Revelation 2.1-11

One of the readings we had this morning was from the Book of Revelation. We don’t seem to hear much from Revelation in the lectionary and it seems to be preached on even less.  

It is not an easy book - I know because I have had to study it for my ICES* course! I have heard it said that the only good thing about Revelation, it being the last book in the Bible, is that at least it is easy to find!  

In fact, it only made it into the Bible by the skin of its teeth but, actually, when you look at it in depth it is really quite a fascinating book. It is full of imagery, symbolism and allegories but it is often forgotten that the book is actually a letter. It is written by John - although which John is perhaps open to some debate - but although an usual one it is, nevertheless, a letter, with an opening and a closing formula. So in some respects it is not dissimilar to the other letters in the New Testament.  

It was addressed to the seven churches in the province of Asia; not just parts of it but the whole of Revelation was addressed to those churches. Does that mean it was not intended for us? No, because in the same way that the New Testament Book of Romans, for example, was originally intended for the church in Rome but is Scripture for us today, so with Revelation. Yes it was written by a particular person to a particular people at a particular time - in other words it has an historical context - but it is still Scripture; it is there for us to learn from.  

So, what can we learn from today’s reading from Revelation?  

I think the first thing we can discern is what the situation was like for these two churches at the time. The Christians in Ephesus have had to endure hardships for the name of Jesus (“You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name” [Rev 2.3]) and within the church they have had to contend with false prophets (“You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them to be false” [Rev 2.2]).  

The church in Smyrna has already experienced afflictions, poverty and false accusations (Rev 2.9). It looks as if worse is about to happen because verse 10 talks of prison, persecution and possibly even death.  

Life was therefore not at all easy for the Church: it was under attack from within and without, it was facing the mighty Roman Empire and satanic values and forces. 

The recipients of the letter would have seen that the situations described were relevant to them but they also described different facets of the whole Church, not just at that time but at all times. What we actually have here is effectively two of the seven descriptions of a church which could be applied to the whole Church throughout time, including this church.  

Seven is one of those symbolic numbers, not just in Revelation but elsewhere in the Bible. It represents wholeness, completeness. So the seven churches of Revelation are representative and symbolic of the Church as a whole. Remember, it is not individual letters addressed to the churches, it is the whole book - the whole letter - which is addressed to them. Thus, the whole Book of Revelation is addressed to the whole Church and if Christ is in the midst of the seven churches of Asia, then he is also in the midst of the whole Church through all the ages. That is really why Revelation is important; that is why it is in the Bible. It has a message for us, here today.

The letters to those seven churches are all carefully constructed. There are seven elements to each (Revelation is full of sevens: seven trumpets, seven seals and so on). I will not go into the details of the seven elements which make up the letters but the main thing to note is that they are not just random resumes; they are actually very carefully put together messages, said by John in the introduction of Revelation to be from Jesus and reinforced in those letters as being directly from Jesus.

What is Jesus really saying in all this, to those churches then and to us now?  

Smyrna was a city on the west coast of the Roman Province of Asia which was destroyed in about 580BC and rebuilt around 290BC (it is now the city of Izmir in Turkey). Smyrna was one of the few ancient cities with a planned layout and it had a harbour, schools of medicine and science and an open-air theatre seating 20,000 people. In the second century AD the aged Bishop Polycarp was martyred there. Hatred for the Christians was so strong that it was on the Sabbath they gathered wood for the fire on which Polycarp was to be burned at the stake. Right in the middle of all this, here is Jesus saying “I know about these persecutions, these afflictions but be faithful even to the point of death” and, in verse 10, “I will give you the crown of life”. It takes only a short while to endure the pain of death even as a martyr but what these words are really saying is that another death, that eternal separation from God for ever, will never be experienced by a believer who keeps the faith. That was true then for the Christians and it is just as true for us today.  

What about the other church, the one in Ephesus? Well, Ephesus was a very prosperous city - the largest in the Roman Province of Asia - and it was actually founded by Paul himself. Verses 2 and 3 give us an impressive picture of the church there; it is conscientious, faithful, has sound doctrine and perseverance. What a church - full of zeal, concern that the truth should be taught, hardworking and enduring hardships. Yet what does the Lord promise to them? In verse 5 he says “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place”. In other words, the church will cease to exist. What a thing for the Lord to say to such an exemplary church!  

Yet cease to exist it did. The ancient city of Ephesus is now a ruin and no real trace remains of the vibrant Christian community which was once there. What went wrong? The answer is in verse 4: “You have forsaken your first love”. Look at how Jesus talks about it in verse 5: “The height from which you have fallen”.

However sound a church is, lack of love threatens its very existence. However, for those who do heed the warning what is promised? Verse 7 says: “The right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”. That is reminiscent of Genesis; the very last book in the Bible is picking up the thread from the very first book in the Bible.  

The warning which Jesus gives the church in Ephesus can be summarised in the three “r”s: remember, repent and return. “Remember the height from which you have fallen, repent and return to the things you did at first” (verse 5) - that is, return to your first love, Jesus Christ. The Christians at Ephesus were to remember what it was like when they were in love with their first love, Jesus Christ. They were to repent, that is to acknowledge their sin, confess it and determine not to return back to the same way. They were to return to all the good and righteous things they did at first. This is as valid a message for today as it was back then.  

Have we lost our first love for Christ? If we have, let us go back and try to remember what it was like - the passion we had for him, perhaps when we first came to the faith, or when we were Confirmed or first felt Christ speaking to us. If any of the zeal we felt then has been tarnished by time or experience, or if we have turned away from Christ at any time since then, let us confess and let us be determined to repent; to make a 180 degree turn back to him. Let us go back to doing the good things we did at first; deepening our prayer life again, digging deeper into the Bible, reconnecting with church, reconnecting with Jesus - serving him and serving God.  

Let us ask God today what it will take to stoke the fire of our faith so that he will never have to say to us: “I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love”.  

* Interactive Christian Extension Studies (now the Gold Project)

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire July 2016

This sermon was originally delivered in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Maulden, Bedfordshire on 26 April, 2009