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WHEN NIGHTMARES COME TRUE: The Trumpet Judgments of Revelation 8 and 9

Revelation: Because the Time Is Near

Study #13: “When Nightmares Come True: The Trumpet Judgments of Revelation 8:1—9:21″

(To listen to or download the audio version of this lesson, click Audio.)

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1988 was the year Time magazine marked the beginning of the end. Every year until then, the magazine celebrated the New Year by naming a man or woman as their person of the year and printing their picture on its cover. But in 1988 they departed from tradition and named “Endangered Earth” as Planet of the Year.

They then invited thirty-three scientists and political leaders from 10 different countries to a 3-day conference in Boulder, Colorado, asking them to come up with a plan to save Planet Earth. Pointing to the destruction of the world’s rain forests, the depletion of the ozone layer, droughts in our own Southwest, and killer hurricanes in the Caribbean, Time concluded: “For decades, scientists have warned of the consequences of all this profligacy. No one paid attention. This year the earth spoke, like God warning Noah” of the Flood to come.

Lester Brown of Worldwatch, warned, “We do not have generations, only years, to turn things around.” John Eddy of the Corporation for Atmospheric Research agreed, “We’ve got to get the earth into intensive care, to monitor the vital signs of our planet.”

Of course, since then, fears have skyrocketed. Now there’s the concern of global warming, the melting of the polar ice caps, mammoth earthquakes, and dozens of other signs that the end is near. All of which is promoted by Hollywood on both the big and small screen in post-apocalyptic films and television shows like “The Fifth Wave,” “I Am Legend,” “Oblivion, and “The Last Ship.”

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But our question in this study is not what scientists and politicians think about things, but what does God say in His Holy Word? Are we, as Barry McGuire sang in the 1960’s, on “The Eve of Destruction?” The Bible says, “Yes,” not because of man’s abuse of the planet, but because of his rebellion against God. In Revelation 8 and 9, the Lord Himself describes the future of our planet, and the news is not good. The environmentalists’ worst fears are realized. Earth is devastated by plague after plague, leaving it virtually uninhabitable.

But the cause is not global warming, as some predict; it’s Jesus Christ, our Creator, who has reserved the right to judge this world in righteousness–a reminder that more important than our environmental efforts is the need to prepare ourselves body, soul, and spirit for His Return. To see why that’s important, let me emphasize three facts about His judgment.

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  1. HOW JUDGMENT IS INTRODUCED IN HEAVEN

In a previous study, we learned that the opening of the seventh seal marks the midpoint of the Tribulation and the releasing of seven trumpets of judgment. Now we see that for ourselves. As Jesus breaks the final seal, seven trumpets are handed to seven angels who are about to blow destruction on the earth. And yet, before they do, three merciful events take place in heaven.

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First, there is silence in heaven for about half an hour. Revelation 8:1 says, “When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.  And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.” What is the significance of this silence? John doesn’t say for sure, but I think it’s the “calm before the storm.” In fact, what’s ominous about it is that it’s preceded by billions of saints and angels singing God’s praises around His throne. But when the final seal is opened, heaven falls silent in recognition of the terrible judgment about to strike the earth. It is a moment of reverential silence for God’s majesty and sorrow for those who are about to die.

Second, incense is offered on the altar, meaning that we the Church are praying again. Verse 3 says, “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” For centuries the church has been praying, “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But sometimes we wonder if our prayers are doing any good. “After all, the world doesn’t seem to be getting any better!” But here we see that our prayers do make a difference! In fact, not one prayer prayed for the coming of God’s kingdom is ever forgotten by God. He stores up every prayer in heaven and will suddenly answer at the opening of the seventh seal.

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Warren Wiersbe warns, “Like it or not, the prayers of God’s people are involved in the judgments He sends. The throne and altar are related. The purpose of prayer, as is said, is not to get man’s will done in heaven, but God’s will done on earth—even if it involves judgment. True prayer is serious business. So we had better not move the altar too far from the throne!”

Finally, the third thing that happens before the seventh seal is opened is that thunder and lightning pour forth from God’s throne. Verse 5 says, “Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.” These final phenomena are not intended to injure anyone, since they do not proceed from the trumpets. Instead, they’re a final warning to those on earth to repent before judgment falls.

