A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2:1-7
Remember how much anticipation surrounded report card time when you were a kid?
I wasn’t even that concerned about grades, actually, but I knew that the local Taco Bell in Eau Claire, WI, gave out a free taco for every “A” on a report card, and free tacos were something I was very concerned about.
Can you imagine getting a report card on your church from God? Sheesh. Would your church get free tacos for anything? What would it be failing? That’s some scary stuff.
But that’s exactly what happens in Revelation chapters 2-3. Right before things start to get really weird in chapter 4. N.T. Wright helpfully summarizes the contents of these two chapters:
“The seven letters, of which this is the first, are sharp and pointed messages to the churches in question, and, through them, to the many other Christian groups already in the area – and to all others, then and now, who can listen in to what the risen Lord is saying. The letters all follow the same pattern. They begin with a reminder of some aspect of the description of Jesus in chapter 1. They continue by congratulating the church on what has been going well (only in Laodicea is there nothing to praise), and then warning about what has been going badly (only in Smyrna and Philadelphia is there no fault to be found). The letters then end with a solemn warning and promise: the spirit is speaking to the churches, calling Christians to ‘conquer’, and promising them some aspect of the glorious future which God has in store. We should not imagine that Christians in Ephesus are only promised the right to eat of the tree of life, or that those in Smyrna are only promised that they will escape the second death, and so on. All the promises, and all the warnings, are for all the churches” (Revelation for Everyone, 11-12)
So, here’s my question: Why would God give report cards to churches that are already pretty beaten up? They’re doubting. They’re worried. …Is this really going to be helpful? But remember what I said in my first post. Many of these believers, in their fear that they had ben wrong about who Jesus really was, were throwing in the towel on their faith or compromising and mixing their faith with Roman Caesar-worship in order to escape trouble. On the one hand, doubt is understandable. Everyone doubts. Jude reminds us to have mercy on those who doubt (v. 22). On the other hand, unchecked doubt eventually leads to trouble. These believers were allowing their doubts and fears to result in syncretism–the mixing of the worship of God alone with other religions and rituals. If you’re familiar with the Bible at all—particularly the Old Testament—you know that when human beings decide to pick out the bits and pieces of the Bible that they like best and mix them together with their favorite philosophies and popular spirituality, God starts laying mushroom clouds. His words to the churches in Revelation 2-3 are actually incredibly tame and reserved in comparison.
Where the Ephesians are excelling is in doctrine. Free tacos for everyone on doctrine. For anyone who thinks God only cares about love and doesn’t care about doctrine, this is one of the first place I’d go to demonstrate the contrary. He says,
“I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. …[Y]ou have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (vv. 2,6).
The words used here suggest that the main problem with these false apostles and the Nicolaitans is that there doctrine if off. They’ve got the gospel wrong. They’re spreading some sort of false teaching, the Ephesians recognize it, and they won’t tolerate it. Plus 1 for the Ephesians.
The problem is that the Ephesians don’t love well. Again, God says,
“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” (vv. 4-5)
Not to resort to the cliche of cliches, but God is making it clear to the Ephesians that love is a verb. They have forsaken (a very strong word) the love that they had at first. What love? Love for God? Well, that could be part of it. But what’s mainly in focus is love for people in the form of good works, charity, encouragement, and service. We know this because the remedy for the problem is to “repent and do the things you did at first.”
I’m reminded of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Or James, saying, “Faith without deeds is dead.” (2:26) In 1 Timothy 4, Paul urges believers to keep a close watch on their “life and doctrine.”
It seems to me that some believers imagine that because they’re so strong on doctrine, head knowledge, biblical understanding, theology, etc., that all of that will cover for their lack of real, tangible acts of love, kindness, charity and giving. They play lip service to love because it’s not their sweet spot. They’re better with books. People are messier and harder to love than books.
On the other hand some believers imagine that their great love gets them off the hook for knowing what they’re talking about. They figure that paying close attention to what the Bible teaches about God, the human condition, the sacrifice of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit is strictly optional. It’s all up for debate and you can kind of pick and choose what you like, discard what you don’t like, and as long as you love, God’s not even going to grade you on doctrine.
So… Where do you get free tacos? Does doctrine, theology and Bible study come easy to you? Or does love come easy to you? Neither? Both? In my experience, most people have to work especially hard at one or the other.
So, may we aspire to be strong-minded lovers. Big-hearted sages. Great Bible students overflowing with great compassion, and servants with theological steel in our spines.