Left Your First Love

“But I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love. Remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent and do the first works; or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:4-5).

Many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound.

On a Lord’s day while in exile on Patmos John received a vision of the Lord as one like a Son of Man and the Ancient of Days (Revelation 1:9-20). John was commissioned to write what he saw and send it to the seven churches of Asia; before the vision would proceed Jesus, in the Spirit, would communicate specific messages to each of those seven churches (Revelation 2:1-3:22). Ephesus, the main city of Asia, would be the first destination; therefore, Ephesus was addressed first.

Jesus had many good things to say about the church in Ephesus: the Christians there had worked hard. They had maintained patience in general but did not endure evil men; they had put so-called apostles to the test and found them to be false; they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hated (Revelation 2:2-3, 6). The Christians in Ephesus had manifestly taken Paul’s warning to heart: they were on the lookout for the wolves that would not spare the flock; they stood firm for the truth and resisted all those who taught doctrines contrary to it (cf. Acts 20:29-31). The church in Ephesus was strong for the truth.

But Jesus had something against the church in Ephesus: they left their first love (Revelation 2:4). Jesus summoned them to repentance, to remember where they had fallen, and to do the works they had done before, or else He would come and remove their candlestick/lampstand from its place (Revelation 2:5)!

The Ephesian Christians were battle hardened, but they also proved battle weary. The passion and zeal which had marked their lives when they first heard the Gospel had cooled. They did not abandon the truth; they did not deny the Lord; but the love, the fire, the passion, and the zeal were no longer really there.

And so Jesus called upon them to “backslide,” to change their hearts and minds and to reignite the passion and zeal they once relished. The consequences for not doing so were strong: Jesus would remove their candlestick, their presence before Him.

Jesus went on to write to many other churches regarding situations which most of us would deem far more dire than what transpired in Ephesus: Christians practicing sexual immorality, idolatry, or so wealthy they thought they had need of nothing from the Lord (Revelation 2:8-3:22). And yet, even in the midst of all of those difficulties, it is only the church in Ephesus which is explicitly warned about the removal of their candlestick.

How could that be? It is not as if sexual immorality or idolatry can be justified; God would judge and condemn all who would persist in immorality, and Jesus warned explicitly as much (e.g. Revelation 2:22-23). And yet in those churches some lived faithfully before God; thus, their candlestick would remain. Why would the Ephesians be in such danger? Such is the power, and importance, of love.

God is love (1 John 4:8); His love has motivated His creation of the universe and His disposition toward it. Jesus embodied the love of God for humanity, dying on the cross for our sins (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:7-11). The foundational command of Christianity is to love one another as God has loved us (John 13:35, 1 John 4:7-21). Thus, it is no hyperbole when Paul said that if he knew all the mysteries and had all knowledge but did not have love, he was nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).

True sacrificial love is the fuel of any healthy relationship; husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). The marriage relationship in which love has gone cold is in danger of fraying and being destroyed; the only solution is for each person in the marriage to repent and renew the fires of love. Thus it is within the church: any Christian whose love for the Lord and/or His people has gone cold is in danger of falling away from the Lord and being cut off from His body; the only solution is to repent and renew the fire.

Jesus knew of the faith of the Ephesian Christians; but He could do nothing with them as long as their love remained cold; He could do more with lukewarm Laodicea than He could with loveless Ephesus! We hope and pray they renewed their passion for the Lord’s purposes and remained in good standing in His presence for some time.

While Jesus speaks in the Spirit to seven real and specific churches in Asia, we should not imagine the messages are restricted to those specific seven churches. In many respects the seven churches of Asia are paradigmatic churches; over time many other local congregations will manifest many of the same characteristics.

This is especially true in terms of Ephesus, and it is a danger we do well to consider. It is easy for Christians to make Christianity all about the truth: the acceptance of the truth, adherence to the truth, and chastisement for any variation from the truth. In such an absolutist perspective the only thing that becomes important is where people stand in relation to truth. It is all about obedience to the truth. “Sound churches” hold to a firm doctrinal stance; everyone else is apostate.

Christianity is about Jesus, who is the truth (John 14:6); we must obey the truth of the Gospel (Romans 1:5). We must be on guard against the dangers of false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1). But Christianity, in the end, is about speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:16); the church in Ephesus is our warning sign that a church can make a firm stand for the truth and yet still apostatize because they have abandoned the love of God in Christ.

Truth, therefore, is necessary, but not sufficient in and of itself. It never has been and never will be. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, because He is the embodiment of the God who is love (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:8). Health in a local congregation can never be defined merely by doctrinal positions; Ephesus would pass that test, but was about to be removed from its place before Jesus! There is more hope for a church with misdirected passion than one who accepts the truth but has no zeal for the Lord’s purposes; it is much easier to channel passion properly than to revive cold hearts.

