Domestic problems and international crisis threaten the way of life: lawlessness, a crisis of trust in institutions; an uptick of domestic violence; disposing of babies with shameless inhumanity; an apparent devaluing of human life; a military spread too thin with global troubles spreading too quickly; more gross national debt than gross national product; citizen apathy, widespread cynicism, and record low opinion polls of politicians and other national leaders:
But why focus on the challenges of the first century and the Roman Empire when we have so many problems today?
The situation that we face today has many parallels and even more similarities, indeed, to the first-century Roman Empire. The challenges and the opportunities faced by the early Church in those days are very similar to the challenges and opportunities that we face in the 21st century.
One of those who was crying out for a word was the pastor of Ephesus, the Apostle John. St. John’s stand for the truth led him to invariable conflict with the authorities — conflict with the beast-like powers of this world that sent the other disciples of Jesus to martyrdom. John’s sentence of banishment was less lethal, but no less severe. Stranded on the Isle of Patmos “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when the risen Lord Jesus Christ came to him with a revelation. The messages to the seven churches were a special kind of Pastoral Epistles by Jesus to these churches and by virtue of the ministry of the Holy Spirit to us today. The first letter is a remarkable epistle by Jesus to the church at Ephesus. That great city in Asia Minor that have been the capital of the cult of Diana, that sensual Roman deity, like her Greek counter-part Artemis, whose unappeasable followers had assaulted Paul and the believers there, the place where the apostle Paul had labored in the pastorate for three years —longer than anywhere else—. Ephesus was also the city of the revitalizing ministry labors of St. Timothy. The Church at Ephesus would, at length, become the pastorate of St. John. Early church father Polycarp knew the last Apostle when Polycarp was a boy. The old pastor, Polycarp, related to others that John cared for Mary the mother of Jesus in that Ephesian church. Jesus composed this divine epistle to the Angels — the messengers — of the churches along a circuit in Asia Minor: the congregation or presbytery closest to John at Patmos: Ephesus. The first church on the circuit, if you take Jesus’ letters to the Churches to be more of an encyclical, to receive the letter is the congregation that John would pastor, the thriving regional capital of Ephesus. We might remember the guidance of Leon Morris in his commentary on Revelation that for one “so fond of symbolism” and for a region that most certainly had more congregations than seven, the “number of completeness”—the number seven—speaks to the universal message to all of the Body of Christ. Indeed, the message to the church at Ephesus carries a remarkable message to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in North America in the 21st century.
Our concern, of course, is a singular expression of the church — the military chaplaincy—and more specifically the US Army chaplaincy here at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Because the Holy Spirit brings his Word alive to each successive generation and to every part of the body of Christ we can receive this message today. I believe that we are able to discover in this passage God’s pastoral strategy for shepherds of His flock in times of Apostasy.
What is this strategy? As we look to Revelation chapter 2, verses one through seven, we come face-to-face with at least two distinct and most relevant messages for our Chaplaincy today.
The first point of strategy for the Church in times of apostasy is this:
I. The Person of Jesus is always the starting-point for faithful Gospel witness in a culture in crisis (verse 1).
Each of Jesus’s pastoral letters to the seven churches begins with a personalized word of introduction. Each introduction is personalized by an assurance that the great need of that church is located in a parallel attribute of Jesus. Therefore, in the first letter to the church at Ephesus, in verse one, Jesus identifies himself as the One who “holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands.” Jesus provides the interpretive rule for the book of Revelation himself. We read in verses 19 and 20:
“Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.
The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars or the Angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you sell or the seven churches.”
There are several interpretations, of course, about the meaning of “the angels of the seven churches,” but I prefer the more ordinary interpretation provided by such as William Hendrickson who recognizes the Angels as the respective “pastors” of those seven churches.
Whether you take that to mean the Christian shepherds of those respective congregations or an angelic being on divine assignment we still may draw from this that Jesus has those who bring the word to his people in his hand. Further, we see that Jesus was walking “down the aisle” and through “the pews of first church,” if you will– walking amidst the congregation at Ephesus. This is a unique self-identity by Jesus for the pastoral emphasis he is about to dictate to their pastor, John. The intention, given that the Lord uses this approach in each of the seven letters, is that the Ephesians who receive this should carefully appropriate this character in Christ for the commendation and critique that is uniquely theirs. We see here, once more, the great Biblical truth that what God requires God provides—in Christ.
