What Christ Says to MDPC: Don’t Forsake Your First Love
I wish to read for you these words from the second chapter of the book we know as the Revelation to John. This is the Word of God:
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write, these are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you. You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen. Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor. You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the Tree of Life, which is in the paradise of God.”
Pray with me, please.
Lord, nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling. Amen.
You are aware, I feel sure, that there are 27 books in our New Testament. And you may well be aware that 20 of those 27 books are actually letters written by one of the apostles to specific individuals or churches. However, what you may not have thought of is that there are actually seven additional letters in our New Testament, letters not written by one of the apostles; letters actually written by Jesus Christ Himself. I refer to the seven letters contained in the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation. Let me explain.
John, the beloved disciple, was nearing the end of his life. More than likely, he was well into his 80s. At the time, he was held prisoner on an island called Patmos, an island 40 miles off the coast of present-day Turkey. Patmos was the place where the Roman authorities sent for incarceration their most dangerous criminals and their most insidious subversives. John, because of his towering faith and his powerful preaching and his widespread influence, was counted as a threat to the empire. And so he was banished to the island of Patmos, an island from which there was no escape. And it was there, in spite of his advanced years, that he was forced to undergo hard labor and even fairly consistent torture. However, none of that could begin to break his body or his mind or his spirit or his faith.
Just recently, Tricia and I had the opportunity to visit the island of Patmos and the cave where John was held. I can only say to you that it was as intense a spiritual experience as I have ever known, for it was there, John tells us, there, one Sunday, when he heard the voice of the risen Christ speaking to him, commanding him to write seven letters to seven different churches, all of which were located in what we know as Turkey. Those seven letters were penned by John, yes, but the words were dictated by Jesus Christ Himself. And consequently, the seven letters taken together provide a powerful message from the risen Christ Himself to the church, to churches, churches in every time and place. And that is why it is my intent, in these next weeks, for us to look at each one of the seven letters in turn as a way of determining, if possible, what Jesus Christ is saying to this church, our church, right now.
Focus first then on what Christ says to the church at Ephesus.
Ephesus was one of the great cities of the ancient world. It was a city of commercial importance. Three great east-west trade routes all converged in Ephesus, producing a city of fabulous wealth. It was a city of political importance. Ancient historians refer to Ephesus as the supreme metropolis of Asia. It was a city of athletic importance. It was the site of the Panionian games, a kind of Olympic games, which were held in May each year in Ephesus. It was the city of religious importance as well. It was the site of the great Temple of Diana, one of the eight wonders of the ancient world, a temple which served as a base of operations for a vast system of purely pagan worship. So Ephesus was a great city with a superb location. And therefore, Ephesus had the potential to be a strategic city for the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ, both east and west. Little wonder that the great apostle Paul spent more time in Ephesus than he did anywhere else, and some of his greatest work was accomplished there. And one of the results was the creation of the church at Ephesus, a church which became a truly great church. It was a large church. Note that, please.
Sometimes, people come up to me and say, “I’m looking for a 1st-century, New-Testament-type church.” And what they mean when they say that is that they’re looking for a small church where everybody will know them and they will know everybody. And I always have to answer them by saying, “Well, that’s fine. Small churches are wonderful. But you must understand that that is not a New-Testament-type church.” The New Testament churches were not small. By a vast majority, they were quite large. Think about it, please. Think about it. How could a little band of small, struggling churches ever pose an existential threat to the Roman Empire, sufficient to provoke an empire-wide campaign of persecution against the Christians? It just couldn’t happen. No, the New Testament churches were, by and large, quite large. The church in Jerusalem, we know, for example, reached well up into the thousands. They were large, growing, dynamic churches, and they were filled with such amazing spiritual power that, ultimately, they quite literally brought the Roman Empire down to the dust.
The church at Ephesus was no exception. We know that it numbered at least 3,000. Perhaps it may have been as large as MDPC. It was a large church, and it was a significant church. It expended enormous energy in the early going to spread the good news of the gospel. It maintained the integrity of the Christian faith by refusing to tolerate false teachings and teachers. It sought, caught, and taught the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as you read the account in the letter to the church at Ephesus, in the early going there, you think to yourself, “My, oh my, what a great church and a great city.” And then, suddenly, a jarring note; suddenly, Jesus changes the whole mood. He says, “Yet I hold this against you. You have forsaken your first love.” Apparently, their deep passion for Jesus Christ had ebbed with time. Apparently, their desire to spread the good news of the gospel began to wane. Apparently, their eager excitement about building the Kingdom and loving Christ and sharing Christ with the world, all of that began gradually slipping away. And so it was that Jesus Himself delivered a word of warning to the church at Ephesus. He said, “Unless you renew and recapture your first love, then your church, sooner or later, will die.”