Thus, even though many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound, it was on the verge of apostasy. The church in Ephesus had the truth, but they did not have love, and so they were nothing. Faithfulness in the truth only has benefit if it is motivated by deep love and passion for God and His purpose. May we stand firm in the truth of God, zealous for His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Singing in a Strange Land

For there they that led us captive required of us songs / and they that wasted us required of us mirth / “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing YHWH’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137:3-4)

The agony is palpable.

The historical books of the Bible tell us the story of the people of God, and generally do so in a rather straightforward fashion. So it is in 2 Kings 25:21, tersely declaring that Judah was exiled out of its land. The shock, the agony, the horror, and the astonishment of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the exile of its people would find its voice elsewhere in Scripture. Few places prove as compelling as Psalm 137:1-6.

The Psalter communicated much simply by placing Psalm 137 in its current location. Psalms 120-134 are the “songs of ascent,” which we believe were sung as pilgrims would ascend the hill country of Judah to approach Jerusalem and Zion, where YHWH made His name to dwell. Psalm 135 praises YHWH as Creator, the God of Israel who destroyed their enemies, and the One True God, no dumb and mute idol. Psalm 136 is the grand call and response powerfully affirming YHWH as the Creator God of Israel, who has done great things, who delivered Israel from his adversaries, and who continues to provide, for His covenant loyalty/lovingkindness (Hebrew hesed) endures forever.

But then Israel sat by the waters of Babylon, and cried when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1). They hung up their musical instruments upon the willows (Psalm 137:2). The victorious Babylonians, pagans vaunting over their defeat of the people of YHWH, demand to hear the songs of Zion (Psalm 137:3). The Psalmist’s question rang out: how could they sing YHWH’s song in a strange, alien, foreign, and pagan land (Psalm 137:4)? The Psalmist would go on to resolve to never forget Jerusalem; he would rather forget his skill and never speak a word again before he would forget Jerusalem or enjoy anything above it (Psalm 137:5-6).

Ferdinand Olivier 001

We can barely begin to imagine the trauma of exile for those in Israel. Everything they knew and believed about themselves had literally been dashed to pieces in front of their eyes. They watched as thousands of their fellow Israelites, fellow people of God, died from famine, plague, and sword. They watched as the pagans ransacked the holy places of YHWH, whom they had believed to have been the God of Israel, who maintained covenant loyalty, and who overcame Israel’s adversaries. They were led to a distant land as the spoils of war, a land of strange tongues and stranger customs. Nothing could ever be the same again. Who would they become? What happened to YHWH’s promise? How had He let this happen to His people? How could they sing the songs of ascent to Zion when no such ascent proved possible? How could they sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land?

Without a doubt exile began as an extremely disorienting experience for Israel. Many would apostatize, believing the lie that might makes right, buying into the Babylonian propaganda. Yet for many the exile would prove the catalyst unto greater faithfulness; YHWH really was not only the God of Israel but the One True God, the God of heaven. He judged His people on account of their continual rejection of His purposes; Israel deserved far worse than it actually received. YHWH would again visit His people and bring them out of exile; He would again choose Jerusalem and Zion; Israel would again sing YHWH’s song in His land (Isaiah 40:1-5, Zechariah 2:10-12).

When Cyrus overthrew the Babylonian monarchy and took over the empire, Israel was allowed to return to its land (Ezra 1:1-4). And yet the exile was not fully over; Israel was still captive to foreign powers. Their long exile would only find its satisfaction in Jesus of Nazareth, YHWH in the flesh, having returned to His people, defeating sin and death through His death and resurrection, in His ascension establishing a dominion which would have no end (Daniel 7:13-14, John 2:14-22, Acts 2:36). Israel, and all mankind, received access to God through Jesus, and could become a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, with all the rights and privileges thereof (Ephesians 2:1-18, Philippians 3:20).

Yet before the people of God can inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, they must also experience exile. As Christians we live as exiles and sojourners in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11); we live in its midst, ought to pray for peace and the salvation of all men, and do what is honorable among all, but we cannot love this world, cannot be friends with it, and cannot live according to its customs (Romans 12:1-2, 17, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, James 4:3-5, 1 John 2:15-17). We will be thought strange and consider the ideas and customs around us as strange (1 Peter 4:3-4); no matter how much we may look for a home and security, we will not find it here.

