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Christ's Message to the Church

A Message by Sinclair Ferguson

The Reformers warned us that darkness will once again overcome large portions of the church if the gospel is not proclaimed and defended in every generation. Through the Apostle John, our Savior issued a similar warning to the seven churches of Asia Minor, calling them to return to Him lest they fall into darkness and their lampstands be removed. Dr. Sinclair Ferguson considers what Christ might have said if one of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2:3 had been specifically addressed to the church in the modern West in this message.

From the series: After Darkness, Light: 2015 National Conference

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    The Letter to the Church in Ephesus

  2. blog-post

    Recovering Emphasis on Prayer

  3. article

    The Lord of the Church

The Letter to the Church in Ephesus

Dennis Johnson

Ephesus was the site of the first congregation that Jesus addressed in the Apocalypse, and the New Testament tells us more about the history of this church than about any of the others. Planted by Paul during a brief visit, this congregation was nurtured by Paul’s co-laborers Priscilla and Aquila, then by the eloquent expositor Apollos (Acts 18:19–28). Paul subsequently returned to Ephesus for an extended (three-year) period of ministry, marked by the victory of Christ’s gospel and Spirit over demonic powers and the entrenched commercial interests surrounding the city’s world-famous temple of Artemis (19:1–41). Later, bidding farewell to the Ephesian elders, Paul summoned them to be vigilant to protect God’s sheep from “fierce wolves” and false shepherds (20:29–30). Writing from prison even later, Paul summoned this church to “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” a maturity that would enable them to stand firm against “human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13–14). The apostle insisted that the church exercise theological discernment: “Let no one deceive you with empty words” (5:6). 

Now in His revelation to John, the Lord of the church identifies Himself as the one who “holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 2:1), ruling His churches and indwelling them by His Spirit, as they hold high the gospel’s light in a spiritually benighted world.

As He walks among His churches, much of what Jesus sees at Ephesus attracts His approval. The church has taken to heart Paul’s warnings about predators from without and home-grown deceivers from within, so Jesus commends the church for its theological discernment in exposing fraudulent apostles (v. 2) and refusing to tolerate the Nicolaitans, whose behavior Christ Himself hates (v. 6). The perspectives of the Nicolaitans were no doubt well-known to first-century churches, but today we must be tentative in describing their error. From Jesus’ rebuke to the church at Pergamum (which, unlike the Ephesian church, condoned their teaching) we infer that the Nicolaitans, like Balaam long before, lured God’s people into sexual immorality and idolatrous feasts (vv. 14–15).

The Ephesians’ refusal to tolerate the Nicolaitans’ practices may be related to another quality for which Christ commends them: for the sake of Jesus’ name, they had endured suffering, being marginalized in a city where economic life was driven by flourishing religious tourism and banking industries, both associated with the temple of Artemis, and by Ephesus’ celebrity as a center of occultic arts (see Acts 19:19–41). To withdraw from the pagan celebrations of Ephesus’ trade guilds and its celebrated landmark was to risk financial ruin, but these Christians were “enduring patiently and bearing up for [His] name’s sake” (Rev. 2:3).

Yet Jesus also found a flaw in this “valiant for truth” congregation: “you have abandoned the love you had at first” (v. 4). Some have thought that the “first love” from which Ephesus had fallen was its devotion to Christ Himself. However, unlike the compromising churches at Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea, the Ephesian church could not be faulted for flirting with Christ’s rivals, nor for cooling zeal for their King. It makes better sense to conclude that “the love you had at first,” which had waned, was their love for one another. Paul had taught this church that their health as the body of Christ was dependent on “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). But it seems that the key qualification — “in love” — had been overlooked in their zealous defense of the truth. Their words were faithful to the Word, but they were failing to “do the works [they] did at first” (Rev. 2:5).

Keeping a firm grip on both poles — truth and love — is a constant challenge for redeemed sinners who swing like pendulums from one extreme to another. Too often, churches and their leaders either stand for biblical truth vigorously but lovelessly or else they preserve apparent unity and love at the expense of truth. Of course, when the truth of the gospel truly grasps our hearts, love for others must result; and, by the same token, the love that delights Jesus grows only in the rich soil of fidelity to God’s truth. Jesus’ sobering threat to remove the Ephesians’ lampstand — to snuff out this truth-loving congregation’s witness to truth amid its pagan community — shows how seriously He regards His summons to blend doctrinal fidelity to the Bible with sacrificial love for the saints. 

Yet His last word is not threat but promise. Speaking not just to one church but to all, He makes a promise to “the one who conquers.” Thus, to “conquer” the Evil One is to combine commitment to Christ’s truth with fervent love for His family. To such conquerors the stricken but conquering Seed of the woman will open God’s paradise, giving fruit from the tree of life to those who speak truth in love (2:7). 

Recovering Emphasis on Prayer

R.C. Sproul

 

How can we as evangelicals recover the emphasis on prayer in worship that our Reformed forebears understood? Let me mention some ways.

One is to kneel when we pray. Other postures have been used by the people of God at different times and in different places to come before God in prayer. For instance, Calvin speaks of people during the Reformation standing with arms raised to heaven as an attitude of prayer. Kneeling, however, has special significance. In the Old Testament, bowing and kneeling were usually associated with the posture used in the presence of a king. Also, kneeling is a symbolic, dramatic gesture. In the drama, we are communicating something non-verbally as we're involved at the same time with a verbal exercise. It is appropriate, when we come before God to make our requests, to give our intercession, to offer the sacrifice of praise, and to bespeak our thanksgiving, that we kneel.

