Defining Reality

The decorations are (hopefully) down. Life has returned to normal after the busy holiday season. And as we entered the new year, many of us did so with a resolution to begin again—to start something, stop something, or renew ourselves somehow. January brings a 33-50% increase in fitness club memberships, and churches often see an increase in attendance…at least for a time... But it often doesn’t last. Attendance wanes by the second week of February.

Change is usually harder than we anticipate it will be, and we love to lie to ourselves. We often never honestly appraise our life before we try to change something about it, but the truth is, we can never experience substantive change without first defining the reality of our present situation. Where am I—emotionally, spiritually, physically? What am I dissatisfied with in my life? What needs to change?

I find this is even true of churches as we coach them through the 95network. Until a congregation is willing to accept and own the reality of their situation, we really can't help them. Part of our job in coaching them is to help them see their situation for what it is. The Lord  does the same thing for the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2, and we can learn from this example.

In the second and third chapters of Revelation, Jesus defines reality for seven specific churches. He encourages and challenges them about their present situation and where God intends for them to go. The first of these seven churches is the church at Ephesus. Ephesus was the capital of the province of Asia, Paul’s base for evangelizing that province, and the sphere of both Timothy’s and John’s ministries. Thus, the church at Ephesus was very important and highly influential. Revelation 2:1-7 addresses this group of believers:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

These verses show that Jesus knew these believers and walked among them (v. 1). He knew their “deeds” (v. 2). Like the Ephesians, we can fool other people—we can even fool ourselves—but we cannot fool God. God knows His people and His church. He knows and can define our reality if we will listen to Him.

When Jesus defines reality for the church at Ephesus, He both commends and condemns. First, He recognizes the church’s good works, their perseverance and endurance in the face of troubles and difficulties, and their beliefs (vs. 2, 3, & 6). We know from accounts in the book of Acts that lives had been changed at Ephesus—people were dumping their idols, coming to Christ, and following Him, even in the face of persecution and threats of violence. The Ephesians had also shown no tolerance for wickedness. We know they tested false prophets and rejected idolatry and sexual immorality. In verse 6, Jesus also commends them for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans, and while we cannot be sure what these practices were, several of the early church fathers mentioned this sect as engaging in heresy, including unrestrained indulgence and immorality.

In all of these things, Jesus commends the church at Ephesus. He recognizes that there is much they are doing well. This is important to remember because sometimes we are our own worst critics. We can look at what we are doing wrong and allow it to affect our feelings of self-worth. Yet no one’s life is all good or all bad. There is much about our lives that is good. God sees those things, and it is fine to humbly thank Him for them.

Still, in the midst of giving encouragement, Jesus addresses a core problem in the Ephesian church—they have forsaken their first love (v. 4). Somehow God had become secondary to them. Perhaps their worship had lost its passion, or maybe they toiled hard or preached against sin without loving God and neighbor. Like the Pharisees, they may have been proudly delighting in their good works, or they could have been obeying out of duty rather than sincerity and love. Whatever the specifics, it is certain they had somehow lost their focus on God and His love. But Lord doesn’t just confront them about this; He gives them three steps to take in order to change:

1. Remember. In verse 5, Jesus tells the church to “consider how far [they] have fallen.” He wants them to recall where they used to be and where they are now. Sometimes the first step toward change is to consider our better days and compare them to our present state. It has been said, “People don’t change until they hurt enough that they have to, learn enough that they are able to, or see enough that they want to.” Part of hurting enough is often recalling “how far [we] have fallen.” We need to ask ourselves: what were some high points in my journey with the Lord? What was I doing then? What made that time special? Remembering better days and acknowledging how we’ve taken backward steps is often the place where a new beginning starts.

2. Repent. Next Jesus tells the church to repent. The word “repent” indicates a change in direction. It literally means to “turn.” In a military context, it means an about-face. So, in order to truly repent, we must be willing to acknowledge our sin and failures, not only feeling remorse but also taking action to change and move in a new direction.

3. Resume. Finally, Jesus tells the church to “do the things [they] did at first.” After remembering the height from which they had fallen, they were to repent and change direction—going back to the things that defined their former height. Sometimes we must simply commit to doing what it is that we need to do, including good habits from the past that we have neglected.

After giving the Ephesians this three-part direction, Jesus warns them of the serious consequences at stake. He says that if they do not repent, He will “remove [their] lampstand from its place.” So, He not only challenges them to change, but He also gives them motivation to do so. Yet he begins with defining reality for them, and if we feel God calling us to change, that is where we must begin as well.

This is something for all of us to think about as we embark on a new year…what things do we need to remember, repent of, and resume?