Failing to temper truth with love
I delivered the following message at Grace Fellowship Church on Sunday, February 20, 2022.
“Write to the angel of the church in Ephesus: Thus says the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet you do have this: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
“Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:1-7)
A personal anecdote
Danae and I have two running jokes in our marriage. The first is that my mother-in-law never gave me her blessing to marry Danae. The second is that Danae dumped me just a few months after we started dating. I say they are running jokes because we laugh about them now, but they are both true.
The first is a story for another day while the second seems to be an appropriate anecdote as we continue our study of John Crott’s book, Graciousness: Tempering Truth with Love.
When Danae and I tell the story of her breaking up with me, we often tell the short version. She was finishing her last year of college, so she had a lot on her mind and I was too much of a distraction. The longer and more accurate version goes something like this.
Danae and I came from very different church backgrounds. She came from a church with a contemporary worship style. I came from a church with a very traditional worship style. Regarding soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation, her church was on one end of the theological spectrum while mine was on the far opposite end. For some couples, this gap isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but for Danae and I, two people who cared deeply about our faith, it became a problem.
Actually, let me rephrase that. I became a problem.
I knew I was right. I knew I could persuade her with my vast knowledge of the Bible and sound, irrefutable arguments. One way or another, I could convince her. I flooded her email inbox with theological essays. I debated her over the phone. I found a way to turn every conversation into a doctrinal disagreement.
She’d ask, “How about this weather?”
I’d say, “You know, that reminds of something the apostle Paul said about total depravity.”
If you know Danae well enough, you know that she has unbreakable convictions. I don’t mean she’s stubborn about petty things. I mean she’s a rock when it comes to her faith. But she is also one of the most gentle people you will ever meet.
Without realizing what I was doing, I was presenting Danae with an ultimatum. Without ever uttering these words, I was saying to her, “You will either agree with me according to my terms or we can’t be together.” In short, she replied, “Okay. I guess we can’t be together.”
It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I was a self-righteous Pharisee. I spoke a lot of truth in those days, and I sincerely wanted Danae to believe what I was saying, but from her perspective, I wasn’t motivated by love, not love for her spiritual welfare anyhow. As far as she was concerned, I wanted to be right.
The best way I know how to summarize our relationship at that time is to quote 2 Corinthians 3:6, which says, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Only in hindsight did I learn that while I may have known the letter of the law, though not as well as I thought I did, Danae knew the Spirit. She knew love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control better than I did (Gal 5:22, 23). I nearly lost the greatest blessing of my life, second only to Christ, because I failed to temper the truth with love.
As we learn here in Revelation, we stand to lose much more than a good woman when we fail to temper the truth with love. We stand to lose the very life of the church.
The Ephesian church’s foundation
The church in Ephesus has a rich history. We know more about this church than other church in the New Testament. We read about its dramatic origins in the book of Acts. Soon after, we read Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders. Paul later wrote one of his New Testament epistles to this church. The apostle John wrote three New Testament epistles from Ephesus. Lastly, we have this letter from Christ in the book of Revelation. If we’re willing to work our way through all of this material, we can learn a lot about the Ephesian church.
I’ll provide you with just a few of the most relevant highlights.
If we were able to go back in time, survey all of the first-century churches, and ask the people which church they believed would be most likely to succeed and prosper, I’m guessing the church in Ephesus would get the most votes. They had what appears to be an unshakeable foundation. Let me explain what I mean.
According to Acts 18, Paul and his ministry companions come to Ephesus for the first time. Paul, however, has his sights set on Jerusalem, so he stays just long enough to enter the synagogue and debate with the Jews before continuing on, leaving behind Priscilla and Aquila (Ac 18:19, 18). Aquila and Priscilla are a married couple, whom Paul will later describe as “my coworkers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life” (Ro 16:3). In other words, they served a vital role in Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.
Aquila and Priscilla are significant in the history of the Ephesian church because they evidently became founding members. Soon after, a man by the name of Apollos arrived in Ephesus, and it was Priscilla and Aquila who explained the way of God to him more accurately, leading him to Christ (Ac 18:24, 26). Together, they held down the fort, if you will, until Paul could return.
