Ephesus: The Church of Loveless Formality
When Ancient Meets Current: A Study of the Seven Churches of Revelation
By Todd Stiles
Bible Text: Revelation 2:1-7
Preached on: Sunday, July 10, 2016
First Family Church
317 SE Magazine Road
Ankeny, IA 50021
You’re listening to a message delivered at First Family Church from the series “When Ancient Meets Current: The seven churches in Revelation.” For more sermons and resources, visit firstfamily.church
Can we all agree that God’s love is the deepest, most compelling motivation there is? We can. That’s biblically true. It’s practically evident. When we stay close to God’s love for us, we avoid straying into sin, so staying close to God’s love keeps us from straying into sin. It’s just a good, general, practical rule of life there. When we don’t stay close to God’s love, we find ourselves becoming dry, ritualistic. We still do the right things, we go through the motions, we know when to stand, when to sit, kind of when to say hello, what verse to quote, what hymn to sing, what song, we’re kind of with that. We know how to go through the motions but deep inside there’s this hollowness; there’s this shallow sense that something’s not right, I’m drifting. Even though I’m doing everything I think I’m supposed to do, something’s not right. That’s the end result of life apart from being motivated by God’s love.
If that simple description made you nervous, you’re like, “Man, he read my mail this week. How did he know that’s what I think about my life? That’s how I feel right now today.” If that’s what your thought was, then you know how the church at Ephesus felt, what I call the church of loveless formality. They were doing everything right but had no idea why. In fact, John said about them, they had abandoned their first love. What does that mean? What’s going on here? Well, open your Bibles to Revelation 2 and let’s take a closer look at this first church in this list of seven, shall we? Now, this is a specific message designed to help us understand what Jesus is saying to this church but it’s part of a larger series called “When Ancient Meets Current.” Now, I’d remind you again as we said at the beginning of our service, this goal, our goal this series is to kind of help you see how we stand on their shoulders, how we fight similar battles, how we deal with similar struggles. Okay, admittedly we fly, we drive, we go out to eat, we have email, they didn’t in that sense, correct? But aren’t those just surface differences? I mean, when you open up the chest cavity and you get down deep, we are in a lot of ways, we’re just like this church in the first century. You say, “How do you know, Todd?” Because I just described what many Christians feel, a dry, distant, lifeless type of Christianity. It’s not what Jesus wants for you or for his church; it’s not what he wanted for the church at Ephesus; it’s not what he wants for the church at Ankeny.
So what do we do? Let’s look into this letter written to this church and learn some things and make some application. My goal today is to kind of approach this letter as I will every week in this series, I’ll approach it from three angles: the city, the church and the Christ. Say it with me, are you ready? The city, the church and the Christ. I want to kind of take just a few seconds to see the city. We’ll look more about what he says about the church, but I believe in every one of these letters Christ brings his cure, we’ll use that phrase, that word, and he ties it to his character. He doesn’t pull out, “Here’s three quick fixed. Here’s eight steps. Here’s five methods.” He ties every one of his remedies to an aspect of his character. How do I know that? It’s because as you’ll read chapter 1 of Revelation, you’ll find they’re all a beautiful and overpowering, awe-inspiring description of Jesus Christ. Then if you read chapters 2 and 3 what you’ll find is this, that in each letter – watch me here – in each letter to the churches, John pulls a specific character trait of Jesus and inserts it into the church’s letter as it fits and where it’s appropriate. He doesn’t repeat the entire description every church, he just takes a single or a couple of those and says, “Hey, this is what your church needs to hear about Jesus.” So what you find is that in every church, the real cure, the real remedy may be some pragmatic things in John’s writing, we find thought that they’re rooted in who Jesus is, so as he unveils, remember the book is Revelation, as Christ is unveiled, as the apocalypse, the revealing of Jesus occurs, as we see him more and more clearly, guess what? Our churches get healthier and stronger. The answer to healthy churches, the way forward is not a better program or a hot method or some man’s idea, the latest book, the way forward is to see Jesus more clearly and as we do that, our church will become more healthy, more vibrant. We’re going to do that over these seven weeks.
