Domestic problems, a crises of trust in institutions, an uptick of domestic violence, apparent devaluing of human life, a military spread too thin, widespread cynicism and record low opinion polls of politicians and other national leaders…but why focus on the challenges of the first century and the Roman Empire when we have so many problems today?
The situation we face today has many parallels and similarities to the first century Roman Empire. The challenges and the opportunities the early church faced are very similar to the challenges and opportunities we face in the 21st century.
One of those who was crying out for a word from God was the pastor of Ephesus, the Apostle John. John’s stand for the truth led him to invariable conflict with the authorities—conflict with the powers of this world that lead Jesus’ other disciples to martyrdom. John’s sentence was less lethal but no less severe. Stranded on the Isle of Patmos, the disciple whom Jesus loved was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when the risen Lord Jesus Christ came to him with a message. The messages to the seven churches was a special kind of pastoral epistle from Jesus to these churches and by virtue of the ministry of the Holy Spirit to us today. The first letter is a remarkable. That great city in Asia Minor that had been the capital of the cult of Diana, a sensual deity whose followers had opposed Paul and the believers there, the place where the apostle Paul had labored in the pastorate for three years longer than anywhere else, and the site of the revitalizing ministry labors of St. Timothy became the pastorate of St. John. Early church history says John cared for Mary, the mother of Jesus, in that church. Jesus’ messengers communicated to the churches along a circuit in Asia Minor. The first church on the circuit to receive the letter was the congregation John eventually pastored. The message to the church at Ephesus carries a remarkable message to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in North America in the 21st century.
Our concern, of course, is a singular expression of the church—your church, here—at this very crucial hour in history.
Because the Holy Spirit brings His Word alive to each successive generation and every part of the body of Christ, we can receive this message today. I believe we are able to discover in this passage God’s guidance for every believer and every church.
What is this guidance? As we look to Revelation 2:1-7, we come face to face with two simple and beautiful messages for our Christian lives today. The first message of guidance is this: God guides us to discover the solution to our challenges in the personal ministry of Jesus.
Each of Jesus’ pastoral letters to the seven churches begins with a personalized word of introduction. Each introduction is personalized by an assurance that the great need of that church is located in a parallel attribute of Jesus. Therefore, in the first letter to the church at Ephesus, in verse 1, Jesus identified Himself as the One who “holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands.” Jesus provided the interpretive rule for the Book of Revelation Himself.
We read in verses 19 and 20, “Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this. The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars or the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you sell or the seven churches.”
There are several interpretations, of course, about the meaning of “the angels of the seven churches,” but I prefer the more ordinary interpretation provided by such as William Hendrickson and Simon Kistemaker, who recognize the angels as the respective pastors of those seven churches.
Whether you take that to mean the Christian shepherds of those respective congregations or an angelic being on divine assignment, we still may draw from this that Jesus has those who bring the Word to His people in His hand. Further, we see that Jesus was walking down the aisle and through the pews of the first church at Ephesus. This is a peculiar word for emphasis given what Jesus was about to say to them. The Ephesians who received this word could cling to this Christ who met them in person at the exact point of their need, at that hour. This is the force of that introductory statement.
This is a remarkable pastoral approach, one that we may enjoy personally and one we might practice.
I never will forget a pastor friend in another denomination who was going through a great trial in his church (one of those family squabbles that make us ask, “Now why are we fighting again?”). I visited with him on the night in which the congregation would be voting on his future. As I called on him in his home, I found him in his bathrobe, watching an old movie on television and sipping iced tea. He told me that God had given him a great peace and that he was content with whatever happened that night because he figured the Lord probably was leading him on to his next appointment and that sometimes “This is just the way it has to be done.” Otherwise, he taught me that those of us who are pastors never would leave our places to serve another place we might be needed!
“So,” he sighed as he looked toward the television set, looking but not watching, “God must have another place for me.” He turned to me again. “I also figure God has got some lesson for me in all of this. You know, Mike, the Lord Jesus, is here tonight with us in this parsonage. He is with those people in that congregation, many of whom I trust and all of whom I love. He is not absent in our trouble, and that can bring me peace and perspective.”
Peace and perspective can deliver the most agitated spirit from the shackles of self-doubt and move us to trust God in the storms that come against us, that He easily can redirect them to become fair winds of His grace.
Does anyone here think that, similar to the church of Ephesus that had been going through difficulties or the pastor who was voted out of his congregation, that we need Christ to meet us at our very point of need? I know I do. This is a very important part of the passage to receive before moving to the rest of the passage. Each word was spoken to the messenger—John of Patmos, the pastor of Ephesus—can be received within the expectation of obedience that brings blessing. It is a great source of peace and perspective to us in that our challenges today each are met in the corresponding attribute needed for that challenge in the Person of our Savior.
What do we face today? Of course, we face the ordinary and extraordinary maladies of life that afflict every generation. We also face unique challenges: the deconstructing of a Christian civilization before our very eyes. As we move through the stages of post-Christian age, we face not only heartache but misunderstanding and trials and possible persecution. We face the decision of when to stand and when not to stand. In all of this, Jesus says to us, “You are not alone.” If you are a pastor, you are the messenger of the Lord for such a time as this, and He has you in His hand.
Indeed, it should be a comforting word to you that Jesus Christ holds you in His hand and never will let you go. He walks beside you, and you never will be alone.
