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Will the Real 144,000 Please Stand Up? (Rev. 7:1-17)

Revelation: Because the Time Is Near

Study #12: “Will the Real 144,000 Please Stand Up?” (Rev. 7:1-17)

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Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. When he arrived at Auschwitz, the infamous death camp, he was stripped of everything—his family, his property, even his life’s work, a manuscript hidden in the lining of his coat. The book outlined concepts he later called logotherapy—the necessity of finding purpose in life. He wrote, “I underwent and had to overcome the loss of my spiritual child. Now it seemed as if nothing and no one in life would survive me; neither a physical or spiritual child of my own! I found myself confronted with the question of whether under such circumstances life is worth living.”

While still wrestling with that question, the Nazis made the prisoners give up their clothes. Frankl recalls, “I surrendered my clothes and inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who was sent to the gas chamber. Instead of my manuscript, I found in the pocket of his coat a page torn from a Hebrew prayer book. It contained the sacred prayer, Shema Yisrael. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God, and you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” “How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to ‘live’ my beliefs instead of merely putting them on paper?”

Looking back, Frankl explained how he survived the death camp. “There is nothing in the world that can so effectively help one survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how.’”

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The evidence for that statement is found in this study. In our last lesson, we read about a future holocaust of God’s people that will make Hitler’s Holocaust seem small by comparison. Innumerable multitudes will be martyred for their faith. For that reason, Revelation 6 ended with a statement and a question, “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (6:17) This week’s study answers that question. In Revelation 7, we read the testimony of two distinct groups of believers who will suffer the horrors of the Tribulation but ultimately overcome both Satan and his Antichrist. The first group, described in verses 1 to 8, are Jews who will survive both temptation and death. The second group, described in verse 9 to 17, are Gentiles who also overcome the lies of Antichrist, but not without dying for their faith.

As we learn about each group of overcomers, look for the “why” that made their suffering bearable. It may give you strength to endure the trial you’re facing.

  1. 144,000 JEWS FOR JESUS

Some time ago, my wife and I were visiting our community, knocking on doors and sharing our testimony for Christ. At one door, we were met by a confident fellow who asked, “What can I do for you folks today?” “Well,” I explained, “we’re surveying your neighborhood for our church and wondering, ‘Do you attend church in our community?’” “No, we don’t go to church,” he firmly replied, pointing to something on his doorpost. “We go to synagogue.” It was a Mezuzah, a decorative case with Shema Yisrael inside it. So I quickly backtracked and tried to establish some common ground. I told him how much we appreciated the Jewish people. “After all, you not only gave us our Bible, you also gave us our Messiah!” “Is that so?” he said with a condescending grin. “Well, it’s good to hear that one of our boys finally made good!” Gulp.

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Sad to say, that’s been the attitude of most Jews down through the centuries. Not all Jews. In every generation, there’s been a believing remnant who have worshiped Jesus as their Messiah. But as a whole, the people of Israel have been opposed to the Gospel since it was first preached. In the first century, they were responsible for much of the persecution against the church. Remember Paul before his conversion? Today, their opposition is more passive. They just don’t care! As a result, God has temporarily set Israel aside as His chosen vessels, and is now working through a new body called the Church. (See Romans 9 to 11.)

But the good news is that one day Israel’s blindness will be healed! In Romans 11:25-26, Paul warns his Gentile readers against anti-Semitism and pride: “For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that hardening in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved!” One day God’s work with the church will be finished. One day the last Gentile sinner will accept Christ and the Bride of Christ will be removed from earth to heaven at the Rapture. At that point, God’s focus will shift back to the Jews, who will become His special witnesses on earth. The first-fruits of that generation are found here in Revelation 7—144,000 Jewish evangelists who will win the world to Christ. Notice three important facts about them.

a. Their Sealing

John writes in Revelation 7:1-3, “After these things I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God. And he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, ‘Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.’”

 

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Who are the mighty angels who will stand at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth? The context makes it clear. They are the four angels who are about to blow God’s trumpets of judgment. For John says they have been given authority to “harm the earth and the sea.” Much of the damage will be the result of drastic weather changes on earth, for their judgments are directly connected to the blowing of the wind. Those of you who have been through a tornado, a hurricane, or a forest fire fed by the wind know its awesome power. Furthermore, officials at the National Weather Service warn that capricious jet streams flowing through the upper atmosphere can also cause sudden shifts in weather patterns that can result in floods, blizzards, and droughts. Imagine the carnage that will take place when these natural forces are empowered by the supernatural judgment of God.

