Billy Graham famously used to say that the Bible is a love letter from God to humanity. That’s a pretty flowery, pleasant, popular message; I don’t know if I entirely agree with this, I don’t know if that’s a precise enough summary of the whole of Scripture. At the same time, I won’t say it’d be wrong to say that. What I will say is that the Bible is full of letters. More than three quarters of the books that comprise the New Testament are letters. Most are from Paul, though we also have some from Peter and John, Jesus’ closest disciples, and James and Jude, Jesus’ literal brothers—and one unknown author for Hebrews (though it was probably Paul, too). Most Christians are familiar with these 21 epistles—at least by name—but people forget that the New Testament actually includes seven more letters.
The book of Revelation is wild and wonderful. Conspiracy theorists love searching in it for aliens and dates of the end times. Most Christians love it for its imagery but abandon looking for any clear meaning in it. Biblical scholars spend a lifetime studying it and draw various conclusions on what it means and how it affects the church. All of this is true for most of Revelation, but for its first three chapters Revelation is lucid and powerful. The book opens with John explaining how this vision came to him. He had been exiled to the prison island of Patmos, the last living apostle. Jesus appears to John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and this appearance of Jesus is not like what He looked like when He was on earth.
Longing To See The Glorified Jesus
Read Revelation 1:9-20.
I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, saying, “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.
When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things. As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Revelation 1:9-20)
Now some of this language might be strictly metaphorical. I don’t know if John saw a literal sword coming from the mouth of the glorified Jesus, but whatever language wasn’t literal must have pointed to something that was even more spectacular than what was described. As Christians today who spend most of our time in the Word reading from the gospels, it’s easy to think of Jesus as just a common man. Isaiah 53:2 tells us that while Jesus was on the earth He was nothing special to look at, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.” Jesus is shown as tired, hungry, weary, weeping, bleeding, dying.
As beautiful and wondrous the image of “the dying God” is, we must remember that Jesus has not remained in this feeble state. Christ is risen! Every Easter we are reminded that every Sunday is Easter Sunday, that Christ is not in the grave. In Jesus’ last words to His disciples (John 16:7) He told them that it was better that He go and the Spirit come to us than for Him to stay on earth in this “unglorified” state. The God we worship is the Lord Jesus who lives, whose eyes burn like glowing fire, whose words are a flaming sword and sound of roaring waters, who holds stars in His hands. Our Lord is glorified and will return soon.
Let’s return to our text. Jesus adds seven more letters to the New Testament in Revelation 2-3. These letters are breathtaking. The epistles are absolutely full of beautiful theology and encouragements and rebukes and instructions; they’re deeply personal and full of love. But this is the King Himself speaking directly to His people. These words come directly from the mouth of Jesus! This is the Bridegroom writing letters to His bride! They’re fiery and challenging and intimate and powerful; we get to see and hear from the Jesus who taught as one who had authority on earth now with the full radiance of God. Pharisees were amazed at His teaching when He appeared as an ordinary man. How much more would they be amazed now!
These letters follow a regular pattern. They open with a letterhead from the King. Jesus gives an encouragement and praise followed by a warning or rebuke. The Lord calls the church to perseverance and repentance and closes with a promise of acquiring eternal life. We won’t read all seven of these letters. I’d like for us to focus on just one: His letter to the church in Ephesus. First, what does Jesus praise about the Ephesians?
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this:
‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:1-3)
The Lord celebrates them for several things.
They’ve guarded their church carefully from insidious heresy and division. “False apostles” and “deceivers” have been identified, drawn out, rebuked, and removed. How necessary this is! Fighting for the purity and the integrity of the church is difficult work—something that is especially difficult in our present age—and the Ephesians have done so well. How can a church succeed here? How did the Ephesians do it? I suppose there were at least two key aspects to their effective defense. First, I suppose they fervently clung to Scripture. The Ephesians knew their Bibles and relied on God’s word for their understanding of life, salvation, and how to run the church. Second, they followed wise council. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that one of the reasons the Ephesians were so effective at fighting heresy and clinging to Scripture is because they were trained by the best. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians succinctly addresses foundational aspects of Christian doctrine and behavior. With leadership like Paul, it is no wonder the church succeeded in this area.
We must always remember to give thanks to God for good leaders; George Whitefield once said “God can send a nation no greater blessing than to give them faithful, sincere, and upright ministers.” Honor them, encourage them, support them, and listen to them. Follow their direction, obey their teaching, apply their lessons, embrace their rebukes. On the flip side, be incredibly wary of poor leadership; the end of Whitefield’s quote is “the greatest curse that God can possibly send upon a people in this world, is to give them over to blind, unregenerate, carnal, lukewarm, and unskilled guides.”
