March 25, 2002
The church at Ephesus was surely happy to receive Jesus’ words in Revelation 2, because He praised them for their commitment to truth and the work of the Gospel. The Lord didn’t stop there, though, but went on to confront a serious problem: they had lost their first love. Alistair Begg challenges us to consider our own lives and churches in light of Jesus’ admonishment, then to repent and live for Him now and always.
Sermon Transcript: Print
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
“‘These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know you deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
“‘Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
“‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”
Well, we come this morning to the first of these seven letters, to the church located closest, as we said yesterday morning, to the isle of Patmos, from which John was writing, on which he saw this vision. Some of you will have actually visited in the Aegean Sea, spending holiday time there, and will, in the course of your travels, have gone and seen the circumstances in Ephesus today. And you will have looked in vain for any real signs of a vibrant Christian testimony there.
Ephesus, at the time of the writing of this letter, was strategically placed. It was at the mouth of a river, the Cayster River. It was set on a gulf in the Aegean Sea. It was at the intersection of three major trade routes. And as a result of that, it had become a very prosperous place. It was commercially very successful. It had been able, on account of the fluidity of finance, to build a wonderful theater, significant temples, and various arenas for recreation and marketplace activities. And it was to this location that Paul had endeavored to go.
When you read Luke in the Acts, you will recall that he had been prevented on his first occasion; in an enigmatic statement, “The Holy Spirit prevented them from going.” But by the time of his third missionary journey, he makes his way to Ephesus for a prolonged period of time. And Luke tells us that he stayed in Ephesus for somewhere in the region of two and a half years.
Now, I think it will be helpful this morning if you turn just for a moment to Acts chapter 19 so that we can remind ourselves of the beginnings of this amazing church there in Ephesus. I don’t want to expound Acts 19; I just want to draw your attention to it.
The skyline of the city of Ephesus was dominated by the Temple of Artemis or the Temple of Diana, the Greek name for Artemis. Not only did this temple dominate the skyline, but it essentially had a dramatic impact on the totality of life in the city of Ephesus. And the servants of Diana would ply their trade in the streets of Ephesus—all kinds of practices, many of them immoral, most of them distinctly unhelpful. And there was within the framework of the city a combination of magic and religion, of superstition and of syncretism.
And when Paul arrives in this place, he comes in the same fashion as he came to the people in Corinth, determined, essentially, to know nothing except the message of the gospel. And it is this message of the gospel that he proclaims. And as a result of the impact of the gospel message, the trading practices of the servants of the temple—particularly “a silversmith,” in verse 24, “named Demetrius”—is impinged upon as a result of the transformed lives stemming from the preaching of the gospel.
If you allow your eyes to go up the page a little bit, you will discover in verse 17 that “the Jews and [the] Greeks living in Ephesus” were “seized with fear,” “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor,” and as a result of them being “seized with fear”—which, of course, is the beginning of wisdom—as a result of the name of Jesus being exalted, then the impact in the community was seen. Verse 18:
Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. [And] when they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. [And] in this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
And you can read on in chapter 19 of the riot that ensues. By the time you get to chapter 20, Paul is taking his farewell of the Ephesians, and I want just to draw your attention to this. In Acts 20:20, Paul says to them, “You know that I have[n’t] hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” He’d had these amazing lectures in the afternoon in the Hall of Tyrannus—they’d gone on for some two years—and he has also gone from home to home, driving home the implications of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. “I have declared,” verse 21, “to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus [Christ].” Back down in 25 and in 26 he says, “I’m leaving. I want you to know that I feel innocent of the blood of anyone.” Verse 27: “For I have[n’t] hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”
Now, here’s what I want you to notice. Verse 28: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” He’s addressing the elders now. “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” There’s going to be an infiltration, he says, into the Ephesian community and amongst those who name the name of Christ. And then verse 30: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
Now, when you simply allow your Bible to flip on to chapter 2 and you read the word of the risen Christ to the church at Ephesus, you recognize that the word of warning issued by Paul in his departure from these Ephesian believers has so clearly come to fruition. And there are those amongst the believers there in Ephesus, those identified as the Nicolaitans—others who are plying their own particular brand of heresy—who have emerged within the congregation at Ephesus, suggesting to men and women that their newfangled, new, revised edition of Christian living will be far more appealing to them than this stogy information that they have begun to lay hold of and, indeed, upon which the congregation in Ephesus had been built.
