In the final book of the New Testament, the ascended, reigning, and soon-coming Christ’s first order of business is to speak as Lord to His churches. He has much to say about His plans, program, and the grand storyline of Scripture and the universe—but not yet. For His bride needs to hear a word from her Husband, and indeed that word ties in neatly with what has come before it (in the Canon and in history) and what will come after it (for the church age is the inaugural part of the “last days” about which Revelation has much to say in terms of their final, complete fulfillment). As the churches embody the life and ways of His present and future kingdom, they must be careful to do this in the proper way. One of the threats to this holistic, redemptive lifestyle is to do the right things in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. Because this is a threat more subtle than open theological compromise or worldliness, it is not surprising that the Christ addresses this issue first; He sees every nuance of the hearts of those who make up His bride. Revelation 2:1-7 comprises His call to reject toil without love, obedience without communion, fidelity without passion, doctrine without devotion. The One who is our King and Conqueror demands to be the Lover of our souls as well.
A. Minister…with a passion for His majesty (v. 2a)
Christ begins with a strong commendation of the Ephesian church. They have engaged in exhausting service and labor for Him. They have persevered in persecution, temptation and trial (we can assume their lives were much like ours, and afforded multifaceted opportunities for perseverance). They have not blindly believed whatever teaching they received, even at the hands of a supposed apostle. And they are even not weary but continue to endure (which is saying something, given that the “toil” for which He commends them carries the idea of sweaty, hard labor to the point of physical exhaustion). Yet, verse 4 highlights a glaring, screaming omission in all of this good news: They have lost their love for Him. Which means all these ministries in verse 2 are, well, not worth as much as they could be. The frightening conclusion is that one can engage in numerous churchly, good activities—even things like perseverance and discernment, things explicitly commanded of Christians—and yet do them in such a way that they earn the Lord’s fierce rebuke.
How can this be? In part, it is because they are done without a comprehensive love for Him. The Lord always looks at the heart. They are duties, yes—their status as commands from a Sovereign make that clear—but this passage indicates the Lord does not look kindly on people who minister for Him when their heart might much rather do anything else. It will not do to say that emotions do not matter and all that matters is the performance of duty. Religious activity which is not the overflow of a deep and personal communion with the Lord Jesus is just that—activity. Here is where the apostolic injunction to do all things “as unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:23) and the reminder that lovelessness means worthlessness in the divine economy (1 Cor. 13:1-2) become intensely practical. It is nonnegotiable to do things in conformity with the Word of God—to practice and believe the truth as precisely as we can. Nothing God has revealed is incidental or unimportant. Yet, if we are doing so out of a motive other than an infectious and consecrated personal love for the Lord Jesus, His truth, His kingdom, and His Word, ultimately we are doing it to please ourselves. And, as someone has written, if we are doing it to please ourselves, then we have no reason to think it will please Him. Do these things? Absolutely. They are part of the purpose for which the Lord saves us (cf. Eph. 2:10; 4:11-16). But do them without a central passion and focus upon Him? That is unmitigated failure, full stop.
B. Engage in discernment…out of love for His diadem (vv. 2b, 4-6)
Churches that take the Word of God seriously understand that proper discernment is not an option. And there is little question that the teeming proliferation of error and sin in American Christianity and in the ungodly culture alike would provide endless fodder for the Truly Discerning © to sniff out, mark, and blast with apoplectic and exasperated disdain. Christians are not to tolerate error, at least not under certain circumstances (among Christians, different errors can be tolerated at different levels of fellowship because they require different degrees of commonly-held beliefs; no Christian fellowship can be had with those who deny the gospel). Some errors are so severe that they require a forceful and direct rebuke, or outright censure; others are virtually negligible and have little impact on the wider system of the Faith and one’s practice of Christianity. And there are shades in between these, shades influenced by exactly what one wishes to do with a believer in some degree of error (plant a church together? preach for you? pray with you?). But it is these kinds of important nuances which precisely temper the passion for discernment, or should—and they also connect to the Lord’s rebuke in verse 4.
