When I was a junior at Harding, I was able to spend a semester in Greece studying the ancient world of the Bible. We got to go to the different places that Paul’s missionary journey took him, and we even got to go on a cruise of the places where Revelation was written from and to. And my favorite of all these places was Ephesus(pictured above).
The Ephesian artifacts were by far the most substantial. It almost felt like the whole city still had pieces that remained standing. So you could walk through and see the face of a giant Library or the homes of where Christians used to live…marked out by the subversive symbols to identify themselves to other Christians. We saw the amphitheater where Paul started a riot. We even saw a sign carved in stone for where the bordello was. After all, it is the oldest profession on earth.
It was fascinating to be there. If you stood there long enough, you could just close your eyes and almost hear the sounds of the hustle and bustle of the daily life on a busy city in the first century.
So John, the author of Revelation, is in exile on an island called Patmos. He’s living in a cave (I know. I took the tour and saw where our tour guide swore he laid his head every night). He’s been put there by the authorities because he’s been deemed a troublemaker. And rather then make him a martyr, they decide to just take him out of commission. They remove his voice from the equation. Because in exile, John can’t do any damage to them there. Right?
But John doesn’t give up. He writes this letter about the cosmic realities that are all around them. About how Jesus is the world’s rightful ruler, and He holds the keys of life and death. And then John does some pastoral work. He writes 7 churches on how to live into that reality. And the first one is the church at Ephesus.
He commends them for all that they’ve got going on. They’re doctrinally sound, they hate people talking about God poorly. They do good deeds often, they have suffered for the sake of the Kingdom of God and not turned away. If the church in Ephesus had a website, you would love their talking points. Who wouldn’t want to be at a church like that?
But Jesus has got one thing against them. They’ve lost their first love.
Sure they are right about doctrines, but in all the wrong ways.
One of the best books I read last year was With by Skye Jethani. In it he talks about the young Evangelicals concern with justice. He applauds how most younger Christians are awakening to the desire to see God’s Kingdom come, and for justice and mercy to be extended beyond the walls of our churches, corporations and courthouses. But then he made an observation that is haunting. He said the people that he is rubbing shoulders with are often pretty angry, insecure about their relationship with God, and sometimes miserable.
He asks this question to many of the young adults he works with, “What is the most important thing in your life, what is your treasure? The thing that you would give anything in your life to possess?” So I answered the question in my own mind. And it wasn’t the right answer.
Jethani points out that if the answer to that question isn’t Jesus. Then what you’ve got, no matter how great it is, is an idol. And the church might just be the one to blame. Here’s what Jethani actually says:
The primary purpose of our worship gatherings, preaching, and programs should be to present a ravishing vision of Jesus Christ. When people come to see who He is and what God is like, treasuring him becomes the natural outcome. But many times the vision of Jesus is hidden behind lesser glories-often some variation on the culture’s values or the church’s mission-are given the spotlight.”
Now, I’m all for churches with vision and values and mission that are about the Kingdom of God. But I think he’s right. Too often I meet people who are passionate about all the right things, and they are making a difference in the world, but yet I still think, “I don’t want to be like them.” It’s because there is a seduction in accomplishing things for God that can actually take the place of God in our lives. And what happens then is that we minister and serve for God’s favor, instead of realizing He’s so good that He’s already given it.
So Jesus tells the church at Ephesus, whatever good you are doing it isn’t your first calling. Because your first calling is to love the one who brought you together. Without that, all the works, and charity and service is like a clanging cymbal. And if you don’t start making the main thing, the first thing, then Jesus tells that Church, I’ll take your light away.
Now Revelation doesn’t let us peek into how each church responded. All we have is the letters written to them. But here’s something to consider: Of all the stuff that you can see in modern day Ephesus, the one thing you won’t find…is an active church.
N.T. Wright points out that Ephesus had been a major center for Christian thought and activity for the first few hundred years, even a great church council was held there. But today if there are any Jesus followers left, we don’t know about them.
So maybe we have some clue about how the Ephesians responded to the letter after all.
And maybe, if you are a church or ministry leader, we should allow Jesus’ words to speak to us today. What you do is important, but who you do it for…that’s always been the main thing that matters. There are many things in this world that are good and noble and just to pursue with your life.
But the greatest of these is love.