Revelation 2:2, 4
G. C. Berkouwer is Professor of Dogmatics and the History of Dogma in the Free University, Amsterdam. Born in The Netherlands in 1903, he was ordained in 1927 as a minister of the Reformed Church, in whose parishes he served for some years. He earned his Doctorate of Theology from the Free University in 1932, and became in 1953 a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences. Dr. Berkouwer is the author of many volumes in the field of theology, latest of which is The Image of God.
I know thy works … but I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love.
This is the fifth sermon of a series in which CHRISTIANITY TODAY presents messages by notable preachers of God’s Word from Great Britain and the Continent. Plans for future issues include sermons by President Jean Cadier of the Faculty of Protestant Theology, Montpellier, France; Principal Charles Duthie of the Scottish Congregational College, Edinburgh; Dr. Ermanno Rostan, Moderator of the Waldensian Church of Italy; and Dr. A. Skevington Wood, of Southlands Methodist Church, York, England.
Criticism of the church of Jesus Christ is often badly conceived and conspicuous for lovelessness. Without a love for the Church, one cannot grasp her true nature. The critique without love soon betrays itself, as does the voice of a man standing aloof, declining to enter, yet demanding the prerogative of criticizing those struggling within. Such a critique is loveless; therefore valueless.
In the book of Revelation we read of the churches searchlighted by the Lord’s critique. That it is a holy judgment by One who loves the Church does not make the judgment easier, the critique less sharp. Rather, love makes the judgment more honest and more severe, touching depths unreachable by a critique from without, simply because it cannot know such depths exist. The principle behind God’s judgment on each of these early churches is both consistent and timeless, constraining us to consider whether the dangers exposed in them might not threaten us also. These letters to the seven churches are not in the Bible to satisfy our curiosity about spiritual conditions prevalent in the early Church. They are significant for our time because in them we encounter the nature of Christ’s critiques.
When Jesus Christ expresses his judgment upon a congregation, we must acknowledge its purity. Man’s judgment is notoriously one-sided, often exaggerating someone else’s faults and playing down his good points, so that bitterness and negativism dispel any kind of fair critique.
Christ’s critique of the churches is never one-sided, much less bitter. He casts his holy and pastoral eye over the congregation and exposes with probing vision its whole life—its length, breadth, height, and depth. Things unnoticed by the world or kept secret by us never escape him. As we stand under Christ’s critique our one hope is in the purity and fairness of his exhaustive, inclusive judgment.
Note, then, the admiration Christ has for the congregation at Ephesus. “I know your works …”; he has seen the activity of this hardworking church. “I recognize your fervor, your practical outreach, your perseverance,” says our Lord. The people have understood something of a church’s struggling life; its labor and courage have been observed. Evil has not been tolerated. Those claiming to be apostles have been put to test, and some exposed as frauds, even though pain was involved in unmasking them.
Moreover, they brought the Nicolaitans before the law of God for their doctrine and sensual behavior.
Much good, then, can be said about the people of the church at Ephesus, and Christ’s praise is devoid of irony and mere flattery. He does know its works. These have been a witness to the world—it is not every congregation that resists temptation, tests the spirits, and truly hates the immoral and the offensive.
The temptation put before these people of Ephesus by the Nicolaitans was no small challenge, directed as it was to the evil inclinations of the human heart. But the Ephesians said no—a forthright rejection of temptation not always found, especially in churches whose “works” are inferior to those of Ephesus. But it is always true that “I know your works,” whatever they may be.
What is left to be said, if this congregation passes the judgment of Christ so favorably? There is more. Christ’s admiration is followed by his judgment, his severe criticism. They had done God’s will, had persevered, had surely earned that reward laid up in heaven for those who have suffered for his name’s sake. What, then, can be said against the church of Ephesus?
The people of Ephesus may not confidently and self-righteously go home believing that everything is in order. They must stay awhile for Christ’s evaluation is not complete. Despite the good works, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”
Things were not right; the relationship between Christ and his congregation was strained. Many works there were, but true warmth of love was missing though the people of the congregation were probably unaware of the blighted blossom of their first love. Love cools gradually. It is cold before one realizes the gravity of the change.
Christ has something against this congregation. Loss of love is a serious matter, a radical fall. He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
To be sure, the affairs of the church were running well; a passing stranger might have been unaware that something was radically wrong. But Christ had administered his test upon the congregation. A shadow had fallen, not over its activity, but over the attractive façade. The church had lost its first love.
In other churches, the defects were obvious, as when Christ rebuked some for allowing in their midst those who held the doctrine of Balaam, and others for tolerating Jezebel.
In Ephesus the case was different. Love was not entirely lacking; only the first love had grown cold, the burning love that had enflamed the people when they first came to know their Saviour, when release from paganism opened new doors, caught new perspectives. But now the fire had turned to embers, enthusiasm had worn thin, vibrant love had wilted to routine activity.
How did it happen? As a summer day gradually turns cool and one notices the change only after it has occurred; as a marriage imperceptibly changes when the rich joy of first love cools. Such was the situation in the church at Ephesus. A chill had penetrated the heart of the congregation.
This critique cannot be applied to every congregation of Jesus Christ. But the possibility of spiritual coldness is present within every congregation, even within every individual. Men may be busily doing good, walking in correct paths, yet they still come under the judgment of Christ. Despite all good qualities, they may have lost decisive things. The fault may lie so deep that no one may notice it. But when Christ sees it, he warns. A conflict between our works and our heart inevitably follows when love has diminished, and we may come to tolerate the works of the Nicolai-tans after all. Will the heart that has lost its first love be able to hold the line against evil? It is no accident that the letter to the church at Ephesus concludes: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
An important question for any congregation is this: how is it with the springs from which all your activity flows? You know that good works must rise from faith and that faith works through love. How is it, then, with your prayers and your confidence? How is it with the love of your hearts? What a fall there is when the heart is so frozen that the Holy Spirit no longer works with it!
