The word “agape” at its root means “to live for the benefit of another.” Real love means that I put on His nature for the benefit of others.
December 22, 2023
Speaker: Greg Sanders
Passage: Revelations 2:1-7
Last week, we took a look at the challenge from Jesus in John, through John’s voice, to be a people that approach what He says with an obedience to have an ear and a willingness to hear. We looked at what it meant to be hearers. I don’t want to go over that again for the sake of time. But I do want to pick us back up in Revelation 1:17 through 20. Then we’ll read chapter two, verses one through seven, and consider the message to the church of Ephesus.
“When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me and said, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am the first in the last, I am the living one who died. Look, I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys of death and the grave. So write down what you’ve seen, both the things that are now happening and the things that will happen later. This is the meaning of the seven stars you saw on My right hand and the seven gold lampstands. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. Write this letter to the angel of the church in Ephesus. This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands. 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. And you have examined the claims of those who say they are apostles but are not. You’ve discovered they’re 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 it first. Look how far you have fallen from your first love. Turn back to Me again and work as you did it first. If you don’t, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches. But there is this about you that is good. You hate the deeds of the immoral Nicolaitans just as I do. Anyone who’s willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Everyone who’s victorious will eat from the Tree of Life in the paradise of God.'”
Let’s take a look at this message to the church at Ephesus. Who is this message written to? The first phrase we come across is Angelos or Anglos. That is commonly communicated in English as “the angel.” But we probably should have a conversation about that because the context of what’s being said here in Revelation doesn’t make sense for that to be an angel.
The word in its root means “messenger.” So, more than likely, what we see happening here is a direct message to the bishop of that church. One or two bishops stand out. Our best guess is this is either Timothy or Anysymus. What we know about Ephesus at this time is that the city itself was about 1200 years old. It was the current capital of the conquered land. It had been made the capital as a gift to keep it from being invaded.
It was an incredibly politically charged environment. There was a lot of political manipulation. There were a lot of inner workings to try to keep peace between the invading Roman Empire and the people of that land.
It was full of wealth and opulence. We know it was located on a major trade route, as are all seven of these churches that the message comes to. Interestingly, we live 30 miles north of Boulder. Boulder, Colorado is one of the largest headquarters of cultic religions. It’s really interesting for a city that’s not that big. I think last time I checked, more than 79 major world religions would call Boulder home. Ephesus was like that. It was the headquarters for multiple temples and multiple pagan cults.
What can we discern from this message of Jesus to the Ephesian church? There are a couple of things that jumped out. Number one, the church was fighting a war against immorality and deceptive theology. The local church was doing a great job holding that line of the Kingdom on these things.
As we read this message, what jumps out to me is a statement that Jesus makes. It’s staggering. He says, you were doing great at so many things, and yet I have something against you. It could cost you your influence and your position. I think that should give us an immediate pause.
Jesus is the husband of the church, and that language comes through Scripture often. He’s the husband, and we’re the Bride of Christ. In this simple statement, He reveals that as the husband of the church, He holds expectations for how His bride lives and that there are consequences for not honoring that desire. I think our immediate reaction is, “Why wouldn’t He be more gracious? Why wouldn’t He be willing to say, ‘You didn’t do super well in a lot of areas, but thanks for being mostly awesome.'”
That is the reality of where they were. They were mostly awesome. Ephesus was a church that was doing amazing at a lot of things. They were righteous in a pagan culture. They were walking in purity in a very sexually perverse culture. They were standing against sin and bad teaching. They were incredibly philanthropic and generous. Yet they were lacking something Jesus was looking for.
So here’s my question. Is Jesus demanding perfection? Is He that kind of leader who would be audacious enough to say, you’re killing it on all these fronts, and you’re doing so well? But timeout, you’re not perfect. No, that is not what’s going on here. I would submit that if we are willing to truly consider the syntax of what He says, He’s declaring that an aspect they were missing is more vital than what they were doing.
I want us to understand what this is revealing. There are aspects of how we follow Him, or aspects of our following of Him that matter more than others to Him. This brings us to the question: what were they guilty of? They had left their first love. His calling this out tells us that this thing, first love, is the priority in this marriage with Him.
Remember, He’s the groom, and we’re the bride. First, love is one of the things that has to be and must be right. What is first love? What is He talking about? I have some thoughts that I want us to consider as we look at this. He, as our husband, defines what loving Him looks like. I just want you to think about that phrase. He, as our husband, defines what loving Him looks like.
