I grew up in a church that struck the fear of God into me. The church was biblical and didn’t mince words even on the toughest of subjects. Gray wasn’t tolerated. The Bible is the bedrock of moral truth and this church reassured that the foundation was established in the lives of it’s members. My young childhood years were cemented in clear truth on right and wrong.
Yet, while we sang “Jesus Loves Me,” it wasn’t until my adult years that I fully experienced the grace and love of the God who is there. I don’t blame God for this. I think, rather, despite best intentions, this church, while anchored in truth didn’t always act in love. I can’t remember the sermons so I will believe the best that they taught love, but I do remember the people. If you had mess in your life it was the unwritten rule to quietly tuck it away so that no one would see it and condem (not lovingly convict) you. Gossip reassured that those who acted out of place may be smiled at but would ultimately be shunned. Truth stood firm, but love seemed conditional.
This problem didn’t originate in the church just in the early 2000s. Rather, truth without love has been an issue throughout history. Let’s hear what Jesus had to say to the first of the seven churches.
Write this letter to the angel of the church of Ephesus. This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, the one who walks amoung the seven gold lamp stands.
I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance. I know you don’t tolerate evil people. You have examined the claims of those who say they are apostles but are not. You have discovered they are liars. You have patiently suffered for me without quitting.
But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you’ve fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place amoung the churches. But this is in your favor: you hate the evil deeds of the Nicolaitans, just as I do.
Anyone with ears to hear just listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God.
Before we dive into the meat of this message, I’ll say a couple quick things about the letters to the churches in general. They all follow a similar pattern: addressing the specific church, a glorious depiction of Jesus, often a word of praise, a section for reproof, a call to hear and accept the letter, and an eschatological promise. While we know these were written to a specific people at a specific time, from the call for “anyone with ears to hear” we can gather that these letters are also for us. As The NIV Application Commentary Revelation by Craig S. Keener puts it, “…if the shoe fits, wear it. To whatever degree our lives or churches reflect symptoms analogous to any of the churches the risen Lord addresses in these letters, we must take heed to ‘what the Spirit says to the churches.'”
While my introduction did paint a more bleak picture of a church, neither I nor Jesus himself would want to understand the value of holding to truth. The heading in my NLT Bible lables Ephesus as “the loyal church.” They were loyal to truth. They weren’t swayed by whatever was popular in their culture. It is so easy to let worldviews that aren’t the Christian worldview creep into our lives and church. We can easily became disrailed by flashy new ideas or ways of thinking. I see so many Christians and whole churches subscribing to ideologies that lack biblical roots like critical theory and post modernism. Yet, this wasn’t the church of Ephesus. They tested what they heard against the objective truth of the Bible. They weren’t easily swayed by the winds of culture. The took a firm stand when it would have been easier to give a little. They worked and suffered for truth and Jesus praised them for this.
Yet, they fell away from their first love. In their pursuit of truth they forgot who’s truth they were promoting and why they were promoting it. They got so caught up in the objective truth, they forgot the one who made truth objective. They didn’t love God with the fervent passion that they previously did when first converted. If we don’t love God first, we can’t love each other rightly. We will go beyond “hating the sin” and start hating the sinner too. Warren Wiesbe said, “truth without love is brutality.” People and church can go through the motions of speaking and preaching the truth of the Bible all while lacking personal experience with the God of the Bible and his people. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I could speak all the languages of the earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Acting outside of love shouldn’t be taken lightly. Jesus said to this church if they didn’t repent from their lack of love, “I will come and remove your lampstand from amoung the churches.” In essence, they would cease to be a church. Keener states, “A church where love ceases can no longer function properly as a local expression of Christ’s many-membered body. ” Churches can die and people can fall away from their faith for many reasons. Here we see it was suicide by lack of love.
There’s one final note I think is worth mentioning. We don’t really know who the Nicolaitans were. Though we can guess they were promoting some kind of false teaching. This again is a testament to the loyalty to truth that the church of Ephesus exampled. Their foundation was firm, yet it had the potential to crumble without love.
We need to stand for truth. We cannot be swayed by every ideology that comes along. We should be inspired by this church’s work and suffering for sound doctrine. Yet, we cannot operate well outside of love. Our lack of love for God and others will be at our detriment if we continue to operate absent of love. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). To eat the fruit from the tree of life, yes, we must know truth, but we must also abide in love.