Now, it is to this community of individuals, whom Paul left in the care of Timothy and who were then—tradition, at least, tells us—under the leadership of St. John the apostle, the one who hears the sound of this great voice behind him, looks behind, and realizes that a voice, the sound of many waters, is in his ears saying to him, “I want you to proclaim these messages.” And you can almost imagine the hair standing up on the back of John’s neck when he recognizes that the first word that he is given to address is a word addressed to the congregation over which he had been granted pastoral oversight.
And he who was the apostle of love and also a Son of Thunder, who had within the framework of his own personality the temptation to allow his love to settle into sentimentalism, to allow his thunderous commitment to the truth to settle into some kind of formal legalism—it’s no surprise, then, that the church that had been under his care, that had taken on something of the characteristics of its leadership, should be wrestling with these very same issues.
Now, with that by way of background, let’s go directly to the text. And I want to give you four essential headings this morning to try and guide us through. I felt yesterday that we were a little at sea. At least, I was at sea, and some of you were along with me. And so I want to give it a little more structure this morning in the hope that it will help at least in our understanding and then of our retention.
In true pastoral fashion, each of the main headings has within it a word that begins with p. And why that is I don’t really know, but it happens so often. Somebody can do the research on it.
But let’s notice first of all that in the word of Christ to these believers in Ephesus, he brings to them a word of praise. There is praise for them that he offers. This, of course, contrasts with where we ended yesterday. He had nothing commendatory at all to say to the church in Laodicea. It had all been rebuke, and it had all been warning. But here Jesus, as he looks down upon the community in Ephesus, is able to acknowledge, in verse 2, their “hard work,” their “perseverance,” and the fact that they were intolerant of “wicked men.” Jesus again identifies himself as the one who knows.
Those of you who come from an Anglican background are familiar with the collect for communion, where we remind ourselves, in prospect of the breaking of bread, that we come before he “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” And it is this Lord Jesus who looks upon these people and identifies these aspects which are commendatory.
Now, in order to help me again, I then summarized these words of praise for the church at Ephesus under three subheadings. Each of these words begins with t. I’ll tell you what they are so that you can follow along: the task—or just task—tough, and truth.
First of all, he praises them because they were committed to the task: “I know your deeds. I know your hard work.” The word which is used there is a graphic word. It speaks to the issue of laboring to the point of almost total weariness. Here he looks upon these people, and he recognizes, he says to them, “I know that you’re not afraid of hard work—that you’re not intimidated by the challenges that are represented in living out the faith of the gospel.” They had clearly grasped the word which Paul had extended to their forebears in writing the letter to the church in Ephesus when, in Ephesians, he had reminded them that although they were not saved by good works, they had been saved for good works, and that there were “good works,” in Ephesians 2:10, “[fore]ordained”; there were things that God had for them to do. And if we had moved amongst the community in Ephesus, we would have found many of them prepared to expend themselves again and again in the task of the gospel.
It would appear that rather than being driven by their feelings, they were largely task oriented. They were not afraid of facing up to these challenges. They would have been happy to include in their hymnody the verse from the hymn which reads,
My gracious Lord, I own thy right
To every service I can pay
And call it my sincere delight
To hear thy dictates and obey.
And in this respect, I think they’re a challenge to those of us who have or are in danger of growing weary in doing good. “I am glad to be able to commend you,” says the Lord Jesus, “because you are committed to the task at hand.”
Secondly, “I’m happy,” he says, “to commend you as being committed to the point of being tough.” “To the point of being tough.” I use the word purposefully. The word here for perseverance comes twice in the space of just a few words. He commends them for sticking with it, for seeing it through. And the church here in Ephesus was no group of Christian wimps.
One of the dreadful things about the way the world looks on the church—and not least of all, the clergy in the church—is that they are largely a fairly useless and ineffectual group of individuals—the kind of man that if you see him on the train, he can pretty well be guaranteed to have his own seat and three other seats around him, even if the train’s busy, because nobody really wants to sit next to him. They’re frightened that he might burst into tears or something, he’s such a pathetic looking character.
Robert Louis Stevenson on one occasion wrote in his diary, “I have been to Church to-day, and [I] am not depressed.” It was a matter of some note. (I have a word to say to men in a moment or two, but I’ll refrain from launching directly into it.) These people in Ephesus were committed. They were persevering. They were steadfast. They were immovable. They were abounding in the work of the Lord inasmuch as they recognized that their “labor[s] in the Lord [were] not in vain.” You will notice that their motivation, in verse 3, was that their perseverance and their endurance of hardship was for the name of Christ, and in this commitment to the task at hand, they “have not grown weary.”