This is a remarkable pastoral approach: one that we may personally enjoy and one that we might practice.
I will never forget a pastor friend of mine, in another denomination, who was going through a great trial in his church (one of those family squabbles that make us ask, “Now why are we fighting, again?”). I visited with him on the night in which the congregation would be voting on his future. As I called upon him in his home I found him in his bathrobe watching an old movie on television and sipping on iced tea. He told me that God had given him a great peace and that he was content with whatever happened that night, because he figured the Lord was probably leading him on to his next appointment and that sometimes “this is just the way it has to be done.” Otherwise, he taught me; those of us who are pastors would never leave our places to serve another place we might be needed! “So,” he sighted as he looked towards the television set, looking but not watching, “God must have another place for me.” He turned to me again. “And I also figure that God’s got some lesson for me in all of this. You know, Mike, the Lord Jesus is here tonight with us in this parsonage. He is with those people in that congregation, many of whom I trust, and all of whom I love. He is not absent in our troubles. And that can bring me peace and perspective.”
Peace and perspective can deliver the most agitated spirit from the shackles of self-doubt and move us to trusting God that the storms that comes against us can easily be re-directed by God to become the breezes that get us to safe harbor.
Does anyone here think that, like the church of Ephesus that had been going through difficulties, or like that pastor who, in fact, was voted out of his congregation, we need Christ to meet us at our very point of need? I know that I do. And this is a very important part of the passage to receive before moving to the rest of the passage: each of the words spoken to the messenger — John of Patmos, the pastor of Ephesus — can be received within expectation of obedience that brings blessing. It is a great source of peace and perspective to us in the Army chaplaincy that our challenges today for each, singularly, met in the corresponding attribute needed for that challenge in the person of our Savior.
What do we face today? For one, we may face misunderstandings and strained peer-to-peer relationships. We need to know that Jesus holds all of us in his hand. He also knows the details of those strained relationships. As we follow Jesus in the pathway of forgiveness we are better able to “allow” Jesus to minister to our colleagues in a way that we cannot. We face unprecedented social policy changes in the military environment where we minister. These changes have brought uncertainty, confusion, and, sometimes, great misunderstanding from our very denominations and congregations that support us and endorse us in this ministry. Yet the Bible tells us that Jesus walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands — in the midst of our chapels, our brigades, our battalions, and our counseling sessions. He is saying to us, “you are not alone.”
It is a comforting word to you that Jesus Christ holds you in his hand and will never let you go. He walks beside you and you will never be alone.
The second point in the strategy is this:
II. The Pastoral admonition of Jesus is always the guiding-point for faithful Gospel witness in a culture in crisis (2-6).
The late American south author, Walker Percy, collected a series of essays about life in our time. The book, Signposts in a Strange Land, offers the author’s insights into the human condition in times like these. In a similar but eternally more insightful way Jesus offers signpost to the Church in a strange land.
There are two great signposts in Revelation 2:2-6: commendation and critique.
In the passage—verses two through six—Jesus gives command guidance to the Ephesian church by commending key features of their service: their good works, their faithful efforts, their patience, their church discipline (false teachers sought entrance like the Nicolations mentioned)—and their perseverance in the face of persecution (eight points of guidance which we may gather into these five).
The Lord critiqued the church at Ephesus for one great existential flaw: they had abandoned their first love.
Scholars of Johannine literature disagree, mostly, on nuanced explanations for the “first love” at Ephesus. George Eldon Ladd, however, stated the case most simply:
“… Although their struggle with false teachers had made no inroads in the sound doctrine of the Ephesian Christians, it had had serious effects on some aspects of their Christian conduct. It had led them to abandon the love they had at the first. Here was a failure which undermined the very foundation of the Christian life.”
The famous New Testament professor and theologian offered a similar word of exposition: “Doctrinal purity and loyalty can never be a substitute for love” (Ladd, 39).
In all of this recognize the loving parental method of guiding children. A father commends some behavior of his son and the child understands that he should continue in that behavior and he might win further praise from his father. Likewise, he recognizes in his father’s critique the possibility of disappointing his father. His love for his father compels him to accept the good and to seek to dispel that which does not please his father.