In the Greek text, there is a word used as He enters into this rebuke. “Nevertheless” is how we would interpret that word. The word is Allah in the Greek. It’s an adversarial particle. It kind of means, “but you need to consider this.” That’s a vital understanding for us to consider because I think these Ephesian believers would have said, “We are loving Him.”
They were actively testing false teaching. They were actively confronting false prophets and false apostles. They stood right against immorality. And yet, after all of that, and He even said they were doing these things, but nevertheless. In other words, I need you to pay attention to this thing. His indictment that they had left their first love tells me that we must not fall into the same trap where we define our way of loving Him. We must follow His lead in how we love Him.
This word “first love” is protos agape. The term is ordinal in Greek. We can take that to mean a couple of different things. We could take it to mean that first love is an early thing, something that was there in the beginning. Was Jesus speaking to an emotional condition that was there when they first came to Him, as in the early days of believing?
I think all of us who are in relationships understand that there is an early stage, an infatuation stage, a bubbly stage, and as we grow, it’s not that we don’t love that person the same or more. It’s just that it morphs and changes. I don’t think that’s what He was talking about.
We could also take this term, protos agape, and consider it to mean “first love” as in the highest priority. Was Jesus speaking to it being the most important aspect of following? Well, I think to understand that, we have to look at what the rest of scripture says. I want to take us through three different passages. John 17, 1 John 4, and 1 Corinthians 13. I want to talk about these.
We don’t have time to read through them and dissect them at the level that I would like. In 1 John 4, specifically in verses seven and eight, John declares that God is love. From this passage, what we understand is that we cannot separate God and love. Meaning when love is true, it is an expression of Him. He defines love, not us.
I want us to think about that phrase: He defines love, not us. I want us to take this and consider something that I feel the Lord taught me in the last month. When we choose to be unloving in our relationships with others, we are choosing to be ungodly because we’re taking off His nature.
In John 17, there’s a concept of first love, but it doesn’t show up in the phrase “first love.” It shows up here in John 17, where Jesus is revealing this incredible interconnectivity of His heart and the Father’s heart. I want to read it quickly because I think just listening to it is important.
Specifically, in verse 23, He says, “I in them, and You in Me, all being perfected into one. Then the world will know that You sent Me and will understand that You love them as much as You love Me.”
All of a sudden, we see the nature of the way Jesus and the Father interact. It’s loving. He’s the first love of the Father. Before creation, He was the love of the Father. I think what He’s revealing here is that the chief aspect of His relationship with the Father is love. From this passage, I would love to submit that we see a priority on intimacy and connectedness. We can easily extrapolate that there is a priority on our intimacy with Him. It is the first and must be the most consistent evidence of our love, just as it is between Him and the Father.
Let me say it in a more native language: our first love affair must be Him. It must reveal an intimacy with Him. He is to be the focus and the trajectory of His bride. See, often the spiritual and the natural will carry similar principles. So, I want to look at just one of those in a marriage.
There’s a book that Belinda and I have worked through called The Four Four Laws of Love. The priority principle says that each party is to hold intimacy with the other as their first and chief priority in life. Often, marriages fail because we, as people, tend to get caught up in all the secondary things. We tend to see other things as more important. Sometimes, we see our relationship with our kids as more important. Other times, we see our career advancement as more important. Sometimes, we see our ministry at the church as more important.
We tend to justify that like, “I’m a good provider.” Maybe a wife will say, “You know, I take care of his world.” Or maybe people have just settled with, “You know, we’re good partners in life.” From Jesus’ perspective, our intimacy with Him has to be the top priority of the relationship. I would say that intimacy together in marriage is to be the top priority of a marriage relationship.
I don’t want to get too tangential in this and go into a marriage teaching, but I think we face an epidemic in our culture right now where people are married and they don’t really like each other, and yet they say, “I love you.” It’s not possible to say to someone, “I love you,” and at the same time say, “but I don’t like you.” We’ve bought a lie. I’ll show you why it’s not possible.
Love isn’t an emotional condition. Love is an active condition. In 1 Corinthians 13:4-13. Paul will teach about love. I know that a lot of us know that love is patient and love is kind. In verse four, Paul says, “Love is patient and kind.” Before we read verse four, let’s look at verse one.
It says, “If I could speak in any language in Heaven or on Earth, but I didn’t love others, I would only be making meaningless noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal.”
He goes on and says, “If I could do all these other things, but I didn’t have love, it doesn’t matter. So, He goes on to define love and says, “Love is patient. It’s kind. It’s not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices when the truth wins out. Love never gives up and never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Love will last forever. But prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will all disappear. Now we know a little bit, even the gift of prophecy reveals little. But when the end comes, the special gifts will disappear. It’s like this. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. And now we see imperfectly as if in a poor mirror. But then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete. But then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me. There are three things that will endure: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”
There are some things that Paul reveals in this passage that I think are important. I want us to consider them because he’s teaching about how the reality that God is love should be revealed in our lives in a few important ways.