The Apostle Peter reminds us, “God is not willing for any to perish, but that all should come to repentance.” Ezekiel 33:11 adds, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die?” says the Lord. The truth is, judgment is coming and sinners will be punished. But we can be pardoned of our wrongs, if we recognize our sinfulness and turn to Christ in faith. That’s how judgment is introduced in heaven. Now notice—

  1. HOW JUDGMENT IS ENACTED ON EARTH

Trumpet #1: 33% of Earth’s Vegetation Destroyed

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Verse 7 describes the blast of the first trumpet. “The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.” This is reminiscent of the seventh plague in Egypt. When Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go, hail and fire rained down from heaven and destroyed every man and beast left outdoors. But this plague is immeasurably worse, for it falls not on one nation, but on the whole earth, consuming one-third of the trees and all the green grass.

This Greek word for trees refers to “fruit trees,” which means that the world’s fruit production will immediately be cut by 33%. The destruction of all green grass will also bring an end to the world’s daily industry, cripple the world’s meat industry, and destroy the wheats and grains that give us our daily bread. Add to that the fact that 25% of the pharmaceuticals in use today contain ingredients derived from wild plants, and it means the new diseases  unleashed at this time will have little chance of being cured. Even now environmentalists worry about the medical repercussions of the world’s rain forests being destroyed. Biologist Daniel Jantzen of the University of Pennsylvania warned, “I know of three plants with the potential of treating AIDS. One grows in an Australian rain forest, one in Panama, and one in Costa Rica.” Add to this the fact that trees are the world’s oxygen-producers, and it means that mankind is in serious trouble.

Trumpet #2: 33% of Marine Life Destroyed

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Verse 8 continues, “The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” Exactly what this mountain is, John doesn’t say. It could be a comet, an underwater volcano, or something the world has never before seen. But it brings with it three disasters. 1) A third of the saltwater is turned to blood. This reminds us of the first plague in Egypt, which turned the Nile River to blood and caused all of the fish in the river to die. 2) A third of the creatures in the sea die. Whether this is due to a great explosion or the pollution of the waters with blood, the fishing industry will find itself on the edge of collapse, especially when—

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3) A third of all ships are destroyed. According to the most recent statistics, there are 87,483 ocean-going merchant ships and naval ships on earth. Imagine the economic shock waves if 29,000 of them were suddenly sunk! And what about their cargo? Some of you remember in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil, killing thousands of oil-soaked birds, polluting the coastline, and closing fisheries. That was the result of just one oil spill. Try to imagine the environmental impact if 1/3 of the world’s oil tankers were ripped apart at the seams all at the same time!

Trumpet #3: 33% of Freshwater Destroyed

Verse 10 adds, “The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood.  A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.” Job 9 says that God has named all His stars, one of which is called “Wormwood.” Its mission? To fall to earth at the blast of the third trumpet and poison the freshwater of the world.

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The National Geographic lists 100 principal rivers on earth, ranging from the Amazon (4,000 miles long) to the Rio de la Plata (150 miles long). These and the countless streams, lakes, and springs comprise the lifeline of humanity. But at the falling of “Wormwood,”1/3 of them will become undrinkable. In fact, that’s what “wormwood” means. It means “undrinkable,” but many thirsty people will die from trying to do so, because there is no other source of freshwater available.

How could Wormwood be a literal star? If it were, wouldn’t that mean the end of the earth? Not necessarily. Evolutionary scientists have postulated for years that what killed the dinosaurs was a giant meteor that struck the earth 70 million years ago. Besides, if a meteor entered earth’s atmosphere, chances are it would split into countless pieces, raining down its poison on all the rivers and lakes of the world. But given that this is a supernatural judgment, we don’t have to understand how He will do it, for “with God nothing shall be impossible!”

Trumpet #4: 33% of Light Darkened

Verse 12 adds, “The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.”