Before these angels can release their judgments, however, a special act of mercy is performed for the servants of God. They are sealed on their foreheads. What is the purpose of this sealing? In Biblical times, a king would seal a document by pressing his signet ring into melted wax on a scroll. This signified possession because the document now bore the king’s image. So it will be with the 144,000! This sealing will, first of all, identify them as belonging to Christ. Revelation 14:1 says they will have “His Father’s name written on their foreheads!” This is in direct contrast to the followers of Antichrist who, as a sign of loyalty to him, will choose to wear the mark of the Beast “on their right hand or on their foreheads.” (Revelation 13:16) From the outset of the Antichrist’s reign, God will make it clear who it is that truly speaks for Him.

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The second purpose is protection. The fact that they are sealed before judgment comes indicates that this sealing will protect them from all the plagues that are about to fall upon the earth. It also guarantees their survival until Christ’s return at the end of the Tribulation. For when “the Lamb” sets foot on Mount Zion in Revelation 14:1, the 144,000 are there waiting to greet Him. Matthew 24:34 further supports this opinion. Speaking of the great tribulation, Jesus said to His Jewish listeners, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will be no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled.” Jesus wasn’t referring to a span of time. The word generation is genea from which we get the words “genealogy” and “genocide.” He was referring to a race of people, promising that just as Hitler failed to exterminate the Jews in World War II, the people of Israel will miraculously survive the coming holocaust of Antichrist. Many Jews will be martyred, but all 144,000 will remain alive to enter the Kingdom of God.

By the way, though only the 144,000 will be sealed in this manner, we who love Jesus need to remember that we too enjoy a miraculous sealing. Ephesians 1:13-14 says, “In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.” So take heart! No matter what disappointments or dangers you face today, you are precious and protected. The moment you received Christ, He wrote His name on your heart and sealed it with His Holy Spirit, so that nothing can touch you unless it’s by His divine permission and for your eternal good.

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b. Their Identity

Few passages have been as misinterpreted as verses 4 to 8. My own sister argues that the 144,000 are members of the Watchtower Society who faithfully kept its laws and will one be in heaven. Unfortunately for her, the Watchtower teaches that those positions have already been filled. So her best hope, if she is a good Jehovah’s Witness, is to be resurrected and one day live on a redeemed earth. However, a straightforward reading of this passage makes clear who these servants are. They are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormon elders, or members of any other modern cult. They are Jews, Jews, and more Jews! John says, “And I heard the number of those who were sealed. One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed.” In fact, he lists the tribes by name.

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Dr. Harry Ironside commented, “The way in which so many unscriptural and often heretical sects arrogate to themselves this title would be amusing, if it were not so sad. You are perhaps aware that the Seventh-Day Adventists apply it to the faithful of their communion who will be found observing the Jewish Sabbath at the Lord’s return. They suppose that these will be raptured when the Lord descends and judgment will be poured out upon the rest of the church. Then we have the followers of the late Pastor Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses) who teach that the 144,000 include only the ‘overcomers’ of their persuasion who continue faithful to the end. . . Besides these, there are many other sects, whose leaders consider their own peculiar followers will be the 144,000 sealed ones at the end of time. All of these overlook a simple fact, which if observed, would save them from their folly. That is, the 144,000 are composed of 12,000 from each tribe of the children of Israel. There is not a Gentile among them. Whenever I meet people who tell me they belong to the 144,000, I always ask them, ‘Which tribe, please?’ and they are invariably put to confusion for want of an answer.”

This does not answer every question, however. For example, we are not told how they will learn from what tribe they come. Such information is lost among the Jews of today. Nor are we told why Ephraim and Dan are replaced by Joseph and Levi. (It may be due to their idolatry in the Old Testament.) Nor is their sudden conversion to Christ explained. The disappearance of Christians at the Rapture may be a wake-up call. But in all probability, like Paul on the road to Damascus, they will receive a personal visitation from Christ Himself.

c. Their Ministry

Although their ministry is not specifically explained in this passage, several facts indicate that they will be evangelists for Christ. First, this has always been God’s purpose for Israel—to be His witnesses to the nations. Speaking of Israel, He says to them in Isaiah 43:10-11, “You are My witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and My servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before Me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after Me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior.” The Jews fell short of their calling due to immorality and idolatry. But these Jews will not “be defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” (See Revelation 14:4.) And Jesus promised when we follow Him, He makes us “fishers of men.”