There is a second truth that we learn about God’s guidance in days such as these from this message: God guides us to discover the signposts for our pilgrimage in the pastoral ministry of Jesus (vv. 2-6).
A great Southern writer Walker Percy died in 1990 and left a collection of unpublished essays that were published in 1991 under the title of one of those essays, Signposts in a Strange Land. Signposts in a Strange Land is a sort of jeremiad (a long lamentation or mournful complaint) for a 19th-century man. Percy was coming to grips with the disintegration of life as he knew it or life as he preferred it.
Sometimes I feel that I am going through life in a strange land as I see the collapse of the older moral landmarks that helped guide us. Yet there remains one for the church and any who would listen: the voice of Jesus. Jesus’ voice is a pastoral voice, a voice that commands and critiques, by which we are given signposts to lead us away from danger and lead us to peace.
In verses 2-6, Jesus guides the Ephesian church by commending key features of their service: their good works, their hard work, their patience, their church discipline, their perseverance in the face of persecution. The Lord critiqued the church at Ephesus for one great existential flaw: they had abandoned their first love.
Scholars of Johannine literature disagree about only nuanced explanations for the first love at Ephesus. George Eldon Ladd summed up the case most simply:
“…Although their struggle with false teaching had made no inroads in the sound doctrine of the Ephesian Christians, it had had serious effects on some aspects of their Christian conduct. It had led them to abandon the love they had at the first. Here was a failure which undermined the very foundation of the Christian life.” The famous New Testament professor and theologian offered a similar word of exposition: “Doctrinal purity and loyalty can never be a substitute for love” (Ladd, 39).
The way Jesus guides is well understood when we observe how a father commends some behavior of his little one and the child understands he or she should continue in that behavior in order to win further praise from his father. Likewise, the child recognizes in his father’s critique the possibility of disappointing the father. The child’s love for the father compels him or her to accept the good and seek to dispel that which does not please the father. The father’s commendation and critique chisel the character of the child without diminishing the fervency of the child’s love.
We often ask ourselves how we can make our way through the cultural quagmire of our day and still be faithful to God. Well, the Lord is showing us what is good in this commendation, as well as what should be dispelled from our lives, pastorates, and churches. Surely, as Jesus’ offered His pastoral letter to the Ephesians His Word in Revelation 2:1-7 is telling us to continue to be careful and scrupulous in our attention to maintaining the faith in such a pluralistic culture. Yet, the Lord is calling us to see that our ministries must be conducted with this most fundamental virtue of love.
If we allow our ministries and our churches to be unduly affected by the false teaching that would accommodate the church to this world, we will lose the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Yet if we are ambitious to separate falsity from truth without cultivating the love of Christ in our fellowship, we also lose power. Consider a fish washed up on the shore that dries out in the sun; so too the penetrating sunlight that allows us to find error can become the scorching sun that dries up love. A loveless Christian is a fish that has been too long in the sun.
This is a call for us to return to our first love, the love that we knew at first, the love of Christ for sinners. It is only when we operate from the indwelling love that saved us that we can be used of God to reach others.
The personal ministry of Jesus and the pastoral ministry of Jesus are God’s divinely revealed signposts for going forward in this strange new land of 21st century North America.
Often in pastoral counseling, I have employed various methods of applying scriptural truths to the lives of those before me. Some years ago, I adopted a practice of using singing with couples. This is the way it goes: Invariably, it seems, the wife might say something such as, “Well, my husband is just not as romantic as he used to be.” I look at the husband and ask him how he would respond. “Well, I…well, I mean …” Generally, that answer is sufficient! I then pivot on that problem to discover the solution.
“I want to ask you a question: Did the two of you have a special song from your courtship?” The husband just looks at me. The wife answers, “Oh yes, yes, we had what we call our song. Remember, Honey?” Usually, I observe that “Honey” is oblivious to such things. It is at that point that I go for the jugular. “Say, Mr. Jones, would you be willing to sing that song to your bride right now—or at least as much of it as you can remember?” The poor old boy adjusts his seat, tries to wipe the building anguish off of his face and replies, “I don’t know…I mean…” The wife looks at him as a high school cheerleader might peer into the eyes of her quarterback. “Yes…Dear…What do you mean?” He sighs. He looks off somewhere far, far away to locate the soundtrack of their courtship. Then, he begins to sing. “Longer than…” He stops. I urge him to continue. His wife has her hands over her mouth in awe. “Go on,” I say. Mr. Jones recovers. “Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean…” Never has a Dan Fogelberg song been sung so much like a hurting animal, but at least he tries. My goal is to try and help the couple sing the song of romance once again.
I believe this is what we are being called to do as well: to sing the song of ourconversion, our calling to ministry and our joy at being able to speak the words of heaven to a poor soul and see that person come to Jesus Christ “just as I am without one plea.”
The Lord is calling you to sing the romance of the call. To do so is to begin to recover the three-fold song you had at the first: faith, hope, and love; and love, as we know, is the greatest of all these things.
1 Ladd, G.E. A Commentary on the Revelation of John: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.
2 Rasimus, T. The Legacy of John: Second-Century Reception of the Fourth Gospel: Brill, 2010.
Dr. Michael A. Milton (PhD, University of Wales) is the Distinguished Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries. The retired fourth presidency and chancellor of the RTS System, Dr. Milton founded and shepherded 3 churches (KS, GA, and NC), and was the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Mike Milton is a US Army Chaplain (Colonel) retired, and remains President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership. Dr. Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Mike puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God Starts God Completes.”