We often ask ourselves about how we can make our way through the cultural pagan parades of our day, without being trampled, and still be faithful to God. Well, the Lord is showing us what is good in this commendation as well as what should be dispelled from our lives, our pastorates, and our churches. Surely, like Jesus is pastoral letter to the Ephesians his Word here in Revelation 2:1-7 is telling us to continue to be careful and even scrupulous in our attention to maintaining the faith in such a pluralistic culture. Yet, the Lord is calling us to see that our ministries must be conducted with this most fundamental virtue of love. If we allow our ministries and our churches to be unduly affected by the false teaching that would accommodate the church to this world, we will lose the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Yet if we are ambitious to separate falsity from truth without cultivating the love of Christ in our fellowship we will also lose power. Like a fish washed up on the shore that dries out in the sun, so, too, the penetrating sunlight that allows us to find error can become the source of scorching sun that dries up love. And a loveless Christian is a fish that has been too long in the sun. Have you ever seen a dried cod? Not a pretty picture. Yet, with water the flesh becomes tasty again. Still not pretty, but it is tasty. With agape—the love like God’s (and the word for love used here)— the brittle believer becomes usable again (and happier).
This is a call for us to return to our first love: the love that we knew at the first, the love of Christ for sinners. It is only when we operate out of the indwelling love that saved us that we can be used of God to reach others.
So we have seen in this passage that in the Person of Jesus we have the solution to the challenges we face as Chaplains and pastors. We have, also, seen that His pastoral commendations and his critique of the Ephesian church is a powerful road sign for making our way through the post-Christian culture in which we live.
Oftentimes in pastoral counseling, like you, I have employed various methods of applying the Scriptural truths to the lives of those before me. Some years ago I adopted a practice of using singing with the couples who came to me with loveless marriages. This is the way it goes: invariably, it seems, the wife might say something like, “Well, my husband is just not as romantic as he used to be.” I look at the husband and ask him how he would respond. “Well, I … well, I mean …” Generally, that answer is sufficient! I, then, pivot on that problem to discover the solution. “I want to ask you a question: did the two of you have a special song from your courtship?” The husband just looks at me like I have asked him to spell out the theory of relativity. The wife answers, “Oh yes, yes, we had what we call ‘our song.’ Remember Honey?” Usually I observe that “Honey” has grown oblivious to such memories. It is at that point that I go for the jugular. “Say, Mr. Jones, would you be willing to sing that song to your bride right now — as much of it as you can remember?” The poor old boy adjusts his seat, tries to wipe the building anguish off of his face and replies, “I don’t know … I mean…” The wife looks at him like a high school cheerleader might peer into the eyes of her quarterback. “Yes … dear … what do you mean?” And he begins to sing. “Longer than …” He pauses to see if I am rolling in laughter on the floor. I am not. “Go on,” I say and he recovers. “Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean …” Never has a Dan Fogelberg song been sung so much like a hurt animal. But at least he tried. Often the song brags them back to another time. My goal, you see, is to try and help the couple sing the song of romance once again.
I believe this is what we are being called to do as well: to sing the song of our conversation, our calling to ministry, and our joy at being able to speak the Words of heaven to a poor soul and see that person, just like us, come to Jesus Christ “just as I am without one plea.”
The Lord is calling you to sing the romance of the call. To do so is to begin to recover the three-fold song you had at the first: faith-hope-love. And love as we know is the greatest of all these things.
 T. Rasimus, The Legacy of John: Second-Century Reception of the Fourth Gospel (Brill, 2010).
 “… His Epistle to the Ephesians was intended for Ephesus and was not an encyclical…” (Page 82) in R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation (Augsburg, 1961).
 We agree with R.C.H. Lenski that while each church would have a respective message it is most likely that the letters were sent to all of the churches as a whole. There are lessons in each respective letter for the whole (Lenski, page 84).
 This idea is expounded on page 48 of L. Morris, The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Inter-Varsity Press, 1987).
 “Angels must be taken in the sense of pastors, ministers …” (page 9) in W. Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Baker Publishing Group, 1998).
 G.E. Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972).
Hendriksen, W. More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation: Baker Publishing Group, 1998.
Ladd, G.E. A Commentary on the Revelation of John: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.
Lenski, R.C.H. The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation: Augsburg, 1961.
Morris, L. The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987.
Rasimus, T. The Legacy of John: Second-Century Reception of the Fourth Gospel: Brill, 2010.