Barclay, the late scholar from Glasgow University and Presbyterian minister whose commentaries need to be read with great care, says that their toughness is “the courageous gallantry which accepts suffering and hardship [and loss] and turns them into grace and glory.” And Jesus looks upon the Ephesian believers, and he says, “You know, you’re a gallant group of individuals, and I commend you for your gallantry.”
This Christianity that they were prepared to establish and live was not driven by emotional surges, it would seem. Their proclamation of the good news was not simply an appeal to the felt needs of the community, but rather, they would have been completely unashamed of identifying with the kind of military imagery that Paul had used, again, when he wrote to the church in Ephesus, urging them to “put on the whole armour of God” and to take their stand against the Evil One.
Now, let me just say a word of encouragement and exhortation to us in relationship to these things. How tough are you as a church? How strong and steadfast and persevering? And how about the men? Because I’m pretty sure the women are fairly tough and strong and persevering.
And here we are in Easter week, and there is no question that in the reading of the Gospel narratives, certainly postcrucifixion, the women fare far better than the men. The men are away, hidden behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” The ladies are still following on. They are at the tomb. They are poking into affairs. They’re beginning to find out just exactly what’s going on. It is to a woman that we have the first word in the encounter with he who is apparently the gardener.
I know that it is common, even amongst those who once revered her, to debunk Margaret Thatcher. That’s easy now, after the Berlin Wall is down, many years removed from when we went to school in total darkness, illumined by candles that were kept in closets, because there wasn’t a man tough enough to stand up to closed-shop unions. And it took a lady emerging out of the darkness, a woman of conviction in a sea of consensus politicians, to stand up, ironclad, and to declare, “This lady is not for turning.” I admire that kind of commitment. We can disagree over political stances. That’s not my point this morning. It is the very fact of when someone stands up with fortitude and with conviction and with clarity, it is amazing how people will rally to the task at hand. And yes, she was the best man that we had for the job.
How many of our churches are sustained by the ongoing, tireless commitment of solid, committed Christian women, who read their Bible more than their contemporary males, who are more committed in prayer than their husbands, who carry the burden on their backs of the agony of their teenage children, who bear the burden of their grandchildren’s concern, who have to look up the Bible references for their silly husband, who hasn’t read his Bible in a month and a half? Gentlemen… Ladies, congratulations! Gentlemen, where are we? Tough? Wimps!
Why is the average teenage boy so turned off Christianity? In many cases, the answer lies in the absence of role models that have combined spiritual conviction, manly commitments, and a sense of living in a real world with a real love for Christ that gains his commendation as he looks upon the community.
Well, he comes to urge us to step up, gentlemen, in the home and in the church and in the community. And it’s tough. But so what? In the words of the old country song, “I beg your pardon,” says Jesus. “I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime[s].”
Your son comes home from his first game of rugby, and he’s crying.
“What’s wrong, Tom?”
“Well, they threw me on the ground!”
“They took the ball away when I had it!”
“Well, I don’t like that!”
“Well, shut up, Tom. That’s rugby! Do you want to play rugby, or do you want to play Tiddlywinks? If you want to play Tiddlywinks, we can look after you. But if you want to play rugby, that’s what happens.”
Now, I say that… You can tell, I just look like a rugby player, don’t I? When I left Glasgow, the second city of the British Empire, and went to Ilkley, Yorkshire—Hey, aye-up, lads!—I discovered there, to my great concern, that there wasn’t any commitment to football in the school. And so they endeavored to make me a rugby player. They put me out on the wing, as far away from the action as possible. I think there were some days when I’m not sure that I ever touched the ball at all, because our team was so poor that the ball never made it that far out on the line. And the games teacher knew that. That’s why he put me there. And I would just… When it started to move one way, I would run that way, and when it turned around and moved the other way, I would run back.
But eventually, because I could kick, they made me the fullback. And I still recall the sense of absolute terror in waiting for the ball, kicked from the opposing team, to come to me, hoping desperately that the law of gravity would bring it down and into my arms before these horrible boys that were running at me would reach me. And I think, quite honestly, to my shame, there were occasions when I saw them, and I saw the ball, and I just moved off to one side.
I can only recall one thing being said to me at halftime, when the deputy rector, Mr. Whitaker, who was looking after the team at that point, gathered us all around and had a word for this one and that one. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. He couldn’t conceal the sense of disappointment, almost disgust, as he looked at me. And he said to me, “Look at you, Begg. You’ve been out there for forty minutes, and you haven’t even got your knees brown.” And my shorts were immaculate. My shirt was beautiful. My hair was just nice. I was completely useless.
