The Church Without Love

By: Everett Vander Horst

Scripture Reading: Revelation 2:1-7

May 24th, 2009

We are living in an age of global anxiety. The worldwide recession has caught many by surprise, and led to worry about job security and, for those who are unemployed, to questions about where the next meal will come from. We worry about global climate change, and what that will mean not only for our own lives, but for those of our children and grand children. Today, in every corner of the globe, people are asking big questions about life, the future, and our place in the world. In the midst of that kind of turmoil, we want to find ourselves in a warm community of supportive, caring people—just as people did in the time of the Revelation. To me, the world at that time always seemed like a very foreign place — far away and far back in history. That perception changed when my wife Christa and I had the opportunity to travel to Turkey and visit the sites of the seven churches of Asia Minor, the recipients of the seven messages in Revelation chapters two and three. We traveled in the footsteps of the apostles through a land that was, in many places, surprisingly similar to the rolling farmlands of my youth. The countryside was lush and green. Much of western Turkey has good soil and reliable rainfall, and back in the time of the apostle John, that made the land of Asia Minor an agriculturally rich part of the Roman Empire. It also made the people living there wealthy, as the produce of abundant harvests was bought and sold. Also, because Asia Minor is a long peninsula connecting Asia with Europe, running between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, many products passed through from far eastern empires on their way to the cities of Greece and Rome. As I mentioned earlier, seeing such wealth came as a surprise to me. Somehow, I had always pictured Paul, John and the other apostles walking lonely, dusty roads from one poor village to the next. It was really eye opening to realize that the messages to these seven churches were written for a world much like ours. The wealth of the land led to the development of large, urban centers. People were gathered together into major cities, with populations sometimes reaching into the hundreds of thousands. These cities were quite complex, with huge public buildings such as temples and theatres, infrastructures that included city—wide water and sewer systems, and a flourishing community of artists working in the visual and performing arts. Highly developed road and other transportation systems not only facilitated the exchange of goods, but also ideas. The land of the seven churches of Revelation was permeated from top to bottom with news, religions and philosophies from all corners of the known world. Not that life in that day and age was without troubles. The first century was a time of widespread anxiety. There were political troubles—the Roman armies suffered a significant defeat at the hands of the Parthian Empire, not too far away in what is now northeastern Iran. There were revolts within the empire in Gaul, Germania and in Judea. In addition, Nero’s death put the empire in turmoil, with 3 successor emperors within 2 years. Natural disasters disrupted trade and put people on edge. In the year 79, Mount Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii, and darkened the skies across the region. Earthquakes had devastated the region throughout the first century, and many cities had not yet recovered by the time John recorded Revelation. So the picture of life that emerges from the time of Revelation is a world that is urban, wealthy and cosmopolitan, but also highly anxious and uneasy. People were worried about what the future might hold. Does this sound familiar? Today, the world is as complex and connected as ever. The vast majority of peoples live in cities. The exchange of goods and ideas is easier than ever before, thanks to transportation links by land, sea and air, and multimedia communications at the speed of light. The very fact that my voice can be heard in Sarnia, Ontario and Sri Lanka is evidence of this. The complexities of life can also perplex us. I mentioned earlier our worries about the economy, climate change and our place in the world. Then too, people were trying to sort these things out, turning to their mystics, philosophers, scholars and politicians for answers. And the first Christians too were looking for their place. The early believers had many questions. They were surprised at the delay of Jesus — it was almost sixty years since Jesus had spoken about returning from heaven. What was taking so long? Christians struggled with identity questions, as the church was less and less connected to its roots in the Jewish community. In fact, in the late first century, there was increasing hostility between Jews and Christians. After the Jews revolted against the Romans and lost a war of independence in the years 66—70, the majority of Palestinian Jews were exiled. Many came to Asia Minor. And many were also hostile to Christians; the wars had taught them to define themselves very closely according to their religious practices. Thus only the real Jews counted among their numbers. That meant that Christians could not find protection as a sub—group