As with Israel, so with us: exile begins as a very disorienting experience. We also are tempted to apostatize, to believe the lie that might makes right, to buy into the propaganda of our nation and our cultural ideology (Romans 12:2). But our exile is designed to prove the catalyst for greater faithfulness, to prove the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:1, 6-7). It is through the crucible of exile that we learn that God is the One True God, who has made Himself known through His Son, and that the only hope of the world is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is through the crucible of exile that we come to understand that the world is out for its own, does not glorify what God would have glorified, and that whatever we have experienced is far less worse than what we have deserved. It is through the crucible of exile that we learn to anchor ourselves in our great confidence and hope that Jesus will return again to gather His people to Him, that we will rise and forever be with the Lord, and dwell in His presence in the resurrection forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

It does seem difficult to sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land. Yet we must remember that God has already obtained the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, and we will prove more than conquerors if we remain faithful to Him (Romans 8:37, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). The day is coming on which we will sing a new song and the song of Moses and the Lamb before the throne (Revelation 5:9-10, 15:3-4); until then, we do well to sing the songs of Zion even in a strange land, glorifying God for what He has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Itching Ears

For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

As Paul encourages Timothy to continue on with the work of an evangelist (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5), he presents a rather bleak picture for the future. Believers, influenced by their worldly, carnal desires, will no longer endure proper, healthy instruction in the message of Jesus; instead, they will have “itching ears,” seeking to hear what they want to hear, turning away from the truth, and toward fables, or myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

This warning is consistent with the message of the previous chapter: Paul spent much time in 2 Timothy 3:1-17 describing how many would conduct themselves in immoral ways despite professing belief in God. Such a distressing picture!

While the picture is distressing, it should not be surprising. We should not imagine that these difficulties are relegated only to these “last days” during which Paul is writing and in which we continue to live or the “time to come” after Paul’s writing. The people of God before Paul found it difficult to endure sound teaching, and often wandered off into myths. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law from God, the Israelites made a golden calf and served it (cf. Exodus 32:1-35). After the Israelites entered the land of Canaan they soon began serving the gods of the neighbors (cf. Judges 2:11-23). They also imagined that they could serve YHWH by bowing down before an image, a myth of their own making, and certainly not what God intended in Exodus 20:4; it would be the cause of ruin and exile for both Israel and Judah (2 Kings 17:7-23). Jesus attests to the fact that the ancestors of the Israelites mistreated the true prophets but honored the false ones (Luke 6:22, 26). Jesus Himself endured persecution by the hands of people who wandered off into myths, those waiting for the Messiah of their own imagination while crucifying the Messiah God sent them (cf. Matthew 23:29-36, Acts 7:51-53). This was not a new problem.

But why? All people have a built-in desire to hear the things that make them feel better. Likewise, all people have built-in defense mechanisms against anything that makes them uncomfortable or exposes difficulties in their thoughts and actions. Hence Paul’s description of “itching ears”: these people have decided to hear only what satisfies their lust. They are looking for relief in ways inconsistent with God’s purposes and at times when they may need exhortation. At such times, it is easier to believe the myth than it is to accept the truth.

The city of Jerusalem presents a great illustration of this principle. In the days before the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, prophets like Jeremiah declared YHWH’s judgment on Judah for its transgressions at the hands of the Babylonians. Other prophets like Hananiah declared that YHWH would break the yoke of Babylon and would maintain the sanctity of His Temple (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17). In the days of Jesus, many Jewish people expected YHWH to preserve the Temple and Jerusalem and to destroy the infidel Roman power. Yet Jesus pronounced condemnation upon the Temple and Jerusalem because of their rejection of their Lord (cf. Matthew 24:1-36, Luke 19:41-44). And, lo and behold, most of the people followed after the views of Hananiah and the standard Jewish expectation regarding the Messiah. Few were those who trusted in the word of God as delivered through Jeremiah and Jesus. And when the events took place as the true prophets spoke, being right proved to be cold comfort to those who trusted in God’s word.

Therefore, to what, in particular, is Paul referring in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? The very question will get us into trouble! We can make all sorts of applications of what Paul has said, and that proves the challenge that exists.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 is often quoted and then directly applied to whatever issue exists at a given time. For some it will be modern cultural issues; for others, doctrinal disputations. Those applications are most often apt: we can find plenty of examples of people going astray from the true teachings of God and follow after myths that are more culturally acceptable.

The challenge comes, however, when we ossify the passage and believe it refers only to a given set of issues. The slope is very slippery: warnings are issued about deviations regarding a particular set of issues. There then is preaching and teaching on that set of issues. People who reject the truth on that set of issues are said to be the ones regarding whom Paul warns Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4. And yet, ironically, people can then become guilty of the very thing which they are trying to avoid. They can easily start heaping up for themselves teachers talking only about that set of issues to the exclusion of all else, and that placates their itching ears. Meanwhile, they have neglected other challenging topics, may even resent hearing messages regarding those challenging topics, and lo and behold: they have now wandered off into myths!