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This is similar to the ninth plague of Egypt, when darkness fell upon the land, except in this case darkness covers the entire earth and lasts not three days, but until the fourth bowl judgment in Revelation 16, when the sun’s power increases scorching everyone who continues to reject Jesus Christ. Nor can this darkness be attributed to an eclipse, because it also affects both the moon and the start. Instead, it’s the cosmic phenomenon of which both the prophets and the Lord Jesus spoke. Joel wrote, “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”

If their light is diminished by one-third, it could mean that daylight will only be two-thirds as bright as now—like reading by the light of a 60-watt instead of a 100-watt bulb. Try that tonight and you’ll see the difference. Furthermore, the night will be a third darker than it’s ever been before, throwing the world into a panic. It will also create an energy crisis as the demand for electricity and other light sources increase. And it will lead to an unprecedented crime wave. Jesus warned, “Men loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” The truth is most major crimes are committed under the cloak of darkness. So, if it remains dark all day long, imagine the immediate rise in robberies, vandalism, rape, murder, and other violent crimes!

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That, then, is how judgment is introduced in heaven and enacted on earth. Now let’s spend our last few minutes noticing how the suffering is exacerbated by hell.

  1. HOW JUDGMENT IS EXACERBATED BY HELL

In verse 13 we find yet another evidence of Christ’s mercy. Before He allows the final blasts of the last three trumpets, He sends an angel to warn the world of greater judgment to come. Some versions translate the word “eagle” instead of “angel.” Warren Wiersbe says this may be the living creature before God’s throne with the face of an eagle who is now sent on a final mission of mercy. John says, “As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!”

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The word “woe” is a strong word in Greek—a loud verbal warning that something terrible is to follow. The fact that it’s repeated three times emphasizes that the last three trumpets will bring on the most terrible suffering mankind has ever known. And yet, how many listen and repent? Not many. Why? The explanation is found in the phrase, “inhabitants of the earth.” This means more than “people who live on the earth.” The phrase is used 12 times in Revelation. Each time it describes a kind of people—those who love this world and give no thought to heaven to come. They will therefore die in their sins. In this study, we’ll look at the first two “woes,” because the third “woe” doesn’t come until Revelation 11.

Trumpet #5: Demonic Locusts

Revelation 9:1 begins, “Then the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star from heaven which had fallen to the earth; and the key of the bottomless pit was given to him.” Who is this “star?” Verse 11 is clear. He’s an angel—“the angel of the bottomless pit,” indicating hell is his home. Have we met him before? Yes, he is the evil one described by Jesus when He said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18) At his initial rebellion, Lucifer lost his place as a covering cherub (Ezek. 28:14) who guarded the holiness of God. But according to Job 1 and Revelation 12, he still has access to heaven. He is the accuser of the brethren who accuses us “before our God day and night.” But at the midpoint of the Tribulation, that will end. Lucifer will be permanently banned from heaven, leading him to torment mankind in ways that defy description.

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The torment begins when he is given the key to the bottomless pit. You see, contrary to popular belief, the devil is not the king of hell. Nor does he enjoy unlimited power even in that evil place. For before he can release the demons from the “bottomless pit,” what must happen? Jesus must hand him the key. (See Revelation 1:8.) What then comes out of this pit? Two things: 1) Smoke “like the smoke of a great furnace.” This is a sober reminder to those who scoff at the idea of a literal hell, for both Jesus and John describe it as a “furnace of fire.” In fact, the smoke of this furnace is so severe it pollutes the air and further darkens the sun, which was already darkened by one-third at the fourth trumpet.

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2) Locusts sent to torment mankind. Joel warned in his prophecy, “Blow the trumpet in Zion . . . Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble; for the day of the Lord is coming . . . a day of darkness and gloom . . . a people come, great and strong, the like of whom has never been; nor will there ever be any such after them . . . surely nothing shall escape them. Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; and like swift steeds, so they run. With a noise like chariots over mountaintops they leap, like the noise of a flaming fire that devours the stubble, like a strong people set in battle array. Before them the people writhe in pain; all faces are drained of color.”

Revelation 9:7 adds, “The appearance of the locusts was like horses prepared for battle; and on their heads appeared to be crowns like gold, and their faces were like the faces of men.  They had hair like the hair of women, and their teeth were like the teeth of lions.  They had breastplates like breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots, of many horses rushing to battle. They have tails like scorpions, and stings; and in their tails is their power to hurt men for five months.”