Discernment, such as the testing and rejection of the false apostles, cripples the soul and the testimony of the church and God’s purpose for it if it is engaged in apart from love for Christ. Just as problems arise from ministry divorced from devotion, so discernment outside of the covering of love for Christ devolves into a prideful, selfish, nitpicky and constantly censorious spirit. Why? Because if not bathed in—hint—sanctifying love…if not rooted in and flowing out of love for Christ…the “discernment” may just be a means to self-promotion, pride, control, brutishness, arrogance, and other nasty and unspeakable things. This is because love for Christ and love for others—including those with whom we even strenuously disagree—are inextricably bound. If one is cooling in their love for other people, however that manifests, there is to some degree a problem in their love for Christ, which precedes, defines and shapes love for others (and which deadens their love for self and getting their own way).
Those who have a special zeal and love for truth sometimes do not have an equal zeal and love for other people, and thus for Christ Himself (Matt. 22:34-40). People with whom they disagree thus become enemies, projects, and problems, instead of souls to be heard, learned from, and lovingly taught that they might know more of Christ and His mind and heart (Eph. 4:13). This indicates a subtle but dangerous love for self, one’s ability to understand, pride of knowledge, and other dastardly things. They are not the marks of spiritual maturity or, ironically, discernment (can we really say one is discerning who cannot discern their own heart, including their own discernment?). And they are not the marks of one for whom love for Christ is a driving, dominating motive. Because we are fallen people, with limited understanding and remnants of flesh, disagreements over practice and the interpretation of Scripture are bound to occur. Sometimes (often?) these disagreements are serious enough that they impact our ability to have fellowship at certain levels. How we respond to these disagreements—from how heavily we weigh the issues involved, to how we express disagreement to how we treat the people with the opposing view—is a litmus test of whether we are allowing love for Christ to truly have the ascendancy in us, or if we have forsaken it for a prideful and ghastly inversion utterly consumed with our own intelligence, image, abilities, and righteousness.
C. Persevere…by hope in His coming and kingdom (vv. 3, 7)
It is interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that the Lord twice commends the Ephesians for their perseverance (vv. 2, 3). Interesting, because this implies they had difficulties which were challenging their faith (difficulties obviously rooted in something other than a passionate love for Him), and not exactly surprising because I hardly imagine people so consumed with religious activity would not have perseverance near the top of their to-do list. Still, while part of the Lord’s commendation, one should not infer it was a perfect perseverance with no need of refinement, any more than their discernment or toil.
Why and how the Ephesians persevered in whatever trials they experienced is rather opaque. Indeed, a consuming love for Jesus is one of, if not the greatest keys to enduring any difficulty. We stay because we love Him. We sacrifice because we love Him. We endure the attacks of flesh and the unmet longings and the lusts that cry out for satisfaction because we love Him “more than these.”
Still, as with their discernment and their labor, their loving and jilted heavenly Lord aims for their heart motivation. As He did in the days of His flesh (Matt. 5:21-48), so He does now. The Lord has not lost His fervor for a united heart to fear His name (Psa. 86:11) in His exaltation. Their toil and discernment was not rooted in love for Him; it is safe to say their perseverance wasn’t, either. Anyone can do sheer externalism. One can even endure hardship because of an honest internal belief system that something better awaits, or that one is strong enough in oneself to make it, or something else somewhat half-baked, but just because it is sincere does not means it pleases the Lord. Here, the Lord calls for the revolution of the heart. Will they fix the eyes of their soul on the present and future fulfillment of His promises to them? Will they realize that the lives they live are the testimony to the faithfulness of God in inaugurating and eventually completing promises thousands of years old? Will they realize they live in the thick of the divine drama?
Or will they waste their trials by not looking at them with the eyes of heaven?
The call to obey the Lord Jesus is fraught with danger from without and within. This letter zeroes in on the threats in our own hearts, and He graciously gives us what we need to overcome them, that we might be fully pleasing to Him.