He looks down on the Ephesian church, says, “I commend you folks. You’re giving yourselves to the task. You’re tough.”
And thirdly, “I want to commend you for the fact, I want to praise you for the fact that you’re committed to the truth.” They weren’t susceptible to every passing wind of doctrine. They were prepared to test those who came with claims, lest their claims proved to be spurious, as in some cases they did. “You have checked these people out,” he says in verse 2, “and you have found them to be false.” And down in verse 6: “I’m able to praise you for this: that you hate the practices of the Nicolaitans. That’s good,” he says, “because I also hate the practice of the Nicolaitans.”
Now, we don’t know anything about these people beyond what is actually given to us here in Revelation, apart from external sources to Scripture that can fill in a little bit of the blanks. But they were clearly a heretical group. Their views were so close to orthodoxy that it made it difficult to detect. One needed to be discerning. They were probably akin in their teaching to what we’ll see later—that was the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of Jezebel. Indeed, the Nicolaitans and those who follow the teaching of Balaam and Jezebel may actually be descriptive of one kind of three-headed monster of immorality and idolatry. And their immoral deeds and the impurity of so much that marked them probably related to the kind of Gnostic notions which sought to divorce spiritual life and compact it and isolate it from the functions of the physicality of man, thereby allowing people to perversely convince themselves that they could do certain things with their bodies while at the same time maintaining the purity of their spiritual life. So they were able then to offer to men and women, as contemporary cults so often are able to do, the idea of religious experiences that in no way impinge upon their self-indulgent lifestyles―which, of course, is a powerful combination: “You mean, I can do anything I want and still have an intimate awareness of God?” “Yes.” “Well, sign me up for that!” And Jesus says, “I hate the practices, or the deeds, of the Nicolaitans, and I know you also hate them.” These Ephesians were prepared to call a spade a spade.
There are issues before us in the contemporary church in the West today where, if we have enough courage and conviction, we must be prepared to say, “I hate these practices, and I know that Jesus does too.” I don’t know how it is in the UK. I’m divorced from the ongoing development of things. But the church in America—if it loses its grasp more significantly than it already has, there is more than an even possibility that it will lose its ability to speak with clarity and power and conviction to the contemporary culture in the matter of human sexuality, first of all as a result of total confusion and disobedience concerning the uniqueness of man and woman within the home, then in terms of that function within the church, and most pressingly, in the steamroller drive to include the perversity of homosexual practice within the framework of an acceptable Christian community. The same loving Lord Jesus says, “I hate the practice of these Nicolaitans, and I have a word of commendation for you, too, because you’re prepared to acknowledge that you do also.”
That’s the first main heading. And you should know for your encouragement that I always spend longer there than I ever do on the remainder.
So far, so good. It feels a little bit like when you’re sitting in a room, you’ve just written a paper for your history tutor or your English tutor, and it’s gone too well for too long, and you know that there’s a “but” coming somewhere: “Well, I think you were very good in the opening section. And in the middle, you mention one or two things. And I see that you’ve paid good attention to the contrast with the such and such.” And you just know from the tone of voice that they are about to drop the rest of it on you—and the rest, it might be fairly painful.
Well, that’s exactly what happens here. Notice, verse 4, it begins, “Yet…” “You are the folks who are to be commended for your commitment to the truth, you’re to be commended for being tough, you are to be commended for fulfilling the task, but…”
Let me move now from the praise that he offers to the problem that he confronts. And it is summarized in just a phrase. Notice: “I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” Here is the Achilles’ heel for this task-oriented, tough-minded, truth-telling fellowship. Says Mounce, “Every virtue carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.” We noted yesterday that the church, the measure of a church, isn’t to be found in its programs or its achievements, its reputation, or even in its doctrinal orthodoxy but in its spiritual life.
Now, this morning we may simply substitute the word life with the word love and say the same thing: that the test of a church is ultimately not in any of those things, but it is found in its love. If you, for example, took your paper and started on the righthand side of the paper, moving back towards the left, just writing zeros—put a zero and a zero and a zero and a zero—you put ten zeros there, and what do you have? Zero! Put a one in front of it, and all the other zeros change. So when you take the task and the toughness and the truth and everything else that may be commendatory concerning a fellowship such as in Ephesus, it all ultimately amounts to zero without the one of love placed strategically at the head of the list. Not only is Christ looking down upon that which is a living community, but he is looking down on that which must be a loving community.