I hear objections to kneeling, which puzzles me. Perhaps people don't want to be confused with Roman Catholics. They may think, "We don't believe what they believe, so we shouldn't do what they do." That's as foolish as thinking that if a Roman Catholic gives his tithe, then that is something we shouldn't do. What could possibly be wrong with being in a posture of obeisance before God in prayer? I also hear people say of the church that we have too much time in our liturgy devoted to prayer. I hope they don't say that too loudly. God might hear it. But He already knows if a person is thinking it. We need to be praying.

In most churches I've attended, prayer is strictly a work of the minister. There's nothing wrong with the minister offering the pastoral prayer; that's exactly what Zacharias did. But I like the fact that while Zacharias was praying, the congregation also entered into prayer. I don't know anything that's transpired in redemptive history that would make that a matter of discontinuity in the New Testament church. It would seem to me that it is pleasing to God when His people participate with the pastor in the corporate prayer.

This involves directed prayer. The pastor directs the congregation to pray by name for those who are ill, then by name for those who are burdened, then those who are at the house of mourning. Individuals in the congregation don't give 15-minute orations in prayer, but are able to say aloud the names of the people about whom they are concerned at the moment. It also helps us to know what's on other people's hearts, so that when we're outside of the church we can carry that concern with us.

Prayer is not just a tangential or peripheral part of corporate worship. In ancient Israel, the primary function of worship was the offering of praise, the offering of prayer. And so it should be in our churches today. Our sanctuaries should be houses of prayer.

*****

From A Taste for Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity by R.C. Sproul.

The Lord of the Church

John MacArthur

The truth that Christ is Lord of His church may sound somewhat benign to a casual listener in our generation, but the struggle for Christ’s authority in the church has come to us through the ages on a sea of blood. Thankfully, literal bloodshed over the issue is no longer very common. But faithful Christians are still waging a fierce moral and intellectual battle for Christ’s lordship over the church.

One of the major early catalysts in the Protestant Reformation was a book by Jan Hus, a Bohemian Christian who preceded Martin Luther by a full century. The book was De Ecclesia (The Church), and one of Hus’ most profound points was proclaimed in the title of his fourth chapter: “Christ the Only Head of the Church.”

Hus wrote, “Neither is the pope the head nor are the cardinals the whole body of the [true] holy, universal, catholic church. For Christ alone is the head of that church.” Pointing out that most church leaders in his era actually despised the lordship of Christ, Hus said, “To such a low pitch is the clergy come that they hate those who preach often and call Jesus Christ Lord.”

Hus’ candor cost him his life. He was declared a heretic and burnt at the stake in 1415.

More than a hundred years later, already at odds with the papal establishment, Martin Luther read De Ecclesia. After finishing the book, he wrote to a friend, “I have hitherto taught and held all the opinions of Jan Hus unawares; so did John Staupitz. In short, we are all Hussites without knowing it.”

Emboldened by his reading of Hus, the reformer took up the fight for Christ’s honor as true head of His church. Luther wrote, “I am persuaded that if at this time, St. Peter, in person, should preach all the articles of Holy Scripture, and only deny the pope’s authority, power, and primacy, and say, that the pope is not the head of all Christendom, they would cause him to be hanged. Yea, if Christ himself were again on earth, and should preach, without all doubt the pope would crucify him again.”

In many ways, the question, who is Lord of the church? was the over-arching issue of the Protestant Reformation from the start. (That’s what Luther was tacitly acknowledging when he said “we are all Hussites.”) 

Of course, Roman Catholic canon law still insists that the pope is her supreme earthly head and the ruling vicar of Christ in that capacity.

But the historic Protestant commitment to Christ’s lordship over the church has also subtly eroded, and that is a trend that deeply concerns me. It’s an issue I have written much about over the years.

For example, some evangelical leaders aggressively teach that it is not even necessary to confess Jesus as Lord in order to be saved. That’s what the so-called “lordship controversy” is about. It would be hard to imagine a more obvious attack against the lordship of Christ over His church, but “no-lordship theology” has thrived for years and seems to be gaining strength.

Evangelicals also gave birth to the “seeker-sensitive” movement wherein church services are tailored to please trend-savvy unbelievers. Novelties ranging from circus acts to slapstick are deliberately injected into corporate “worship” in order to keep worldly minds entertained. That is a practical denial of Christ’s lordship over His church, relegating His Word and ordinances to secondary status while granting hedonistic fashions the right to determine even the order of worship.

Feminists want to redefine the idea of headship, eliminating the idea of authority from the concept altogether. That, too, is a frontal attack on Christ’s lordship over His church.

Bible translators and paraphrasers who tamper with the true sense of God’s Word; emergent church leaders who question the clarity of everything Christ has said; and above all, preachers who seem to talk about everything but Scripture — all of them do what they do in direct defiance of Christ’s rightful authority over His church.

One thing would do more than anything else to answer every challenge to Christ’s authority: the restoration of clear, powerful, expository preaching to its rightful place at the center of all the church’s activities. If we truly believe Christ is Lord of the church, then the church needs to hear His voice. His Word must be proclaimed and its content taught accurately, systematically, and unrelentingly whenever the church comes together.

Jan Hus said the same thing. Declaring that the lordship of Christ over His church means emphatically “that the Christian ought to follow the commandments of Christ,” Hus then cited Acts 10:42 (“[Christ] commanded us to preach to the people”) and called on church leaders of his day to preach the Word of God at every opportunity — even though a papal bull was then in force, strictly limiting how and where the Scriptures could be proclaimed.

The church today is badly in need of reformation again. And Christ’s lordship over His church is still the central truth we must recover, which requires the unleashing of His Word among His people again. We cannot merely float along with the latest evangelical trends and expect things to get better. Like Jan Hus and Martin Luther, we need to fight for the honor and authority of Christ as Lord of His church.  

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