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.

Then complacency replaces passion.

The Ephesians had their act together. They were the leading church in the leading city in their part of the world. All must be well.

Our marriages must be healthy, because they are successful. Our kids are doing well, our finances are in order, we have enough status to be successful. We stop working on the marriage, assuming it must be healthy. The passion we had at the first is replaced by complacency at all we have achieved.

So it is with our souls. We’re here at church, passing all our neighbors who aren’t. We’re living good lives, doing good things. We must be right with God. He must be pleased with us. And our complacency replaces our passion.

And one day we wake up to realize that we’ve lost our love for Jesus. We work for him, but we don’t really love him. We worship him with our lips and actions, but not with our hearts and passion. We read his word and pray and give and serve, but it’s all part of our routine, just another commitment we’ve made, bills to pay, obligations to fulfill. We come because it’s Sunday, not because we love him.

When that happens, we’re not a church any more. We’re a religious organization, a Salesmanship Club with a Bible study. We do good charitable work for the community and provide fellowship for our members, but we don’t love Jesus. We’re not the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, fully devoted followers of Jesus. We’re not a church unless he is our first love. And one day he’ll remove our lampstand and we’ll die.

That’s what happened in Ephesus. The church died, and the city with her. The Temple of Diana, 127 pillars covered with precious metals and stones, is just one pillar today, with a bird’s nest on top. There is no Ephesus, and no Ephesian church this morning. What happened to them can happen to any church, anywhere. Even here. Even us.


Does any of this describe you? If it doesn’t, if you’re not living in Ephesus today, be encouraged. Be grateful to God, and rejoice in him. Renew your passion, your unconditional commitment to him today. And be encouraged by his word.

If it does, if you’re in Ephesus this morning, know that it’s not too late. This letter has come to you today because there’s still time to do something about the condition of your soul. What do you do?

“Remember the height from which you have fallen” (v. 5a). Remember when you were in love with your Lord–when you prayed because you wanted to be with him, when you read his word because you wanted to hear from him, when you worshiped because you wanted to honor him, when you gave and served and witnessed because you wanted to give back to him. If you don’t remember a time you were in love with Jesus, start today.

“Repent” (v. 5b). Change. Decide to be the way you were, to seek the love you used to have. Decide that you want him to be your first love again.

And return: “do the things you did at first.” Don’t wait until you feel love for Jesus–act out love for Jesus. If he were your first love today, what would you do? What person would you forgive, or seek forgiveness from? What wrong would you make right? What resource would you give? What ambition would you surrender? What lost person would you pray for and seek to win to Jesus? What service would you render? Do that. Do it now. Do it while you still can.

Any of us can be in Ephesus today. I know, because I’ve been there as well.

When I first trusted in Jesus back in 1973, it was as though a new world had opened before my eyes. God’s word was an exciting mystery to me, and being with my friends at church was the greatest joy and thrill.

Our church had a bus ministry on Saturdays, and I was part of it each week. We’d get there at 9:00 and knock on doors all morning finding children to ride the bus to church the next day. Then we’d go to lunch and come back for a Bible study. There was usually an activity that night, then Sunday school and church the next morning, followed by choir and church that night. Visitation was on Tuesday night, and prayer meeting and Bible study on Wednesday night. I learned about having a quiet time each day. There was a Christian Student Union prayer meeting most mornings before school began. And all of it was exciting, none of it routine.

But over time that changed. I became a professional–a youth minister at another church in town, then at my home church. I got an office at the church where I had become a Christian five years earlier. I began studying for the ministry at college. I began preaching sermons and leading Bible studies. Religion began to replace relationship, and passion turned to complacency. I began to measure myself by how many people came to my programs, not by my love for Jesus.

This has been my battle and challenge ever since.

There have been times of remembering, repenting, and returning to my first love. A porch outside a hut in Malaysia back in college when Jesus spoke to my heart and called me to himself. The joy of pastoring New Hope Baptist Church in Mansfield, where everything about being a pastor was new. The times in each of our churches where the Spirit has moved in powerful ways and we’ve seen souls saved, lives changed, the Kingdom blessed. A silent retreat in Atlanta where I fell in love with God again. Times of retreat and renewal here in Dallas.