Now, you can see how this happens. And some of us come from fellowships that tend in this direction. In seeking to ensure that the Ephesian Christians excluded those who were imposters, they may well have created amongst themselves a climate of suspicion that was not conducive to a sense of brotherly love. They were so on the lookout for the mistaken individuals, the mistaken men and women, that they had somehow in the process rooted out others who were just fledgling in their faith and who had genuine questions and concerns and who were still bringing with them the background of the mud that was still on the boots, if you like, of their newfound Christian experience, and perhaps in the process of interviewing them for membership. And because they couldn’t squeeze out of them the right kind of clichéd expression, an articulation of evangelical and conservative faith, they erred on the side of becoming cold and metallic and refrigerated and formalized, all because of a realistic and necessary commitment to truth. But what they had lost sight of was the fact that unless love envelops all of this and impinges upon all of this, then the same warning that is issued here needs to be issued in every location where this becomes a tendency.
Beasley-Murray, commentating on this, says, “If the price paid by the Ephesians for the preservation of true Christianity was the loss of love, the price was too high, for Christianity without love is a perverted faith.” J. B. Phillips paraphrases this, “You do not love as you did at [the] first.” “You do not love as you did at [the] first.”
It’s a tragic thing to see, isn’t it, in a marriage, where people have grown cold to one another? They’re still together, but they’re living singles. There’s a formality to it. You can see it in their eyes. You understand it in the way they express themselves to one another. There’s no fresh discoveries. There’s no vibrancy about it. It’s just ho-hum. It’s the same old jazz. It’s pretty hopeless. Many times, it is sustained simply by fear rather than by any genuine sense of undying affection.
Living for the last three months down in Florida, as my wife and I have, because I’ve been given sabbatical leave from the church… They wanted a break from me, and I understand; and so will you, at least, by tomorrow, if not already by now. But one of the things you… Down in Florida, you’re living amongst the newly wed and the nearly dead. And I ride my bike in the mornings, and there is nothing gives me a greater thrill than seeing these ancient couples—and I used the word “ancient” guardedly, because I’m moving fast in that direction myself, I understand—but seeing these ancient couples walking in the morning sun, still holding hands with each other. Now, admittedly, in some cases, it’s to prevent each other falling down. But they could do that with a stick, you know? And my only assumption is that it is an expression still of a love that exists between them.
You see, Christianity is about the expulsive power of a new affection, the falling in love with Christ, the sense of the immensity of his pursuing, energizing grace—that
I’ve found a Friend, oh, such a friend!
He loved me ere I knew him;
[And] he drew me with the cords of love,
And thus he bound me to him.
And round my heart so closely twine[d]
[These] ties [that] naught can sever,
For I am his, and he is mine,
Forever and forever.
But when that begins to go, then we’ll look a lot like this church.
“Well, was it their love for Christ? You seem to be suggesting that. Or was it their love for each other? Or was it their love for those who were the unbelieving community around them?” I don’t think we have to choose between them. I think Phillips’s paraphrase is quite helpful: “You’re not loving the way you did at the beginning.” From the heights of their ardent devotion to Jesus, they’d fallen into the plains of mediocrity—and the plain was very full of tents. This picture, of course, runs throughout the whole of the Old Testament—God speaking of his people in terms of the marriage covenant. Jeremiah 2: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.”
“I remember that,” he says. “But look at what I have now: you do not love as you loved at the first.” In terms of their love for one another: when love for Christ is not what it should be, then our love for each other will be sadly affected. If you’re a miserable customer in your congregation, I can tell you that you do not love Jesus as you once did or as you ought. If you’re a miserable soul in the community, you’re just a miserable soul.
Bill Gaither wrote the song, “I’m so glad that [you’re] … part of the family of God.” You now sing it, looking round on your congregation, “I’m surprised that you’re part of the family of God!” You sing the chorus as you go home in the car: “Everybody should know, everybody should know, I have such a critical spirit that everybody should know.” What happened to you, ma’am? What happened to you, sir? You do not love the way you once did. Your eyes are dry. Your prayers are cold. Doesn’t it creep up on us so easily?
When we love God, we keep his commandments. “For this is love for God,” John tells us, “that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” Therefore, failure to love God will mean disobedience. The diminution of my love for Jesus will be directly related to disobedience in my life, and disobedient Christians are not good people to plan on spending much time with. You do not want to commit yourself in friendship to a disobedient boy, young lady. I don’t care what he says about your eyes. If he is disobedient to Christ, he will sour whatever love you have for Jesus. And the same is true in reverse.
