Years ago, I read about a pastor who was called to a troubled church. To accept the invitation would mean a significant salary cut. But he said yes anyway.

He needed further income, so he began looking for a part-time job. The state mental institution was in his new community, so he approached the directors with an offer to do counseling.

After checking his credentials, they happily offered him an hour a week to start with. When he arrived for his first day of counseling, a guard took him to Building 37. The guard unlocked the door and stepped aside so this pastor could enter, then locked the door and left.

The room had very little light. But as the pastor’s eyes adjusted, he saw that the room was bare except for benches around the four walls. The benches were filled with men and women, many in diapers. Human waste was everywhere. The smell nearly overwhelmed his senses.

He tried to strike up a conversation with these inmates, but all he could get were groans, moans, and demonic laughter. Because it’s impossible to counsel people who will not talk, he wondered how to proceed.

Then an inspiration gripped him that could only have come from the Holy Spirit. Finding a clean spot on the concrete floor, he sat and began to sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

There was no response. But he continued to sing for the full hour’s session.

Next week the pastor was taken again to Building 37 and locked in with these tormented people. Again, he sat on the floor and sang for the entire session about God’s love.

The third week the manager provided him with a three-legged stool to sit on. Again he sang the little chorus of love. Twenty minutes into the session, a large woman left the bench and began to circle him, much as a dog circles its prey. The pastor just continued to sing. Finally, this woman sat on the floor behind him and softly began to sing with him.

Over the weeks, one after another joined in singing this song. By the end of a few months, thirty-six of these people had been transferred to a self-care ward in the institution. In less than a year, all but two had been released, and two of those became faithful members of his church.[i]

How could this song of love make such a powerful impact on these tormented people’s lives? As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthian church, “The greatest of these is love” (13:13). Love is the key that unlocks human misery. Where everything else falls short, we can be sure that love will prevail—maybe not immediately, but love has an enduring, eternal quality.

Love can be revealed only in relationship to others. In Eugene Peterson’s book Reversed Thunder, he writes:

Sin fragments us, separates us, and sentences us to solitary confinement. [The] gospel restores us, unites us, and sets us in community. The life of faith revealed and nurtured in the biblical narratives is highly personal but never merely individual: always there is a family, a tribe, a nation—[there is the] church….

So, it comes as no surprise to find that St. John’s vision is not a private ecstasy given to compensate him for his rockbound exile [on Patmos]; it is “for the seven churches that are in Asia….”

Sin, both our own and that of others, drives us into customized selfishness. Separation from God becomes separation from [my] neighbor. The same salvation that restores our relationship with God reinstates us in the community of persons who live by faith.[ii]

Now we turn to the messages to specific churches, in a particular moment of time, starting with Ephesus, the largest city in the region. This church had been developed by the apostle Paul thirty years earlier.

Here we discover the presence of Christ affirming, correcting, and promising blessing to those who respond in obedience to the message. This pattern seems to be repeated to all the churches, which shows the need for each of us to be affirmed in the things we are doing right, corrected in those areas where we are straying from God’s purposes for our lives, and motivated to make the necessary changes to keep growing in our relationship with God.

1. What Jesus Commends in Us

We all need affirmation and encouragement to move forward. Many challenges in life can tend to discourage us, so we need to look beyond our present circumstances and hear God’s words of affirmation and commendation. These will sustain and even lift us through many trials.

It’s interesting that Jesus begins with commendation before he corrects. How important this is when speaking to others. We need to voice more than what frustrates us, or merely criticizing. That’s unlike Jesus. Instead, we need to see what people are doing right and affirm those things with a loving heart before we bring any correction. One area that is critical is in our marriage relationships. Too often we tend to focus on the things that bother us, instead of thinking about all the wonderful qualities of our spouse.

Here are five things Jesus commends in the Ephesian church:

1. Their deeds (works)

2. Their patience in hardships

3. Their intolerance of evil

4. Their discernment of false leaders

5. Their hatred for the deeds of the false teachers

His actual wording is this:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance [works]. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people [intolerance of evil], that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false [ability to discern]. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary [patience in hardships]….

You have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (2:2-3, 6)

In these things, the Ephesian church was a model to others. They had not grown weary with the battles of life. They had remained faithful to their convictions and beliefs in a hostile environment.

I like what Eugene Peterson points out:

We are not measured by our contribution to society or evaluated according to our potential. The church is a community where who we are and what we do is recognized and celebrated quite apart from the fads and fashions of the world. As such the church is a glorious place: [where] quiet, unnoticed, courageous lives develop out of the affirmations that take place in these communities. Quite apart from the incentives that society supposes are necessary to sustain motivation and enterprise, these people exercise a steadfastness.[iii]

What are some of the things Jesus is expecting from us? How do we handle the problems that come our way? Do we give up? Do we continue to trust him regardless? Are we faithful to our commitments?

In the parable of the talents as recorded by Matthew, the “master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness’” (Matt. 25:23).

What more needs to be said? God desires that we share in his happiness. And that comes by living a faithful and productive life of service to him.

Another part of faithfulness relates to what the Ephesian Christians believed. They maintained a doctrinal purity and were able to discern false teachers. You can do that only if you know the truth. In our day as well as theirs, it’s critical to understand what the Scriptures teach. Many nonbiblical ideas are afloat out there. Remember: Wrong thinking produces wrong living.

Who were the Nicolaitans that came in for such reproach in this passage? We know very little about them. Some of the early church fathers thought they were followers of Nicolas from Antioch, one of the seven deacons chosen in Jerusalem during the conflict over the care of widows (see Acts 6:5). But what we do know is that their practices were sinful.

Later in Revelation 2, the Nicolaitan name comes up again, in the letter to the church at Pergamum, which was being deceived by their teaching (see 2:15). Many scholars speculate they were accommodating the Caesar or emperor worship.

Leon Morris adds an insightful comment: “While love is the typical Christian attitude, love for the good carries with it a corresponding hatred for what is wrong… Notice that it is the practices and not the persons which are the objects of hatred.”[iv] We may hate what terrorist organizations are doing in our world today, but we are commanded to love our enemies—even if they kill someone we love. Loving our enemies is not easy to do. In fact, we cannot do this apart from God’s Spirit at work within us.

In a day of tolerance, we must remember to be tolerant of people, but intolerant of evil. Jesus went even so far as to applaud the Ephesians for hating the practices of a divergent group that claimed to be Christians but weren’t. They were deceiving themselves.

2. What Jesus Corrects in Us          

Most people struggle with correction because they feel insecure. Correction, however, is a great thing when done properly. We should not attempt to correct something because it is bothering us, but rather because it is destroying the other person.

Biblical correction is a profound expression of love. God disciplines those he loves. If you are a parent and never correct your child, you are basically saying, “I don’t love you.” Obviously, some people are chronically critical. But those who genuinely love others will speak the truth in love to save people from destroying themselves.

The question is then: What do we need to evaluate or adjust to in having an intimate, vital relationship with Christ and others? Our text states the Ephesians had forsaken their first love and stopped doing the things they had done as new believers.

Jesus has a way of addressing the problem issues of our lives. He starts with an insightful word into their difficulties. They may not have even been aware that there was a problem. Too often that is true. But it was of such magnitude at Ephesus that it threatened the church’s very existence. This problem was negating all the positive things they were doing.

What does “You have forsaken the love you had at first” (2:4) mean?

It means failing to embrace God’s love toward us. When I genuinely experience God’s love, my actions become loving toward others. The true measure of my love from God and then toward God is measured by how I treat others.

John reminds us in his epistle that love for God is only expressed by loving people. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:20-21).

We all have a diminished capacity of love. We can love as God loves only by receiving.