In Acts 19, Paul returned to Ephesus and proceeded to turn the city upside down (Ac 19:1). I’m hardly exaggerating. Luke tells us:
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly over a period of three months, arguing and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became hardened and would not believe, slandering the Way in front of the crowd, he withdrew from them, taking the disciples, and conducted discussions every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord. (Acts 19:8-10)
As an aside, Paul’s preaching during these two years became so influential that possibly six or more churches sprang up throughout Asia Minor.
I’ll leave you the entire story for yourself, but let me share one more detail from the text. Luke writes:
And many who had become believers in the idolatrous city of Ephesus came confessing and disclosing their practices, while many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. So they calculated their value and found it to be fifty thousand pieces of silver. In this way the word of the Lord spread and prevailed. (Acts 19:18-20)
An average day’s wage for a common person was one piece of silver. Collectively, these people threw the equivalent of 137 years of income into the fire as an expression of their allegiance to Christ. Unsurprisingly, riots broke out among the unconverted. As I said, Paul turned the city upside down.
Paul stayed in Ephesus for three years. While three years may not seem like a long time in the grand scheme, it was significantly longer than he stayed with any other church. I also want us to remember that we are talking about the apostle Paul. In just a few months, Danae and I will have been with Grace Fellowship for three years, and upon hearing that, most of you probably think, Huh. Has it been three years? But if Paul were to come and stay for three years, I suspect our reaction would be much different. I think we would all notice the impact of Paul’s presence here.
I’m not trying to place Paul on a higher pedestal than I should, but I trust you understand the point I’m making. We would certainly notice the tremendous impact of his ministry if he were here week after week, month after month, year after year. Consider how the Ephesian elders responded when he left them for the last time. Acts 20 says, “There were many tears shed by everyone. They embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving most of all over his statement that they would never see his face again” (Ac 20:37, 38).
Suffice it to say, the Ephesian church had an incredible start. Aquila and Priscilla were founding members. The apostle Paul was their first pastor. They dramatically increased despite being in the middle of a wicked city that was thoroughly immersed in paganism. They even multiplied across Asia Minor. I was part of a church plant in North Carolina. After two years, we had only forty people, who by the way, were still packing into someone’s living room every Sunday. Paul moved the Ephesian church into a larger facility after only three months.
To borrow a phrase from every infomercial on television, but wait; there’s more.
The Ephesian church had yet another notable pastor—the apostle John. As I mentioned before, John was in Ephesus when he wrote his three epistles we now find in our Bibles. While we don’t know what kind of role John filled along with other elders in the church, I believe it’s safe to assume the church regarded John as a primary leader as long as he was with them. He was, after all, an apostle of Jesus Christ.
In short, the church in Ephesus had not one, but two apostles leading them through their early years. If you were to name a church most likely to succeed, you would have to put Ephesus at the top of your list.
Paul was a master of the Old Testament, soteriology, and systematic theology. He grasped and skillfully taught so many of the practical applications of what we know about God and salvation. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, walked with Christ for three years. He was with Jesus in the final moments and absorbed every word Christ spoke to his disciples that night. He witnessed the Lord’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. With the exception of perhaps Peter, can we name anyone better suited to give this church a strong foundation other than Paul and John?
Maybe I’ve provided more context than necessary, but I believe it will be very helpful to see the point I want us to see here in Revelation 2.
Truth wasn’t enough
As Jesus addresses the church in Ephesus, he begins with a series of commendations (Rev 2:1). Having learned this church’s background, we can’t be too surprised they were a commendable church. Again, they had a remarkably strong foundation.
Jesus says to them:
I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and you have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:2, 3)
What more could you say about a church? The Ephesian church had labored tirelessly, enduring every trial, and I can only imagine their trials were many. Jesus says they would not tolerate evil people (Rev 2:2). They wouldn’t stand to let wicked, worldly people influence the church. Even when false apostles arrived, they were wise and discerning enough reject those men and their teachings. “You have found them to be liars,” Jesus says.