And also, what about love for the unbeliever? Presumably, in Ephesus, their evangelistic zeal, which had made it the most significant church in the first century, had begun to dissipate. And somehow or another, their words and their actions were no longer conveying the love of the Lord Jesus. Their borders were growing tighter. Their actions were smacking more of religious formalism. They were going through the routines. They still held onto it, but they didn’t have that compassionate interest in the non-Christian world.
I don’t know why my sense of application is going in this direction this morning, but I’ll just stay with it. Speaking to the student community and to the young people, listen: I now have been… Well, I’ve lived for fifty years come May. I’ve been involved in pastoral ministry, by God’s goodness, for the last twenty-seven. And I have grown weary listening to a young man or a young woman tell me again and again how, as a result of disobedience to Christ, they got involved with a non-Christian person to whom they took a shine. The non-Christian person was a very nice person and upright and so on. It’s the same story; you hear it a million times. They never ever told their unbelieving friend that they had an undying devotion to Jesus, because, in fact, they had been disobedient, and therefore, they had no undying devotion to Jesus. And when all of the thing had fallen apart and disintegrated, they wept.
And what had happened? Well, they had not loved Jesus as they loved at the first. And the draining away of love expressed itself in disobedience. A backslidden condition made it easy for them to hang with the wrong crowd. A loss of conviction about the absolute necessity of the curbs that are provided in the Word of God to keep us on track and on the straight and narrow, so that we don’t end up in Doubter’s Castle or in By-Path Meadow, we don’t end up listening to Timorous and Mistrust, we don’t listen to Formalist and Hypocrisy, we stay on track—unfortunately, we got way off in all of that.
And some of you are off this morning. And you may have come out to this Word Alive week, and you said, “Maybe there’ll be a word for me somewhere along the line.” It’s the absence of brotherly love. Because if you have a non-Christian friend, and you have an undying devotion to Jesus, and you believe that your non-Christian friend stands between time and eternity, then presumably, your undying devotion to Jesus is going to convey itself to this new non-Christian friend that you’ve made.
Jesus says, “You know, you were much better at this, Ephesus, than you are. Now there’s a discordant sound among you. There’s a lot of resounding gongs, clanging cymbals. It’s replaced the harmony of hearts entwined with devotion to the Lord Jesus.” If the problem in Laodicea was that of spiritual complacency, then the problem here in Ephesus—they’re staring in the face spiritual bankruptcy.
And Jesus now comes as the counselor, if you like, as the consultant, and he says to them, “If you are not to go down into bankruptcy, you’re going to have to implement the plan that I have for you.” That’s the third word: the praise that he offers, the problem that he confronts, and the plan that he provides. It’s a very simple plan. I can summarize it for you in three words: remember, repent, and restore.
“Remember.” We mentioned yesterday the power of memory. It’s been regarded in educational circles, at least in America, for about a quarter of a century, absolutely taboo, the idea of memorizing anything—that somehow or another, it’s beyond the bounds of real intelligent discovery. So you don’t learn phonetically how to spell cat and mat and dog and rug, in that little red and white book that we had right up to primary, whatever—seven—it was. And so, consequently, nobody can spell. Some of the worst spelling you’ve ever seen in your life has emerged from this.
You say, “Why didn’t you just learn how to do this? Why didn’t you just memorize it? You know, ‘The cat sat on the mat.’”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no. That’s for idiots, that kind of thing. We don’t do that.”
“I see. Okay, well, fine. Thank you for your letter of application. There is not a sentence in which you didn’t make a glaring spelling error. And without reconstructing the English language, I’m forced to tell you that we will not be hiring you anytime in the near future.”
“Remember.” Our lives are built on memories, aren’t they? At the end of our days, all we’ve got left are photographs and memories. That’s why it’s important to make good memories. That’s why it’s important, when you spend time with people with whom you may never spend time again, spend good time, spend pure time, spend unregrettable time, so that when you look back on that time, you will have a memory that you can foster and cherish and hold up. And this is what Jesus says: “I want you to take the power of your ability to recollect and use it as a stimulus for forward momentum.”
Now, not everybody likes history. I love the story of the Americans that were visiting Runnymede, down the Thames. They were there to see the Magna Carta. And they were standing, looking at the… Is it the Magna Carta that’s there? Yeah? I have to check. And they were watching the events unfold, and the guide was explaining this and that, and he said, “And ladies and gentleman, it was here, in 1215, that this great document was signed.” And the American guy turns to his wife, and he says, “Honey, do you realize we missed that by just fifteen minutes?” (With apologies to my American friends.)
