Hezbollah of the Heart

Hezbollah of the Heart

Revelation 2:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

The lions got fat, the baboons got stressed, and zoo officials worry that the antelopes might have heart attacks. It’s been rough to be an animal in the zoo at Haifa, Israel the last few weeks. The carnivores, bears and monkeys had to be moved inside to protect them from rocket strikes. And to keep a missile on a retaining wall from setting them loose on Israel’s third-largest city. The baboons are happy to be back outside, but the antelopes may suffer from delayed stress.

The week has not been boring. A cease-fire in Lebanon brings hope, but danger persists. One of our trustees had to miss our meeting last Monday because she was stuck in London, trying to get a flight out. Dell has recalled 4.1 million laptops because their batteries can catch fire. The heat wave continues, with no relief in sight. And none of this is the greatest problem you and I face this morning.

There is actually an issue more vitally urgent than war in the Middle East or terrorism in our airports. There is a threat to our church and our souls which is more insidious and malignant than anything you’ll find in the newspapers. We will discuss this morning the single most crucial issue in all of Christian faith and life. And I trust we will respond wisely, while there is still time for us.

Visiting Ephesus

Ephesus is the most reconstructed ancient city in the world. I’ve visited three times, and have a fourth trip scheduled next spring. Walking down marble streets rutted with Roman chariots, sitting in the same Colosseum where Paul sat and preached, walking through the home where John and the mother of Jesus lived, visiting the tomb of John–it’s an overwhelming experience. Let me try to give you some sense of the place.

Ephesus was located on the southwestern coast of what the ancients called Asia Minor, what we call Turkey today. Her very name meant “desirable,” as the city was often called Lumen Asiae, the “light of Asia.”

Ephesus was the wealthiest city in Asia Minor. Her ruins are spectacular even today. A massive theater, holding 25,000 people. Ornate marble temples to the various Roman emperors; a gargantuan Library of Celsus; marble even in the public latrines.

This was a city of great political importance. The Roman governor over the region lived here, and tried all the important cases in the city. Ephesus was host of the Panionian Games, as prestigious as the Olympics in their day.

She was the most religious city on her continent. Three temples stood in tribute to her worship of the Emperor. Artemis (Diana), their goddess of fertility, was worshiped across the city and region. Her temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 425 feet long by 225 feet wide, with 127 columns, each 60 feet high; 36 of these columns were covered with gold, jewels, and carvings. The Greeks said, “The sun sees nothing finer in his course than Diana’s Temple.”

And the Christian church in Ephesus was magnificent as well.

Their congregation was probably founded by Aquila and Priscilla; they were later joined by Paul, who preached here more than two years. Timothy pastored the church, as did Apollos. And John the Beloved Disciple pastored this church, and is buried in the city. Tradition says that he brought Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the city with him. I’ve been to the house where they lived together. Church councils were held here in later centuries, bringing Christians from across the world.

After Rome destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, the center of Christianity shifted to this church and city. In many ways, this was the greatest church in all the world.

Learning from Ephesus

And so Jesus commends their church family in wonderful ways.

He applauds their actions (v. 2a): he knows their “deeds” (the word means activities) and “hard work” (the word means toil or sweat). He commends their “perseverance” (the word means to endure with steadfast courage despite all opposition).

He compliments their theological integrity: “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (v. 2b). Later he commends them for rejecting the Nicolaitans (v. 6), an early cult of heretical, self-indulgent behavior.

But they have a problem. A spiritual malignancy is growing in their hearts; left unchecked, it will destroy them. “You have forsaken your first love,” Jesus tells them (v. 4).

“First” here means “first in time.” They have forsaken the One they loved first when they became Christians–the Lord Jesus. This church has gotten so busy with the work of the Lord that they have forgotten how to walk with the Lord. They are consumed with “doing,” and have lost “being.” They have fallen out of love with Jesus.

If they do not return to their “first love,” he will “come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (v. 5). The “lampstand” is the church–he will remove their church, and they will be no more.

This letter is in God’s word because it applied not just to them but to us as well. If we lose our “first love,” the same thing will happen to us. Individually, and as a congregation.

How do we fall out of love with Jesus?

Religion replaces relationship. The Ephesians were busy beyond words. Their deeds, hard work and perseverance were all consuming. And the relationship they once had with Jesus now becomes a religion for him.

That happens in marriages all the time. You were so close at first, when you had no one but each other. Then children came along, and jobs, and houses and cars and bills and responsibilities, and your marriage became a business partnership.

The same thing happens with our souls and Jesus. When he was our “first love,” we had no one but him. No religious commitments, no activities and programs and responsibilities. But now we do, and our marriage to Jesus becomes a business partnership with him. We get so busy with the work of the Lord that we lose touch with the Lord of the work.