of the Jewish people anymore. So these were the burning questions among them, these Christians of Asia Minor, scattered among seven plus churches: What does it mean to be a Christian in a wealthy, seductive, increasingly hostile world? Trades people asked, "If my trade guild has a banquet at the temple of Apollo, can I attend?" Similarly, we may ask questions about working with integrity in a corrupt company — don’t we have a duty to provide for our families? Is there an acceptable degree of compromise when it comes to accommodating the culture around us, to the degree that we can function normally? What does Christ require of us? What does faithful discipleship look like for believers dealing with a struggling and often isolationist economy? Or in a society where religious tolerance is of greater importance than being religious? The good news is that Christ spoke to them, and speaks to us, in a vision or apocalypse, in seven messages to seven churches in Asia Minor. We know there were actually more than seven churches there, (the churches of Colossae and Hieropolis are mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament). But seven is a number symbolizing completion in the Bible; its use here means that all the churches of Asia Minor were recipients of this vision, and ought to pay attention. And we too are blessed to listen in. If we can understand these messages as the first Christians did, we will share in the great comfort and clarity regarding what it means to be a disciple, a Christ follower in our world. Our tour of the seven churches begins with the situation for Christians living in the city of Ephesus. Believers here were living in a place of significant importance and influence. Ephesus was the Roman capital of the province of Asia, and so the imperial presence and influence was to be found everywhere in the city. It was a very large city of up to 250,000 people. It had grown in size and wealth due to its strategic position on the major east—west trade route through Asia Minor. Ephesus was the end of the road for travelers coming from the east, providing a suitable harbor for shipping goods out to the Aegean Sea. But there was an ongoing problem with silt building up in the harbor; in fact, the city had already been moved from its prior location further inland, because the commercial center had to stay close to the retreating harbor mouth. Today if you visit the ancient city, you’ll find that the sea has retreated seven miles, leaving the city completely inland. Aside from being a political and commercial center, Ephesus was also a religious city. It was a major center for the imperial cult, that is, the worship of the emperors of Rome, and the worship of the patron goddess of Rome, named Roma. There were imperial temples to Roma, the emperors Hadrian, Domitian and Julius Caesar, among others — six in all. That’s like a city today having six major cathedrals. Even so, the imperial cult was not the major religious influence in the city; Ephesus was the major center for the worship of Artemis, or Diana, using her Roman name. Artemis was worshipped as the goddess of the hunt and the woodlands. She was also a goddess of fertility, and so worshipped to seek her favor for good crops, a healthy family or a new child. Originally, the Artemis cult gathered at a sacred fruit tree in a grove or garden. And even after the cult grew from its humble beginnings, a tree remained a central symbol of her cult. The Artemis cult in Ephesus also established the largest temple of the ancient world—over 400 feet long by 180 feet wide, its roof held up by 127 columns 60 feet tall. The temple and the worship that took place there was an economic boon to not just the city, but the whole region. People came from all over the Roman world to see the temple and to pay tribute to Artemis in Ephesus. But there was also a gathering of Christians in Ephesus, a small minority in this amazing city. Imagine what it must have been like to be a tiny congregation there, surrounded by representations of the greatest powers on earth, in marble and stone. And they were just beginning to gather unwanted attention from their neighbors, and the authorities. Perhaps it’s not too difficult for you to imagine being a part of such a church. Maybe you too feel like a small minority within your city or area, continually reminded of the earthly powers around you, always aware of how different you are—your values and the practice of your faith, always under subtle and not so subtle pressures to be conformed to the world around you. It was through John, first to the Ephesian Christians and now to you, that Jesus speaks. As we will see again and again, Jesus delivers his message in a way which is custom made for the context in which the letter’s recipients were living, in this case, the city of Ephesus. But the message in the Scripture reading today also sets a pattern for the words which we will hear spoken over the next weeks, as we travel from church to church. First, Christ describes himself in a particular way. In verse one, Jesus says "These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, and walks among the seven golden lampstands." It is important to note that the seven stars are held in his right hand. This is a direct challenge to the claims of