Let’s start with Ephesus, shall we? Here’s what John actually tells the church at Ephesus that Jesus has told him. I would remind you these are dictated letters so it’s Jesus speaking and he writes to the angel of the church in Ephesus. We’ll pause there for a moment and say who’s the angel and what’s going on with the city. I believe that the angel here is simply the messenger of the church. There is a minority of people who believe it’s actually an angel and that churches have angel and they are assigned angels. I think this is, in this case, more of the sense of the messenger or the pastor or the pastors. This is a singular use, perhaps it refers to that first among equals or that leader of leaders. This would not be something I would die on, by the way; I wouldn’t say this is a conviction but it seems to be the best rendering of the text. We do know, however, angels do watch over believers, they watch believers worship and they are sent as serving spirits to God’s children. I don’t doubt any of that about angels but I don’t know that I would ever find in the Bible that angels are necessarily a sign to churches and they deliver messages from God. That seems to be, in some sense, kind of the pastor’s role; not in a priestly way like we’re interceding, but we bring a message from God under the authority of his word. So most commentators throughout history have seen the word “angel” here as kind of a symbolic way to describe the church’s leadership, whether you see that in a singular fashion or a plural fashion, we here would hold to a plural form. Even among the plural form of elders we have a leader of leaders who is first among equals, kind of like Peter, James and John, but Peter was the one always talking. Kind of that idea, you know. We would hold to that kind of view here and we would say that the angel here is probably the messenger of the church. So here’s what Jesus is saying to the angel of the church and he wants the church to hear this.
This church is in Ephesus which, by the way, is a leading city of the seven cities mentioned. They’re in what we now know as Turkey. We’ll just call it Asia. I think the most interesting thing about Ephesus and I’ll show you some pictures on the screen about Ephesus and a few things about it, I think the most interesting one is that this is the final place where the Apostle John who wrote Revelation resided. So if you were to ask me, “Why is Ephesus first?” I think it’s because this is the hometown of the Apostle John. It’s kind of where he landed eventually. In fact, some say he probably pastored here after Timothy.
The church was founded in Acts 19 by the Apostle Paul. Now, I’ll remind you the Scriptures don’t explicitly say that, it just says that Paul discovered some disciples there and they were not fully indoctrinated yet in the way of Christ and so I think he baptized them and kind of taught them further. Does that mean he founded the church? Possibly. Was it already existing? That’s a good question. Either way, Paul is instrumental in this church getting going. It seems that happened around 55-56 AD. Timothy landed there eventually. We know Ephesus is where Paul stayed the longest. He had his closest relationship to the elders in this church.
So a lot of things about this church are really important. It’s where John eventually landed and so I think that’s why it’s first. It was an important city. It was a trade area on the Aegean Sea. So picture it like this: if you were a ship coming to sell things in Asia, you would probably land at Ephesus because Ephesus was either the beginning or the ending point of a major east to west road. It began with what is known as the Arcadian Way. We’ll show a picture of that here for a moment. It’s the old ruins I want to show you here actually. We’ll just show that picture if we can. And this is kind of the beginning or the end of that Arcadian Way. You kind of see the old ruins there. It was initially paved with marble. It didn’t stay marble the whole way but it was a major road going east and west, so if you’re bringing goods, let’s say from the east to the west, you’re going to take this road into Ephesus. If you’re bringing goods and things from the port, let’s say into that area, you’re going to take that road.
So Ephesus is a major city. John kind of spends some days. The church there founded by Paul. It was known for one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, the temple of Artemus or the temple of Diana. They had many temples there. They were involved in pagan worship, much of it rooted in immorality, evil sexuality. It was practiced wrongfully. Here’s one of the things that their town was known for, there was a theater there that seated about 25,000. That would have to have been an awesome thing to be in to watch a play. The city itself held about 250,000 people. So as you think about Ephesus, it would’ve been just a tad smaller perhaps than the Des Moines area. So we’re not talking about like a little dot on the map, we’re talking about a major city, a city that had a lot of people and described in Acts 19, you can read there about the riot that occurred there. You can kind of put some of these pictures in your mind, kind of see what’s happening.