Furthermore, the Ephesians didn’t grow weary. The political, social, cultural, and religious pressures—perhaps persecution even—did not cause them to back down from the truth of the gospel. They did not attempt to make the truth more palatable for the society around them. The moment any amount of heresy or false doctrine revealed itself within the congregation, they quickly put a stop to it. They believed the truth. They preached the truth. They defended the truth. They protected the truth.
Even so, Jesus adds this solemn rebuke and warning:
But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:4, 5)
What exactly does it mean for a church to abandon the love they had at first? (Rev 2:4). Some Bible commentators suggest this love is their love for Christ. Others say this love refers to their love for one another. Personally, I believe it’s most likely both.
Jesus taught that the greatest command in the law is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (Mt 22:36, 37). He, then, said, “The second greatest command is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Mt 22:39, 40).
That’s the Decalogue in a nutshell. That’s the Ten Commandments summed up in only two commandments, and we cannot follow one without also following the other. If we fail to love God, we will inevitably fail to love others. If we fail to love others, we cannot love God.
On the last night Jesus spent with his disciples before his crucifixion, he said, “As the Father has loved me, I have also loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commands you will remain in my love. This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:9, 12). Our love for God hangs on our love for others just as our love for others hangs on our love for God.
Evidently, the Ephesian church had slipped into a cold, distant, impersonal form of Christianity. They held on tightly to the truth with both hands, but they seem to have forgotten what motivated them in the beginning. They were no longer fighting for Christ. They were just fighting. They were defending an idea more than their Savior of his gospel. Their heads remained engaged while their hearts had left the battle.
No foul language
Several years ago, I read the history of a small association of Baptist churches in South Georgia and North Florida. The book covered about two-hundred years of this association’s history. At one point in the book, the author includes what was essentially an apology. He apologized because nearly every notable event in the life of this association was focused on some fight or division. One church leaves the association. Another church gets kicked out. A third splits with half staying in the association and the other half leaving. It went on and on like this for two-hundred years.
As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but wonder what everyone involved was thinking. Did they see what was happening? Did they see how petty they had become? Did they understand the consequences for their churches or the impressions they were having on the communities around them? Or, did they always think to themselves, This is about defending the truth, and nothing else matters?
Imagine I’m having a theological disagreement with someone. Let’s say we’re debating the nature of Christ. I contend that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. The other guy claims Jesus is half-God and half-human. After thirty minutes or so of going back and forth with one another, I finally stand up, walk over to him, and punch him in the nose.
If we examine that scenario, we’ll find several things wrong with it. First, I will not have led this guy to the truth. If I had been successful in planting any seeds at all, I destroyed every one of them with my violent outburst. Second, I was clearly not acting in the spirit of Christ. In fact, I broke his commandments. I violated his word. I acted outside of his truth as I was attempting to speak his truth. Third, I cannot claim to love Christ or my neighbor if I’m breaking the Lord’s commandments.
No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. Let all bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another. (Ephesians 4:29, 31, 32)
In other words, figuratively punching someone in the nose is just as disobedient as physically punching them in the nose. Furthermore, it is equally ineffective.
Lack of love was the problem
Perhaps you’d argue I’m reading too much into the text. After all, this passage in Revelation doesn’t explicitly tell us the Ephesians were unloving or ungracious, but think back to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
I remember studying and preaching through Ephesians a few years ago. When I first began my study, I already assumed the thrust of Paul’s message was salvation by grace. Then, I worked my way through the book one verse at a time and came to a different conclusion. Paul certainly teaches salvation by grace, but he primarily does so as a foundation for his teachings on church unity.
Listen to this passage from Ephesians 2:
So, then, considering all that I’ve said about salvation by grace, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh — called “the uncircumcised” by those called “the circumcised,” which is done in the flesh by human hands. At that time you were without Christ, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both groups one—that is, both Jews and Gentiles—and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In his flesh, he made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. He did this so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death. He came and proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:11-18)
He continues this theme all the way through chapter 3. Then, in chapter 4, he says:
Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)
To be clear, Paul never mentions any current divisions in the Ephesian church. Perhaps he alludes to potential problems, but he never addresses any specific issues at the time. Even so, I get the impression that he either saw cracks in the church already forming or he knew they were distinct possibilities in the future. At the very least, he sees a hint of danger in them becoming proud, aggressive, impatient, and divisive, so he reminds them to walk worthy of the calling they had received (Eph 4:1).
