Esteemed Members and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Fellow Redeemed in Christ: Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
“Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou has tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast labored, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:1–7).
What a marvelous vision was given to the Apostle’ John while exiled on the Island of Patmos. He saw the seven golden candlesticks, no doubt large and brilliant, representing the seven congregations of Asia Minor. And walking in the midst of the seven candlesticks he saw the very Son of God Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. He was clothed in wondrous garments and His hair was white as snow. His eyes were like flames of fire signifying His ability to see all things. His feet were like brass, able to trample the enemy. His voice was like many waters, powerful and unceasing like the surf of a mighty ocean. In His right hand He held the seven stars, which were symbolic of the pastors of the congregations. John was terrified when he saw this. He fell down at His feet as if he were dead. But now the Son of God laid His right hand upon John and said, “Fear not; I am the first and last; I am He that liveth and was dead, and behold I an alive forevermore” (Rev. 1:17-18). This was the same Saviour whom John had known so well and he did not have to be afraid. Now this Saviour gave John a message and told him to write it and send it to the seven congregations in Asia. Since these letters are so applicable for our times and for all time we have chosen to base our message to the 54th Regular Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod upon that letter which was addressed to the. church at Ephesus. We shall see that it contains COMMENDATION for faithful Christians, ADMONITION which we all need, and COMFORT which sustains our souls.
We see, first of all, that Christ commends the church at Ephesus. He commends them for four things and we can apply these four commendations to our own Synod. First, He commends them for their works or labor for His Kingdom. He says, “I know thy works, and thy labor.” Christ knew that the people at Ephesus had worked hard for the welfare and progress of their congregation. They came to hear the Word. They prayed. They gave of their money. They served in various capacities to help other: by teaching, visiting, testifying to their heathen neighbors, and by setting an example of love and kindness towards the people around them. And the Lord knows of these good works. He recognizes them and commends then for their service. “I know thy works and thy labor.”
In this past year many people have faithfully labored in the congregations of our beloved Synod. And the Lord knows our labors. He sees our deeds of love also. He hears our prayers. He sees the gifts put into the offering plate. He recognizes the hours of service that people give for His kingdom. Sometimes a person may feel downcast and wonder, “What’s the use? No one knows me. No one appreciates the little I can do.” Ah, but it’s not true. Jesus says, “I know thy works and thy labor.” He commends His faithful servants.
In the second place, Jesus commends them for their patience. The people at Ephesus had to be patient with each other, with the heathen around them, and with their own troubles and sorrows. They had much to put up with under those trying conditions when the church was first gaining a foothold.
So also today people in the congregations of our Synod have had to exercise patience. Members have had to bear one another’s burdens and faults. Many have had to be patient in tribulation. Some have had to bear great sorrow and afflictions. Sometimes we did not accomplish what we thought we should or grow according to our plans. But the Lord commends His people for their patience. He is not oblivious to their efforts to be long-suffering and forbearing. He says to us all, “I know thy patience.”
The Lord also commends the Ephesus congregation for avoiding sin. He says, “I know how thou canst not bear them which are evil.” Although Christian people, due to the weakness of their flesh, often fall into sin, yet according to the new man they try to avoid sin. Young people are under severe temptation to join the world in all kinds of sinful practices. Older people are tempted to all manner of evil as well. Sexual immorality, drug abuse, drunkeness, unfaithfulness in marriage, love of money, bitterness, and hatred are sins which Christians can easily fall into. But we fight against these things. We want to live a holy life. And in our text we see that the Lord is pleased when His people avoid sin and He commends those who try to live holy lives. He says, “I know how’ you have tried to avoid sin.”
The last commendation in our text is this: The Lord commends them for their concern for pure doctrine. He says, “Thou has tried them which say they are apostles and are not and hast found them liars.” The people at Ephesus were concerned about doctrine. They checked to see what others were teaching. They didn’t go along with everything they had heard. They wanted to remain faithful to the apostles’ doctrine. And the Lord commends them for it.
Today a church body that wants to hold to the Bible as the verbally inspired Word of God, that accepts literally the miraculous content of the Bible, that believes in a six-day creation, and that refuses to employ the destructive historical-critical method, is publicly laughed at and ridiculed. But while the world condemns them, the Lord commends them. When His people try those who say they are apostles and are not and declare them liars, the Lord Himself upholds them.
The second part of the letter to the Ephesus congregation is an admonition. There was something in that Ephesus congregation that the Lord was not satisfied with. This is what He says, “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” They had left their first love. What does that mean? The “first love” is love at the height of its devotion. It is the love a new bridegroom has for his bride. It is beautiful to behold. There is attention, concern, thoughtfulness, complete dedication. But then as the years go by this first love may begin to fade. Oh, love is still there, but other interests push it into the background.
At first the congregation at Ephesus was thrilled with the wondrous Gospel. The good news that Christ had saved them by His death on the cross, and by His resurrection had assured them of eternal life, was a constant joy to them. The forgiveness of sins through faith in Him filled them with desire to serve Him. But now they had gotten used to it. They didn’t take it so seriously any more. They had cooled off. They still believed in Him but not with the ardor and devotion that they had first experienced. They felt in their hearts—”Oh yes, we have heard all that before.”
Now this can happen to us also. There is admonition for us, too, in these words. Many people in our congregations have lost their first love. If a person seldom comes to church; if a person will give nothing for the support of the Gospel or very little; if a person feels no need of the Sacrament of Holy Communion; then something is wrong. If a person goes through the outward forms of worship and makes a good appearance but inwardly is tired and bored with the Gospel, then such a person should listen to the words of Christ, “I have somewhat against thee because thou hast left thy first love.”
Certainly we of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod should take the words to heart. These are times which call for more complete devotion to our Saviour. We need more sacrificial giving, more energetic work in our congregations, more witnessing to the unchurched, more zeal for reclaiming the delinquent, more fervent prayer, more theological study, more power in our preaching—yes, more love in many ways for our Lord and Saviour. We need not only pure doctrine but also the “burning heart” of compassion for others! If we have begun to lose our first love then we need to heed the serious warning which the Lord issues to the congregation at Ephesus: “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”
Finally in the last part of this letter Jesus gives a wondrous comfort and promise to that congregation and also to all Christians. “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” The Christian who overcomes has fought in the battle against temptation. He will not give in to the devil, the world, and the flesh. He knows that Christ Jesus is His Saviour and Redeemer and he will not let go of Him. The Apostle Paul writes of this battle in these words, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (II Tim. 4:7–8).
And now Christ promises a blessed reward to such a one. Here eternal life is described as a beautiful garden, like the garden of Eden. Here in this world there is sorrow, sickness and death. There is warfare and strife, there is sin and corruption. But those who hold fast to their Saviour shall live forever in the beautiful garden of heaven. They shall “eat of the tree of life,” all their wants being satisfied and all weakness and distress shall depart and life eternal shall be their sweet and joyous possession. And all of this because of Him. who has washed them and cleansed them with His holy precious blood.
Again this year many beloved souls in our congregations have overcome and have obtained this victory and therefore they dwell in the paradise of God and eat of the tree of life. And we who remain have this glorious hope that we too shall one day join them.
All trials are then like a dream that is passed,
Forgotten all troubles and sorrow.
All questions and doubts have been answered at last,
Then dawneth eternity’s morrow.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus. (Hymnary No. 239)
May our Lord’s message of COMMENDATION, ADMONITION, and COMFORT also be precious today to every member of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod and to this Convention. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
The Rev. George M. Orvick