This is the city in which this church was founded and lived. By the way, it was founded, like I said, about 55 or 56. I believe in a later date for Revelation, probably 95ish, so I think it’s safe to say that this church is probably about 40 years old when they got this letter which means – watch this, this is important to understanding what he says – this is probably a second generation of people reading this letter. It would be like in 40 years your kids were the elders here, one of your sons was pastoring, your daughters and sons were handling all the jobs and you and I are all in Sunnyview, alright? If we’re even here, I don’t know. I’ll be 92 then so maybe I’m here, maybe I’m not. The Lord knows, he numbers our days. But this is probably not the folks that were at Acts 19, this is the next generation and that’s going to help you understand more about why he says, “You have abandoned your first love.” So that’s some things about the city and where it was situated.
What are some things about the church? Well, he says, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him,'” this is who is writing it, “‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” I’ll come back to that, okay? He’s simply saying this is Jesus who holds the seven stars which are the messengers, the angels of the churches, and the seven lampstands, those are the churches. So in other words he’s saying, “I’m walking among the churches.” He knows us. He sees us. He’s here among us. And by the way, “I’m holding your leaders.” That’s what I think he’s saying. It’s a very intimate, personal identity of Jesus.
I’m going to come back to that verse, let’s first of all just examine what this one who holds the stars and walks among the lampstands, what does he say to this church? He says in verse 2, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil.” He knows, first of all, they have labored loyally. You see the word “toil” there. You see the word “works.” They even did this over a long period of time, patiently enduring, how difficult it was. And even while they were doing it, those who were evil, they didn’t allow that to kind of disrupt them or distract them. They didn’t bear with them. They were faithful. They labored loyally.
Secondly, they ‘tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” That’s a tough job, isn’t it? Speaking as one who knows how tough this is, it’s difficult to have conversations with people who are teaching falsely. They’re perhaps in your church, they’re perhaps doing something that’s not correct so you have to say, “Hey, can we talk about this? I don’t think that’s what the Bible says there.” And this church, they were good. They didn’t just labor loyally, they confronted consistently. They were able to find those who were teaching falsely and realize that they really weren’t apostles. They were claiming authority they didn’t have. Some pretty courageous people here.
Verse 3 says, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up and you have not grown weary.” Here I think this is one of a reaction whereas verse 2 is more of an action, if you kind of want to see the difference, because there are similar words, would you agree with that? They seem like they’re kind of repeating themselves sometimes, don’t they? But what he’s saying here in verse 3 is that I think the key phrase is the words “my name’s sake.” In other words, when you are treated in certain ways that require endurance and bearing up under things and not getting weary, you’ve done exactly that. You’ve hung in there when you’ve been mocked and persecuted. Verse 2 talks about hanging in there and working perhaps as an action. So in their actions and their reactions, they have not given up; they have followed faithfully.
Then lastly down in verse 6, they’ve hated holily. Really, Todd. Yes. There is a holy way to hate. Verse 6 says, “you have this: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate,” Jesus says. Now, the Nicolaitans were not the people mentioned in verse 2, they weren’t the false apostles. These were groups of people who indulged in immorality as a way to worship false gods. Sometimes they would creep into the church and pretend to be a part of the church in order to seduce the church’s members into immorality and wrong sexuality. He says here that this church hated that because Jesus hated it.
So I think there are four things that this church does well. Say them with me, are you ready? They labored loyally. They confronted consistently. They followed faithfully. And they hated holily. If you were driving down Delaware or First Street, if you’re on University in West Des Moines, if you’re on 235 and you see a church in some crazy way humbly advertising, “Here’s who we are. We’re going to labor loyally, confront consistently, follow faithfully and we hate holily,” you might say, “Man, I’m checking that church out. I’m liking that church.” You might think, “Man, that fits me. That’s amazing. Those are good commendations.” And yet verse 4 says that Jesus has one thing against them, do you see verse 4? “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” So apparently just at a face value reading, they were doing these things and yet they were doing them lovelessly, so it’s possible to confront, labor, follow and even despise sin in some of the right way and yet do that without any love in your heart because he says this is what he has against them. And I like the idea that he says, “I have one thing against you.” Why is this just the one thing? There are four really good things, why is this the one thing he says, “I’m struggling with this. This is not good”? It’s because it’s the one thing that matters. Church, listen very carefully to me, listen very carefully to your pastor: if you go wrong with love, you’ll go wrong the rest of the way. We have to get it right at the beginning. The equation we know is serving God, having an impact, all those words we use to describe our work for the Lord, if they’re not rooted and grounded in a love relationship, the whole thing is built on sinking sand.
