In our last post we saw that the defining characteristic of a true Christian is to be motivated by love. This should be the foundation of every Christian’s faith.
We also saw that Christians can easily lose sight of this, instead basing their faith on either having a correct set of beliefs and practices or living a life of good deeds towards others. While both of these are essential elements of faith, neither is enough on its own. Many Christians fall into the trap of prioritising one over the other and even finding themselves in conflict with those on the opposite side.
Those who prioritise belief may look at those who prioritise deeds and accuse them of compromising God’s message in order to feel more comfortable with this world.
Those who prioritise deeds may look at those who prioritise beliefs and accuse them of caring only about keeping rules and maintaining their own power, caring nothing for the suffering of those in need.
Have you witnessed this in churches you know?
How would Jesus address a church which had drifted too far towards one of these extremes? In the book of Revelation there are seven letters to churches in Asia Minor (Turkey today) – they are far shorter than the other letters we find in the New Testament, more like memos really – sent by Jesus himself. Each one describes Jesus’ opinion of that church, which may have been very different from how that church saw themselves.
Can you imagine your church receiving a memo like that from Jesus? What do you think it would say?
The first memo is addressed to a church that had focussed so hard on getting their beliefs and practices right that they’d lost sight of their most basic foundation.
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 your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, 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 the love you had at first. Consider how far 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. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:1–7)
Jesus had a mixture of praise and criticism for Ephesus church.
They were praised for their perseverance: their willingness to keep going despite hardship and suffering in a hostile environment. Ephesus was the major cultural and religious centre in the area and many powerful non-Christian religions were active there.
They were praised for hard work: their attitude of perseverance put into practice. They weren’t just gritting their teeth and enduring hostility; they were actively pursuing God’s purpose for humanity.
In what way? By preserving the truth about Jesus that had been taught to them by Jesus’ own apostles. They had encountered people who were teaching a false version of Christianity, examined their claims, and rejected them. They had encountered a group called the “Nicolaitans” – nobody really knows who these were but they were doing things Jesus hated and he praises Ephesus church for sharing his view.
The leaders of Ephesus church had been warned by Paul the apostle that they would need to do this:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. 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. 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. (Acts 20:28–31)
He’d also advised his protege Timothy of this need:
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work — which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. (1 Timothy 1:3–7)
So far, so good, you might think – Ephesus church has clearly taken Paul’s warning seriously and acted on it – but Jesus wasn’t finished. He said something that probably shocked Ephesus church to its core: they had a serious problem which, if not addressed, would result in his rejection of them.
What was this problem? They had forsaken “the love [they] had at first”. What does this mean? One commentary says “It seems probable that desire for sound teaching and the resulting forthright action taken to exclude all impostors had created a climate of suspicion in which love within the believing community could no longer exist”.
Desire for sound teaching and rejection of impostors is, of course, a good thing for any church, but they’d taken it too far. While their zeal to defend God’s truth was commendable, perhaps it had led them to a position where they no longer trusted each other and no longer saw each other as worthy of God’s love.
It’s good for us to desire a perfect understanding of God’s message, to desire to be able to see things the way God does. Yet God is able to look at the other Christians in your church, despite their weaknesses and their mistakes and their misunderstandings of what he says, and see them as his sons and daughters. Can you do the same?
What does Jesus want Ephesus church to do? Give up their zeal for the truth and stop rejecting people? No – he wants them to return to where they were before and make their admirable zeal subservient to the love they felt and experienced when they first became Christians. He doesn’t say whether he means love for God or love for each other, but both are essential.
What does this mean in practice?
It means being willing to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others.
It means that if you see someone who is in error, your first step should be to try to bring them closer to God in love rather than push them further away or kick them out.
It means being willing to trust fellow Christians even if you don’t agree 100% with everything they say.
It means recognising that correct belief, while essential, is only one part of the true Christian faith and without a foundation of genuine love is worth nothing in Jesus’ eyes.
Ephesus church had gone towards one extreme – next time we’ll look at a church that seems to have gone towards the other.