Remember Your First Love

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

(Seven Letters to Seven Churches, Pt. 1)

Muynak was once a thriving seaport on the Aral Sea in western Uzbekistan. It was famed for its industrial canning and fishing, yet today is home to only a few thousand residents at most. Muynak is now situated on the edge of a bitter, salty desert. Sand dunes are scattered with abandoned, hollow, rusted hulls of a fishing fleet that once sailed the Aral waters. Thirty years ago, the Aral Sea was the size of West Virginia, and 160 tons of fish were hauled from it daily.

The destruction of the Aral Sea began with a Stalinist vision of paradise. In one of the great devastations of humanity, things changed for Muynak in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union began diverting the Aral waters to irrigate what was to have been the world’s largest cotton belt. None had the foresight     to realize that extreme weather could result in an environmental apocalypse, resulting in 80 percent of the region’s farmland being ruined by salt storms that scoured the seabed and neighboring areas.

What occurred at Muynak bears a spiritual application. If a thriving spiritual community diverts attention from the Lord Jesus Christ to accomplish works merely in His name, they will lose focus upon what is most important in a relationship with God: loving Him entirely (Matt 22:36-38; Rev 2:2-4). When my wife and I were courting, we wrote many love notes to each other. My marriage proposal was actually a full-page poem, ending, “With thee alone a life brand new to be; hence, I ask, Kristin, will you marry me?” Reading those notes again either individually or as a couple is a wonderful manner for rekindling our initial love. Revelation 2—3 are the letters of instruction from Jesus, which encourage believers in the Lord to rekindle their “first love” for Him.

Letter to Ephesus
(Rev 2:1-7) A common practice of the New Testament is to present doctrinal teaching first, and then conclude with instructions concerning behavioral patterns consistent with those doctrines. For instance, the practical application of chapters 12—16 of Romans presupposes the doctrinal truth of the first eleven chapters. The book of Revelation alters this sequence, because chapters 2—3 reveal practical standards of behavior for those who constitute the local church, and chapters 4—22 provide the substantive teaching with regard to future events, which are understood as motivation for conforming to the standards articulated in chapters 2—3.

The arrangement of the letters to the seven churches, simply follows the order in which the churches lay on a horseshoe-shaped route along the coast that someone journeying from Patmos to Asia Minor would travel. Ephesus was somewhat farthest south along the coast; thus, the church there was addressed first. The churches were selected because they represent the good and the bad among believers everywhere and in every age. Judgment begins “with the household of God” (1 Pet 4:17); therefore, it is appropriate for Jesus to address the church first prior to His response to a lost world. There are wonderful insights into human behavior in these seven letters that demonstrate the Lord’s evaluation.

The apostle Paul founded the church at Ephesus on his first missionary journey (Acts 19:1-10). At that time, it was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple of Diana. The relationship of the living Lord to each church is expressed through at least one aspect of the symbolism used of Jesus in the vision of chapter 1. Jesus is depicted as “the One who holds the seven stars in His right hand” (Rev 2:1), which are representative of the messengers of those churches, whether angelic or human. The figure indicates that Jesus knows what is occurring in their midst.

The Lord had a word of commendation (vv. 2-3; cf. 1 John 4:1-3). The church did not tolerate false doctrine (Rev 2:6); hence, their condemnation was not because their minds were at fault. Rather, there was a problem with their affections (vv. 4-5). While there were no issues with the church’s orthodoxy, their spiritual vitality was diminished. The church needed to repent and thereby return to fellowship with the Lord. The word of promise (v. 7) is for the overcomer (all who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; cf. 1 John 5:4-5) to partake of that eternal life initially lost when Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden.

