’s initial engagement of people in the city began (Acts 19), Jesus applauded them for the good ministry they were doing. However, their ministry was far from His expectations, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had a first” (Rev 2:4). It is a perplexing comment, especially since we read about the churches’ diligently working to combat false teachers and sexual immorality (1 Timothy 1-6).
In the context of the book of Revelation, false prophets (Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10) and sexual immorality (Rev 9:21; 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3, 9; 19:2; 21:8; 22:15) factor prominently in the midst of political, economic, and societal turmoil. It would be reasonable to suggest that demonstrating an aversion to such issues and even addressing them straight up in the church and culture would indicate the church’s love for Christ. However, according to Jesus, the difference between what these churches were doing and what He expected them to do stood significantly distinct from one another. The churches in Ephesus had abandoned their first love!
One thing, though, is clear: whatever their first love was, Jesus demanded that they get it back, “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” (Rev 2:5). The good works for which Christ commends them is qualitatively different from the good work that is the love of Christ. As I have suggested, if a missionary understanding of Revelation is at the core of John’s prophecy, and that prophecy is focused on every tribe, nation, people, and language worshiping God (Rev 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 14:6; 15:4), then the Ephesian’s first love must somehow be tied to the work of uniting all things in Christ (Eph 1:10).
As Paul taught in Ephesians 1, God’s will is singular and clear, and the church is chosen and predestined in love to share in the responsibility of His will by declaring the mystery of Christ (Eph 1:4-5; 3:9-10). It is also clear that Jesus’ warning of taking away the church’s lampstand is a euphemism for the removal of the church’s witness in the society as it would no longer be permitted to represent the light of the world (John 8:12). The apostle of love is unambiguous: the church’s first priority is to love Christ. A repeated theme throughout his gospel, he obviously understands what Jesus intends for the Ephesians; indeed, what He intends for His church.
As John told those in Ephesus in the Fourth Gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In fact, the love of Christ for us is the model by which we are to love. That sacrificial love which focused on God’s glorification is a love that compels us to tell His story to others so that they see how God relentlessly pursues them. The love that Christ speaks about, the love that the Ephesians abandoned, is a work by which we, just as John heard from Jesus in Peter’s restoration, are called to tend and feed those who are his, both those present and those future members of the flock (John 21:15-17).
Michaela and I were having another one of our great theological conversations. They are getting increasingly rare, not due to a lack of desire, but rather to her life work as a social worker currently in the Baltimore public school system. Nevertheless, as I was studying Revelation, she was attending a Bible study on the book. One evening we spoke about what she was learning and her thoughts seemed to ring true. Reflecting on Rev 7:17 and 21:4, she commented, “Daddy, I believe the tears that Jesus will wipe away are due to the fact that we will recognize all the people we did not share Christ with and realize that they will be eternally separated from us and God.” An absolutely tragic thought. Can you imagine a world without those loved ones – family, friends, even neighbors and colleagues – knowing we had a sacred duty to share the gospel with them and did not?
We are getting closer to the streets of gold as the church continues on her mission. Today, as near as we can tell, two-thirds of the global population does not know Christ and 2.1 billion people are completely outside the reach of the gospel, a number that is increasing daily as the population continues to swell. Additionally, nearly 6 million people representing 269 distinct ethnic groups living in their homelands have never been contacted by a missionary. These people have stories of searching for a God they do not know. The Holy Spirit is at work among them, yet they do not see Him. Now, the church must fulfill her responsibility to make God’s story known.
A movement of God is happening in the world today. He will accomplish His mission as John prophesied (Rev 10:11). The question for us is, will we demonstrate our love for Christ by joining God in his mission to see every tribe, nation, language, and people worship him? A good challenge for us to consider as we move into a new year. I hope you’ll take the time this week between Christmas 2020 and New Year 2021 to reflect on the challenge that God has placed before us.