Thank Heavens we actually have evidence to lead us to believe that the church at Ephesus heard and heeded the warning of Jesus, for a number of years later, one of the great leaders of the early Christian church, a man named Ignatius, actually wrote these words, “The church at Ephesus is once again filled with love and has become strong for Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.” They renewed their first love, their love for Jesus Christ.
Now, focus on what Christ says to our church.
I say this over and over again. You may get tired of hearing me say it. I don’t care. I’m going to keep saying it. This is a great church. Make no mistake about it. This is a great church in a great city. Oh, please, please, please, don’t pay any attention to Shaquille O’Neal, the physical giant and intellectual pygmy, who took a verbal shot at Dwight Howard, the newest Houston Rocket, by saying, “I suppose it was a good choice for him to go to that little town of Houston.” Oh, come on. Shaq, to the contrary, notwithstanding, Houston is not some little town. Houston is a great city, and what I find so incredibly impressive is that this church, through the years, with its vast ministries and its great programs, has quite literally touched the heartbeat of this city and has worked an extraordinary influence for Jesus Christ in this place. This church, through the years, has proclaimed the word of Christ, in word and in deed, with clarity and with consistency. Yes, like the church at Ephesus, this is a great church. Ah, but like the church at Ephesus, we could so easily lose our first love.
Teddy Roosevelt once said of William Howard Taft, “He did well feebly.” Yikes. He did well feebly? Roosevelt was saying that Taft just went through the motions. He did what was necessary, and that was all. He wasn’t caught up in something bigger than himself. He wasn’t compelled by some driving passion in his life. He did well feebly. Please, God, let it never be said of MDPC, “They did well feebly.” Let it never be said of this church, “They just did what was necessary. They just went through the motions of the faith, and that was all.” Let it never be said of us, “They lost their first love.” That’s why I am calling us today to renew our deep personal commitment to Jesus Christ, and I’m calling us to renew our commitment as a church to share that Christ with this city and with this world.
Oh, you’re going to love this. Up in South Carolina, one Sunday morning, in worship, in a Presbyterian church, for Heaven’s sakes, suddenly, a fellow in the pew jumps up and cries out, “Hallelujah! I got religion!” One of the elders sitting nearby leaned over and said, “Sit down and shut up. You didn’t get it in this church.” Oh, dear friends, I want people to be able to get it in this church. I want us to be so filled with the spirit of Jesus Christ that we just can’t keep Him to ourselves. I want us to be a church that finds new ways to transform the gospel from old news into new news and good news for a world that is literally choking to death on bad news.
I want us to be a church where, when future generations look back, they say of us, “There was a church that dared to stand for Jesus Christ in a difficult time. When the culture around them was surrendering to the insidious claims of secularism, they dared to confront people with the freeing, saving gospel of Jesus Christ without apology. When values and morals were being eroded away, they dared to stand on the uplifting, freeing law of God. When the sanctity of the home was being undermined, they dared to undergird the family and to give new hope to the youth. When children were being used and abused and misused and neglected and led astray, they reached out with openness and joy and sincerity and integrity and unconditional love. When single persons were being tortured and tormented by loneliness, they embraced them with Christ’s love and flooded them with Christ’s hope. When racial prejudices were poisoning human relationships, they dared to stand for the worth, value, and dignity of all of God’s created children. When the church was in decline all over America, they dared to be and to do something different in Houston, Texas, and to do it all to the glory of Jesus Christ.” That’s the kind of church I believe Jesus Christ is calling MDPC to be.
So as you come to this table, I invite you to renew your commitment to a living, loving relationship with a living, loving Christ. I invite you to pledge to Him that you will stay close to Him, that you will immerse yourself in His Word, that you will never let the sun go down on any day when you do not speak to Him, that you will look again and again at His cross to see the height and the depth and the breadth of the love that Jesus Christ has for you.
For you see, if we claim a living, loving relationship with our living, loving Christ, then our lives will be filled with power and love. And if our lives are filled with power and love, then our church will be filled with power and love. And if our church is filled with power and love, that love has the power to change us, to change this city, and yes, to change the world. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear what Christ says to MDPC.
Pray with me, please.
God on high, hear my prayer. Enable this magnificent church to stay always and only in love with Jesus Christ. Amen.