A few years ago I was speaking in a church in Charlotte, North Caroline, for a Pastor friend of mine that I love. He has a great congregation, and it is always fun to go up there and see what God is doing there. Because it was a conference like this one, where I was speaking a number of times over a period of days, we had time to go to some local attractions between sessions on some of the days. We went downtown and looked at some of the inner city section. One morning we went to see the Billy Graham Library and his old home. I really enjoyed reading the displays and looking over what God had done with him through his unexpected career. One of the men with me took the time to take me privately to the old “Heritage USA” ministry center of the “PTL” club not many miles away. What I saw really made an impression on me. I cannot recall ever being in a place so eerily abandoned and left for nature to crush. It was a picture of “Ichabod” – the glory had departed. I don’t know much about the ministry that was once there, and I was a child in the seventies when they were a big deal on TV, but I do know this: property left abandoned will be quickly overtaken by the natural world around it.
It is an important principle for any believer to recall, a fallen world is a hostile place to the created works of man. Let’s face it: If you neglect a home it will collapse around you. If we don’t keep applying enormous effort in upkeep, our lawn, our driveway, our homes, our streets – indeed our entire infrastructure – will become overgrown, worn out, and eventually collapse. It isn’t ONLY our houses…Who doesn’t know that a BODY that isn’t maintained will eventually collapse? I remember learning a lesson in my twenties. Avoid the dentist for a few years to save money, and he will get back every penny in your thirties when you have such pain you have to go and get the “catch up work” done!
Let’s say it clearly: things require maintenance to remain useful and healthy. What is true of teeth, lawns and houses is also true about relationships. They cannot remain healthy without constant tending – expressions of love and communication that keep people connected. Now, stop for a moment and think about the ONE relationship that is most important – the one you cannot afford to be without – the one with your Creator. As believers, we have a relationship with the Living God through the work of Jesus Who died as our substitute. He paid the price of our sin, and bridged the gap between God and I. Knowing Christ gave me live – and UNION with God. Following Christ gave me COMMUNION with God. Remember, about fifteen percent of the Bible is about “finding God” (salvation and rescue), while the other eighty-five percent is about “following God” (messages to believers on life and their walk in the world with God). Our series will be entirely based on the idea of maintaining our heart health, and learning to keep working at a deep and intimate daily walk with the Savior.
Let’s begin with the letter in Revelation 2:1-7 that sets up the whole series – the letter to Ephesus that sets up the MAIN CAUSE for an unhealthy heart – NEGLECT.
Key Principle: When we neglect our walk with God, our heart becomes more steadily unhealthy.
When we open the text, we find ourselves at the main port of Asia Minor in the waning years of the first century. The sun was setting on the prosperous port of Ephesus, and all that was left was a trinket trade and tourism to the “Wonder of the Artemission” shrine on the cliff above. Jesus pulled John to collaborate on the book of Revelation, and in chapters two and three he was commanded to write to seven churches. This is the first of the letters:
Revelation 2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lamp stands, says this: 2 ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. 4 ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 5 ‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lamp stand out of its place—unless you repent. 6 ‘Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’
Even the quickest survey of the text exposes the church was not walking with Jesus in fullness – because something came up between them.
In some ways, He made it sound like the drift that occurred was not only reversible, it was predictable.
Several years ago a couple was on vacation in Florida and they were floating in the ocean on inflatable rafts. The husband decided to head into the shore but his wife wanted to stay out on the raft and continue to catch some rays. After a short time the woman lost herself in floating along on the raft. What the woman failed to realize was that she was slowly drifting out to sea. As she simply relaxed and let the gentle current take her with it, her situation was becoming more and more dangerous. By the time that she noticed what was happening to her, it was almost too late. She saw that the shore was much farther away than she expected and she began to panic. Fortunately the lifeguards were able to rescue her but the whole situation was created just by being careless. If you look at it another way, she wasn’t being careless at all – she cared about her CURRENT COMFORT more than she cared about what was pulling at her CURRENT LOCATION – until she realized she was in peril. That is more the problem of Ephesus. They were diligent about MANY THINGS – they just weren’t paying attention to the RIGHT THINGS.
Someone has said the great mistake of our lives is trading what we WANT for what we WANT NOW.
Here is my question: In a room full of people, many who have known Jesus as long as I have walked on the planet, how can we keep the Lord’s pleasure first in every situation? How can we redirect the currents that pull strongly to self-satisfaction? How can we re-gain former passion for God and restore a measure of heart health?
