When is a Church Not a Church?

A sermon on Revelation 2:1-7 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 2/20/2005

When is a church not a church?

That is, when is an earthly church not part of God’s true church?

Let me ask another question: Why did God create the church? What was His purpose?

Before answering that, let me back up one more step: Why did God create man? He tells us in Isaiah 43:6-7:

“Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."

In the church, God is fulfilling His plan for all mankind from the beginning. So it’s not surprising to find out that God’s purpose for the church is the same as His purpose for creating man: His glory. Consider Ephesians 1:13-14. Paul writes:

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

This is actually third time in Ephesians 1:3-14 that Paul tells us that the creation of the church is to the praise of God’s glory, so that He might display what He is like.

A couple of chapters later, Paul concludes the first half of his letter to Ephesus by asking for this to happen:

To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:21 (emphasis added).

God created the church for His glory.

So when is a church not a church? When it does not fulfill God’s purpose. When it does not focus on glorifying Him.

Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus talks a great deal about the nature of a true church. Indeed, when we first started meeting on Wednesday nights as a church plant, we studied Ephesians to learn about the biblical picture of the church.

Today we look not at Paul’s letter, but at Jesus’ letter to the church in Ephesus, Revelation 2:1-7. In this letter, Jesus tells the Ephesian church that they are in danger. They are about to lose their status as a church.

If the church in Ephesus needed to hear this just a few decades after Paul wrote them, how the church in the US needs to hear this warning!

How WE OURSELVES need to hear it – so that in the years ahead we do not run into this danger.

So open your ears. Listen carefully. Hear what the Spirit says to the churches. And then let us heed what is written here, so that we might receive the promised blessings.

Recall that last week we looked at chapter 1. Here Jesus appears to John in power and majesty. In verse 11 and 19 He commands John to write the rest of the book of Revelation. Some commentators put much emphasis on 1:19, arguing that it contains an outline of rest of book. I don’t think that is correct. I translate this verse:

Therefore write the things you see, both the things that are and the things that will come about after these things.

The verb in the first expression, “the things you see”, is in the aorist tense, referring to the vision in its entirety, all that John will see as related in the rest of the book. Jesus than breaks totality down into 2 categories: The things that are “now,” the things that are in existence at the time John is writing - such as the description of the church in Ephesus in today’s text – and the hings that will come about later – such as His threat in today’s text to come and take the lampstand away from the church in Ephesus. Much of the book, like today’s text, is a mixture of “things that are” and “things that will come about after these things.”

This brings us to chapter 2. For several weeks we will look at the seven letters found in chapters 2 and 3. Note ahead of time the common structure of these letters:

·        Each begins with the addressee, always the angel of a church in Asia Minor.

·        Each then says it is from Jesus, describing Him frequently using words from John’s description of Him in chapter 1.

·        In most cases Jesus then says, "I know something good about you . . ."

·        He then follows this by saying, "But I know something bad . . ."

·        He then makes a threat and/or an exhortation: “Therefore . . ."

·        He then calls for all to hear this statement, not only those in the church addressed.  

·        He then makes a promise to those who conquer or overcome.

 Let’s now look at today’s text:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: 'The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 "'I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.  3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you,  that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not,  I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.  6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.  7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life,  which is in the paradise of God.'

The Sender of the Letter

In verse 1 Jesus uses two phrases from chapter 1 to describe Himself: He 'holds the seven stars in his right hand”, He “walks among the seven golden lampstands.” Last week we discussed the image of the lampstands. Since verse 20 says the lampstands are the churches, we saw that the picture of Jesus walking among them refers to His authority and watchcare over the church. As a priest in the temple would trim the wicks, polish the gold, and fill the lampstand with oil so that it might fulfill its purpose by shining light in the temple, just so Jesus watches over His church so that it might fulfill His purposes.

What about the phrase, “Who holds the seven stars in His right hand”? Again, 1:20 gives us a hint, saying that the stars are the angels of the seven churches. Now, each letter is addressed to the angel of the church in a city, but then speaks directly to the people of the church. So the angel represents the people of the church.

What is implied by the stars being in Jesus’ right hand? In Revelation, Jesus is clearly presented as Prophet, Priest, and King. Not only is He king, but He is the conquering, warrior king. Indeed, The Return of the King would not be an inappropriate name for this book! We see Jesus as a warrior in chapter 1, where His sword – the Word of God – is said to be coming out of His mouth.

What does a fighting warrior carry in his right hand? His weapon! But what does Jesus have in His right hand? The seven stars, the representatives of the seven churches. Is it appropriate to think of the church in Jesus right hand as a weapon?

Consider: The church is the means by which the Word of God goes out to world. The church is the vehicle God uses to accomplish His purposes on earth. Indeed, Jesus said,

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18

Do you understand the image? The church is attacking the gates of hell! The gates of hell are barricaded and defended, but the church is mounting an attack, and by God’s power they will break down those gates and prevail!