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Who or what are these locusts? The descriptions make it clear that they are not ordinary locusts. First, they have a king, something Proverbs 30:27 says is untrue of ordinary locusts. Second, they have stingers in their tails, something else normal locusts do not have. Third, they do not devour vegetation. Instead, verse 4 commands them not to “harm the grace of the earth or any green thing.” For the purpose of their existence is to torment those who reject the Lordship of Christ. What, then, could these locusts be? Demons! That’s evident not only from the identity of their king. The Bible often calls demons “the devil’s angels.” But it is clear from their origin. They come up out of the “bottomless pit.” What is the bottomless pit? It is the prison where Satan will be “jailed” for a thousand years during Christ’s millennial kingdom on earth (Rev. 20:3), and it is also the place where millions of fallen angels, who have never been allowed to roam the earth, are being kept until Tribulation. Peter explains, “God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness . . . reserved for the judgment of the great day.” (2 Pet. 2:4)

It’s frightening to realize that right now, hidden somewhere in the depths of the earth, are millions of vicious demons about to be unleashed on this earth like a massive plague of locusts, tormenting all who reject the love of Christ.

Finally, notice their power. Verse 3 says, “And to them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not given authority to kill them, but to torment them for five months. And their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it strikes a man. In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them.”

Satan is a con artist who tells us that sin leads to happiness. But here is another example of how sin leads to suffering. His demons are not allowed to kill those on earth (Satan can only do what Jesus allows), but are allowed to torment men for five months. This is the normal lifespan of a locust (May to September). How do they do this? With scorpion-like stingers in their tails which inflict such unbearable pain that the victims will want to die, but be unable to do so.

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Hal Lindsey comments, “The sting will be so painful that men will wish they could die. History records that ancient Roman soldiers were famous for their ability to take pain without flickering an eye. But when several of them were stung by scorpions in the desert of Egypt, they screamed and writhed in pain. Scorpion stings are among the most painful wounds a person can endure.”

Finally, notice with me the sixth trumpet judgment and the suffering it brings.

Trumpet #6: Demonic Horsemen

Verse 13: “Then the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar that is before God, one saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.’ And the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, were released, so they would kill a third of mankind. The number of the armies of the horsemen was two hundred million; I heard the number of them. And this is how I saw in the vision the horses and those who sat on them: the riders had breastplates the color of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone; and the heads of the horses are like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths proceed fire and smoke and brim-stone.  A third of mankind was killed by these three plagues, by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which proceeded out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails are like serpents and have heads, and with them they do harm.”

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The sixth trumpet releases four angels who are bound at the Euphrates River. They can’t be good angels, since there is no good reason for a holy angel to be bound. Instead, they are four super-demons who will lead an army of death across the earth! Why are they bound at the Euphrates River? Historically, the Euphrates is the natural boundary between Asia and the Middle East—a barrier that any conquering army would have to cross. But more important than that, it has an age-old spiritual significance. This was the sight of the Tower of Babel and Babylon, the “mother” of idolatry and false religion. Indeed, Revelation 18:2 says that during the Tribulation, Babylon will again become “a habitation of demons, a prison for every foul spirit.” The point is, somewhere right now near the ancient city of Babylon, there is a group of demons waiting to be released, so they can lead an army which shall destroy mankind.

What army will they lead? Some say this is a symbolic reference to Russia’s invasion of Israel in Ezekiel 38-39. Others say they’re “the kings of the east”—200 million Asian soldiers who cross the Euphrates to fight in the final battle of Armageddon. But I believe when the plain sense of Scripture makes good sense, we should seek no other sense. Therefore, since nothing in the context suggests a human army (the description sounds demonic), I believe  like the first trumpet judgment, this is another attack by an army of demons who have been bound until now. How many in their army? John is precise. The Greek literally says, “10,000 times 10,000 times 2” or 200 million demonic horsemen. And then, to make sure we don’t spiritualize it, he adds, “I heard the number of them,” indicating that the number is to be taken literally.

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Imagine the destruction that would result if 200 million additional demons were allowed to join forces with the powers of evil already at work in the world! John describes their impact in verse 18 to 19. He says it will lead to three more deadly plagues—fire, smoke, and brimstone. The result will be the death of another third of mankind. In Revelation 6:8, John said one-fourth of humanity would die from the first four seals. In Revelation 8:11, he said “many” more will die. Now, as a result of these plagues, a third of the remaining population will lose their lives. This means at least half the world’s population, or using today’s statistics, 3.5 billion of the 7 billion people on earth will die by the end of the sixth trumpet.