Letter to Smyrna
(Rev 2:8-11) Approximately thirty-five miles north of Ephesus was the seaport town of Smyrna, a city of great wealth. Yet the believers had great tribulation and poverty (v. 9). Nevertheless, they were reminded that their spiritual wealth could never be taken from them. Smyrna did not receive any word of condemnation, because it was a church enduring much persecution. The experience of this church is reminiscent of 2 Timothy 3:12 (“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”). Even when people may slander a believer, that suffering can be enriching so long as a believer has the Lord’s approval.

Jesus described Himself as the eternal One “who was dead, and has come to life” (v. 8). The believers in Smyrna would potentially experience martyrdom, and thus needed encouragement and assurance of resurrection and eternal life with Christ. The Lord did not rebuke the church in Smyrna, because the tribulation and poverty they experienced did not diminish the purity of their behavior and belief. The church would live forever with Jesus Christ, so there was no need to fear either adversaries or death.

The Lord’s reminder is that they would also live for eternity with God because of their faith in Him. In spite of persecution and possible martyrdom, faithful believers are promised “the crown of life,” for the one “who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death” (vv. 10-11). The wonderful promise is that believers who die will share in the future resurrection resulting in life. They will not experience the “second death” that makes the first death permanent, thereby resulting in the eternal separation of one’s soul from God in the Lake of Fire (20:14-15).

Letter to Pergamum
(Rev 2:12-17) Located approximately forty miles north of Smyrna, Pergamum was one of the more prominent cities of Asia. The risen Lord appears to believers there as “the One who has the sharp two-edged sword” (v. 12). The basis of the Lord’s judgment will always be absolute truth, because He alone possesses it (John 8:31-32; 14:6; 16:13; 17:17; cf. Ps 40:11; 119:45; Rom 1:18; Eph 6:14). He judges with His Word (cf. Rev 1:16; 19:15, 21), and with it sanctifies believers (John 17:17). This separates them from the world, yet also banishes unbelievers from the presence of the Lord (cf. John 12:47-48; 2 Thess 1:8-9). The doubled-edged nature of the sharp sword may be that the same Word results in eternal life for the one who believes, yet condemnation to the unbeliever (John 5:24).

While some believers were holding fast to the Lord’s name and not denying the Christian faith, they were too tolerant of false doctrine. Thus, the message to them is condemnatory (Rev 2:13-15). The promise of the Lord is that He is coming again, and nothing will hinder His return (v. 16). There is promise of reward for those who are faithful (v. 17). God’s care, provision, and sustenance (“the hidden manna”) come directly from Him to those in need. The overcomer also finds acceptance with the living Lord (“a white stone”).

The one who overcomes perseveres by living for God in all circumstances of life. When failure occurs, that sin is acknowledged immediately and confessed to the Lord (1 John 1:9). The “new name  written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it,” is unique to the believer and unknown in the sense that those who are not overcomers will not possess it. The “new name” could also signify the distinct relationship that each person has with God. The Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:3-4; cf. Isa 62:2).

Letter to Thyatira
(Rev 2:18-29) Thyatira was a small, flourishing city approximately forty miles southeast of Pergamum. The living Lord appeared to the church there as “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet are like burnished bronze” (v. 18), meaning He has the ability to judge and knows the deeds of His people. The church demonstrated “love and faith and service and perseverance” (v. 19); however, it also tolerated false teaching (v. 20). While a godly remnant could be identified, many were tolerating sin (vv. 20-24). Those not guilty of sin are encouraged to affirm the truth and be faithful (vv. 25-29).

The promise of “the morning star” is a reference to the Lord Jesus (cf. 22:16), which is a reminder that the hope of all believers is Christ Himself.  Someday when He returns, His people will inherit all He has for them. Overcomers are promised resurrection and the privilege of reigning with Christ (v. 26; cf. 1 Cor 6:2-3). The Lord knows the strengths and weaknesses of His church, and wants His people to be alert to false practices and teaching, in addition to being faithful to Him and dependent upon His grace for all aspects of life. God’s people are exhorted to continual self-evaluation to determine what actions, beliefs, and motives are consistent with His expectations.

Midnight Call - 08/2020

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