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Second, Joel chapter 2 tells us that “in the last days” there will be a miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and we know what the mission of the Holy Spirit has been since Calvary. It is to point people to Jesus Christ. Speaking of this, Jesus said, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Matthew 24:14 confirms that this will continue to be the mission of believers during the Tribulation. There Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to the nations, and then the end will come.” Who will preach the gospel at that time? The church will no longer be on earth, but in heaven. Only the 144,000 will be left to do so. Revelation 14:6 points to their part in this great work. For immediately after describing the 144,000, John says that this gospel will be preached “to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” on earth.

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Third, Revelation 7:9 ties the salvation of the Gentiles to the work of the 144,000. Immediately after describing their sealing in verses 4 to 8, John writes, “After these things I looked,” and he saw a vast multitude of Gentiles saved during the Tribulation. The phrase “after these things” emphasizes a sequential order. First, the 144,000 are sealed; then the multitudes are saved. It is only natural, then, to assume that the first event leads to the second. In other words, the salvation of the Gentiles will be the direct result of the work of the 144,000. This is further supported by Revelation 14:4 which calls the 144,000 “first-fruits to God and the Lamb.” That is to say, the 144,000 will be the first ones saved during the Tribulation, but they won’t be the only ones. Multitudes of Gentiles will respond to Christ as a result of their ministry.

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Their impact is hard to grasp given the lack of spiritual leadership in the world today. But imagine if God suddenly unleashed 144,000 Spirit-filled John the Baptists, Apostle Peters, Apostle Pauls, and Billy Grahams all at the same time. There won’t be a need for any seminaries, mission agencies, or language schools to prepare them. Knowing that the time is short (just 7 years!), these totally dedicated men will put everything aside in their spontaneous desire to preach the gospel. Furthermore, Joel indicates that the true gift of tongues will be revived at this time, so that everyone is able to understand “in their own tongues the wonderful works of God.” (Acts 2:11). What a day of revival that will be! But not without a price. For in the verses that follow we discover that everyone who accepts Christ will then be brutally martyred for their faith.

  1. A MULTITUDE OF MARTYRS FOR JESUS

Immediately following the sealing of the 144,000, John sees a vast multitude standing before the throne of God and clarifies four facts for us about them.

a. Their identity

Verses 9 and 10 say, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” “Then one of the elders,” verses 13 and 14 add, “addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’”

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The first thing that’s obvious about this multitude is that they are not Jews, nor do they include the 144,000. For these believers are said to come from “all nations, tribes, people, and tongues.” In other words, they’re Gentiles. What Gentiles? Is this just another reference to the Church? No, this is a reference to multitudes of unbelieving Gentiles who turn to Christ after the Rapture has taken place. Let that be of great encouragement to you if you have unbelieving loved ones you fear may be left behind if the Rapture were to take place today. For here John reveals that one of the greatest harvest of souls the world has seen will take place not before, but after the Tribulation begins. So there is still great hope for your family and friends if the Rapture happens soon. Yes, they will have to suffer, but the suffering of this present time is very short compared to the eternal glory and joy that they will experience forever.

By the way, this confuses some who study prophecy. They assume that because the Tribulation brings judgment, then no one will be saved. But we must be careful to let the Bible speak for itself. And when we do, verse 14 makes it clear, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

b. Their number

How many will be saved at this time? John says, “a great multitude that no one could number.” Do you realize what this means? More people may be saved during Antichrist’s reign than all the years of the Church age put together!

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Dr. Tim LaHaye writes: “To assert that a soul harvest of gigantic proportions is scheduled to take place in the future is admittedly to controvert the thinking of most prophetic students. It is nevertheless exciting to think that more people will be saved during that time than responded to the preaching of the apostles, the early church fathers, the Reformation preachers, modern missions, radio and television preaching, and even the present day, when Bible-teaching churches are gathering in such a large number of souls. This is more than an optimistic dream. It is a reasonable conclusion of a number of prophetic realities, all climaxing with the text of Revelation 7:9, “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues.”