So, yes, the church is Jesus’ weapon! That is why the stars are in Jesus’ right hand.

Thus, in His description of Himself, Jesus emphasizes His authority, His watchcare, and His use of the church as a weapon. He is showing that the purpose of the church is to glorify Him through taking His Word to the world.

Something Good

The bulk of the letter consists of Jesus’ commendation of the Ephesian church:

"'I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. . . . 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

This is quite a commendation. The Ephesians are working hard – they are toiling! They are under pressure, yet are bearing up under it. They are not giving in. They are not getting tired.

What was the nature of their fight? They seem to be under attack doctrinally. In Acts 20, Paul had told warned the Ephesian elders:

29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;  30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.  31 Therefore be alert. (Acts 20:29-31)

So Paul told them some of their elders would become false teachers. Evidently they had taken this warning to heart. A problem had occurred, but they had handled this serious problem well. They tested the teaching of these elders against Scripture, and had successfully fought for the truth, disciplining the false teachers.

Furthermore, as they successfully defended the truth, they realized that the ultimate purpose was the glory of God, for verse 3 tells us they were “bearing up for my name’s sake.” “For His name’s sake” is commonly used in the Bible as another way of saying “for God’s glory.”

So when they disciplined their elders, they were not acting out of anger or malice. They were not implementing a personal vendetta. Instead, they defended the truth for the glory of God.

So the Ephesians knew the purpose of the church, and in some sense they were holding on to that purpose.

The church in Ephesus thus is doctrinally sound. They were attacked from within and successfully defended the truth, as painful as that must have been. They had rooted out false teachers.

In the years ahead, I hope Jesus will look at DGCC and say the same.

Something Bad

But Jesus does not stop with His commendation:

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Revelation 2:4

What does this mean? Verse 5, Jesus command to the church, provides us with some insight:

5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

Note first that what they have done is a sin. Jesus tells them to repent. Indeed, this sin is so important that they are in danger of losing their lampstand and become what we mentioned at the beginning: A church that is not a church.

Note also what Jesus tells them to do. We might expect Him to say, “repent, and love me as you did at first.” But that is not what He says. Instead, He says, “Repent, and do the works you did at first.”

That is strange, isn’t it? In verse 2 Jesus commends them for their work and toil. He says they have not grown weary. This church is working! They have abandoned their first love – yet Jesus says the solution is to repent and do the works they did at first. But isn’t the problem love, not activity? Haven’t they turned their backs on the great commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength? So why doesn’t Jesus say, “Repent! Love me above all!”

I believe Jesus here alludes to Jeremiah 2:

Thus says the LORD, "I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride. (Jeremiah 2:2)

            (Or He could have said, “I remember your first love”.)

5 Thus says the LORD: "What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? (Jeremiah 2:5)

Do you see how the Israelites’ lack of love leads to wrong actions? Lack of love for God means that their priority is put on something else, something that in comparison is worthless. When they do that, they diminish the glory of God. When they do that, they are saying – by their actions if not by their words – that God is worth less.

13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13)

The first evil they commit is abandoning or forsaking God. This is the same word image used in Revelation 2:4, which literally reads, “You have forsaken your first love.”

But do you see how this first evil leads to the second? When you forsake God as your first love, you always attempt to find joy, sustenance, pleasure, and protection elsewhere. So they did their own cisterns.

A cistern is a tank or hole in the ground lined with cement, used for storing water. In Palestine in most years there is no rain for about 5 months. Thus, there is a huge need for water storage.

So do you see the picture? God is supplying all their needs: He is the fountain, overflowing with water. But they have abandoned their first love. They have abandoned His fountain. This leads to action. When their delight is not in God, they seek joy, delight, and satisfaction elsewhere. That is, they dig their own cisterns.

But does this work? Do they find true joy? No. This cisterns hold no water! In the dry season, they perish for thirst! For these cisterns which they built, which they turned to, are broken.

So we’ve seen that when we abandon our first love, we necessarily pursue joy elsewhere. Lack of love for God leads to wrong actions.

So the problem in Ephesus is that they did not endure in what is most important.

But they did not endure in LOVE!

Furthermore, when you don’t endure in love, you cannot effectively endure in witness. Matthew 24:12-14 shows this link:

And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Verse 13 is well-known, and often used to encourage us in many types of endurance. But given verse 12, what is the main type of endurance Jesus has in mind? Endurance in love!

But then note the link between verses 12 and 13 on the one hand and verse 14 on the other. When God’s people endure in love, then they become effective witnesses for Him! Only then does the Gospel go out to all nations. Conversely, when we don’t endure in love, when we lose our first love, we are not effective witnesses for Him.