But there have also been times in Ephesus. Periods of routine religion and programs. Times when I preached because it was Sunday, not because God had given me a gift I couldn’t wait to give his people. Times when I ministered to hurting people because it was my responsibility rather than my privilege, days when I measured success by popularity rather than passion.

I’ve been to Ephesus. Most of you have as well. Who’s there today?

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.

Two: God knows our present, and he controls our future.

He flatly states, “The devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (v. 10). He knows what will happen to them in the future, but promises a reward far greater than their present sufferings.

“Ten days” means a hard time of limited duration. God will never let us suffer beyond what we can stand: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

When we are faithful unto death, we will receive the “crown of life.” This is the stephanos, the wreath of victory given at the Olympic Games to the victorious. God will give us great reward when we have served him faithfully.

And so, “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (v. 11) in hell. Rather, our faith will be rewarded eternally.

So God feels our pain and redeems our future. But I still wish the world wasn’t the way it is. I wish I didn’t have to visit Smyrna so often. So do most of you. Why doesn’t he simply remove innocent suffering and be done with it? Why doesn’t he perform a miracle to prevent natural disasters whenever they threaten us? Why doesn’t he step in to prevent our suffering from the sins of others?

A third fact may help: freedom requires consequences.

If God were to intervene every time our misused freedom were about to cause suffering, we would not be truly free. There is no freedom without consequences. If fast food restaurants displayed the same menus but began serving only fat free yogurt, our freedom would be only apparent and not real. Not to mention distasteful.

If God were to intervene every time a natural disaster were about to bring innocent suffering, the natural order would no longer exist. The same gravity which enables me to stand on this platform would cause me to sprain my ankle if I fell off of it. Baseball fans curse the same rain which the farmer welcomes with joy.

There are consequences to freedom, or we’re not free. Since God made us to worship him, and worship requires a choice, he’ll not remove our ability to choose. He could insulate us from the results of our choices, but that’s tantamount to removing our freedom. And that’s something he’ll never do.

Four: we don’t know what is best

If Joseph’s brothers hadn’t sold him into slavery, he could never have saved their lives and future nation. If Pharaoh had not sought the death of all Hebrew baby boys, Moses’ mother would not have left him to be adopted by Pharaoh’s own daughter. If Nebuchadnezzar had not required that the nation pray to him alone, Daniel would never have proven God’s power over a lion.

What if King George had been more lenient toward his subjects in the Colonies? If Mexican dictator Santa Anna had honored the Constitution of 1824 instead of declaring himself the Napoleon of the West and inciting the Texians to revolt, I might be delivering this message in Spanish today.

It is impossible for me to see the future consequences of present occurrences. What seems a tragedy of unredeemable proportion may lead to future good I cannot begin to comprehend in my grief. And good on earth cannot compare with good in heaven. I have absolutely no way of knowing how God is using present suffering for spiritual and eternal advance.

But I can believe that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). And that the God who sees tomorrow better than I can see today knows what is best for both.

Five: God is required to use all he permits

God never wastes a hurt. He can be trusted to redeem all he permits. Romans 8:28 reminds us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” He will use anything he allows for his glory and our good.

In fact, his holiness requires him to. Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” He is holy at all times, in all ways.

And so God must always do the right thing. Everything he causes must achieve a perfect and holy purpose. And everything he permits must do the same. He must use even our misused freedom for his larger glory and Kingdom’s good. Joseph’s brothers thought they were rid of him, but God used their rejection to save their family. Satan thought he won the battle when Jesus died, but that was the very moment when he lost the war.

The holy God of the universe is required by his own character to redeem all he permits. You and I may not see such good until we’re in glory, but we will see it there. We will be permitted to know all the ways God used and blessed our pain and sacrifice, our suffering and loss. We will understand why he allowed our loved one to die, our family to face such adversity, our service to encounter such opposition. He will always transform loss into gain. We may not understand how or why he is using bad for good, any more than we see the sun on a cloudy day. But we can see everything else in its light.


We have wrestled today with one of the greatest challenges Christianity faces. Know that God knows your pain and redeems your future. In the meanwhile, he must allow the consequences of freedom while using them for present and future good we cannot imagine. His holiness requires him to do so.

Now, where do you need these facts today? What problem has brought you to Smyrna?