Removing an excuse:
Before I can dive into the text, let’s take off the table one of the spiritual arguments for passivity. Occasionally I hear even more mature believers make the argument that “we cannot grow” since it is a work of the Spirit. There is a tricky form of “spiritual victimization” that goes on in our church world, where people make commands of God fuzzy in their mind, as if they are not responsible to maintain heart health. It simply isn’t true. God never commands in His Word idly. If God calls for response from a believer, it isn’t in vain – we must be able to deliver what He has told us we are to do. Yes, certainly we rely on the Spirit’s strength, but we are not passive. Holiness cannot come by osmosis. Distinctive living isn’t haphazard. A spirit-filled walk isn’t by happenstance. Spiritual heart health is a responsibility of the believer, as physical heart health is the responsibility of each man or woman in society. In the same vein, when we don’t work at heart health, it affects both OUR performance in life, and the rest of the community. People who don’t maintain their physical heart end up occupying a bed in the local hospital, while people who don’t maintain their spiritual heart end up needing spiritual nursing from others in the body of Christ. Let’s talk about what Jesus told the Ephesian believers about heart health…He told them they suffered from the single most pervasive problem among believers…neglect of priorities. They simply failed to “keep first things first”.
Why we drift:
Second, let’s think of some of the reasons people get distracted and drift from keep their heart healthy:
Sometimes they settled on a shallow walk of solutions, rather than a Savior. They lacked depth from the beginning, like the soil in Matthew 13:5-7, 20-21 – where they had a specific problem and brought it to Jesus – but they actually didn’t want Jesus… only a solution to the current issue. When it was fixed, that seed that seemed to be taking root in shallow earth seemed to wither away.
Sometimes they felt pressured by the world to please those around them rather than the One over them. Maybe they live with the kind of denial we see in Simon Peter (in John 18). It may have come from fear of reprisal to save self at a momentary difficulty. Maybe it comes where we are supposed to speak up for Christ before those hostile to Him.
Sometimes the sheer level of distraction or hunger from wrong things can cause the mettle of our faith to buckle and we drift away from the reality of God’s power in our lives. Like a shorn Samson, we don’t protect the holy promise of God, and we find ourselves powerless, bound and blind.
How were they to restore Heart Health (and how can we when we are distracted from our first priority)?
To discern God’s answer to the heart problem, we need to dive into the words of the letter we are reading. Jesus offered the following prescriptions in His letter:
First, believers have to recognize we aren’t in our own hands; we are in the hands of the Almighty Savior.
We should be encouraged (2:1a). Jesus is not disconnected from the realities and needs of His people – for He walks in the midst of their faith community and observes their lives. We must learn to speak to Him as One Who knows intimately the work and its needs (2:1b).
Revelation 2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this:
Jesus holding His church is a picture of an ENGAGED SAVIOR. That has two stunning implications:
• We live in an age when even Christ followers have lost much of their view of reverence for God, and with it any real fear over the consequences of sin. Our society wants us to believe that God is benevolent and good and would never hold us accountable for our actions – and that thinking has impacted many believers. For that to be God, they need a disengaged Savior. They need a “once a year Santa” figure Who isn’t involved intimately with His people. That isn’t the Jesus described in Revelation 2:1. He is holding the church, and you normally don’t forget things when they are right in your hand.
• For the praying and seeking follower, we should see that Jesus doesn’t need a long reminder when we talk to Him about things – He knows where we are, what we are doing and what has wounded us. We need to see Him as engaged. Sometimes we pray by reading our list and “informing God” as if He doesn’t know all about it. That isn’t the point. We can take courage – we have a Savior Who is engaged and ready to listen!
Second, consider that Jesus knows much more about our labors than we may think. He said:
Revelation 2:2 ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance… 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.
It is clear he knew exactly the amount and type of labor they did for Him. He knew the steadiness of that labor when it became difficult. He knew about every ounce of pressure on their shoulders. The term “perseverance” used here is “hupo-meno” – one of my favorite words in Greek.
He knows what we can bear. He knows when we have endured faithfully, and when we have buckled under pressure. He knows our frame and what load is excessive for us. This should encourage us to press forward in our walk, and in our ministry life of service (2:2a,3).
May I take a moment and talk about “what you can bear”? This is important, and I don’t want to distract from our topic, but I would be remiss if I let this opportunity pass…There is a poem of Solomon that tells us something about each of us as servants of God who have less days ahead of us than behind us. As we age, fear increases. Fear of moral slide. Fear of government failure. Fear of slipping on a wet pavement or in a slick shower. Fear of a doctor’s report or a cell phone company’s bill…FEAR – because we feel weaker and less in control. Solomon said it this way:
Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no delight in them”; 2 before the sun and the light, the moon and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after the rain;”
The difficult days of life will soon come and only those who prepare with a walk with God will face them well (12:1b) – because our minds will eventually fade – and our “brightness” will slip, as well as our bodies ability to recoup quickly (12:2). Cloudy times will come more rapidly and clarity will slip away quickly.
• Growing too soon weaker and our hands trembling, our bodies are stooping, our teeth coming out and our eyesight failing (12:3). “3 in the day that the watchmen of the house tremble, and mighty men stoop, the grinding ones stand idle because they are few, and those who look through windows grow dim;”
• “Gumming” our food when the teeth fail (12:4a), failure to sleep well (12:4b) and failed hearing (12:4b). 4 “and the doors on the street are shut as the sound of the grinding mill is low, and one will arise at the sound of the bird, and all the daughters of song will sing softly.”