Loss of First Love in the Church

We could apply this to us as individuals, but since this is written to a church, let’s consider how it applies in that context. Let’s ask ourselves: What can a church love more than Jesus?

A church . . .

·        can love its building more than it loves Jesus;

·        can love its traditions more than it loves Jesus;

·        can love its worship songs more than it loves Jesus;

·        can love its history more than it loves Jesus;

·        can love the fellowship of believers more than it loves Jesus;

·        can love its programs more than it loves Jesus;

·        can love evangelism more than it loves Jesus;

·        can love missions more than it loves Jesus;

·        can love the lost more than it loves Jesus;

Do you see how this lack of love leads to actions that must be changed? Consider missions: If our first love is the missions program rather than Jesus, we will be focused on results, on getting positive feedback, so that our missions program can grow. We will use whatever methods will get a response, and we will report whatever response that will build excitement. Our focus is on our people’s excitement for the program.

But if Jesus is our first love, how will we do missions? John Piper writes that “worship is the fuel and goal of missions.” It is the goal for “We aim to bring the nations into the white-hot enjoyment of God’s glory. The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God.” It is the fuel because “passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish. Missions begins and ends in worship.”  

Remember what worship is: Worship is acting and thinking in a way that reflects the glory of God. And the inner essence of worship is valuing Christ far above all earthly possessions and attainments.

Do you see the difference between doing missions when you love Christ and doing missions when you love missions? Oh, there will be similarities. In both cases,

But the goals of the two enterprises are completely different. One exalts an institution – the church. The other exalts God.

My friends, this happens all the time. Institutions change so that they care more about their own survival than about the purpose for which they were created.

This is such a danger!

When that institution is the church, then the church abandons its first love.

And when that happens, the church is not a church.

This is what Jesus threatens in verse 5: He will remove the lampstand.from the church in Ephesus. The lampstand pictures the Holy Spirit within the church. It also pictures the light of the Gospel going out from the church. Without the lampstand, the light is no longer shining. Darkness prevails.

Abandoning your first love leads to a church which is no longer fulfilling its purpose. It is acting, but it is not glorifying God. This is the end of the church as a true church.

The Promise

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Revelation 2:7

First, a footnote: Notice that Jesus is narrating this letter, but He says, “hear what the Spirit says.” Once again, we get a glimpse of the Trinity. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are two persons in one Godhead.  

Jesus makes this promise to “the one who overcomes” or “the one who conquers.” What needs to be conquered? The temptation to abandon your first love! The temptation to love other things more than Jesus!

Those who overcome this temptation will “eat of the tree of life.” This alludes back to the early chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 3:22, God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, so that they will not eat of the tree of life and live for ever. Thus, the tree of life is a picture of eternal life. And this eternal life is not only existence, but eternal life in the temple of the Garden – eternal life in the presence of God. As Jesus says,

This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus, whom you have sent.  John 17:3

This promise is for eternity. But the promise begins now, as we hold onto Jesus as our first love, delighting in Him above all else. We can have this eternal life of knowing Him even now.


A church is not a church unless it fulfills the purpose of the church. The purpose of the church is to bring glory to God. And the foundation stone of glorifying God is a people who love the Lord their God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind, and all their strength.

When a church has that type of live, the church becomes an effective witness to the world of the Gospel. For those who love God cannot help but talk about what they love. As they endure to the end in this love, the testimony of Jesus goes out to all nations. The church then becomes that weapon in the right hand of Jesus, overcoming the gates of hell.

Thus, one primary task of the local church is to help its people cultivate a deep love for God.

The church in Ephesus almost lost this. What about us?

We must ask this of all that we do. First, are we communicating that Jesus is worthy of all our love? In our worship services, are our Scripture readings, songs, prayers, and preaching all working together to communicate biblical truth and to express our corporate response? Especially, are we communicating truth in such a way that shows the preciousness of Jesus – in the way we preach, in the way we read Scripture, in the way we pray?

Then, are we helping each other endure in the fight to love God above all else? For it is a fight – you know it is a fight! Our love for Jesus must endure to the end – and this endurance is a community project. To become a member of this church is to say:

I can’t do this on my own. I will fail on my own to keep Jesus as my first love. I need the help of others. And I know others need me! I pledge to seek help from others, and to give help to others, so that together we might keep Jesus as our first love – to his glory!

So where are you?

Jesus invites YOU to eat of the tree of life. To know Him. To delight in Him. To value Him above all else.

You too can be used by God as His weapon, His tool, to bring glory to Himself among all the nations.

You too can find you deepest joy in Him – and be part of the true church.

So repent. Turn away from broken cisterns that hold no water. See God as the source of living water. Drink deeply from that fountain. And know that He is your first love.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 2/20/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) helped me draw the link between enduring in love and being an effective witness. The quotes from John Piper are from Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Baker, 1993).

Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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