But the saddest fact is how the survivors respond to these judgments. You would think that five months of torment would drive unbelieving sinners to their knees in repentance. But such is not the case. Verse 20 says, “The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.”

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Their sins explain their lack of repentance. “Magic arts” is the Greek word pharmakia from which we get our word “pharmaceuticals.” In other words, the war on drugs will be lost. Those who remain alive will give themselves wholeheartedly to their addictions, seeking escape from the reality of God’s judgment. And in doing so, they will open themselves up to demonic possession becoming slaves to the millions of demons that have been let loose on the earth.

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Now think back on the judgments you’ve read about. It may seem fantastic, but every word is true and about to take place. Will you be prepared for it? Have you bowed your heart in repentance and receive Christ’s gracious gift of salvation?

The story is told of a prince traveling through France who visited the prison at Toulon where the most hardened criminals were kept. Because of his nobility, he was allowed to release one of the condemned men. So he went from prisoner to prisoner, inquiring why they were there. All claimed to be innocent insisting they were there by mistake. Only one admitted his crime. “My lord, as much as I long to be free, I’m guilty. I’ve committed many crimes and have nothing to say except I deserve to be here.” The prince listened and then in a loud voice shouted, “You miserable wretch! You should not be here among these ‘honest’ men. You are bad enough to corrupt them all.” Then, turning to the officer in charge, he commanded, “This is the man I’ve chosen. Release him at once!”

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The same is true of you and me. We have sinned many times and in many ways. We deserve judgment. But God in His mercy is willing to pardon us, if we confess our sin and turn to Jesus in repentance and faith. So, if you haven’t done so, turn to Christ today. Why face God’s judgment, when you can be forgiven and free!

(To download the written version of this study, click Written Message.)

Revelation Study #3: Ephesus – How could they lose their love for Jesus?

Study #3: The Letter to the Church in Ephesus

(For the audio message, click here – Audio – or right click the link, choose “save as,” give it a name and save it to your computer.  For the written message, click this link – Written – or right click the link, choose “save as,” give it a name and save it to your computer. Pray first. Then help us get the word out that Jesus is coming again by emailing the message to your family and friends. If you’d like to use my Powerpoint presentation to teach this passage to others, simply click on the link – Slides – and it should download them to your computer.)

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Jim Elliot was one of five young missionaries martyred by the Auca Indians of Ecuador. Jim was from Portland, Oregon and 29 years old at the time.  His advice serves as both an explanation and epitaph for his life.  He said, “Wherever you are, be all there.  Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” Or to say it another way, do nothing halfheartedly. If you think something is worth doing and pleasing to Christ, then be eager, excited, and enthusiastic about it.  Do it with every emotion fully engaged!

You say, “Is that Biblical?”  Listen to these clear words from the Lord.  Colossians 3:23, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men.”  Romans 12:11 adds, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” And Ecclesiastes 9:10 urges us, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”

So it’s Biblical to be passionate about what you’re doing. And not just Biblical, it’s also just plain common sense. Emerson was right. “Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm!”  Unfortunately, many Christians have lost their zeal, letting the disappointments and difficulties of life rob them of their enthusiasm.  Have you?  Then no wonder life seems dull.

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I’m told there’s a sign at one point along the Alaskan Highway that warns: “Choose your rut carefully! You’ll be in it for the next 200 miles!”  Sad to say, that’s what many of us do. Instead of living life to the max, we trudge along in the sameness and safeness of our daily routines, refusing to get excited about anything.  Why?  We’re afraid we might be disappointed.  Is that true of you?  Have you lost the joy of walking in moment-by-moment fellowship with Jesus, our Risen Lord?