Authors Judson Cornwall and Michael Reid point out:

That God’s love is totally undeserved, unmerited and unearned is self-evident. That this love is necessary for spiritual life is far less evident. Most of what God’s love does for us is behind the scene. [God’s love] is the strength of our being and is the wisdom of our minds. It gives direction to action, strength to function and support to being. When we embrace His love our lives are complete, but when we exclude it we flounder in life.

We now know that lack of parental love will affect the personality and behavior of an individual throughout his or her entire life. God, the perfect parent, knows that we need more than a token touch of his hand. We need to be made secure in his love in order to mature successfully in life, and he offers us that security.[v]

We can only love in proportion to the revelation we have of God’s love. What we need is not more religious activity but more divine revelation of Jesus Christ.[vi]

What does this mean, and how does this apply to our lives? We often try to be good to secure God’s love. The problem is that we can’t be good enough. We all fail.

The story of courtship primarily begins with mutual “love.” It is amazing what we will do in the early days and weeks for the person we love. But then sometimes we become distracted by other things, revealing that what we sought in the relationship was to receive love rather than to give love.

The source of our love should not originate from the other person, but rather from God. Only he can love us unconditionally. The reality is that as human beings we are all deficient when it comes to love. God, on the other hand, is its author. The good news is that no matter what our background, each of us can be confident that God will always love us unconditionally.

That is why Paul prayed for the Ephesians—the same church we are talking about now—that they might know how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ (see Eph. 3:17-19). The degree to which we experience God’s love in our lives is the degree to which we can become a channel of that love to others. Our problem too often is that we are merely looking to people to meet our need for love, a need so great that only God can satisfy.

If I text my youngest daughter, Rachel, and say “I love you,” she’ll text back and say, “I love you more, Dad.” I can’t just text back and say, “I love you more than you love me.” So, I text back and say, “I loved you first.” (She will then reply, “That’s not fair, Dad!”) What I’m trying to teach her is what God says to us: I loved you before you loved me. Our love is a responsive love. Once we grasp this, it radically changes our perspective on ourselves, others, and our circumstances.

We all need to get back to the emotional place in our lives when we first came to this amazing realization of God’s love for us. That will influence our love for our spouse and children.

Earl Palmer writes:

The Ephesus problem happens quietly and by gradual, imperceptible shifts of focus. Let me sketch in a twenty-first-century scenario how this devastating shift of focus occurs.

What happens is that a man or woman is first united with the Christian church because of having discovered and believed in Jesus Christ and his love. After a few years of being a Christian, that person becomes a leader in the church with very heavy responsibilities for the fellowship.

But something happens along the way. That person who, because of giftedness and hard work may now stand at the vortex of church politics and decision-making, experiences a subtle shift in style of life. That person is adrift as a disciple and finds himself or herself motivated and nourished by the organization or by the controversy or by ambition to hold power. The first love has been replaced while perhaps no one was aware of the replacement. The first love has been abandoned, and in its place is the starchy, high cholesterol diet of church activity and work that will never nourish the human soul.

The irony of this latter condition of the “Ephesian syndrome” is that the Christian becomes totally preoccupied, fascinated by themes and goals which would have never won him or her in the first place to have joined the church….

How can it happen to us? It happens in marriages; it happens to human friendships; it happens to the life of discipleship.[vii]

In other words, doing replaces being. What first motivated us—love—is replaced by doing things. We start majoring on the minors. We allow the important things on the larger scale of life to be swallowed up the demands and pressures of life. We get caught up in the task at the expense of people. Too often husbands fall into the trap of letting work take over the central part of their lives at the expense of their families—and when confronted, say, “But I’m doing it all for you.”

It’s like the warning Jesus gave in his parable of the seed and the sower. You will recall his analogy: that the word of God is like seed that a farmer was casting into his field. Some fell on the hard pathways and were eaten by the birds; some fell on rocky soil and immediately bore some fruit but then died because of no root system to support it. “Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19). That’s what we are addressing here.

