He isn’t safe, but he is good
“Is-is he a man?” Lucy asks, in that wonderful children’s classic, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” by C. S. Lewis.
There is a brief episode in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia when the children first hear about Aslan, the mysterious, frightening Christ figure who is rumored to be on the prowl:
“Is he a man? Lucy asks.”
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion-the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Likewise the Jesus we see in revelation isn’t safe either!
In Revelation 2:1 John tells us about One who isn’t safe but he is good, when he writes of a vision he experienced. “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. Jesus is speaking prophetically to his church as he grasps sovereign control over the stars or angels of the seven churches and walks in the midst of the seven lampstands or churches. Jesus is both powerful over and present with his people and through john shares a personal message to seven churches starting with Ephesus. That Ephesus is addressed first makes sense. It was more powerful than Pergamum politically and more favored than Smyrna for the imperial cult. Ephesus was the Roman provincial capital of Asia Minor with a population of over 250,000. This cosmopolitan seaport city was a center of business, religion, and civic life, as well as the guardian of the temple of Artemis, the mother goddess. The massive temple complex, itself one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, featured thousands of priests and priestesses as well as a booming business related to goddess worship (see Acts 19:23-40). Emperor worship was also a dominant influence in Ephesus, which was the leading center of the imperial cult in Asia Minor. A temple to Emperor Domitian was constructed in AD 89/90, featuring a giant statue of an emperor (either Domitian or Titus) that stood over 25 feet tall. The Christians of Ephesus faced enormous social and financial pressure to participate in the worship of the emperor.
Jesus knows how hard we work to serve him. Jesus tells the church in Ephesus, he knows their deeds, hard work and perseverance and commends them for doing what’s right. Our deeds are important, including the hard work of contending for the truth of the faith. Like the Ephesians, we live in a pluralistic and secular culture. There are more and more religious voices claiming to possess absolute truth and demanding uncritical acceptance. The Ephesian church tested traveling messengers and found their teaching to be immoral and rejected it. Bad theology ultimately hurts people, and Jesus clearly commends the Ephesian church for their faithfulness to his teachings and the hard work required to preserve it. In spite of the exhausting work of confronting the false teachers and remaining true to the faith, it’s not enough to excuse something they are doing wrong.
Jesus holds us accountable because he loves us. Yet I hold this against you,” Jesus says, “you have forsaken your first love. (Rev. 2:4)” Years of battling for a pure faith have caused their hearts to grow cold. That can happen. It’s likely their love for God and others has waned. Their lack of love for others would have been a sure sign of a deeper spiritual problem. In God’s kingdom, truth and love are woven together. Truth without love becomes little more than a cold demonstration of power, and love without truth ceases to be genuine love; both can be destructive to relationships.
Throughout the Scriptures, God is portrayed as holy, righteous, and truthful, as well as loving, gracious, and compassionate. Jesus perfectly embodies both love and truth: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The challenge of holding firmly to both realities (truth and love) may be terribly difficult in some situations, as it no doubt was for the Ephesians, but it remains important as we try to reflect the character of God. To neglect one eventually results in damage to the other.
Remembering key to repenting. “Remember the height from which you have fallen! (Rev. 22:5)” Jesus clearly commands the church in Ephesus to repent, but he also challenges them to “remember” their earlier behavior and “return” to their first works. Repent and do the things you did at first. Jesus commands the church here, and you and me, as well. Remember, repent, and return to our first works. The sequence is important. Remembering how God’s Spirit once worked in our hearts produces genuine love which leads us to a change in our attitude and behavior. Remembering plays an important role in reorienting our faith. After crossing the Jordan River the Israelites were instructed to set up twelve memorial stones so they would not forget the Lord’s miraculous work. Likewise, in our lives, why not set up “memorial stones” to remember God’s goodness to us? It may be a gift given to us at our baptism. It may be a photo of a special moment we experienced when God moved powerfully in our life. It may be a memento from a time when God did something wonderful. Those ae entry points to repentance. True repentance starts with doing the works we did at first-acts of love accompanying our passion for truth. What are acts of love? They are more than merely doing nice things. In 1 Corinthians 13, we learn what love is and what it isn’t. So, let’s be careful not to judge others as unloving when, in fact, they’ve been very loving indeed. Jesus reminds us of the absolute need to retain biblical love in our pursuit of truth. As with many things in life, our strengths, when taken too far, can easily become our weaknesses. Jesus condemns the pursuit of truth when it abandons love. There is a proper way to contend for the truth without forfeiting love. Our aim should be to hate the sin without hating each other, an ever-present temptation. It’s helpful to distinguish between core convictions, persuasions, and opinion.
The church is in danger of identify theft. If you do not repent, Jesus says, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, meaning God’s judgment. There is an immediate danger for the church in Ephesus, and for any church, coming under the influence of the surrounding culture and losing their identity as a church. This is not because they became lax in their pursuit of truth but because they had forfeited love in the process. As Robert Mounce puts it, “Without love the congregation ceases to be a church.”
Following God’s ways is the only way to overcome false teaching. “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Rev. 2:6.” Once again, Jesus reaffirms their hatred of the wicked practices of the false teachers. The Nicolaitans are a group of false teachers closely connected to the cults of Balaam and Jezebel, who are trying to redefine the faith to allow Christians to fit in with the surrounding culture with its idolatry, immorality, deceit, and false worship. The Ephesian church must overcome by following God’s ways. Bad theology hurts people, his people! Consequently, they should not swing to the other extreme and give up truth in the rekindling of their love.
“The reward for overcomers is eternal life.”
To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Rev. 2:7 Those who overcome will be allowed to eat from the tree of life first created for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden but withheld because of their sin. In the final paradise of God, the people of God will be allowed to eat from the tree of life, symbolic of eternal life.
The fact that Jesus holds the churches in his hands reassures us that in the end God’s gracious purposes will triumph. He may not be safe, but he is good and he is the king!
Rev. Charles Eldredge is pastor of Maitland Church of the Brethren, Lewistown, PA where he is currently serving in his 27th year. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA.