Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Church's First Love

The book of Revelation begins with seven letters to seven churches from the Lord Jesus Christ. These letters contain both praise and reprimand to these churches. The first letter is addressed to the church family in Ephesus, and what we discover is a model for church families everywhere, except they were missing a very important element of what being the church is all about.
1 “To the messenger of the church in Ephesus, write:
‘The one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, the one who walks among the seven gold lampstands, says this:

2 ‘I know your works, your toil, and your endurance. I also know that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles, but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 You have endured and suffered because of my name, yet you have not grown weary. 4 However, I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Therefore, remember how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. If you don't, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 But this is to your credit: You hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

7 ‘Let the person who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give the privilege of eating from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’” (Revelation 2:1-7; ISV)

The Ephesians were lacking love, more specifically they were lacking love for Christ Jesus. Here was a church family that had functioning ministries which kept people busy, they stood their ground as they were persecuted, and they did not tolerate false teachings, but they had lost their love for Jesus.

I have been pondering this reality today, because it is hard for me to get my head around the fact that here was a “model” church family, even by today’s standards, but they were in danger of losing their place in God’s Kingdom. Their lampstand would be removed if they didn’t repent and return to Jesus. Here is what I find difficult to understand: why does a church family do all these things if it isn’t out of love for Jesus?

Here is what I have come up with: these Christians were more loyal to the church than they were in love with Jesus. I see this reality in so many struggling church families. Their passion isn’t so much Jesus as it is to keep the church building doors open. Tradition and comfort is what motivates them, not love for God or love for people. They are busy, they demand to be taught the Bible, and they constantly express a desire to see the church grow, but their love for God is superficial at best.

I think the same thing can be said for large, mega-churches as well. They might have a growing attendances and well functioning ministries, but it is all done in a very corporate or business like manner that love for Jesus is pushed aside. They maybe church families look to as models, but Jesus looks on them in a very different way.

How can we make sure we love Jesus? Remember Jesus told the Ephesians that they needed to repent and to those things they did at first, so Jesus was telling them to work up an emotion in their heart, but instead to choose to do the right things. Here are three actions I think will help us hold on to our first love, both as individuals and as church families:
  1. Keep our eyes on Jesus. I believe that our preaching and teaching need to constantly refer people back to Jesus. We need to remember Jesus isn’t just a piece of Christian doctrine, but He is the hope we have in the future and the solid rock that we build our lives on. It is no wonder that in Colossians the apostle Paul constantly points people to Jesus and reminds them of who He is and what He has done. In the first chapter of Revelation John is given this wonderful vision of Jesus, and one purpose of this vision is to remind John (and eventually his readers) of who Jesus is and what He has done. Doctrine is of no use if we don’t love Jesus.
  2. Seek out God’s will. I think we get ourselves in trouble, as individuals and as church families, because we decide what we want to do and then we ask God to bless it. The model prayer Jesus gave to us shows that we are to seek out God’s will, ask for His kingdom to come and that His will be done, rather than just asking God to bless what we have decided to do. This helps us to remember that the church isn’t about us and our plans, but it is about entering into God’s plan to redeem all of creation. In other words we join our love to the love of God.
  3. We serve the needy. Many churches have different ministries that take up the resources that they have, and when it comes to helping the poor or someone who has fallen on tough times there is nothing there to help them. We have delegated this responsibility of helping the needy to the government so we can have big fancy buildings and do flashy programs designed to bring people through the doors. Yet, Jesus told us that when we serve those people in need, then we are serving Him. How can we truly love Jesus if we are not willing to help those who are in need? When attendance, programs, and buildings become more important than serving people, especially those in our church families, then we have lost our first love.

I think it would do all of our churches good to evaluate themselves by the seven letters of Revelation. Those seven letters will help us understand what Christ thinks about the church, and the real changes we need to make in order to accomplish His will.

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