The issue is putting first things first. Many times, we are doing all the right things but have lost the motivation that started it: love. We slip into trying to make ourselves acceptable to God by what we do, forgetting that we are acceptable to God because of what he did. I like the way the songwriter Cindy Morgan puts it: “I’ve learned God loves us, not because we’re good, but because he’s good.”[viii] That’s the truth the Ephesians needed to relearn—and so do we.

We need to marvel and rejoice in his love to us. It is out of that love and grace (unearned, undeserved favor) that we live and serve. When we lose it, we lose the love factor in our lives. Says Leon Morris, “A church can continue only so long on a loveless course. Without love it ceases to be a church.”[ix]

How can this critical problem be fixed? Jesus starts with our thoughts: “Consider how far you have fallen!” (2:5a).

We cannot get any closer to God than when we are receiving his love. It’s much like a little child reaching up to receive a parent’s love.

Then Jesus calls us to “Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand [i.e., church] from its place” (2:5b).

But what is repentance? It’s a change of mind on our part that leads to a change of actions. We now see things differently, and it affects the way we are going to live.

How do we get back there? We need to remember the height from which we have fallen. Repentance is not a negative thing, but a positive adjustment in our lives. We need to stop blaming others and accept our responsibility for where we have failed. It is merely acknowledging our need for God, and when we do that, God empowers our lives and fills us with his love.

Finally, we are to make a recommitment to those things that love caused us to do. To repeat Jesus’ words: “Repent and do the things you did at first.” Here we have a change of mind that leads to action. Action inspired by love is the most powerful transforming force on our planet.

3. How Jesus Comforts Us

Going beyond what is wrong with us and how to do what is right, we need to know what happens when we do. New Testament scholar Scott Hafemann writes:

Every command of God is built upon a promise from God. Therefore, every divine call to action (obedience) is, at the same time a divine summons to trust in God’s promises (faith)…. Every time we disobey God it is because we are not trusting him.[x]

Jesus’ promise shows up at the end of the letter to the Ephesian church: “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” (2:7).          This is symbolic language. It takes us back to the garden in the book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve got to enjoy the tree of life.

When we come to Christ, what we are doing is eating from the tree of life. When we come to Christ, we have eternal life.

The garden speaks of intimacy. Our problem in relationships is the lack of intimacy. We are guarded and lack transparency because of past hurts. We protect ourselves by not letting someone in to hurt us. We don’t trust.

What was the core issue in the garden? The serpent convinced the woman that she must have been missing out, that God was withholding something from her. She didn’t trust that God was wise, good, and loving. Often the temptation for us in either doing or not doing what God requires is that we start questioning God’s goodness or wisdom. We’re no longer sure God knows what is best for each of us.

James Houston, one of the “founding fathers” of Regent College in Vancouver, points out:

At the heart of the biblical motif of the garden is that it is God who creates the garden of divine love, seeking friendship with us, as once he did with Adam and Eve. Paradise is the divine presence, and to exclude God from our lives and loves is to be expelled from the garden. This disaster comes through pride, doubting the wisdom of God’s love and listening to the serpent’s innuendo, “Did God really say that?”

When we question God’s word, we are questioning his love for us. Houston goes on to say: “The garden symbolizes our restored communion with God and the celebration of his presence in our lives.”[xi]

The Greatest Sacrifice

Music sensation turned author LeAnn Rimes shares the following story, as told to her by one of country music’s “legends” who chose to remain anonymous.

At the height of this singer’s career back in 1950, her estranged father showed up for Thanksgiving. Remembering the difficulties in their past relationship, she didn’t want to see him. “Well, I was pretty big for my britches,” she admitted later. “So I locked my door and put up a sign that said, GONE UNTIL SOMEONE IS GONE—HE KNOWS WHO HE IS.

“Later I found out that my father had slept that night in the bus station. I guess he had a ticket to get home, but no money for a room. He left town without ever seeing his only child.”

The next day, the singer bought a bus ticket and headed to her next show. A freak snowstorm hit, with temperatures plummeting down to zero. Eventually, the bus veered off the highway into a ditch.

The complicating thing was that this singer was diabetic and taking insulin—and she hadn’t brought enough to cover an extended time.

“I became hysterical,” she said, “cause if the cold didn’t kill me, the lack of insulin would, I knew for sure. I began to cry. I held it back as much as I could. I didn’t want to upset the other passengers.

“Then this old fellow with dark glasses came from the back of the bus and sat beside me. He wore a knit cap pulled over his forehead and ears, and he had long hair and a shaggy beard, the kind men wear when they have no money for a barber. By the way he felt his way into the seat, I knew he was blind, and I realized he must have been the only person on the bus who heard me crying.

“He asked me what was wrong, and I wanted to tell someone. It turned out he knew everything about diabetes. He told me it had taken his sight, and he used insulin too. Then he said to me, ‘I got enough here for both of us.’ I thought he had the sweetest spirit I’d ever seen in a man.

“Then he told me my speaking voice was as pretty as my singing.

“‘You know me?’ I asked.

“‘Oh, yes, I know exactly who you are,’ he said. ‘In fact, you’re my favorite singer.’

“‘I can’t believe you recognized me just from hearing me talk,’ I said.

“‘Well, us blind folks see with our ears,’ he replied.”

As they talked, he spoke about his daughter, and how much he loved her, and how he wanted to move to Nashville to live out the rest of his life near her.

“Then he got quiet for the longest time,” the singer related, “and I thought he’d fallen asleep. That’s when we heard men beating on the bus door. We were about to be rescued.

“I shook the old man to wake him, but it was no use. I thought he’d passed out from lack of insulin. But the truth is, he’d been gone for hours. You see, he hadn’t had any spare insulin like he told me. He’d only had enough for himself, and he’d been giving that to me. In the darkness, with his hat and beard and dark glasses, I couldn’t tell he was in shock.

“He’d been shivering something fierce, but I thought that was from the cold. The man died in my arms, and I hadn’t even known it.”

She closed her eyes, remembering. “I was so weak that rescuers had to carry me up the hill to their truck. We were taken back to Nashville. The man who had saved my life was left behind, in the cold and dark.

“‘He’ll be all right,’ somebody said. ‘This weather will keep him froze till he can get a proper funeral.’

“I was reading the newspaper two days later,” she went on, “about the accident and the rescue, and it had the name of the man who’d saved my life. That name jumped off the page at me. It was my dad.

“He knew that giving his last insulin to me could kill him, but he did it anyway. The dad I’d refused to see gave his life for me.”[xii]

That’s the essence of the Christian message. God so loved that he gave. God gave himself for us—his life for ours. What motivated God to die for us is love.

What is Christian faith all about? Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 1:5, “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” If we, like the Ephesians, begin to focus on other things and miss the most critical result of what faith in Christ produces, we will cheat ourselves. We must never give growing in our love for God, which will be reflected in our love for others.

[i] See Judson Cornwall and Michael Reid, Whose Love Is It, Anyway? (Essex, England: Sharon Publications, 1991), 58-59

[ii] Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) 42-43

[iii] Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 51

[iv] Morris, 61

[v] Cornwall and Reid, 23-24

[vi] Cornwall and Reid, 56-57

[vii] Palmer, 129

[viii] Cindy Morgan, used by permission.

[ix] Morris, 61

[x] Scott Hafemann, The God of Promise and the Life of Faith (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2001) 87

[xi] James Houston, The Heart’s Desire: Satisfying the Hunger of the Soul, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1996) 205-206

[xii] Paraphrased from LeAnn Rimes and Tom Carter, “Holiday in Your Heart,” Good Housekeeping, November 1997, 215-222

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