In Pilgrim’s Progress, you always got back on the road, remember, at the point where you got off? You couldn’t go in By-Path Meadow a hundred and fifty yards down and then just climb over the wall at another point. You had to come back to the point of departure. Some of us, as in the church in Ephesus, need to go back to the point of departure.
Where is the blessedness [that once] I knew,
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his Word?
“Remember,” he says. It’s a present imperative. It’s an ongoing, cultivated mentality. It’s a characteristic of old people: “I remember when…” I understand that, and I’m moving there. And so, perhaps, the emphasis. But nevertheless, Alzheimer’s is a sad and sorry disease, closing down, really, the only wonderful benefit that is left to us at the end of our days: the ability to remember.
“Repent.” Aorist imperative. “Make a clean, decisive break with your contemporary manner of life,” he says. “There’s no need for a big prayer meeting for guidance. Just do it. This is an emergency. It’s a casualty ward situation; it’s not a research project. Here’s my plan for you,” he says. “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent, and then restore your commitment to the things you did at the first.” In other words, doing the basics most of the time, as silly as it may seem to some who are more advanced. Taking it right back down to some of the lessons in Sunday school that were so primary and compelling to us. Remembering, since our Bible has grown dust on the shelf now for a matter of weeks, if not months—remembering that we used to sit with some of our friends and sing, “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” Remembering that we used to sing,
I met Jesus at the crossroads
Where the two ways meet,
And Satan, too, was standing there,
And he said, “Come this way.
Lots and lots of pleasures
I will give to you today!”
But I said, “No! There’s Jesus here;
Just see what he offers me:
Down here, my sins forgiven,
And up there, a home in heaven.
Praise God, that’s the way for me!”
But you see, that has been the point of departure: when we allow jealousy to grip our hearts. Because we met Satan at the crossroads, and he said, “Wouldn’t you like the immediate benefit instead of the long-term prospect? Wouldn’t you like the immediate gratification of just developing a critical, jealous, embittered spirit towards Mr. X or Mrs. Y? It’ll feel a lot better to get it out of your system, you know.”
Well, what have we done? We’ve forgotten the basics. We’ve forgotten that at the crossroads, Jesus is there. We’ve forgotten how we used to sing,
Cleanse me from my sin, Lord,
And put your power within, Lord,
And take me as I am, Lord,
And make me all your own.
And keep me day by day, Lord,
Underneath your sway, Lord,
And make my heart your palace
And your royal throne.
Now, I was seven, eight, nine years old when they taught me that. More than forty years have gone by. I find myself driving in the car, constantly having to take myself back, repenting of where I now find myself—for repentance is a daily experience. If you doubt that, read Luther. He makes it very clear. Most of us have got the impression—some, I should say, have got the impression—that repentance is something that we were supposed to do. It was a mechanism, if you like, that opened the door to faith in Jesus. But once having dealt with that, then we’ve moved on. When did you last repent? For some of us, repentance has become a routine in the formalized nature of our liturgical worship. But our hearts have never engaged our minds. And our lips are just there.
Back to the basics. Taking the initiative in greeting and caring for others, because love always takes the initiative. Resolving to live in such a way that others will ask questions and being ready with the answer when they ask.
Our time is gone. One last word: the prospects that he describes. The praise that he offers, the problem he confronts, the plan that he conveys, and then these prospects. Notice that failure to implement the plan will result in the removal of their lampstand: “If you do not repent”—there in the middle of verse 5—“if you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
Many of us have lived long enough now to see once vibrant congregations descend into darkness and complete ineffectiveness and in some cases actually to close their doors forever. We may be privy to some of the ongoings that led to that. Many of us will just look from the outside and wonder. When the record books are opened, it may become apparent that the very Ephesian problem was the problem in many of those places. Oh, yes, orthodox. Yes, committed to doctrinal clarity. Absolutely centered in their endeavors in the task. But the love of the Lord Jesus had ebbed out.
I tell my congregation regularly, it would only take a matter of a few months to turn our building into a carpet saleroom. They always come from America and then return and say, “What happened to all those great churches? There’s nobody in them!” And my answer is always the same: “Hang on, because you’re about to find out.” No church ever determined that it would eventually dwindle to nothing. Let those churches that think they stand take heed, lest they fall.
So there is a prospect involved if we do not obey this plan and implement it by the power of the Spirit, and there is a wonderful prospect for us when we are ready to do as Jesus says. Notice the progression. Once again, it begins with hearing, verse 7: “He who has an ear [to hear], let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes…”
A crown of life [will] be;
He, with the King of glory,
[Will] reign eternally.