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That’s what happened to the believers in Ephesus.  In this week’s study of Revelation, we begin the letters to the seven churches of Asia.  That was John’s assignment while exiled on the island of Patmos.  He was to write seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, churches he helped to plant and pastor. And in introducing these letters, I think it’s only fair to mention some Bible teachers see a prophetic pattern in these letters—that they are not only seven letters written to seven churches in the first century, which serve as examples to all the churches in  church history to come; they also see in them an outline of church history leading up to the return of Christ. For example, Ephesus is the apostolic church that lasted from 33 to 64 AD when official persecution broke out (this is the second stage of church history) against the church for over two hundred years from 65 to 313 AD. Then it’s the compromising churches of Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis, followed by the great missionary sending churches of the 1700, 1800, and 1900’s, until we come to the lukewarm Laodicean church of today, which thinks it’s rich but is poor, blind, and naked because of how far it’s wondered from the simple faith of the gospel.

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Now to the letters themselves. John is told in Revelation 1:19, “Therefore, write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.”  This is the first prophecy of the book which takes us all the way through chapter 11, giving us a chronology of the last days before Christ’s return to the earth as King.  But we can’t overlook the second prophecy of this book, which comes later in Revelation 10:11.  There John is commanded to “prophesy again about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings.” In other words, what we find in the second half of this book, is a topical study in which John goes back and fills in the details about key characters and events mentioned in chapters 4 to 11.

But today our focus is the church of Ephesus, the super-church of its day and a spiritual model for us in every way but one.  For though they served Christ faithfully and well, notice what Jesus says to them in Revelation 2:5, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”  What that means and how to keep it from happening to us and the church we attend is the goal of our study.  Let’s read the first part of the letter. Then I want to look at several facts about it.

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Jesus says to John in 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: ‘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; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.” First of all, let me share a few facts about the city itself.

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  1. City

Ephesus was one of the most populous cities of its time.  Historian estimate that it was the home of half a million people.  Second, it was a prosperous city.  It was one of the great seaports and major banking centers of its day, boasting the largest and safest vault in all of Asia. Furthermore, it was a pluralistic city.  Located on the main trade route in Asia Minor, Ephesus attracted people from every religious and ethnic background.  The most popular religion was the worship of Diana, her Temple one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens.  But it was a perverted city.  Diana worship was nothing more than the worship of sex.  The goddess was a many-breasted idol symbolizing fertility, and one of the popular ways of worshiping her was temple prostitution.

Cheryl and I had the privilege of visiting the ruins of Ephesus a few years ago, and several things still stand out in our minds.  First, the enormity and modernity of the city. The first we were shown on our tour were the public toilets, which consisted of a long stone bench with a hole for each person to sit over and a trough beneath it with water carrying away the waste.  Then it was on to the library of Celsus, one of the great libraries of the first century. But as we walked down the path towards it, the guide pointed out several footprints in the stone.  They were there to help the young men of the city find their way to the house of prostitution.

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  1. Challenges

Of course, living in a culturally diverse society has its challenges.  Similar to our present culture, tolerance was the great virtue at the time.  The Christians in Ephesus were left alone if they kept their mouths shut, restricted their teaching and worship to their church services, and didn’t interfere with the religions of others. Sound familiar? One graphic example is Acts 19:24. We’re told that before Paul visited the city, one of the most prosperous trades was selling little silver statues of Diana.  But then Paul began to preach against idolatry and it put a major dent in their business, leading to a riot that engulfed the entire city. Verse 29 says that he and other Christians were dragged into the amphitheater.  Cheryl and I stood in that amphitheater, and we can attest that it could have held up to 50,000 people.  And for two hours, the city shouted, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians! Great is Diana of the Ephesians.”

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So rather than getting too excited about anything, the Christians in Ephesus learned to temper their zeal and tolerate the immorality and false religions around them. They themselves would never allow false teaching in their church meetings.  Verse 2 is very clear about that. But, as they watched their neighbors persisting in their heresy and sin, they found their passion for Christ beginning to wane.  Because what ignites our love for Christ is sharing it with others.

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We face the same challenge today.  For what are we told is the politically correct thing to do when we see sin in our society?  “Be tolerant!  This is a culturally diverse country, and if we don’t accept one another’s difference, we won’t survive!” And I’m all for tolerance as long as it doesn’t weaken our love for Christ or our commitment to the things He’s told us to do, like sharing the truth about Jesus in love with our families, neighbors, and friends.