• Fears of difficult physical challenges becoming very real (12:5) as our hair turns white. Limbs will grow stiff and sexual drives will fail (‘abiyownah: ab-ee-yo-naw’ – a stimulating taste), as a man yields this life and passes to eternity – and is remembered (12:5b). 5 “Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective. For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street.”
• The spinal column weakens, the mind becomes dulled and the bowels become unpredictable, in addition to the accompanying heart problems (12:6). 6 “Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed;”
• In the end, the body is laid to rest and turn back to dust and memories, while the spirit is whisked into eternity (12:7). 7 “then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
• It all passes quickly, and much that appears to have meaning, really doesn’t! (12:8). 8 “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity!”
Why mention all this? Because we live in an aging community, we must learn not to feed fear and be often reminded that things aren’t happening outside of God’s control. We can feed on news designed to victimize, and we will not add maturity to the community. It is a natural temptation, but one we must think through and guard against! HOW? Stay close the Master, He isn’t shaky or worried…
Third, Jesus affirmed believers who stood on truth and against error even when the world rejected them.
This should spur us to recognize the value of friends that call us to faithfulness and push us to be active in support of that kind of church (2:2b).
Revelation 2:2b “…and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false.”
Hebrews 2:1 gave early Jewish believers, well versed in the Word, a specific warning to pay careful attention to what they heard, in order that they would not drift away from following the Savior. Verses contextually misused by one generation disarm the next generation.
Fourth, Jesus made a distinction in our heart between walking intimately with God and serving God actively, for they are not the same thing (2:4).
Revelation 2:4 ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.
He knew their work. He even knew their endurance… That tells me that He saw them as hard workers FOR God. Yet, Jesus also knew those who worked so diligently had replaced intimacy with busyness… and it is easy to do. Some people try to make up in volume what they lack in intimacy – and we need to be careful. It isn’t just doing right that God desires – it is doing right TOGETHER with Him. Love for God is often best shown in the conscious invitation of participation in the daily.
Fifth, we must become mature and understand the testimony of the church is at stake not primarily based on its activity, but on where it places its priority (2:5).
Revelation 2:5 ‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lamp stand out of its place—unless you repent.
The issue was NOT a lack of vigilance against error (2:2), it was NOT a matter of endurance (2:3), and it was NOT acceptance of popular trends (2:6) – the issue was a healthy heart for God. Without that heart – God’s church set aside the essential fiber that held His close to her. On first glance, Jesus offered a three-fold prescription:
1. Remember – recognize what you have left behind (2:5).
2. Repent – change your mind in a way that leads to a change of action (2:5).
3. Return – restore the old works by turning back (2:5)
Jesus simply told cold hearted believers to go back on the road where they left Him and invite Him to continue on the journey through life with Him. The goal ISN’T how far you get… but that you walked with Him for more and more of the journey!
Sixth, believers must prudently recognize the constant call for sensual license in the church.
We must be ever conscious such thinking is ordered in the wrong life- a fleshly pursuit to define an organization of “eternals” (2:6).
Revelation 2:6 ‘Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
We are going to pick this theme up in later lessons, but make a note of this: In every generation of believers, there are those who argue to lessen the standards and loosen the reigns on purity. Yet, Paul’s very first epistle (1 Thessalonians) argued for purity as the hallmark of the believer. Don’t think this pressure is new or recent – it was here since the beginning.
Seventh, believers should recognize the world cannot make sense of what we believe without God opening their ears and hearts.
We must not be disappointed when we see the rapid erosion of all things Biblical in our current culture – this is to be expected (2:7). In short, we have to stop being surprised when lost people act like lost people.
Revelation 2:7 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’
Jesus called on believers to listen with spiritual discernment. We have to desire to hear truth from the gentle wind of the Spirit’s blowing. We are called to overcome, again and again. Look at the words in Revelation 2:7 “To him who overcomes”. You will find them again in verse 11 to the church at Smyrna “He who overcomes”. You will see them yet again in letter after letter. Here is what you should remember: IT IS POSSIBLE to overcome, and some will – but many won’t. Loving Jesus and living for Him instead of the instant gratification of the physical world will be too hard for some to embrace.
When we neglect our walk with God, our heart becomes more steadily unhealthy.
Has there ever been a time in your life, when you were more dedicated to Christ? Has there ever been a time when you were closer to Jesus than you are right now? Have you ever been more surrendered in your life than you are at this moment? Has there ever been a time that you were more committed to living for Christ than you are right now?
Edmund Burke said that very seldom does a man take one giant step from a life of virtue & goodness into a life of vice & corruption. Usually, he begins his journey into evil by taking little steps into the shaded areas, areas tinted & colored just a bit, almost unnoticed by those around him….It isn’t the giant step from virtue into corruption that we need to fear. It’s the little steps that ultimately lead us away from God.
No man suddenly becomes base – but every man becomes that way by the same path, beginning with a step away from intimacy with God.