one of the emperors honored in Ephesus. After his 10 year old son died, Domitian declared the boy a god, and commissioned coins with an image of the boy holding in his hands 7 stars, an ancient symbol of cosmic power. But Christ will not hear of it. He is the all powerful. He alone is God, and his claims stand against the claims of the emperors. Christ also introduces himself as He who walks among the seven lampstands. In Revelation, the lampstands represent the seven churches. What does this mean? It means Christ is ever present in the church, to comfort in difficult times and to challenge disciples to obedience, as we’ll see. Next, Jesus commends the church at Ephesus. He says to them, "I know your 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." They have worked hard and faithfully discerned the truth. They have challenged the false teachers who traveled from city to city trying to pass themselves off as apostles. And he adds this compliment: "You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." The Nicolaitans these were a sect of Christians who advocated participation in Greek and Roman religious practices. So Christ has examined this congregation in Ephesus, one struggling against an aggressive, dominating empire, and found they had become zealous guardians of the truth. Jesus says to them, "You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary." This is an encouraging word of commendation. How many followers of Jesus today would receive the same assessment? In a world of subtle but strong pressure to conform, to be less dogmatic and more accommodating of other views, it is easy to let slide the hard edge of the gospel, such as Jesus’ claim to be the one and only way to salvation. The Ephesian church is commended for standing up for the truth. However, Christ’s diagnosis of the church’s health is not all good: he also finds fault with them. After commending their perseverance, Jesus says, "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love." Literally, they’ve lost the love they had at first. But what love is that? It cannot be their love for God; that is expressed in their perseverance. The trouble was that this congregation no longer showed a caring, vigorous love for one another. Their fellowship had become severely handicapped. They had begun to look at each other with suspicion, and were prone to testing each other to be sure they’re on the right way. I can imagine what that may have looked like, because I have seen it in churches today. Sometimes a congregation can get so caught up in doctrinal disputes, that the simplest practices of common courtesy are ignored: members of the body who will not speak to each other, children no longer allowed to play together because of a doctrinal dispute between their parents. I’ve even seen a situation where members of a singing group refused to lead worship together! When these unloving responses within the church become visible outside the church, our witness is hindered and the name of Jesus is tarnished. Have you ever seen this kind of behavior within Christ’s body? Have you watched as disagreements over the age of the earth, the role of women, or the right response to homosexuality has torn a church apart? Have you played a role, either as a victim of such unkindness or as a perpetrator? As we can see from Jesus’ word to the church at Ephesus, such behavior detracts from the gospel, and evokes condemnation from Jesus himself. But the Ephesian church is not without hope. Jesus goes on to offer correction: they must return to their former ways. Jesus directs them to do three things. First, he says, "Remember the height from which you have fallen!" There were, apparently, living souls among them who could yet remember right fellowship together. They could also be helped by remembering all God had done in his love for them. Right remembering is often a part of reconstructing faithfulness. Second, Jesus calls them to repent. More than a feeling, or even the act of expressing regret, right repentance is acting on a renewed commitment to live life according to gospel. Seen in this way, repentance is an opportunity, more than chastisement. Third, Jesus says ‘do.’ "Do the things you did at first." It was not too late for them, nor is it too late for us, to change the way of behaving, of living. Jesus himself demonstrated that love is best expressed in action. Christ concludes his message to the Ephesian church by speaking of consequences. Jesus issues a warning, the consequences of what will happen if they continue in their ways. The negative consequence of continuing is that their lampstand will be removed from its place. As I described earlier, the lampstand stood for the church; the church of Ephesus itself will be removed from Christ’s presence, removed as in destroyed. It may be a veiled reminder of the way the city itself had been ‘removed’ from its original location as the harbor mouth filled in. The old city of Ephesus was continually raided for construction materials. A ruined mess was all that was left behind. The same can happen to a church that has lost love for one another. Jesus here tells us that a church without love is no church at all. However, there is also hope. If the Ephesian church will heed the warnings of Christ, there is the