So why does he have just one thing? Because it’s the most important thing, in that they have abandoned their first love. Now, that’s an interesting phrase, is it not? Would you agree with me that you’re probably not real sure what that means? “Our hand is up. Like, okay, what does he mean? Does it mean that they left loving God? Does it mean they left loving other people? Does it mean they left loving each other?” By the way, you could read different commentaries and guys take their stand on all three of those. I land in this way: that because he says “the love you had at first,” I think he’s referring to that initial wellspring or source of God’s love for them and their love for God, that initial Gospel rooted, Spirit empowered relationship where we realized, “Wow, God has brought me from death to life. He loves me this much. I love him that much.” And so all of our service now flows out of that initial first moment of awakening kind of grace. Does that make sense?
So in my view, I would say it encompasses love for God and love for man and that they had left that because they had probably abandoned understanding God’s love for them. No matter how you look at it, it’s an issue of love and I think what John is saying here is this: you’ve walked away, you’ve been distracted, you’ve declined, you’ve abandoned that place when you realize that God’s love was the deepest motivation for everything you did and so you loved men and you loved God in return because of that. That’s what he has against them. That’s why he says they could have so many good things they’re doing and yet be doing them without any love. This is why this is the church of loveless formality. We’re going through the motions but we don’t understand why. What’s the purpose of all this any longer? Why are we doing this? Have you ever asked that at times? Been in a church where perhaps it is an ancient church of antiquity and you’ve looked at the walls or maybe even a member of one, and people are going through the motions, they’ve been doing them for decades and you’re like, “What is the point?” Everything kind of in place but no one knows why?
Now, if this is kind of hard to kind of wrap your hands around and to give you a beautiful window to look through that I think will clear all this up, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. In fact, I want you to read this with me because this set of verses I think will be the ah-ha moment in understanding the letter to the Ephesians, alright? It may not be the most important aspect but I think this will give you the window necessary to see the truth contained in Revelation 2:4. Look what Paul here writes to the Corinthian believers about how important it is to root all of our service in love. Look at what he says. This is amazing. Don’t miss the impact of these verses. Read together, would you? “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Here’s life in God’s economy. You can do everything you think you ought to do on the outside and if it’s not motivated by the right attitude on the inside, it is a big zero. Astounding. We would say, “No, you get some credit, don’t you? This accounts for something.” No. God is clear. You have nothing. Zero. So how important is love? Here’s the answer: it’s all important. Without love as the root, the foundation, the source, the wellspring, you don’t get like partial credit in God’s economy, you get a zero. So do you see why he would say to Ephesus, “I’ve got one thing against you. Amidst all that you’re doing that seems like you’re doing pretty well, the truth is you’ve abandoned the love in which all of those things flow.” So you have this great formality, this good image, but there’s no substance to it. It’s dry. It’s lifeless.
What do you do when you find yourself in that situation? He gets to that in verse 5. Before we get there, I want you to kind of see what I think is maybe the gist of verses 1 through 4 in a nutshell. Here’s kind of how I’ve worded it. This is what we’d call our take home truth. I’ve got a few key words. This is only the first part of it, though, okay? So here’s the church at Ephesus, here’s kind of how I would summarize it: they were more concerned with maintaining their spiritual service than they were being motivated by the love behind that service. Some would say this, they are interested more in the machine of the church, keeping it running, it occupied their attention, than really what should motivate having the machine in the first place, right?
So read this with me, would you? When the maintenance of spiritual service, which is lists, subtly replaces the motivation for that service, which is love, a church will become powerlessly busy, a barren body without any true love for Christ or man. Notice the words “powerlessly busy.” Have you ever felt that way, like your calendar is really packed? Your life is jammed but nothing’s happening? When you’ve got a prayer list a mile long but it’s like, “Why?” I hope I’m causing you the right amount of discomfort for a moment because this letter tells me it’s possible to appear to be something that’s really religious, important, effective, busy and yet void of any real love as the motivation for it all. That’s not a good place to be because in the end that’s a zero in God’s economy.