Christ took this possibility with terrible seriousness. Love is not an expendable thing on the fringes of life. “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.” The earnest appeal heard here is aimed at the very church of which Christ said, “I know your works.”
Christ is clearly not satisfied with a part of our lives. He is the Saviour of the whole, of body and soul, of the inner and outward life. He accepts no division of territory. “Give me your heart,” he demands. Not that our works are unimportant, but he fastens his attention on the heart, for out of it are the issues of life. The flame has got to burn within. Is not a candle taken away for lack of a flame?
We must not generalize here. If we listen to the Spirit’s words, we know we are being warned because of the care and love of the Saviour, to keep guard over our hearts above all else. We can fall behind in grace if gradually we close our eyes to him who gives us our joy and moves us to good works. We lose our former love if we lose our vision for the love of Christ and so dam the springs of life. Cognizant of love in some sense, we no longer experience “the love of Christ which passes knowledge.” We have snuffed out the flames of love, and the chill of lovelessness changes everything else.
What an acute testing! The judgment of men is sometimes unbalanced and unfair, but he who tests the churches is he who walks through the golden candlesticks. His judgment is true, and he judges the heart from which all works flow. Do we remember that just as there is an irrevocable relationship between faith and good works, so there is a strong link between love and good works? Are we aware that our entire lives face dangers arising from nowhere but our own hearts? Do we wonder how we can possibly lose our first love? May we watch and pray, therefore, that we enter not into temptation—it is easy to let love cool.
We may be happy that we always stand under the touchstone of Christ, and are ever confronted by the preaching of his Gospel. Though our works are crucial, our Lord constantly asks about our motivation. No secret can be kept from him, no idol hidden. Our hearts have no hiding places.
Before men we can put up a pretense, but not before our Lord. As Paul pointed out, if a man were even to give his body to be burned and his goods to the poor (what works these are!), but were without love, that man would still amount to nothing more than a clanging cymbal.
Works without love! No, the situation had not gone so far in Ephesus: only the first love had been forsaken. But the awful retrogression had begun. The question is, how far would the church fall?
Jesus wants to know about the response of the heart worked upon by the Holy Spirit. Our lives depend upon the wellsprings of Living Water. Those springs must stay open.
The churches of the New Testament were always standing amid temptation. Sometimes the struggle was hard; because of this the churches could stand only in the power of love. Is it any different with us? Without love, not even our perseverance, good works, or struggle against false apostles will amount to anything. These good things will inevitably turn sour, for the substance of divine law is still love to God and our neighbor. How can we ever withstand modern Nicolaitans if our heart is not bound by love to the Saviour?
Perhaps the situation facing your congregation and mine more nearly resembles that of Thyatira or Pergamos than of Ephesus. But still Christ’s judgment touches us today. As we recall Ephesus we can surely pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23). The poet is here appealing to God’s omniscience of the dangers that lie within the heart, and praying for guidance in the everlasting paths.
Ephesus has failed to do this. So can we. Shadows often fall over the most praiseworthy works of the church, straining our bond with the Saviour. Even the basic traits of love change; our desire for the sacraments and for the Word diminishes. With the first love lost, everything else is on its way out.
One thing is still possible, however, and that is conversion. Christ preaches repentance to Ephesus, adding the warning, “or else.” This is not the final judgment. That one is yet to come. It will be very honest and, above all, fair. No one shall feel himself the victim of accident. Nothing will be overlooked. Christ knows about every cup of cold water given, every act of mercy done in his name. He knows the pure in heart, those who have hungered and thirsted after righteousness. He knows everything, forgets nothing. More than anything, he knows the heart. And the heart is the center of all else.
This need be a fearsome, upsetting thought only to those for whom Psalm 139 is strange. As we too pray for God’s guidance we shall be guided, because it is in prayer that we shall be rooted in love. And, rooted in love, we shall carry on the activities of our everyday lives. Our works will not be a glimmering of light left over in the embers of faded love. They will issue from the full flame of love restored. The light of the flame will make the way clear before us as we follow Christ wherever he leads.
Admiration And Critique
May we not forget that we stand always under the complete judgment of Christ. His touchstone applies to us always. The seven churches of Revelation were measured by it. He uses the same touchstone in forming his judgment of us. Fear of his judgment need possess us only when we stop living out of his love. His sacrifice is the source of our activity. Through it alone does our activity count as genuine. By his love does our love burn with flame. And only at the Cross of his sacrifice is first love rekindled.
We are the hurrying, worrying souls;
And we are the fleet-footed fakirs on coals;
Yes, we are the fine, finny, swift-swimming shoals;
For we are the people of RUSH.
With light-hearted laughter to level the load;
And riot, and revel, and rum for the road;
And giggling, garrulous girls for a goad;
We give you a people of LUSH.
We mightily magnify sex in the state;
We learn about love, and we lust for it late;
We pander and pimp as we fashion our fate;
Behold us! A people of MUSH.
From morning ‘til midnight we pound out the pace;
Through daylight and darkness—how frantic the race!
Now onward; now downward; no God and no grace;
Forever the people of CRUSH.
We pine and we plead at the entrance of ease;
We linger and lounge on the pathways that please;
We fumble and fall at the door of demise;
Now, we are the people of HUSH.
PAUL T. HOLLIDAY
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