  1. Commitment

Verse 2 continues, “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil.  And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars.”  Jesus credits this church with three major commitments.

They worked hard for Christ. The word “labor” means to “labor to the point of exhaustion.”  This was a hard-working church which had overcome the 20/80 rule.  What is the 20/80 rule?  It is when 20% of the congregation does 80% of the work and the rest sit back and enjoy the fruit of someone else’s labor. But that wasn’t a problem in Ephesus.  Everyone was involved and using their spiritual gifts.  Is that true of you?  Remember, the important thing is not what you do to serve Christ, but that you do something to bless Christ and His people.

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The story is told of Michael Costa, the great conductor. He was directing a rehearsal in which a large orchestra was joined by an even larger choir. Halfway through the session, with trumpets blaring, drums rolling, and violins singing, the piccolo player stopped playing. “After all,” he said to himself, “what good am I? No one can hear me.” So he kept the instrument in his mouth, but made no sound. With that the conductor brought the rehearsal to a grinding half, shouting, “Stop! Stop! Where is my piccolo player?” Likewise, there are times when we feel that what we are doing for Christ makes no different. But don’t let that dampen your passion for doing it. Remember, Jesus notices even the smallest cup of cold water given in His name.

They suffered long for Christ. Jesus doesn’t specify how they suffered. Most likely it was some form of persecution. But they endured it. When it was hardest to serve, they served the hardest. They were tough, strong, and resilient. For verse 3 reads, “And you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.” That is a good reminder to us all. We cannot serve Christ without some degree of suffering. The devil will make sure of it. As Paul warns in 2 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Dr. Richard DeHaan, editor of Our Daily Bread, explains why. “To come to Christ costs nothing. To follow Christ costs something. To serve Christ costs everything.” For those who are suffering as you read this, let me ask you: Will you let your suffering deepen your love for Christ? Or will you allow it to make you bitter and kill your passion for Him?

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They remained true to Christ. You can see this in the middle of verse 2. It reads, “And you cannot bear those who are evil.” In other words, they wouldn’t put up with sin in their church, no matter what form it took—sexual immorality, drunkenness, greed. And it continues, “You have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars.” This is a reference to false teaching. In fact, this verse sums up in a sentence the two categories of sin for which we are to exercise church discipline. People often wonder, “If you practice church discipline, how do you know what to correct? After all, the Bible says ‘we all stumble in many ways.’” But this verse makes it clear. We’re not to nitpick at the minor flaws in one another’s personalities, for ‘love covers a multitude of faults.’ It is only flagrant cases of immorality and heresy we’re to correct, lest they influence others. And if we don’t correct them, Jesus will.

4.     Correction

In spite of their faithfulness, Jesus had to correct them. In fact, He begins verse 4 with the strongest Greek connective possible. “Nevertheless,” He says, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” By the way, many people misquote this verse. They say, “You have lost your first love.” But that would shift the blame making someone or something else the cause of our attitude shift, maybe even the Lord Himself. “Oh, I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” we say. “The Lord has allowed this or that to happen, and it’s made me lose my enthusiasm as a result!” But when we lose something, it’s accidental. Isn’t it? But Jesus says this was intentional. “You have left (the word means to “abandon”) your first love.”

How could this happen? How could a person walk with Christ, be filled with His Spirit, excited about serving Him, and suddenly lose his enthusiasm for Christ? The answer is: Easily. All we have to do is give the strength of our love to something other than Christ—a person, a project, a possession, a hope, a dream, an ambition—and by definition we’ve left our first love.

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Think about the Ephesians—how hard they worked for Christ and how faithful they were to the Scriptures. In fact, this church enjoyed the most dynamic procession of pastors in history. First, Paul, then Timothy, then Apollos, then John. But, then, the best Bible teaching in the world does not guarantee a revival. For the Word not only has to be preached in love; it also has to be received in love. And early on Paul noticed among the Ephesians a tendency to substitute duty for love. Listen to his final statement to them in his epistle to the Ephesians. “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.” In other words, right from the beginning he felt the need to warn them about their attitudes, that even more important than what we do for Christ is why and how we do it. Are we doing it out of love?