What a testimony to God’s mercy! Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds. The Rapture itself may explain a great deal. Imagine the impact on humanity when thousands of Christian airline pilots, police officers, doctors, and other specialists suddenly disappear from the earth. Add to that the fiery preaching of the 144,000, and many thoughtful individuals who never before gave the gospel a serious hearing, will quickly blow the dust off their Bibles and begin to study the very information you’re studying today. They’ll want to know, “What on earth happened to the Church!” And when the truth of God’s Word, enlightened by God’s Spirit, finally dawns on them, they will soberly turn to Christ in repentance and faith.

c. Their worship

The most inspiring thing about this group is their worship. For the only thing filling their hearts as they stand in God’s presence is the greatness of Christ’s salvation. “Salvation belongs to our God!” The palm branches in their hands are reminiscent of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Here they symbolize His complete victory over sin and Satan. Their robes washed “white in the blood of the Lamb” picture the means of salvation. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.” (Titus 3:5)

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Is that the theme of your song? Dottie Rambo captured the greatness of Christ’s salvation in the beautiful lyrics that follow. Those of you who are familiar with Londonderry Aire (Oh, Danny Boy!) might even want to stop at this point and sing the words to Christ in worship, for their message will be the theme of our hearts forever.

Amazing grace shall always be my song of praise, for it was grace that bought my liberty. I do not know just why He came to love me so. He looked beyond my fault and saw my need. I shall forever lift mine eyes to Calvary to view the Cross where Jesus died for me. How marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul! He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.

d. Their rewards

Finally, in verses 15 to 17, John describes three rewards they will enjoy for their martyrdom. “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

 

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The first blessing they enjoy is a permanent place. On earth, these martyrs were men and women “without a country.” Because they refused to worship Antichrist or take his mark, they were hunted down and beheaded for their faith. But in Heaven they find a permanent home. They live “before the throne of God,” serving Him “day and night in His temple,” God Himself dwelling among them. What Hebrews says of the Old Testament saints could be said of them, “These all died in faith and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”

The second blessing they enjoy is permanent protection. During the Tribulation, there will be constant hunger, thirst, and suffering. The 144,000 will be safe from these plagues, but not believers at large. As is so often the case today, God’s judgments fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Think about the victims of the latest hurricane, earthquake, or forest fire. Is it only unbelievers who suffer these things? No, the results of the curse fall on all of God’s creatures today. But one day that will end! One day all hunger, thirst, pain, and suffering will come to an end, when we finally arrive safely home in the presence of our loving God.

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The third blessing is permanent peace. Our passage closes with one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible. Here Psalm 23, the Shepherd’s Psalm, becomes a never-ending reality. The Lamb becomes our Shepherd and leads us “to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.” There are some trials and heartaches in this life which seem so devastating that we think nothing can ever ease our pain. But that is not so! The One who was able to calm the storm and hush the sea will have no difficulty speaking perfect peace to our hearts. Just as a little child runs home for the comfort of his mother’s kisses when he’s hurt, so God will wipe away every hurt from our hearts and every tear from our eyes.

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Near the beginning of the last century, Dr. Henry Morrison, president of Asbury College, left on an evangelistic tour of China. After months of exhausting labor, he and his wife returned by ship to the United States, in great need of rest and encouragement. But this was no normal voyage. On board was Teddy Roosevelt, returning from safari in Africa. When the ship entered the harbor, crowds lined the docks, eager for a glimpse of the president. But no one was there to greet the Morrisons, and the missionary was disappointed. “We’ve given our lives to serve Christ, while the president has been having hunting animals. It’s not fair! Where are the crowds to cheer us?” The more he thought about it, the more depressed he became until his wife reminded him, “But Henry, we’re not Home yet!”

Have you found the “why” for persevering under trial? There are many reasons to serve Christ well, but the most encouraging are rewards to come. Keep that in mind as you face the trials of this present time. Keep in mind where your real home is and what awaits you. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My name’s sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad for great is your reward in Heaven.” Or as Viktor Frankl learned, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

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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.”