Hearing, overcoming, and eating “from the tree of life.” We’re going to the park. That’s the prospect. We’re going to the park. Didn’t you love going to the park? It sounds so funny now, after all this time, but I used to take trips… (And I’m done now. You can relax. But this is a sort of closing something.) And we had an Anglia car. At least, my father did. And we took family holidays—my father, my mother, myself, my two younger sisters, and also both of my grandfather and my grandmother on my mother’s side—in an Anglia, which we drove to Cornwall from Glasgow. I had the arguably worst seat in the operation: I used to sit on a very sturdy table mat taken from my grandmother’s house, with a cushion taken from one of her couches, in between the driver and the passenger, with the gearstick somewhere up here in my sternum. And we drove through the night.
And I have a vivid recollection of stopping in Bristol in the early hours of the morning, completely embittered and wearied by the whole sorry escapade and the prospect of Cornwall—wherever in the world that was—holding very dim expectation for me, and my grandfather seizing the moment and saying, “You know, I think we could find a park.”
“Oh,” I said, “that’s good. With swings?”
“And a chute?”
“Oh, things are beginning to look up now!”
So my sorry little frame was transported from this dreadful predicament, jammed up against the gearstick in the middle of this pile of humanity, and now I’m on the swings, and I’m soaring, and I’m down the chute, and I’m on the roundabout. And who cares if there’s a Cornwall or a tomorrow? This is fantastic!
You say, “You’ve gone off again—a bit like the sausage roll thing yesterday. This is not good.” No, you see, you’re going to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God. Paradise comes from the Persian word which means “a park.” Adam and Eve were in the park. Adam and Eve sinned, and the park got closed, and the cherubim guarded its entrance with a flaming sword, thus making intimate, personal communion with the living God verboten, unless one should come and open up a new and living way whereby we would have access into this amazing park, into this wonderful paradise, where all of the benefits and the blessings of communion with the risen Christ and all of the saints through all the ages would become part and parcel of the Ephesian believers as they listened to the word of encouragement and exhortation which comes to the church this morning, here, in Word Alive 2002.
“Yes, there’s plenty I can praise you for. Consider the possibility of this problem. Pay careful attention to the plan that I have given you. Remember, and repent, and restore, and keep listening and overcoming. And get ready for eating from this wonderful tree.” And if I may say so, Jesus says, “I’ll meet you in the park.”
Lord Jesus, grant that your Word may take root in our hearts. Transform, renew, quicken, restore our lives. Make us catalysts within the congregations from which we’ve come for a love that takes the initiative, that is not sentimentalism devoid of truth; for a commitment to the truth that is not some brittle legalism devoid of love. Only you, O God, can accomplish this. And we pray that you will take the balance of this day now. Banish from our recollection everything that’s untrue, unclear, or unhelpful, and give to us only that which is from yourself. And we look forward to seeing you. And we thank you for getting us ready. And we pray in your lovely name. Amen.
 See Acts 16:6 (paraphrased).
 See Acts 19:10.
 See 1 Corinthians 2:2.
 Acts 20:25–26 (paraphrased).
 See Revelation 14:2.
 See Mark 3:17.
 The Book of Common Prayer.
 See Ephesians 2:8–10.
 Ephesians 2:10 (KJV).
 Philip Doddridge, “My Gracious Lord, I Own Thy Right.”
 Robert Louis Stevenson, quoted in William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, The New Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 1:117.
 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV 1984).
 William Barclay, The Revelation of John, vol. 1, Chapters 1 to 5, rev. ed., The Daily Bible Study Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 62.
 Ephesians 6:11 (KJV).
 John 20:19 (NIV 1984).
 See John 20:15.
 Joe South, “Rose Garden” (1967).
 See Revelation 2:14.
 See Revelation 2:20.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 69.
 G. R. Beasley-Murray, ed., The Book of Revelation, New Century Bible (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1974), 75.
 James G. Small, “I’ve Found a Friend” (1863).
 Jeremiah 2:2 (paraphrased).
 William and Gloria Gaither, “The Family of God” (1970).
 1 John 5:3 (paraphrased).
 William Cowper, “O for a Closer Walk with God” (1772).
 R. Hudson Pope, “Cleanse Me.” Lyrics lightly altered.
 See 1 Corinthians 10:12.
 George Duffield, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (1858).
 See Genesis 3:24.
 See Hebrews 10:20.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.