Now, I’m going to finish this take home truth in a moment. Let me first of all help you understand how we get out of this. How do we move from seeing that while I’m being subtly led astray into a life of lists, you know loveless formality, I want to get back to a love-full, a love first type of life where all my service flows out of that. How do I do that? He tells us in a very succinct way in verse 5. Any preacher that loves to illiterate will love this verse, alright? It’s verse 5, I’ll show it to you. Just watch what he says here. He says, “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.” So here’s what he says to them in a nutshell: first of all, remember from where you’ve fallen and remember those days in which God’s love was so real and evidential and motivating that everything you did stemmed from that. That’s that first place, that first love. Repent of falling away from that. Return to this place and do these works and then realize that if you don’t, he’ll come and remove the church. So God’s saying if we don’t operate, especially Ephesus, “Ephesus, if you don’t operate out of love, if your ministry isn’t founded and rooted in love, I’ll eventually shut you down.”
Now, we would say that’s a prescription, it’s a clear succinct understanding of how to get back to a love first, a love-full type of life, serving God out of that rich wellspring. We would agree with that, but like what are those works we’re to do then? Do you ask yourself that question after you read this? I did. I’m like, remember, I do, remember those first days when God saved me. I remember the wakening grace in my life and just serving God out of such an overflow of gratitude. I remember that so I don’t want to be here, I repent, I want to go back and I want to do the works I did at first. Okay, where are those? When you’re reading the text you can’t find them and this is how you study your Bible, okay? He says, “Do the works at first.” Well, if he’s really wanting to help me, he would tell me what those are, right? Where are they? Where are those works? Do we just make them up? Do I says, “Ed, give me three good works we can do. Cynthia, give me five. Julie, give me six. Steve, give me 12. We’ll put together a list of 99 works you can do to get back to the first place.” That’s going to wear you out, just Ed’s three will wear you out, you know? Just my six would wear you out. Another man-made list to try to generate something only God’s Spirit can generate is crushing. It’s anti-productive.
So what is he saying here? I really want to know. What are the works you did at first? If that’s what we’ve got to start doing, once we repent? Here’s what I think he’s saying here and I wouldn’t fight over this either, I wouldn’t die over this. This is how I read the text. I think the works are the ones he’s already mentioned but done with the right attitude. Like notice that John never says, “Okay, return to your first love and don’t confront consistently. Stop laboring with loyalty. Stop following when people ridicule you. And whatever you do, it’s okay if you just approve of the Nicolaitans. Don’t worry about all that stuff, just go back to loving Christ.” He doesn’t say that. What he seems to say to us is this, “These works matter but if they’re done with the wrong motivation, they count for nothing so keep doing these works like you did at the first, in other words, following God faithfully, laboring loyally, confronting consistently, hating holily. Yes, do that, but out of the wellspring of God’s love for you. Find that motivation first again and then continue the works you’re doing, but this time they’ll make all the difference in the world.” Does that make sense, guys?
Now, I don’t know for sure, maybe there is something that John knows about and they know about that’s not in the text that we don’t know about. Perhaps. All I can do is read what we’ve been given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I tend to think he’s saying, “These works you’ve done matter but you’ve got to do them with the right motivation. So do them like you did at the first and that will prevent God coming and removing the church.” But even that is tied to something very intriguing in the text and it’s the character of Jesus motivates this. Notice how he closes this, would you? He says we’re to have ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Now, do you have an ear? Hold it, would you? You’ve got an ear so you should be listening right now. Notice an interesting word here at the end of verse 7 or the middle of verse 7 actually, he says if you have ears, you should hear what the Spirit says to the what? But it’s plural. Do you see that in your Bible? So he’s now making this letter available and applicable to churches, even though according to verse 1, it was written to a singular church. Do you see that in verse 1? “To the angel of the church in Ephesus.” Here’s a letter to a church but he says, “Oh by the way, if you’ve got ears, hear what the Spirit would say to the churches.”
So I think that draws us in to hear that Jesus would say this, “Here’s how you get back to doing things with the right motivation.” He says in verse 7 that he’ll grant to those who conquer, I think that would be similar, in the same vein as the one who was returning to the first works. The word “conquers” is used in several letters and in this one he’s saying, “Go back to the first love. If you’ll do that, if you’ll repent and do that, you’ll eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.” This is Jesus who said in verse 1, “he holds the seven stars and walks among the seven golden lampstands.”
