Last week saw the release of the Scottish Church Census. Here are just three of the key statistics:
Now, I appreciate that the Church is not a numbers game: our primary concern is that people come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, not that people attend on a Sunday. That being said: following Jesus does involve gathering with His people to worship Him – so numbers can occasionally be an indication of spiritual health.
There are cultural reasons for the decline of Christianity, and these are too varied to consider here. The Church does, however, need to accept some responsibility for this decline: for the way we have conducted ourselves (especially in “the West) in the last 100 years or so.
This is one reason to look closely at the letters to the churches in Revelation: to help us get to grips with some of the issues which have led to decline in the Church, and what we can do about them!
We begin with the first letter: to the Church in Ephesus.
The Church in Ephesus (v.1)
In many ways, this is the most important church to Jesus writes through the Apostle John. It is the church planted in the largest city of the Roman province, which was also a major religious centre. It was also one of the churches Paul helped to plant!
We read that Jesus comes to this church as one who holds seven stars and walks among seven lampstands. Each star and lampstand represents one of the seven churches: the fact that Jesus holds them, and walks among them, suggests something of his support of and closeness to these churches.
A Church with Sound Doctrine (v. 2-3)
Jesus commends this church:
- For their deeds, hard work and perseverance;
- For their ability to spot false apostles;
- For their endurance through hardship in Jesus’ name.
In summary, Jesus commends them for their sound doctrine (doctrine is simply what we believe).
Why is sound doctrine something which is commendable?
I would suggest sound doctrine is commendable because:
- It means the Church knows what it is about: in this day and age, you (unfortunately) cannot assume that those in the church actually know what the Church is all about!
- It keeps the Church grounded: it ensures anything we do as a Church has its foundation in what we believe.
- It sets us apart from the world: on the occasions when the Christian view and the World’s view conflict, sound doctrine ensures we are doing things God’s way!
A Church without Love (v. 4-5)
Jesus does, however, hold one thing against this Church: They have lost their love! Leon Morris comments:
It is not clear whether this is love for Christ … or for one another… or for mankind at large. It may be that a general attitude is meant which included all three. (Morris, TNTC Revelation, p.65)
What happens when a church has sound doctrine, but lacks love? I fear that it sets up an “us and them attitude”:
“God loves us because of our sound doctrine. God, therefore, does not love you, unless you also subscribe to our doctrine.”
This is not how Scripture testifies to the love of God. We are told that God loved us, even when we were incapable of loving Him (e.g. Romans 5:8 and 1 John 4:10). Furthermore, our conforming to God’s ways comes as a response to His love, not as a means of earning His love.
So, what does love in the Church look like?
‘Love’, in the early Christian sense, is something you do, giving hospitality and practical help to those in need, particularly to other Christians who are poor, sick or hungry. That was the chief mark of the early church. No other non-ethnic group had ever behaved like this. ‘Love’ of this kind, reflecting (they would have said) God’s own self-giving love for them, was the best expression of, and the best advertisement for, faith in God. (Wright, Revelation for Everyone p.13)
Why is love in the Church important? Because, “‘Love’ of this kind, reflecting… God’s own self-giving love for [us, is] the best expression of, and the best advertisement for, faith in God.” (Wright, 2011:13)
The Nicolaitans and the Victory (v. 6-7)
Jesus calls on the church in Ephesus to repent, to find its love again, or it will lose its lampstand (i.e. cease to be a Church of Jesus Christ).
Then Jesus gives a strange affirmation: both he and the Ephesian Church hate the Nicolaitans.
Scholars don’t know much about the Nicolaitans: they only appear twice in the Bible, and both times in Revelation. Given the context of this letter, we can assume that their message/practices were drawing people away from the Gospel. As such, it is no surprise that Jesus says He hates their practices: anything that tried to draw people away from the Gospel is against God!
(Incidentally: note that Jesus hates the practices of the Nicolatians, not the Nicolatians themselves. Jesus still loves the people, even if He hates their actions.)
Finally, Jesus closes with a promise: to those who are victorious, they will eat of the tree of life.
Each letter contains an expression of the ultimate hope of the Christian faith; new life and new creation. The way it is expressed to this church is through the promise of being able to eat of the tree of life, in the paradise of God.
If the Church is serious about trying to get things right, then we have to consider seriously what we read in Revelation.
From this first letter, we learn that doctrine is important. What we believe is important. It is our beliefs which define us and shape how we operate in this world. If we are to be an effective church, we must know what it is we believe, and why we believe it.
But this, in and of itself, is insufficient, because if we have our beliefs sorted, but do not show love, then we are useless. The whole Gospel message is concerned with God showing His love for this world through Jesus Christ. If we are to be an effective church for God, then we must be prepared to live and work in a way which shows His love.
By doing so, we may halt the decline, and see numbers attending church grow once again – which would be nice. But that’s not our ultimate aim. We are not in this for the numbers! Our highest calling, as part of God’s Church, is to help others come to saving faith in Him, that they too may one day eat of the tree of life.