They’ve also persevered through great trials and kept the faith. This ought not be understated either. God’s people are no strangers to great trials; we never have been. God has promised us trials from the beginning of this age when Adam sinned, and God has been good on keeping His promises. Trials are from God. The Lord sends hard circumstances and difficult challenges to His people for a few reasons. Trials test His people’s faith. How strong are your convictions really? What soil has the seed of faith fallen on? Trials are the experiences that answer these questions with deed, not mere word. Trials also grow God’s people’s longing for His return. How deeply we pray for Christ’s return! How sorrowful are our cries, how woeful are our songs! Christ, come quickly! Trials also add to believers’ treasures in heaven. Those who share in Jesus’ sufferings will also share in His rich inheritance; Christ make us princes and princesses through our trials.
It ought to be said that trials take place in a context of sin, but God Himself never tempts us to sin. Satan and our own sinful hearts jump on us as soon as trials come. Evil is from us, not the Lord; God gives us the strength to fight temptation and persevere through trials, with mercy for our slips since all our sin has been forgiven already. Praise be to Christ that we can persevere and not grow weary!
A Loving Rebuke
In all these things Christ pours His praise over the Ephesian church. Yet, Jesus also offers one single rebuke. It is both gentle and powerful, and so incredibly moving.
But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. (Revelation 2:4)
In the midst of their perseverance through suffering, they’ve grown cold to their Lord. They’ve lost their affection and their passion for Christ. What an incredible rebuke, and what a severe warning! Christian, do not mistake your theological inerrancy with affection for Christ. Presbyterians have been accused of being “the frozen chosen” and not without reason. It is dangerously easy to get so lost in fighting for theological accuracy that we lose the war in our hearts.
Do not ever move past a genuine and deep love for the Lord; it is both the start and the end of our faith. The Christian life begins with love of Jesus—nothing else regenerates our heart. The Christian life always progresses to love of Jesus—the longer you stay in the faith, the more you realize your need for Him, and the more eager you are to lean on Him. The Christian life ends in love of Jesus—we are all moving toward the end of this age and the beginning of the rest of eternity, where the dwelling place of God will be with us. Westminster Shorter Catechism Question #1 is clear and correct: “What is the chief end of man? …to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. (Revelation 2:5)
Is this so harsh? Is this not the full truth we just confessed? If the chief end of the Christian is love of God and enjoyment of Him for eternity forward, then to deny Christ and forsake God’s love is to refuse His loving presence for eternity. Refusing the love of God is exactly what disqualifies sinners from heaven in the first place. Let us remember that Jesus firmly clarified “If you love Me you’ll keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Loving God is equal with following His will and law for our lives.
Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds 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 grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’ (Revelation 2:6-7)
The Nicolaitans were one of the heretical groups the Ephesians resisted in their defense of the church. Does it shock you to hear Jesus Himself declare that He hates His enemies? What a terrifying declaration, and how blessed we are to be called His beloved! Jesus has declared “I love you” to the church, not because we had done anything to earn His favor, but because He Himself has made us lovable. Christ promises a meal from the Tree of Life, completing what was lost in Eden. This promise is to made for all who persevere, those who overcome. Christians, remain in Christ! Guarding the church and persevering in the faith are possible for a time with good theology and strong leaders, but without keeping its first love, the church will wither. Remember your first love.
Remembering Our First Love
How can we as Christians do this practically? Here are four ways you can remember your first love of Christ. First, remember your moment of conversion. For some, there’s a clear moment when they accepted Jesus as God and surrendered to Him as Master. Look back to this moment, sit in that place, write about what it was like and how you felt and who you were. Second, remember your early passion for God. When Christians first come to know the Lord, they are on fire for His scripture and are eager to do His works. Remember this time in your life and ask God to rekindle that fire in your life. Third, ask others about these moments in their lives. Hearing other believers talk about their first love for Christ can be deeply encouraging and moving. Fourth, help others fall in love with Jesus. Showing others the beauty of the gospel is the mission and the greatest pleasure for believers.
I don’t know if the whole of Scripture is a love letter from God, but Revelation 2:1-7 certainly is. Let us rest in that love today. Pray with me.
Father, thank you for your sanctifying love. You have given us your beautiful word and wise leaders to fight for the sanctity of the church. You have presented us with trials that test our faith, grow our longing for you, and increase our treasures in heaven. In all these things, Lord, never let us forget our first step: loving you as savior, king, eldest brother, friend, and bridegroom. Encourage us as you encouraged the Ephesians. Help us to love what you love and hate what you hate. We eagerly await for your return and the feast you will prepare for us to restore us to perfect relationship with you. Help us to remember our first love always, that our passion for you might never fade. Help us share our love for you with others, both believers and nonbelievers. We pray this in your son Jesus’ name. Amen.