I suppose we can all imagine what may have happened. These people knew the truth, and they knew it well. They also knew they knew the truth, which sadly, led to arrogance. What happens when you butt heads with an arrogant person? Are they prone to be humble and gentle? No, they are much more likely be irritable and hostile. I don’t know to what degree the Ephesians became unloving and ungracious, but I have few doubts that these characteristics were part of the problem.
The Ephesians’ theology wasn’t the problem. Their zeal for the truth wasn’t the problem. Their stance against false teachers wasn’t the problem. Their willingness to suffer as they defended the truth wasn’t the problem. Jesus commends all of these things. Their lack of love was the problem. Again, Jesus says, “I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:4).
A solemn warning to repent
What comes next is a solemn warning from Christ. He says, “Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev 2:5).
Notice that Jesus mentions that the Ephesians’ problem is not altogether intangible. He exhorts them to do the works they did at first (Rev 2:5). What kind of works does he mean? I believe he has the same kind of works in mind as Paul when Paul wrote, “As we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). He’s referring to the good works we do for others out of love for one another.
In other words, the Ephesians’ problem is not just a matter of the heart. It certainly began in the heart with diminished love and a lack of concern for others, but that intangible heart issue made itself tangible through works, behavior, and even the way they spoke.
The Ephesians may have been the most doctrinally sound church of the first century, but they lacked love, and a simple lack of love was enough for Christ to threaten to remove their lampstand, that is, the very light of the church (Rev 2:5). Perhaps it’s needless to say, but a church without light ceases to be a church. Therefore, we can conclude that a church without love ceases to be a church.
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1Co 8:1). What do you suppose will stay in the air longer—a helium balloon or a carefully designed skyscraper made from strong materials? Knowledge alone is like that helium balloon. It may rise quickly and go high, but it’s nothing more than thinly veiled air. It will pop or fall back to the earth as quickly as it rose. The skyscraper, on the other hand, is like love. Its foundation is strong. It may not give us the satisfaction of rising as quickly as that balloon, but it will stand an eternity longer.
Sadly, the Ephesian church no longer exists. In fact, the entire city of Ephesus has disappeared. The Lord removed their light long ago. The last I knew, the Baptist association of churches in Georgia and Florida I mentioned has only one surviving congregation, and I believe that congregation is just a handful of people now. We cannot afford to ignore this warning in Revelation 2.
Speak the truth in love
John Newton, the slave trader who became a pastor—perhaps he is best known as the author of “Amazing Grace”—once wrote:
It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. If ever such defenses were seasonable and expedient, they appear to be so in our day, when errors abound on all sides, and every truth of the Gospel is either directly denied, or grossly misinterpreted.
Even so, he goes on to write, “If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, [insult], or scorn, we may think we are doing service to the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit.”
Furthermore, he says:
What will it profit a man if he gains his cause, and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, into which the promise of his presence is made!
Newton’s words are just as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth century. Perhaps we’ve all known of churches that abandoned the truth in pursuit of what they believe to be love. Maybe we’ve also known churches to forsake love in a misguided attempt to defend truth. As I’ve already admitted, I’ve been prone in the past to err toward the latter, but a choice between truth and love is never one a Christian has to make. We never have to compromise one for the other. If we compromise one, we lose both.
Writing to the Ephesians, Paul says:
Speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head — Christ. From him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building itself up in love by the proper working of each individual part. (Ephesians 4:15, 16)
Notice how the entire health and growth of the church depends on speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Requirement number one: We must speak the truth. Requirement number two: We must speak in love. For the sake of the church as a whole, we must have both. It is not an exaggeration to claim that tempering truth with love is what keeps the fire burning. If, on the other hand, we lose love, no amount of zeal for the truth will save us. Christ threatens to remove our lampstand if we abandon the love we had at first (Rev 2:5, 4).
I’ll leave you with a final encouragement from John Newton. He writes:
Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of Hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts, that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit.