In the first century, Ephesus was the most prominent city in the Roman province of Asia. The city held one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Temple of Artemis, a magnificent structure built in honour of the Roman goddess of fertility. But by the end of the first century when the book of Revelation was written, Ephesus was in decline. And new religions, Christianity among them, were competing for the attention of its citizens. Ephesus was a city whose passion had flickered and died.,
The church followed the city’s lead. The flaming fellowship was now reduced to dying embers. Where does the passion go when it leaks out?
We can’t say that the church at Ephesus lacked dedication. Jesus opened His message to them with these words: “I know your works, your labour” (Revelation 2:2). They were active and busy, and Jesus commended them for it. The word labour implies working to the point of exhaustion. There were apparently many in the church who were so busy in the service of the church that they were worn out. They were dedicated to building the church in Ephesus and making an impact on the city.
Nor was there a problem with a lack of determination. Jesus also commended them for their patience in service (verse 2) and in suffering (verse 3). Acts 19 tells about the persecution that came upon the believers in Ephesus from those who rose up against them. The silversmiths union, which profited from selling silver statues of the goddess Diana, was not happy with the anti-idolatry message of the Christians. The clash escalated into a riot. But the Christians there persevered in their determination to make a difference.
This kind of determination in suffering reminds me of a wonderful statement by the great nineteenth-century London preacher, Charles Spurgeon:
Pray God to send a few more men with what the Americans call ‘grit’ in them; men, who when they know a thing to be right, will not turn away, or turn aside, or stop; men who will persevere all the more because there are difficulties to meet and foes to encounter; who stand all the more true to their Master because they are opposed; who, the more they are thrust into the fire, the hotter they become, who just like the bow, the further the string is drawn, the more powerful it sends forth arrows, and so the more they are trodden upon, the more mighty they come in the cause of truth against error.”
Determination to hang in there seems to have been present in the Ephesian church.
We also know that the problem in the church at Ephesus wasn’t a lack of discipline or discernment. In fact, the twenty-first-century church would do well to imitate the church discipline practiced by the Ephesian believers. They did not allow evil to spring up in their midst and bear fruit, and Jesus commended them for their discipline. They “tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (verse 3). It was not uncommon for apostle wanna-bes to circulate through first-century churches, looking for hospitality and a place to exercise their self-appointed authority. This church grilled the visitors on their theology and practice and sent them packing if they didn’t measure up.
So what was the problem at Ephesus? Today, if we described a church as dedicated, determined, discerning, and disciplined, we would be talking about a church with some notoriety. And that’s the root of the problem. Despite all the Ephesian Christians had going for them, Jesus said, “Nevertheless, I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (verse 4). In less than a century, the church at Ephesus had moved from faith to formalism. In all their busyness they had lost their passion for Jesus. They were so involved in keeping up the religious practices of the church that they had become passive in their devotion to the Head of the Church.
I see the same thing happening today. There are churches in every city and town with new ones springing up on a regular basis – being planted by believers who are out seeking and saving the lost. But we need to ask, what real effect are we having? We are making an impact to some degree – people are being saved on occasion. And, I would hate to imagine what any given country would look and act like if the church were not there. But are we having the level of impact that we could? Are we turning our society upside down the way Jesus and His disciples did theirs? I don’t think so. And in my view, it’s because we are more in love with the church and our ministry than with the Lord of the church. We have moved from faith to formalism. We have lost our first love.
Losing our first love is another way of saying that we have lost our passion.
More next time.