promise of a positive consequence: eating from the tree of life. Do you remember the tree of life? It’s mentioned in Genesis, the very first book of the Bible. After Adam and Eve sinned, they were exiled from the garden, lest they eat the fruit of the tree of life and live on in a sinful state forever. Here, that forbidden fruit is offered to the faithful; specifically, it is promised to those who overcome, who have victory. To eat of the holy tree was to receive salvation. This positive consequence for repentance seems specially written for the church at Ephesus. I mentioned earlier that the cult of the pagan fertility goddess Artemis gathered by a sacred tree, in a grove or garden. Jesus says that the pagan goddess’ tree can in no way compare to the blessings we have been given in Christ. Jesus offers the real thing, a true paradise, the right source of all life. We too need to hear the call to faithful obedience in all areas of the Christian life. Jesus has affirmed the importance of what is called orthodoxy, believing right doctrine. Just as the Ephesians were affirmed in their doctrinal faithfulness, their perseverance, we too must resist the temptations of syncretism, of watering down our faith by mixing in worldly values in a way that makes it easier to live in a hostile world. In Christ, we have real and lasting treasure. However, we see here the need for not only pure thinking, but also pure living. We can say we need not only orthodoxy, but also orthopraxis, right practice. The Christian life is no success if in seeking purity we no longer show love for the imperfect and at times irritating fellow disciples we know so well in our own church homes. At times, the church has pursued truth with such zeal that it has hurt its reputation, its witness and its own members. It’s a sad commentary that many people today identify love and forgiveness with Jesus, but rejection and judgment with the church which is his bride. That is not to say that we ought to stop seeking to discern truth from falsehood within church teachings and practices. Relationships within the church ought to be modeled after the ministry of Jesus, with truth and love embodied together. Love within the church includes those of other denominational stripes, who are not competitors or heretics but fellow followers on the journey who are to be supported and embraced. And we ought especially to love those new to the faith. Churches cannot expect spiritual infants to behave as life—long saints. If you are new to the faith, or simply starting out in your journey to know God better, you can do no better than to find yourself a warm and welcoming church, one that knows the true value of love. In another book of the Bible, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the apostle explained the benefits of a balance between right doctrine and right living. He said: "It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." Brandon O’Brien, an editor with, tells of praying regularly for a husband in his church (we’ll call him John). John used to attend with his wife, but years ago had dropped out. One day the news came that John had cancer. It was treatable, but he would be unable to work for many weeks while recovering from surgery. That meant no paycheck for his family. But the church rallied around them. Members committed to regular financial support, of $50 or $100 a month. One family paid their utility bills. Others left groceries one the front step. A few men made sure the lawn work was done regularly. John has since rejoined the congregation. Months after his surgery John testified on a Sunday morning that the church’s tireless care of his family had convinced him that the congregation did not simply want another warm body in the seats or an extra dollar in the offering plate; they were committed to sharing their lives and resources with him unconditionally. I’ll bet that if you’ve been a part of a healthy church for any length of time at all, you too know a story like that. Think back to a time when you saw the church come together to express love to those in need. Or better yet, create a new story, on your own or within the fellowshipping body you are a part of. Because the church of Jesus Christ, and the wider kingdom of God is blessed not only when we think pure thoughts, and guard the truth, but also when we are obedient to the instruction of the apostle of the Revelation, who gave this instruction in his final years: "Beloved, let us love one another. " May you be blessed to live out a life of love, in Jesus’ name.

About the Author

Everett Vander Horst

Everett Vander Horst is the senior pastor at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his wife Christa have been married for 14 years, and have 3 children: Laura (10), Eric (7) and Jason (5). A Canadian, Everett grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. After graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1996, he and Christa moved to British Columbia where Everett was ordained as pastor in the Telkwa Christian Reformed Church. They took the call to Shawnee Park CRC in 2001. When he is not pastoring, Everett enjoys digital photography, fishing as well as building toys and furniture in his basement woodshop.

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