Paul’s warning must be taken very seriously in a circumspect way. We must be constantly vigilant to hold firm to healthy, true teachings of God, and not to wander off into myths. We must never develop those itching ears but must seek after God’s healing message of truth. There are always going to be teachings that are difficult, controversial, and contrary to cultural norms. Yet there will also always be teachings that will challenge people’s assumptions and “sacred cows” in uncomfortable and unpleasant ways. Such is why Paul warned Timothy to be ready in season and out of season to exhort, reprove, and rebuke (2 Timothy 4:1-2). The medicine of truth might hurt, but it will always work out for the best. Let us not wander off into any myths, but instead seek after the truth of God in Christ Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Rocky Soil

“And others fell upon the rocky places, where they had not much earth: and straightway they sprang up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away…And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straightway with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth” (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21).

One of the most savage ironies in life is that we learn the most about our character and ourselves when we least expect it. Rare is the person who learns character lessons from winning, success, and prosperity. Just as fire is necessary to remove dross from pure metal, so distress, tribulation, and difficulty are necessary to refine the faith of the believer (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9).

We have the maxim today that “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.” But what happens to the one who does not survive their difficulties and challenges? Jesus provides an illustration of such people in the parable of the sower with the rocky soil.

The story is consistent in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. The sower casts seed on rocky soil. The seed takes root and grows initially, but the roots do not sink down very deeply. Therefore, when the sun rises, or the moisture runs out, the plant withers and dies.

So it is with many people. Many hear the Word of God, and they receive it eagerly. They believe that Jesus is the Christ. They assemble with fellow Christians. By all appearances, they are growing well as disciples. They may be involved with all kinds of spiritual efforts. And yet, all of a sudden, they are gone.

Why? The reasons are many. Some burn out– they acted more on impulse, and perhaps their personalities are the sort wherein they do not keep any practice or commitment up for any significant amount of time. Others find themselves in some spiritually discouraging situation among Christians who do not act as God would have them act. Many more experience some external difficulty– a family member dies suddenly, they or someone they love endure some kind of evil, or their faith is challenged by some unbeliever in person or on some television show. As a result, many such people entirely abandon belief in God. Others will say that they still believe in Jesus, but not the church, or will declare that they are spiritual but not religious, or some other rationalization.

All such circumstances boil down to the same problem: a shallow faith. Faith is the “roots” that people grow as they learn of God. In the physical realm, roots have amazing power as they grow. Over time roots can often find ways to grow, even in inhospitable places. But when the roots dry out, there is not much hope left. So it is with our faith. If our faith has not grown sufficiently, or was not sufficiently founded in Jesus, when some difficulty comes, it is easy to lose whatever faith we had. If the roots of faith did not grow deeply before boredom set in, then we will move on to some new thing in life. If the roots of faith did not grow past the actions of others, then we are likely to abandon Jesus when some of His followers fail us. If our roots of faith did not grow to the point of trusting God’s goodness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, then we can easily imagine that God is not there when bad things happen and life seems to go wrong, or when we are posed with challenges in life for which there are no easy answers.

The illustration of the rocky soil is designed to be both a declaration of reality and a warning. It declares the reality that many will believe in a shallow way. When such people fall away, it will be discouraging and unfortunate, but it should not shake our faith or cause undue distress. Our Lord knew that many people would follow Him only as long as it was comfortable– in the sports world, those described as “fair weather fans.” And that is the warning– we must not be the rocky soil. We must be prepared for challenges to our faith. There will be times when Christianity will seem boring and/or our zeal for Christ will languish. There will be times when fellow Christians do not act like they should, and it will discourage us. There will be times when evil will confront us head on, and it will lead to questions about the presence and goodness of God. And there will be times when the hope that is in us will be challenged by those who do not accept it. We cannot change that reality– but we can prepare for it. We can decide how we will respond to it. We can understand that such trials are blessings in that they help us to grow in faith (James 1:2-3). They may not be pleasant, but they are necessary for our growth. We can never prove to be the good soil until someone or something tests the depth of the roots of faith we have set down in our lives.

Life is not a bed of roses, and becoming a servant of Jesus does not then somehow make it so. In fact, serving Jesus means to humbly accept challenge, sacrifice, and difficulty (Matthew 16:24, 20:25-28, Romans 12:2, Galatians 2:20). When difficulty comes, will you grow or perish? We pray that you will grow and prove to be good soil, and not rocky soil, and to please the Creator of us all!

Ethan R. Longhenry