I used to sit on his front steps in Covington, Louisiana. There had been some connection with the Miltons of Livingston Parish and Dr. Percy in Covington, by then, famous more as a literary figure than a physician. But I thought we just went there to bring him fresh barred rock eggs or something. I am still not quite sure why we would go there. Dr. Percy was just another far-away figure in the “forgotten” places of childhood. But Walker Percy was a literary giant. I have found that I like his non-fiction more than his fiction, as strange as that may sound. Walker Percy died in 1990 and left a collection of unpublished essays that were published in 1991 under the title of one of those essays, Signposts in a Strange Land. Signposts in a Strange Land is a sort of jeremiad for a nineteenth century man—Percy—coming to grips with the disintegration of life as he knew it or life as he preferred it.
I sometimes feel that I, too, am going through life in a strange land as I see the collapse of the older moral landmarks that helped guide us. Yet there remains the preeminent signpost for the Church and any who would listen: the voice of Jesus. His voice comes to us through his Word and, now, through Revelation 2:1-7. This is Jesus’ pastoral letter to the church at Ephesus.
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 message. 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 deity whose followers had opposed Paul and the believers there, the place where the apostle Paul had labored in the pastorate for three years — longer than anywhere else —, and the site of the revitalizing ministry labors of St. Timothy would become the pastorate of St. John. Early church history says that John cared for Mary the mother of Jesus in that church. Jesus rights to the Angels — the messengers — of the churches along a circuit in Asia Minor. The first church on the circuit to receive the letter is the congregation that John would pastor. 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 — your church, here —at this very crucial hour in history.
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 guidance for every believer and every church.
What is this guidance? As we look to Revelation chapter 2, verses one through seven, we come face-to-face with two simple and most beautiful messages for our Christian lives today.
The first message of guidance is this:
God guides us to discover the solution to our challenges in the personal ministry of Jesus (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 and Simon Kistemaker who recognize 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 – Ephesus. This is a peculiar word for emphasis given what Jesus is about to say to them. The Ephesians who receive this word could cling to this Christ who meets them in his person at the exact point of their need at that hour. This is is the force of that introductory statement.
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 sighed 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 has 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 fair-winds of his grace that get us home.
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 that our challenges today are each, singularly, met in the corresponding attribute needed for that challenge in the person of our Savior.
What do we face today? We, of course, face the ordinary and extraordinary maladies of life that afflict every generation. We, also, face unique challenges: the deconstructing of a Christian civilization before our very eyes. And as we move through the stages of Post-Christian age we face not only heart-ache, but but misunderstanding, and even trials and possible persecution. We face the app,I action of wisdom—when to to stand, when not. In all of this Jesus is saying to us, “you are not alone.” And if you are a pastor, you are the “messenger” of the Lord for such a time as this. And he has you in his hand
It is, indeed, 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.
There is a second truth that we learn about God’s guidance in days like these from this message:
God guides us to discover the signposts for our pilgrimage in the pastoral ministry of Jesus (2-6).
In the passage — verses two through six — Jesus guides the Ephesian church by commending key features of their service: their good works, their hard work, their patients, their church discipline, their perseverance in the face of persecution. 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 only nuanced explanations for the “first love” at Ephesus. George Eldon Ladd stated the case most simply:
“… Although their struggle with false teach 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).
The way that Jesus guides is well understood when we observe how a father commends some behavior of his little one 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. The father’s commendation and critique chisel the character of the child without ever diminishing the fervency of the child’s love.
We often ask ourselves about how we can make our way through the cultural quagmire of our day 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.
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.
The personal ministry of Jesus and the pastoral ministry of Jesus are God’s divinely revealed signposts for going forward in this strange new land of twenty-first century North America.
Oftentimes in pastoral counseling, 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 couples. 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. 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 things. 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 —or, at least, 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?” He sighs. He looks off somewhere into the far, far away to locate the soundtrack of their courtship. Then, he begins to sing. “Longer than …” He stops. I urge him on. His wife has her hands over her mouth in awe. “… “Go on,” I say. Mr. Jones recovers. “Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean …” Never has a Dan Fogelberg song been sung so much like a hurting animal. But at least he tries. 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).
 Walker Percy and Patrick H. Samway. Signposts in a Strange Land. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.
 G.E. Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972).
Ladd, G.E. A Commentary on the Revelation of John: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.
Rasimus, T. The Legacy of John: Second-Century Reception of the Fourth Gospel: Brill, 2010.