Now, I think there are four phrases that show us something about Christ in these verses that speak directly to how to get back to the first place, that place of love. It says he is wanting to eat of the tree of life with us. It’s in the paradise of God. When a Jew heard those words, he was thinking of a couple of things: first of all, the garden of Eden. There is no distraction in man’s fellowship with God. It’s a beautiful environment. He’s going to think perhaps about the end of Revelation when we are in the new city. There is the tree of life. It’s for the healing of the nations, its leaves are. In other words, this tree of life, it’s a good thing. It means things are well. And it’s in the paradise of God, the literal rendering there is the beautiful park. It’s like this tree of life, it’s in this beautiful place like there’s nothing going wrong in this place.
This is how it was meant to be and who are we there with? Who is the one who holds the stars and walks among the lamps? In other words, Christ is holding the church’s leadership and he’s walking among the church. That says to me that he knows us. That he has us. He – watch this – he’s intimate with us. Like this is not like a distant, long distance phone call. This is not a letter that I’ve written that I think takes hours or days or weeks to write. This is like face to face immediate. This speaks of relationship and what was the church at Ephesus missing? Relationship. They had all the formality in the world but no love. It would be similar to you going home as a husband or a wife and going through the motions of marriage: you eat together, you wash your dishes, you mow the grass, you clean the house, you raise the kids, you pay the bills and yet at night you turn your way and she turns her way and you say to yourself under your breath, “Is this a marriage?” What are you missing? Are you missing the formality and activity? No, what you’re missing is the relationship.
Christ is saying here, “I’m glad you’re doing things that matter but in the end they’re going to be a zero if you don’t come back to what motivates them all and that is a relationship with me. So I know you. I hold your leaders. I’m walking among you. I’ve got a tree of life and, man, I’ve got a paradise. What do you say we get to know each other?” That’s what he’s saying and that’s the answer. Christ’s desire to know us, his ability, his love for us is what then motivates us to remember, repent and return, and do these works because God loves us, Christ knows us and he wants us and so we enter into a relationship with him and it begins to compel everything we do.
So what do you say we finish the take home truth? Here’s what I think is kind of being said from start to finish in this simple letter to Ephesus, that when the maintenance of spiritual service suddenly replaces the motivation for that, that yes, we’ll become powerlessly busy, barren, just going through the motions but watch this, it’s by remembering the source of real love which I think is intimacy with Christ, that a church will be able to serve with real love. In other words, intimacy motivates impact and if I could say this of my own profession, one of the curses of the American church is impact, I should say pseudo-impact without genuine intimacy. Far too many churches are filled with people, they don’t know Christ. I’d say this too, too many pastors don’t know Christ. We just kind of learn the art of pastoring, the art of church planting, the art of churching, I don’t know. We go through the motions. We know how to gather a crowd and do what we’re supposed to do but is there any real love for Christ? My fear is that we’ve got a landscape full of churches led by men who don’t know God, leading people who don’t know God. We think we’re having impact. Maybe this is the reason for the very dim light of the church in America. Just something to think about. The answer is not another fancy program or a book by a best-selling author, the answer is to return to those moments of awakening grace when God’s Spirit was so overwhelming that you just did everything out of this compelling love for God. What brings you there? Who Christ is. He loves you. He knows you. He is near you. He wants to eat with you so respond to this beautiful Savior and say, “I want to know you as well.”
In light of that, can I give you three just very briefly, three pastoral prods? Can I do that? These aren’t suggestions, these aren’t tips, I’m prodding you like an animal. I’m going to be like a shepherd or a rancher and I’m going to prod you and it’s going to sting a little bit but I want you to feel it, alright? I think there are three prods I’m going to give you to help you kind of put this in some practical understanding as shoe leather. Here are six words that you ought to say to yourself every single day and you can reword them, you can have them in your mind in different concepts but I think these six words would keep you focused and not let you decline into this abandoning of your love. How can you have a love first and a love-full labor? How can your life be rooted here and then be pointed in this direction, serving out of the right motivation and wellspring? Six words: God’s love, others’ needs and my role, and if you get them out of order, you’ll find yourself distracted even if you say God’s love, then my role. I think the most biblical understanding of these concepts that leads to a life of service out of the right wellspring is that it’s God’s love first, others’ needs second, and my role third.