When It’s Not Your Fault

When It’s Not Your Fault

Revelation 2:8-11

Dr. Jim Denison

I read this week about two men who tried to pull the front off a cash machine by running a chain from the machine to the bumper of their pickup truck. Instead of pulling the panel off the machine, they pulled the bumper off their truck. Scared, they left the scene and drove home, leaving the chain attached to the machine, the bumper attached to the chain, and their truck’s license plate attached to the bumper.

Did you hear about the man trapped in a vat of chocolate last week? The 21-year-old worker got into the vat to unplug it and became trapped waist deep in the chocolate. Co-workers, police, and firefighters were unable to free him until they thinned the chocolate. The man was treated at a local hospital for sore ankles and minor injuries, and released. There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Sometimes our problems are the result of our stupidity, and we leave our license plate as proof. Sometimes we’re just stuck in the chocolate and it’s not our fault. When that happens, when we’re trapped in Smyrna with no apparent way out, we wonder where our loving and powerful God is. And why he doesn’t help us.

Where has God disappointed you? What pain has he not healed? What problem has he not solved? What burden has he not lifted? What has brought you to Smyrna today?

Background–living in the city called Bitter

Today we visit the second of the seven churches of Revelation and location of the modern-day city of Izmir. “Smyrna” is translated elsewhere in the NT as “myrrh.” Myrrh was a gum resin used to make perfume, oil, and embalming fluid. It was extremely bitter. This city was so named because myrrh was one of the products often traded through its port. For Christians living in ancient Smyrna, “myrrh” or bitterness was not just a name, but a reality.

Smyrna was a beautiful city. She owned a famous stadium and library, and boasted the largest public theater in Asia. The city also claimed to be the birthplace of Homer, with a famous monument dedicated to the poet. By contrast, the Christians living in Smyrna struggled for survival and lived in the most basic simplicity. They experienced none of her beauty and grandeur.

She was a wealthy city. The city lay on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea and boasted an excellent harbor. While impoverished Christians struggled to support their families and earn the barest of essentials, the rest of their city lived in remarkable wealth and opulence.

She was a heathen city. She boasted temples to Apollo, Asklepios, Aphrodite, and Zeus. In 196 BC she became the first city in the world to erect a temple to the worship of Rome. In contrast, the Christians of this city met in humble, obscure places of worship, in the midst of some of the most stunning temples and religious shrines in the Roman world.

And she was a proud city. Smyrna was known as the proudest city in Asia Minor. She claimed to be the first in beauty, first in Caesar worship, and the birthplace of Homer. She was the center of all that was glorious and great. And so her people looked in utter contempt on the poor and humble Christians in their mist.

Facing the problem

Now, it’s not supposed to be that way. If we are right with God, good things are supposed to happen to us. When they don’t, we wonder why we should trust him.

If vandals broke into our new Community Life Center and our alarm system didn’t go off, we’d replace it. It didn’t protect us as it was supposed to. We didn’t get what we paid for.

Why be faithful to God when such things happen? Why not go along to get along? Why stand up to the emperor worship and pagan practices of the culture, if this is the thanks we get? Why be faithful to a God who doesn’t seem to be faithful to us?

We question God’s love, or we question his power. Surrounded by the opulent wealth of Rome, we wonder if the God worshiped by our fledgling band of Christians is so great. It’s hard to trust a power you cannot see or even prove exists, when the powers you can see are so enormous.

I’ve been reading David Marion Wilkinson’s novel, Not Between Brothers. It’s an epic narrative of the settling of Texas in the years up to and following the Alamo. I learned that the greatest problem Anglo settlers faced was the Cherokee. The reason we won the land was simple: the revolver. The Indians could match our single-shot rifles with their arrows, but they had no defense against the repeating pistol, the “fire that lasts forever,” as they called it. With no other recourse, they appealed to their Great Spirit to defeat this enemy, but our guns conquered their religion.

That’s how the Empire saw the faith of these first Christians. They prayed to an unseen God, while the Romans trusted the army and wealth they could measure. Why keep faith in a Lord you cannot prove exists, especially when it seems that such faith is losing the war?

Facts which help

Five facts may help. One: God hurts as we hurt.

He claims: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (v. 8). He has already defeated our greatest enemy, so we have nothing to fear when we follow him.

He knows our “affliction.” This word translates thlipsis, meaning “pressure,” a terrible burden which presses down and grinds us up. Jesus knows the burden we are bearing today. He knows our “poverty” as well. This is the word ptocheia, which means the person who has nothing at all. Jesus knows our financial needs, whatever they are.

He knows our “slander.” The word is literally “blasphemy.” The Jewish leaders hated Christians and slandered them in terrible ways. And he knows our pain. When he says “I know” (v. 9), he means that he feels their pain deeply. He has been wherever we are today.