Could this happen to you? If you are a serious student of the Bible, you are in the high risk group. Hal Lindsey warns, “I’ve seen this pattern develop in both churches and individuals, and it seems to be the special weakness of those who are Biblical well-taught. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that the deep teaching of God’s Word promotes spiritual coolness, but any prolonged study of the Bible which doesn’t produce a great love for Christ is worthless!”

It is so common and dangerous that Jesus issues this warning to us in verse 5. He says, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place.” The lampstands, you’ll recall from chapter 1, are symbols of the churches. So this is warning that Jesus Christ, the Lord of the churches, reserves for Himself the right to disband a church and scatter its members if they do not change their attitudes. This is what happened to the church in Ephesus. Today both the church and city are gone. Silt from the rivers flowing into their harbor filled it up, so that today the harbor is 35 miles away and all that remains of the city is a swamp and a few ruins.

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This might not be such a concern to me if I hadn’t see it happen to two of the churches where I served, churches that were once full of excitement about what the Lord was doing. But for reasons I won’t go into, one church no longer exists and the other has but a handful of people remaining, trying to decide, “Do we keep on meeting? Or is it time to disband?”

  1. Counsel

Of course, Doctor Jesus never leaves His people without an effective treatment plan. Here He counsels three steps. First, He says we need to hear. “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Notice the word “churches” is plural. You see, even though this letter was originally written to Ephesians, its words are relevant for every church in every age and culture. For even if you’ve understood everything in this letter, it’s possible that you have gradually allowed other things to become more important to you than your love for Jesus. Therefore, like removing wax from your ears so you can hear, Jesus tells us to remove anything and everything that would keep us from taking the steps He’s advising. The second of which is to remember. “Remember therefore from where you have fallen.” This is an invitation to think back over your Christian life, remember the wonderful beginning you had with Christ, and to ask the Holy Spirit to help you identify how and why you let your passion die.

Finally, He says to repent. In fact, He repeats it twice for the spiritually hard of hearing. “Repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent!” He is referring to our attitudes, that just as we chose to give our love to something other than Christ, in the same way we now have the ability to change our attitudes. In fact, that’s what the word “repentance” means. It means to make a change in your thinking. To realize once again that there is nothing better in life than knowing and serving Jesus. And it’s amazing once that decision is made, how quickly our love for Christ returns.

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I’ve been guilty of losing my zeal several times over the course of my Christian life. I still remember the first time. I was in college majoring in religion and philosophy and taking classes that denied the Word of God. But I began my degree in that field, and I was determined to finish it there. But as I did, I found my Christian faith beginning to suffer. No longer did I have the joy of my salvation. Next to go was the assurance of my salvation. Soon I felt like I was losing my mind. That’s when a Christian friend suggested that I drop out of school and take time to re-evaluate. “I can’t do that!” I argued. “I have too much invested in this course of study.” But the more I agonized, the more I realized he was right. In fact, the moment I decided to drop those courses, peace flooded my soul and my joy returned.

Unbeknownst to me, as a new believer, I was pursuing a goal which was leading me away from Christ and in the process making me miserable. But the moment I changed my mind, my mood completely changed. I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs how much I loved the Lord. I also started attending and serving at a church where I met my wife. But that’s a story for another time. The point is I took time to remember from where I had fallen and I began to do again the things I did at first—like worshiping the Lord, serving in His church, and telling others about His great love.

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Some time ago, I was listening to the weatherman on the evening news. The temperature was dropping quickly. So he took a moment to warn his listeners about the danger of frostbite. He described four progressive symptoms: 1) a feeling of extreme coldness; 2) a sensation of tingling; 3) numbness; and finally, 4) a loss of all feeling.

I thought to myself, “Spiritual frostbite isn’t much different!” It begins with a loss of warmth toward God and His people. Next a sense of tingling sets in—little pangs of guilt and shame. But we fail to act on it, so we become numb. There is an awareness that something is wrong. We notice that people don’t care about spiritual things the way they once did. We talk about our church and country needing revival. And we complain that no one is doing anything about it. But we don’t do anything either. That leads to a gradual but certain loss of all spiritual feeling—no interest in the Bible, no concern for the lost, no desire for worship.

Have you noticed any of these symptoms? Then turn to Doctor Jesus for help! For your condition is desperate. You need to hear, remember, and repent. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”