First, without love, all spiritual activities are useless. Just consider that for a second. Without love, all spiritual activities are useless. If you show up and you’re on the Experience Team, or you’re in hospitality, or you’re in the tech department, or you’re a musician and you’re a grumpy, not a very kind person everywhere else in the world, but you’re like, “But I serve at church,” Paul’s statement is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have love.
Paul will teach that love is defined by what it does, not what it feels or says. It’s the most important thing that we can understand about love according to Paul’s teaching here in First Corinthians. I’m bringing up Paul, even though we’re in Revelation and we’re looking at John, and we’re looking at Jesus’s words, because I want us to see the symmetry in the scriptures that this wasn’t just a point of view in Revelation. This is what all of the apostles would teach.
Love is to be our top priority. Love has an activity that validates its existence because love is active, not passive. Please hear that again. Love is an action, not a feeling. This first love must be revealed in a presentation of how we live towards others. We choose to be patient and kind to those around us. I think we could camp on that for a long, long time.
The word “patience” here, makrothumia in Greek, means a long holding of the mind. It means we don’t allow irritability in ourselves. We refuse to allow any jealousy in our hearts. We refuse to allow ourselves to be arrogant, even when it feels justified. We refuse to engage in rudeness — in other words, snarkiness, harshness, being nitpicky at people, it’s not allowed according to Paul’s teaching.
According to Paul’s teaching, if we walk in love, we never have to get our way. We never feel the need of, “I have to get my way.” We’re temperate. What does that mean? We’re moderate or mellow. We’re not highly volatile. We’re not grumpy or short with others. We don’t hold grudges, or we don’t hold right hangs over people’s heads. We celebrate truth, and we stand against injustice. We refuse to quit in our relationships. We choose to believe the best always. We refuse to change our loving posture towards anyone.
What does it look like to be a people so covered and loved that we could say, “No matter how you treat me, I will never change my posture towards you.” You see, this is the first priority we’re called into. I would submit that all ministry is secondary to this. Jesus is looking for this love in His bride. When we’re consumed with Him, we live in His love, and we live loving towards others. When we don’t live loving, we’re contrary to Him. Because He’s love. Can you please grab onto that idea? The Lord whispered this to me about six weeks ago, and it floored me. When we don’t live loving, we’re contrary to Him, because He’s love.
What was His aim for the Ephesian church? They had stopped making Him the priority and making how they treated others the focus. They stopped doing those things. They were busy doing the work of ministry, but they forgot the one that it’s all about and became guilty of living in a loveless marriage with Him. A marriage where there was no intimacy. There’s no heat, no passion. We must assess these things in our lives. We must be willing to consider the question, “Have we left our first love?”
When we were in our Study Team session, one of the things that came out was in Greek, the word means laying something down, like letting it go. Love is like a jacket that you put on; if I take this coat off and put it back on, that is the principle. I’m putting on the nature of Jesus to be loving towards others. I don’t possess it naturally. None of us do. The problem is we’re waiting to possess our love so natively that it comes out. It’s never going to come out if you wait for it. You might have moments where you feel the emotional condition of love, and those are beautiful. But that’s not love.
The word agape at its root means “to live for the benefit of another.” Real love means that I put on His nature for the benefit of others. This last Sunday of the year, I want to deeply challenge us. Maybe you were here this morning, and this hit you between the eyes, and you’re like, “I have been so unloving.” I want you to connect the parallels. You can’t live unloving towards others and say you’re still in love with Jesus. It doesn’t work. If you’re in love with Him, it has to be revealed to others.
We’ll have the Prayer Team in the front if you’re in a spot where you need to repent. I’ve been so not loving. What a great time of year to do that. What a great time of year to say, “You know what? I’m going to get to be around people. I’m going to get to be rubbing shoulders with family and friends. I want to put on love and reveal my love for Him in how I handle others.”
All right, bow your heads with me, please.
Holy Spirit, we simply ask You, and even at this moment as a teacher, it was such a sense of Your heart for this house that we put aside the foolishness of our arrogance and our pride and our way. I love pastor Dary at Timberline. I love his phrase, “Let love live.” We’re crying out, Holy Spirit, would You do a work in us of love that’s fresh and new?” As we push into intimacy with You, will you also push into an outward love toward others? We bless You and we honor You. In Jesus’ name, amen.
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