I can prove this from John 17. I won’t go there right now but I could. I just want us for the sake of time just say this to you: out of these three, don’t miss the first one. This is what we tend to do, we tend to jump to others’ needs and we tend to jump to our role and sometimes we flip them, sometimes we don’t but we just focus on those two things, but that’s exactly what Ephesus did, others’ needs and their role and he says what he had against them was that they left their first love. You have to…this first one matters. In fact, it matters so much, listen to this interesting thing I found this week. This is from a Catechism that Baptists used mainly. It was kind of adapted from the Westminster Confession but this was a Baptist Catechism of 1689. This is old. We’re tied to these things. We’re tied to the one at Ephesus, here’s 1689, it was kind of revised in 1742, here’s Question 24 out of this Catechism. A Catechism is simply where you ask questions and you have answers and you learn your theology that way. Here’s what Question 24 said: Did God leave all mankind to perish in the condition of sin and misery? Now, why would that be in a Catechism? Because God’s love is so foundational to what we know and believe. Here’s the answer: God out of his mere good pleasure from all eternity, having chosen a people to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the condition of sin and misery and to bring them into a condition of salvation by a Redeemer. Hallelujah, church! Amen?
So what prompted this incredible rescue effort by God? It was not anything you did. It was out of his own good pleasure. You see, this is where we get mixed up on God’s love. As we contemplate God’s love and I want you to every day to consider God’s love whether you have a playlist of songs, a list of verses, maybe some devotionals, I think you should intentionally consider God’s love for you. We go wrong on this and we think often God’s love is a reward and we tie his love to us to kind of how we are and we love to think of ourselves in good ways and so we think of all the good things we’ve done and how much God will love us and we combine the two and that’s just terrible because God doesn’t love you more because you think you’re better. In fact, God’s love is not a reward, God’s love is a rescue from your dreadful sinful condition and if God had not loved you, if Jesus had not come for you, if Jesus had not died for you and took your place and paid your penalty, you would know nothing but hell. “But God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believe in him would never perish but have eternal life. But God demonstrated his love to us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” You see, God’s love is not a reward for you, it is the rescue of your life and when you think about God’s love, can I urge you not to think about all the ways you’re okay, all the ways you’re pretty good, think about all the ways that you’ve never matched up, all the piles of sin mounted up that would condemn you to hell, and that God spoke into that and loved you. When that love begins to overwhelm us, others’ needs begin to matter because we’ll want to mirror God and then our role in that will matter and then we’ll do something even as crazy as sign up to adopt someone from a foreign country with special needs. Why? Because that’s how God loved me so I’ll love in the same way. If you’re dry and lifeless and ritualistic, return to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. He desires a relationship with you.
The band’s going to come and I want to invite you to sing this song with me which I think expresses all of this in a lyrical melodic way, it’s the song, “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.” In fact, I want you to see the words to the first verse. Would you look at these words with me? We’ll sing all of them in a moment but here’s how the song starts. How deep, and I love the word “deep” there, don’t you? This goes to the depths of our soul.
“How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure [incomprehensible]
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.”
You see, Paul even said this, that someone might die for a good man or even a righteous man, you knew that part of Scripture, right? Like if someone over here is like Barry back there. He’s really good. He’s way better than me so instead of him dying, I’ll just die because we want good people to stay around. That’s what the reasoning is there, right? Hey, don’t take Barry’s life, take my life. I’m a scum, he’s a great guy. We need guys like Barry on the earth. You might find someone willing to die for a good man because it’s like a good replacement. You might find someone to die for a righteous man but you won’t find anybody to die for an unrighteous man. You don’t find someone and say, “Oh, that guy’s a scoundrel. He’s the scum of the earth. Yeah, here I’ll give my life for him.” No, we say this, “Yeah, man, get rid of him. He deserves to die. We don’t need his kind around.” That’s what we say but, you see, the Gospel is exactly the opposite. The Gospel is in Jesus dying for people who are making the earth better. It’s not for people who don’t do anything good, it’s the unrighteous who have violated God’s standard and just spit on his holiness. It’s to those people that God says, “I’ll die for you.” To make a wretch his treasure. When this kind of love grips your soul, you can serve in all the same ways as you are now but just full of life and love.
Let’s sin this, can we? I’ll kind of work with you a little bit here.
“How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.
“How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory.”
The crucifixion, the cross. Jesus took it for us, didn’t he? This is why. He brought us home.
“Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.”
That’s where we were, church.
“It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished.”
Would you stand with me, church?
“I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection.
“Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom.
“Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart